Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Feart oan the Giants Wall

In the words of  environmentalist and legendary climber Yvon Chouinard "I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach that 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different”. Over the past few months I had been feeling a bit unmotivated for climbing and was beginning to wonder if I’d had enough and needed to go try something new. The other day on the 'Godfather' made me have a bit of a re-think.

                                                          The Giants wall
I had just been blown off my feet for the second time when another volley of graupel and wind came howling down the corrie. I made a tactical decision to stay slumped in the snow until the wind abated. Neil was cowering behind a boulder trying to gear up away from the worst of the weather and the giant’s wall of Beinn Bann loomed above us. Even as someone who probably enjoys the nihilism associated with suffering more than actual climbing, our chances of success in weather that bad seemed so small that it was beginning to feel a bit pointless. Nonetheless we pressed on to the foot of the crag which surprisingly seemed sheltered enough to at least give it a shot.
The Giants wall: steeper than it looks!

I had casually mentioned to Neil back in October that the Godfather was at the top of my dream route list, but I actually thought that it was way beyond me. It is one of those routes that has all the right ingredients to make it attractive and terrifying in equal measures: It’s on a big, serious, winter only cliff that’s rarely in condition, and has enough stories surrounding it to create a fairly unique aura. The first ascensionists in 2002 didn’t make it off the hill until after sunrise on their second day, and an early repeat attempt by a team of modern day Scottish climbing legends ended with injury high on the wall. Their subsequent retreat and touching the void like crawl through the night to reach the car sounded grim, even by Scottish winter climbing standards.
Neil starting up pitch 1.

Neil set off up the first pitch in his typical safe and methodical style, hesitating near the top while he unlocked the puzzle barring the entrance to the ledge system above. A while later I followed in my somewhat faster, but rather less technique based style.
yours truly, thinking "shiiit, I hope it doesn't go up there"

We had arrived at the base later than we had hoped and the complexities of the route finding on the face had confused us somewhat at the start, so it wasn’t a total surprise to see it was already 11am by the time I reached Neil’s belay. Based on previous reports of the route it looked like we wouldn’t be finishing before nightfall, and with the knowledge that the crux pitch was right at the top of the route I battled off into the steep ground above with a definite sense of urgency.

We made it the central terrace at about 1pm. It was Neil’s lead again and he started the long traverse left to reach the big corner at the top of the face. It’s so unique for a route of this grade to literally be following the line of least resistance on a cliff of this size, and the result is that it feels almost alpine in character. Watching Neil run the rope out 50 meters away I had to remind myself that he was actually climbing frozen turf on a Scottish cliff, not tapping his way across an ice encrusted alpine face.

Scottish winter routes may be small in stature, but in a single day they provide an intensity that’s pretty hard to match, and the godfather day was no different. The climbing was steep and bold, and the weather was properly wild: alternating between hammering Graupel and biting wind. It was also interspersed with stunning views out across my favourite part of Scotland; every time I visit the North West I leave with a lasting impression. It seems like you can actually feel the age of the landscape and it is totally unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.
Neil on the big traverse while I worry about the head wall above!
I followed Neil across the moderate but wildly exposed traverse and up a brutal groove that he made a fine effort on.  My arms were already feeling knackered, and the headwall above was ominously steep. Neil’s belay was being hammered directly by the wind but I was more preoccupied about what lay above. I’d herd that the next two pitches could be climbed together, so as I was worried about the fast encroaching darkness, and frankly terrified of the crux pitch I somewhat selfishly decided to climb them as one.
Neil about to make battle with the Groove above
About an hour later I was looking at the ropes which arched and spun sickeningly in the wind, my last runner was at least 10 meters below me and I didn’t have any gear left that I could protect the pitch with. Cursing myself for not being more conservative with my gear lower down I continued further from safety towards a small roof. Contriving a knee bar rest and the relative safety of two reasonable wires I made the final pull over to the belay ledge with barely anything left in the tank- both psychologically and physically.

Neil arrived at my belay in the gathering gloom and it soon became apparent that he wasn’t in a good way. After regaining the power of speech it turned out that he had been shouting for me to stop at the end of the first pitch as he was borderline hypothermic. Above the howling wind I hadn’t heard him and had taken at least 45 minutes to finish my lead, thereby subjecting Neil to what I can only imagine was a pretty horrific belay stint. Sorry man!!
Neil seconding nearly hypothermic
We stopped briefly to eat and drink but Neil had just got too cold on the previous belay for it to make a difference. This left me to face my karmic retribution in the gathering gloom, the crux corner reared above our heads and at it's top I could see the ‘Benson Fringe’ guarding the exit from the final overhang.

“I’m not a grade VIII climber, what the hell have I got myself in to?”

The main source of my fear about the crux was the story of Pete Benson taking an ankle smashing fall from the very top.  He is a total legend with string of very hard routes to his name, so what chance did I have as some fat ginger punter?

Martin Moran (the first ascensionist) jokingly came up with the ‘Benson Fringe’ tagline, as it is where Pete’s axes remained firmly planted after he ran out of strength and took the fall. The axes were abandoned while the guys beat a hasty retreat straight down the overhanging ground below the corner.

I cleared the first bulge just as the blackness arrived. Turning my head torch on I continued into the night. The wind had swung round and was now blowing straight up the corner: blasting my face with spindrift, making the small foot holds near impossible to spot and wrapping the ropes into a twisted mess.

Facing karmic retribution as the night falls.

There’s nothing quite like climbing right at your limit, in the dark, in the middle of a wild storm to really focus the mind; before I knew it I had pulled through most of the pitch and had arrived at the lip of the final overhang. Blood pounded in my head, lactic acid was surging to my forearms and my brain was boiling. The clock was ticking, and the time of reckoning was nigh.

Searching fruitlessly for another foothold underneath the rime ice I could feel my hands beginning to open. The ticking was getting louder and my last runner seemed farther away than ever. Realising that this was going to be my last chance I threw a heel up level with my axes and put everything I had left into one final haul onto the ledge above.

 I don’t think I've ever been that ‘in the zone’ in my life, and I think it may be some time before I reach that place again. I’d gone from been mentally drained in the most complete way to pulling out the lead of my life in the space of five minutes and I’m still not quite sure how.

 Still riding high on a mixture of fear and endorphins I found myself constructing a belay just below the summit plateau. With heart pounding and head buzzing I began to belay Neil up. In similar circumstances to the first ascent Neil’s head torch had failed meaning that he had to climb the pitch in the darkness, but at least the effort seemed to warm him up! Thankfully the moon was now providing some useful light and Neil did the honours; taking us up over the small cornice and out into the eerily lit plateau above.

With the wind now to our backs we began our zombie like stumble back to the car. After picking up our packs and stumbling out of the corrie Neil stopped briefly to drink from a river. I couldn't be bothered so just sat down with my head in my hands.When I mentioned that I thought I had hit the wall Neil replied that the wall had in fact fallen on top of him quite some time ago.

Just as the return walk was beginning to reach proportions worthy of the Bataan death march a welcome sight greeted my eyes; and 16 hours after leaving it, we crawled back into the car. Agreeing to have a quick nap before attempting to drive anywhere we set an alarm for 11pm, but before either of us knew what had happened it was 5.30am the next morning!

 The day after the Giants wall I burst in my front door red faced from wind burn, body aching, and sporting the thousand yard stare. As usual my non-climbing friends didn't really understand what I’d been up to, and probably couldn't care less for the most part.  I think that contrast is one of my favourite things about Scottish climbing, and in keeping with Chouinard’s 80% theory, a life split between contrasting aspects seems like a pretty good aim. 

Now where did I put my bike?

                           “A passion based framework for leading a pretty good life”

I haven’t updated this blog in a very long time for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was because I had been getting fed up of all the recycled motivational quotes and half-finished pseudo- philosophical bullshit that seems to be increasingly prevalent in the climbing media, and was more than slightly aware that this blog may just be another unnecessary addition (be it unread addition) to that insular world.

Damo from UKC summed it up brilliantly: “To try and confer worth and meaning onto a pointless and self-indulgent leisure activity, practiced almost entirely by relatively affluent white men insufficiently tested by modern life. We need to make it sound serious and deep or we'd all look a bit silly, grown men monkeying around in bright fancy clothes and plodding up big snowy hills on expensive holidays. Spiritual solutions sell well in the mainstream market, in all fields, so climbing latches on to this to seem less pointless.”

The cynic in me thought that Damo had totally hit the piton on the head as it were (and probably still does to some extent), but not so long after that, I came across another bit of writing that is quite simply one of the best descriptions of climbing I’ve ever seen and it really reminded me about what makes climbing, and other similar past times so special.

“Climbing is a context in which personal meaning can be derived from the utterly meaningless—the sheer absurdity that is climbing rocks for fun. Really, that is the story of climbing today: it’s a passion-based framework for leading a pretty good life. No more, no less”

Seriously, what a perfect summary!

It’s always so completely refreshing when you meet that person who is genuinely passionate about what they do. Seeing that mad little twinkle of inspiration - irrespective of what it is they do - always leaves me feeling inordinately better about society.

Alas I digress wildly, the point I’m getting to is that the other day on the Godfather was definitely one of those days when this contrived little game just makes the world make sense, and I hope it’s that passion that shines through.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Bears, Cougars, Seracs and Afternoon naps

About two months ago I moved to the Canadian Rockies. The last few weeks have mostly been spent finding a job, drinking a bit too much and going cycling in the sun, with the occasional bit of sport cragging, ‘hiking’ and one easy alpine route thrown in for good measure. After a winter spent in Chamonix I felt like a change of pace and put big adventures on the back burner for a while, but last week while sitting in the sun after work that annoying little itch started again, by the weekend I had come up with a slightly ridiculous plan. I had known of three major faces before arriving here; the Emperor, the North Face of Twins Tower, and the North Face of Temple. Without a partner and without a car Temple was the only realistic option, so I booked a Greyhound for 10.45pm and then promptly fell asleep and almost missed it.

top class sport climbing 40 minuites from my house

Temple is about two hours from Calgary and has a really short approach which makes it perfect for a one day (or night!) hit. It’s described as the ‘Eiger of the Rockies’,  due to the accessibility of its 1000 meter north face which bears a striking resemblance to its more illustrious cousin across the Atlantic.  As the face was almost definitely still going to be in winter condition the only route that was within my ability was on the far left of the face, unfortunately this would put me directly in the firing line of some very large seracs so I decided it would be safest to climb most of the route at night and hopefully time it so I would reach the crux pitches at day break.

The upper portion of Temples north face from the Highway

‘My name is Trevor and I’ll be your operator tonight’

In the overheated bus I was already sweating, I fiddled with my stiff laces, eventually freeing my feet. I grinned at the bus driver’s seemingly unbounding optimism, even when faced with an overnight drive to Vancouver, with a bus full of drunks he still sounded like it was his birthday. The pneumatic brakes hissed and the archaic Greyhound began to stutter and stammer across the flat plains surrounding Calgary, and onwards to the Rockies.

 I stepped off the bus at Lake Louise and after a bit of bumbling around in the dark, found the road I wanted and began the walk to the trail head. Beginning to get cold, I briefly stopped to put my thermals back on, and in typically comedic timing just as my trousers were round my ankles, a cop car rolled up beside me. Its driver had a particularly bemused look on his face, although thankfully after a slightly awkward explanation as to what I was doing with my trousers round my ankles at 2am in the woods he offered me a lift to the trail head. What was slightly less welcoming was the information that a Grizzly Bear with a cub had been spotted in the area, although the cop thought that she would be at a lower elevation due to the cold temperatres, it still made my crash course in bear safety earlier that evening seem somewhat inadequate.

Bear safety tip #1 Bears are not aggressive unless startled suddenly, so make your presence as obvious as possible.

-          Typically this would involve walking in large group and talking loudly. As I had nae friends it involved playing music from my phone and feeling a bit like a 14 year old ned on the bus. I also made up a ‘don’t eat me’ chant and sang this until I got bored of the sound of my own voice.

 I wound my way snail like through the forest along the narrow path. I crossed aged winter snow drifts which still lingered in the darker corners, and climbed over fallen trees, all the while the music playing from my phone jarred incongruously with my surrounding. The bright moon occasionally flickered through the trees to illuminate the path ahead and sometimes when my imagination got the better of me,  my pace slowed, and my torch beam swung through the dense forest either side of me. I half expected to see some demonic Baskerville-esque hound staring back. The valley opened out and behind the roaring river, glinting in the early morning moonlight sat Temple. Ahead of me, in that funny half colour of night I could see a short steepening which would bring me to Lake Annette and the bottom of the face.

Bear safety tip #2 As a last line of defence carry bear spray, bear bangers, and/or bear flares.
-          I had decided that bangers and flares were a silly idea and, in the spirit of adventure, I had completely forgotten to borrow my flat mates bear spray, which was now sitting uselessly in our house.

I had just crossed the river and the forest had once more closed in around me when two big, yellow orbs of light stalked into the beam of my head torch. Frozen to the spot I re-started my somewhat pathetic sounding chant and began clacking my walking poles together. Those yellow orbs were about 8 meters away. I had a brief glimpse at the dark outline of its frame as the yellow eyes stared back at me. It's head was turned towards me while it traced a path parallel to my own but in the opposite direction, those yellow eyes still staring at me. After a few moments the head turned away, the eyes disappeared and I only caught another brief glimpse of its shadowy outline before it disappeared back into the forest. I stood there continuing on with my chant and pole clacking. It seemed to have moved off, and as I figured I was only a few minutes walk from the edge of the forest, It seemed best to carry on, rather than spend hours stuck in the forest retracing my steps, so I tentatively started on my way again.

From doing a small amount of research after this, as far as I can work it out it was most likely a cougar. It looked too close to the ground to be a bear, but distance can be deceptive at night. I’ve come across deer at night many times before and never seen them move or act like that. Maybe it was just a bob cat (which are fairly harmless) but it looked too big, and was acting too bold to be a bobcat as far as I can make out. Whatever it was, it was pretty spooky!

Temples north face on the way down, my highpoint was the top of the central icefield.

I made it out of the forest just before dawn, the North Face of Temple visible above me in the pre-dawn glow. After my slow, stumbling pace in the darkness of the forest it was great to be bounding up the bullet hard snow slopes towards the fin of the ‘dolphin’, (the ice field which makes up the lower half of the face has a bit of a resemblance to a dolphin). The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon as I cramponed up the easy angled colouir of the dolphin’s tail. In the centre of the couloir sat a deep trench scoured from snow and other debris from the face above. In the cool of the early morning the face was quiet but it was obvious by the depth of the trench and debris littered around that it would awake in a serious sort of way at some point.  The far right of the face was beginning to catch the sun and by this point I knew I was seriously behind schedule. I had planned to be about 500 meters higher on the face by this point, and was keeping a fervent eye on the seracs above. I was safe from their line of fire for the time being, but as I gained height on the face I would be drawn further left until I was directly under them. Before I left Calgary I had known that they wouldn’t exactly be inconsequential, but now I was under them they looked monstrous, squatting suicidal like on the edge of the face.

a fore-shortened view from the bottom of the dolphin, the route sneaks up and left under those monsterous seracs!

I climbed as far as I could up the dolphin, but my mind had already been made up as soon as I had seen the sunrise.  I had taken less than five steps under the seracs when I turned around, already day dreaming about a nap in the sun and some sport climbing. Easy down climbing with only one dodgy encounter with a small spindrift avalanche took me down and out from under the shadow of temple, and in under two hours I was napping in the morning sun on a nice flat rock.

 It’s amazing how daylight can change a place, seeing the forest in the day light, the typically overly sentimental Canadian name of paradise valley was seeming somewhat justified, although I still had music playing from my phone and stole the occasional nervous glance around.

 I arrived back in Lake Louise with plenty of time to spare so decided to hitch hike home rather than pay for another bus, so wandered over to the highway and stuck my thumb out. After the usual middle aged suspects in empty SUV’s blowing by me at 130km/h, a beat up old pickup truck pulled onto the hard shoulder. An hour of excellent conversation later and the local mountain guide who had picked me up left me in Canmore.  It was another short wait before I was picked up by a young Quebecois guy, and after a slightly dodgy detour to go meet his ‘friend’ at the side of the highway, he left me standing by the first nations reserve in kananaskis country. One of the stark and slightly disturbing reminders of how Canada has dealt with its aboriginal people and their culture. One last wait and I got picked up by three oil workers who by coincidence seemed to be avid Frightened Rabbit fans and were heading to my neighbourhood.

another 3 star 7b in kanaskis country

This week it’s been decidedly dreek, and I’ve been feeling at home in the clouds and rain. When it dries up, I’ll probably be going rock climbing again, but with the news that a friend may be coming out to visit at the end of the summer I might just go back to day dreaming about big objectives too.

The Emperor Face on Mount Robson, the object of my desire.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Nordwand

Its funny how realising a six year dream can suddenly sneak up on you.

Last week, Ally Fulton and I took a massive gamble on conditions and made an attempt on the Eiger North Face. Two years ago my first attempt ended a short way up the wall due to bad conditions and I was unsure conditions would be any better this time.  Much to my surprise our gamble paid off and  I am now back in Chamonix getting my head around the adventure of a life time.

At fourteen years old I first read Henrich Harrers ‘the white spider’, the classic account of the first ascent of the Eigers North face in the summer of  1938. At the time, it didn’t actually have much of an effect on me. I didn’t climb, and although the idea vaguely intrigued me, I didn’t think much more about it. A few years later after I had been taken on a few winter climbing trips in Scotland. I re-read the book and was completely captivated, Harrer was a master of understatement. They had barely any equipment, and were seemingly fuelled only on coffee, amphetamines, and the boldness of youth. It all just seemed perfectly wild, anarchistic and brilliant.
The first ascent team on july 24th 1938 : braver than most!

Today, with modern equipment and accurate weather forecasts the Eiger’s north wall is no longer the alpine harbinger of death it once was, however it is still a pretty scary place to pass through and has the potential to become serious very quickly. Although it no longer represents the pinnacle of alpine climbing, what remains on this iconic face is an absolutely fantastic voyage through the history of climbing, and a pretty unique  psychological experience. It’s THE route I’ve aspired to since setting foot in the Alps so I couldn’t be happier to have it ticked off. 

                                                 1,800 meters of loose alpine madness.

Leaving Chamonix at midnight was a ridiculous time to be setting off for an attempt on the Eiger the following day. I had just finished a 12 hour shift in work and Ally had been away from Chamonix with his girlfriend so it was the earliest we could manage, but with a weather window that was only due to last  50-something hours we had to leave that night. Arriving in Grindlewald at 3.30am was only going to allow us 3 hours sleep before the biggest route either of us had ever attempted. On the train up the next morning we sat mostly in silence, forcing as much water down as possible as the shadow of the Eiger’s 1800 meter high north face loomed over the carriage. Arriving at the station a staff member, who having guessed we were about to make an attempt on the Nordwand, warned us about the large amounts of new snow. I made a half-hearted joke that we would be back down for coffee in a couple of hours, unfortunately knowing all too well that it was probably true.

The 1938 route (photo from trekandmountain.com)

The first four to five hours of our day were spent wallowing through deep snow. Fortunately the walk to the base of the route could have been worse, but once arriving at the easy angled lower slopes the snow had been deposited in deep drifts and our pace ground to a halt. We took it in turns breaking the deep trail up the face, occasionally passing short tricky rock steps devoid of any useful ice and covered with lose rocks fallen from the face above. Eventually, much later than we would have liked, we arrived at the ‘difficult crack’. It’s the first crux of the route and the start of the steeper climbing. This is where my previous attempt had ended two years earlier.
breaking trail towards the face

feeling small under the Rote Fluh
 After my previous failure I had a strong feeling that leading the first crux would lay to rest any remaining doubts about my mental resolve. Dense windblown snow partially blocked the steep crack above but thankfully after not too long I had scraped my way up it and we were both moving together below the vast monolithic wall of the Rote Fluh; a minor feature on the face, but it’s absolutely monstrous when you are directly under it. Ahead of us lay The Hinterstoisser Traverse, the key to unlocking the heart of the face. This blank technical wall was first climbed by Andreas Hinterstoisser during the 1936 attempt on the wall. Although the team almost managed a successful retreat from high on the face, it was an attempt that ultimately ended in tragedy when they were hit by an avalanche not far from safety.  Toni Kurtz, the final surviving member of their 4 man team died only 10 meters from the reach of his rescuers.
big exposure on the difficult crack

Fulton running across an ice plastered Hinterstoisser.

With every meter gained the conditions had been steadily improving, however it was a bit of a shock to find the Hinterstoisser Traverse completely plastered in perfect snow-ice. Realising this was our chance to make up for lost time we set off as fast as we could. The rest of the day passed in a blur; moving together though the traverse and across onto the first ice field, whooping with joy at the perfect conditions we continued on up the ice hose. This section of the route is strikingly familiar to Green gully on Ben Nevis, which was one of my earliest climbing experiences with my dad, and a route I have very fond memories of. It was nice to suddenly feel at home in the midst of this vast intimidating face.

Racing the sunset to death bivvy

As we crossed the third ice field the sun steadily swung through the sky. Dipping close to the western horizon it illuminated the very top of the face and set off a few spindrift avalanches from the parapets above our heads. The lower snow slopes had been exhausting and we hadn’t stopped to eat or drink anything since hitting the better conditions and I could see ally had hit the wall. His pace had slowed right down, and he regularly had to double over to rest his head on the ice. I lamely shouted a few words of encouragement over to him and tried to ignore my worries that he might not recover for our second day on the face.  Thankfully we managed to reach the final snow slope towards Death Bivouac just as it began to get dark. Death Bivvy received it's name after Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer froze to death there during an early attempt on the wall in 1935.

5 star accomodation at death bivvy

Awaking in the dark early the following morning I stiffly sat up to melt snow. Stars still carpeted the dark sky and there was only a hint of dawn on the horizon. Despite feeling good the previous night, the lack of food and water on our first day had taken its toll and I now felt wasted. Thankfully Fulton seemed to have recovered remarkably well and our roles had definitely swapped. Just before sunrise I awkwardly climbed out of Death Bivvy, and thudded my way across the third ice field, aiming for the line of the ramp. Here conditions deteriorated again and we found ourselves on loose, sloping rock obscured by deep powder.

The nature of the rock on the Eiger is partly what makes it so intimidating, unlike the beautiful, golden granite of the Mont Blanc Massif, the Eiger is made up of decrepit, rotten limestone.  A long dead ocean floor that was resurrected and then abandoned by the earth. Left exposed to the alpine elements for almost 65 million years.  Nearly two kilometres of tottering loose rock still remains towering above the town of Grindlewald. It seems fitting that a mountain face nick named the Morwand (German for death wall) is entirely composed of a dead ocean and its former inhabitants. The lower portion of the face is relatively solid ashen-faced, pale-grey limestone, however further up the wall the rock changes to black, rotten, shattered shale.  It looms overhead in tottering piles, and evidence of previous rock fall is left scattered over sloping ledges.

Pulling out of the steep waterfall chimney, only to be faced with an overhanging snow mushroom.

Fulton had finished his lead block which had brought us up an incredibly snow choked waterfall chimney and circumnavigated the ice bluge above, which is currently an unclimbable, overhanging snow mushroom. We were now tied in directly below the brittle ledges. Up until this point I had felt like everything had hung in the balance, but I think that it was then that we both knew we could make it to the summit. I was knackered but it didn’t seem to matter.  Gently making my way up the incredibly loose entry to the brittle ledges, and onto the wonderfully exposed brittle crack above; I was, for the first time, not scared, and was simply enjoying passing through this grandiose face which is so deeply entrenched in climbing folklore that it’s unlike any other route in the world. We tip-toed across the Traverse Of The Gods with 1000 meters of air stretching away below our feet. We ran up the Rock-fall peppered white spider, and finally, we were out of the heart of the face. The sunshine was almost within reach, and we marched our tired bodies and minds onwards to the exit cracks.
Traverse of the Gods

The final sting in the tail, barring our entry to the easier climbing to the summit was the quartz crack, and it was my lead. I was well and truly knackered but felt I still owed Fulton after handing over my lead to him on the Drus all those months ago. I wobbled my way upwards towards the snow choked steepening, clipping two ancient and rusted wires as I went. I leaned outwards in an attempt to clear the dense snow from the corner above me, but my arms felt weak, and my axe was beginning to resemble a sledge hammer.  My rucksack dragged on my shoulders and my feet began to shake. The dreaded Elvis leg. The sign of an impending fall. My crampon points began to jitter, threatening to skip from the sloping holds into the void below.

Within the thick soup of my tired brain, a half formed plan began to stir, I knew I just needed to get my foot one hold higher and I’d be within reach of a good axe placement.  But I was just too tired.  A few moments later my foot jittered off and I exploded outwards with the violence of an unexpected fall.

I was left dangling just a short way below the crack. The rusted wires had held.

I lead the crack cleanly on my second attempt: Ally above the quartz crack and on the home straight!

It was later than we hoped by the time we found ourselves tottering our way along the knife edge arête to the summit. The sun was already low on the horizon and it bit into my eyes, unused to the brightness after spending two days in the grip of the Eiger’s shadow.  As our weather forecast was now three days out of date we both wanted to get as low on the mountain as possible that night. After stopping briefly on the summit to take in the vista around us, we began to make out way down the west flank. It was the usual anti-climax of reaching the top. Too tired to feel happy and too worried about the descent to really bother. 

Summit ridge on the Eiger
We had hoped to descend a large portion of the west flank in the light  to allow us to safely navigate our way towards the serac choke at mid height, but it was obvious that nightfall would be over taking us shortly. The top of the west face had been stripped of its coat of snow, and was instead left with a black skin of brittle ice. We both decided attempting to down climb this in our current state would be too dangerous, so resorted to 3 or 4 abseils from V threads, until we reached the snow below. By this time the moonless night had overtaken us and it took us a very long time to descend the narrow snow runnels of the west flank, navigating our way around steeper bands of choss. The weather was showing little sign of changing and we had found relative safety under a flank of rock, so opted to dig out a snow ledge here for our second night on the mountain. My sleeping bag was now sodden and we were being periodically doused with spindrift from above. I fell asleep shivering but I was too tired for it to matter.
Standard summit mugshot: tired and just a bit happy

Day three dawned cold and bright. Directly below us was the serac choke, revealing that we were exactly where we wanted to be. Lingering in our bivvy bags till the sun was above the horizon we slowly moved off. With almost all of the objective danger behind us and the train station in our sights the elation finally hit.  It was an easy hour down-climb to the base of the Eiger and the end of the route of a life time.
Day 3 on the Eiger, almost down and time to celebrate!

Cheers to Graham and Dawn Pinkerton for lending us their roll matts! (sorry they are a little bit battered)

I’d also like to apologise to Ally and the lady who served us in the café we ate in afterwards, for how bad my feet smelt. ( lesson learnt, always take your inner boots off and dry your socks in your sleeping bag otherwise it is NOT pretty)

Monday, 9 December 2013

Winter alpine soloing at night is scary and rewarding in equal measures. Music helps it to be a bit less scary.

                                          Fear and Loathing in the Argentière basin

Sweat dripped off my brow as I slumped into my seat on the overheated train, I fiddled my earphones back in and pressed my forehead against the window.  Letting the vibrations chatter through my head I stared out at the trees as they rushed by in the gathering darkness. Music I hadn’t listened to in about 5 years played from my headphones and it felt like I was 17 again, back in Glasgow and sitting on the train home from work, idly staring out the window in a bored daze. In reality I was on the train to Argentière and my body was buzzing with nervous energy.

The Swiss route on Les Courtes had been on my mind for a few weeks by this point. It’s not a particularly hard route, but it’s a perfect line up the centre of an austere face and in my eyes it embodies everything that is so inspiring about classic alpine face climbing.  Technically easy enough that I would be comfortable soloing the crux sections but long, committing, and sure to provide a psychological challenge.

 A week prior to this I had skinned up to the Argentière hut planning to climb the route the following day, however as I discovered, spending an entire night on your own in the Argentière basin with the great ice encrusted faces of Les Courtes and les Droites bearing down on you is somewhat psychologically draining. I had spent hours peering out the window of the hut, my mind stuck on repeat, dwelling too long on ‘what ifs’. To the right stood the North East spur of Les Droites. A monstrous, contorted appendage clawing its way down from the summit a thousand meters above. On my left, almost directly in front of me, the north face of Les Courtes. It looked deceptively steep, the moon revealing hard, brittle, black ice on the summit ice field. The elongate jagged maw of the bergschrund stood guard at the foot of the face and it all just looked too big and too scary to deal with on my own.  I had gone to bed that night feeling decidedly uneasy. Upon waking the next morning I hurriedly stuffed down a meagre portion of freeze dried mush and a plastic cups worth of lukewarm tea and stepped out of the hut into early morning moonlight. It only took one glance at the face for me to immediately baulk at the thought of going any further.

What a fucking long way to walk for a lie in.

 Back in Chamonix sat in yet another overpriced, trendy bar, surrounded by the comforting din of excited conversation in a multitude of languages, the other night’s bout of fear now all seemed a bit ridiculous. I glanced around briefly at the bar; well-heeled American tourists looking slightly out of place and huddled together in a corner, shifting uncomfortably in their chinos as yet another frenchie barged past them to reach the bar before happy hour finished. Ski seasonaires still in their ski clothes and the occasional climbing bum trying to talk his way into another free drink or cigarette. Free from the oppressive presence of the mountains, warm, and surrounded by friends, the rational side of my brain was telling me that I shouldn’t have backed out.

I think the rationalisation of fear is part of what I find so fascinating about soloing (and climbing in general). Identifying the difference between irrational and rational fear and learning to tread the line between the two. I knew that soloing the Courtes would actually be safer than much of the climbing I do roped to a friend (not including the glacier travel) But knowing this doesn’t make an alpine north face in winter, in the middle of the night any less intimidating when you are actually faced with it! Although the most genuinely fun parts of climbing; like warm, safe days out in summer with good friends are no doubt brilliant. I find the most intriguing aspects to be those that have a greater psychological side to them. Stepping outside your comfort zone and seeing how you respond to stress and fear always produces a memorable experience. Being able to deal with physical challenges, say for instance running a marathon, is all about being able to switch your mind off and ignore the pain. With something like climbing which can involve a lot of risk you have to be fully switched on and in tune with what’s going on, never really able to just flat out ignore the fear. There’s no off button, no one to give you a pat on the back when you make it to the summit and no one to hold your hand if you push it too hard.

After my previous experience of attempting the route from the hut, I decided to just single push it from town, the less time I had to sit and think, the less opportunity there would be for me to back out. Unfortunately, to allow me to descend in daylight I would need to be in Argentière for before 6am, which wasn’t going to happen with the current train timetable. I would be relatively happy climbing in the dark, but wasn’t sure of the descent down the North East face so I decided to climb through the night and hopefully summit in the day light and be able to find my way down. I also allowed myself the luxury of music, but only having limited space on my phone I had to be a bit selective. I always find it amazing how directly music can affect my mood and how closely it can become entwined with certain periods and events from life. I quite liked the idea of having a bit of music that I would always associate with a pretty ‘out there’ few hours of my life. I ended up deciding to bring 3 albums; Firstly, the live version of Frightened Rabbits ‘midnight organ fight’.  I first started listening to Frabbit just before my first year at University and their first album always brings me straight back to a very fond memory of driving across a snowy Rannoch moor in a packed out minibus, on our way to spend New Year at the foot of Ben Nevis. The second album was ‘Tarot sport’ by fuck buttons- which got me through my final year exams, atmospheric, monotonous and with no lyrics, perfect for setting a good pace to skin at. I also brought a live mix by Optimo, a bit of a legendary DJ duo from Glasgow, fun and eclectic music which formed the basis for a great many nights out in Glasgow with good friends.

30 meters of rope ( cheers Graham), some tat, 2 screws
 and a V threader. Hopefully enough to get me down
800m If i decided to bail near the top!
It was about 10pm by the time I had navigated my way through the crevassed lower section of the glacier and had reached the little rocky island of safety beside the Rongon. In front of me the twinkling expanse of the Argentière basin spread out into the moonlight. I stopped briefly to melt some snow and slowly chew on half of my sandwich.  Optimo had kept me company up the tedious ascent of the ski resort, however once I’d dropped onto the Glacier I had felt vulnerable with my ear phones in, with them out I could listen to the occasional groans and creaks of the glacier. Realistically it probably didn’t make me safer but none the less, I felt better for it. I refilled my water bottle and checked my food; half a sandwich, 2 snickers and a handful of energy gels. The basin was less crevassed so I put my headphones back in and let frightened rabbit’s melodic self-deprecation flood over me. It was about this time that the meteor shower started, I stopped occasionally to steal a few fleeting glimpses of those bright pins as they momentarily pierced the ink back sky.

My skis brought me to the avalanche debris at the foot of approach slope, at this point they refused to grip on the icy surface so I changed to crampons, slung my skis over my back and took out my headphones to allow me to listen for any rock or ice fall.  From a distance the faces were relatively well illuminated by the faint crescent moon, but up close I couldn’t make out definite features and was lost amongst the scale. Feeling alone without the comfort of music I began to make my way towards where I thought the smallest section of the bergschrund was. Suddenly a set of foot prints bounced into the beam of my head torch. I couldn’t believe my luck, I had been sure no one had climbed the face this winter but If I could follow these tracks the entire way it would make the experience a whole lot less stressful. It’s amazing how even just a set of foot prints can make you feel so much less lonely. About 10 meters later the prints doubled back on themselves into a crazy figure of 8 jig; powder snow on one side and sheet ice on the other. I stood staring at them for a minute confused as to what had happened. They weren’t foot prints! I had just been following patterns in the snow created from the wind, my subconscious had tricked me into thinking they were foot prints. I had been doing this all evening,  small boulders caught in my peripheral vision  had been men crouching in the trees, bushes had been dogs staring across the pistes at me and small trees were non existent sign posts. Slightly perturbed I continued on upwards, I crossed a deep crevasse and peered down into its depths as I stepped over. My head torch beam illuminating its grey-blue walls until it was swallowed up by the darkness. Thankfully crossing the bergschrund was uneventful, a few timid steps across the giant blocks of ice bridging the gap and an awkward mantel onto the steep slope above and I was established on the face. The most dangerous part of the route was behind me now I was off the glacier and I could enjoy that quiet, empty consciousness of the soloist.

Navigating through the bergshrund
The lower portion of the route was in good condition and I made quick progress up the face, stopping occasionally to check the photo of the mountain I had with me, attempting to work out my position. I reached the crux at roughly 1/3 height quicker than I expected. The ice above me narrowed into a runnel, hemmed in on each side by smooth slabs of granite. Enjoying feeling my body weight being held by my arms rather than just my cramped and tired legs I tapped my way up the ice until I reached an old collection of pegs at the top. I clipped into these and finished the last of my water, cursing myself for not being more conservative with it, I briefly considered stopping here to melt more snow, but decided I should just hold off till the summit. It was after this section that my progress slowed; Good snow-ice gave way to old, black ice, occasionally shrouded by slabs of wind-blown cruddy snow. Worried that one of these slabs might detach itself from the face under my body weight I decided it would be safer to stick to the runnels of difficult black ice.

Time dragged on and I hacked my way up the dry upper ice fields, my head torch occasionally illuminated crumbling shark fins of granite that pierced the sea of black ice above me. Eventually, a small spur of good snow-ice loomed out of the darkness to my left. Making my way over to it I kicked out a small ledge, secured myself to an ice screw and knelt down on my tiny island of safety. I pressed my face against the ice, I felt warm and flushed despite the bitterly cold temperatures. Checking the photo again I realised I must be just below the summit Ice field, It was now 4am and I was beginning to feel pretty bad. My calf’s were cramping up and my bad ankle ached, I was dehydrated and as I hadn’t been up high for a few weeks I was beginning to struggle with the altitude. After what seemed an age I forced myself to continue onwards up the horrendously brittle summit ice field. Just as I was reaching my wits end and considering creating another belay, the ice above me disappeared and was replaced by the night sky, I was on the summit ridge! To my left a knife edge arête lead a short distance to the summit. A proper, sharp, pointy summit that looked barely big enough to stand on. It was like a child’s drawing of what a mountain top should look like, not the ugly hulking mass of plateau that so many summits actually are. I pulled over onto the lee side of the ridge, hurriedly dug myself a bucket seat and threw on my down jacket. It was just after 5am.

Getting cold waiting for the sunrise.
For the next two hours I sat on my little perch, the faint blue light from my stove illuminated my feet as the snow hissed away in the pot and Frightened rabbit played in my headphones. The Milky Way was still visible overhead and the last few meteors shot bright pin pricks across the dark sky in the west. The eastern horizon was beginning to glow a deep orange with the suns arrival and, despite the cold, I couldn’t stop grinning. Hundreds of meters below me, on the south side of the mountain I could see a faint head torch snaking its way up the mountain side. Their day must only have been starting.

Sunrise from my perch

8am and ready for bed but a long way to go yet!

I lingered in my seat until the sun was above the horizon, finished my now frozen sandwich and then stiffly made my way to the summit. Still cold from my few hours waiting for the sun, I kept my down-jacket on as I abseiled into the North West face. Towards the end of winter this becomes a classic steep ski descent but in its current state it’s a very steep, powdery entry with loose rock followed by wind affected snow. My 30 meters of rope wouldn’t allow me to descend very far so I put in 3 abseils before continuing to down climb. 
In my sleep deprived state I was discovering that there was a pretty big discrepancy between what I was telling my limbs to do and what they were actually doing. An hour or so later near the bottom of the face I was beginning to feel relaxed in the relative warmth of the sun, until a sharp blow on my shoulder from a falling rock reminded me of my situation and I continued to descend with a renewed sense of urgency.
A few hours later saw me careering wildly down the ski piste in my mountaineering boots and tiny approach skis, my tired body causing me sway like a drunkard. I arrived back in Chamonix 18 hours after I set off and 29 hours since I’d last slept.

Still grinning like an idiot.

Most of the time alpine climbing is cold, miserable, and you don't get anything done, but just occasionally everything falls into place and you get to experience those rare moments of perfection. Those two hours sat on the summit of Les Courtes are probably two of the most surreal and beautiful hours I've had the good fortune to experience.

Cheers to Graham for lending me his rope and to Local CHX for giving me some time off to go do cool stuff!

Conditions on the Courtes are OK at the moment, however they look far from ideal on the Droites. The back wall of the Basin might yield some ice routes in good nick if you're lucky!