Saturday, 5 January 2013

Snakes and Ladders

Robin Smith: Original photo-Jimmy Marshall

Here is a note in English on the first Scottish ascent of the least vertical wall in all the Alps.
We went for a week or two among the greater mountains, the first, of course, the Matterhorn, a noble pile, so a day or two later we came to the Dolomites. We hairpinned up to Lavaredo, 3 in 1 and 2 by 2, S. and R. for the wheel and meals and Haston and me for the Cima West. The cold at dawn would have blackened the toes of a brass monkey. So around 10, Haston and me, we ambled round to under the North Wall (having made a cunning plan with S. and R.) with 300ft. of rope, doubled, 1 sack, 1 camera, 2 hammers, 6 slings, 8 etriers, 40 karabiners, and (cunningly) 300ft. of line to save us taking bivvy gear.

Cassin climbed it years ago, two men and three days and just a few pitons, 800ft. up the far right edge, then 500ft. of hairy traverse- above the biggest overhang you ever saw- in to the middle of the wall, then, 1,000ft. up a couloir and over the top in a thundering storm, babbling. But nowadays they go for Diret­tissimas, straight up the biggest overhangs with a great beating of pegs and drums. A first ascent can last for years, with time off for rest cures, with an average of more than a piton a yard, and just a few expansion bolts where the rock won't take pitons, and just a few free-climbing moves rudely disrupting the rhythm of swinging free.

The powers of the pioneers to pitoneer and persevere are far beyond the grasp of Stone-age Britons, but all the pitons are left in place so that later ascents are comparatively easy. In 1959, inevit­ably, they finished a direct start to the Via Cassin; and here is how we cunningly climbed it.
We tied on to the double rope, and divided the gear, and one man took the sack, with the line and the camera, and the other took the krabs and stepped up off the path. For 20ft. you climb the rock, because it's only vertical.

The wall has the look of an elephant's hide, flat and smooth from a distance, but riddled all over with pocks and warts, piton-cracks, sharp little finger holds, crumbling jugs, loose flakes, shallow grooves, sharp little roofs, and ledges to stand on once in a blue moon. The route is a wandering line of pitons, 400ft. hither and thither up a shallow, gently overhanging bay, to under the monstrous arch of a roof jutting out about 80ft., and then 200ft. along a magnifi­cent zig-zag piton crack, twisting up and out and leftwards all at once, and round the lip of the roof, and then by another 400ft. of gently overhanging wall easing off to the plumb vertical just as it joins the Via Cassin at the end of the hairy traverse under the couloir.

But we had had but a nibbling foretaste of unelementary piton­eering. So up we bumbled, up two down one, clawing krabs and thrashing air, hurling holds at audiences, otherwise avoiding the rock like a hot tin roof, but nonetheless trapping fingers, baring knuckles, dripping gore on krabs and ropes and beating knees to black and blue balloons. To play it cool, you harmonise your ropes. "Tight on white, and slack a bit of red." Only ours were both a dirty white, synchronically turning speckled red, obtusely-clipped at acutest angles, writhing into tumorous kinks, and hideously twisted like a pair of loving snakes, with the man who was climbing too throttled to speak and the man at the reins too sleepy to listen and the two of us linked by nothing but hate and discord. One man would follow the pitons till he ran out of rope or krabs or couldn't drag the rope any further, then he would sit and swing in his ladders while the other man followed, collecting all the krabs, and clambered over the first, man and up the next pitch. Easy; but night fell at the end of four pitches, which is to say, right away out on the lip of the monster roof.

This was not cunning, but we had a cunning move in hand, and scanned the gloomy screes below and bawled to left and right. But no S. and R., so we passed a worried hour spinning our webs for the night. Haston was laughing, he was at a belay, a rugosity for his seat and one foothold. He faced out, lopsidedly crucified across a ring of pitons, head jammed under a bit of roof, and held in at the belly by Criss-cross bits of hoary abandoned rope. I was 20ft. down and right, hanging free from a holdless scoop, but with pitons all around. So facing in, I wove a net of krabs and ladders and bits of sling, slung around me under my armpits, under my seat and under my knees, with toes against the rock an inch above the biggest bit of roof, seated, as it were, on a bottomless closet, and feeling that way too.

Robin Smith-left and Dougal Haston:Original Photo SMC

I had the sack, so while Haston yelled the odds I took out the line and unravelled it 300ft. down into the night. This was the first, but we feared it was the last of the steps of our cunning plan. But then the plaintive voice of S. rose from the screes. We answered warmly. They had driven down to town to buy us fruit and goodies and bread and jam and butter and chocolate full of brandy, and cooked a thermos of coffee and a dixie of stew and potatoes, and wrapped them in duvets and sleeping-bags with knife and fork and spoon, and tied them all into a great rucksack. But then, it seemed, they had taken the sack to the wrong mountain; and only by chance had S. happened to hear us. So S. went off to fetch the sack and R.

By now it was so dark that I couldn't see more than a blur of Haston, but we both untied from the double rope and undoubled it, with some confusion, into a single length of 300ft. Then Haston tied onto one end, and I tied the other end to the top end of the dangling line and carried on lowering so that the bottom end of the line would reach all the 500ft. to the screes. But meanwhile, hanging loops of rope had embrangled themselves around the dangling line, and as I lowered the rope the line came back up in a loop-the-loop, and I found myself lowering it all over again. A fankle ensued. So I went to work like a fizzling computer, speaking coaxing words to all the little knots, with Haston somewhere up above turning cold and repetitive.

 Meanwhile S., with the sack and R., had been back for quite some time; we could see them waving torches at the bottom. In two hours all but the kernels of fankle were solved, so I lowered as much as I could, and sure enough they caught it in the beam of a torch, snaking down to the screes 100ft. out from the base of the wall. They fixed the sack to the end, and I rigged up a pulley of krabs, and then they beetled off. back to camp and I pulled up the sack. From where he was, Haston was useless, he just froze and swore and moaned, while the rope came up in tiny jerks and down in the depths the invisible sack was monstrously spinning and leaping through the night.

The pulley was all wrong, and once in a while there were bits of fankle to get past the krabs, and the more I pulled in the worse the fankles grew, till even my arms were all seized up in knots, and not until the first faint glimmer of dawn did the sack swirl into sight. I gaffed it to a piton and slumped in my slings, but then I was roused by Haston's groans, so I put on a duvet and sleeping-bag, and gobbled coffee and handfuls of goodies and stew, and Haston pulled up his share, with goodies and stew unhappily all mixed up, and then we slept.

Well into the morning S. and R. returned, so loth as sloths we unbedded ourselves and packed the rucksack, keeping duvets and goodies. Then I lowered it, that was easy, but the ropes were so fankled it stuck half-way, so I had to pull it up (pull it up) and start all over again. Next time it stuck about 60ft. from the 'screes, but I wasn't going to pull it up, so Haston untied from his end of the, rope, which gave me another 20ft., and I added a chain of tatty' slings, and S. stood tip-toe on a rock and got hold of the sack and took it off, and the ropes sprung back so high in the air that I hardly needed to pull them up at all. Then I took our cunning line and hurled it back to the screes, and Haston recovered an end of rope and we tried to redouble it for climbing, but the strain had left it twisted and kinked in psychopathic convulsions, and not for a dismal number of hours did we start to climb.

The climbing was just the bleeding same, with nothing but the beginnings of cunning to balance the loss of blood and vigour. We reached the hairy traverse of the Via Cassin just in time for an hour of beating sun-set, and here was the very first ledge of the climb with plenty of room for two. So we settled for a reasonably typical hunched-up twitching, chittering, wriggling, burbling, hellishly freezing bivouac. Then half an hour of tepid sun-rise hustled us onwards. The Direttissima really finishes up a lot more pitons just left of the Via Cassin couloir. But it looked daft and we were sickened, so stuffing our ladders away, we finished up the crumbling, tumbling couloir. At noon we came out in the frizzling sun and hobbled down the other side all sweat and blood and stiff and sore, with fists rolled up like hedge-hogs, and they never opened till S. and R. had fed us full of food and wine and wheeled us home to the land of rolling Munros.

Robin Smith