Sunday, 11 August 2019

Kurt Diemberger's 'Summits And Secrets'....Extract



An extract from Diemberger’s account of his and Wolfgang Stefan’s ascent of the North face of the Eiger:

A stone whizzing past, not very far off – the first sign of life on the face. Then all quiet again, here in the shadow; utter silence. High above, rock and snow lay bright in the sunshine, quiet, peaceful, warm looking. And that was precisely where the menace hung – the menace that could at any moment shatter the cold silence down here, the menace of that beautiful warm glow.Tick … tick … ssst. Just a baby stone, hopping harmlessly, dancing down the rocks, whispering past like an insect, small and no danger to anyone. But how long before the cannonade would start, to shatter the peace and quiet down here? It could be minutes, it could be half an hour … It was 9 a.m.

I looked up at the warm, even light on those rocks. Then I started cutting steps again, smaller ones, quicker than before. I was up. In went a piton and then I hacked out a stance.I shouted down to Wolfi: ‘You can come now – but look out! The first stones are arriving.’‘So I noticed,’ came up from below. ‘One has just gone past me.’ Wolfi was coming up – the traverse, the piton, retrieving the sling, pushing a leg into the crack, reaching up with his arm. At that moment there was a ‘click’ on my helmet, and I enjoyed an instant’s satisfaction at the thought that I was wearing it. Then Wolfi joined me.

‘We’ll have to get up there before it really starts,’ he said, pointing to the upper rim of the huge ice field. He was right; there seemed to be at least a measure of cover under the jutting cliffs up there. We should take much longer by following that long curving rim than if we traversed diagonally, but – ‘Look out! Something’s coming!’ Wolfi, six feet above me, reacted instantly, pressing himself hard into the ice. A host of little dots was coming down in a grotesque dance across the grey surface 300 feet higher up. They grew larger, bounding down towards us in great leaps, a grey army of them. Now! … that one’s missed me, and that one, but what about this one? … sssst, ssst … Suddenly everything was quiet again. It was all over.


Wolfi straightened up slowly. ‘Benediction over?’ he asked. ‘Then I’ll lead on again. You keep watch and shout if you see anything coming.’I cast an anxious eye up the face, the surface of the ice, the groove running up to the rocks above. Nothing stirred. The rope ran out quickly, as Wolfi went diagonally up the next 130 feet. He dispensed with step cutting; we had to get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. Tack … tack … tack, his crampons bit into the smooth surface, tilted at fifty degrees or more. It looked uncanny. The view down the face had completely disappeared; all we could see was the lower edge of the second ice field projecting over the abyss like a ski-jumping platform, with green ground beyond it, sending up a pale green reflection, mirrored by the surface up here, making the blue shadows look even colder.

We wondered whether we had been spotted yet. Not that it makes the slightest difference. There is no place on earth where one is so utterly alone. I squinted up the runnel to where Wolfi stood, with only the frontal points of his crampons biting into the steep, bone-hard surface. I stooped and took a tighter hold on the rope.Everything else had lost all meaning. Wolfi was standing up there on four steel spikes. Whether they held or slipped depended on his next movement …We were alone … alone with the North Face of the Eiger. At that moment even our friends had ceased to exist for us.


Another whilst Diemberger is making an ascent of the unclimbed Chogolisa with Hermann Buhl in 1957. They are making an attempt on the summit when a snow storm descends:

I reckoned we must be at about 23,600 feet, and that we must be near the steep avalanche slope which had pushed us so close to the cornices. If only one could see a bit more! I turned and saw Hermann coming after me, keeping the distance unaltered, following in my actual steps. As I moved down, I kept on looking across to the left, trying to see through the mist. All I could see was that it was getting a bit darker overhead and a bit lighter below. That must be the edge of the cornices. It seemed a safe distance away, but in mist distances can be deceptive. Perhaps it would be better to keep a bit to the right, but then I should have to look out for the precipice. It ought to be here by now. Ah, there’s another axe hole …

I looked anxiously to the left and then down to the surface at my feet. I was at a loss; it was almost impossible to see anything at all. Crack! Something shot through me like a shock. Everything shook, and for a second the surface of the snow seemed to shrink. Blindly, I jumped sideways to the right – an instantaneous reflex action – two, three great strides, and followed the steep slope downwards a little way, shattered by what I had seen at my feet – the rim of the cornice, with little jagged bits breaking away from it. My luck had been in, all right! I had been clean out on the cornice. What would Hermann have to say about that, I wondered? I stopped and turned, but the curve of the slope prevented my seeing over the crest as I looked up. The light was improving a little. Hermann must bob up any moment up there. I still couldn’t fathom that extraordinary shaking sensation; had the snow really settled under my weight?


Still no Hermann. ‘Hermann!’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake, what’s up? Hermann!’ I rushed, gasping up the slope. There it was, the crest … and beyond it, smooth snow … and it was empty … Hermann … You! …Done for …I dragged myself up a little farther.

 I could see his last footmarks in the snow, then the jagged edge of the broken cornice, yawning. Then the black depths.The broken cornice – that had been the quaking beneath my feet, then.I couldn’t get a sight of the North Face from anywhere near. I should have to get down to Ridge Peak for that. As I went down, the storm gradually abated, and the mists lifted from time to time. I was utterly stunned. How could that have happened just behind me? I had the greatest difficulty in getting up the short rise to Ridge Peak, but even before I got there it had cleared up. I hurried out to the farthest edge of the cliffs. 
 
The storm was hunting the clouds high into the heavens. Above the veils of mist and through them a ridge loomed up – a tower – a great roof with tremendous banners of blown snow streaming from it. Chogolisa, the horrible. I could see the spot where we had turned at about 24,000 feet. Our trail down the broad snowfield below was crystal clear. Then that fearsome drop to the north – into the clouds. And there, even closer to our tracks as they ran straight downwards, the encroaching precipice. And then I could see it all with stark and terrible clarity. Just at that point, Hermann had left my tracks at a slight bend, where I was hugging the rim of the precipice, and gone straight on ahead, only three or four yards – straight out on to the tottering rim of the cornice – straight out into nothingness. Of the foot of the wall I could see nothing.Stupidly, I stared upwards again. If we had been roped …

I looked down along the face, shuddering …No, I should never have been able to hold him there; at the moment of his fall I myself was too far out on the overhanging snow.

At last I could see clearly down below, where the broad snow-masses of an avalanche fanned out. The crashing cornice had set it off and it had swept the face clean. Hermann was nowhere to be seen. He must have fallen at least 1,000, maybe 2,000 feet and was lying there buried under the piled-up snow. Could he have survived that? There was no answer to my shouts and I had no way of getting down there. I should have to fetch the others and we should have to come from below. That was the only faint possibility. I strained my eyes, searching every cranny, searching for a rucksack, a ski stick, a dark blob. But there was nothing to be seen – absolutely nothing. Only our tracks – up there. Clouds blotted the mountain out again. I was alone.

Mists and a high wind were sweeping the corniced ridge as I tried to find the way down. At times I could see nothing at all and could only tell from rifts in the snow that I had strayed too far down the slope. After what seemed an age, I found our tent. It was a horror of emptiness. I took the absolute essentials for the descent and went on down. At the Kaberi Saddle there was knee-deep fresh snow, through which only a tiny corner of the marker-pennants showed. I probed with my feet under that smooth expanse of white to find out from which side our ascent route had come, then went straight on into the whiteness … to the next pennant. I wandered vaguely down endless hollows, over crevasses, through fog, then into the darkness of night. For long, indescribable hours of horror – during which I at times had a feeling that Hermann was still with me – I managed, by some miracle, to find my way, onwards, downwards. Then, just before the great icefalls, my pocket-lamp failed; so I had to bivouac On and on … endlessly on … till, twenty-seven hours after Hermann’s fall, I tottered into base camp.The search which followed found absolutely nothing.
Once again, the monstrous rubble-covered river of ice lay freed of all human presence. The sun burned down on it with scorching intensity. The snow was rapidly vanishing, melting into the waters of gurgling glacier streams. Chogolisa’s white roof-tree seemed to lift into the very sky itself. The great peaks stood silently all around. Were they, too, mourning? Or was this only the great healing silence which eternally enfolds all living and dying? 



 Kurt Diemberger: 2019

Further details from Vertebrate Publishing

Monday, 5 August 2019

The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc....Reviewed



The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc. Peter Foster.
The life of T.Graham Brown, physiologist and mountaineer.
Published by Vertebrate. £14.95. 256 pages, Perfect Bound Paper Back.

‘Only those who will risk going too far, can possibly find out how far they can go’. T.S. Eliot

In the mid-1960’s I moved to live in a flat in Manor Place in Edinburgh, and unbeknown to me in a house in that secreted close lived T.Graham Brown. My landlord was a Captain Bowler and his daughter observed as I moved in that ‘strange happenings’ were taking place in the property opposite. Intrigued I kept a watch on its approaches that first night and noted people coming and going that to my trained eye looked like they might be climbers. At that date most of us were still rough and readily dressed, but the baring of rucksacks and the wearing by some of these residents of boots ought to have given a lead and eventually I found out who these strangers were? They were youthful members of the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club, lodging freely in the basement of a house belonging to T.Graham Brown the pioneer of the famous Brenva Face routes, Mont Blanc, and author of a book ‘Brenva’ the story of these ascents. 

In retrospect this should have indicated to me that TGB must be a most unusual landlord in allowing his house to be so used, situated as it was in the very upmarket area of the West End of the City just off the Princess Street!
In the years previous to my sojourn in Edinburgh I had ascended one of the Brenva routes, and in the latter part of that decade I studied psychology at Leeds, and this occasioned me to enquire about Graham Brown’s academic work mistakenly believing that his research was in the field of Psychiatry, but once I discovered it was experiments within the discipline of physiology I did not pursue my interest any further. But Peter Foster as a retired consultant physician is most able to explain these in a manner that most none medically trained readers will understand.

TGB at the foot of a boulder in Mosedale. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
T. Graham Brown was born in Edinburgh in 1882 into a family of some distinction, his father being a distinguished Doctor who became the President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He had two brothers and a sister, but unfortunately his mother died of cancer when he was just nine years old. His father demanded/expected outstanding results from his eldest son TGB, and Peter Foster has well interpreted for us how this so influenced him in the career he decided to eventually follow in physiology; another major influence and mentor being one of his father’s closest friends, Sir Charles Sherrington, who eventually was to be a Nobel laureate holding Chairs in Physiology first at Liverpool then Oxford. Although initially at his school Edinburgh Academy he was not a stand out pupil once he had gained entrance to study medicine at Edinburgh University his ability for painstaking and methodical research soon became apparent. Finishing at Edinburgh on Sherrington’s advice he studied in Germany (as had both his father and mentor) for in the early part of the 1900’s that was where the finest medical schools and researchers were and TGB became fluent whilst there in that language. 

Returning to the UK in 1910 he obtained a post at Liverpool and adapting the methods of his mentor he began his research work into the neural control mechanisms of locomotion, part of which work he submitted for his Doctorate which was awarded with a gold medal. His researches in Liverpool and later at Manchester University whilst a lecturer there were perhaps his most productive, but he recognised at the latter he did not like teaching preferring to work solely at research projects. It was whilst he was at Liverpool he started hill walking and camping in the Lake District..... This would eventually lead him via chance meetings into becoming a climber and also whilst residing in Merseyside he involved himself in the University settlement, dedicated to improving the living conditions of the City’s slum dwellers.
 
The First World War intervened and there was much need for medical knowledge. And as the conflict progressed and it became ever more bloody, specialists in such as brain and spinal injuries were sought as were those who might have ideas as to how to combat-the ever growing phenomena of shell shock. TGB was commissioned into the RAMC and initially posted to a hospital near Liverpool but as the conflict spread he was sent out to Salonika, where on occasion he was in the front line under fire. However it was during the war that the ‘difficult’ side of his temperament seems to have surfaced, champing at the waste of the possibility of undertaking original research into such areas as brain and spinal injuries instead of patching / bandaging /stitching up injured squaddie’s.

TGB was appointed to the Chair of Physiology at University College Cardiff in 1920 and he was to spend the next forty years in and around that institute and he was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927 on the strength of his pre-war research. Over these years he was to be involved in ever more disputed arguments about the place of the College in the provision of medical education in Wales, and his constant absences away climbing and in his later years sailing! He had started climbing in Easter 1914 by ‘accident’, when camping in Mosedale and by being invited by a climber to accompany him on an ascent of Pillar Rock and a few days later some easy climbs on Great Gable.... and he was hooked. He was back again at the Whitsuntide holiday and climbed on Scafell and the Napes once more and he even took part in the first ascent of the Peregrine Gully on the Cam Spout Crag in Eskdale. But two months later the war intervened and it was to be 1920 before he was back to rock climbing in the Lake District where he met up with some climbers from Yorkshire’s Gritstone Club at a Wasdale Head gathering.
TGB making notes at the bivouac hut on Col d' Estelette en route to the Aiguille de la Tete. August 1927. His companion Herbert who took the image annotated it 'authentic contemporary portrait of Dioggenes'. reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
Over the next three years he attended regularly at their meets and he made close friends with Leslie Letts a member of the famous diary manufacturing family. It was to be Letts who persuaded him to accompany Cecil Wood and himself to the Alps for the first time in 1924. In 1925 TGB in company with the well known Lakeland pioneer George Basterfield, having remembered seeing these whilst out walking previously, visited the Boat Howe crags situated on the northern flanks of Kirkfell overlooking Ennerdale and began a pioneering spree of new routing on these previously unclimbed rocks.
 
The visit to the Alps in 1924 was to be a life changer for TGB, and from that year onwards until the outbreak of the second war he spent most of his summers in the mountains. Much of his climbing in the Alps was to be accompanied by guides ascending voie normales or classic routes, but by 1927 he was a seasoned campaigner, being elected to the Alpine Club in 1926 and he had already begun his lifelong ability to fall out with rope mates including his original Alpine partner Letts. It was to be in the 1927 season that a fateful introduction to Frank Smythe set him on course for two outstanding ascents on the Brenva Face. He was so introduced by Edwin Herbert, later to be a President of the Alpine Club 1953-1956, and a life Peer as Baron Tangley.

TGB had read A.E.W Mason’s ‘Running Water’ a romantic adventure story which reaches its action climax on the ridge of the Old Brenva route, and this inspired him to think and plan for new routes on the then unclimbed face of the mountain. To record that this was presumptuous is still true, for few alpinists of that era would have dared to contemplate such ascents. But in 1927 accompanied by Smythe he ascended a route on the Face following a series of ribs on the right flank of the Great Couloir which is a major feature of the Brenva Face. They called this route the ‘Sentinelle Rouge’. The following year 1928 they made their second new route on the Face, ‘Route Major’ and this second route was far more impressive than the first, and included more difficult/technical climbing, following rock steps, walls and steep snow bands on the left side of the Great Couloir and exiting on the summit of Mont Blanc.

Smythe unlike TGB was not a well heeled professional, he was in the mode of Whymper, someone who through his mountaineering writing, books and lectures crafted out a precarious living for himself, and so having lead on two of the most important first ascents of the inter war years he wished to write them up, include them in a book he was writing and to have his enterprise acknowledged by his peers, particularly in the pages of the Alpine Journal, whose editor in that era Col.E.L. Strutt was almost an equally spiky personality as TGB! And so the scene was set for one of the most contentious ‘Fallouts’ in the history of British mountaineering, spawning a feud that lasted for more than 20 years, the reason for this with hindsight is attribution? 

Who was the true progenitor of these climbs, Smythe or TGB? The latter believed with all his being that it was him and as Smythe’s claims and his writing up of these events were published the more vehement TGB became sending to Strutt on one occasion a letter over 70 pages in length refuting Smythe’s claims, requesting publication of it in the Alpine Journal. When he did prepare to write his own history of his Brenva ascents (including the Pear Buttress in 1933) in his book so entitled, the MSS was sent to Smythe who threatened to take legal action, and Lord Tangley (who was a high flying lawyer) intervened and helped to edit it in a way to avoid any such possibility.
Lord Tangley wrote of TGB after his death, a tribute in the Alpine Journal, noting that he was one of the most complex persons he had ever known. Somehow he remained friends with both of these two climbers, but he noted how difficult and touchy TGB could be for he had been subjected to a wall of silence for quite some time simply because he had retained his friendship with Smythe. 

He also noted how TGB’s obsession with detail could be so frustrating whilst actually on a route, insisting on stopping and noting the smallest of facts; times, distances, weather, and any difficulties in his notebooks which he always had about him whatever the conditions, whilst the other members of the party grumbled about the need to get on with the climbing. Tangley suggested that it was his scientific background that led to this obsession, and perhaps his combative nature was in part due to his physique, burley, small, and with the shortest legs he had ever seen! Nevertheless he accorded him to be one of the leading alpinist in the years between the wars who despite not being one of the best technical climbers, made up for this by his incredible stamina and ‘push’.
The final route in 1933 of TGB’s Triptych on the Brenva Face, the Via Della Pera (The Pear) was in retrospect the most impressive. With its long dangerous approach across the Brenva Glacier, the technical climbing on the Buttress and the route finding through the upper sections threatened with serac fall were a masterpiece of route finding. 

His companions were two Swiss Guides Alexander Graven and Alfred Audenblatten and despite this outstanding success he could not resist some criticism of the latter for his fears about the objective dangers of the route, pointing out he had a family to support.... which cut no ice with the hard bitten Professor Brown. For me what is perhaps most impressive about TGB was his longevity, he was into his ‘fifties by this date and he still had some major mountaineering trips ahead of him.

The Brenva Face of Mont Blanc showing L-R the lines of Via Della Pera-Route Major-Sentinelle Rouge and the Brenva Spur: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
He had made friends with Charles Houston, who he met on a youthful first trip to the Alps, and who subsequently invited him first on a trip to Alaska in 1934 to climb Mount Foraker, then the highest unclimbed peak in the USA at approx 17,000feet, and then on a joint Anglo-USA party to Nanda Devi(7,186 metres) in 1936. The first was an outstanding success and Houston, Waterston and TGB finally reached the summit after many weeks on the mountain, whilst the second trip although successful with Odell and Tilman reaching the top, TGB’s paranoia surfaced once again believing that he should have been included in the summit bid, straining his previous good relations with Charlie Houston who always referred to TGB as Tim or Timmy.

1938 was to be the worst instance of TGB’s paranoia, when high on Masherbrum (7,821 meters) the lead climbers Jock Harrison and Robin Hodgkin in retreat from a summit bid, were caught out in a blizzard and forced to bivouac in a crevasse, suffering severe frostbite. TGB had disputed Hodgkin’s view of the best route to attempt the final sections of the climb, and even wished to remain in a high camp on the mountain to make another summit attempt despite have frostbitten big toes himself. He even accused Hodgkin of over playing his injuries and pain, something that would come back to haunt him, for as someone who knew Robin well, his injuries were terrible and shocking and the worst frostbite injuries I have ever seen, losing most of his fingers and suffering partial foot amputations. So to infer that Hodgkin was some kind of mamby pamby was cruelly unsympathetic and interestingly it was the route via the south east face that he favoured that the first and second ascents of Masherbrum were made, thus vindicating his opinion as to the best and safest route to follow.

 TGB Roping down Chamonix Aiguilles, 1931. Photo-R Goodfellow: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Somehow TGB continued to arouse controversies and antipathy, the more so when he became editor of the Alpine Journal in 1948. He tended to support via the journal ultra traditional views and downplay modern developments, he also used the position to make veiled attacks on those who he felt held unjustified power in the climbing world, not the least Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Leo Amery for their support of the British Mountaineering Council over the wishes of some of the senior AC members like himself, believing the Alpine Club should represent the British climbing world. He was however able to rest his feud with Smythe who died tragically in 1949. Things came to a head partly because of the setting up of The Alpine Climbing Group in 1952 which had highlighted how moribund the Alpine Club was becoming in not embracing modern developments and a letter to the committee from Bill Murray who had joined up with the ACG pointing out that the last place one looked for up to date developments and news was in the Journal. The committee met in January 1954 and with one dissenting voice, they decided to sack TGB and appointed Francis Keenlyside to take over as Editor of The Alpine Journal, tasking Lord Tangley to pass on this news to TGB who did not speak to him again for some years post this act. But TGB was not totally without feeling and he eventually invited Tangley to lunch with him at his club The Athenaeum to rekindle their friendship some years before he died in late1965.

Amongst his many abilities TGB was an Alpine historian, and a book co-authored with Sir Gavin De Beer (An Alpine Club member and the head of the Natural History Museum) about The First Ascent of Mont Blanc was published to some acclaim in 1957, he also was an accomplished sailor having his own boat Thekla moored at Mallaig, from where he made some adventurous sailings including a crossing in 1959 of the North Sea to Tromso in the Arctic circle of Norway, and he was also a poet. His book Brenva published in 1944 is adorned by a verse at the head of each chapter, and he was friends with Canon Adam Cox professor of poetry at Oxford who advised him about how best to present these to be appropriate to the Brenva story.

Graham Brown finally moved out of Cardiff back to his birthplace, Edinburgh and to Manor Place in 1961. He made contact with the Edinburgh University Mountaineers and though he had finally stopped climbing and sailing himself, he loved to attend their mid week gatherings either in a pub or at his house. He advised and encouraged their climbing, putting to use his wide knowledge of the Alps and the Greater Ranges. When he died in October 1965 he left his house in Manor Place to Edinburgh University, and requested for EUMC members to have a first call for residency at this facility, and his large collection of mountain themed books and papers he left to the National Library of Scotland.

TGB Glencoe 1950- D Bird.Image reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
 TGB was a pioneer mountaineering author so replete in a sport that has one of the finest literatures of any human activity, graced by all human kind. He was born privileged but he was talented and his early researches into human neural locomotion are now being recognised as important. And as Lindsay Griffin notes in a Foreword to ‘The Uncrowned King’ that while the book does not disprove he was a complex and cantankerous old sod Graham Brown was undoubtedly one of the foremost British mountaineers during the interwar period and indeed one of the most experienced alpinists of his generation. And I wish to thank Peter Foster for bringing out such a fascinating and true picture of the life TGB, he has produced a master work which must have meant hundreds of hours of research and effort and I trust this will be widely acclaimed and well reviewed, perhaps by some who have medical expertise like himself.

Dennis Gray: 2019
 




Saturday, 27 July 2019

Alan Mullin...'Crazy Sorrow' : An Extract

 

Alan Mullin: Image Ian Parnell

This is an excerpt from Atlantis Publishing’s forthcoming book. Crazy Sorrow is a biography of Alan Mullin, the UKs top winter climber of the turn of the 21st century. After surviving an abusive childhood, Mullin served in the British army for eight years before being invalided out.

Having been introduced to ice climbing during his military service, only two years later he was making first ascents of the hardest routes in the harsh discipline of Scottish winter climbing such as Steeple (IX,9) in 1999. A complex and often controversial character, he abruptly retired from climbing, and due to mental illness committed suicide in prison at the age of 34.

The editor, Grant Farquhar, has used the writings that Alan Mullin left behind and combined these with anecdotes from other climbers to create a compelling tale of Alans life including his childhood, army service, climbing career and final tragic days.

The book is told mostly in Alan’s own words but also includes contributions from Jim Fraser, Leo Houlding, Andy Kirkpatrick, Dave MacLeod, Kevin Mullin, Neil Morrison, Simon Richardson, Niall Ritchie, Guy Robertson, Ron Walker and photos from Kevin Thaw, Ian Parnell and Heinz Zak.

The excerpt below is Mullin's tale of his incredible on sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder (VIII-8) on Lochnagar during a blizzard in December 1999. It snowed so hard during the afternoon that Parallel B and Raeburn's Gulley avalached to either side of the Tough Brown Face. His solitary figure was captured by the lens of Niall Ritchie climbing the route while avalanches crashed down either side of him.He reached easy ground in a fierce storm, abseiled down in the dark and was back in his car, driving home by 9pm.
Alan Mullin on the first winter ascent of 'Death by Misadventure'. Photo Niall Ritchie


Death by Misadventure by Alan Mullin

When I wandered alone for what did my soul hunger in nights and labyrinthine paths? And when climbing mountains for whom did I ever search except for you on the mountains?

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

I arrived back from the Accident and Emergency unit three hours ago and my eye is still excruciatingly painful. I should have known better than to sharpen my crampons with the angle grinder without wearing goggles. Well, I paid the price for my stupidity: a shard of steel straight into the old ocular. I dont yet know what was more painful, the shard that was lodged in my eye or the needle that was used to remove it. Im lying in my darkened living room looking like a character out of Treasure Island. I still intend to go climbing though, as I can use one eye to climb with of that Im sure. I only have one problem: no bloody partner to climb with.

I had my heart set on Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar having looked at it with my binoculars the previous summer. Its an E1 rock route and to my knowledge no one has repeated it since its first ascent in 1982. It was an ideal target for a winter ascent being very grassy, wet and foul in summer and, surprisingly, it looked to me to be quite easy from the ground. I was sure it was climbable. I called various people about doing it, but as usual Id been let down with promises of, I will call you back, honest Alan.

As was the case on so many occasions the return phone call never materialised, and I resigned myself to another missed opportunity. The weather was looking fine albeit a bit stormy. I guess it was the thought of on-sighting this unrepeated E1 on a cliff notorious for its few weak spots that put partners off. I believe now that had I known how tough its armour really was I wouldnt have embarked on my appointment with fear. I dont consciously know what made me want to solo it. I guess it just popped into my head and seemed the right thing to do, but in retrospect there were probably subconscious factors at work as well.

First, I climbed Steeple a month before and I felt confident in my ability. Secondly, Id been having a particularly bad time of late due to much criticism of my ability in the media and by other climbers. I also had more than my fair share of personal problems which had turned me into someone even my wife could not comprehend. I felt that my life was one big bloody mess. Id suffered many setbacks such as losing my beloved job in the army, and at the same time losing some of my lower spine.

This, consequently, resulted in my addiction to painkillers and alcohol sending me spiralling into depression. Id fought so hard to overcome all these things, and more, and now this shite about me being a crap climber had really taken its toll on me. I made my mind up there and then lying in the dark alone with my thoughts — I was going to solo Rolling Thunder, and what better time than right bloody now?

Its 10pm and my eye still hurts, but as I say goodbye to my wife I can sense she is not happy with yet another one of my insane ideas. I reassure her that my eye will be fine by the morning and that if it still hurts I can always come home. I know this is a lie and even if it feels painful I will still climb. I know deep down inside that she worries intensely about me, but I am selfish at heart and always have to get my own way. Perhaps thats why I love her so much, because I guess she understands me better than anyone else and does not hold my selfishness against me.

The weather forecast is crap and the roads are almost impassable but that doesnt deter me. I simply take the long road towards Aberdeen, but even this is quite hazardous. Im missing out the road through Tomintoul as everything is blocked over that way. I struggle slightly with the driving as one eye is not as good as two. Its still dark when I arrive at the Loch Muick car park. I sort myself out, and although I have not slept since the previous night, I feel OK. I see a car arrive just after me. It looks like Pete Benson, but I dont bother to go and speak to him as Im in a world of my own right now and dont feel very sociable.
 Alan on 'Top Gun' Aonach Beag: Image Simon Richards

I have to wear my goggles for most of the walk in. With deep snow underfoot its tough going and the heavy sack soon starts to make my shoulders ache. I have no other thoughts in my mind except for Rolling Thunder. I can feel the wind pick up as I reach the Meikle Pap col, but I dont worry too much as cols are often blustery places due to the channelling of the wind. I cant quite see the Tough-Brown Face yet, as its shrouded by low cloud cover, but I can feel the chill in the air. This is definitely going to be a full-on winter ascent and no mistake. I carry on humping my load through the now thigh-deep snow in the corrie and am beginning to feel slightly tired, but one bonus is that my eye no longer hurts so badly, and I can now remove my goggles which have been misted over for the past three hours.

I eventually reach the first aid box and can now see clearly my objective up on the right of the Tough-Brown Face. Jesus, its wintry alright. I witness an airborne avalanche sweep over the top of Parallel Gully B. I still have to negotiate the slopes and the deep snow that lies in the bowl formed just below the face. Its hard work, and as I approach the foot of the route I can see other climbers over at the first aid box. I am sure they are wondering what the idiot over here is up to. I finally get the monkey off my back and have a well-earned rest.

I survey my intended route above: a series of steep slabs and grooves finally ending at a big roof. I am sure I can climb this route on-sight, but I have no idea what gear I will need. I have just brought my normal soloing rack which consists of four pegs, which are all I own, along with my trusty Hexentrics, a few nuts, quick draws, and a few cams. I have come to rely heavily on my Hexentrics as they can be hammered into icy cracks where nothing else will suffice.

I sort out a peg belay and anchor one end of the rope to it with the free end running through my Soloist device and am now ready. I start climbing up the initial overhanging roof that is harder than it looks. I clear the snow from the groove on the left-hand side of the roof only to be confronted with a horrible blind crack. Damn! This is quite confusing as it looks just like the cracks normally found in Cairngorm granite in other words quite accommodating. Sadly this was not the case here, as the cracks seemed to be horrible, blind and misleading. I hope this is not normal on this cliff otherwise I could be in trouble.

I manage to get a semi-hook in the groove which allows me to reach a little higher and get some turf and strenuously pull over the roof. Im now on a nice terrace. I go right under a small roof and climb another unprotected blind groove. After ten metres climbing on reasonable ground I eventually find somewhere to place a decent hex. I thank God for this as Im beginning to get seriously worried. I make a small traverse out left and pull up onto a half-decent ledge below what looks like a hard slab with cracks running up it. Im sure this will certainly constitute the lower crux as it is steep, and as it leans left I cant seem to get straight on it without doing a barn door out leftwards, which is throwing me off balance.

I’ve now searched for protection, in vain, for half an hour. I finally get a small nut at the base of the slab in a very icy crack that I know is shite, but its better than nothing. I survey the slab above. Two crack runs up the middle of it with a smaller corner crack on the right-hand edge of the slab. I try to convince myself that they will be nice deep Cairngorm cracks. Wrong. They are bloody useless, shallow and crap. I now know that when I attempt to climb the slab I will not be able to stop and place proas there is no possibility in this blind rubbish, and anyway its way too strenuous and looks technically awkward to boot. I eventually manage to place a lousy copperhead at the base of the corner crack. I dare not test it as it has fallen out twice already. However, it does give me the confidence to work a few moves up the slab.

Jesus! Its technical and theres nothing much for my feet, but more worryingly theres nothing in the way of protection at this point to stop me hitting the ground should I fall. This makes for a very hard decision. I must give it my all if Im to commit. I focus on the moves, remembering everything Ive ever learned about technique. I make my mind up and decide to take the gamble.

OK, get psyched and go. Left tool hook in the crack and flag left foot out onto the slab. Hook the right tool in a small corner up right. I bring the right foot up for a mono in the crack. Now, high step up; left tool up above head and crap hook in the crack; right tool again in the corner. Now, quickly heel-hook with my left foot on the ledge above. Man this is bloody mad: no gear and well mental. I remove my right tool and thwack into turf and mantle on the heel-hook. I feel great. I am amazed; I did it. That took total concentration. I actually climbed in a trance; I really felt no fear nothing but the moves coming together. I feel a sense of elation.

Sorting myself out and calming down a bit, I look up at the next section: a small groove leading to a ledge. No problem, or so I think. I manage to place a decent nut at the base of the groove, but its choked with ice above so I know I wont get any gear there. I get a hook for my left tool and move up, getting a thin one for the right in the ice above, but as I try to pull up into the groove my hook rips sending me flying backwards down the slab Ive just climbed. Im also upside down. I pull myself up and immediately check myself for movement of all limbs. Phew, I am OK. No injuries and I can now pull myself back onto the ledge. Well that will teach you to be so cocky you dickhead!

This time I get a slightly better hook that allows me to pull onto the ledge above. The guidebook description, which is firmly implanted in my memory, says go out right on a grassy ramp, but I can see a better line directly above. I look up and can see that its a thin groove leading to another slab. I manage to get another nut at the base of this groove; its small but its better than nothing. I start up the overhung groove, and bridging out I can at least maintain balance on this one. 

I really wish there was some prohere but its all blind shite, only good enough for small hooks and little else. I pull onto the slab above and just as I get a decent hook my feet come off. I fall all the way back down to the ledge somersaulting in the process. Im very lucky that the back-up knot stops on my Soloist and, unbelievably, the nut has held — just. I dont feel scared just annoyed and even manage a deranged sort of laugh to myself. I stand up and go again as there really is no time like the present, and this time I am successful. I climb the thin groove up the slab and reach a really nice ledge above, thank God!

I’m really hoping for something bomber here as I need to go down and pull my rope up. I manage to get a good thread and a half-decent cam. I sort myself out, rapback to the base, and get ready to remove the bottom belay. I cant believe what Im seeing here: the bloody peg that Ive been belayed on has fractured and as I hammer it outwards it snaps off. Well, once again that was bloody lucky Alan, I think.

The weather has now turned really bad with strong winds and a chill thats eating away at my very bones. However, Im more determined than ever as I know deep down inside that Im a good climber and can deal with this. I refuse to give in despite the atrocious conditions now prevailing. I re-ascend to the belay above. I have a 60m rope so it should be enough to link the final two pitches together. This section looks hard as its a 20m slab, and Im guessing that I will be getting no protection due to the totally unaccommodating bloody granite. I climb up a shallow groove and look at the ground ahead.

Theres a bulging arête to my left with a shallow crack running up its right-hand side. I scrape away at the crack in the hope of finding just one deep weakness, but, predictably, its another useless shallow load of pants. I can see some small clumps of turf higher up on the arête, and if I could just reach them then Im sure I can link the moves above to the ledge which is tantalisingly close now. I can just put my left foot on a sloper on the arête. As I try to stand up on it my foot comes off. I have no bloody tool placements, so Im catapulted backwards through the air. The next thing I know Im dangling upside down again on the slab below the ledge.

Once again Ive been stopped by my back-up knot. The Soloist does not work on upside down falls so I have to rely on my back-up knots, which can be difficult to tie or untie in extremis, but they are my only fail safe. I have one tool in my hand but cannot see the other. Is it on the ledge above, or has it gone to the bottom of the cliff? I really hope not; this is all that concerns me at this point. All I can think about is where my other tool is. Without it I will have to retreat and there is no bloody way I am giving up on this route for anything. I pull back onto the ledge only to break out in the loudest fit of insane laughter Ive ever known. I see my tool lying on the ledge and thank God once again for his kindness. Predictably, I cant believe my luck. What a jammy bastard Alan; not a scratch or mark in sight.

I quickly regroup. Fully confident that I, at least, have a totally bomber belay. This time I stick the foothold on the arête and precariously reach up high to moss and turf which allows me to climb the arête and mantel onto the ledge above. I now arrange some rubbish runners under the slanting roof which is the junction with the route Crazy Sorrow. The guidebook says you carry on straight up, but the weather is really foul and I dont like the look of the way ahead or what little of it I can see through this horrible blizzard. Instead, I opt for the guidebook tip of possible escape out right’.

Christ, it looks no better. A large roof blocks the way with yet another slab below it. Im fed up with all this slab climbing as I find it all rather thin and more to do with good footwork than strong arms. I traverse up right to below the left-hand side of the roof and look below. Cool, there is a load of ice under the roof, but I cant see any way of protecting it, and the ice means that there is not even the chance of a psychological runner.

I manage to place a Spectre hook in the turf on the left-hand side of the roof, and now I can step down to reach the slab. It feels steep and a fall here will send me smashing down left for a bad landing. I really need to focus my attention and stay nice and calm. I traverse under the roof delicately; no room for mistakes here. Now climbing mainly on my feet, Im grateful that they are sticking for now. Finally, after much heart-in-mouth I reach the right-hand end of the slab and can get a torque under the roof, which allows me to reach high with my right tool and get some turf and, thankfully, reach a ledge above. Phew!

That felt weird but only after I climbed it not during. Quite bizarre this climbing game. The weather has really taken a turn for the worse now and Im now being blinded by spindrift and the wind feels fiercely strong. I carry on traversing for a while; the ground is friendlier here, and Im getting better gear at last albeit not where I really need it. Im forced to make a slight descent then more climbing straight up takes me to the crest of the Tough-Brown Ridge, or what I believe is the ridge anyway. Sadly, I cant see where the hell you are supposed to abseil from. There was something in the description about a block with a sling around it, but as I can hardly see my hands in front of me, I dont think Im going to find it.

I switch my head torch on and look again: nothing but bloody spindrift blasting in my face. I think Im going to panic, but, wait, what about the way I have just come? I know where everything is, and I have belays that will allow me to descend. I mean, whats the difference? Descend here providing I find said block which is looking more unlikely by the minute, or go back which I will have to on the last pitch anyway then descend. I have made my mind up, and its back the way I came and descent for me.

I pull my way across my rope, and eventually Im back at the roof. Im not keen on the traverse but its this or, in my mind, confusion over on the ridge trying to find a lousy block in this shite. I manage to place my tools on the turf and step back down to below the roof. I know the ice is good enough so I just have to remember that. I traverse again tenuously and thinly but my feet are doing all the work and theyre sticking to the thin ice here. I seem to be willing my monopoints to stick and theyre doing it.

Almost being blown off several times, it feels like the longest traverse of my life. I begin to feel sick. I can now reach the turf on the other side of the roof and pull onto the ledge. I throw up all over the ledge. The retching has made my eyes water, and my tears are freezing straight onto my cheeks. I also discover the Spectre hook has completely ripped out of the turf. I rapfrom two nuts sideways under a roof then decide I would be better rapping from the in situ thread lower down. Well I have tested the thread fully and at least I know it’s bomber. I rap’ from the thread to the ledges below. Another rappel, and Im safely back on terra firma. But, I have problems seeing in the white out and know its far from over yet.

I put away my frozen rope but cant remove my harness as the webbing buckles are totally frozen stiff. I put my sack on and try to get out of this nightmare. Im having a horrendous time descending as I cant see my compass properly and the snow is waist deep in the corrie. I dont know if I can carry on. My body is exhausted, and with no sleep for two days, or decent food, Im at breaking point. Im not even at the first aid box yet, and Ive been floundering here for more than an hour. I sit down. Blasted by spindrift and freezing cold, I start to cry – it’s hopeless. So this is how it ends for those stupid enough to defy common sense and all that goes with it in the mountains.

I drift off to sleep; somehow it no longer seems important to move. I think Im dreaming, remembering my time in the Army remembering how many times Ive had feelings just like this. But when I was at my lowest ebb, tired, starved and feeling hopeless, I never ever gave up. I always managed to keep going; that was my spirit, and I needed that resolve right now. After all, I had everything to live for: a great wife, lovely kids, and an insatiable lust for life.

I open my snow-encrusted eyes, get up and start moving. Im thinking: as long as I dont descend I will get out of here. Up and right is the way home, and thats where I put my head. Four hours later, I eventually reach the Meikle Pap Col after what can only be described as the basic struggle for survival in the mountains when they are venting their fury. Im weary of body and mind, but I keep moving with the enduring thought that I must get home foremost in my mind. I reach the track going towards Glen Muick and can rest.

Thank God its finally over; with just a walk down a long track I will be there. I rest my aching body and have the strangest feeling. I start to shake uncontrollably and break down in tears. Im filled with unknown emotions. Wait a minute, I know what they are now. They are feelings of remorse and fear. I am remorseful because I could have easily killed myself and that would have been selfish as I know my wife deserves better. Thats it. The feelings I should have been having on the route were those that Id repressed. 


AM on 'Rudolpshutte' Austria: Image Heinz Zak

Thats why I felt a profound sense of calm after falling so many times, but now all the feelings of fear and common sense that I had ignored are suddenly filling my mind, flooding back like waves. It feels like a wake-up call. Im suddenly intensely aware of my own selfishness, yet it feels too late. I pull myself together and carry on down the track. I get the frozen clothing off and get in the car, anxious to get back home and see my wife. I feel content and am slowly warming up. I feel a strange kind of satisfaction. I know that I no longer have to worry about what people will say about me. I can climb, of that I am now certain.

Death by Misadventure’ by Alan Mullin was originally published posthumously in the SMCJ, 2007.

Crazy Sorrow will be available on 1 August 2019 from Amazon as paperback (£28) and ebook (£8).

Grant Farquhar 2019