Friday, 2 October 2020

Coledale Force- 1985

 

Ullock Pike-the First Snow. Bill Peascod oil/mixed media

The winter of 1984/5 developed into a hard freeze. Elsewhere Britain suffered under heavy blizzards. In the Lakes there was little snow. For some weeks the roads were relatively clear and free of ice: the sun shone brightly most days and water everywhere on the fells froze hard to the valley floor. It became a classic season for ice climbing. Bill Birkett and I were into it fairly early. I had hacked my way in other years, up many a snow-ice gully. Most times with an ice-axe (once with a sharp stone) — never with crampons! Now it was to be standard 1980's style: front point crampons, ice hammers, ice screws — the full regalia. With such devices the ice we climbed was more vertical than anything I had ever done before. When I saw the first ice pitch on Newlands Hause I gasped. "We'll never get up that!"... "Rubbish' said Bill or words similar in sentiment. "It'll be easy ! " And it was! 

By the time we had reached the crest of the Hause I was completely hooked on this, for me, new-fangled technique. Even though the crampons I was wearing had been given to me because they were no good by a chap who'd been presented with them ten years ago by someone else, for the same reason. At the end of nearly a week of continuous climbing (we were out six times in eight days as it turned out) mostly on ice, Bill rang me: "'Do you fancy Coledale Hause Force up above Force Crag Mine? The 'word' has it that it's the best pitch in the Lakes this year' he said.

''Oh Aye!... Downer says so! !", he declared. authoritatively. "It'll be right then if Downer says so.... When are you leaving'!". "I'll be there in an hour' he told me and hung up. I reached the car park at Whinlatter just a couple of minutes before Bill and his mate, Pat Duffy, arrived. The ice, when we got to it, looked fantastic. The stream was frozen for something like seven hundred feet. In the lower half there was much easy ice scrambling before the bed reared up into a pleasant solid ice wall of 60 feet or so. Above this we entered into a small amphitheatre. The ice forms were incredible. Huge bosses and corded icicles. 

A massive chrysanthemum of radiating ice petals (obviously containing a small bush. All these ringed the cirque and down the main wall plunged the linked columns of vertical ice, a thick hollow sheet separated from the rock wall to form grottos and caves of breathtaking beauty. It was up this our route lay. Bill rampaged up the wall. Ice flying, front points and ice hammers banging into the vertical knots of ice. In 80 feet the steepness relented and the thick solidified stream fell back into icy slabs and another small cirque and more grottos and ice bubbles and blisters. Pat followed Bill, then it was my turn. It was all joy and heave and disbelief.

The next day my wife, Etsu, my small daughter and I spent most of the daylight hours skating on Derwentwater and that evening we went to visit Chris and Wendy Bonington. I told Chris about the icefall. "Gosh I'd love to do it — but I'm tied up tomorrow and Tuesday:' he sighed. "How about Wednesday?" "No. it's out for me:' I answered. "But Friday's O.K " I'll be on the way to Everest then — we leave Thursday" he said quietly. "but I'd still love to do it!" Then suddenly. "I know! What about a pre-dawn start tomorrow morning? I could pick you up at six; we could be back by nine — and still get a day's work in!" It was dark as we drove alongside Bassenthwaite Lake, with hardly the faintest hint of dawn in the night sky. By 6.30 we were at the foot of the falls, with just sufficient light to enable us to fasten on our crampons. This time I had swiped Etsu's good pair and adjusted them to fit my old and massive Galibiers .With these and another second-hand axe, (acquired from Bill) which felt nicely in balance with my own, my confidence ran high.

What light there was bounced off the ice as we soloed up the lower easier slopes then dawn leapt across the sky. By 7.30 we were in the amphitheatre and Chris was leading up the main ice wall in beautiful style. A hundred and fifty feet higher, with all the rope out he belayed. It was my turn. In better crampons, a couple of good axes and (be it said) a comforting firm rope from above. I set off. At one point some sixty feet up the wall I became too confident (or it could have been tiredness!). The right ice pick, inadequately placed. came adrift and the shock loading on the other caused the ice to burst off around its point. I did an exciting "yo-yo– due to rope stretch as all four contact points ceased to become such, but I was soon away again. It was just 8.15 when we were sitting at the top of the climb. The dawn had reached the valley. Away to the east. Over Helvellyn. a rosy pink suffused the sky. Above our heads the east face of Grisedale Pike was tinged with the same warm hue as the shadow-line moved rapidly down the face. It was all peace and calm and hope. 

Bill Peascod: Dedicated follower of climbing fashion!

The morning was held in a breathless hush of pinks and hazy blues and a dusting of white in sheltered combes — nothing moved. The only sounds were of our quiet conversation and the tinkle of ice-gear as Chris wound up the rope. As he sat there I thought of another dawn. Nearly fifty years ago. In the early summer above Loweswater — a dawn full of promise and discovery to come — and of the young impressionable coal miner who, coming out of the dark and stink and sweat off night shift. Up into God's clean air, had felt compelled to ride out on his bike to find it. But this dawn here, even in the winter, held its own wonder. And the promises were still there to nurture the questing spirit. 

 

Bill Peascod: First Published in the F&R Journal-1985.


 

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

The book of Trespass....Reviewed

 


The Book of Trespass-Crossing The Lines That Divide Us. Nick Hayes. 464 pages Hardback with Dust Cover and illustrated with Black/White Linocuts. Bloomsbury Circus £20.

The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand, to prove the upper classes have still the upper hand’. Noel Coward (1938).

I believe this is an important book for it would be hard to read without agreeing the case it makes for the need to change and enhance Public access to the English countryside. The vast majority of our country is entirely unknown to us because we are banned from setting foot on it! By law of trespass we are excluded from much of the land and even less from its waterways. Blocked by walls whose legitimacy is rarely if ever questioned, behind which lies the history of the enclosures of what was once common land leading to exploitation and a dispossession of public rights of way.

The history of landowning in England is detailed in eleven chapters in The Book of Trespass, each one is illustrated with a double page linocut and is named after an animal the author believes characterises the history that is told within; Badger, Fox, Dog, Sheep, Cow, Spider, Pheasant, Cockroach, Hare, Toad and Stag. These take one on a journey over the walls of England, and into the thousands of square miles of woodland, hills, rivers, lakes, and meadows that are blocked for public access. By trespassing on the land of the media magnets, Lords, politicians and private corporations that own most of England, Nick Hayes argues that the basis of social inequality is the uneven distribution of land? He does this by weaving together the stories of poachers, vagabonds, gypsies, witches, hippies, raves, ramblers, migrants, and protestors, charting acts of civil disobedience that challenge orthodox power at its heart?

The author decides chapter by chapter to trespass in one of the private estates and stately homes that still dominate large areas of England. Sometimes with a colleague, most often alone, he identifies a weak area of access into these forbidden lands, quietly and with no worry he finds himself a comfortable hideaway, sketches the area, spends-a night, then retreats the way he came in, making sure he does not leave any litter/sign of his presence. This works well even when near the end of the book he takes to kayaking and following the Thames downstream, and includes a trespass (or not) into the Royal estate at Windsor. A little more information I guess is needed about who Nick Hayes really is; a well reviewed writer of four previous novels, a cartoonist, an illustrator, and a print maker, the list of the publications that have published his work is impressive; Time Out, Literary Review, The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Guardian etc, and he has held several exhibitions of his artwork in galleries across the country including at the Hayward. In a recent video he has made for the land justice net work about the need to reform land use and improved access, he still appears frighteningly young, to be such a high achiever.

The large landowners in England are still a privileged cohort, some are old money, descendants of the 180 Barons who arrived in 1066 with William, who kept a third of the land for himself and then parcelled out the rest to his henchmen. What these Norman aristocrats did with their time was hunt, and to do this deer forests were set up. And this was the real beginning of enclosure, the commoners who had previously had long-established rights, to graze their animals, to take wood, dig peat and fish the lakes were moved out, and within a hundred years there was 2,000 Deer Parks in England. This was the real beginning of exclusion, and trespass for commoners either had to do this or starve, poaching became a national sport, but the penalties for those so caught were usually severe.

Moving on the new money estates and stately homes came from lucrative service in countries of the Empire or the slave trade. I have winced at some of the anti comments I have read on the Internet about The Black Lives Matter campaign, even on some of the sites followed by fellow climbers; the demonstrators supporting this might be unsettling but sadly their cause is just. In The Book of Trespass there are so many instances of barbaric cruelty meted out on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, at the behest of slave owners, by men who garnered riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Across England the wealth of the sugar plantations was injected into English society, into buildings and infrastructure which remain to this day. And a similar story is true of the money that was transferred from India by men like Sykes, Clive, and Hastings. The scale is truly impressive for there are hundreds of estates and country houses that came from the wealth levered from those two sources. It seems what you had to do was go out to India as a young clerk, climb up the ladder of promotion, become governor of a Province or area, rip all off in bribes and back hander’s and come home with enough money to build a stately home, and an estate which you could then enlarge with help from your mates in parliament by enclosing land round and about. Once that was done you became an MP through a rotten borough (or Lord Mayor of London), then you became titled with a seat in the House of Lords. The history of the Slave Trade is truly awful, so anyone reading this who thinks the story of what happened might be exaggerated should read the sections about this in The Book of Trespass. And as an indication of the looting of the wealth of India when it became the Jewel in the Crown it enjoyed almost 27% of world trade, by the time it was handed over this had diminished to 3%!

Inevitably the Kinder trespass of 1932 is well covered and in fact the book begins with the story of a young climber from Preston, George Beattie Elliot who on the weekend of that event spent the night before in the cave at Laddow, and set off early the next day to walk over Bleaklow and then onto Kinder. Reaching its summit he started to descend but was astonished to see below him a large crowd of young ramblers, singing and shouting out loud and advancing towards a line of keepers. He had known nothing about the Trespass and although he was only a teenager he knew he was trespassing, and suddenly he was surrounded by a ring of keepers. He was punched to the ground but some of the crowd arrived and the keepers were hauled off him and George by then totally bemused was pulled to his feet, slapped on the back and praised for his heroic work for the good old cause. The scene ended as quickly as it had sprung upon him, the crowd moved on and poor George was left, as before, to the silence of The Peaks. Bruised, utterly stunned, with stars spiralling around his head, George continued his walk as planned, descending into the Goyt valley and out of history. Entirely unwittingly, George had fallen upon one of the most notorious protests in English history, the Kinder Trespass.

It seems that few in the modern climbing world know much of the struggles for access that have occurred over the years. For instance the late Dave Cook, organised a trespass at the MOD Castlemartin Range in Pembroke which although criticised at the time by some of the older generation of climbers, did draw attention to this area of world class sea cliffs, and eventually led to today’s individual access agreements. And I can bear personal witness to access difficulties at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire before it was handed over to the National Trust to avoid death duties. When I returned to Leeds from my National Service in Manchester in January 1956, I persuaded my friends in the Rock and Ice Club to visit Brimham. We used to camp at the farm down below the Cubic Block, but from that base wander freely, climbing around the estate. I was one day gob smacked to receive an injunction from the landlord, via his solicitor forbidding me and my friends from visiting Brimham Rocks. We simply ignored this ban and kept on going there, the real reason for his intervention was he felt we should pay him for our visits, although we always did this to the farmer who allowed us to camp on his land. I am sure all will acknowledge the importance of access and conservation, for without the first it is not possible to freely climb, and thinking further about this, when I was at the BMC we obtained from Peter Boydell QC, an opinion as to whether rock climbs could ever be registered as ‘Rights of Way?’. He advised us that if a climb has existed for 20 years or more, it might be. This would be crucial to gain such a legal agreement. We decided not to go ahead and set up a test case to prove this at law, but we would keep it in mind if ever a long traditional climbing area was threatened as to having access removed. And unfortunately the access battles of earlier years might now to be revisited with the present government plan to make Trespassing a criminal offence, allied to a recent ruling in a High Court case that the defendant had the right to develop their property in any way they felt the need to do so!

I do remember when I was Secretary of the Hunt Committee on Mountain Training, when John Hunt and I were drafting our final report he insisted that we include a statement advising all our readers the need to observe and recognise the rights of landowners. I was not as sure as he was about that but obviously as he was the Chair, I demurred. But in retrospect reading The Book Of Trespass one realises that many who do own the land in England obtained it against the wishes and well being of their fellow citizens by using the previously mentioned process of enclosure. What happens to the land is of immense public significance, but in England it has always been categorised as private information. A recent book by Guy Shrubsole ‘Who owns England?’ contains much material which should make Joe Public take note, of how many of the large estates and landowning’s are now registered ‘Off Shore’, pay no tax yet have received large taxpayer funding for many years. And abroad for instance in France if you wish to know the history and who owns certain areas of land, all one needs to do is head for the local Maire. The same is true in some of the States of the USA and in a State like Montana this is available on line.

Nick Hayes is a keen supporter of what he believes are ‘good and rightful’ historic causes; the ladies of Greenham Common in their fight against a nuclear Armageddon, the former migrant camp at Calais where he was a voluntary worker and supporter, the tree huggers in Sheffield fighting to save their wooded street environments, the poor flooded inhabitants of Hebden Bridge, who blame their situation on the management of the moorland above the town by the Walshaw Estate. Extensive burning takes place there each year, to encourage new plant growth to feed the Grouse, ready for the next shooting season, but in doing this it depletes the lands ability to retain water. Which flows off the moor and down into their homes. In the last twenty years, six serious floods have occurred in Hebden, in 2015 over 3,000 houses and businesses were so damaged.

The author’s major cause now is for a new ‘Right to Roam’ campaign. Along with Guy Shrubsole they are promoting this as vigorously as they are able. In countries as different as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, Estonia etc this is the law, and in the Scandinavian countries it is one of long standing. It could have been so here in Britain if the Atlee government of the 1940’s had managed to get such through the House of Lords. They were deflected by the landowners who agreed with the setting up of the National Parks, but who refused to support a general ‘Right to Roam’. Nick Hayes is not calling for a revolution and for landowners to be dispossessed, but he points out so succinctly that the CROW act of 2000 is very much inferior to the Scottish Land Act of 2003 in allowing more and easier access for wild camping and onto hills and rivers. The late Alan Blackshaw played a major role in the drafting of that legislation, and it seems that to win access and or conservation campaigns you need a good acronym! The one that impresses me is STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Group). I think over the CROW act I should remind readers that 2026 is the cut off point for registering footpaths, access routes and rights of way.

 

Author-Nick Hayes

I return to my belief of the importance of this ‘The Book Of Trespass’. Besides its claim of a need for improved access, it also enhances the way one sees and appreciates landscapes, whilst noting the health promoting effect of direct contact with natural environments for all human beings, bolstered by examining the belief of the Japanese in the beneficial effects of walks and stays in a wood or forest....shinyin yoku. This is a work of great erudition, the research it required is staggering and I must congratulate the author on the finished thought invoking result! 

 

Dennis Gray: 2020 


 

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Winter 8000: Climbing The World’s Highest Mountains In The Coldest Season: Reviewed

 

Brief encounter!

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear beginning to live!’...Marcus Aurelis

Bernadette McDonald continues to mine the rich history of the Polish ‘Ice Warriors’ of the 1970’s and 1980’s. For almost twenty years Polish mountaineers dominated the Himalayan winter climbing scene. Surely the most demanding form of climbing physically, and of the fourteen 8000 metre peaks, eight were first ascended by Polish climbers in that season, and a fact that is true, it was the example of that countries mountaineers which inspired other nations to enter this arena. One that is still the case, despite the improvement in equipment and technical knowledge, a form of mountaineering that can only be successfully overcome by those well versed in the art of suffering, whilst facing up to potential wind speeds in excess of 150 kph and temperatures as low as minus 50C.

But why was this type of climbing so suited to Polish-mountaineers? I learned first- hand in 1967 during a visit to their mountain range, the Tatra how hard physically they were. History had dealt them a challenging hand, for in the last war and the subsequent Cold War they were victims of ruthless neighbours, first Nazi Germany, then-Stalinist Russia. In 1967 camping with some of their climbing fraternity one realised how hardy they were, for their equipment was rudimentary, and some had no tent and just slept out covered by a blanket, living mainly on beetroot! This in a mountain area with less settled weather than the Alps; a higher rainfall and in winter almost Himalaya type of conditions.

The Polish climbers were as I learnt on a lecture tour post climbing in the Tatra, very good at ducking and diving and milking the communist system to their benefit. McDonald makes a good job of setting the scene in her introduction to ‘WINTER 8000’ , and she has already made an outstanding contribution in recounting Polish climbing history, for her two previous books ‘Freedom Climbers’(2011) and the ‘Art of Freedom’ (2017) were both Boardman/Tasker prize winners. However the Chair of the Judges at the first of these mused ‘how come a Canadian is writing the history of another-countries climbers?’I guess it is because despite the geographic separation Bernadette finds this history so compelling, and to be fair she is the author in total of eleven books on mountaineering and mountain cultures, the majority of which have little or no Polish connection.

Andrzej Czok and Przemysław Piasecki, on their way to Camp 2 during the Polish 1985–86 winter Kangchenjunga expedition. Photo: Krzysztof Wielicki Archive.

The story of this book comes to life with the Polish climbers Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy summiting Mount Everest (8,848 metres) 17th February 1980. The leader of this expedition was Andrzej Zawada, and if anyone can be cited as the grandfather of Himalayan winter climbing it is Andrzej, someone who I personally counted a friend and who in 1975 led a party of Polish climbers to visit Britain as guests of the BMC. I remember lively discussions between Dennis Davis and Zawada about if it was possible to climb 8,000 meter peaks in winter, and why any climber would wish to risk such an ascent in the inevitable extreme conditions. Dennis was well versed in Polish climbing for he had lived and worked in that country in the mid-1960’s, based at Oswiecim near Krakow he had climbed regular weekends in the Tatra, including with Kurtyka and Rusieki making the first winter ascent of the super-directissima of the North Face of Mieguszowiski. 

A climb still held in high regard by the Taternik’s. Before the success on Everest, Zawada had built up winter experience on other mountains with a successful climb of Noshaq (7,492) the second highest Peak in the Hindu Kush range in February 1972 and led an attempt on Lhotse in the 1974/5 winter season. One has to agree with the author that he was some kind of visionary, and he had learnt that above all one needed patience for success on such ascents. With days and weeks spent at a lower height and or in a Base Camp waiting for a window of settled weather. But ready to make a summit bid if radioed in with a good weather forecast; such support especially provided for each expedition. By the decade of the 1980’s much was to change for the Polish climbing fraternity, with the political developments brought about by the Solidarity movement, they were now living in a democratic capitalist country. One of the ways that they were able to better finance their climbing was by what we call ‘Access’ work, especially painting and pointing the high factory chimneys around such cities as Katowice.

Post Everest the doors opened for Polish winter climbers, and next was to be Manaslu(8,163metres). An expedition led by Lech Korniszewski, and the summit reached on 12th January 1984 by Maciej Berbeka and RysardGajewski. Followed by Dhaulagiri(8,167 metres) 21st January1985, on an expedition led by Adam Bilczewski and summited by Adrzej Czok and Jerzy Kukuczka. The latter someone who became famous in his quest to be the first to climb all fourteen 8,000 metre peaks. He was the second to do so, and his ascents were notable in that they either were by a new route or in winter. Cho Oyu (8,188 metres) was also ascended in the winter of 1985 and Kanchenjunga on 11th January 1986. Annapurna was to be climbed the next year by an expedition led by Kukuczka, who summited with Artur Hajzer.

Simone Moro on the summit of Shishapangma, having made the first winter ascent with Piotr Morawski on 14 January 2005. Photo: Piotr Morawski.

Post these six winter expeditions, the Poles joined up with other nations climbers to mount expeditions. One of the reasons they did this was because of the need for some hard currency, for the Zloty like the Pound had real difficulties in the 1980’s. Lhotse (8,516 metres) was climbed on 31st December 1988 by a joint Belgian-Polish expedition led by Krzysztof Wielicki (who also summited Everest as above and Kanchenjunga with Kukuczka). Shisapangma (8,027 metres) was climbed on 14th January 2005 by a Polish-Italian expedition, with the summit reached by Piotr Morowaski and Simone Moro.

This latter marked the end of Polish dominance of this field of climbing by the so called ‘golden generation’ of their mountaineers. Adam Bielecki was to observe later, ’Our Winter domination was the fault of Stalin and Beirut because they locked us in a cage. When others were doing the first ascents of the 8,000metre peaks we remained trapped behind the Iron Curtain. When it finally lifted we jumped out of the cage. We were very hungry’ (Beirut was a Stalinist style first President of Poland after the war). It also was the start of a new style of expedition, smaller, more compact, more in the style of Alpine ascents. This was only made possible by improved weather forecasting, and equipment. Makalu (8,485 metres) was the next to be climbed on the 9th February 2009 by an International expedition led by Simone Moro, who summited along with a new 8,000 metre star Denis Urubko. The same team climbed Gasherbrum 11 (8,034 metres) on the 2nd February 2011.

A new Polish winter programme initiated by Artur Hajzer fired up a younger generation of their mountaineers and on the 9th March 2012 during an expedition led by him, Gasherbrum 1 (8,080 metres) was summited by Janusz Golab and Adam Bielecki. Unfortunately Hajzer died in a fall during the expedition. The following year an expedition to Broad Peak (8,051 metres) led by another Polish winter guru Krzysztof Wielicki which was successfully climbed by Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Artur Malek and Tomas Kowalski on 5th March 2013. Finally Nanga Parbat (8,125 metres ) was climbed after many attempts on 26th February 2016 by Alex Txikon, Ali Sandpara and Simone Moro. Included in the new Alpine style of expeditions was a more comfortable life experience whilst waiting out for good weather windows in Base Camps. A generator became de rigeur, providing access to the outside world, with phone connection and social media. Simone Moro it seems is a star on these latter with so many likes and followers he could be a part of a cutting edge Rock Band.

Only K2 (8,611 metres) remains of the 8000 Peaks to be climbed in winter but this is not from want of trying. Polish, Russian, Italian and International teams have all tried. Zawada inevitably was drawn to this mountain of mountains and put together a joint Polish/Canadian/British attempt in 1987/8 where the realities of the geographic situation of this mountain, being further north than Everest, and its higher reaches swept by winds emanating from Sibera have made it the most challenging of all the winter objectives. However the Poles have announced they will make another attempt in the coming winter 2020/1.

Climbers on the Polish 1979–80 winter Everest expedition in base camp, listening for messages from their families and friends back home. Photo: Ryszard Szafirski.

There is so much more to McDonald’s book than I have so far intimated, in some aspect it is a grim ‘thanatos’ story with death a possibility looming on almost every other page. In Appendix A at the rear of the work is the list of the climbers involved in this story. And of all the climbing games, attempting the highest peaks in the Himalaya in winter must be the most dangerous. More than a dozen have died in this form of mountaineering some of whom were well known names to British climbers: Anatoli Boukreev the elite Kazakh alpinist died in a winter attempt on Annapurna on Christmas Day 1997, Jerzy (Jurek) Kukucska one of the stars of Himalayan winter climbing died on Lhotse in 1989, and Wanda Rutkiewicz disappeared on Kanchenjunga in 1992. Wanda was one of the key note speakers at one of the BMC National Conferences in Buxton. And her mountaineering record was impressive, for she had climbed eight of the 8,000 metre peaks, including the first female ascent of K2, and when she was in the UK we intended to do some climbing in the Peak but as usual the weather in mid-March, the time of the Conference it was too bad.

There is however much that it is uplifting in this story not least the rescue by four climbers taking part in a winter K2 Polish expedition which also included Denis Urubko, who left that mountain to take part in the rescue high on Nanga Parbat in 2018, of the French female climber Elisabeth Revolv. Her partner had died and through a super human effort, Adam Bielecki and the ethnic Russian Urubko raced up thousands of feet to reach her, for she was too high for a helicopter rescue. Revolv eventually made a complete recovery and returned to Himalayan climbing.

Inevitably in such a demanding arena there are personality clashes, and though McDonald does not over egg these she does cover them with some diplomacy. One dispute is to whether winter ascents in the Himalaya should cover the Calendar winter, starting on 21st December and finishing 21st March, or the Meteorological –winter, starting 1st December and to be completed by the end of February. Simone Moro who has made first ascents of four winter 8000 metre peaks is a proponent of the latter view, and he has carried out quite a strong campaign over this, disputing winter ascents made in March! This has not enamoured him to those making such claims.

8000 WINTER is I believe the most outstanding work of McDonald’s three Polish mountaineering history books. Her research and detail is so thorough, the only weakness is in the writing up of dialogue. It seems that Polish mountaineer’s in particular only talk to each other in platitudes? ‘Have you put your down trousers on?’ is a typical example of a Base Camp call to a climber at a camp higher up the mountain. I suspect that like British climbers in such a stressful situation the language would be more- fruity!

I will finish by quoting directly from WINTER 8000, as a tribute to those climbing friends from that ‘Golden Generation’ of Polish mountaineers including Andrzej (who succumbed to cancer in 2000), Tadeuz who died on K2 and Wanda who disappeared on Kanchenjunga in 1992; ‘These imperfect tales are all that we have and in sharing them, we can try to understand the souls of the Ice Warriors, those men and women who find the greatest fulfilment in the highest mountains in the coldest, shortest, darkest days: the cruel days of winter’

Climbing on Manaslu, winter 1983–84. Photo: Lech Korniszewski.

Everything about WINTER 8000 is excellent, as someone who once studied graphic design I think Vertebrate have excelled themselves on this production; and it is for me their best yet.

Winter 8000.Climbing The World’s Highest Mountains In The Coldest Season. Bernadette McDonald.256 pages black and white text including some relevant pictures plus 2x8 page inserts of colour prints, case bound with dust jacket cover. £24.

Dennis Gray: 2020


 

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Fingertip Mistress........Cloggy's Great Wall

Sultans of Swing: Dave Towse-Left-and John Redhead camp beneath The Black Cliff

I relate to Clogwyn Du'r Arddu's Great Wall in two ways: obsessively, and with disinterest, both holding equal space in my ambivalent brain. A tortuous hard-edged abstraction fusing into a surreal blur, captured visions, strange scenarios of fleeting ordeals, dancing, finger-tipping, all stilled on a limbering backcloth. Not a black cliff, nor even grey, but framed by vibrant colour, an ecstasy of claustrophobic white beyond the confines of the stage and sickly whole. Betrothed to this substance I act out my petulances, clothed in fear, the earth humming around my presence, ancient, the very epicentre of all birth-trauma — indeed she is a very kind lady. I am, of course, no exception. With each child, each climb, the question — and we keep paying for this audacity. She remains supreme, for me never more beautifully apparent than here — Great Wall, Clogwyn Du'r Arddu. The players and their games, the Wall's lure for generations of climbers, their actions and their videos, the past bouts which soil the screen, blacken the cliff which in reality is never black, nor at all sombre. Of tradition, the words here are plentiful, joined together for your indoctrinated logic, steeped in the Establishment quagmire. I care very little, play to my own parameters. However abstract these lines appear, they form a discipline. An historical account?

The Black Cliff is your neat package. Indulge yourself; Boysen Quasimodo-esque, a cartoon-photograph on Troach, swinging on a long sling. Climbing? Banner on an attempt on Troach, spending hours chipping a spike. I don't believe it! Braithwaite hammering nuts into cracks; Yates pre-placing chocks; and Crew, so desperately obsessed to burn Brown off, abseiling, chipping, pre-placing. Is this comedy? Are they real?-Still with the audacity to talk about the ethics of today. . ? But the screen exists — a quality wall, perhaps the finest. Consuming. . . She expels the players to her flanks. The last white I ever saw. "Great Wall" itself is a classic route, with a history of much nonsense and debate I don't care to take too seriously: Brown with his allocation of two pegs and two balls; Kid Crew in dubious style and trendy sunglasses; "John Allen climbs Great Wall free with chalk" at E3, 6a; eventually soloed; a classic tale. I first really appreciated the fabric of the rock from the Great Wall stance; Drummond's brink.challenge of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; freed by Whillance in 1977 at E6,6b — fine effort though this was, Drummond's sky-hook blast was the wild fix. Second attempts at the freestyle ended dramatically: Berzins plummetted above the top peg, stripping it and some of the flake behind which it nestled; Carrigan reached a similar position, flew away on a 70ft scream.

Hall pulled out on a rope; the second ascent in '82 by myself. Drummond's bolt, blessed thing — it failed to be mentioned in the fracas surrounding my own attempts on "Master's Wall", when bolts were an issue. I wonder if a chipped spike for aid might have been more acceptable? "Master's" — my own attempts from 1980 have been well wagged about. I called them the "Tormented Ejaculation" — not just mere climbing, but an expression of the flesh and blood of my work, the poetry of rock-movement inextricably bound up with the network of shape and colour. A vague, indeterminate line down Great Wall was inspected and cleaned and the lack of protection soon became painfully evident. With the day drawing in, and the apparently unjustifiable nature of the route looming ever larger in my mind, Chris Shorter and I decided to bale out. A last look at the line and strange impulse took hold of me. I went for it. At 70ft I woke up. Ghastly! The aggression was dissipated and fear gripped me. I had climbed with virtually no protection and was now eyeballing a tiny shallow crack. I remembered it from the abseil and it had looked pathetic. It was real now. I contemplated jumping on the scree below before the situation got out of control. I fell a million times, my arms unfolding, my breath fading.

Original Images-Keith Robertson

A number 1 stopper came to a halt, halfway down this crack, half-in, rocking —my weight was on it. I clipped in and sagged down, unable to comprehend the awful possible consequences should the nut slip through. It didn't, and I was lowered to the ground. The next day I returned, only to see myself lowering from a sky-hook. I switched to another channel and learned a lot about chrysanthemums. I came back on 13 May 1980. The mental preparation was becoming harder and harder. The so-called psyching-up, a pain beyond reason. Out of the acquaintance grew more and more fear. Gone the initial naivety which had sparked off this now terrifying enterprise. I knew the score and was unnerved by it. Keith Robertson ("Big Willy") holding the lines — fine mood — encouraged — no sky-hook — I go. I distinctly felt a tiny slide on a friction move lower down and became very insecure, with my feet in Canyon boots. I got to the little crack another 20ft up and was dangerously pumped because of the extra strain on my fingers. The resin was wearing off the boots. I managed to place an RP1, clipped in and was about to place a No. 2 when my right foot shot off. The strain came on the RP, ripped it through and I cartwheeled a long way down the wall. A No. 1 stopper held and, encouraged, I climbed back up. Stuck again, I jumped for an abseil rope and pretended to forget the programme —I was more than bored with the whole series. But my pathetic memory became once again in situ on the wall — another failure — no dramatics. And again in '81, further than ever, but still failing to move left into the faint groove/crack. I placed the famous bolt — confident in its justification.

Gearing up for next year, I broke my wrist badly. Moffatt skipped in, wearing sunglasses. I suppose I did care a little. I had much, much time to put myself into some cartoon sketch depicting pathos and long slings on Troach — looking bad! A line was climbed and, with much presumption, called Master's Wall. I repeated the route this summer at E7,6b with Dave .Towse, and realised that if the bolt was replaced for my route, the existing route — Master's Wall —which traverses off into Spreadeagle, would be substantially changed. So we think again. I look upon my lurcher dog as the real heroine of Cloggy, after a particularly extensive scavenging exercise whilst I was climbing this summer. Many sacks had been looted. There were many complaints about my fine animal. One lady climber, having been on the rock all day, looking forward to her butties, returned to find torn scraps of paper, she was so indignant that she demanded to know whether I had any sandwiches. My back was up, and I said that I wasn't so stupid as to bring food to the cliff with me, as I knew my thieving dog would have it, and that if she had any complaints and could run fast, she should take it out on the dog, as the dog owned itself, especially on Cloggy that day.

High's original Feature from 35 years ago.

Prior to the second ascent of "Master's Wall" two other lines were climbed. We were there five days, two lives, camped as lovers, a pure cobalt sky, the sun baked our bodies. The lake was cool, and a fine woman brought us food and things. We slept till noon and climbed in the orange of evening. The first line was Margins of the Mind at E7,6b/c, the second a line on Great Wall, inspected, cleaned, dreamily cruised and called Womb-Bits, E5,6b, a beautiful pitch, describing much atmosphere and style. This begins easily 25ft right of Great Wall, starting in earnest at a layaway move into a crack — good RPs, and that's enough, because I'm not writing a frigging guidebook. So get your own heads into Midsummer Night's Dream's traverse into the Great Wall stance. Mocking The Black Cliff, Towse asked, "Womb-Bits, Womb-Bits, what the hell's a Womb-Bits?" Lazy but intense hours bathed in joyous non-colour. Fixed. Floating on an aura perceivably sliceable. Their day done, the dancers returned to camp. We emerged to cross their path: "Climbing?" "Aye!" "Master's" slipped by, the greyness in my head a little paler, almost unnoticed — an anti-climax, sad at the butchered aesthetics, though happily steadied by the purity of movement, I cast my eye at the blinding, death-like passage that beckons — a little leftwards. .


John Redhead: First published in High-January 1985


Saturday, 25 July 2020

Bernadette McDonald's Winter 8000.....extract



Thanks to the late-arriving permit, the last of the Polish team’s baggage arrived in Kathmandu on 20 December 1979 and it wasn’t until 4 January that base camp was fully constructed on the south side of the mountain. Yet within ten productive days, the first three camps were in place and Andrzej began to wonder why no one had tried this before.The news from Camp 3, however, wasn’t good. Above the tents reared the Lhotse wall, one continuous sheet of hard ice. They had hoped for snow, into which they could easily kick steps, but the winter winds had stripped the face down to its icy core, presenting the Poles with much more difficult climbing. When the frigid temperatures and screaming winds of January bit hard, their spirits fell. The team retreated to base camp, where the anemometer often registered 130 kilometres per hour and the temperatures fell to -40° Celsius at night. They began to understand why they were completely alone on the mountain.

To compensate for the harsh conditions, Andrzej surprised the tired mountaineers with a plastic bathtub from Warsaw. The plastic soon cracked in the cold, but Andrzej replaced it with a giant aluminium basin he had purchased in Kathmandu. A fire burned constantly in the kitchen tent, providing piping hot water for the tub, into which the alpinists lowered their weary bodies, wallowing in its warmth. Another feature at base camp, though less popular than the tub, were two 20-metre aluminium radio aerials, the handiwork of Bogdan Jankowski, a climber from Wrocław. Bogdan was responsible for not just the aerials but three long-distance transmitters, eight radio telephones, tape recorders used to record communication between camps, a gas-driven high-voltage generator and batteries. Bogdan sent out daily bulletins to Poland so the public could monitor their progress on the mountain. Return messages reminded the mountaineers of home. Hanna Wiktorowska, secretary of the PZA back in Warsaw, was charged with communicating the crucially important newsflashes from the families to the team: ‘Zosia has got one tooth up, one tooth down … Are you remembering to wear warm socks?’

For weeks, shrieking winds battered the climbers, eroding their strength and their will. From Camp 3 to the saddle of the South Col was a distance of only 850 metres, but in these conditions, those 850 metres took nearly a month to surmount. By this time, many on the team were too exhausted to continue. Others were injured. Krzysztof Żurek was knocked over by the wind and tumbled twenty metres before the nearest piton stopped his fall. He managed to reach Camp 3, but then slipped into a crevasse – twice – on his way to base camp. Both Zyga Heinrich and Alek Lwow were suffering from frostbite in their hands. The climbers’ throats were inflamed from the cold, dry air and their camps were routinely destroyed by hurricane-force winds. The busiest person on the expedition was the doctor at base camp.

By 10 February only a few were still strong enough to function well in the otherworldly conditions: Walenty Fiut, the unstoppable Zyga Heinrich, and the two youngsters on the team, Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy. Andrzej moved them about like chess pieces, looking for the magical combination that would take them to the South Col. ‘I was convinced it was only a psychological barrier preventing us from reaching it,’ he said. Leszek, Walenty, Krzysztof and Jan Holnicki set out from Camp 3 on 11 February. Each one climbed alone, at his own pace, immersed in his thoughts. They reached the Yellow Band, continued towards the Geneva Spur, and began a long, exposed, slanting traverse. Partway across, Jan turned back, but the others reached the South Col at 4 p.m. A breakthrough. Leszek quickly returned to Camp 3 in the face of the screaming winds battering the col. Walenty and Krzysztof battled with their four-season tent but were unable to erect it in the wind, so they settled for a small, inadequate bivouac tent. They survived the night, but spent the entire time propping up the tent pole. The thermometer inside the tent showed-40° Celsius.

Base camp was worried. They talked on the radio throughout the night with Walenty and Krzysztof, encouraging them, calming them. There wasradio chatter from other camps as well, including one rather badly receivedmessage from Leszek, who was resting in relative comfort at Camp 3. When he suggested Walenty and Krzysztof should continue since they were so near the top, his comment was greeted with howls of protest from the rest of the team. The next morning, the lead climbers fled, Krzysztof to Camp 2, complaining of frostbite in his feet, and Walenty all the way to base camp. Andrzej sensed this was a critical moment: there was a perceptible shift in mood. ‘How powerless is any leader at moments like these?’ he asked. ‘If I wanted to save the expedition, there was only one thing to do, and that was to attempt the climb myself.’ Andrzej had not yet been as high as Camp 3, and now he was proposing to climb the mountain. A preposterous idea, but within two days he and Ryszard Szafirski were on the South Col.

Andrzej knew he was unlikely to go any higher since he wasn’t sufficiently acclimatised, but he had made a staggering effort in order to salvage team morale. It worked. Almost immediately there was a renewed energy. Oxygen bottles were soon cached at 8,100 metres for the summit team; Krzysztof and Leszek were at Camp 3; and Zyga and Pasang Norbu Sherpa were at Camp 4 on the South Col, feeling strong and ready to try for the summit. As it was 14 February, they now faced a bureaucratic problem that seemed insurmountable. Their permit was about to expire and orders from Kathmandu were clear: no more moving up the mountain after 15 February. After that, the only allowable activity on the mountain would be to clear their camps and descend. Since Andrzej doubted they could climb it by that date, he dispatched a porter to relay a request to the ministry of tourism for an extension. The porter had his own ideas about a permit extension: he was fed up with the expedition and wanted to go home. So, he cunningly requested only two more days. Two more days, and the suffering would finally be over. Two days was all they got.

Climbing without supplemental oxygen, Zyga and Pasang began their summit bid on 15 February. The winds had stopped, but it was snowing steadily. Zyga was known for his careful attitude towards risk, and it soon became clear from radio transmissions with Andrzej that the accumulating snow was making him nervous. They reached 8,350 metres before turning around and descending: a bitter decision, but a new winter altitude record. There were now only two alpinists high on the mountain: Leszek and Krzysztof. With just two days remaining on their extended permit, the pressure was enormous as they left their tent at Camp 3 on the morning of 16 February, bound for the South Col.

That night, the temperature plummeted to -42° Celsius and the wind continued to roar. ‘We were in a trance,’ Krzysztof recalled of the followingmorning, the last day of the permit. ‘When we left towards the summit …we already had blinders on. Only the summit mattered … when you feel the nearness of the summit, you feel that it’s within your reach. And it’s easy to lose your sensitivity. You stop being able to measure your strength versus your ambition. And when you pass a certain boundary, then only luck is left.’They understood there was no choice: Poland was Poland, and Everest was Everest. They had to climb it.
 
They lightened their loads as much as possible by taking just one bottle of oxygen each. Krzysztof could no longer feel his feet but he kept plodding on, drawing on his reserves. Moving without a rope, they took turns breaking trail through the snow. The two rarely spoke. There was no need. As they climbed higher, the jet stream hit them, knocking them off balance. Krzysztof recalled that the Hillary Step, the crux on the upper part of the climb, was surprisingly easy, being completely drifted in with snow. He clipped into fixed lines left by previous expeditions and soon after saw Leszek raising his arms: he was on the summit. Krzysztof joined him and recalled vaguely that they hugged.

The rest of the team was waiting. ‘The tension was unbearable,’ Andrzej their anxious concern. ‘Hope and despair followed one another at each passing moment. As the hours passed and there was still no word over the radio telephone, our anxiety was overwhelming.’At 2.25 p.m. Leszek’s voice boomed over the radio: ‘Do you copy? Do you copy? Over.’‘Negative, say again. Say again.’ ‘Guess where we are!’
‘Where are you? Over.’
‘At the summit. At the summit.’

As base camp erupted into screams of joy, Andrzej raised his hands to silence the commotion. He needed to be certain they were on the true summit. His voice crackled over the radio: ‘Hey you, can you see the triangle?’ The Tibetan and Chinese climbers who’d summited in 1975 had left a metal tripod to mark the summit. Leszek assured him they were standing beside the tripod, and he promised to leave a maximum-minimum thermometer, a small cross and a rosary to prove they had been there, and to record some data about winter temperatures on the summit of Everest. The following spring’s Polish team planned to retrieve the items, but a Basque team beat them to it. Unfortunately, the Basque climbers didn’t realise what the thermometer had recorded, so they shook it and lost the minimum temperature measurement.
Everest Layer Cakes
Andrzej radioed Hanna at the PZA, where she had been anxiously waiting for hours. ‘Today on 17 February at 2.30 p.m. the Polish flag appeared on the highest point in the world. Thereby the Polish team set a record in winter climbing. Best regards from all the participants. Zawada. Over.’ Both Leszek and Krzysztof later admitted if the goal hadn’t been Everest in winter, theywould have given up weeks earlier. But the objective, and Andrzej’s leadership, had inspired them to their highest level of performance.

Bernadette McDonald: 2020.

Published by Vertebrate Publishing. Details...here


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Crevasses.....Stop worrying and learn to love the slot


Crevasse. It’s a jagged noun, treacherous with sibilance. Right in the middle there’s that pit of a V; V for very deep, very bad idea....Very scary.
I had heard of glaciers: places where enormous holes can open up without warning and swallow up entire parties without a trace…I imagined that we would have to creep snail-like across the snow, afraid lest the slightest footfall reveal a fathomless crevasse. It was said that even the most expert, the most experienced guides could not always detect the presence of crevasses.’-René Desmaison, Total Alpinism, 1982
They are formed suddenly, and frequently with a noise that may be heard at the distance of several miles, and with a shock that makes the neighbouring country tremble: this effect takes place principally in summer. These rents are from a few inches to 20, 30, or even 50 or 60 feet in breadth, and generally of immense depth: probably extending to the bottom of the glacier. They present the greatest danger and difficulty to the passenger. They are often concealed by a layer of snow, which gives no indication on its surface, of its want of solidity; and it often happens that the chamois hunter, notwithstanding all his caution, suddenly sinks through this treacherous veil into the chasm beneath.’ - W.M Howard, MD. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Published 1821.
In the second narrative quoted above, the order in which the crevasse is dealt with is of interest. First it is described impersonally. Then the danger; the outcome of an unroped fall, is described and the precautions taken against such an occurrence are outlined.
To avoid the danger of falling into the crevices, especially those masked by the snow, we connected ourselves, three persons together, at the distance of 10 or 12 feet apart, by a cord round the body: so that in case of one of the three falling into a chasm, the other two could at least support him, until assistance could be procured from the rest of the party.’ - W.M Howard, MD. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Published 1821.
Lastly, some personal curiosity is dealt with.
We threw down into some of the narrow cracks, pieces of ice and fragments of rock, and heard for a considerable time, the more and more distant sound, as they bounded from side to side. In no instance could we perceive the stone strike the bottom; but the sound, instead of ceasing suddenly, as would then have been the case, grew fainter and fainter, until it was too feeble to be heard. What then must be the immense depth of these openings, when in these silent regions, the noise of a large stone striking the bottom is too distant to be heard at the orifice!’ - W.M Howard, MD. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Published 1821.
Cattle were driven across the mer de grace to graze on the Plan du Dru (a practice which ended as recently as 1920), their hooves swaddled in rags to give friction against the ice. The same method was used to safeguard mules bearing early tourists, with the ‘Torrent des chausettes’ on the 1:25000 IGN map taking it’s name from where these ‘socks’ were taken off. Crystal hunters explored the mountains from the mid 18th century in search of smoky quartz and pink fluorite, with many of these men becoming the first mountain guides. Surefooted chamois were hunted in these mountains and, as the hunted crossed glaciers, so too did the hunter. Gentlemen mountaineers and scientists were far from being the first to have business in the high places and thus were not the first to observe the quirks of ice on the move. The tendency of glaciers to advance and recede had been remarked on as early as 1781, by Swiss pastor Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach.
 
In 1814 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Shelley left England to see the sights of continental Europe, arranging to meet Lord Byron on the way. This trip was the genesis of much poetry and prose from the talented friends; most famously Mary (by then) Shelley’s gothic classic ‘Frankenstein’, published anonymously in 1818. Less well known is ‘History of a six weeks’ tour … with letters descriptive of a sail round the lake of Geneva, and of the glaciers of Chamouni’, published by the married couple in 1817.
We did not, as we intended, visit the Glacier de Boisson to-day, although it descends within a few minutes' walk of the road, wishing to survey it at least when unfatigued. We saw this glacier which comes close to the fertile plain, as we passed, its surface was broken into a thousand unaccountable figures: conical and pyramidical crystallizations, more than fifty feet in height, rise from its surface, and precipices of ice, of dazzling splendour, overhang the woods and meadows of the vale.’
The romantic and the scientific merge and blur in these letters, giving a glimpse into how the locals viewed the glaciers and how these educated, foreign romantics saw nature at work.
Within this last year, these glaciers have advanced three hundred feet into the valley. Saussure, the naturalist, says, that they have their periods of increase and decay: the people of the country hold an opinion entirely different; but as I judge, more probable. It is agreed by all, that the snow on the summit of Mont Blanc and the neighbouring mountains perpetually augments, and that ice, in the form of glaciers, subsists without melting in the valley of Chamouni during its transient and variable summer. If the snow which produces this glacier must augment, and the heat of the valley is no obstacle to the perpetual existence of such masses of ice as have already descended into it, the consequence is obvious; the glaciers must augment and will subsist, at least until they have overflowed this vale.’
Swiss naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure’s ‘sliding’ theory was the beginning of the systematic scientific study of glaciers, heralding the dawn of scientific knowledge rather than folk knowledge of glaciers. Through to the mid 19th century it competed with the ‘expansion’ theory (that water permeated ice and froze, causing the glacier to lengthen) and the ultimately accepted ‘viscous’ theory, as proposed by Louis Rendu as early as 1841, in his ‘Théorie des glaciers de Savoie’.
Edinburgh physicist James David Forbes, Swiss biologist and geologist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (born in Switzerland, though he would later emigrate to the United States) and Irish physicist John Tyndall were, following on from de Saussure, at the forefront of research into the movement of glaciers, working in partnership and latterly in competition (the taciturn Forbes published his observations on some of Agassiz’ fieldwork without informing Agassiz, who viewed this as a breach of trust and accused Forbes of such in a letter.) The viscous theory hinged on the understanding of ‘regelation’, a phenomenon described by Michael Faraday in 1860, which was understood by Tyndall but not by Forbes.
The acrimony and controversy among these early scientists undoubtedly hindered their research into glacial movement. In the aftermath of the bitter arguments over who had discovered what and when, the seemingly even-handed Tyndall, in his 1860 ‘The Glaciers of The Alps’ stated that;
The idea of semi-fluid motion belongs entirely to Louis Rendu; the proof of the quicker central flow belongs in part to Rendu, but almost wholly to Louis Agassiz and Forbes; the proof of the retardation of the bed belongs to Forbes alone; while the discovery of the locus of the point of maximum motion belongs, I suppose, to me.’
These scientist-mountaineers, spending time on glaciers and mountains, wrote little on the subject of crevasses, other than as an impediment to travel and occasionally mentioning them in support of their theories. Tyndall, during an attempt to climb the Jungfrau in 1863, was stopped when one of his porters fell forty feet into a crevasse. In a letter to Michael Faraday, Tyndall, despite this incident, stated that;
There is certainly no more real danger of falling into a crevasse on the Aletsch glacier, than there is of being run over by a cab in crossing from Albemarle Street to James’s Street. Recklessness however makes both positions dangerous.” (Jackson, 2018)
Slowly, alpine climbing techniques developed, contemporaneously with these scientific, exploratory, and sporting ascents. Following several experiences of his own and of others, and in reaction to a written plea urging him to pressure guides to abandon the use of ropes altogether, he instead forwarded the letter to the Times, adding that he thought the solution was not practicable in all situations and that it would be better to split larger parties up (Jackson, 2018). Given the rope technology and climbing techniques available at the time this seems to have been an eminently sensible suggestion.
We looked into the hole, at one end of which the vision was cut short by darkness, while immediately under the broken bridge it was crammed with snow and shattered icicles. We saw nothing more. We listened with strained attention, and from the depths of the glacier issued a low moan. Its repetition assured us that it was no delusion—the man was still alive.’ (Tyndall, 1896).
In 1872 ‘The fortieth ascent of Mont Blanc’ was published, attributed to Jules Verne but possibly written by his brother, Paul.
We were about to advance upon the Bossons glacier. This glacier, difficult at first, presents yawning and apparently bottomless crevasses on every hand. The vertical sides of these crevasses are of a glaucous and uncertain colour, but too seducing to the eye; when, approaching closely, you succeed in looking into their mysterious depths, you feel yourself irresistibly drawn towards them, and nothing seems more natural than to go down into them.’ (Verne, 1872)
As well as an account of an emotional draw to explore the crevasse (although the above passage might also be an example of Freud’s ‘Todestrieb’, or ‘death-drive’) the short story includes a description of the precautions taken when crossing bridged crevasses.
You advance slowly, passing round the crevasses, or on the snow bridges of dubious strength. Then the rope plays its part. It is stretched out over these dangerous transits; if the snow bridge yields, the guide or traveller remains hanging over the abyss. He is drawn beyond it, and gets off with a few bruises. Sometimes, if the crevasse is very wide but not deep, he descends to the bottom and goes up on the other side.’
As mountaineers, our experiences with crevasses and our relationship with them generally changes and evolves as we grow in experience, much like our relationship with the mountains themselves. While a lot of ink has been spilled about the latter, from Wordsworth’s florid prose to Twight’s abrasive punk articles, our relationship with crevasses goes by relatively unexamined. Perhaps because, while the mountain gives and takes, allowing the tension of juxtaposition and a degree of navel gazing, the crevasse just takes; it swallows a foot, a leg, a piste-basher. Maybe crevasses are just too dark to be anything other than the bad guy; an obstacle on the way to that shining summit.
For the most part crevasses, to the mountaineer, represent a danger, a hidden or obvious threat to our well-being, our leisure and at times our existence.
I look to my right, the slowly tapering walls of hard ice slither into darkness. I know that it isn’t bottomless. The pressure of the deep glacial ice will press the walls together at around 60 or 80 feet. That’s how people die in crevasses. They become slotted into a narrow, gently tapering crevice. Their body heat melts the ice a little, and their body weight wedges them deeper into a self-made sarcophagus. They get compressed and it gets harder to breathe. Their body temperature drops steadily, fatally, until they are 32 degrees and dead. The snow ledge - for now - has saved me from this, my most frequent nightmare.’ - Steve House, Beyond the Mountain. House managed to climb free, despite having broken his leg in the fall.
For the most part crevasses, to the mountaineer, represent a danger, a hidden or obvious threat to our well-being, our leisure and at times our existence.
They can also be places of refuge and of great beauty, with a unique atmosphere, as much deserving of the title ‘nature’s cathedral’ as any limestone grotto.
I heard of crevasses in the weeks prior to my first alpine climbing trip. At that point I had worn crampons only once and hadn’t climbed anything longer than three pitches. My older and marginally more seasoned companions decided, quite wisely, that we should learn crevasse rescue before we left Scotland.
We met at a local quarry with featured bolt anchors near the rim and spent a few hours one dreich afternoon hauling an almost empty rucksack up a grotty slab. I had been advised to get some prussic loops and had dutifully bought two lengths of blue 5mm cord, tying them as instructed.
Two loops of cord, a few spare screw gates and two ice screws apiece. This totemic protection gave my partners and I the confidence to make our way up a few easy peaks, roped as a four. Nothing untoward happened and I began a love affair with mountains.
And I saw my first crevasses.
I remember the bergschrund below the summit of Mont Dolent, a ragged and narrow slot that I hurried over, trying to think myself lighter, dehydrated and and dizzy with exertion.
I remember the dry slots of the Mer de Glace, flaked with dust and dirt. Hopping over them, I was told that above the firn line the brethren of these slots would be lying in wait, ready to drag me into the cold and dark; to squeeze me to death between their walls, to mangle and freeze me. I didn’t dare get close enough to the rim to see far down but I got the message, loud and clear.
Once we started onto the wet glacier beyond the Courvercle hut I remember the feeling of not knowing what was underneath my feet and finding that sensation deeply disconcerting. A crevasse, as I understood them, could get me at any moment, anywhere. Solid ground, granite, dirt…these had never felt so good as when I got off a glacier.
I was safer than I had known on those first forays. My companions had kept an eye on me, educating me at a pace that they thought I could handle. Soon though I began organising my own trips, with less experienced friends. That’s where things started to get dangerous; when the bridges were weakest under my feet and the drops the biggest.
If I were to tally up the ascents I made with fellow neophyte alpinists I would be able to show that I spent months of days walking on crevassed glaciers with companions who couldn’t have built a useable snow anchor and, even if they had, would have struggled to rig a basic haul. We had the gear, just, but no idea; those same two ice screws, two loops of cord (now looking worse for wear) and a handful of snapgates…because I’d learned about going lightweight. We were a disaster waiting to happen that, somehow, never happened.
About this time a girlfriend took me to a modern art museum. It was free, a short walk from her flat. Among the exhibits were a series of paintings and woodcuts by Edvard Munch. While I had blitzed through much of the building, in a hurry to be elsewhere, I lingered by that display for some time, drinking it in and thinking about what was in front of me.
The three ages of woman. The unthreatening, demure virgin, the lusty and sensual woman in the prime of life, and the dark and haunting spectre of spent womanhood. What captured my attention was, of course, how I could recognise the interplay of these stages in the women in my life. Of course.
Years later that image came back to me while thinking about the three ages of the mountaineer. Reductionist, yes, but sometimes even crude tools have a use. The enthusiastic and naive beginner, the brash and headstrong young professional and the knowledgeable and staid alpiniste.
Place yourself on the scale. Now think where you would have placed yourself two, three, four years ago.
At some point during the danger years I realised know little I knew and set to work remedying the situation. From online resources, books and anyone I could pump for information I soaked up anything that would help me in the mountains. I lacked mentors; I could have learned so much more if I had been part of a group. I dismissed deadmen and snowstakes; they seemed too bulky and old fashioned for the kind of alpine climbing I aspired to. I added a tibloc to my rack and then a micro traxion and two DMM revolvers (snapgates; I was still into saving weight). Gradually my technical skills and mountain sense improved.
At the same time, I started going solo on glaciers.
A common expectation of avalanche education is that it should reduce the frequency of avalanche deaths. But is this expectation realistic? After all, education campaigns aimed at reducing unsafe sex, illegal drug use, unsafe driving and other risky behaviors have met with very limited success, and in some cases have even worsened the problems they were intended to solve.’ -From abstract ‘Sex, drugs and the white death’ Ian McDammon
I’d done a few routes with Ed and he was tired. But the weather was good and I knew I could keep climbing, should keep climbing, because when the weather broke I’d regret it if I took a break. I took the telepherique to the Aiguille du Midi and across the Vallée Blanche, getting the best possible view of the bus-sized slots that appeared and disappeared beneath the thin summer snow. I left the lift station, shouldered my pack and trudged through the wet afternoon snow from the Helbronner station to the Tour Ronde. As a concession to safety, I followed the trench carved into the glacier by the feet of other climbers and carried my poles by the middle, so that if I fell in I wouldn’t go further than my waist. I was a walking, sweating example of risk homeostasis and poor decision making. I found a flat spot, set up my tent and slept till early morning.
The next day, returning to my tent as the sun painted the summits red, I heard icicles dropping away beneath my feet and felt my heart jump into my mouth.
Somehow, I’m 29 now. 
Eventually my instinct for self preservation overcame the blinkers put in place by my ego. I stopped enjoying my little island of knowledge and started exploring the jagged but fruitful coastline of my ignorance, and being right became more important than preserving my sense of rightness. During the last few seasons I spent in the alps I was confident that my partners and I were being safe, that I had done everything I could to mitigate the risk. When I punched both feet through a mushy bridge on the way up the Argentiere glacier my partner and I were ready.
None of that explains why I fell in love with them.
As a result of the process outlined above I found myself in Antarctica, tasked with keeping scientists and technicians safe in a pristinely beautiful but potentially hostile environment. Not only with keeping them safe, but taking them climbing, skiing, mountaineering and crevassing in their allocated recreation time.
In the culture in which I now found myself crevassing had long been a recognised recreational activity. At first I had assumed it was enjoyed by the non-mountaineers because, like going for a ride on a skidoo, it didn’t involve too much exertion. Fortunately for everyone involved my opinion was moot; what the scientist wants to do on their winter trip is for the field guide to facilitate, not to criticise. I accepted that I’d lose some mountaineering days to crevassing and committed to going down a hole.
I abseiled off a three snow stake anchor. My colleagues and their charges had been inside this slot the previous week and everyone had raved about how good it was. A convenient platform and entrance to the crevasse had been created by the repeated collapse of a section of the roof, resulting in a relatively straightforward slope leading into the darkness. As I spun three screws into solid ice to protect the next abseil I was painfully aware that this process was ongoing and that there were large, snow-plastered icicles ending a few feet above my head, suspended from several tons of snow-ice.
As I inched my way deeper the light faded to a pale blue and I became conscious of the surreal beauty of my surroundings. Icicles wove their way down the walls, some at odd angles from the wind or from the movement of the blocks they were growing from. Only once I was made fast to a belay at the bottom and ready to start moving together did I have time to really look around and appreciate where I was.
Above me the crevasse was closed over, about thirty meters up. At the widest point it was twenty meters wide, with sheer to overhanging walls, festooned with icicles. Every kind of ice imaginable was visible; hard, black ice transparent to three meters at least, delicate clusters of hexagonal ice crystals that tinkled at the slightest touch; rounded blobs, the stalagmites to the stalactites above.
The floor was solid for the most part. At the deeper side of the chamber a layer of ice, millimetres thick, shattered noisily under our crampons. I’m no glaciologist but the logical explanation is that in the height of summer water must rise to that level. Once the cooler weather comes the top layer freezes as the rest drains away, leaving a false floor behind.
We worked deeper, finding more and more to look at. The main chamber split into two; one branch giving a classic crevasse, an aesthetic slot of striated ice that pinched together at the top and at the bottom. The other fork led to an odd, angular grotto. Neither avenue offered much additional distance; in total we had gone perhaps 150m horizontally from where we had entered. Photography wasn’t easy due to the dull, flat light, coming through the ceiling like an out of focus milky way.
I left with a totally different view of crevasses then I had gone in with.
If this article shows any trend in the literature regarding crevasses, it is this; they are still treated in much the same way by modern alpinists as they were by the early explorers and scientists, often using the very same adjectives -fearsome, gaping, ominous. Our scientific understanding of glacial movement has changed immensely since those early days and our ability to navigate glaciers safely has been transformed by modern equipment, and, most importantly, modern techniques. Our emotional response to crevasses and the resulting references in mountain literature remain stuck in 1819, with W.M. Howard and his six foot baton.
There are exceptions. A search for ‘crevasse’ on the web brings forth reports of climbers killed in crevasse falls, a glacier made impassable by crevasses…but also of a bivvy in a crevasse, an idea that would have been utterly alien to early mountaineers. A few fresh adjectives have begun to creep in.
We brought sleeping bags and sleeping pads, but no tent, planning to bivouac in crevasses during the descent…We dropped the first 1,500m of the descent fairly quickly (which is actually the Japanese route, not the Sultana Ridge), and then continued along the Sultana Ridge a short ways before finding a hospitable crevasse to take shelter in. After sleeping about five hours, we got up and continued on our way. On the east ridge of Lady Point we popped into a crevasse that we had used as a shelter during our acclimatization venture to melt more snow, take some rest, and take a very short nap (maybe 30 minutes).’-Colin Haley, ‘Infinite Spur Laps’ http://www.colinhaley.com/infinite-spur-laps/
An article in ‘Summit’ magazine persuaded me that this piece could be of interest to a wider audience. The author of that article had enjoyed an introduction to crevasses while doing the same job as I was, a concurrence that convinced me both that crevasse exploring is not yet a widespread activity and that it has a certain affect on those who partake of it.
Instead of the fear based approach to crevasses that I started off with, why not try something different. Don’t look down on them; look up, to the glittering chandeliers with the pale glow of a hidden sky above them. Get to know your enemy. Spend some time exploring, in the spirit of whichever Verne peered over those edges. The risks inherent to crevassing are no worse than those tolerated elsewhere on a mountain and the experience of being inside a slot, of imagining what it would be like to fall through that thin roof and crumple on the floor, will cure anyone of a desire to tramp about solo on wet glaciers in the heat of the afternoon sun.
Rob. Taylor
Images supplied by the author
Bibliography
Desmaison, R. and Taylor, J., 1982. Total Alpinism. London u.a.: Granada, p.26.
Howard, W., 1821. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Baltimore: Fielding Lucas, Jr.
Shelley, M and Shelley, P., 1817. History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni. London: Thomas Hookham, Jr. and Charles and James Ollier
Clarke, G., 1987. A short history of scientific investigations on glaciers. Journal of Glaciology, 33(S1), pp.4-24.
Rendu, L., 1840. Théorie Des Glaciers De La Savoie.
Tyndall, J., 2011. The Glaciers Of The Alps. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, R., 2018. The Ascent Of John Tyndall. New York: Oxford university press, p.Chapter 14.
Verne, J., 2014. The Fortieth French Ascent Of Mont Blanc. Lanham: Start Classics.
House, S., 2013. Beyond The Mountain. New York: Patagonia Books.
McCammon, I., 2004. SEX, DRUGS AND THE WHITE DEATH: LESSONS FOR AVALANCHE EDUCATORS FROM HEALTH AND SAFETY CAMPAIGNS. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2020].
Haley, C., 2016. Infinite Spur Laps. [online] Colinhaley.com. Available at: [Accessed 27 May 2020].
Reynaud, L., 2020. LA MER DE GLACE ET LES GLACIERS DU MONT BLANC. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2020].
I’m indebted to Anne and Bernadette of ‘Le Bureau des Amis du Vieux Chamonix’ for information concerning the final year that cows were driven across the Mer de Glace.
Burton, I., 2013. Crack Addict, Summit. (70), pp.44-48.