It’s strange that feeling you get, at once in your chest and your stomach, sometimes in your throat. It’s not quite a gag reflex but something similar, a sickly sort of feeling that makes your whole body tremble imperceptibly; never quite enough to pin it down, but enough to know its there. Your shoulders ache and your forearms feel heavy, your fingertips sweat just from looking at it, thinking about it even. A photo of it on the back of a book is almost enough to make you run away, or maybe towards it; both, because you want what it holds, but not what it offers. It’s like a ghost just walked through you, but it isn’t the phantom of something gone, it’s the spirit of possibility, the maybe-just-maybe of something that could happen, for better or worse.
The first time you saw it, you wanted it then and there, no matter the tired arms and tight shoulders. You set up the abseil and tightened your shoes, but as you descended past it, bravado turned to butterflies, and you fluttered away, scared to close your eyes in case the ghost came in the night. Good job you thought better of it then, because damned straight you weren’t good enough.
Two years pass and you’re in Spain. Hard on sights, though fulfilling in themselves, are only way markers on a road of preparation. Every power shout is a promise to yourself, that you can and will. You know what the purpose of all this is, but the ghost still frightens you some, so you think about it little; you drink the beer and clip the bolts and enjoy the sun. But ghosts like this one haunt for a reason, and soon you’re looking at the back of the book, feeling that strange feeling, knowing that the time is upon you. You imagine yourself at the end of the runout, feeling calm, focussed. The physical progression marks the end of a process that has captivated your imagination since you first saw that sheet of stone. You are ready.
Odd, you think, that you care so much about something that means so little to anyone else. The world will not be moved even if you are, nothing will be lost if you don’t manage to climb it, and you’ll have nothing to show for it if you do. Unless, of course, you take the fall and find that what it offers is true. Perish the thought though, you can’t allow fear to become the focus of this enterprise. Besides, you recognise that the arbitrary nature of the thing is exemplary of the jewel it holds; a crime of passion in a world of order and restraint.
Soon the Spanish sun is replaced by British cloud, grim by both its imposition and its contents. It all helps with the mood though, and the moments of warmth felt through lashes of wind feel almost earned. A week passes and the time arrives; low tides, good conditions, the right partner, all at once. And of course, enough confidence that you can commit, balanced with enough respect that you won’t if it doesn’t feel right. This time, as you set up the abseil, the butterflies are there from the start, because this time you’re not putting on a show, not doing it for anyone else. This time it’s real.
Ropes uncoiled and shoes tightened, chalked hands take a while to warm. Sloping crimps on the lower wall give cause to concentrate, but arriving at the rest with light arms, you know that the time is right. Some deep breaths, and reality unfolds. A committing stretch right leads into technical foot sequences, side pulls, an undercut. The moves flow fast and smooth. A metre below safety, on a good hold, you remember to appreciate what you’ve anticipated for so long. Shaking a mild pump from your forearms, you look down, you see the threads hanging far below, see the ropes swaying uselessly in the breeze. A ground fall would seem almost inevitable. You breathe in deeply, twice, noting the taste of salt on your lips, feeling the texture of the stone beneath your fingertips. The stone is cold, but your hands are warm, and in the contrast between the two a sort of fusion occurs, a spark of energy that bonds climb and climber, flesh and stone, then and now. In the pearly hues of pure experience, a hand reaches up and clips a rope into a quickdraw, a sigh of relief is breathed, and then you are you again, a climber on a rock, an ant amongst giants. A tricky sequence almost ends the attempt, but you climb lightly on, observing your action through the peripheries of consciousness, aware of only a building joy which threatens to bring tears to your eyes as you approach the top. A gust of wind almost throws you off balance, but the moment of doubt washes through you, and you make a mental note to appreciate all moments, to be patient in letting the good ones come, because though they seem better they are only part of the picture and its the whole story, the life of the thing, that makes it so worth it.
And then it is done, and when they ask you say yes I did it, but although that makes you smile and them smile, inside you shed a tear because it’s gone, the ghost has gone, it’s boarded a train and departed to lands unknown. It seems that all there ever is is ghosts, but deep down you know that they are only ghosts of the self, and if they exist for anything, they exist to guide you towards a moment which is also a jewel, and that jewel is now, and has always been.
A few weeks ago my grandfather (the french one) passed away. He was the first of my grandparents to go, I’m very lucky that they’re so healthy, and his passing, as it is want to do, caused me to reflect a lot on death. As an Alpinist, death is a subject that I cannot hide from, and so this blog is a three parter. First, a poem for my grandfather (written whilst he was on his deathbed). Second, a sort of poem? about my relationship with death and my fear of what might happen were I not to keep my approach to danger in check. And lastly, some reflections on the lessons death can teach us.
Part I. In memory of a humble farmer
I am a curious shade of blue,
And you shine on me
Like the shadow that you are;
A wisp of smoke in translucent haze,
You return my gaze
Like fog upon the water.
In the space before the dawn
There is a darkness where you creep,
And I thought to hold your hand
To dance upon that line.
But I have teetered countless times
Upon the verges of that land,
And if I were born for a single thing
It was to hold on.
I might have looked you in the face
And caught a glimpse of that place between,
But you could only give me life.
Your blessing is of knowledge.
A syntax of truth describes our roots in blood;
A voiceless song that rings from the folds of night.
The person that you were
Still holds my aching hand,
And walking through the broken fields of memory,
The brushing of wheat upon my skin
Inscribes on my soul the secrets
Of a deeper place.
I will keep walking; understand that.
The spirit of the old is reborn.
Eternity remains well hidden,
But I promise you this:
Though I know not what you are
I shall forget nothing.
Part II. My darkest self
The legion is black.
The road is quiet.
The people have left this place.
The contrast between city and sky is obscured by the harsh glow of streetlights. Stars are out there somewhere.
Under cars and round walls the wind whispers temptation to the paranoid soul, urges it to follow.
In the distance, someone waits around the corner.
The presence is real.
The legion is black.
Black like nothing you’ve ever seen.
It’s blacker than night, blacker than pitch.
Blacker than the ravens that are its eyes.
Blacker than the deepest voids of space.
The legion is black and it follows you everywhere you go. You see it in reflections as your eyes scan windows on the street – always gone when you turn around. You feel it on your shoulders when you wake, dehydrated and aching.
Never quite close enough when you reach for its throat, but always too close when you try to run.
The legion is black and you can’t escape it. You can’t defeat it, either.
The legion is black, and it defines what you are, even in periods of grace and calm. It is the monster beneath your bed, the stranger on a dark street, the omen in your heart. No matter what you achieve, no matter what you do, the legion will come to take it all away.
You don’t know where it came from, but you know where it waits.
You know where you’ll end up.
The legion is black and one day we will all walk in its flanks.
You try to hide from it, to push it away, to fight it. The hardest days were when you welcomed it. As an antidote to your own stubborn indifference, you opened your arms and asked the legion to come. You became sick of it existing as a whisper on the street, or a snarl beneath the wind.
The legion is black and you wanted to join it, but when you tried to find it, you couldn’t meet it. You weren’t brave enough.
How strange it was to realise that.
The legion is black and it frightens you, but you cannot own your fear. You mimic bravery instead, by putting yourself in harms way. You stand on the edge, you feel the wind wrap its arms around you. You hope it will carry you off. You feel the cold biting at your skin, and just as you taste the very essence of the void, you realise that it isn’t a place you want to be. In front of you the light shines bright, and you see something in it worth keeping.
The legion is black and you need to understand it.
You get close to it.
You get closer still.
You come to know it well, to recognise the subtle fluctuations in its substance.
You walk with it by day, and sleep with it at night. You dance ever more fiercely with its people.
Every night spent with it brings a clearer dawn, until at last you can look down through the whirlwind of your life, and piece together a few shreds of the freedom you once had.
The freedom you had when you were a child, long before you knew that the legion even existed.
But the legion is black and you start to wonder if you came too close.
You feel that the end is near.
You wonder if you could have turned round and said no.
You wonder if it’s too late.
The legion is black, and you cannot live without it now.
The dancing becomes necessary, cyclic, an obligation. The days hang like chains from your neck, and with every step into the fray, you ask if it’ll be the last.
The legion is black and you are doomed to walk amongst it. But now it is your own doing.
You are addicted to it.
You breathe it.
You live it, even though it is un-life by virtue.
You’ll get what you wanted, in the end.
The legion is black, and it waits at the end of every breath.
The legion is black.
Part III. Reflections from the edge of life as I know it
I’ve been searching for truth all my life. I’ve looked for it in myself, in others, in the world we all made. I’ve looked for it in nature. I’ve walked city streets at night, searching for something left behind after the people had left. I’ve reduced myself to animalistic sensibilities, to see if there was some secret in my base impulses. I’ve risked my life on a whim, been lucky to escape unscathed, and danced the night away in psychedelic rapture, on a quest for the group mind.
I’ve searched a lot, trying many different things along the way. I’ve despaired, laughed, and cried tears of joy; I have had a very human experience. But all I have learned from it is that ultimately in life it is we who make our own truths. Purpose is self evident, self imposed, self perpetuated. What we choose to call meaningful we must live with, and if, when push comes to shove, it means nothing to us, then we must live with that too. In the end, there is only one truth.
From the people we love to the mountains we climb, all will wither and die, and turn to dust. This pervasive impermanence provides us with a universal sadness, a melancholy note that hides at the root of every major key, and even the most joyful moments are underlined by the fact that they too must end.
I think in many ways my goal has been less of a search for greater truths, and more a pursuit of acceptance. To try and bring permanence into our lives is a great downfall of the human experience, and to an extent we have always recognised that to try and set the world in stone is to set ourselves up for a great deal of suffering. Obviously, we need continuity to be able to get on with our lives, but amidst the complexity of existing we are liable to take things for granted. But nothing is granted, not love nor money, not life. It is good to recognise the fragility of things, and this takes humility in the face of great difficulties. To find this humility has been my journey, and it is one I have barely begun.
There have been times in my life when I was not able to bare the injustice of loss. I raged. I was not humble. I had decided, foolishly, that some relationship or circumstance or idea was concrete, and the changes caused by loss brought with it the weight of concrete on my shoulders. I have been shown repeatedly that even the most certain aspects of my life are liable to change, and on each occasion the loss of something I took for granted shook me to the core. The result has always been a loss of identity, major fluctuations in my sense of purpose, and a penetrating sense of failure. But the former two can be positive experiences, and the notion of failure is nothing more than the loss of an idea.
It is absurd, but one of the many things death can teach us is how to grow. To become something else, we must first allow what we are to end. Failure only exists when we refuse to let go of something we had idealised, when we refuse to accept that we aren’t what we thought we were. By owning our shortcomings we give ourselves space to move around and work on them, to become better. We allow the old to die, and clear the ground for something new.
In most cases, when I have lost something, I have gained something else. But only an open attitude has allowed those changes to be positive. The death of loved ones provides reflection and knowledge, a sense of the value of family, or the depth of friendship.
Ends are often met with beginnings. I discovered climbing on the back of a fairly traumatic relationship, and although it started as something destructive, it soon became a mechanism for growth. It allowed me to put my experience in context, to revaluate my self, and the person I thought myself to be.
The reason I became so enamoured with climbing, beyond all other reasons, is that it provides a unique opportunity to view life from its peripheries, to see it through the eyes of the dead, as it were. And death can teach us a great deal about life. It teaches us to not take ourselves so seriously, to appreciate the moment, to seize the opportunities we are given. It teaches humility. But all of this is very hard if we perceive life as a static phenomenon. We become distracted by trying to maintain the illusion.
We see the manifestations of people’s fear of impermanence everywhere. The church promises immortality in the afterlife. Materialistic tendencies attempt to extend the span of our lives, or at least our youth and beauty, for metal and stone last longer than flesh. We see all around us the import placed in legacy, in becoming someone, in being remembered. Often, we fail to become anything ourselves, and worship the famous as though they were the immortal ones, but it is we who make them gods. And in the eyes of the powerful I note a frightened need for lasting influence, lest their reach be lost. I pity those who sit in thrones, for all of them are stuck.
I am at times, as is everyone, liable to want these things. I am frightened, I do not want this to end. I get angry at my failures. I succumb to the whims of humanity. But in learning to analyse my actions and habits in climbing, by noticing what is good and what needs to end, I become more aware of myself in life, and more able to make positive changes where they are needed. I place more value in that than being remembered. I find my truths, I live some small moments of magic, and I die. I am thankful for the opportunity to do so.
An appreciation for this philosophy gives way to a gradual onrush of self discovery. It removes the urgency from life, the need for that thing, that hit, whatever it is. It is very easy to be a consumer, even, if not especially, as a climber. But increasingly what motivates me to action is the desire for something beautiful. I would rather bide my time for a few seconds of magic, than waste a lifetime repeating the same old things.
Perhaps the biggest thing that I have learned from climbing is the art of suffering. Pleasure, by its repetitive nature, creates a sense of continuity which masks uncomfortable emotions. Too easily, we are tempted to cover the traces of sadness or hurt that creep into our lives. But it is important to own our emotions. They too, like everything, are subject to impermanence. By owning our doubt or our pain, by letting them have their place, we allow ourselves a great freedom. The deepest joy exists in conjunction with sadness of equal measure, for it is knowledge of the sadness that colours joy so well. Similarly, the most powerful and transformative experiences I have lived through have been when there was the greatest risk, for there is no risk without doubt.
A few years ago, I could not have said all this, certainly not meant it. But that is precisely the point. What I was then I am no longer, and in another few years I will look back and see that I have changed again. This journey is as exciting as it is fearsome, and I only hope that I will have the humility to live the changes well.
I know that I am not alone in this philosophy. As someone who climbs, I feel lucky to live amongst a community of so many well meaning people, who treasure the meaningful more than their image, although this is not say that there are no egoists in climbing. We are well aware of those who seem to enjoy the spray more than the sea cliff. For the most part though, climbers are people who live lives based around what inspires them, rather than what society or their peers expect of them. People who care about one another, at the cost of their selves.
We are all in this together, searching, and we will find our truths along the way. But life is in flux, and our truths may change as we grow older. If we find that they no longer apply, we must be able to undo them, and find the new truths, for our new selves.
After a thoroughly dodgy morning, the rain finally closes play and we admit defeat. We wait for the shower to end, and I run to the top to pack the ab rope away whilst Andy walks round. We meet at the top and I throw my sack over the fence, preparing to vault it onto the path. I don’t think twice. Landing, my ankle jars on a tussock of grass, split second reflexes making my leg bounce up to absorb the impact before weighting it fully. A sharp twang of pain sears up my leg. Shit. The first thought on my mind is the expedition. We leave in three weeks, have I just ruined the whole thing by spraining my ankle in the daftest way possible?
That very morning my house mate asked me if I was on guard, taking every caution not to hurt myself so close to leaving. I should have been. After a great season in Scotland, followed by a month of running, steep walks, and long sessions at the wall, the greatest form I’ve ever been in was jeopardised by the development of ITB tendonitis, or runners knee. The big runs were done for but I was feeling positive, somewhat managing to maintain fitness with smaller runs and walks.
But now this. Is this it? Is it over? Walking back to the car it doesn’t feel too bad, but that night it hurts, a lot. Quietly I seethe, angry at myself for being so stupid. Expeditions take so much more than the weeks spent on the glacier. The months of planning, finding objectives, chasing grants and sponsors. The thousands of hard earned pounds that I can barely afford to give up. The strain giving up that money puts on daily life, on my relationships with the people around me. The energy spent on gaining fitness, the sacrifices made, physically and emotionally. This year I realised that if our ambitions continue to grow as they are doing, our fitness will have to grow to match them, and so I really went for it, knowing that every mile meant a greater degree of safety. Did I really just end all that by jumping over a fence?
Thankfully, it isn’t too bad. A few days later there is some swelling but the pain is all but gone. I still can’t run due to my dodgy knee, but my dad is lending me his road bike, and I’m hoping that with some care (and a fair bit of KT tape) I’ll be able to get my heart beating. Long walks with bags full of water beckon – there is hope, still. These last few weeks before leaving are always a bit mad, a bit stressful, but also very exciting. Everything is falling in to place. The grants are being accepted, boxes of exciting things keep turning up at the door. The support from family and friends is overwhelming. Soon the only thing left will be to go, and then the easy bit can start. Then we can try to climb a mountain.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve refused to do this move. Again, I fail to commit, and step back down to the non-rest I’ve become stuck at. This pitch is relentless, I think, endless. Every single move is hard, the hooks are less than heroic, the angle and exposure maddening. At least the gear is pretty good, I can’t complain about that, even if I’ve placed most of the big stuff.
Trying to shake out, I contemplate the first ascent, and my respect for Andy Nisbet is renewed. How on earth he could have thought this deserved VII, 7 is beyond me. There’s barely a move that isn’t 7, and more than a few moves of 8. I’ve rarely used footwork like this before, matching mono points on tiny edges to create the correct angles on the torques. A total sandbag it is, the only reason I haven’t fallen off being that I can’t bear the thought of doing any of it again. Sheer willpower for it to be over is pulling me through.
I’m not feeling the magic today, despite the Alpine weather. I don’t want to be here. I want to be at home, in the warm, with Tess. It’s been a good week and I’ve done some great routes, some dream ones even. We got on this one for an easier ride, but that’s gone out the window, I wasn’t prepared to try so hard and it’s taking its toll. If we weren’t filming the ascent for a film I’m making with the guys at Coldhouse Collective, I’d lower off in an instant. It isn’t bold, but I just can’t be fucked. And besides, our bags are at the top. We need to top out to go home.
I snap back into the moment, and edge my feet higher. Reaching up and scraping with my axe, the pick slips into a seam. Using my other axe to sink it, it feels good, and I commit. One move closer to the belay.
It’s Monday and I’ve just gotten off the phone to Matt Pycroft. A year or so ago he commissioned me to do write a voiceover for a short film he’s been wanting to make. The vision was shared, and the writing happened. At last, we’re going to get the footage, and we’re both super excited. I’m climbing with Rocio Thursday through Saturday, so Matt and I will drive up on Tuesday night to film some pretty stuff before the main event.
The excitement makes me want to move, and the sun is shining, so I decide to go on a run. I’ve heard rumours of dry stone, and figure a run around the limestone dales would be perfect. Low intensity, medium distance, a chance to scope the crags. Once out, however, it’s so nice that I get carried away, and arriving back at the van 15 miles later my calves burn. Never mind though, I’ll have a rest tomorrow.
I get back to my house at around 3.30pm and log into Facebook. There’s a message waiting from Uisdean. “Are you free the next few days,” it says, “the weather looks good in the Northwest.” My legs are knackered, and I know that with the week ahead, it would be daft to climb before meeting Rocio. But from somewhere between my chest and throat, a small yet forceful voice speaks up.
Beinn Bhan, it says, Beinn Bhan.
Uisdean has mentioned nothing of Beinn Bhan in his message, but to climb the Godfather was one of my biggest ambitions for the season, and time is running out. I might not get another chance.
Malcolm Bass just climbed a new route near the Godfather wall, it’s probably still frozen. You could climb on the Godfather wall, you could go to Beinn Bhan too. You’ve never been there, and you really want to. If you don’t, Uisdean will find someone else.
And with those final words, the voice of FOMO seals the deal. I call Uisdean and tell him I’m driving up right away. We’ll meet in Aviemore and drive to the Northwest early Tuesday morning for a small day, before doing an undecided ‘something bigger’ on Wednesday.
We pull into the carpark in Achnashellach at around 8am, with plans to Tango in the Night. It’s a late start but I needed to get some sleep, and we’re hoping to climb the route in far fewer pitches than described. On the walk in my calves are stiff, but they soon loosen a bit. We talk about the coming week, and before I have a chance to mention my designs on the Godfather wall, Uisdean pipes up and tells me that he is thinking of asking some friends if they want to climb it.
“I’d love to climb the Godfather,” I reply, hopeful.
“We could try it tomorrow.”
There’s no escaping it now. At the back of my mind is the rest of the week, but far more important than that is the fact that finally, I’m going to try and climb a route on the Godfather wall. Yes, the Godfather wall, the almighty Godfather wall, all two hundred metres of it, with all its turf and steepness and difficulty. We’re going to climb the Godfather wall and then I’m going to meet Rocio and climb Sundance and probably some other hard routes, without a day for rest…
What have I got myself in for?
Tango goes quickly in two pitches, and we’re back at the vans before dark, soon racing down the road towards the Beinn Bhan carpark. My legs are sore and I text Rocio, telling her the ice on Liatch is supposedly in good nick, desperately hopeful that she’ll agree to an easy day. As I lie in bed the weather closes in, and I can’t help but anticipate the epically long day to come, the little to no sleep the following night, and the endless suffering which will detail the rest of the week.
Thankfully we rise to a star filled sky, and get moving without much ado. My legs feel like they’ve been through a meat grinder, but I swallow the pain like a dose of medicine and walk in as fast as my flagging limbs will carry me. The snowpack is good and as we enter the corrie the rising sun refracts through broken clouds, lighting up the Godfather corner. It sits there beckoning, the biggest feature on a wall of total chaos. As the wall grows, my balls shrink.
As we get closer, I remember the stories. Pete Benson broke his ankle on the top corner. He fell off the final move, a total epic ensued. Doing some quick maths I work it out. Six pitches, that means if I go first, Uisdean will have to lead the corner. I offer to take the warm up pitch, remembering as I rack up that we decided to try and link pitches four and five.
Bastard. The corner is mine.
The first pitch feels like it takes forever. It takes me a long time to commit to the first section of outrageous steepness, but soon I realise that big efforts here are rewarded with bomber turf, just as the need for something solid becomes desperate. This becomes the rule of the cliff, and soon we are swarming upwards, moving fast, by Scottish mixed standards anyway. It feels good to be moving quickly in such an insane place. The cliff is truly made for mixed climbing, and the quality never fails to impress. Stretching out behind us the alpine Northwest repeatedly takes our breath away, and sitting to our left, the unclimbed face between Gully of the Gods and Die Riesenwand is a constant inspiration, a reminder that the limit has barely been found.
Soon, I’m belaying Uisdean on the link pitch before the corner proper. The weather closes in, and I move inwards with it. With the knowledge that the corner is next, I do my best to ignore the stories, but the reputation hangs heavy. Better climbers than you have failed, squeals the voice. The voice is always a coward when push comes to shove.
Above me, Uisdean lets out a small shout of relief, and pulls on to the belay ledge. Before long I’m seconding the crack, and am shocked at it’s difficulty. If the corner is harder than this, I’m fucked.
Thankfully it’s no more technical, if not slightly more pumpy, and with cramping forearms I pull through the succession of roofs to find myself belayed below the cornice. It is done, the route is below us, and only the sunset waits to greet us at the top. Before too long we’re back at the bags, and so ends one of my best ever mountain days.
Barely a few hours later, Rocio and I are walking in to climb Poachers fall on Liatch. Thankfully she’s agreed to an easy day, and even better, some friendly Irish lads walked in before us and left a fresh trail. My legs by this point have gone beyond pain, but I’m flagging still, and I struggle to keep up with Rocio on the walk in.
We get there eventually though and the route climbs well. Warm, plastic ice welcomes axes kindly, and we move up the route a pitch behind the Irish lads, enjoying the social. It’s nice to climb some ice for a change, and especially good not to get cold on belays. The route is over fast and we’re back at the vans long before dark.
We’d planned to climb Sundance the following day, but I’m exhausted, so I suggest to Rocio that we climb Mistral instead. I know nothing about it, but the easier grade makes it seem a much better proposition. And besides, we need to film it; Mistral will be far easier to film than Sundance.
A slow walk in up the back of Beinn Eighe eventually brings us to the Blood, Sweat abseils, and by 11.30am, the base of the route. A super fun albeit run out ice runnel marks the start of the first pitch, and a couple of roofs in a chimney mark the continuation. I belay after a sketchy traverse and Rocio leads off, putting in a superb effort on the verglassed offwidth above. Moving left, she belays below another shallow chimney, and above that, a wall off staggering steepness.
Setting off, it’s hard straight away. I arrange some decent gear, and after a bit of up and down, I somehow contrive a few mega thin moves to pull onto a ledge, suddenly realising we belayed too low. Never mind, I think, the next section looks easier, and that would explain why the first bit was so hard. Of course, it isn’t any easier, and what follows takes everything I have.
I wasn’t prepared for this level of difficulty, and the sheer effort required to keep it together threatens at every instant to overcome me. The week of effort is all too evident now and my whole body aches, even my thighs are getting pumped. Gradually though I make progress, the camera capturing my meltdowns, the will for it to be over egging me on. At last I’m at the belay, and I strap myself in, barely able to get my head round what just happened.
Seconding, Rocio confirms my suspicions that the pitch is a total sandbag, and we agree that it is one of the wildest pitches we’ve climbed, by far the most sustained we’ve climbed in winter. She leads off up the exit chimney, and in the stillness of night I’m glad that she’s moving reasonably fast, for I have no patience left for this.
Eventually we get back to the cars, and decide not to climb the following day. I wonder if the others can hear the joy screaming from my legs. Waking up late, we go for a fry up in Kinlochewe, glad to sit a while in front of a fire. At last, saying my goodbyes, I get up and drive home, totally exhausted.
It took me a while to digest what happened on Mistral, to be fair I’m still digesting. Unprepared for such difficulty, it took every scrap of willpower I had in me to complete the pitch, but now I’m beginning to see it in a new light. I’ve had a good season, led some difficult pitches, for me at least. The Godfather, as well as being the best winter route I’ve climbed, opened my eyes to the possibility of moving quickly, on a long and difficult mixed route.
But Mistral, unexpectedly, has opened my eyes to what difficulty actually is. For me, it was totally new ground, in as much as the relentlessness of that pitch is concerned. I’ve done harder moves, but they’re usually surrounded by much easier ones, or at least the odd ledge to stand on. That pitch however had no real rests and no easy moves, just 30+ metres of constant battle, with enough gear to keep you going. It opened my eyes to what is possible, and I want more.
It’s a tricky one to grade, too. If there was no tech 8 I’d suggest VIII, 7 – but there is. After their second ascent in 2013, Jim Higgins and Malcolm Bass suggested extremely sustained VII, 8. This is probably correct, as there is only one tech 8 pitch, but what an absolutely astounding pitch. Either way, it deserves to become a classic, and in my opinion is worth all the stars. A truly memorable, and unexpectedly difficult route.
Hats off to Davidson and Nisbet, who climbed it first in winter way back in ’91!
Stood on the third ledge of the day, I pull the drawcords of my hood tight. Snow and ice fall on us from above, wind chills us to the bone. The day started with blue skies and enough promise to get us committed, but it’s gone to shit – conditions are now full Scottish. Above us, Pete works hard to excavate his pitch, slowly digging through snow for cracks. Starting to shiver, I run on the spot, desperate to keep warm.
Sometimes Scottish winter climbing feels more like a series of standing on ledges than actually climbing, and today we’re climbing in block leads, which doesn’t help. Uisdean went first, Pete just started, and I’m to go last. The brief moments I spend seconding barely split drawn out belays, which I spend in anticipation of the infamous Needle Crack.
What on earth made me volunteer to take the final block? What was I thinking? Go first and get the leading done with, that’s the best option. But no, I had to play the tough guy, up for the off width. Right now, I don’t feel like a tough guy. In this weather I’d retreat at half a whisper of surrender, but not one of us will be the first to say what we’re all thinking.
This is shit. Let’s get the fuck out of here.
Besides, it’s not that bad.
Contrary to popular belief, the Scottish winter is perfectly capable of delivering type one fun, as well as what we’re being subjected to now. A couple of weeks ago, Pete, Rocio and I were treated to a moonlit night in the north west. We topped out without the need for torches, and the moonscape before us was only bettered by the aurora on the horizon. We felt the magic that night, thoroughly aware that such savage beauty is best appreciated through the memory of misery. Perfection would lose its charm if it were all we ever saw, but through the memory of storms it rings a special truth. You’ve got to take the bad with the good.
They don’t teach you that at school. They teach you to bury the bad, and only see the good. They teach you that it is possible to transcend unhappiness, that by being successful, unhappiness will disappear, as though nothing matters but being remembered. It is sad that the good intentions of education have been warped into this factory, for the few who are willing, or able to play the game.
I guess for me, climbing has in many ways been a rebellion against that, a way of saying it doesn’t matter. Happiness is impermanent, it is inseparable from unhappiness. So why spend a lifetime searching for it in success or recognition? By feeling the depths of one’s own mortality such notions as success seem incredibly fragile.
It’s easy for me to say this, but there have been many times when I’ve climbed for ego, to be able to say I’ve done something. As though I needed to do that thing to be accepted amongst my peers. I usually know that I’m doing it, but it’s a powerful driving force and I often let it happen. And usually I get slapped in the face. Strung out below the crux of your hardest leads, backstory doesn’t matter, nor the house full of useless crap. You have only what you need to live and get on with it.
I guess sometimes I need ego to get me into those situations, to tempt me into discomfort. The lesson is always the same though. By getting rid of all the trash, you learn that the deepest joy is in coming home, in having gone into the fray and returned. Not in ignoring that the fray exists at all. Ultimately, there is little to learn in permanent pleasure and comfort. We need to see the other side from time to time.
Standing below the off width, I am calmer than I would have expected. Who knows what got me here, ego probably, the remnants of a schooling which taught me that I need to become someone. Who cares. I’m here now and it’s time to perform, time to meet the challenge.
In the left wall of the off width is a crack. Gear, but it’s also the width of my axes shaft. Inverting it, I place the head of my axe in the crack and torque down on the handle, bracing it against the opposite wall of the off width. It jams, solid. I pull up and wedge myself in the crack, arm barring between the wall and my axe handle, my elbow resting on the inverted trigger. The next axe goes in the same way and I pull up again. Bump the cam, arm bar, repeat.
I use this sequence until I’m stood on another ledge. The crack in the left wall has petered down to a seam, the old technique will no longer work. I wedge myself in, unconscious of the damage I’m doing to my shoulder, braced against the edge of the crack. I scrape at the seam, hoping for something solid, until at last I find a thin, pick width slot. The pick sinks to the hilt and I thrutch upwards. Hero hooks keep coming, gear too, until the seam runs out.
On the right wall is another crack, which I need to swing out to. It looks hard, but I make the calculations, decipher the puzzle. Nearing the edge of what I am capable of doing, I am totally focussed. There is nothing else but this. There is nothing outside this crack, beyond or below this pitch. There is nothing beyond this move.
I enter a bridged position, my left foot on a smear, my right on a lump of frozen moss. Scraping in the crack there is nothing. I bump my left foot higher, but there is still nothing. My foot starts to twist off the smear as I reach ever higher, until I remember I can hand jam and squeeze like there’s no tomorrow, bringing my left foot in. At last I can reach a bomber hook, and safety.
Resting, I peer at my gear a couple of meters below. What would have happened had my foot slipped from the smears? I peer into the crack, into its deepest reaches, and from somewhere my self starts to return. I had time to lose my mind in there for a moment, to shatter my self into a thousand forgotten pieces. Now it begins to grow; better, stronger, fresher.
I can say I lead the Needle crack, but as ever, I know how little that matters. For a few moments I lost all that. I forgot about the person, the story, the failure and the glory. And that is what put me on the sharp end. In the end, I’m out here because I want a challenge, a real, honest, no bullshit challenge, a chance to test myself. And having learned young that it is admirable to have status, it is hard not to get those yearnings mixed up in my climbing. But in the end, when push comes to shove, and pick comes to crack, I couldn’t care less. It’s just a moment of freedom from a long line of struggle.
Having regained my breath, I finish the pitch, and make my way to the top. The sky has cleared, and I turn off my torch to look at the stars, to feel the space I’m in. It’s over, and it feels strange. It was a long haul and we worked hard, but that was the point. We wanted to get out of our comfort zones, to see the other side. We’ve been into the fray, and now we’re coming home.
Candles are victims to
Their flames, and the wicks
Veinlike thick with cold
Are pre-shadowed upon
Walls where they dance,
And grow by the watch of nights
And even then the day
Breaks with its promise,
And behind objects strewn
Such fierce vernacular,
That shudders unseen from
Corners and planes
It speaks of ash.
It says: “Sift through the dust,
Search for me seek me
But I am not matter, and to me
You matter not.”
That half truths
Shadows speak, so
You befriend the itch knowing
That always it stood;
You filling its steps, you
Breathing its breath,
Until that glimmer of candle
Light fades and becomes
It’s proof enough.
Objects move their chaos
Turns, a blur of motion
Curdles, calling out
What is left of you.
From inscrutable voids;
Until you slip
Decrying those gods
Who gave you this weight.
And then you rest, just
Strung out, just
A picture of your past,
Captured at last in colour
Still, or perhaps limp.
A proof that ultimately
Humans are victims to
“I think it’s so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary–you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.”
― Georgia O’Keeffe
Tentatively, Pete weights the V-thread he’s just made in a two-foot-square patch of ice, the only patch solid enough to trust in the eight metres of ice we’ve both just climbed. Lowering, he strips the ice screws from below and joins me at the belay. We look up a final time, photograph the pitch in our minds, and descend. Already our thoughts are fixed on a single thing: when will we get another chance?
From the glacier, vast and featureless and giving nothing to measure or gain perspective from, the pitch we just failed to climb had looked short and easy. We’d expected an ice step a few moves long, making the novice error of assuming that mountains are as small as they look. Instead we found overhung sweeps of icicle insanity, too hard to be a reasonable proposition with the lightweight rack we’re carrying. We both got as close as we dared though, both let the idea of climbing a pitch like that in a place like this get under our skin. I, less skilled on ice, was ready to admit defeat. An ice filled winter has made Pete ready, however, and he accepts the challenge, he votes to carry the gauntlet. We will be back.
We ski slowly back to our tent, turning to look, enjoying what is now a sunny morning. A week and a half in Alaska and this is our first bright day. Hopefully it won’t be the last.
It took months to plan this trip, to make it happen. Expeditions are like that; even when the line to be climbed is unknown, the climb itself begins months before crampons touch snow. The will to be there, to keep going, to struggle onward and upward is seeded and seated for a long time beforehand. Some people can’t stand the planning, but I love it. Searching for maps, looking on Google Earth for any possible beta, reading reports and booking transport; it’s all part of the process and I lap it up gladly. It comes with its own special stress, of course; we found out last minute that we’d have to change our objective, and almost failed to get to our range at all, but it all came together in the end. Even with such worries, the chosen stress of working towards an objective has a different nature than that of daily life. It feels somehow worth it.
A few stormy days later we wake before sunrise, glad we retreated, glad we didn’t have to descend from high in a blizzard. This time we’re armed with a large rack, food for more than a day, and a burning will born out of having tasted the unknowable, the unseeable. We follow footsteps blown to a blur and all of a sudden the days that passed seem distant. Pete wears the gauntlet well and when the time is right I wear it too, rising together and knowing and seeing. We’re right that we can and we do, until all that remains is to come down, which we do too; slowly, painstakingly, gladly.
Back on the flat we gorge and drink and talk in our palace of a tent, and within days or perhaps hours we peer towards the mountain once again. Joy, so transitory, has passed. But interest, the eternal, remains and makes itself well known. For what little we have seen, a mass remains undiscovered, and we wonder at what else we might find. But unknown it will stay: good weather is illusive in the Revelation mountains and to climb two routes in three weeks seems a bit of a big ask.
But we couldn’t ask for more.
It would be a lie to say that I didn’t value the whispers of happiness that were met along the way, but the true reward was coloured otherwise. It was gratifying to climb our route but all the while the mountain stayed itself, uncaring stone subject of awe and aspiration that it is, a summit a symbol; of completion and little else. It doesn’t always go as it did, but uncompleted climbs aren’t necessarily unsuccessful. In climbing or otherwise, true success can be measured in the journey, the reward hides in the tale.
If climbing was just brief moments stood shivering on summits we probably wouldn’t bother, but climbing is discovery and so we do. We discover that the world holds far more unknown than we could ever begin to uncover. We discover that sometimes we can, and that sometimes we can’t. But most of all we discover that being interested in something and pursuing that interest breeds more of it, and that therein lies purpose in itself.
Storm or sun I want to be in the mountains, peering around corners that hide small truths, always searching for bigger corners. Whether I reach the top or not means a lot less to me than seeing what lies in the middle. I am interested in what lies ahead, and that is reason enough to go there.
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing–and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”
Another day in El Chalten. Get up late, go to the shop for eggs and bread. Eat, read for a couple of hours, go and check the weather.
Nothing good on the horizon – no big surprises there, and no great disappointment. I’m too tired to entertain the idea of another trip into the mountains anyway. Last week we made an attempt on Fitzroy’s Supercanaleata – approaching, climbing most of the way up, and then retreating in a vicious storm – in a more or less non stop 35 hour push. Four days later we climbed the Exocet route on Aguja Standhart, Cerro Torre’s little brother, in a push of similar length. We’re literally broken, our muscles are badly emaciated, and we can barely go a day without having a lengthy midday sleep. I half heartedly act like I’m disappointed that the forecast is bad, but truthfully, I’m glad. The bad weather on the forecast is my holy grail. The idea of receiving another Patagonian whipping terrifies me, I’d almost rather go back to work. Almost.
Finish coffee, go eat lunch, have a sleep. Eat an afternoon snack, read some more, shower. Eat dinner and drink a beer, bed early. Rinse and repeat.
Life is easy here. The bouldering is great, but after last weeks efforts it seems unlikely that we’ll be venturing past the perimeter of cafés and bakeries that make up the majority of this small town’s buildings. Our days have been reduced to a cycle of minimal activity and effort – I never felt so justified in doing so little. I sit down on the sofas in ‘El Relincho’, our campsite, and laugh with the campsite manager Brian as he does one of his little dances. It’s sunny in town; maybe I’ll go for a little walk this afternoon, nothing too strenuous though. Perhaps I’ll just make it to the ice cream shop.
I finish my breakfast and lounge back on the sofa, putting my feet up, and closing my eyes. My mind is still. I’m aware of very little, other than the blackness of my eyelids, and the faint murmur of Trekkers planning their walks. Most are here for only a few days, they’ve got to go out no matter the weather, not that it matters so much for them. The greatest misfortune bad weather will bring them is duller views. Having been here for a month and a half already, and with a fortnight to go, I quietly lap it up; the sound of plans being made makes me grateful that I have nothing to do, and have to do nothing.
The door to the hut opens and someone walks in. A half yawning American drawl drifts over. “Hey Ben.” It’s the trout man, up even later than I am, though Pete still holds the title. “You seen the meteogram today?” He continues, with a sort of strained and understated excitement.
“No, have you?” I reply, without expectation.
“No, but I just saw my buddy Sam. There might be a window coming, and it looks hot.”
Such simple words, such heavy connotations. Good weather in Patagonia suggests such a broad range of experience that I don’t really know what to feel. My stomach begins to churn a strange blend of fear and excitement, my limbs lighten and somehow become heavier at the same time. My breath fluctuates between fast and heavy, or slow and relaxed. Exhaustion is forgotten in the face of opportunity, though my need for rest is still apparent. We need to be on top form. Will this be our chance to go big?
Most of us have practically given up on the idea of climbing a long rock route in the mountains. Until now the weather windows have been thirty hours max, usually much less, with the weather far too cold to climb rock. A lot of people have left and many more are leaving; we decided to stick it out until the end of our trip, just in case. This could well be it. Checking the forecast (several times daily now) we see the pressure bending upwards, the temperatures rising, and the precipitation falling. The next few days reveal the forecast everyone was hoping for. The window of the season.
Our plane is due to leave the day after the window ends. Going big means risking missing it, but it’s a chance we’re willing to take. As the forecast improves our plans grow, until eventually we settle on a route. We’ll try and climb the ‘Mate, Porro’ route on Fitzroy’s awesome north pillar; reputedly one of the best routes on the mountain, with consistently perfect rock, and very little if any fixed gear. It’ll be a big undertaking for our tired bodies, so we break the climb down, telling ourselves that we’d be happy to top just the pillar out, though we both know that given half a chance we’ll be gunning for the summit. Tales of icy horror shows on the head wall make butterflies in our stomachs flap, but we know we can do it. We just need to try.
The next few days follow a fairly ordinary course. We discuss our plans with other climbers, and try to figure out where they’re going. El Chalten is busy nowadays, we want to avoid getting stuck behind others on route. We try to readjust our bodies to exercise, and do a few pull ups to remind our arms what it is they’re there for. We sort gear and re-sort it, making sure we have exactly what we need and nothing more. Once everything is ready we rest and demolish mountains of mayonnaise, and wait, until eventually the alarm clock rings and it’s time to move out.
We share a taxi down the road with two Americans, Sam and Luke. They’re going to try the north east ridge, one of the longest routes in the massif (excluding link ups) at 1500m long. As we walk in the four of us hide our excitement and terror beneath a veil of small talk and reassurances, though loose bowels suggest what our mouths don’t say. It’s Fitzroy after all, the mighty, and we’ve no room to let our fear take over, though acknowledging it quietly to ourselves is mandatory.
After an exhausting twelve hour slog, Pete and I arrive at the bivy below the north pillar, which we share with three very excited and friendly Russians. They’re going to try the same route as us, and the five of us spend a long time staring at the route, growing increasingly nervous and excited beneath the still warm evening sun. The line is beautifully obvious and we do our best to work out where the cruxes lie. Behind us the icecap shines brightly in all of its magnificent white. Eventually night begins to fall, and the temperature drops, forcing us into our foil blizzard bags. The alarm is set early and we’re ready to give it all we’ve got.
A few easy pitches lead us to the start of the real climbing. A kilometre of corners and cracks loom above us; it’s going to be a big day, and a damned good one by the looks of it. The Russians speed off ahead of us; they’re extremely good climbers, and the fact that their gear is divided into three means that they can second the pitches simultaneously rather than jugging. Soon they’re out of sight, leaving Pete and I alone on the side of that terrific monolith of soaring orange granite. Pete leads up cracks and corners that wouldn’t be amiss in Yosemite, I jumar after him with most of the weight. The climbing looks amazing and I can’t wait to take over.
After about seven pitches it’s my lead and I set off. More fantastic cracks lead to a tricky corner change, followed by a nasty wet pitch, and shortly after that the crux. I don’t bother trying to free climb it and aid through easily enough, and by the time Pete reaches the belay night has fallen. For the sake of speed I continue leading, and after a slight route finding error we finally reach the big terrace two thirds of the way up the pillar. We were hoping to find a good bivy here, but the Russians have taken one spot and some Argentines the other, so we make a single abseil down the last pitch to a large but sloping ledge. It’s nearly dawn by the time we get to sleep and we wind up having a naughty alpine lay in, which isn’t saying much.
The following day is much harder, and the fun makes a quick transition from type one to type three. On day one we were sheltered in the depths of the corner, both from the sun and falling objects. We were fresh and able to enjoy the climbing. Now the sun burns our skin, and mushrooms of rime ice at the top of the pillar collapse as the sun loosens their grip on the rock. The climbing at this point is some of the steepest and best so far, but it’s hard to appreciate when large chunks of ice shower down every few minutes. Our battered shoulders begin to ache, our tired limbs hang heavily by our sides. Turning back is barely an option, we’re about 20 pitches up and the lack of fixed gear means that we’d run out of kit to abseil from long before we reach the ground. Besides, we don’t want to turn back. The only way is up.
A couple more pitches and I take over from Pete again. He’s taken a couple of bad hits and its up to me to get us to the top of the pillar. Fortunately the climbing begins to ease and we’re there a little before dark. As we approach the top we catch our first glimpse of the head wall. Steep, wet, and covered in gravity defying rime formations, it looks like the biggest undertaking of the route. The Russians are already on their way up it, clearly gunning for the summit that night, and we exchange hoots and cheers as they race upwards. Atop the pillar I bump into three American friends who are attempting the north pillar sit start. I chat to them about the route while Pete jumars up the rope; it’s strange to have such an ordinary social exchange in such a hostile environment, but it helps to make me feel safe again. They direct us to a large snowy bivy right at the top of the pillar, where we gladly claim a few precious hours of rest.
We wake early the following morning. No lay ins this time, we’re going to give the head wall everything we’ve got, and we want to climb the first pitch before the sun hits the rime poised menacingly above it. A couple of abseils brings us to the bottom of the head wall, and seeing the amount of snow and ice on the pitch I mistakenly decide to tool up. This proves useful for the first half, but the second half requires some icy aid and smearing, and I wind up slipping off and badly hurting my finger. Pete has to take over, and by donning his rock shoes he manages to smear through the crux, making for a very impressive lead.
My finger means that I can no longer lead, and exhaustion is starting to make me feel nauseous. The head wall pitches are quite overhanging, making jugging very hard work with the pack on – each movement of the jumars makes me retch slightly. I need to eat but a hollow feeling in my abdomen prevents me, despite us having plenty of food, so we give away spare biscuits to the passing Americans to lighten our load. Their momentary company does little to alleviate the loneliness of our position. The view is staggering but I’m in no mood to enjoy it. Fun has been surpassed by necessary action – we do what we must. Soon the worst is over and all that remains is a slog up slush to the summit.
After what seems like an eternity I reach Pete on the small summit ridge and collapse against a block. The summit is 30 metres away and Pete makes a final lead to stand on top of it. At this point I honestly couldn’t care less about following him, all I want to do is go down, where I’m sat is good enough for me. The 30 metres to the summit feel like a kilometre, but I muster the strength to follow him and I’m glad I did. We sit on the summit for a moment and eat what we can while we take in the view. We can see El Chalten in the distance, it’s hard to imagine that we were ever there, that we could ever return. In the opposite direction lie the Torres, pointing into the sky like dragons teeth, the clouds swirling between them its smokey breath. Behind them lies the ice cap, revealed to us now in all it’s vastness, open and barren like nothing I’ve ever seen. For these few and precious moments the pain is somewhat forgotten, until the darkening sky forces us to press on. In total we spend about five minutes on the summit, and feeling incrementally recharged we begin the descent.
Easy snow leads us down for a few hundred metres, until we reach a point where we need to begin abseiling. We want to descend the Franco-Argentine but we can’t find it. I go for a look round a corner and find myself staring down the gaping scar of the Supercanaleata. I almost suggest descending there, not realising that a fresh corpse lies approximately 150 metres below me, but the warm unsettled weather and long hike out from that side of the mountain dissuade me. We continue searching and eventually find the correct descent. We make the first few abseils successfully, then make a wrong turn. The topo is confusing and we wind up in the middle of featureless virgin granite, in the dark. The bottom looks miles away and we’re running out of kit to abseil from, but fortunately we make it down without much trouble.
We stumble across to the Brecha bivy and steal a couple of hours sleep before waking to ferocious winds. We have no gas left so we get going without stopping to eat or drink. First we make several abseils down an icy gully which is already pouring with freezing water, soaking us thoroughly. Having crossed the bergshrund all that remains is several hours of slogging through sometimes waist deep slush, until we reach the Lago de Los Tres, dry ground, and on the other side – people.
As we skirt round the edge of the lake, three huge condors land on a ledge no more than twenty metres away from us. We stand there stunned as they flap and squawk at each other, making strange hissing noises. Once again, we don’t know whether to be scared or excited; each one is bigger than us, they could pluck us from the ground if they so wished. They soon fly away though, their beating wings making a deep bass noise as they tear through the air, and we continue the walk back. After an hour or so we ask a French hiker how far we are from town. He tells us that since we’re tired and have big packs on it’ll take us at least three hours. We take this as a challenge and storm back in two, reaching town about eight hours before our bus leaves. We say some goodbyes and give our condolences for the awful tragedy that we’ve by now been informed of. Chad was hit by a falling block in the Supercanaleata, only hours before I peered down it during our descent. The blatant truth behind the risks we take in alpine environments becomes glaringly obvious in the eyes of every climber that night, and none escape a feeling that it could have just as easily been one of us.
We wake after too little sleep and haul our bags to the bus station. One final effort. The three hour bus journey to El Calafate passes quickly and smoothly, and before long we’re on the plane to Buenos Aires. Finally, we’re able to take in our accomplishment, and feel some satisfaction, though such emotions are still deeply hidden beneath a veil of exhaustion. A whirlwind of power naps and activity which mirrors the past two months eventually deposits us in Manchester, where we say our goodbyes. We hug and make vague plans to go climbing soon – the Welsh sea beckons. Finally, we go our separate ways, quietly acknowledging the fact that it won’t be a very long time before we’re back, brandishing the desire for another Patagonian beat down.
There’s a man
living in my house. I
rarely see him; he hides
behind the mirror,
The other day
I found him
and said: “Tell me,
does the storm still rage, does
the wind still blow?”
are you bent, and bracing
and facing away?”
“What!? I see
that you are warm
like the rest of us.” “But
I’ve cut the flesh
from my bones!”
Did you forget how to bleed?”
in my teeth.”
I told him:
tired eyes and come – they
said you were searching.” “And
it must be clear
that I’ve found nothing?”
“Yes. But light shines through
the cracks, and corpses
have been known to smile.”
“Look, I’m leaving tomorrow,
I guess you could come.”
“Where are you going?”
“Where is anyone going?”
I looked at him like the lost
look at the sky.
“I won’t tell you again.”
“No. So come,