Friday, 30 April 2010

The Night Shift

Steve Ashton grew up in Lancashire and began climbing in Wilton Quarries at the end of the 1960s. Encouraged by this short but brutal apprenticeship, he visited the Dolomites aged 17, climbed a couple of short grade VI routes (one of them a first ascent), and narrowly survived an epic thunderstorm that claimed many lives across the Alps. He worked as a labourer and body exhumer then moved to North Wales to train as a climbing instructor. After a brief career in outdoor centres and a summer of guiding in Switzerland, he switched to writing, eventually becoming a regular columnist for High and an adventure sports writer for lifestyle magazines. He also produced several mountaineering guides and handbooks, the best known being the influential Scrambles in Snowdonia, which was largely responsible for reviving interest in this esoteric sport, and 100 Classic Climbs in North Wales. He moved to France but soon returned to Britain to begin work as an actor and playwright, later co-founding Blue Lizard Theatre Company. He is currently writing a novel with a climbing backdrop.
I was leading the Very Severe Great Central Route on Dow Crags. My second Alan Hargreaves, was belayed on a small stance, about 30ft below the ledge known as the Bandstand. Above me was the South America Crack. The crack was terribly strenuous, and near the top the holds seemed to give out completely. My only support was my left arm jammed in the crack; I hung outwards from it and clawed at the rock... I squirmed up again until my head came to the overhang; my balaclava helmet dropped noiselessly to the bottom. I slipped down again and hung there exhausted... I had to go on struggling — for ever and ever, it seemed. I jerked myself up again in a last despairing effort. I was so done in that I could hardly see. Everything went black. The next thing I knew I was 30ft lower down, hurtling head-first through the air... Now I'm in for a nasty smash, I thought.'....from 'Let's Go Climbing' by Colin Kirkus)

I was leading the Very Severe Great Central Climb on Esk Buttress. My second, a youthful Crag Jones, was belayed on a small stance, about 30ft below the ledge known as the Waiting Room. Above me was Frankland's Crack. The crack was terribly strenuous, and near the top the holds seemed to give out completely. My only support was my left arm jammed in the crack; I hung outwards from it and clawed at the rock. I squirmed up again until my head came to the overhang; my shirt tore and my tobacco tin spilled out, clanking down the cliff with a terrible noise, followed by the guidebook which fluttered past Crag's head like an angry owl. I slipped down again and hung there exhausted... I had to go on struggling — for ever and ever, it seemed. I jerked myself up again in a last despairing effort. I was so done that I could hardly see. Everything went black (hardly surprising — the sun had set over an hour ago). The next thing I knew I was 30ft higher up, sitting on a ledge above all the difficulties. Now I'm in for a pat on the back, I thought.' (from Let's Not Bother by Steve Ashton)

Steve Ashton leading Via Rossi (VI) Sella, The Dolemites 1972: Ashton Collection©

Kirkus's epic ended when `everything went black' — he fell 70ft without major injury and limped down to Coniston in time for dinner. Ours was only just beginning. Crag prusiked up using a sling and his teeth. We didn't know the way down. There was no moon. Crag said we might make last orders if we hurried. We got back to Brotherilkeld at 2.30am. Kirkus had epics because he was pushing out the frontiers of technical achievement. I had epics because I couldn't get up in the morning. Climbing in the dark was as normal as climbing in the rain, in the days when that was normal. Night climbing through choice became part of our preparations for a first visit to the Dolomites, anticipating (correctly) that we would be incapable of completing any of the routes in daylight.

This nocturnal but otherwise innocent banging and flashing in Wilton Quarries once attracted the attention of the Lancashire Constabulary. At the time I was struggling among a tangle of fifis and etriers two-thirds of the way up a route (probably since free-climbed at Mild VS) while my brother Tony belayed me from the shelter of an umbrella. The PC shone his interrogating light up into my eyes: "What are you doing?" he said,unsure which word to emphasise. "Trying to place a Cassin channel peg," I replied. The light waved around a bit but there was no response.After five minutes of standing in the lashing rain he said, "Oh", and walked off.

Climbing by torch or moonlight was almost cheating. It could be brighter than Houghton Quarry on a dull afternoon. Our new puritanical approach reached its zenith on the Widdop Ordinary. We climbed as a threesome — one climbing, one belaying, one striking the matches. The rain didn't help. We pulled socks over our boots for extra grip on the lichenous rock and battled through to the crucial Bull's Horns move. We took the bull by the horns, as it were, and hung on while it bucked us around the paddock. And we were well and truly bucked, I can tell you, when we finally emerged bloodier and wiser at the top. We decided it would be easier in the Dolomites if we simply got out of bed earlier.

I was to meet Tony at the railway station in Bolzano. `Bring lots of food and money with you,' he had said in his letter. I brought a family-sized pack of Kellogg's Cornflakes, two loaves of Mother's Pride, and eight quid in cash. Tony called me a dick. In his rucksack was enough ironmongery to aid our way up the Brandler-Hasse without having to clean the pitches. But there was no food, and not much money. "Help me up with it," he said. But it was so heavy I couldn't even pick it up off the platform bench.

Top of our credentials for blitzing the Dolomites was a recent ascent of Crackstone Rib, a wobbly Severe on Carreg Wastad. Alarm bells rang on the bus ride up to the Sella Pass as we pressed our faces to the back window and looked up at the 4,000ft north face of Sassolungo — our prime objective. Ignited by the setting sun, it looked like a volcano about to erupt. Unable to control my anxiety, I let out an involuntary and embarrassingly loud noise. The passengers turned their heads and glowered at us in South Tyrolean. Due to some confusion (or perhaps it was deliberate), we were put off the bus some five miles short of the Sella Hut. This created a bit of problem, because although Tony was capable of lifting his rucksack, he could not carry it and walk at the same time. We curled up on the grass, masticated a slice of Mother's Pride, and lay awake all night wondering if we wouldn't be more at home in Cwm Idwal.

For three days we avoided benightment, largely because we never got higher than two pitches off the ground. On the fourth day, our supply of cornflakes and bread exhausted, we went shopping. We bought grapes, bread sticks, spaghetti, pilchards and red wine, these being the five cheapest items in the shop. Thereafter we had spaghetti sandwiches and red wine for breakfast; grapes and red wine for lunch; pilchards, spaghetti and red wine for dinner; and red wine for supper. Then, after we had sicked it all up, we made eyes at the daughters of Italian mothers until our vision became too blurred to make a distinction between mothers and daughters and then fell asleep in, or in the vicinity of, our room in the Englishmen's annexe to the hut.

One day we got to the top of a mountain. Being unprepared for this turn of events — we had neither torch nor bivvy gear with us — we became desperate to get down before nightfall. We got 50ft down before it went dark, then it went like this: Tony would throw a pebble over the edge while we both listened carefully; a noise meant there was a rock ledge below, whereas no noise meant there was a grass ledge below. Tony, being the leader, would then go down with the cigarette lighter to confirm our prediction, later holding the lighter so it shone in my eyes while I climbed down to join him. Then we did the bit with the pebble again. It worked well enough and we didn't die.

Next day we went on Cinque Dita. It being already two o'clock in the afternoon, a route billed as, 'ideal for a short day' seemed like our sort of climb. No need for bivvy gear, just throw in a spare cardigan and off we go. Chastened by our experiences the previous night, Tony nevertheless decided to upgrade our emergency equipment with a pen-light torch. Everything went smoothly until we reached a notch a couple of hundred feet down the descent route. Then it went dark.Tony threw a pebble over the edge. Silence. Good, that meant grass. He began to climb over the edge, the torch gripped between his teeth. We knew all about this sort of thing. Fifteen seconds later came a distant tinkling noise as the pebble hit rock. Tony climbed back up and spat out the torch.

Fortunately we both knew how to abseil. Only last month we'd abseiled down an 80ft slab in Cwm Idwal. "I'm game if you are," I said, anticipating a jolly adventure. Tony banged a Cassin knife-blade almost halfway into the rock and lowered himself over the edge, taking the torch. I leaned down and put my hand on the peg. I could feel it bending and hurriedly unclipped from it. Then I thought about freezing to death all alone on the mountain and clipped back in.

Free Abbing in the Dolemites 1971: Ashton Collection©

Hours later, or it could have been minutes, the peg relaxed and I knew Tony had either reached a ledge or slid off the end of the ropes. Either way it was time for me to follow. Fumbling in the dark, I clipped my figure-of-eight descendeur made from superior-grade coat-hanger wire on to my state-of-the-art, four-strand chest harness and lowered over the edge. Thank God for technology. After 15ft I lost contact with the rock. I could see nothing, and if it hadn't been for the asphyxiating constriction on my rib cage I might have been falling down a bottomless chimney.

By and by I came to a knot in the end of the ropes. My ordeal was over. But what's this? Tied to the end of the ropes was a sling. I stood in it and unclipped the descendeur. I could breathe again. But what's this? Another sling. Then another, and another, until there were no more slings, only air. Then a voice said, "Start swinging towards me," and from somewhere in the blackness a switch clicked and a bulb glowed. After penduluming this way and that (mostly that) for a couple of minutes, something grabbed hold of my leg. Hello Tony. Hello Steve. Tony was hanging from a sling clipped to a Cassin knife-blade hammered almost halfway into the rock. "How did you manage to get that in?" I asked. "It's a long story," he said. Then, in a quiet but authoritative voice, added: "Don't let go of the ropes."

While Tony shone the torch in my eyes, I climbed up to retrieve the ropes. Tony said to be careful because he couldn't guarantee the belay. I told him to quit shining the torch in my eyes. I thought I must have offended him, because at that moment the light went off altogether. Job done I climbed back down over his head and on to his shoulders and clipped myself into the Cassin knife-blade peg, the full story of which hasn't been gone into, even to me. Then Tony said in a quiet voice: "Keep very still; I've dropped the torch and I think it's wedged between my leg and the rock." And it had. I retrieved it and Tony started giggling. I thought about slapping his face. But then he put the torch back between his teeth, said "eel gee gow shoo", and abseiled off into the night.
Hours, or minutes, later the peg stopped twitching and it was my turn again. When I got to the end of the rope I felt a knot, and beneath the knot was a sling, and beneath that sling was another sling, and so on and so forth. And then a voice said, "Over here," and it was the same thing all over again. Thirteen abseils later we tossed the ropes into a black void only to hear them thud into scree a few feet below. Our waking nightmare was over.

We got to the hut just as the sky started to pale. There was an Italian gentleman sleeping in Tony's bunk. Tony told him what to do, expresso. But the Italian shook his head, turned over, and went back to sleep. "Leave him, he doesn't understand", I said, having noticed that the man reached both ends of the bunk. "I'll make him understand," Tony said, starting up the ladder, "I'm buggered if I'm going to lie on the floor all night listening to Mario here snoring in my bunk". Well, one thing led to4 another, and the upshot of it was that I lay on the floor listening to Mario snoring in Tony's bunk and Tony snoring in mine. But it didn't matter; in an hour it would be
daylight, and we had some shopping to do.

Pia Ciavazes, Dolemites 1971 at the impromptu bivi. Ashton Collection©
Steve Ashton© : First published in High- April 1990.