Friday, 12 August 2016

Simon McCartney's 'The Bond'...reviewed

Climbing now seems to be at a crossroads, will it continue to be a free- wheeling activity, attracting adventurous souls, with a canvas much wider than organised sports or will it succumb to being a rule orientated safe consumerist pastime? Those who are pushing it down that road might stop to read ‘The Bond’. Although this describes a series of stand-out ascents which took place more than thirty years ago, the message they impart for me is an illustration of the trust and bond between rope mates engaged in pioneering difficult new routes on the highest, remotest mountain faces, and the selfless willingness of other mountaineers to risk their own lives to help their fellow climbers in distress. A part of an unwritten credo subscribed to by those involved in making such ascents and a sacrifice which can often inspire none participants, perhaps because it rarely if ever occurs in any other sport?

Simon McCartney grew up in London but began to climb as a teenager in the 1970’s and he was, like so many of his generation enamoured by the lure of alpine climbing. He soon moved through the grades, and after meeting Dave ‘Wilco’ Wilkinson in Wales, an older more experienced alpinist they were quickly in the 1977 season into ‘major’ alpine ascents, with a first ascent in the Oberland, an attempt on the Eigerwand, success on the North Face  of Les  Droites and the second ascent of the central pillar of Brouillard on Mont Blanc, but after which because ‘Wilco’ had to return home to work, leaving Simon on his own in Chamonix, there occurred  a chance meeting in the Bar National with Californian ‘stonemaster’ climber Jack Roberts, an event that would change McCartney’s life. He invited him to go to Alaska with him to attempt alpine style, inspired by a photograph by Bradford Washburn which had appeared in Mountain magazine, the 5,500-foot north face of Mount Huntington.

To understand how ground breaking this was in 1978, one must realise that most such ascents on high mountains were still usually climbed as expeditions and for two climbers totally unsupported in such a wilderness area it was pushing the envelope. Before they took this on, they stopped off in Yosemite, made some climbs together and undertook some ‘travelling’ USA style. But it is remarkable that on such a short acquaintance they gelled so well together, and their successful climb on Mount Huntington which took ten days to achieve, up and down was really something, for over such a period in Alaska the weather was inevitably bad on some of the days, but somehow they had kept on climbing. However they only narrowly escaped on the descent by the West Face route of the mountain when their rope became so snagged whilst abseiling they had to cut it into pieces. Their food ran low and Roberts suffered from frost bitten big toes. For some years there was doubt cast about their successful ascent for it was obviously such a hard and serious route, but a later party on the West Face (Harvard Route) they had descended discovered the bits of jammed rope they had abandoned, and today their route is still unrepeated. This was an impressive feat of stamina by Simon, who was only 22 years old during this ten day marathon. His American partner Jack Roberts was 28.

Back in the UK McCartney began to plan his next climb, deciding to return to the Eiger’s North Wall but in winter. Initially he wished to attempt this with just Dave ‘Smiler’ Cuthbertson but as word spilt out about his plans the party grew and grew, until finally six climbers set out on the climb. Besides Simon and Smiler, there was Howard Lancashire, Stevie Haston, Vic Saunders, and Bill Barker. Their first foray was repulsed by poor conditions and planning, but a second attempt found them high and committed and in difficulties. The cold was extreme and moving as a twosome and a foursome they were moving too slow, but what caused their most serious problem was that some of their ice tools were breaking due to the unusually low temperatures. They finally reached The White Spider, but Simon who had needed to take off his gloves to lead one of the rock pitches suffered frostbitten finger tips. Reluctantly they signalled their need to be rescued, which eventually they were by the Swiss helicopter service which literally plucked them, one by one off the wall.

This whole episode rankled with McCartney, and despite still suffering with his highly sensitive to the touch fingers, he returned just a few weeks later still in the winter of 1979 but only with Chris Hoyland, and successfully climbed  the Eiger’s North Face. Simon led the ice and mixed climbing but he relied on Chris to lead such as the Difficult and Brittle Crack pitches where it was necessary to remove ones gloves. Although this was really an achievement climb in that era (and still would be), McCartney started thinking about and comparing Alpine climbing to greater range ascents. Feeling that he wanted to experience another adventure similar to his Alaskan climb of the year before, and understanding for the first time what had driven Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman to follow the path they were then taking in their mountain endeavours. And so he wrote Jack Roberts enquiring if he had any plans for 1980 in Alaska? He was surprised by a quick return phone call from him in the USA suggesting they team up again to attempt the unclimbed South West face of Denali. To which Simon readily agreed.

If you have read so far, then stay with it, for here the action really begins. Think ‘Touching the Void’, ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ and into ‘Thin Air’. To understand the enormity of what they were taking on, one must realise that this climb was twice the height of the North Face of Huntington, and that Denali is 20,310 feet (6144m), and from its base to summit it has the largest peak rise in the world. 

All went well with the ascent for several days of rock and mixed climbing at a high technical standard, some of the time they could set up their small bivouac tent, other nights were spent sitting out in the open. But by day eight at around 17,000 feet Simon’s condition became worrying, he became uncoordinated and was slurring his words, but somehow on day nine they made a junction with the Cassin ridge route at 18,400 feet, and then  tried to keep climbing through the night hoping to reach the summit of the mountain. But McCartney’s condition was continually worsening as they gained altitude. Somewhere above 19,000feet they were forced to stop. Roberts managed to cut out a ledge in the ice for their bivvy tent, but by then they were out of food. They still had some fuel left for their stove and they could make a drink but the following day, their tenth, the weather was too bad to move. On day eleven the weather was bad again and Roberts had to keep digging their tent out whilst Simon was by then completely helpless, suffering from oedema. At that date not as much was known about acclimatisation as subsequently, and being high for so long in such a condition, truly McCartney was lucky to survive.

Naked Jack
On day twelve the weather finally improved, but they had no way of signalling for a rescue, and in any case they were too high for a helicopter lift off. Roberts began to realise his feet were frostbitten, and decided their only hope of rescue was for him to climb solo over the summit and down the west flank and hope for a meeting with a party on this, the normal route up the mountain. He realised Simon’s chances of survival were almost nil, and made a list of his immediate family and friends to contact, for him to say his goodbyes. He packed and prepared ready to go, but stopped outside the tent unable to take the first step and leave his stricken comrade.

Then a crucial meeting occurred when two American climbers, Mike Helms and Bob Kandiko who had been following the Cassin ridge route arrived on the scene. They too were running short of food, but they cooked up one of their last two meals for Roberts and McCartney who by then had not eaten for four days. After discussing the situation it was decided that Kandiko would stay with Simon whilst Helms, who knew the West Buttress descent route would accompany Roberts to go and seek help.

Stay with it for the story is just beginning. The weather turns bad, and Kandiko and McCartney run out of food and fuel, and after three days of waiting Bob decides their only hope of survival is to descend back down the Cassin ridge. He knows that on the way up the climb they had discovered a cache of fuel, and if they can reach this they will be able to have plenty to drink. Meanwhile Roberts and Helms after being held up by bad weather have managed to climb down to reach a party on the West flank with a radio. They alert the rescue services to Bob and Simon’s desperate situation, but they are too high to be rescued by helicopter and in any case the weather is too bad to fly. Somehow belaying him down, Kandiko managed to begin lowering McCartney rope length by rope length and he also has some medicine with him and after taking this Simon feels a little better. On day four since Kandiko took over at Roberts departure, they reached the spot where the can of white spirit was cached and from there on they had hot water and heat in their bivvy tent.

Slowly as they descended and lost altitude Simon began to recover and could begin to look after himself abseiling and belaying. As he became coherent he learned from Bob the intimate details of just how ill he had been, even urinating over Kandiko and the tent. He tried to apologise, but his partner told him there was no need and if they get down alive he can buy the beers! 

Six days had gone by without eating a meal, and Simon had endured four days of starvation before that. A highlight for them was finding some used tea bags, and Kandiko was to write that ‘the subsequent tea, lukewarm and barely coloured was the best they had ever tasted’. By this date they were still at 17,000feet, but once again they were pinned down by high winds. Mercifully the weather improved and they started to descend again and miraculously met up with a party of four other climbers from Pennsylvania ascending the Cassin route, and who were resting inside a large Whillan’s box type shelter set on a prepared ledge. They took them in and prepare a meal. This was Simon’s and Kandiko’s first in a week.

The next day all six climbers after a breakfast of porridge and tea started down, for the other four decided to abandon their ascent, for they too were running out of food delayed by the bad weather. Once again by serendipity they met on this descent a party of three Japanese who had a radio, and they managed to get a message out to arrange an air drop of fuel and food. Jack Roberts is by then down and in touch with the rescue services, a helicopter is organised and a successful supply drop was carried out. By this date they were at around 14,000 feet and after gorging on the food and resting, Simon took his inner boots off for the first time in many days. This lead on to them swelling and for him to suffer in agony for the rest of the descent, which is aided by some fixed ropes set up by the Japanese climbers.

Finally, finally after Simon had been three weeks on the mountain they reached the foot of the Cassin ridge and set up a camp on the Kahiltna glacier. But still stay with it for it is not all over! After a nights rest, and despite still suffering pain from his injured feet, McCartney and Kandiko set out, roped up to descend the glacier and its ice fall. With regard to all he has been through Simon was remarkably in a capable state, but their progress is hampered by increasing white out conditions. Unfortunately Kandiko missed the route they were following and he fell over a small ice cliff, luckily landing in deep snow. McCartney on the other end of the rope was pulled by this like a cork out of a bottle, and he shot passed his leader and landed upside down into a crevasse, suffering a badly fractured left wrist and was unconscious.

Once again they were fortunate for four climbers from Minnesota (who later disappeared on the mountain) and the three Japanese who they had been following arrived on the scene as Kandiko was being pulled inexorably also towards the crevasse weighted by Simon’s swinging body. And working together they managed to rescue them. A camp was set up nearby and slowly Simon regained consciousness, his injured arm was put in a sling and Bob who was also bruised and battered needed to explain to McCartney where they are and what had happened.
Finally it is all over, the Park service had organised a voluntary rescue party made up of climbers who were in the area led by Dave Buchanan one of the Rangers. Three Swiss guides joined the rescue and skied out with Simon tied down on a litter, then once down through the crevassed area he was carried out by the volunteers to the Park base at Kahiltna. From there he was flown out to Anchorage hospital and on arriving he finally met up again with Jack Roberts, already in situ receiving treatment for his frostbitten feet. I am pleased to report I made a slight contribution to Simon’s recovery and well being, for he was insured with the BMC. The insurance scheme was set up when I was its General Secretary by Fred Smith and I!

After such a tryst with fate Simon never climbed again. He did meet Jack Roberts once more in the UK in 1981, but after that with his Australian girl friend Judi he migrated to Sydney. He took up cave diving in the Blue Mountains, but earned his living in a business he set up jointly in Hong Kong, commuting between the two places. He totally lost contact with climbers and climbing, until one day in 2011 someone he did not know sent out an e-mail, noting the two standout climbs he had made over thirty years earlier in Alaska and querying if ‘he was still alive’. After much soul searching he decided to reply, and started trying to find out what had happened to those with whom he had shared such life and death experiences; Jack Roberts and Bob Kandiko. With no real mode of contact other than internet searches, it took some time. He finally reached Roberts wife Pam in 2012, just too late for Jack had died one month earlier due to a fall whist ice climbing on the Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, but Bob Kandiko was alive and very much kicking. They and their wives subsequently enjoyed a reunion and a glacier flight to both Denali and Huntington, and this persuaded McCartney to write up the story of those two ground breaking ascents made so many years before, when he was in all truth so young.

So what can one make of Simon McCartney’s book ‘The Bond?’ For me it was a life affirming experience, because of the fact that so many climbers were willing to do so much to aid another climber in need, who they did not even know. Bob Kandiko in particular put his very existence on the line to do this. The story is told in a searing honest way, McCartney does not hide the fact that it was only by a string of unbelievable coincidences that he did survive, but we must also acknowledge that few of us would have, for cerebral oedema is a killer and statistically not many recover from its onset. I guess he must have been an unusually strong willed and fit individual.

So if you read just one climbing book this year, make it ‘The Bond’. I am sure it will become a classic of exploration mountain literature. It is well produced, with excellent photographs and layout. To finish with the words of the late Ken Wilson, who never at a loss with an opinion, phoned me when ‘Touching the Void’ won the Boardman Tasker prize (of which I am a Trustee) for mountain literature .He reported that, ‘reading that book had made him proud to call himself a climber!’ and the same is true of myself about ‘The Bond’.       

Dennis Gray: 2016 

The Bond is available from Vertebrate Publishing