Opening Scene: Cima Tosi 10,410ft - highest point in the Brenta Group in Northern Italy.
The Players: Six RAF training instructors [1 officer-newest member, this being his first time as an instructor; 4 NCO’s-all established instructors as well as experienced climbers and all-round mountaineers.
Disposition: Knackered, tired, cold and weary after gruelling three-week training course with 16 NATO pilots.
Salvation: Improved weather, ten-day break before the start of next training course, and we all wanted to go climbing, so drove south and camped at Pietramurta.
Following morning, Group leader - Flt. Sergeant ‘Dicky’ Davidson, paired us up, adopting service protocol, of naming the lead climber second. So, when he said: “Robin [the Flying Officer], you climb with Frank”, I knew my place, but as it turned out a few minutes later, my climbing partner did not.
As we walked to the next cliff, he quickly informed me that as he was the Officer and I was not, it was inappropriate for him to be led by me.
Things did not improve when we got to the foot of the cliff and I started to unpack my climbing gear: one old rigid hawser lay rope sling I had acquired earlier, along with my plain white nylon rope which had coloured tape at both ends, and a couple of homemade nylon slings sporting large aircraft nuts with the inside screws ground down, which I (we), used for protection and belays when climbing. They may not have been good looking, but they were effective and they were cheap!
Clearly, he was far from happy with my equipment, and insisted we use his brand-new gear he had recently purchased. But I am a traditionalist and like to stick to my own gear that I know has been tried and tested, so declined his offer which did not go down well at all.
As I was still getting myself kitted up, he tied on to one end of the rope, threw me the other end and told me to tie in when I was ready. Before I could take the cigarette out of my mouth to speak, he moved over to the rock face and started to climb. I stood there in amazement.
Suggestions that he wait until I was tied in and could belay him safely, earned a mumbled reply about not waiting for idiots and ‘time and tide wait for no man’ as he climbed.
My initial thought – yank the rope before he gets too high; untie and walk away; or tie off the rope so he could not move upwards. I chose the last option in addition to lighting up a smoke.
He stopped climbing – started to yell orders – I ignored him – he threatened to charge me – I ignored him – he climbed back down.
Once he was back down on the ground, he started to berate me for my “disgraceful climbing ethics”, and my total lack of respect for his rank.
I took a final puff on my smoke and said with quiet confidence: “When we climb, we are climbers and nothing more and rank does not have a part to play in this activity or any other activity connected with my role as a survival instructor”, which went down like the proverbial lead balloon.
Anyway, an hour later, I had led the first two pitches, (because he said his arms were tired after having to down-climb). We were standing at the belay below the third pitch, when I pointed out to Robin, that I believed this to be the crux pitch: it was long, looked devoid of good hand holds and appeared to offer few places to put in any protection.
As I munched on my first Mars bar of the day, he muttered continuously about me being disrespectful towards him, and that he would be putting me on a charge when we got back to RAF Brüggen. I of course, was busy working out what to do with him for the next few days as unbeknown to him, I was given the task of planning the next few days’ programme!
I asked him if he felt confident doing this third pitch, which may well be the crux, and all I heard was mumbling about him being a good climber and an ex-member of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club.
I made sure he had all the gear he needed: all six ground-out aircraft bolts, some on slings and others on pieces of nylon cord, and my one and only chock on a piece of nylon, and three metal pegs (one flat one being home-made), then I settled back to belay him, ignoring the fact that he started off in a hurry, leaving my peg-hammer behind, because he said it was too heavy and cumbersome.
Up he went into a thin crack – not a bad job I thought, a little unconventional with his techniques but he did it. When the crack ran out, he was faced with a hundred or so feet of good clean rock, which he again appeared to master, so I thought that perhaps he may not be a bad climber after all.
Eventually, he made it to the base of a scoop where he had no choice but to belay as he was running out of rope.
Once in the scoop, he secured himself to the rock face and shouted: “ok Grant, climb when you're’ ready”. Now it wasn’t his condescending voice that irked me, but the fact that he called me by my surname, something I had never witnessed before on any of the climbing I had done with other RAF personnel, no matter their rank.
I made easy work of the slab and was into the scoop before he could take in all the climbing rope. I stuck a nut into a small crack and belayed myself to it. He demanded to know why I did not clip myself into his belay point, and was unhappy when I said, that I preferred to place my own protection when climbing with someone who I had never climbed with before, and that it was no slight to his own belay technique.
I, of course, ignored his mutterings but reacted immediately when he started to unclip himself. “Hey”, I shouted, “what do you think your’ doing”. His reply notched up my desire for wanting to put him in his place quickly, when he immediately replied, “you mean, what do you think you are doing, Sir”.
I informed him that it was practice for climbers to climb through, so before I gave him the chance of replying, I clipped him back into the belay loop, stood up and gave him the rope leading into my harness for him to belay me. He complied reluctantly.
I set off up and out of the scoop, thrutching my way until I could get hold of a good jug at the top end of the scoop. It was clear that the rock face above, overhung by about ten to fifteen feet some thirty feet above. What was unclear, was what was above this and where, if any, my next belay point would be.
The overhang looked worse than it was. When I got to the start of the first bulge, it required a leap of faith to go for one hand hold, in the hope that there would be another above that for the other hand, which thankfully, there was.
After setting up a good ‘Y’ belay, I shouted for Robin to come on up.
Silence permeated the air. I shouted again. The silence had not gone away. What was wrong with this idiot! His banality was trying my patience when it occurred to me that he was waiting for me to say: “climb when you are ready Robin, Sir”.
He struggled over the bulge shouting repeatedly for a tight rope which I obliged, making sure that when he wanted me to give him some slack to gain his balance once over the lip, his words fell on deaf ears. When he came up to me, I tied him securely into the anchor point in silence and started to get the rope ready to belay him up the next pitch which was a hundred-foot run out across some slabs, entailing a traverse along a horizontal crack, some ten to fifteen feet above our stance.
Clearly, the traverse would provide ample protection but the initial climb above to gain the traverse did not look as obliging. Robin set off up the wall above our stance to gain access to the start of the traverse. As he did so, he shouted back down: “I want a tight rope here Grant but when I get to the traverse, I want you to give me plenty of slack as I will get across it quickly as this is my climbing forte, so pay attention”.
As he set off, I said nothing about the fact that he did not have enough gear to complete the whole route especially the traverse.
I waited until he had climbed with difficulty, some ten to fifteen feet above me to gain access to the traverse, when this fact became very clear to himself. He shouted back down as to what he should do. I suggested either he climb on with little protection and as he felt this was ‘his forte’ he shouldn’t have much difficulty in doing this, or he climb back down to get some of my gear.
He climbed back down grudgingly. He then said his arms were aching and so he ordered me to do it! I was not amused in the slightest.
After a while, he was standing beside me and very unhappy with the next pitch and informed me that he decided I would climb this also. I was happy to do so. Before I had made my mind up whether to go up the face on what appeared to be small infrequent holds, or to reverse a few feet along the traverse and try to go through the small roofs above, Robin threw another remark in my direction: “the route goes up there Grant, but if your’ not up to it, I will have to lead it”. That was it, I had had enough. This was a good a time as any to teach him the meaning of humility.
“Right, up you go then”, was my reply as I tied myself back into the anchor point. After some ten-minutes, he was still struggling to get off the belay position, muttering about the rock being too wet!
Eventually, he got started and was eager to get in his first piece of protection, then a few feet more and another piece of protection. Sweating and panting some ten feet above the belay stance, he put in his third runner and then asked for a tight rope as he needed to take a rest, as his arms were pumped.
I obliged, but offered him no encouragement at all. “Can you see where to go next” he enquired with a quiver in his voice. I remained silent. Some expletives were made from above as he tried to make upwards movement but as he hadn’t asked me to take him off a tight rope, he just fell off. He would, of course, have landed not far above where I was standing at the belay stance, if his protection was in properly, which it wasn’t. Out came the last one he had placed and down he dropped. Out came his second-last and down he dropped even further, and then out popped his first runner just above my head and down he fell again. Fortunately, it was where the cliff face was leaning out so he hung there oscillating unceremoniously some fifteen feet below me.
My tight belay held as I knew it would. He dangled there on the end of the rope over a drop which looked and probably was, just as frightening, especially to him. I tied off the rope so that it would not slip any further and got out a Mars bar and started to eat it slowly.
His demands to be pulled up, fell on deaf ears just as his orders to lower him down to a ledge, twenty-feet below him which would have eased his discomfort. But deaf ears and a Mars bar won the day.
When I had placed the last piece into my mouth, I looked down and suggested he start to climb back up to the belay stance. “But I can’t” came his desperately shaking voice. “Pull me up to the belay”, came his next command, his voice softening a little. Now was the time to be vindictive. What, you thought I had already been so, you must be joking!
Swallowing the last piece, I looked over the edge and said in a condescending voice, “Robin, don’t you mean, please Frank, pull me up to the belay”
“Yes please, Frank” came his quaking voice. Setting up a small pulley system with a back-up system in place, I started to pull on the rope which instantly drew a thousand thanks from a shaking young man, but just when he thought he was going to make the belay stance, I slid off the half hitch I had put in to the pulley system and he fell right back down to where he was a minute before.
The yell could be heard echoing across the Alps and the sight of him clutching frantically at the rock face was food enough to feed my vindictive soul. “Sorry pal” I shouted down, “the rope slipped, I’ll try again”.
When he finally sat, puffing and panting on the belay stance shaking with fear with the odd bit of moisture in his eyes, I gave him my party piece. “Robin, do you want to climb with me or climb with a non-commissioned officer?”
His remark was sweet music to my ears. “I’d like to climb with you Frank and I would appreciate it very much if you could lead the rest of the climb”.
Robin left the survival training group a few weeks later, and whenever we met around the camp, whilst I would accord him the respect his commission deserved by a salute and addressing him as Sir, he always addressed me as Frank. Who says that having just a little vengeful streak does not have its rewards!
Frank Grant © 2017