Echoes.

 

 

The tent’s thin skin stretched and pressed into my face, a freezing-cold bump bulging like a pregnant stomach. Outside the snow continued to fall. Turning from the bump, I shuffled searching for a new position that might relieve the ache of my bladder’s bulging walls. My bladder had pushed with insistence for fifteen hours. The tent was dark, damp and festering. Almonds of frozen condensation clung to the ceiling like icy teardrops.

Twid Turner and I had hardly moved for five days. I started to drift once again, hoping for dreams of warmth, fresh food and female companionship. But, the cell-like deprivation now took me once again into my past. Fifteen years of working in the Prison Service mingled with memories from early expeditions. Innocence and ignorance. Fighting and tension. Hatred and gut-twisting-terror.

I discovered climbing at the age of twenty-seven, while training to be a Physical Education Instructor in 1992. Several years before I had discovered aggression and violence, loathing, lying and prejudice. At the age of twenty-one the doors opened to a world that society would rather forget. The shadows clinging to the dark beneath the prison’s walls changed me – the sick minds rearranged my mind.

Fifteen years later fortune shone: the doors opened and I was released to begin a life of adventure-excitement-travel and people. Fear, and even terror, were still with me – but now there was no risk of a pan of molten sugar and red-hot cooking oil being thrown into my face.

The punishment block of Gartree maximum-security prison is dark. The corridor’s plan is an L shape. Grey painted pipes run around the low ceiling, the guts of  the building uncovered like in the engine room of a ship. Footsteps echo. The sick-sweet smell of sweat, shit, and fear cling to clothing and soak into pores. Twelve steel doors face into the gloom locking the hatred behind. Striplights provide the only light, an artificial sulphurous glow. There are no windows through which to look into this microcosm of misery, that is enclosed inside a microcosm of misery. Rules of life do not exist here – just rules of survival. Separated and secluded – everyday values are not to be entertained, everyday values are a sign of weakness. And weakness is something to be exploited.

As a prison officer waiting to be accepted onto P.E. Officer training, this was my life. Deemed to be fit, healthy and less prone to heart attack, this was the usual position for those waiting to begin the twelve months training. I worked for eighteen months in The Block, and at the time I never guessed that it would stand me in such good stead. I had no idea what rock, mountains and ice had in store for me. 

Worry and stress made the night an intimate companion. In the morning, after only two hours of sleep, I would drag myself from bed. Then, like some zombie performing a ritual, I’d dress in blue trousers, white shirt and tie, whistle-stave and key-chain. I knew I would be dressing again as soon as I arrived and entered the gloomy medieval environment of The Block. A flame-retardant boiler-suit, plastic shin guards, thick leather gloves, steel toecap boots, and a helmet were my suit of armour. The shield I hid behind was made of Perspex. There was no way to avoid the oncoming fight. I drove the ten miles to work with the radio playing music I didn’t hear. I nearly crashed into the rear of the car in front most mornings. Twisted guts bubbled, tension gnawed. Arriving at the prison car park I hoped there would be no spaces, so I could just turn around and drive home. On entering the prison I could feel fearful bitterness simmering behind the walls. I would joke with other Prison Officers – false laughter, bullshit and bravado. The maggot in the intestines squirmed. Before opening The Block’s four-inch-thick wooden door I would breathe deep … then savour the last few seconds … before aggression. 

The time always arrives when psychological turns to physical. Stressing before opening the door, worrying on hatred and aggression before being smashed into brick and slammed to the floor … as it turns out, it was good mental and physical conditioning. Prison prepared me well for the hardships of the mountains. 

Huddled all night, wrapped in a Gore-Tex bivvy bag at 5500 meters on a crest of snow. The wind buffeted while the void dropped sickeningly on each side. The tent fabric pushed into my face – damp and claustrophobic. The rime-encrusted rock-wall above wore me down. It whispered to me through the night, daring me into the unknown. My character would not let me back down from the challenge. No escape, no way around the oncoming confrontation. The wall was like a murderer holding out his meal tray, waiting for more food at the serving hatch. Wooden fingers attempting to tie the laces of frozen boots, slow ungainly movement – delaying tactics. Confrontation unavoidable. The ice-coated metal work was packed, and the frozen-solid ropes uncoiled.

Jamie Fisher, Jules Cartwright, Owain Jones and I attempted the Sharks Fin, on Meru Central in the Gangotry region of India, in 1997. This was my first expedition, my first time in Asia. We struggled every afternoon with the heavy snowfall, the altitude, exposure and our inexperience. The rack was too big and our objective too difficult – six thousand five hundred metres of unclimbed, uncompromising mountain. An avalanche-prone slope, at the base, led to a mixed ridge of hewn-granite-blocks teetering on a knife edge topped by a 400 meter high monolith of smooth overhanging rock. This was The Shark’s Fin. The Himalayan snow was clean and white – and yet in my mind it plastered the rough granite like shit smeared on cell walls, smeared into the ears, eyes, hair, and all over the body of an inmate on ‘dirty protest’.

Great mental strength is needed to face another day of savagery on a winter climb in the French Alps or the Himalayas, or to force myself on when every last corner of my mind is screaming stop, turn around, run away, re-warm and recover. But the strength is never as much as is needed to open … that thick cell door …

Fisher, Cartwright and I reached a high-point 400 meters beneath the summit. It does not sound far – but for us the summit may as well have been in outer space. The Fin, the mountain’s final 400 meters of truly awesome overhanging granite, has to this date never been climbed. Our naivety didn’t allow us, when we looked from the valley, to run away. We were proud and pushy. Just like when dishing out chips onto the prison food-tray, I couldn’t live with myself if I bowed to intimidation. A queue of murderers-terrorists-rapists-drug-dealers-kidnappers-robbers watching me with microscopic interest, always looking for a way in, for an easy-touch who would fold through intimidation. A smack in the mouth was better than the self-loathing that would come from knowing I’d been a coward.

I jumared ropes for the first and only time on the Shark’s Fin. We had fixed our four climbing ropes on the first attempt, and then ran away when the regular afternoon snow began to start falling in the morning. We left the ropes in place for a return match. All four ropes were stretchy climbing ropes. For a week, between the first abortive attempt and the second attempt, the ropes swung in the wind – being  chafed like a scab on a kneecap. Jumaring, with a 25kg sack plus my 70kg bodyweight, while watching 8mm of dynamic nylon repeatedly stretching across a sharp edge above terrified me. Inexperience didn’t entertain the thought of fixing the ropes tight or duct-taping them where they ran over edges. Thoughts of John Harlin on the Eiger swung back & forth through my head. With every pull up images of chafed-through sheaths and long wriggling worms of pale rope-core knotted my intestines. I do not believe in God, but, as my wide-scared-eyes hypnotised turned red-raw, I did pray.

Cartwright broke one crampon on the first day, but he continued. A second crampon-breaking slowed him further, but still we continued as a team of three. Jones had opted to remain in the valley. Cartwright’s drive refused to allow him to accept the obvious, and our faith in Cartwright refused to allow him to leave. A testing traverse on ice at 6100 meters on day four was the deciding factor. Cartwright was Jumaring sideways with no crampons on vertical ice when an anchor pulled. Fighting, fighting … just for a second, but then he was off. Fixed to the rope by his two jumar clamps, and nothing else, he swung like the pendulum of an old clock. As he smashed into rock thirty meters below, we heard the sickening smack-crunch of flesh. We turned and ran at this point. Cartwright’s leg was bleeding and badly injured. We were all mentally exhausted.

Reaching the base of the climb, two days later, nervous energy poured from us in gasps of laughter and relief. Just like after a battle in a cell, with the inmate now safely trussed up in a body-belt, face down and naked. Grappling, grasping, smashing into walls, sliding in shit, spit and snot was done.

*

Expect the unexpected.

Like fire-fighters in the station on a slow Sunday afternoon, four of us would doze in The Block’s office – prone, and relaxed on the surface. But with stomachs twisted and messed up. Sooner or later the alarm bell would break the razor-edge monotony. In The Block any bad shit happening would be flushed our way. We were the u-bend between the pan and the sewer. We were the first point of contact for society’s shit. Gartree prison is for the worst offenders in our society; it is a maximum-security category ‘A’ prison. For most of Gartree’s 300 inmates the key had been thrown away – so they had nothing to lose. Sitting dozing, waiting, worrying. Suddenly jumping into battle at the sound of that alarm bell. It all makes sitting out the mountain storm, patient for that window of frightening climbing action, almost a pleasure.

Paul Schwitzer and I were on our second day of climbing a mountain called Savoia Kangri in Pakistan. Savoia Kangri stands next to K2, it is 7263 meters high and unclimbed. The first attempt, made by Jamie Fisher and Jules Cartwright, was stopped abruptly when a rock rattled down the gully and glanced off Fisher’s Bicep.  

Now on the second attempt, Schwitzer and I, having climbed through the night, pulled from the gully onto a large rolling cornice of snow that had formed at the top of a ridge. The cornice overhung so far that it could have formed the roof of a semi-detached house. Beneath our feet, a cliff of black-blocks jutting from pebble-dashed rotten snow plunged to the Savoia glacier a thousand feet below. It was late in the afternoon, so we hurried to cut a level platform on top of the cornice. In the fading light of early evening we moved around, each with a long lead of rope attached to rock anchors fifty feet away. We tried not to think of the gaping void beneath the floor of snow.

Gasherbrum 1V, Broad Peak and K2 stood towering above our viewing platform. Eric Escoffier and his client were missing on Broad Peak presumed dead. I stared intently at the West Face of K2, the summit’s snow-plume was like a wailing ghost. I tried to imagine the avalanche that had swept Nick Estcourt to his death. And the deaths in 86 of thirteen climbers, including Julie Tullis and Alan Rouse. I thought of Alison Hargreaves lifted up and swept away by unimaginable winds.

We anchored the tent to the same rock we had leashed ourselves to, fifty feet away. There was nothing else. The ropes ran in a curving arc and grew heavy as ice gripped the colourful sheath. To pin the tent to the top of the cornice we drove the shafts of axes into the snow at each corner.

            We brewed and survived. Life above 6000 metres is not easy. Noodles and soup boiling in a hanging stove spilt and soaked into our down bags. The litre pan full to the brim with gruel swung and rattled, it reminded me of an incense burner during a Greek sermon. The slop slithered down the outside of the pan baking to a dry crust. The wind tore across the cornice battering the little tent. And the snow fell in large flakes threatening to burry us. Settling down for the night, fully zipped, arms strapped along my side, unable to move, but warm, I thought of the inmates I had fought and held face down. In ‘the strongbox’, my hand pushing into moist hair, the inmates warm cheek crushed into the cold concrete floor, so hard that the floor’s crazed pattern would be etched into his soft skin. The ‘strongbox’ was a special cell – like a padded cell but not as comfortable. The inmates wrists were handcuffed to a six-inch- wide leather belt strapped around their waist. Trussed, with arms straight and by their hips, they would be left to contemplate the errors of their ways. More than once, even after being trussed, the inmate would attack us as we entered the cell. They were ferocious. We would have to go in as a team of three, in arrowhead formation behind a shield. Spitting-head-butting-kicking-charging were all in the rules of engagement used against us.

There wasn’t an inch to spare in the tiny single-skinned tent. I wondered what crime I had committed, to put myself through this torture?

            Schwitzer began to snore, he always snored and it really pissed me off. I lay there in the dark with my sleeping bag tight around my face, listening to the wind and the snow and the snoring. I must have dozed off, but suddenly woke with a jolt. Paul stopped snoring. I lay frozen to the spot.

            “Did you feel that?” Paul whispered in his Californian-pot-smoking-hippy-drawl.

“Of course I felt it. You know what’s happening don’t you?” 

The cornice had loaded with fresh snow, and the extra weight had caused it to crack and settle. It was two in the morning. Frantically we pulled on our frozen boots without tying the laces. The inside of the tent was as cold as a freezer, but we had to get out of its shelter. I imagined the cornice breaking off, and the tent with it. Us wrapped inside like chickens in cellophane, left hanging on a thread, unable to escape. Then the tent splitting apart, with a horrible ripping-fabric sound, giving birth to our deaths into the dark void below.

Snow blasted into the tent as soon as I unzipped. Heavy flakes slapped into my face. I crawled from the entrance, floundering on all fours into the blizzard, through deep snow lapping cold against my chest and thighs. I edged from the overhanging section of the cornice and balanced on the crest of the ridge. I was unclipped, but the only anchor was the one the tent was fastened to, and I wasn’t keen to clip that. Schwitzer joined me, a snow-covered apparition crawling from the dark. His goatee’s whiskers mingled with the ice encrusted on his face; round John Lennon glasses streaked, steamy and lopsided, hiding his eyes. Eyes that were wide and wired like a crack addict, like my own. We crouched scared as snow-gusts snatched at us. What could we do? The cornice had dropped a foot. A crack had opened running its length. The wind cut through my body, and soon we both were shivering uncontrollably. It was obvious we couldn’t stay alive out in the open. Clipping to the rope we cautiously stepped onto the cornice expecting it to collapse. But it appeared to be solid, so without using our imagination we began to clear the new snow from the cornice to lighten the load. An hour later we crawled back into the tent to start the long wait, punctuated by several more snow-clearing sessions each hour. Schwitzer didn’t snore again that evening.

Whilst escaping from our deadly cornice camp the following day, we met Fisher and Cartwright retreating from the summit ridge. They had been battered by the storm all night, but had found a good bivvy site and had also left a stash of food and gas. All four of us retreated, then returned several days later to reach 7000 meters. We existed for four days being battered once again by high winds, snow and Baltic bone-numbing temperatures. We stretched two days food into six, but our chance to sprint the final 263 meters to the summit didn’t come. On the evening of day eight since beginning the third attempt, we made it safely back to advance base. The following day Schwitzer led Cartwright, Fisher and me down to base camp, all of us suffering with snow blindness.           

                   It seems that brutality is something I equate to the mountains, but the mountains are not brutal. People are brutal. Death and injury, disfigurement and distress occur in the mountains. But a mountain has no soul. Occasionally, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or sheer bad luck takes a toll. Sometimes it’s because of a mistake, or a bad decision, or even when ego and ambition get in the way that accidents happen. But it’s never the fault of the mountains.

I witnessed brutality first hand inside a prison. For fifteen years slashing-stabbings-beatings-bludgeonings-burnings were common in my life. I watched an inmate, with no warning, suddenly spin round and smash the cheek of a colleague as we escorted the inmate into the strongbox. My colleague was six foot, five inches tall, hard muscle and built like the proverbial. He fell to the floor instantly unconscious, his cheek cracked bone and bloody-pulp. A single punch out of nowhere.

Another Prison Officer and I fought side by side against the inmates for twenty minutes, rolling, twisting, writhing … literally fighting for our lives, separated from the rest of the prison. No-one knew until another Prison Officer happened on us and rang the alarm bell.

On another occasion I held the head of an inmate, whilst pushing a gym-vest into the hole in the back of his skull, just after his being twice bludgeoned with an iron weight-training bar. A contract had been taken out on the inmate – it had been discovered he was a paedophile. The price for the job, I found out later, was a £20 crack deal. The second swing from the iron bar punctured the inmate’s skull saving his life by reducing the pressure that had built from the first blow. I wallowed in tangled-twisted-sticky strings of clear cerebral fluid that hung from his ears. The grey matter running freely from ears and nose mixed with vivid bright red blood. I lay slithering and slipping while attempting to save the life of this inmate, who was writhing in agony. Thirty inmates in the gym stood and watched. None helped.

A clot dried on the gymnasium floor, large and jagged, like the outline of Australia, dark and crispy. The police arrived immediately and began an inquiry. Two days later they decided I was innocent of taking a bribe to look the other way. The prison governors had been warned that this inmate was at risk, but they had ignored the warnings and so attempted to place the blame on me. Fortunately a copy of the original paperwork, that had somehow gone missing, was found, and so the internal blame-shifting inquiry collapsed. My evenings were spent on my own for a while after this episode. And I threw away my work clothes. 

If you add sugar to red-hot cooking oil it will stick on contact with skin. This was a favourite for the delivery of maximum pain and permanent scarring. PP9 batteries in socks make superb implements to cave-in a skull with one quick swing. A table leg wheeled like a baseball bat. Bic razor blades melted into the head of a tooth brush. Tubes of steel machined, in the engineering shop by I.R.A. terrorists, to be able to fire a single round.

This was all part of my life in the late 80s. The learning curve was steep on the way to prejudice-paranoia-bitterness-loneliness. Luckily I found the gym, which eventually led to my escape to the mountains.

Having witnessed so much injury, and having had to deal with such savagery on a daily basis has probably helped me to deal with some of the unpleasant incidents I’ve experienced while mountaineering or rock climbing. No matter how horrible or scary things get in the mountains, I know that the mountains are never out to get me.

*

            “WATCH ME MICHAEL, IGNORE WHAT’S GOING ON…OK?”

I remember vividly calling to my climbing partner 70 feet below me, his eyes were as big as an owl’s as the blood pumped out splattering the grey rock all around him.

I had only just recovered from breaking my kneecap after falling from a climb on the Rainbow Slab. On that occasion Michael had been sitting too far from the bottom of the slab when I fell from the crux moves of Cystitis by Proxy. The one good piece of protection on the climb was a bolt. The bolt was just below me as I fell, and I remember thinking ‘Why am I still falling?’ I hit the ripple of the rainbow thirty feet below the bolt after surfing the slab and watching Michael being pulled across the ground like he was water skiing. My knee took the full impact, smashing into a lump of slate standing proud from the smooth-sheen of the black-velvet. I finished the climb and walked back to the car knowing that something was wrong. A week later I had reduced the swelling and was climbing ok, but I had booked an appointment for an X-ray just in case. Seven weeks later, fresh from a full leg-plaster, the knee cap that had been split in two had knitted. And I was with Michael again on an even more serious climb called Tess of The Durbivilles.

Tess is a scary E6 high on the Left Wall of Dynas Cromlech in the Llanberis Pass. It has limited protection, and only those best at placing devious bits of gear can make the climb justifiable. Unfortunately, I do not fit into this category. I was on-sighting the climb, and as normal I took the approach of why-bother-wasting-time-and-energy-fiddling-little-bits-of-pointless-brass-into-marginal-placements-when-forging-on-makes-more-sense. This approach is all well and good until outside forces intervene (or my arms get too tired!).

Several rock-over moves forced my still-not-fully-functional-knee into positions it didn’t like – it ached as if an ice-cold nail was being slowly driven into it. My eyes attempted to focus on the sharp crozzled rock inches from my nose, but they failed. The combination of sweat and tears brought on by pain and effort stung and blurred. I was still on the sick from work, and I was facing a ground fall from 70 feet. My forearms burned from crimping edges no thicker than tiles around a washbasin. I attempted to work out moves that would lead me to the comfort of the first piece of gear since starting on this madness. Time was an expanse of rock. Nothing else, apart from moving ten feet right, mattered

The climber tackling Cenotaph Corner to my right was a blur, an insect buzzing on the periphery. There, but only in the grey mist of my sub-conscious. I locked off. The muscles in my shoulder tensed. Shake-out-chalk-up-study-plan-breathe-deep-control. Prepare. I knew that once committed to the next sequence of moves I would be continuing in one of two directions, the reverse was not an option.

The insect made a move to my right. A move he will not forget for the rest of his life. A move I will not forget for the rest of my life. He pulled on the pudding stone, a house-brick sized lump of rock wedged for years into the crack running up Cenotaph Corner. The Pudding stone ripped from the corner as easy as a vegetable-knife can be pushed into a Prison Officer’s neck on a quiet evening in Gartree Prison.

Clarity coursed through my veins, my senses were heightened – I watched with deadly fascination. End over end, the block spun, plummeting. The insect stopped buzzing and screamed warning. His belayer took no notice. I just went on watching, still unable to pull my eyes away from the 5kg lump spinning its way to misery. The insect screamed again. The block twisted and turned closing in on its target. It was now only several feet above the skull it was about to smash into a grey-splintered mess. The belayer looked up and jerked his head back. The Pudding Stone missed his brow by an inch ripping into his bare arm. Blood shot high into the air covering rock. The belayer collapsed, the insect whimpered no longer on belay. Mayhem ruled. Blood spurted.  

            “WATCH ME MICHAEL, IGNORE WHAT’S GOING ON… OK?”

I made the moves. A-rock-over-a-match-a-foot-swap-foot-flag-gentle-easing-body weight-controlling-barn-dooring-torsion. Finally I made it to protection on Left Wall.

Hanging from big holds with the gear placed, I looked down into Michael’s owl-sized eyes. Not once had he taken his eyes from me. Blood covered the rock around him. The belayer’s unconscious body had been lifted past him, and still he had faithfully watched me, ignoring the body passing beneath our ropes. The insect had been lowered from Cenotaph Corner, his motivation to continue with the climb having waned somewhat.

Half an hour later I finished Tess much relieved. But despite the nearness to death, the fear, and the shocking damage done to another person, I was nevertheless still glad to be amongst the mountains.

*

Innocent rain clatters against the window of Ynes Ettws, the Climbers’ Club hut that’s nestled into a grassy fold in Llanberis Pass. This is now my unofficial home. The big open fire warms me. As I write, innocent wind rattles the door, and memories rattle my mind. No longer a Home Office cheque at the end of each month. No longer T.V, nor the comfort of a pension. Rain soaks the hillside with innocence. Streams pour pure white-gushing torrents. This coming spring, buds will open with fresh vivid-green leafy-life, all innocent. Grey rock drips under the guiltless deluge. Blameless sheep shuffle to find shelter beneath boulders that can mean them no ill-will. No longer hate and misery. No longer bigotry, violence, aggression, mutilation. Nor a life tracked until retirement, nor the right to vote. No possessions. No wealth. I am lucky – I am not innocent, but I’m free now, and I have more riches than are imaginable.

2 Responses to Echoes.

  1. Roly says:

    Just read this for the first time after you mentioning it in your latest blog post about your book.

    It’ wonderful.

    I guess that makes me one of th 85% so feel free to ignore it but I will be buying your book nevertheless!

  2. Pingback: Echoes by Nick Bullock | Life in the Vertical

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