We were becoming accustomed to being here on the wall. We didn't look towards the end of the climb or torture ourselves with thoughts of hot showers, beer and those soft warm beds where you don't wear boots, mittens or balaclavas. The furthest we allowed ourselves to look ahead was to the next bivouac and the only pleasures we promised ourselves were steaming mugs of soup in the evening and a warm mug of thick cocoa before the long, long night. We reached the Hinterstoisser, that improbable traverse which leads into the cauldron of the middle of the Face. Thankfully there were some ropes in place, but they were old and Dick eased himself nervously across the last twenty feet clinging to the frayed cores of two sheath-less lines.
Two and a half days to the Swallows Nest, where we'd bivouaced in summer after only a few hours scramble. The niche was lost in the snow and we tip-toed past it on to the first icefield. But we had been spotted and when a helicopter came hovering in we realised that we were the performers in a gigantic arena for the leisurely tourists to watch from the hotel or stare at from the helicopter. They were like spectators at a film and we were the film: we felt as a fly must when it sees people staring at it and tantalising it — failing to appreciate that it is involved very privately in its own affairs. The helicopter hung there droning as I tried to lead the Ice Hose. I waited, unable to concentrate on the steep runnel of ice, and unwilling to provide the spectacle for which all mountain spectators long — the fall.
Eventually the helicopter disappeared and we used axe and crampons on ground up which we had climbed in the darkness during the summer. There were bands of ice across the limestone slabs below the Second Ice Field, so I tried to lead in crampons but they refused to hold on the rock. I tried again without crampons but the ice was in the wrong place so I put them on again and tried to one side. It still wouldn't go: the enormity of that colossal wall was squashing me. 'I can't do it Dick,' I shouted down, a depressing admission of defeat. 'Have you tried without your sack,' I hung the sack on a peg and moved further left. There was a slab at chest height with bands of ice an inch thick across it. I had to stand up on these ice bands. Would they hold? Gingerly I got the picks of my axe and hammer into the ice band above — feeling the rock beneath them. I pulled up and cramponed onto the slab. My foot slipped. The axe and hammer held. I placed the crampon on the rock again — and again it slipped — and as I fell off balance the hammer started to twist from the ice.
Steepening ground below the difficult crack
I pressed it in desperately and trying to pull up on it at the same time I lunged upwards with my crampon into the ice beside the axe. By a fierce contortion I struggled upright and into balance. I was exhausted: my nerves were shattered, my brain squeezed and I was ready for a rest. Another day drew to a close and I felt it was a miracle that we were still there. In the dark we found a place to bivouac and spent an hour carving out a ledge, out it was worthwhile. We cooked and shuffled around to find the optimum comfort. As on other nights I struggled with drowsiness to look for the twinkling constellations wishing I knew more about them, but usually fatigue won and sleep, that great balm, soon took over. As usual we woke at 4 a.m. in order to utilise every moment of daylight. I had a little wrist alarm which used to buzz in case we overslept. It took an hour to prepare and eat breakfast, another half hour to get ready and a further twenty minutes to fight through the layers of clothing, velcro, flaps and zips to pay the morning call.
It was 6.00 in the morning of the fourth day that Dick led onto the Second Ice Field, and I was glad it was him. Sure, it's only ice and not steep — but it was black unfriendly ice and there was a thousand feet of it. No excitement, just up and across, foot by foot, a thousand steps, crampon points hardly biting, axes holding — but the hammer pick not at all, and knuckles bruised and fingers lacerated from the constant hammering. And then late in the day some variation as we climbed off the Ice Field on to the Flat Iron up steep rock broken by overhangs. It was my lead and I left my sack behind and teetered up first in crampons and then without, clawing at the rock with numb and painful fingers which stuck to each peg or karabiner as I touched it. It was cold. It was also difficult and I felt like a hero when I pulled up over the top. By now we were tired after four days on the wall and our sacks were still enormous. There were other excuses too for stopping on the crest of the Flat Iron before reacing the Death Bivouac. We had planned to eat most of our food here to lighten the loads and to make a rapid push the following morning towards the Exit Cracks —and — faint hope —the summit. The idea was sound but grey trails of cloud were sliding across the sky with the dusk and we rethought the whole plan. If the weather was going to turn bad we would need every ounce of food we were carrying to survive. We slept in the bivouac sack that night impatient for the morning and the chance to start moving again and make a few more feet towards the summit — a few feet less to climb should the weather break.
Each one of us kept stealing secret glances outside throughout the night to look at the cloudy sky and wonder. If it broke should we go down or go up? We knew that once past the Death Bivouac we would have passed what is usually the point of no return. But the weather held and so to the Third Ice Field, like black glass which splintered when you kicked it, and then on to the Ramp, the first of the big uncertainties. The Ramp looks so short from the meadows below the Face, but rope lengths came and went and we seemed to get no higher. Some pitches were difficult but the Waterfall Chimney which we had dreaded was dry and free from ice. A welcome bonus. The Rib Pitch too was clean, but when I came to follow Dick up it powder snow had fallen onto the holds, and where I had balanced easily in summer I was forced to struggle with cracked and senseless fingers. That day we only managed the Third Icefield and the Ramp. The fifth bivouac was the worst so far, a mere seat smashed out of the ice amid loose blocks, a perch for the night on the shattered ledges. But at least we could now anticipate reaching the summit eventually and we mentioned beer for the first time. I remembered it was Saturday the 1st of March and my first climbing partner was getting married. I'd had to write to say I couldn't make it.
My sack hung from a peg beside me and I wedged my head behind it to stop myself falling forwards. I dreamt there was a policeman booking me, 'Hello officer, what's this for? "I'm booking you for driving a piton down this groove."But officer I didn't know anyone else knew about this groove."I often drive down this way myself' I woke to find that Dick was lying with his head in my lap and his feet somehow lodged behind a rock. 'You don't mind?' 'No, it's okay.' And now it was Sunday and we climbed the steep pitch up to the Traverse of the Gods in the semi-darkness before the dawn. I felt a little shaky, my nerves were probably bad from the epic on the icy slabs, or maybe our rigid crampons weren't ideal on this mixed ground, so I edged gingerly along the traverse back into the heart of the Face —the White Spider. But black would have been an apter adjective, for the ice was the worst yet and the steepest we had come across and unfortunately it fell to me to scrape and claw my way up it in the lead. The climbing required no technique: it was kick like hell and smash in the picks of the axe and the hammer, meanwhile glancing down to see of the crampon front points had gone in as much as a quarter-inch.
Every blow seemed more to smash my knuckles than improve my balance. An old rope hung down to my right and I reached it and guiltily rejoiced in using its security as a handrail for fifty feet. But then I had to leave it and wished I had never felt the security. I longed to make some excuse for handing over the lead to Dick in this terrible place. By the time we reached the Exit Cracks our fingers were bleeding, really painfully cracked and raw in the cold. How can ice, which is merely a smooth slope, cause such trouble? All I know is that every time I look back on the photographs of those dark inhospitable slopes the shudders run back down my spine. It seemed unbelievable that the end was nearly in sight. The Exit Cracks are not easy but at least they are the final obstacle. A boss of snow that guarded the base of the Quartz Crack collapsed as Dick led over it. I was afraid he was off, but he managed to hold on and climbed up leftward into the sunlight which was playing on the upper rocks of the Face.
It was the first sun we had been in for days and we were soon warm and revelling in the knowledge that there were now only hundreds of feet instead of thousands to the final slopes. But the rock was terrible, it was shattered and treacherous, interspersed with snow patches and with worthless belays. The wind was increasing as the dusk came in and there was no chance of a classic sunset photo, clouds closed round the summit and powder snow began to blow. We searched hurriedly for a bivouac ledge for dark is on you suddenly in winter and we had no alternative but to bivouac in this forlorn spot. Of an instant the wind was ferocious with driving snow everywhere and we began to loose equipment in the drifting powder. There was no time for anything except to pull the bivouac tent over ourselves and huddle together with the gale battering and shaking the tent in its fury. It was a rough night, at first we crouched over the stove and slowly suffocated from its fumes and when we had eaten we wriggled one at a time into our sleeping bags, boots and all, while the air quickly chilled now that cooking had finished.
Ice formed round our beards and over the inside of the tent only to shake off and fall like snow as the nylon flapped furiously in the relentless wind. Our fingers, so cracked and festering, began to hurt and a little voice in my mind kept whispering 'You've done it, you've done it.' But I refused to listen. I had no wish to be deceived and I determined not to relax until I could step into the hotel bar and order beer with nothing more to worry about than the time of the next train. There was no farewell breakfast and no reluctance to leave that last perch at the top of the wall. We just packed up quickly and felt underservedly favoured to look down and see the fresh snow splattered on those last few pitches of loose and unnerving rubble up which we had teetered so delicately yesterday. Now the steep and comfortingly blue ice of the Summit Ice Field led to the final ridge, although our promised views of the great Oberland peaks on the far side were stolen from us by the swirling cloud. A sharp crest ran up to the summit and it would have been an exhilarating gangway had we not been pushed and tugged by the wind all the way along it.
Dick was there first. It was eight o'clock on the morning of Monday 3rd March — just six days after leaving the railway station below the Face. He just flopped down and pulled in the coils of rope. Sometimes a summit can be an anticlimax —the uncertain anticipation of the upward climb is no more. The blasts of winds and the stinging driven snow drove off such self indulgent thoughts as we faced inwards and slid, shuffled and scrabbled on our front points over ice, snow plastered rock and through pouring streams of avalanching spindrift down the West Flank. From one place we were able to look back into the North Face and we could see nothing but a cauldron of grey mist.
And so we went on down, hour after hour, still tense and watchful until we reached the snow covered meadows and plodded towards the hotel. There was a waiting group of people but inside were welcome drinks and food that all you did was pay for. There were English papers too with headlines about a London Tube disaster and there was a juke box with some character singing 'I've got two strong arms, I can help.'....... It was another world.
First published in Mountain Life June/July 1975.