Monday, 17 November 2014

Dangerous Dancing

After our failure on the Walker’s flank, three weeks of bad weather passed, and ideas changed. Terry King turned up, and Gordon Smith came back from Leysin. They directed their considerable charms towards the Croz Direct. I wanted to do the Dru Couloir and teamed up with Nick Colton, an ‘aristocrat’ from Manchester and one of the scruffiest people on God’s earth. Once, having just had a vision in which he had cleaned the Fissure Nominé, he threw away all our hardware except for an ice-screw and a couple of bugaboos. (ever lost eighteen krabs and twelve pegs at one go!) That night, two ‘enlightened’ persons perched themselves on top of the Petit Dru, to freeze in the teeth of a north-easterly and study a starlit and by then plastered Jorasses North Wall. Visions of Armageddon faded, and around midnight we cracked. We decided to go back for another try.

Which indeed we did, though we nearly didn’t because I left my head-torch behind and so dedicate this affair to the congenial Froggy who lent me his, and to the half-roll of Sellotape with which I repaired it. 10.30 pm, on August 6, 1976, found two little lads at the foot of the Walker Spur. This time we had decided to beat the ‘schrund’ with a short left cross. Water was still running, but the face was quiet and the night clear. To start the spur, we took the left-hand rock alternative (the initial ice-slope did not exist) and followed this as far as the main ice-slope that cuts into the buttress on the right. Then it was softly, softly rightwards, to slip between the upper ’schrund and the rocks above, out on to the ice-field for a tense tip-toe affair, like ants going the wrong way up a bowling alley, with not a sound uttered lest we bring the house down.

We hung left to avoid being anywhere below the mouth of the Japanese Gully- vulnerable, so vulnerable. A roar: hearts in boots, we froze in fear, but it was only a plane passing low from the south. 2.30 a.m. We hung back on our ice screws, sorting the gear,roping up, peering and wondering, because it looked steep up there. At least, it looked steep as far as we could see, which was as far as you can throw a head-torch. There was no moon and it was dark in the couloir.

There followed five pitches in a grand Scottish illusion: steep, bulging, demanding, all engrossing, totally rewarding. Up through a spindrift flow,in the teeth of a biting wind. Belays for sitting, but not for falling. Few runners- no time-fantastic stuff. We emerged with the daylight on to the ice-field separating the two rock-bands. Around us, ropes darted in and out of the ice like frozen umbilical cords. I counted footage, but thought in cash. We rescued a couple of shiny krabs and took a hefty swing at a little blue sack, but its coffin was hard and rubbery and it would have taken an hour to release, so we left it with parting tears.

It was no place to linger: a sensational, exposed, vulnerable, 50° platform in a vertical sea, a mean place to quit in trouble. Above, fixed ropes ran up a broad shallow gully of compact looking rock, but we were hungry for ice and, a little to the left, there seemed to be a connection with the runnel above. It looked a little like The Curtain on Ben Nevis, but the first 50ft. or so turned out to be unconsolidated powder, so we took to the steep and deceptive pile of rubble on the right. It was loose, a fact to which Nick swore blind as he sailed past for a sixty-footer on to a hapless second.

“Just hold tight and I’ll monkey up the rope.” He did, and reached the top of the pitch for a belay. There followed a full and interesting run-out, on the border between ice,and rock, and finally we were through the second barrier, with 1,000ft. of sensational climbing behind us. Then it was away up the cold, blue runnel that broadens out into the second ice-field. We front-pointed. Audoubert understands:

Now begins that very special ice dance, a rhythmic ballet in four movements, a mixture of barbaric and primitive gestures and classical movement. The character before his mirror of ice makes precise steps with his front points, like a lead dancer rehearsing. In this special ballet pirouettes are forbidden. The emphasis on the  curve of his calves and the strength of his ankles equals the fierce, attacking look on his face. The best dancer, like the best toreador, strikes only once.

It was a long haul. Away to our right we could pick out more ropes, relics of the mammoth Japanese siege. Somewhere round here Lachenal and Terray passed by, but I think it must have been in pretty bad visibility. We heard voices but saw no one. The ice was hard and, after three years’ wear, my poor Chouinards (God bless him!) let my toes know there was no more curve left. What had appeared to be three pitches up the ice extended to five, and we regained the rocks with creaking calves.

The final head-wall is about 800ft. In it, a well-defined gully system curls up and left in behind the Red Tower, to join the Walker Spur about two pitches below the summit. For about 400ft. It is backed by a thin ice weep. But this wouldn’t take the gear, so we kept to the right wall. It was mean stuff: deceptive, awkward, and inevitably loose. And this was no time for mistakes, for we were tired now. It seemed a long way from that 9.0 a.m. rise the day before. In the northerly wind, the rock was bitterly cold. Above, sunlit walls beckoned, but progress was slow and any thoughts we had dared to entertain of reaching the heat receded to the summit. Incredibly, we had seen no stones all day, but Nick made up for that by burrowing away through the rocks above. In places the second is nastily exposed. I took a slate on the leg, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Nick solved the problems of getting back into the gully bed by falling off.

“What’s happening?” “Nowt-just fallen off.” and finally we arrived at the summit of a dream, a couple of pitches down and desperate for a brew.We charged on up but then there were these two little ledges just asking to be sat upon, so much more comfortable than the cold, wet snow on the other side and so much more convenient. So we sat down, just five minutes short, to dine on cheese and ham butties, with coffee by the gallon. Rare moments: we were asleep before the night came. Next morning we woke late. The weather had closed in and it was doubly bitter.

The stove worked, but the theory didn’t. 20 minutes could only provide water on the rocks. We dozed over this cold brew until shouts from below drew us out of our lethargy. Two lads appeared, fresh as daisies, despite their fourth bivi. They were the first party up the Walker for weeks. We chewed hurriedly at laces and gloves and raced them to the summit. They had come thousands of miles to climb this hill. It was like Christmas on top of the Walker.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot...... And they all lived happily ever after.

Alex Macintyre: First published in Mountain 1977