As life moves on so do our characters, ambitions and dreams.
A huge trip planned for 2014 means that my obsession with climbing is still firmly in the forefront of my mind, but it is taking bigger and bigger objectives to spark my fire.
Since my return from the Himalaya last November I haven’t been out on the rock much. This has been due to injury (my long suffering shoulder, oh woe is me and also due to the huge amount of snow we have had this winter. (Skiing is FUN!)
A quick trip to Spain for some rock climbing was fantastic, but confirmed in my mind that I have a huge amount of physio style work to do on my shoulder if I am ever going to be pain free.
I have however officially transformed myself in to a skier. After two years of hard work (is skiing really hard work?) I have progressed from being a liability to being more than happily competent in all terrain.
This new found ski ability has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for alpine climbs of the ‘up and over’ style, carrying skis on the route, and wearing skis on the descent.
With spring officially in town here in Chamomix, the snow is rapidly disappearing from the valley, the sky is blue and I am dreaming of some long mountain missions.
An abundance of psyched partners ranging from Chamonix ski-bums to Yorkshire based truck drivers means that in the next month I hope to get at least two major adventures in the mountains.
I’m back on the rock climbing training mission too, with a short term objective in mind for May, and a loose plan to hit the granite of Ticino in June.
Eventually the time came for us to move. Although sitting drinking in the view was sublime, we needed to start the descent to avoid another night on the face. After anchoring the ropes to a rock buried in the snow, we hopped over the ridge in to the couloir, from the sun to the shade, like two men vaulting over the handrail of a ship. My mind now focused on descent, I was once again back in the physical world of snow and ice. The ropes hung 60m straight down the couloir, yet they hardly entered this huge icy snake. This retreat was going to take some time.
We made steady progress down the ice, a system developed naturally; the ice anchors were built, backed-up and stripped out in a factory like process. Little was said between Rob and I, just occasional phrases, the familiar shouts of ‘Rope free’ and other climbing calls were all that punctured the soft silence of the gully, and we inched our way down the face, like ants on a house wall.
When the angle lessened we decided to pack away the ropes and down-solo to increase speed. One of the things that I enjoy about climbing with Rob is the ease of decision making. We seem to make the same decisions at the same time, meaning conflict is kept to a minimum and much of this decision making goes unspoken. This I think is the sign of a good climbing partnership.
A ledge was stomped, we traded a few words, coiled ropes and then once again started our silent descent. After a few hundred metres, I stopped to take some photographs, and Rob continued down the couloir, reaching a steep ice-bulge. Not wanting to down-solo this steeper section, he reached for his rope and cut a snow bollard anchor. The snow was in general quite poor, and we had been taking care throughout the day.
I reached the bollard just as Rob was weighting the ropes for his 30m abseil. We knew the anchor was mediocre, and Rob eased his weight on to the rope. It held.
Part way down the bulge Rob must have jiggled slightly on the rope and, like a wire through soft cheese, it cut halfway through the bollard in a second. SHIT. I shouted at Rob to get his weight off the rope, and he teetered forward on to the front points of his crampons. He down-climbed the rest of the section.
If the rope had cut through the whole way, the most likely outcome would have been that Rob would have fallen around 700m down the face, although perhaps he would have come to a stop in the snow gully. Either way, I was glad we didn’t have to find out. The strength of a few snow crystals, the weight of Rob’s pack, the friction on the rope, just these little things had, in that split second, added up and altered the course of both Rob and I’s lives forever. Rob smiled and suggested I climb down the ice instead of abseiling. I did.
Had we become complacent? We were around halfway down the face, with only easy ground below us, and yet this slight mishap could have been terminal. I shook my head and reminded myself just how dangerous a game it is that I play.
Endless but uneventful down-climbing brought us to the base of the mountain, and the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Peak 41 reared up above us, shrouded in mist and snow, and the wind picked up. We could no longer see the huge couloir that we had just descended. I pulled the zip of my jacket up tight against my face and turned, pressing on toward base-camp, feeling lucky that we weren’t stuck on that upper ridge.
The slog across the moraine to reach the comfort of our tents was long and painfully slow, yet I was glad to be stumbling over the rocks, and panting my way up the hillside. The short but unforgettable journey on this Himalayan face had taught me a lot. It had taught me about the levels of fitness required for this kind of endeavour, the strength of mind needed for multiple days out on a mountain like this, and of course I had experienced a range of emotions; dread, elation, terror, relief, wonder, connectedness, disappointment, joy, and more, all distilled to within a period of 48 hours. But more than anything else, I think this trip taught me the meaning of being in the moment and it opened my eyes even further to what a wondrous world we live in.
I was exhausted, hungry and cold, but despite these hardships, by the time I reached base-camp I had pieced together a plan. Though this adventure was not yet finished, the next one was already in the offing.
“Rob…” I said. He looked up, and I continued; “I have seen a picture of a cliff on the internet…”
Morning came and and with it my feet, numb after being pushed against the tent wall, came back to life. The morning was stunning. Spirits were high, bodies were tired, but the elation of being in such a wondrous place, with such a good friend, energised my legs and made me eager to tackle what lay ahead.
With a smile on my face I set off from the bivvy, well more accurately, I let Rob set off from the bivvy and do what Rob does best – go first.
We moved together, crossing a snow bowl and reaching a further gully leading to a ridge that would hopefully take us to the summit. The snow was poor and Rob wallowed in deep powder, occasionally hammering joke pegs in to the rotten gully walls. We ploughed on.
The steepness of the gully increased just before the crest of the ridge, and this section took trail-breaker Greenwood some time to swim up. I followed, thankful for the track he had made, although as the snow collapsed so much, it wasn’t of much use. We’d left the sun of the bivvy and once again entered the world of Himalayan north face climbing. It was of course cold, and the stress of keeping fingers and toes warm was a constant companion.
After a sustained lung-bursting effort, Rob flopped on to the ridge. It looked bad; he was kicking with his legs, squirming with his body, a technique I can only assume he uses more regularly on gritstone top-outs than Himalayan faces. He thrashed around like a fish on a hook, and eventually, when he had balanced himself seesaw-like atop the crest, head in the sun, feet in the shade, he caught his breath and shouted down to me; “the ridge is a no go”.
The ridge was unclimbable it seemed. We’d climbed ourselves in to a cul de sac.
Whilst Rob’s world was literally collapsing around him, I was losing feeling in my feet, having been stood in deep snow in the shade without moving for around an hour.
“I’ll try and rig something to abseil from” he shouted.
“I’m going to untie from the rope and solo back down” I replied. The 60m of rope between us was clipped at mid-height to a peg pushed in to some terrible shale. I figured that having no one on the end of the rope was less dangerous for Rob than having a partner with frozen feet.
Rob didn’t really answer coherently, although he did acknowledge the plan, but he was busy wrestling with snow and shale, and I quietly untied myself and started to down-climb to the ledge we had cut. I couldn’t help Rob, so I concentrated on my climbing, passing a steep rocky section that was dusted in useless snow, axes scraping blindly, crampons catching, and heart leaping.
Back on the ledge, I sat on my pack, wrapped myself in everything thing I had, and hoped Rob was going to be okay. Time passed and what looked like an abseil anchor seemed to have been built. I was later to find out that the only belay Rob could build was by using a Bulldog as a sort of James Bond style grappling hook over the ridge, which explained his tentative approach to abseiling.
Back at the ledge, we briefly discussed options, but really both of us knew we had been defeated by the mountain and were ready to turn around. Rob, keen as ever, was itching to start the long abolokov journey ahead, and was sorting his gear. I looked around me at the vista; Everest in the distance, with its continuous wind-plume drifting like smoke from a factory chimney. The long, empty valley beneath me. Peaks all around, not a breath of wind on our mountain, and blue sky above. The hugeness of the place engulfed me, and I felt my insignificance.
I pulled out a bag of jelly babies and asked Rob if he would mind if I just sat for half an hour. I told him that this might be the only time I am halfway up an unclimbed Himalayan face with a view of Everest. He looked around, smiled and agreed. I gave him a jelly baby.
A mixture of emotions welled up. All that time, energy and focus and we had ‘failed’. And yet here we were, in this place, two friends, a view that really my words can not do justice to, an experience that I will never forget; a moment in time, that without this ‘failure’, I would never have experienced. Suddenly we weren’t in a rush, and the stress of the summit had been taken away.
I slowly pulled the head off another jelly baby, and gazed out across the valley. I sat quietly, knowing that this moment, right now, this was it. This was my life. Never before had I experienced such a sense of being in the moment. When technical climbing, when you are in the zone, concentrating without thinking, arms and legs moving fluidly and the mind focused but quiet, it’s a special feeling and one that comes all too rarely.
But this was something completely different. A slower sensation, a more contemplative experience. A sense of wonder.
There is a question which every boy has to ask himself sooner or later. It is a very simple and a very searching question. “Shall I make my life, which after all, I can only live once, a matter of a safe job? Or shall I put it boldly to the hazard? Shall I make it a matter of adventure? Shall I give it, as far as I can, the bright colours of romance?” Prose or poetry; the safe job or the spirit of adventure – that is the question, and that is the choice.
- Sir Ernest Barker (Introduction to the book ‘The Spirit of Wonder’)
>>> I wonder if I was hypothermic. Or perhaps it was the lack of oxygen.
I lay awake wrapped in two sleeping bags, waiting for my 3:45am alarm, hoping it would never come. At around 3:30 I heard movement from the other side of the base camp, and I knew Rob was up and packing his gear, well before his alarm had gone off.
I crept my fingers out of the tent, pulling the frozen zip just enough for one eye to glance out in to the night. It was cold and still. I was hoping for a storm, a snowfall, an excuse, but there was nothing but a huge Himalayan face eerily lit by the moonlight. I ignored the face and I ignored my half-packed rucksack and I went back to being terrified. Then, like a bomb in a school, the alarm went off.
Breakfast of tea and porridge passed quickly, and I passed my porridge to Rob, a man who can eat in the face of adversity. I was in a state of near psychosis, but I hoped Rob wouldn’t notice. I found out later that he had.
Back at the tent, my headtorch died, which was odd, as the batteries were brand new. Another omen. I forced on my frozen boots, at the last second opting to wear a slightly thicker pair of liner socks than normal. The boots felt too tight. Argh. Rob was waiting, hopping from one foot to another in the -10°C gloom. First the torch, now the boots. I was flustered, angry and not thinking straight. Not good. Not good.
Rob waited patiently as his ridiculous climbing partner wasted more valuable time stripping off boots and socks. And then, no more excuses, we were off.
I was behind by some margin as we hit the snow-dusted approach slopes, making tedious progress over loose rock and moraine. The distant head-light bobbed along, almost gayly (was he actually singing to himself?), the gap between us too large for conversation, not that I had any. My nose ran, my face froze and I concentrated on not turning an ankle in the collapsing boulder field.
We reached the huge snow couloir at the foot of the north face of Peak 41, took our axes and began to climb.
With each kick, with each swing of the axe, my mind became absorbed and quiet. The fear, so strong just moments before, dropped away like the ground beneath me. I was just climbing, nothing more, nothing less. We climbed on as day quietly broke around us, shadows dancing and playing on the deep walls of the gully. The hugeness of the face became apparent as features that were hidden by darkness showed their true size.
We were concentrating hard. The snow was dangerous; endless windslab over bottomless sugar-snow. Boards of slab the size of kitchen tables broke away and skidded down to oblivion. We kept to the side of the gully and pretended everything was ok. Occasional ice bulges guarded progress, not technical as such, perhaps grade 3, but enough to give stopping points, rests, a mental break from the continuous avalanche slopes.
The thin ice gully we had hoped to access was tantalisingly close, but was guarded by an 80m ice smear, just 2 inches thick. It was hard and steep, but climbable, it teased us. A fall from this ice smear would be fatal, it would take no gear for at least 50 metres. We decided that this was not the place for deadly gambles, but the mountain gave us another option, a steep ice and snow couloir that was hidden from view until the last second. The couloir skirted left-wards and joined the ridge we were aiming for. We smiled and ploughed on.
The terrain steepened and for the first time we roped up. A sheet of good ice was covered in 8 inches of rime, which made for slow but safe progress, as ice screws could be dug out whenever nerve began to waver. The top of the icesheet steepened even more, and pushed us rightwards against the rockwall. This was our first experience of the rock on Peak 41 and it wasn’t good. Frost shattered shale that would take no weight, no gear, and no prisoners. Finally we popped out on to the ridge, tired, surprised at how little progress we seemed to have made, but happy with a safe bivvy spot, that would get morning sun.
“You call that flat Greenwood?” I shouted over as Rob was trying to cut a ledge.
He looked up briefly, almost bent double with exertion, breathing heavily.
“You’ll never make a plasterer.” I said.
He gave me the fingers, smiled, and sat down, tired.
We watched nightfall over Everest and settled in to our tiny bivvy tent, waiting for the sunrise.
Issue 4 of the Marmot Life Magazine has just been published. You can view it online as a page flip here: Marmot Website.
I have a little article in there about climbing in North Wales, with some route and crag recommendations.
Again the team at Marmot have produced a great looking magazine. And – it’s really good for practicing your German too! Thanks guys!
My impending trip to the high mountains (Peak 41 Expedition) is looming fast. In between frantic organisation for this trip and working hard on UKClimbing.com (check out this interview with Chris Sharma) I have also been trying to realise a long-held rock climbing ambition of redpointing a hard sport route.
This has come as a bit of a last minute shock really, as I had just planned to cruise on some classic routes, but I guess due to a high volume of climbing at a moderate to high-ish (8a/+) level, and a lack of injury, I have inadvertently hit some reasonable climbing form. Although raw power is still pretty low.
Anyway this now leaves me 9 days in which to tick a project, giving me probably 3 climbing days. Not very long! ARGH!
To aid in success I have quickly tried a few different routes, and found one that suits my lanky frame, preference for crimps over pockets, and one that is in constant shade, meaning I won’t be thwarted by high temperatures. Most importantly though, the route is in an idyllic spot, a peaceful mountain paradise, and it really is a joy to go back there, which is why I am so keen. At this stage in my climbing life, it’s not about ‘the scene’, it’s not about hanging with the cool kids, it’s about quiet places, beautiful pieces of rock, and as always, trying to get better than James McHaffie. Best get back on the finger board.
For more photos of Salvan – have a look here at my post from last year.
It’s all systems go with the Himalaya trip though, with emails pinging back and forth, a huge pile of equipment mounting at Rob’s house and pre-trip nerves setting in big style.
The last few weeks have been a lot of fun though – and I am really looking forward to the trip.
This is the North Face of Peak 41, the face that Rob and I are aiming for next month. Unfortunately for me, it isn’t a very steep wall of granite with hard moves between slopey crimps.
And one last thing in this disjointed blog post. Well done to James on his ascent of The Long Hope Route main pitch. Very good effort McChav!
Back in the spring I was on the fitness train, and it was going well. Arriving in the UK I felt good, climbed a few routes I wanted to do, including a new one at Gogarth. I enjoyed my trip to the UK, but although five weeks of trad climbing in wet weather was fun, it didn’t do much for my fitness.
Since arriving back in France a few weeks ago, I have been coasting along, working a lot, and climbing a bit, but not getting the ‘bit between my teeth’. I think it is good to by cyclic in training/climbing, and after a high point, it’s best to mentally chill out for a while. Okay, that’s enough chilling out, back on the fitness train.
To kick start the lactic acid I nipped to Ceuse for a couple of days with a fun team including Sandra, the golden girls Hazel and Maddy, the elusive Jude and the ever-young Alan. I managed to throw myself off the top of several 8as, which was somewhat telling in terms of endurance. Oh dear! But it was such fun!
The highlight of the weekend in climbing terms was seeing Maddy totally ‘killing it’ and climbing really well.
As my trip to the Himalaya is looming in only 6 weeks, I have a really limited window to achieve a hard rock route this summer, but I think I can up my game slightly, and get something ticked around Chamonix, if all goes according to plan. A five week intensive training mission is about to commence, but I need a project to focus on. Hmm, what to do, what to do?!
I think I will also have time for 1 more weekend trip to climb something fun, so psyche is generally high. Lets Smash!
A few photos: