I walked through the front door of my home for the winter, a modern two bedroom apartment in the centre of Chamonix. Neil Brodie and Kenton Cool were waiting. “Come on, pack your stuff.” They were about to whisk me away to Kandersteg in Switzerland to climb a 340m icefall called Crack Baby.
I had just returned to the apartment from two nights out climbing the Ginat on the north face of the Droits with Ross Hewitt. My left wrist, the one I was refusing to believe was broken, throbbed and had taken-on a red, angry appearance. “Don’t think I’m going to make it, my wrist is killing and I’ve run out of Voltarol.” Gutted didn’t cover it, but after one thousand metres, with, what I later found out was a break running horizontally across the head of the Radius, I had maxed out on tolerance to pain.
Brodie and Kenton left the apartment immediately and returned the following evening happy and buzzing – the climb that I wanted to climb as much as either of them had lived up to reputation for quality and experience.
Nearly every year since the broken wrist winter, I’ve been lusting for a chance to get to grips with Crack Baby but it has never happened, which for anyone who knows me will understand this is not a good situation to be around and this winter was shaping up for much of the same and I was beginning to resemble a cabin fever suffering Delbert Grady from Stanley Kubrick’s, The Shining. It was a good job I didn’t have a wife and children!
Now, call me, up-my-own-arse, which is fine, but I have never envisaged having a problem in the actual physical climbing aspect of Crack Baby, no, this has never even entered into my small brain and as long as I get to the base of the route I have always been pretty assured that it will not be a problem, but there are other, more subtle glitches ready and waiting to stop the would be suitor than the actual climbing and the guide book tip, “Bring nerves of steel,” possibly rings true if fresh snow is encountered.
About six days ago on a clear and bright, perfect blue-sky morning I paid my first visit to Breitwangflue, the massive and imposing walls and home to Crack Baby, but I was partnered by The Catalogue MOG, Adam George, who had already climbed my long lusted climb, so we were there to try Alpha Säule, a 250m flow to the left. We had driven from Chamonix that morning, leaving at 3.45 am, and as we passed beneath the weaving ice-flow of Crack Baby, I attempted to ignore, but in my mind’s eye the image of throwing myself into the snow and refusing to move any farther until Adam agreed to climb the route was strong. Adam being so MOG would have just picked me up and slapped me, so my teenage strop didn’t occur and by midday we were successfully back and basking in the heavily tracked snow at the base of the climb feeling content. Well, I say content, I was certainly very happy to have climbed a great climb with Adam, but I had a niggle and as we walked away on one of the most perfect weather and conditions days ever, that niggle, niggled quite a lot. I jokingly suggested maybe would had time to throw a quick lap on Crack Baby but that probably would have been greedy and Adam had just bought a new hoover which I’m certain he was itching to try.
Roll forward about six days and here I was again in Kandersteg but this could have been a parallel life, in a parallel universe to my previous visit.
Andy Houseman and I had driven from Chamonix and arrived in Kandersteg at 11am and after booking into the Gemmi Lodge – a large gothic hotel that had big rooms and empty corridors and old decor and reminded me of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining – we went out to get some mileage nearby as this would be the first icefall climbing Andy had done since 2009, not the perfect preparation for a 340m WI6, but hey, this was Houseman, the most talented off the couch climber I know.
“What the hell, it’s like Scotland.” We had parked at The Ermitage Hotel and walked to the nearby Oeschinenwald and in that time it had begun to rain and the rain was persistent and the temperature rose and the ice gushed tears of despair.
I was not really bothered about climbing ice that was melting and ice I had climbed before and I didn’t need a warm up or a cold shower, but panic was setting in as the fir trees on the hillside above the town were white and the slopes above Crack Baby are notorious for being avalanche prone.
“Bugger this, let’s go for a beer.”
The money on this two day sortie was beginning to rack up – the fuel from and too Chamonix, the train through the tunnel at Goppenstein, room 237 at The Gemmi Lodge, beers, the parking by the Ermitage Hotel – and none of this concerned me – it really didn’t as long as we climbed Crack Baby – but as the streets down the centre of Kandersteg became a slushy-slew reminding me of Fort William high street on the West Coast of Scotland and the heavy rain fell even heavier, and the trees up high became even whiter, inside I was panicking and my mind was shouting and it was shouting, “EXPENSIVE FAIL.”
‘No, no, no, this can’t be happening.’ It was 4am and I had sliced open the pad of hard skin at the base of my middle finger on my left hand while cutting a stale baguette-nubbin. The welt, like a flapping piece of pig flesh, immediately oozed deep red. I giddily stood back and watched a little boy trundle down a corridor on a tricycle – I didn’t think the morning could have gotten any worse as we had paid for a breakfast that we could not eat because we were leaving before 7am, but here I was with a deep cut in my hand and blood soaking into my only piece of bread with images of madness running through my mind.
We left the Lodge and immediately it became apparent how much snow had fallen. Twice before I had climbed in Kandersteg, the second time had been with Steve House – yes, that Steve House – and when I told Steve about Crack Baby he said shall we go and do it? The snow on that occasion was possibly heavier than now, but not much and I steadfastly refused because of the avalanche risk and as I drove my little red van through the yellow lamp-lit, snow covered streets in the centre of town, my head was once again shouting but this time it was shouting “REDRUM.”
The parking spot was covered in fresh deep snow, no surprise there then and the road that Adam and I had romped on compact snow and tarmac was a foot under fresh powder.
Reaching the meadow beneath the 300m, golden brown wall with blurred silver-streaks in the half light of dawn, it was obvious by the waist deep snow there was quite a lot of fresh to be had and after gearing up I swam to the start of the climb and led a 100m pitch such was my enthusiasm to get off the easier angle that would be pummelled by an avalanche. My flapping welt was bleeding beneath the glove and sticking but that was of little concern now. Houseman joined me in my safe cave by the first of several steep sections. “Do you know what’s above this climb?” “No.” I lied trying not to think of freshly loaded slopes. ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.’
Three steep and twisting pitches later I stood belaying inside another cave. Above my head large icicles sharply pointed down and all around spindrift whispered, washing waves of white. A large rumble filled the valley and over to my right I watched a large avalanche pour directly down the line of Alpha Säule, the climb Adam and I had climbed six days ago. I imagined a cascade of blood gushing from an elevator door. At this point the most obvious reaction would be retreat, but the thought that ran through my mind was, ‘I really hope Andy had not noticed’ and as I took in the rope I worked out every argument in the book for continuing but could not come up with any that sounded reasonable, so I continued in my illusion that the larger than average slough may not have been noticed.
Looking down the line I first saw a swinging axe, quickly followed by a wide eyed Houseman. “Right, that’s it; let’s get the fuck out of here.” I guess he had noticed the avalanche! “Why?” I tried to remain calm and sensible looking but feared if the icicles above my head were any lower I would be chopping a hole and shouting, “HERE’S JOHNNY!”
“WHY? DID YOU SEE THAT AVALANCHE?”
“Strong slough, surely.”
“That was not a strong slough, that WAS an avalanche.”
It was a good job the ledge we were stood was big because it was at this point I took the only option available and dropped to my knees and held up my hands in a praying action and began wailing, “PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESE CAN WE CARRY ON, TWO PITCHES, TWO PITCHES, THAT’S ALL, TWO PITCHES, I’LL LEAD THEM, YOU CAN STAY HERE SAFE AND SOUND – I’LL LEAD THEM – PLEEEEEEEEEEEESE?”
Andy suddenly realising that avalanches were the least of his worries as he was a long way up on a deserted cliff with a madman holding two very sharp implements eventually he gave in.
I speedily set-off before Andy changed his mind while manically grinning trying to restore faith that I wasn’t really crazy, but failed, and within a reasonably quick period, with a lot of looking up, I was at the belay below the final pitch. Andy reached me and apologised for being spooked and I apologised for being obsessed and the world was once again fluffy, although we still had 60m of exposed steep to be climbed which Andy opted for and within a short time we both stood at the top of the climb feeling happy and relieved. I’m sure my relief was more than Andy’s as I began to slide downwards, down toward the next obsession, down towards the depths of my madness, down towards the next shining.