Friday, 25 August 2017

The Survivor's Tale

Life in the military during the 1960’s was full of ups and downs. Depending on how you looked at your lot in life-glass half empty or half full- and of course, what you could get away with. For me and my four climbing and drinking friends (Chalky, Pete, Geordie and Sam), our glass was always half full, for no other reason, that we found time to indulge ourselves in our three passions – climbing, alcohol and climbing and not necessarily in that order. Being a part of NATO Search and Rescue Team stationed at RAF Bruggen in Germany in the early 1960’s, when life was both exciting and frightening.

Exciting because we were young, naive, energetic, full of life, carried a couldn’t care less attitude on our shoulders and yes, we enjoyed the freedom climbing gave us despite wearing uniforms and being subjected to banal orders, given by newly commissioned officers, fresh out of RAF Cranwell training school who thought, no believed, that as they walked up to the summit of Snowdon one summer, they were experienced and competent climbers/mountaineers! 

The five of us became good friends when we found ourselves, independently volunteering for a rescue mission to the Monte Rosa region within three weeks of being posted to the station. We found ourselves in the same search group, which entailed climbing several high cols, across two glaciers and traversing one long pinnacle ridge, and as we climbed as if we had been doing it for ever, we formed a bond which was cemented through our passion for climbing and alcohol.

However, such things never last. Within two years of being together, Chalky was killed whilst soloing on the Dorset cliffs in March 1964 when he went on a rare home-leave; Pete was posted to Aden a year earlier at the start of the troubles (1963), and on his first day off, he went into a local bar where a young lad came in and threw a grenade in his lap, and Geordie was killed on a rescue mission in the Alps when he was assigned to an international rescue group, which was the first (and last) time the five of us were not in the same mountain rescue group.

Only Sam and I remained out of the small merry band of climbers and we climbed together all the time, sometimes using a rope, and other times climbing unroped. It depended on how we felt at the time. Either way, we were both aware of our mortality given what had happened to our friends.

In July 1964, we had 3 weeks leave coming up, so we made plans to go to the Picos De Europa to try a new route on the South Face of El Naranjo, but a few days before setting off, I was sent to Berlin for a week. Sam being Sam, decided to go by himself and play around on the rocks until I joined him later.

South Face of El Naranjo
However, a day before I was to fly back to RAF Bruggen and then on to the Pyrenees, I was told I had to fly to RAF Laarbruch for another two weeks, so any chance of joining Sam was out the window.When he rang me later, he was disappointed to hear that I would not be joining him, so he said he would find a climbing partner from a group of local climbers who were in the area. A week passed and on the Friday night, I had confusing dreams which to some degree, disturbed me when I woke and recollected some of the images I envisioned. One being of a climbing helmet with a hole in the top and the words Gibanna written on the side in yellow paint.

On the Saturday, Sam rang to say he had found a local climbing partner and they had already completed some climbs together, and had made plans to climb a new route on the East Face of El Neveron de Urriellu on the Sunday. Just as the phone call pips went, I heard him say, his climbing partner was called Hośe Gibanna. The word Gibanna hit the pit of my stomach like a sledge hammer. Blood sank to my feet leaving me light headed. I shouted incoherently to Sam not to go climbing but to return so we could have some beer and talk about another expedition to the Alps or even the Himalaya. But Sam was like a kid on Christmas morning who just found out he had a room full of presents. Then the phone went dead.

Two days later, I was told to report to the duty officer in the guardhouse, where I was told that I had to go to Rhinedalen to identify Sam’s body as it had been flown back from Spain. Sam was an orphan and had no other relatives, and unbeknown to me, he had put me down as his next of kin. It appears that he was belaying Hośe on the third pitch when Hośe dislodged a stone, which plummeted down in accordance with Newton’s law and lodged in Sam’s head after penetrating the spare climbing helmet he borrowed from Hośe, as his was well past its use by date.

Sam was buried in a Military cemetery in Germany with just a few friends around. For the next few weeks, I felt emotionally empty. All my climbing partners were gone within a two-year period. I was angry at everybody and everything including each of them in turn. Angry for deserting me, leaving me to cope with this void within me, to grieve alone without comfort.The next few weeks were a blur, and I knew that I had hit rock bottom, when one weekend, after taking a weeks’ leave, I drove to Fleurus in Belgium, to drown my grief and sorrows in alcohol, with the thought uppermost in my mind, that I did not care what happened to me. What right had I live!

On the Saturday, my headache was the monster of all headaches but none the less, I reluctantly drove south, with no real idea where I was heading for, but as I couldn’t care less where I was going, or why, I just drove until I saw some limestone cliffs poking out of a wooded area. I drove down a track until I could park below the cliff face.  I left the car unlocked and started to climb on the warm grey rock, and the pleasure it gave me as soon as I touched it, ‘stilled my troubled breast’, and I felt at home, despite not being aware of anything other than empty space and none existent time.

Climbing blindly, I ascended a large crack which ended in a blind scoop. I stood and surveyed the ground some distance below. The ‘stilled breast’ was no longer ‘stilled’ but was raging with anger, guilt and self-pity. Why did they have to die – how could they leave me alone like this – what were they thinking.Here I was, 20 years of age, and my four climbing/drinking friends had already departed this life, leaving me bereft and alone. Clearly, all rational thought had suddenly gone walk-about and I was in no mood to recognise logic. As I stood there for goodness how long, the thought came to me, that if I just let go and stepped forwards, I could join them, and all my pain, guilt and anger would evaporate. I would be at peace.

With eyes misted over with tears as I leaned forward, but was startled by a bird of prey that flew in front of me, so close that I felt the disturbed air current on my face as it flew past. My eyes cleared and I realised this was no answer, so carefully and purposefully, climbed back the way I had come.

Back on the ground, I sat and drank a few beers. When I woke at sunrise, I was covered in a heavy dew and snail slime, but I cared little for my appearance, so drank several bottles of lager for breakfast and set off up a crack not caring where it would lead. I remember nothing of the actual climb and came to some semblance of sobriety, when I found myself unable to move on a small ledge. As I perched there alone, I realised there was a putrid smell from somewhere, and was horrified to find that I had vomited over myself as well as having had a bad case of diarrhoea during the night, but had not noticed it earlier.

I climbed back down, sat and cried for what seemed a very long time. I felt ashamed, and angry with myself with the knowledge that I had debased my humanity. I knew I had to do something about my life style as it was not serving anyone’s purpose, not least those friends who I would never climb with again. As I sat there in my own filth, I became disgusted for letting myself get to such a debased state. The tears came in sobbing waves, like a raging winter’s storm. I had humiliated myself and even though I felt totally bereft at the loss of so many good climbing friends, I knew this was no excuse, none what so ever.

After a while of retching, interspersed with racking sobbing, I stood up, took off my clothes, and ran naked into the nearby river to wash away my disgust in the silent current, hoping it would wash away the shame I was feeling.

Once I felt cleansed, I ran back to the car, oblivious to the pain the stony ground caused my bare feet. Got dressed in my spare clothing and returned to where my soiled clothes lay and burnt them. Later, I went for a walk along the base of the cliffs, allowing my thoughts the freedom to go where they wished. After a while, I came to a part of the cliff which had a large rising crack, until it vanished as the cliff face became concave. I knew I had to climb it, if not for me, then for Chalky, Geordie, Pete and Sam. This would be my testament to our friendship.

The moment my fingers touched the grey rock, I felt the energy surge up my arms and through my body. I was alive and guilt had no part to play in the loss of my friends. I had to live for them, to climb for them, they would expect nothing less. Up I went, cat like movements, singing to the tune of the soft summer breeze, feeling every touch of the rock with my fingers and toes. This was what I wanted to do – climb, nothing more but climb alone. This way, I would never again find myself in such a low emotional state of mind nor feel the sadness at the loss of a climbing friend. A new door had opened and I walked through it with open eyes. My life would never be the same.

Note: From 1964, I climbed solo with a passion that only abated when in my late 50’s, ‘living life’ became important to me. Despite not caring about death whilst pursuing my mad-cap adventures around the world, I remained addicted to soloing's adrenalin rush.

Frank Grant © 2017