“Nick, Light and fast spells failure. Slow and heavy works. The weather is never as bad as it first appears and the secret is you don’t come down until you get to the top. Stop early, make a big ledge, get comfortable, start again the following day.”
My interview by Paul Ramsden the previous summer had gone OK I think? Although that depends on your take of what is OK. It was difficult to assess, as Paul is from Yorkshire! When I say ‘gone well’ what I mean is, I think he had decided I might be a suitable substitute for his usual and very successful climbing partner, Mick Fowler. Paul was interviewing for someone to join him in Tibet to attempt a very steep, unclimbed ridge on a 7100m mountain with an unpronounceable name.
‘Don’t come down.’
If I passed the interview, I hoped we did come down. I really wanted to come down, staying up is overrated!
After my interview with Paul, I placed the thought of the trip somewhere deep into the back of my mind, it was a year away, an impossible visa away, a whole load of money away, but it was soon after I found that Paul isn’t one to let sleeping mountaineers lie. The emails began…
A year away, it was easy for me to decide to return to the Himalayas. My first expedition had been to Meru’s Sharks Fin in 1997 and my last Greater Ranges expedition had been to Chamlang, Nepal, in 2012. So much time. So much money. So much failure. Twenty-one expeditions in all. I had to have a break after Chamlang, I was mentally exhausted and almost immediately my rock climbing improved, along with my health and bank balance and state of mind.
There are many exciting aspects of expedition climbing, going into an area previously unexplored, climbing a mountain or a feature previously unclimbed, pushing your body, both physically and mentally, but there are also down sides and I hadn’t missed any of them, especially the red tape, but I told myself it would be great to explore Tibet, a country I had never experienced and meet the local people. And I still lived for that feeling when you catch the first glimpse of the mountain you hope to climb and then all that expectation, excitement and mystery floods into your head. It is at this point the glass is half full, and its an intoxicating feeling.
So, instead of going to France and the Alps this summer and then on to the Dolomites and finally driving south to clip bolts in the Gorges du Tarn, I remained in Llanberis – running, cycling, circuit training and rock climbing.
Fifty. Half a century. So many candles, so little cake. Fifty is the youth of old age. I turned fifty last December. I don’t hate growing older, I’m doing OK and there is nothing I can do about it anyway, but at fifty, fitness is hard won, and containing that fitness, being master of it, is as slippery as seaweed. Its like a dance with the Devil being able to jiggle all of those hot fitness pokers. And the tide of expedition climbing carries hard won finger strength and conditioned muscle out into the cold vastness. The big hills and altitude reap a hefty price to the climber who participates not only in high altitude, but also rock, ice, mixed and Alpine and the time they eat up, not only the actual time, but time in physical and mental preparation, is a large price.
“The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.” T. S. Eliot
It’s OK, Tibet is an age away. That was what I told myself in Canada, America, Quebec, Spain, France, Ireland, but each time I relaxed, Paul sent emails talking about gear and flights and visas and tents and sleeping bags and food, and with every email, I was ripped from warm contentment and placed onto a cold snowy ledge sucking oxygen depleted air.
“We don’t need a cook Nick, we can take freeze dried meals for BC and the hill. The porridge comes in two sizes, big for BC, small for the hill. No, we don’t need gels or bars or powders, because on the hill, through the day, I don’t eat anything after porridge apart from sucking on a boiled sweet.”
When Paul said this I think he could tell my psyche had hit an all time low.
“Full time climbers never appear psyched.”
This was Paul’s belief. He was possibly correct; he was most definitely correct when compared to himself and his one trip a year in which he gave everything, thought of nothing else and packed his bag months in advance.
The pressure I felt in becoming involved with Paul was like never before. I was certainly no Fowler. I needed to train. I didn’t want to let him down on his one climbing trip of the year.
“I think when the full horror of being fifty hits you, you should stay home and have a good cry” Alan Bleasdale
I climbed Strawberries at Tremadog in April and The Complete Scream at Fairhead in June. That was enough then? Time to start my paso doble of aerobic fitness by running, cycling, circuit training. I was still climbing on the weekend, but now the lungs were more important than the strength of my fingers.
Something for the weekend sir?
In the evening, after a morning of writing, followed by the afternoon of running and cycling, I would climb indoors at The Beacon, this would keep me topped up for the weekend and put in a base for the long haul. I enjoy training indoors, especially as the summer in Wales was as I remember, monsoon, but why is it climbers have to try to make a person feel bad by asking the same old question over and over and over, “What are you doing inside, it’s not raining?” And they deliver this same old unimaginative question like some sort of bayonet aimed at the heart and thrust with a condescending sneer.
At first I attempted to justify myself, but after a while I became bored with the same unimaginative poking. What is it with climbers, why do some climbers try to make other climbers feel bad? I heard that same question so often it became a cliché. Was this, trying to make me feel bad for my decision to climb indoors, purely aimed at me, or is this something everyone goes through? Why did people feel the need to try and give other people a hard time for training and climbing indoors? Lets face it, every one of those super rock stars we all read about, even James McHaffie the best climber in the UK, spend hours training indoors. When time is at a premium, because other things take precedent, it helps to get a guaranteed burn, especially in questionable weather conditions, and for once, I had to place other stuff above rock climbing to give myself a chance in Tibet, I had a Ramsden to keep up with! I was also writing a book, which some don’t see as work, but it ate into the time like Necrotizing Fasciitis.
I went out to disco dance on the weekends. I was a weekend warrior… Right Wall, Left Wall, Resurrection, Kicker Conspiracy, Rimsky Korsakov, Chreon, Troy, Run Fast Run Free, The Strand, Warpath, Big Boys, Mask of the Red Death, The Sun, Centrefold, Electric Blue, Cream, Falcon, Stroll on, Quasar, Right Wall, Left Wall and Resurrection for a second time, Surgical Lust, Killercranky and Anarchist and Out of the Asylum on Red Wall. Yes, I was an indoor climber!
I climbed two routes, both E6 – Super Mario on Scimitar and Don’t Cry at Rhoscolyn, routes I had always been interested in, but had never had the inclination. I felt made up to have eventually climbed these esoteric gems and the day after, at the Beacon, I was once again told that I had become an indoor climber.
Tap dancing up the grassy whale back of Moel Eilio has become a source of great pleasure this summer, especially the easier it has become. The only day it became a challenge was the day the guy drove past me as I ran up the steep lane from Waunfawr.
Running past the parking spot, he was waiting by his car, even though he had passed me twenty minutes earlier. He limbered-up in his black t-shirt with a white muffin top and his black shorts and black socks and black trainers. Trikonasana, Virabhadrasana 1, he posed while taking a crafty glance in my direction. To be honest, he looked like a knob! But as soon as I passed, he began. BANG… my jive in the squelching mud must have sounded as loud as a starting pistol.
At the top of the track, I reached the gate at Bwlch y groes, turning right, heading uphill toward Moel Eilio summit, and looked down the track, down the way I had come. Mr black socks and muffin top was approaching rapidly; I knew he was approaching because I could hear him, even though he was still about two hundred metres away.
Tap, tap, tap… on my toes, ball heel, shuffle, scuffle and paddle… I tapped the steep grass attempting to run at my usual speed, attempting not to feel the pressure that was coming in like the steam train that runs from Waunfawr to Porthmadog. On my heals now, gasping and blowing, he would surely have a heart attack, but he appeared adamant to prove he was better, faster fitter…
I stopped and allowed him to pass with a wave of an arm, his emphysema was disturbing my peace, but as soon as the hill steepened, he slowed and I caught him. For a few seconds I was tempted to tap dance behind, but decided I couldn’t be bothered because the thought of performing mouth to mouth on his sweaty, snot streaked face wasn’t something I wanted to contemplate, so I tapped past.
At the summit Mr black socks and muffin top was nowhere to be seen – I turned and jogged downhill – the same way I had come, passing him with a good way to go before he reached the summit, but I knew, oh did I know that as soon as he made it to the top he would break his body to catch me and come past, which of course he did. My, was he was determined, he was determined not only to have a heart attack but also to wreck his hips and knees. Why people feel the need to try and prove themselves is beyond me.
With six weeks to go before flying to Tibet, Paul visited me in Wales to talk and sort rack. He pulled three pegs, two screws, five nuts, four cams and five extenders from his bag. This is the normal rack Mick and I take. I looked on at this tiny amount of metal for a two thousand metre route and felt like weeping. “I wouldn’t go onto the north face of Tryfan in winter with that rack Paul.” But KLM were forcing the issue by refusing to allow us to buy extra baggage, so that would be that. “I’ve done loads of trips like this Nick, it’ll be fine. What sleeping bag are you taking?” I explained to Paul I hated carrying a heavy rucksack and preferred to suffer, so I would take a light bag for the altitude. “Take two bags Nick, I’ve been let down by partners not carrying a bag that wasn’t warm enough, you can take a heavy one if it gets too cold.” In a panic, I contacted the Mountain Equipment office and begged for a very light, but very warm, uber bespoke waterproof sleeping bag, which after a week or so they very gracious and kindly produced. Obviously they knew my pain or maybe it was worth it just to stop my moaning?
After four hours sat with Paul, who had rigorously explained the forms to fill and photocopy and the visa procedure I would have to go through in Manchester, as he would be out of the country, I went cycling for four hours and in the evening I went to the Beacon. It wasn’t quite raining hard enough and of course I was made to feel like I was doing something dirty by being indoors, even though I had cycled in the rain all afternoon. I contemplated answering the usual question by saying I had just finished my first bout of chemotherapy and being outside would be too risky, but in the end, I said I preferred to climb indoors because outside was overrated.
A couple of weekends ago Sarah, Zylo, Zylinski and I went to Rhoscolyn and climbed a few routes, before I threw a rope down Gimble in Wabe, an E7 that Alex Mason had put up in 2014 and the last remaining route I wanted to climb in Fallen Block Zawn. This is the other thing I have found about expedition climbing, it is always in the back of your mind when rock climbing, its a maggot, especially when attempting to climb routes that a fall from may stop you going on your expedition. The thought of telling Paul that his one trip in the year was not happening because I had broken my leg or worse and we had wasted a load of money was almost too much, but not that much, and a few days later with my old, in fact, very old climbing partner, The Hippy, a group of us, including Ray Wood and my friends Mark Goodwin and Nikki Clayton walked the Rhoscolyn headland.
The day turned into a fun one and I climbed the climb without too much fuss. It’s strange isn’t it how this indoor training lark and keeping fit and healthy and taking a guaranteed burn instead of mincing on wet rock can make the experience of the harder outdoor stuff feel OK! Even The Hippy just about managed to top rope-flash, Gimble, but didn’t quite manage it and used that age old stuck cam reason for having a minor slump. Don’t worry Hippy, you did well, you don’t need to make excuses you are seventy five years old. Here is a film clip of The Hippy doing very well… but my, check out the height of those elbows 😉
The following day I was in the Beacon and chatting to my mate Lee Dawg. Lee is a good mate, he makes me laugh and takes the piss. I like Lee, but of course it wasn’t long before he entered into conversation that I was now purely an indoor climber. I took great joy in saying yes, yes I was, I really was, but somehow, I said, somehow yesterday, I had successfully puntered my way up an E7 at Rhoscolyn, so we might have to reassess! Oh, did that give me a warm flush, but maybe that was just the male menopause.
Last Friday I climbed the final route on my unwritten list of routes to climb before becoming a weak mountaineer once more. The climb is an E7 called Ring my Bell on The Gravestones in the Bum Hole Area of the Llanberis Pass. I’m not sure why I left this one till last, because falling from the crux is guaranteed ground fall, but the wind was freshening things and keeping the midges at bay and my time was running out.
Zylo once again held my ropes, she is four foot five and weighs three stone – I needed Tim Neill, all seventeen stone of him, because I didn’t fancy my chance of a midgets running catch to take the slack from the rope in the hope of saving the expedition, so for the first time ever, I had not one, but two bouldering mats at the base, but even so, it still looked a long way to fall and not being experienced in the art of mat placement, I wasn’t sure where they should be positioned. I thought of Paul once again and how big he was and what a strong right hook he would have and nearly said, “yeah, stuff this, it can wait until next year, but there are times when you just have to disco dance.
It’s less than a week now before travelling to Tibet. Yesterday we at last found out we have visas, so, as long as we can fit all the gear, including BC gear and food into our 23 kilo allowance, it’s on.
Tonight I think I will go to the wall after a run. It’s not raining yet today, so I expect at some point I will be made to feel like some sort of imposter. Ah well, maybe when I return from five weeks in Tibet I will become a proper outdoor climber again, who knows?
Thanks to the Alpine Club, The Mount Everest Foundation and The BMC for the grants that have helped tremendously and thanks to Mountain Equipment who, using their own catch phrase, have gone above and beyond in supplying me with one-off bespoke gear.