On Monday the 24th March my day off went as normal: wake up, look outside, sunshine; the text goes out, "who's climbing where and when?"
Nobody was free till early afternoon and so I did a few chores and then decided I couldn't wait any longer. Off I went to shunt on the only route I was keen to top rope, Masters Edge. I had tried it a while before but felt a long way off it so didn't think a lead would happen. It was just something to kill the time till the others arrived. The friction was top; it was just the wind, hmmm. After a quick play on my own, Jamie turned up and held the top rope for me. Oh dear, it all felt fine. Drew and Steve turned up all too keen to see the event. I waited a good long while half-hoping it would rain, or get too hot, or too cold or something but no. It was perfect, and my excuses were running out.
A few minutes later and I was rocking on to the finishing jug in control, happy but of course in a situation of complete danger. It's easy when you know how!
Normally this would get me banging on much longer and blowing my own trumpet but something much bigger, better and more important lay lurking round the corner!
I awoke the day after Masters Edge a little fuzzy after celebratory beers and checked the forecast. It said clear, cold and calm, even though the rain hammered hard on my window in Sheffield. One message and a phone call later and I've blagged the next week off work. I had been checking the forecast for Grindelwald, Switzerland.
The Eiger North Face is possibly the best known climb in the world: steeped in legend, long, hard, dangerous and beautiful; it has captured the imagination of anyone who has ever dreamed of alpinism. And now I'm Eiger bound with John "Chaos" Crook (about the only person more psyched than me!).
After work on Friday I piled into John's van and headed south. 24hrs and very little sleep later, the van popped and black smoke poured out the back. My heart sank and I thought the worst - we would miss the weather window sat in a garage. John, clearly in the same mindset, said "Eiger first, I'll fix it after". We crawled into Grindelwald later that night at 15mph, followed by black smoke and funny looks.
Sunday afternoon we casually caught the train up, had another beer gazing at the face then headed up to bivi underneath the 1800m colossus. I phoned Mum to wish her a happy Mother's Day, Danni (my wife) to tell her all was well and we spent the night not sleeping (as normal) and watching a night time helicopter rescue from near the summit!
4am and we start up the face. With no moon and the tracks filled in we just hope we are heading the right way and that it would be light before the Difficult Crack. As we reach the crack and gear up properly, we turn our headtorches off for the first time - perfect! John deals with the crack well and it's all suddenly very real but we laugh, joke and whoop at what's going on and have fun!
The Hinterstoisser Traverse goes quickly with the odd photo pose; next we race up the ice fields and we arrive at Death Bivi for lunch time. This really would be a comfy bivi spot but it is far too early, so we melt some snow, drink and eat and move on.
The Ice Hose is steady but thin and will probably be the first thing to melt and leave the route unclimbable, on ice anyway. I lead us up the Ramp until the desperate looking Waterfall pitch. Thankfully John is very keen to lead it - what a great partner! This extremely steep pitch would be simple without packs and in rock boots but as it is there’s a bit of a fight, at least for me!
Next up is the Ice Bulge pitch. In good conditions it seems to go unnoticed - for us it is the crux of the climb. A huge snow/ice mushroom blocked the way and very thin (Scottish 6 or 7) moves headed out left. A guided ascent just in front of us had kindly left a cam in place that the clients had used to hook and pull past the crux. John teeters up to this heart in mouth, as he hooks it I relax, but not for long. It rips and the cam flies back towards Grindelwald. John falls back safely into the soft snow in the gully. Unphased he sets off again and arriving at the slot pushes in my Totem cams and makes his way up. Hero!
A couple of fairly straight forward pitches led to the Brittle Ledges and our planned bivi spot. The guided team were already there (expecting their cam back!) and we assumed they would have taken the best spot. To our disbelief Harry the guide had chosen a small overhanging area near the few bolts, where the 3 of them could only just sit. I guess it was the safest place but boy it looked uncomfy. We set up our own spot round the corner both lying flat out; lovely! After dark the 2 man Italian team turned up and also set up a sitting bivi. On the route we had the biggest bags (typical Brits) but it was well worth it as we ate well, danced to our speakers and MP3 player and had warm sleeping bags. That night we saw a (still unexplained) shooting star/comet that was about level with us and floated slowly through the sky burning green for around 10 seconds!
The next morning we are woken by both teams climbing round us. They are keen to start by 7am after an uncomfortable night, whereas we are very cozy and happy. Just before 10am John finally gets his act together and I lead us up the Brittle Crack for breakfast in an amazing position at the start of the Traverse of the Gods. This is incredible with a great sense of exposure, with easy (ish!), subtle sideways climbing in an extremely dangerous position, with over a 1500m of air under your heels.
This leads us to the White Spider high on the face. The Spider has a reputation for rock fall and is peppered with small stones, but today we are lucky as it is cold enough to hold the Eiger in one piece, other than small chucks ice from the teams ahead. The ice runnels at the top lead easily to the Quartz Crack. Here we catch up with the Italians (and also catch their falling camera!). They're hauling up their packs after removing them for the difficult pitch. John does a sterling job leading this steep corner with his pack on and once again I thrutch my way up on second.
We then have a long wait on our hands as the Italians headed up the Exit Chimneys. When we get on these they are just as I had heard; terrifying. Two pitches of rock climbing on slopey limestone with crampons on and hardly any gear, not too hard but in a very serious situation. This passes slowly but smoothly and leads us to the summit ice slopes, where we can smell the summit!
We had pictured ourselves running up these moving together but alas we are not Ueli. It's in pretty bad shape with some spicy, very narrow runnels, but we plough on and carefully step along the knife blade summit ridge. This truly is an amazing summit; I can only imagine the excitement the first ascent party must have felt at this point.
We arrive at the summit point with total elation, and we're rewarded by some of the most incredible views I have ever seen.
Everything had been better than expected and enormous fun every step of the way. As always you don't get to hang around long, as it's not over till you're down.
We headed down the West Flank which was in such easy condition we wished we had skis for half of it. Before we knew it we were back in the safety of the train station and I made the call to my wife close to tears of joy.
We had missed the last train down but this didn't seem to matter after what we'd just experienced. Most people would stay up the hill but I knew there were beers in the van, so down we go John! A couple of hours' slog later and we are drinking in the car park. Massive grins and one massive tick!
Normally, doing only two routes in a week is a pretty poor effort, but Masters Edge and North Face of the Eiger? I'll let myself off with that!
A special thanks to all who covered for me in the shop, Danni for her understanding and support and of course John for being an amazing partner.
Usually I wouldn't bother with this but as a few people have already asked what we took, there are clearly plenty of gear geeks out there:
James works for Outside in HathersageTweet
Recently we have been stuck in some wonderful high pressure which has led to some summery temperatures. Last week the crags were dry, bone dry! I heard even Chee Dale was doable; bizarre for this time of year.
Thursday and Friday last week were interesting. Drew and I headed to the Plantation as I had a route in mind. Quickly we realised it was too hot for any hard climbing and the grit was greasy and piping hot: this is March, right? We still had a cracking day including classics such as Left (E1) and Right Unconquerable (HVS), Namelos (E1), and Calvary (E4) alongside the overlooked Vanquished (E5 6B) and a few other very gritty unpopular affairs.
The next day I headed back to the crag as the temperature had dropped and I got straight on my main objective, Defying Destiny (E6, 6b) with a belay from Tom Ripley. The route had a bold write up in the guide with poor flared cams being the only protection for the crux. My friend Dan had done it the week before and fallen, proving that they hold!
I had to try, but took the decision to ab the route first to check the cams. I decided they should be fine so went straight for the lead. I took my time and thought safety in numbers was key and placed 5 or 6 cams to be sure, but the Totem cams are so good in flared cracks I was happy. In the end they weren’t needed and all went well. Happy man! This would be a totally different ball game for the short.
We carried on ticking more classics but the wind chill made it feel about 20 degrees different from the day before and we ended earlier than normal. A great couple of days and let’s hope a good omen for a dry summer!
James works at Outside in HathersageTweet
Well, Spring is here... except it feels more like Summer! And we all know what Summer means. Long evenings, and after work climbing sessions, so obviously we chose to embrace the good weather with a quick hit of after work soloing at Stanage.
Arriving at the Popular carpark at 5.45 Stanage was already bathed in a golden glow. We only had maybe 45 minutes to an hour, so we ran up the hill and just started wherever it looked easy. All told between myself and James we probably climbed about a thirty or so routes including Crack and Corner, Mantlepiece Buttress Direct, Heather Wall, and Manchester Buttress.
There was also a bit of time for clowning around on the top of Chimp's Corner. Well it's all a bit of fun isn't it?
Drew works at Outside in HathersageTweet
Having climbed lots of steep ice in Europe we decided to make the pilgrimage to one of the great ice climbing centres of the world – Canmore in Canada and the Jasper-Banff highway.
We arrived just as the temperatures were dropping after an unseasonal warm, dry spell. This meant low avalanche risk which is critical to getting onto lots of routes. Great!
We stayed at the Alpine Club of Canada clubhouse/hostel in Canmore, 1 hours drive west from Calgary. This is a good base to get going as it is cheap, comfortable and welcoming and full of climbers who can bring you up-to-speed on local conditions.
Our first choice was Johnston Canyon. A short walk (2k) up a tourist walkway through the canyon leads to an icy headwall with plenty of interesting short, single pitch climbs of different steepness. Pete (an anchorite of 70 years!) led me up a beautiful little WI2 gulley above an icy plunge pool. A good intro to Canadian ice; essential for getting ‘into it’ and remembering all those mantras (keep your heels low, strike high and firmly etc) as well as sorting out the incredible tangle of gear that seems to characterise modern ice climbing.
While we were climbing another member of our group managed to slip on the approach to their climb and rupture his Achilles tendon. What a start to our holiday! Poor Bill definitely got the ‘short straw’ as his trip was over before he’d even started. The next 24 hours were spent getting him back to Canmore (he managed to hobble the 2k back to the trailhead with help, a really brave effort) and arranging through his BMC insurance to get him to Calgary and home. The BMC guys were really helpful and got him on a flight the next day: business class, so he could prop his poor ankle up safely.
So 24 hours later, and climbing as a 3, we headed off for the afternoon to another local mini-crag at the inappropriately named Junk Yard. Again, several easily accessible short routes were great for a bit of practise.
Then we were ready for something a bit more ‘coq-sportif!’ Our choice was Moonlight 100m WI4. A three pitch route, it has a 3.5k approach along a frozen river through the ubiquitous pine trees which gave a real feeling of being surrounded by a vast wilderness probably inhabited by cougars, elk and wolves! The route was hard! A long 50m WI3 pitch led up to a cosy cave and solid bolted belay. Nick led and Pete and I followed ‘arrow-head’ style. Canadian WI3 is actually pretty hard and it was cold! We were taken aback by how cold our hands got seconding (Pete was nearly in tears with the hot-aches when he got to the cave stance. Just a hint of what was to come!) The long 60m top pitch was steep! If this is WI4 then we were in trouble! The ice was hard with only some ‘hooking’ from previous ascents but the screws went in OK. These Canadian grades were definitely a step up from Europe! By the time I got up I knew that I had done a ‘proper’ route.
Our next stop was the most visible route in the area – Cascade 300m WI3 right above the Canmore/Banff road. This route is very prone to avalanche as it faces S and has a huge bowl of snow that occasionally vents right down the route. We hit the conditions just right – a cloudy day obscuring the sun and the previous mild spell had consolidated the meagre snow-pack. Perfect. The climb starts with about 180m of ice-scrambling up easy-ish angled ice (the most dangerous angle?) to bolts at the base of a definite steepening. 2 pitches of good steep-ish ice lead pleasantly to a short walking pitch before the final short wall at the top. A really pleasant route. We decided to take the walking descent, which made the whole day out really interesting as we swung down through trees and short, awkward rock walls back to the car.
Next we had to do a route we had actually heard of! The Professor Falls 210m WI4 is one of the ‘must-do’ routes in the area. Named after a professor who (nearly) fell off it racing for the 1st ascent, the route starts with a long 4.2k trudge down the private road to the Banff sewage works, before a further 2.5k along a riverside trail to a thrash up through the trees and the starting icefall. (The trick is to start walking at the time the employees from the sewage works are going to work in the morning. Pete and I got a lift immediately but Nick, who was 5 minutes behind us, had to walk most of it!) The route is a stately procession of fine steep pitches up a canyon-like watercourse, mainly WI3-4, with a 200m walk to reach the final steep 50m pitch. This was in great, aesthetic condition and led to a tree festooned with abseil slings. More abs and we were back on the trail out with only the road to hobble down. As luck would have it we hit the road just as a convoy of Ranger trucks loaded down with bits of elk from a day’s ‘culling’ pulled up to give us a lift back to the car. Brilliant!
A day off was called for as we were all fairly knackered. Next day Nick and I decided to go for a more mountainous setting. So we chose Kidd Falls 55m WI4, a short, steep, spectacular route set in the back country but only a 1.5k walk-in. What we didn’t pick up on was the 500m ascent in 1.5k! 2 hours after we left the car we heaved ourselves up to the bottom of the route after a knackering thrash through woods, rock bands and long snow plods. Could 2 pitches be worth all this? Yes! My first 30m WI4 pitch was steep and pumpy in a great exposed position, followed by Nick’s lead up a 20m pillar of sculptured ice to a belay far back. 3 abs later and it was all downhill back to the car.
Time to move our base again, from a hostel in Banff to Rampart Creek hostel, 150k north up the Jasper-Banff Parkway. We were psyched to step up a grade and do Polar Circus. This 800m WI5 route is the ‘do-able’ classic of the area. (The other classic is Sea of Vapours but this is WI5-7 and starts 600m up the mountainside – a bit out of our reach!) We had heard that it was in good nick and the potential avalanche danger was low, so now was as good a time to do it as we would ever get.
Rampart Creek is a great hostel stuck in the snow with freezing outside loos and no water for body washing! It is run by Ken Wood, a really enthusiastic warden, and only gets a few users in mid-week due to it being so remote. By now it was getting seriously cold! Minus 30C was the everyday temperature. With no wind it was just bearable but imparted a frisson of danger - make one mistake and it could get really serious.
We started our visit with the Weeping Wall RH 160m WI 5. The Weeping Wall is a massive sheet of ice draped over a vertical 160m band of limestone. Its southerly aspect gives it a sunny, friendly appearance but it’s steep and for us – cold! The 1st pitch (WI4) is long and elegant, up a right-leaning gangway to a nicely protected belay ledge complete with bolts. The 60m (WI5) second pitch was probably the most elegant pitch we did in our visit to Canada. Nick had the honour of leading this lovely sinuous groove of sculptured ice to belay at the rope’s end on screws. Pete and I got cold even in the sunshine which just reinforced how cold it was becoming. I was offered the final steep (WI5) pitch to the abseil tree and was half way up it when I realised that I had broken a front point on my new-ish Lynx crampons!* I quickly realised there was little point in worrying as there was nothing I could do about it anyway.
Weeping Wall was a great morale booster for our plans for Polar Circus 800m WI5. All I needed was another pair of crampons or new front points. In desperation I asked Ken at the hostel who’s instant and generous reply was, ‘Sure, I’ve got some BD rigids that will fit your boot size.’ 10 minutes later I had the necessary points fitted and ready to go.
Next morning we were up at 5am, dressed in ALL our warm clothes, out at 5.30 and walking by 6am. The car thermometer read -32C and the snow beneath our feet squeaked too loud for us to hear each other unless we stopped. It took us an hour to stomp up the deep-ish snow to the base of the route where Nick stepped up and volunteered to set off up the first (WI4) vertical pitch. The route follows a succession of slightly easier (WI3/4) pitches until a hanging ice boss that occasionally forms a dramatic pillar called the Pencil. Luckily for us it hadn’t formed that year so we followed the big rightwards traverse line diagonally up until an exposed snow slope led us back into the vertical heart of the route.
Nick led up the first 60m pitch (WI4) up a great tongue of ice cascading from a narrowing high above. He belayed on screws and our first ‘Abalakov’ ice thread whilst we came up arrowhead and I led on to the bolts beneath the final 3 pitches. I led the first pitch (WI4) up deceptively steep ice to a small bowl tucked beneath the final 100m vertical cascade pouring out from the huge snow bowl above. ‘Up and at it’ was my credo as the 50m pitch (WI5) seemed endlessly steep.
It was getting on in the day by now and the sun was on us but none of us felt the heat. Nick had checked his fingers earlier and had a real shock to see the tips white and lifeless. We panicked thinking the worst and I gave him my final spare set of heat pads** which seemed to save the day and his fingers! Once we were all assembled on the final belay ledge Nick set off up the shorter but still vertical pillar to finish. After 6-7m of cruddy ice complete with dripping water (how does that happen in -30C?) he faltered and discretion overcame his valour! We were all tired but these young chaps (Nick is 43) just don’t have the stamina these days!! I swung up to his high point, put my head down and battered my way to the top.
Elation! We had done it. All I had to do was get across the top icy platform and clip the final bolts and bring them both up. As I stepped across the ice broke under me and a gusher of freezing water spouted knee high up my leg and cascaded down the ice in a great wave. I stood appalled. It flowed over the top of the pitch and more importantly all over the ropes! We had heard that people had had some trouble with jammed ropes form the top belay and now I could see why. I immediately shouted to the others not to come up as we had to get down NOW before everything froze completely solid. I clipped the ropes in and started down. It’s lucky that I weigh a lot! The ropes were solid tubes of ice and I had to hammer them through my belay brake using my weight to shred the ice from the rigid ropes. I stripped all the screws and eventually reached the others and instantly we set about pulling the ropes down.
Nothing. No movement. Desperation burst through as the prospect of a forced bivi in less than -30C was something we couldn’t contemplate. I jumped and pulled using my weight again. Nick literally said ‘pull the other one!’ and set up a see-saw motion which magically seemed to free the ropes and gave us hope. Then it was free – after a fashion – and down it came. Never was there a more relieved team than us 3 on that belay. Laughter broke out, albeit only briefly, as time was flying and we had 800m to go.
By 6pm we were at the bottom. Climbing as a three is fairly efficient in ascent but adds a lot of time when abbing despite using bolts apart from our previously placed ‘Abalakov’. The last ab is always a breeze as you really don’t care about the ropes jamming as you know you’re down! There followed an hour floundering down the snow in the cold and dark and into the car by 7pm - 14 hours round trip. Not bad for a rope of 3 with a combined age of around 175!
We had earned a day off. Our drive south down the Parkway to the Lake Louise hostel started with our car thermometer registering -38C! This 150k drive is a ‘must-do’ trip in winter. I had done it in the summer but the pine fringed mountains without a covering of snow look more like giant rubble heaps. In winter they look magnificent and the drive becomes a fabulous journey through an archetypal mountain landscape with tantalising ice lines on every peak.
Pete decided to rest on his laurels after his efforts on Polar Circus. His right thumb was slightly frost nipped and he maintained that being 70 was a good enough excuse for anyone. Nick and I decided that we had one more route in us despite being a bit jaded after 2 weeks of steep ice. Our first aim was to do Carlsberg Column WI5 but I was back on my broken crampon again so we opted for the easier Guinness Gully 160m WI4 just outside the small village of Field.
After doing what the guidebook*** said you couldn’t do – getting lost in Field – we set off up the trench to the route with more of a sense of duty than desire. Nick led all the steeper pitches which now seemed fairly routine, especially as the route was well travelled (such were the ‘hooks’ and steps that I could have done the first WI3-4 pitch without any points on my crampon!) It was a good route but we had had enough. Home beckoned but we still had one thing to do.
Next day we travelled back to Canmore to see our friends, re-organise and pack for the flight home. The other ‘must-do’ was a trip to the Banff Hot Springs baths to swim in the hot springs outdoor pool! It was great – lying in 40C water with your hair freezing on your head in -20C air temp is a bizarre experience especially as you gaze up onto snow clad peaks surrounding the pool.
What a perfect way to end a fantastic trip.
*(Luckily I was using twin front points or I would have been in big trouble. I use twin points on steep ice as my experience of using mono-points on chandeliered ice is that you can’t always get your front points to reach into the grooves formed by the corrugations. For mixed ground, mono-points rule! Petzl have since upgraded the front points of the early Lynx crampons as they did have a small incidence of breakage.)
** Heat pads or hand warmers (Hothands) are potential finger savers in extreme conditions. I climbed most of Polar Circus with one in each glove and I still got cold fingers especially when seconding. One of the party who climbed the route on the next day got bad frostbite in his thumb – he didn’t have any heat pads!
*** The new selected climbs guidebook to the area – Icelines - is a welcome arrival as the old guide book is long out of print and reputedly worth 250 US$ on the internet!
You can often find Dick Turnbull in Outside in Hathersage, strutting around like he owns the place. I guess that's because he does!Tweet
Every month during the winter the Alpine Club hold lectures at the Outside Café. There are usually around 30 in the audience but I often wonder why there aren't more! The lectures are a mixture of really fascinating historical stories and gripping accounts of recent feats of alpinism from around the world.
You don't need to be an AC member and it's free to enter (although voluntary contributions are collected at the end to help pay for staging the event).
A great example is the recent talk by Hywel Lloyd (Chairman of the AC Library Council) who gave an illustrated summary of the British Everest expeditions between 1921 and 1953. He also brought props: an ice axe from the 1930s and a boot used by Dr Raymond Greene (brother of novelist Graham Greene) on Everest in 1933. If you are thinking that the boot held by Hywel looks huge, then you are right because Raymond Greene was 6’4” tall.
Standing next to Hywel is the sartorially elegant ex-BMC President, Bob Pettigrew. Bob is wearing a replica Harris Tweed jacket as worn by the leader of the 1924 Everest expedition, Edward Norton.
The March lecture is by Paul Ramsden. His forays into the high Himalaya, particularly with Mick Fowler have become legend. Last year Paul and Mick pulled off an ascent of the previously virgin Kishtwar Kailash via the difficult southwest face. Forming the last major peak at the eastern end of the Kishtwar Himalaya, Kishtwar Kailash (6,451m) had never previously seen a serious attempt.
"We climbed the southwest face of the mountain in a seven-day round trip from base camp. The 1,500m ascent, ED and Scottish VI, featured spectacular situations and varied climbing, but was very different from expected, with many features and near vertical monolithic rock walls."
On Wednesday 12th March you can hear Paul tell his story - come to the Outside Cafe in Hathersage for a 19.30 start.
Mark Radtke and John Sheard will be launching their collected biography of Pete Livesey (1943-1998), one of the UK's leading climbers in the 1970s. He was also a top fell-runner, athlete, caver, canoeist and orienteer.
With contributions from Geoff Birtles, Martin Berzins, John Cleare, Jean Claude Droyer, Jim Eyre, Peter Gomersall, Dennis Gray, Ron Fawcett, Peter Livesey, John Long, Nicho Mailande and many more, there will be no shortage of stories to tell!
This event is ticketed (£5 each inc. glass of wine and buffet). You can buy your tickets directly from the shop in Hathersage or online.
Joe was a pioneer in the Golden Age of Yosemite climbing during the late 50s and 60s. In 1960 he made the second of The Nose on El Capitan. This is a rare opportunity to hear from a visiting American who climbed with the likes of Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard.
Tickets @ £5 will be available soon.
Mountaineer, businessman, father, ex-Royal Marines Officer, Jerry Gore was diagnosed a Type 1 insulin dependent diabetic in 2000.
This is the story of how Jerry overcame his condition, testing his blood sugar levels and injecting insulin up to 8 times a day, and his recent attempt aged 52, to climb the largest unclimbed wall in South America, in one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet, to raise money to help save the lives of 7 young diabetics in war-torn Ecuador.
In November 2013, together with two of Britain’s best mountaineers - Twid Turner, and Calum Muskett – Jerry made the first ascent of the S.E. Wall of The South Tower of Paine in Patagonia.
Tickets @ £7.50 will be available next week. (60% of all monies raised will go Jerry’s “Ecuador Project”.)
Chris Harle is Outside's book buyer.Tweet
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