Days Like This

(by Gerry Moss, from the IMC Newsletter, Autumn 1997)
An apprentice alpinist learns his trade the hard way.

The slog up to the hut was soul-destroying, hour after hour of dreary zig-zags, rising relentlessly, interminably upwards. There was no escaping the burning heat of the sun, the burden of a weighty rucksack, the bubbling enthusiasm of a keen partner, or the dull throbbing in my head which grew increasingly more persistent as we gained altitude. With typical perversity the weather closed in at the last moment and the hut, when reached, was shrouded in mist, half empty, cold and cheerless. Not a very auspicious start to an alpine career. It was to get worse. At three a.m. we peered gloomily out the window at the steadily falling snow, then, half reluctant, half relieved, followed the example of everyone else and went back to bed. We descended to the valley later that morning, slithering down the track on fresh, unconsolidated snow.

Back at the tent we fretted impatiently as the day improved and decided to make up for lost time by doing a route directly from the valley the following morning, opting for an ascent of the West face of the Tsa. In this choice we showed our inexperience, for there was still too much fresh snow on the rock and we found progress painfully slow and the climbing distinctly hairy. After several hours we decided to beat a retreat. To one side of our route a wide, snow- filled couloir offered a quick means of descent. We donned crampons and set off, unroped. Near the edge of the couloir a recent rockfall had scoured out a narrow trough, sweeping all the fresh snow down before it, revealing a ribbon of old, hard snow. Although conscious of the fact that it might be prone to further rock-fall, I opted for this line and made good progress. Out in the marginally safer centre of the couloir Tony was coping with more difficult conditions, the soft snow balling up on his crampons, the air resounding to the steady tap of the ice-axe shaft against his boots as he cleared them at almost every other step. On hearing an exclamation I looked up and saw him come shooting down on his back. He rolled over and applied an ice-axe brake but with no effect, the axe cutting through the soft snow like the proverbial hot knife through butter. With his speed increasing by the second he threw his full weight onto the axe and it bit deeply into the under-lying ice. The axe stopped dead – but he didn’t. His momentum was such that it was torn from his hands, the perlon line connecting it to his harness snapped like thread and he continued on his way, axeless, moving really fast now. I tried to call out some words of encouragement to him as he hurtled by but could manage no more than a nervous croak as I watched him vanish into the distance. Eventually he ran into a small snow-bank, his speed diminished and he was able to bring himself to a stop. After retrieving his axe we returned, somewhat chastened, to the camp-site.

The following day we completed our first Alpine route together. It was a full grade easier and several hundred meters lower than the target of the previous day. We were learning fast.

The Cuillinns on Skye are not noted for good snow conditions, but that Spring was an exception. While gingerly picking our way along the ridge above Coire Lagan a rucksack was dropped by one of the party and we watched it descending, in spectacular leaps and bounds, towards the corrie floor. The fact that the bag contained some gear borrowed from me may have had a bearing on my volunteering to help in the search for it. While the owner opted for a retreat along the ridge and a sweep up the corrie floor, I took a line straight down the face, following the route of the bag. I started off slowly enough, kicking steps cautiously down the steep slope, but it was neither the time, nor the place, for half-hearted measures. The situation was inspiring, uplifting. I was surrounded by a cirque of rugged magnificence, the jagged skyline interspersed with steep, dark buttresses and shapely, snow-clad peaks, shimmering against a backdrop of pale, ice-blue sky. The air was crystal-clear, bitingly cold: every intake of breath was an invigorating, intoxicating draught, a stimulating, enticing urge to take action. I threw caution to the winds, broke into a canter and was soon loping along, crouching forward, axe at the ready, toes up, drumming the heels in to the hard, icy surface, eating up the ground. Gung-ho, cock-ahoop. A little too cocky, perhaps. Half-way down there must have been some boulders lying just beneath the surface, my boot broke through the crust into a hollow underneath and was held momentarily. I was pitched forward, smack on my face, with a bone-jarring thud. The change from vertical to horizontal did the trick: my foot popped out and I was off, rocketing down the slope – head-first. I was wearing a fluffy, woollen balaclava, with the rim pulled down over my mouth for protection from the biting wind. Travelling face down, the woolly fabric caught against the snow as I zoomed along, with the result that the crown of the balaclava was pulled firmly down over my eyes, effectively blindfolding me. Being unable to see sharpened the other senses: the sound of my body sliding over the icy snow and the rush of cold air on the back of my neck heightened the sensation of travelling at speed and it might all have been enjoyable were it not for the fact that I knew there was an area of large boulders directly below me. And I was speeding towards it – head-first. I stuck my axe out to one side, blindly, hopefully. It bit sweetly and I swung beneath it, coming to a stop within inches of the first of the boulders. Dismissing all thoughts of the lost rucksack from my mind I spent the rest of the afternoon kicking steps up the face and throwing myself off, forwards, backwards, sideways, practising ice- axe arrests from every conceivable angle, happy as a sand-boy.

Conditions on the Ben were deteriorating fast, the threatened storm having arrived hours earlier than expected. Battling our way past the C.I.C. hut, in gale force winds, we conceded that Tower Ridge was out, but agreed that a quick ascent of Number Two gulley might just be on. The atmosphere inside the gulley was eerie. The winds were scouring the summit plateau, driving clouds of spindrift over the edge of the face, sending it sweeping down over us in cold cataracts. It streamed in from all sides, with a sinister, sibilant whisper, pouring over our heads, blinding our eyes, clogging our throats, making it difficult to breathe and threatening to sweep us off our feet, as it obliterated everything. Seen dimly through the enveloping mist the whirling mass created the impression that the whole mountain was on the move, advancing steadily, menacingly, towards us. Thankfully, the underlying snow was in good condition, so we lowered our heads and soldiered warily onwards. Up underneath the overhanging cornice there was temporary respite from the spindrift, as the storm- force winds drove it out above our heads and it drifted down several feet behind us. Choosing a line of weakness in the ramparts, I front- pointed up, drove my hammer in just above my head, then, leaning out, swung my axe as high as I could, gaining a good purchase above the overhang. As I pulled up on the axe the wooden shaft creaked ominously, then, with a sickening crack, snapped off, just below the head. I began to peel backwards in what seemed like a slow, graceful arc. Slow enough, at any rate, to allow me time to wonder if our earlier decision to tackle the gulley unroped might have been a tad on the rash side. Fortunately, the sling between my wrist and the axe-head was of sterner stuff than the shaft, it snapped taut and I smacked back into the face, scrabbling with my frontpoints to regain a toe-hold. Hanging on to the tape for grim life, I slid my left hand up to rest on the head of the hammer. Then, a quick yank on the tape, a press down on the hammer and a breathless lunge for the axe-head up above. All rounded off with a delicate, teetering mantelshelf up into the eye of the storm and an ignominious belly-flop onto safe ground. My momma never told me there’d be days like this.

We were descending the badly-crevassed Argentière glacier, moving down steep ground on soft, shallow snow lying over hard ice, always a dangerous combination. It was my first return to the Alps after a bad ankle injury two years earlier and I was feeling the worse for wear. Constant tapping of the side of the boot to keep the crampons from balling up had aggravated the injury, so I decided to take the crampons off. We continued on our way, with Vera taking up the anchor position, at the rear. Shortly afterwards I hit a patch of bare ice, my feet shot out from under me and I was away. Vera, plucked off her feet, rolled into an ice-axe brake: the rope twanged taut, for a split-second all was still, then her axe pulled clear and away we went again. I rolled over and braked as Vera shot past, the rope did it’s twangy bit again, I was lifted into the air, the axe jumped out of it’s placement and off we went once more, careering down the glacier, like a dog after a rabbit. We both applied ourselves to the braking routine and we slid to a halt. I compromised by replacing a crampon on my good foot and we descended without further incident.

A few days later we were traversing off the summit of the Grand Charmoz, heading towards the Grepon, when we spotted two young lads in a spot of bother. Retreating from the route, they had made a long, steep abseil off the ridge, only to find that their ropes were completely jammed around the anchor. We moved down and freed the ropes, then, after a quick confab, decided to join forces with them. We descended, in a series of abseils, to a snowslope above a deep, evil-looking bergschrund, where we roped up again. One of the lads moved down cautiously to examine the bergschrund: the edge collapsed and he plummeted from view, leaving a frightened yell hanging in the air. We looked at each other, aghast. His mate, visibly shaken and belatedly paying attention to the rope, crept forward to suss out the situation. A further section of the edge collapsed and he dropped like a stone, leaving a frightened yell floating in the air. "Is there an echo around here, or what" I asked, querulously, as we cast about for some kind of belay. A cheerful bellow from the depths assured us that all was well and was followed by an invitation to us to join them. We declined their gracious offer, Vera organised an abseil anchor and we roped down across the maw of the ‘schrund. After some delay we regrouped and were continuing our descent when a blast of air whipped up the glacier, followed by a loud, rumbling roar, which continued for several minutes. When we rounded the corner we discovered the source of the disturbance. A long section of ice-cliff had collapsed, sweeping down and burying several hundred yards of the track under tons of heavy, wet snow.

Acutely aware that we were now in the line of fire and completely cowed by the magnitude and extent of the avalanche, we crept quietly, timidly over the house-high mounds of snow-rubble that lay strewn across our path, wondering, as we did so, if the delay at the bergschrund might not have been a blessing in disguise.

Truth is, climbing in the high mountains always carries an element of risk: from human frailty, from the vagaries of the weather, from the moods of the mountain. We can’t eliminate this risk factor, nor can we afford to ignore it, so we must try to develop, in as much as we are able, the ability to cope with difficulties if, and when, they arise (and arise they will). We must all the time strive to shield ourselves with the armour of experience: but experience only comes with time. There are no shortcuts, no easy options. By all means sign up for a course in Scotland or the Alps if that is your preferred approach. They can tell you how it’s done, they can show you how it’s done, but they can’t dispense with the need to spend time at the coal-face. High mountains demand a high level of commitment, deserve a high level of respect. The dilettante can survive in rock-climbing by the simple expedient of eschewing the sharp end of the rope. On snow and ice, or alpine ridge, however, he is a menace to himself, his partner and anyone else unlucky enough to be beneath him on the route. The only sure way to develop the judgement and skills necessary for survival in the mountains is to serve an apprenticeship, to get out there and clock up the hours. If all of this sounds suspiciously like work and a bit of a bind, don’t be put off. It’s probably just the way I tell it. Me, I can’t get enough of it.