Monday, February 12, 2018

the nostalgia project - Ganesh VI, Nepal (1985)

The mountain

Ganesh VI (6480m) is one of the seven peaks of the Ganesh Himal, a mountain range in Nepal between Manaslu and the Langtang. The peak may also be known as Lampu. The summit lies on the Nepal - Tibet border. Climbing is not allowed and the peak may still await an ascent. The Nupri region surrounding the approaches to Ganesh VI (and several other peaks in the range) was closed to most foreigners until 1991, unless on an expedition with Nepalese climbers.

Ganesh VI from the west © "John"
The context

During my last year at university, a friend and I decided that we would go mountaineering in the Himalayas after we had graduated. "John" - not necessarily his real name - had some free time in the autumn before starting officer training at Sandhurst in January 1986, while I had inherited a few thousand pounds from my grandmother, which I planned to spend traveling overseas until it ran out.

John and I had somewhat similar backgrounds: unusually-old parents, much older siblings and had been pushed too young through dysfunctional boarding schools. We had bonded over the previous two years through rock climbing and that clichéed affectation of pretentious students: psychedelic drugs. Memorably we had bought and taken LSD at the last ever Stonehenge Free Festival, then a year later involuntarily participated in the Battle of the Beanfield when the police closed that event down. Though I had made my trips to the Swiss Alps, and John had climbed in Peru,  the only mountaineering we had done together was a slushy "winter" ascent of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis in December 1984. Very optimistically, we considered this adequate preparation for the world's highest mountains.

At the time, it had started to become fashionable to climb "alpine style" in the Himalayas, rejecting the fixed ropes and multiple fixed camps used by big expeditions. Peter Boardman's book "The Shining Mountain", about climbing (sort of) in that style on Changabang in India in 1976, was very influential. By default, this would be our style, as no-one was likely to invite us on a proper expedition. It also meant that we didn't need much extra equipment. A cousin's husband, Rob, lent me an elderly but very functional down jacket. I guessed that adding a fleece inner to my existing sleeping bag would suffice for bivouacs. We both owned gore-tex bivy bags. I recall that the only major purchases were plastic mountaineering boots (a new concept, much lighter than leather double boots), a massive new backpack and quite professional-looking matching goretex jacket and gaiters.

New goretex plus Rob's venerable puffy. Packed for Nepal, September 1985
We also wanted to go somewhere unusual. John’s first suggestion was that we should try to enter Afghanistan - at that time occupied by the Soviet Union - and attempt a mountain somewhere in the Hindu Kush. He also mentioned, in passing, that it would be great to arrive at Sandhurst having already “killed a Russian”. I want to believe that he meant this metaphorically rather than literally; anyway, I thought it more likely that we would be killed. My counter-proposal, that we should “just” visit Nepal and climb in a restricted zone, was adopted instead. This idea was eventually refined further to visiting the Ganesh Himal. The key input was a two-minute conversation with the legendary Doug Scott after a mountaineering lecture. He had mumbled something gruffly about the Ganesh then added: "take care, youth!"

A few months later we were in Kathmandu. Our budget hadn’t extended to shipping any gear, so we just took all we could with us on normal scheduled flights. Mountaineering boots, gaiters and down jackets wore worn onto the plane. We spent a week or so in the city looking for a trekking firm that had the resources to take us to the Ganesh yet was dodgy enough to somehow obtain a permit for our objective. Their method was simply to obtain a legal permit that would allow us to the edge of the restricted zone, then casually hand-write "Ganesh Himal". It seemed unlikely to work.

The twelve day approach trek up the Buri Gandaki valley
This photo and all below © "John" 
Night at a guest house early in the trek
Terraced fields 
Drinking rakshi
The porters stopping for yet another meal 
The approach hike took twelve days. There were leeches and rain. On the positive side, we saw no other westerners. Our porters stopped often, for long periods, to cook dhal bhat (rice and red lentil gruel), occasionally augmented by potatoes or a scrawny chicken. Around day eight, the topography changed from wet green river valleys to drier steeper and more recognisably sub-alpine terrain. There was a checkpoint. Astonishingly our permits got us through. Beyond that point the people looked conspicuously different: harder, more angular faces. Hindu imagery was replaced by Tibetan prayer flags.

Entering ethnically Tibetan territory
First sight of the Ganesh Himal 
One evening our guide announced, apparently in all seriousness, that we should not sleep that night, as there was a guerrilla group in the area who would kill us. John was tremendously excited by this and assumed watch, sharpened ice axe to hand. I did my best to take this seriously but eventually fell asleep; human threat was hard to conceptualise in such an underpopulated place. (In the 1990s the western news began reporting on Nepal’s Maoist insurgency and I found myself re-thinking this episode.) In the morning, most of our lowland porters announced that they were abandoning us and heading home. Our guide managed to recruit some locals to replace them. 

Two or three days later, via a brief but mesmerising visit to an ancient near-abandoned buddhist monastery, our crew dropped us in meadows by the toe of the glacier that entered the Ganesh from the west. We had not  budgeted on retaining a cook, or other basecamp support, so they all left. We asked our guide to return in a month. We had no means of communication nor any kind of backup plan, but as far as I recall, never worried about it.

Once alone, an obvious and urgent task was to check our food supplies. “Low” turned out to be the answer. Unknown to us, the porters had eaten most of the rice and lentils on the way up. Once again John’s military instincts surfaced and he eagerly instituted a rationing plan. From then on, hunger would be a constant background issue, at least for me, and would influence some key decisions for the worse.

It snowed heavily for the next couple of days, which didn't matter much as we both felt headachey and nauseous from the altitude - Google Earth suggests about 3800m, but we had no idea at the time - and couldn't summon energy for anything. My tent poles collapsed under weight of snow. Fortunately there was an abandoned goat-herder hut nearby with stone walls and rudimentary roof. I blocked the open doorway with a stick to keep out yetis. 

Showing off my broken tent poles outside "my" hut 
Our "base camp" with Ganesh 1 behind 
On day three or four we felt well enough to stagger up the glacial moraines for a few hours to inspect the mountains. Several 7000m peaks surrounded us. At some point during the day, the entire west face of Ganesh 1, on the opposite side of the glacier, slid. Years later, during an AST course, I studied photos of avalanches of varying intensity in the course book. Anything above a two is rare; I am fairly sure John and I witnessed a four. Oddly, knowing nothing about snow stability or avalanches, we observed with interest but didn't make the association that we ourselves were in a risk zone.

Around this time was my 21st birthday. I recall this earned me an extra plate of dal bhat and some slugs of rakshi. We also made a brief overnight recce toward Ganesh III, the closest 7000m peak on our side of the glacier. Snow was deep and we found ourselves wading at an early stage. At our highpoint we had made negligible progress so struck that peak off our list. More successfully, we spend two nights out climbing a small pimple, perhaps 5500m high, on the ridgeline between Ganesh VI and Ganesh I. From the summit we could look into Tibet.

Ganesh III
5500m pimple on ridgeline
Me snowplodding up the pimple
Me on the pimple summit, Ganesh I to right
Emboldened by summiting something, we set our sights on Ganesh VI, which we had been able to examine from new angles from the "pimple". But before we could set off to try it, we found we had company. An apparently-endless procession of porters, sherpas and mysterious other asians (Koreans, we eventually discovered, almost certainly this expedition) passed our little base camp, en route to somewhere further up the glacier. Their liaison officer, a Nepalese army chap with an officious moustache, correctly guessed that we should not be there, but to his great irritation could not evidence that from our permit. Thankfully satellite phones had not yet been invented, so there was no way for him to contact Kathmandu to check. We probably upset him further by cross-referencing his map with ours, and pointing that his expedition were intent on climbing the wrong mountain (they had Ganesh I and II confused). He left us with a stern warning not to leave camp and certainly not to climb anything. Naturally, we chose to ignore him.

The actual Ganesh map we brought. Our only information about the area.
The attempt

Ganesh VI with our route
A day or two later we crossed the glacier toward Ganesh VI, which helpfully, was out of sight of our new neighbours' basecamp. We had picked out a meandering route avoiding overhead hazard from some large seracs (that seracs and cornices were dangerous was more or less the only useful thing we knew about snow and ice). We bivouacked twice, once in an uncomfortable but sheltered rock cave and again on a much more exposed snow shelf. On the third day, it looked possible that we could reach the top. We climbed a steep snow-filled gully up on to an easier angled spur that looked quite close to the summit ridge.

Bivy sac "campsite" on the shelf
At this point, we made a decision which seems crazy in retrospect. John had started to feel a little unwell, had diagnosed altitude issues and decided he should descend. But he felt strongly that I should continue, so at least one of us could bag the summit. To which I agreed! Shamefully all I can remember of the decision is that I knew this would entitle me to the lion's share of our "hill food" - dehydrated meals, powdered eggnog and other treats - which was by far the best stuff not eaten by our porters on the approach trek. So we parted company.

Me at John's high point
A few minutes later the enormity of my situation suddenly hit me; that I was alone in the Himalayas venturing into the unknown. A couple of hours later I topped out the spur on to the ridge. Oddly I have no memory of the topography there, even though visibility was good. Google Earth shows very gently-angled glaciated slopes on the Tibet side of the ridge. I could see an uncomplicated line up the ridge to the summit, perhaps another 200-300m higher to the south. I set off in that direction - then almost immediately fell in a crevasse!

More accurately, my legs and torso had vanished into a narrow slot but my shoulders and backpack had saved me. It wasn't too hard to extricate myself. It seemed odd that a ridge could be crevassed, and I think this realisation - that I did not understand these mountains much at all - made it very clear that my summit bid was over. It was still quite early in the day, perhaps 3pm, but I decided to bivy there and review in the morning. Anyway, I had a lot of food to eat. There were no clouds and the view sensational. I could see hundreds of Himalayan peaks in all directions. Certainly Manaslu quite close by to the west, and I imagined perhaps Everest a long way to the east. I stayed awake studying my world in wonder (and, strangely, in no real fear) until long after sunset.

In the night the wind picked up. I surfaced at sunrise to find myself in the clouds. Somehow (I don't recommend this) I managed to light my stove and brew up inside my bivy sac. Then I set off down. I was able to follow the previous day's footprints quite easily at first but lower on the mountain, near John and I's last camp, winds had redistributed the snow and I was reduced to following tenuous scratch marks that I believed to be from John's crampons during his descent. At some point, I tripped and fell on an icy slope that I was traversing. It took several attempts to manage a successful ice axe arrest. Had I failed I would have slid several hundred meters to cliffs. I don't remember much of the day after that, except that it was stressful and tiring. I had to bivy again, at the cave that we had used three nights before. In the morning I stumbled down to the glacier - and was greeted by John. He had been watching out for me from moraine ridges above the glacier and had set out to meet me when I came into sight.

The sun came back out the next day. I wandered aimlessly around our base camp suffused with bliss at being alive. John, on the other hand, had recovered fully from his alleged altitude problems, was itching to get back on a mountain and had a plan. So began the final and most surreal episode of our Nepal adventure ...

John had taken a walk on the glacier beyond the Korean's basecamp and had stumbled over an unattended "advance base" tent packed with edibles. He had returned with a few "borrowed" samples; spicey instant noodles and glorious sugary biscuits are what I mainly remember. His plan was complex and wholly insane. We would get up early the next day, take climbing packs and all our emergency supply of US dollars, sneak past their basecamp again, help ourselves to more of their presumed-inexhaustible food supplies, attach ascenders to their fixed ropes rising above the glacier, climb to their high point, then offer them our dollars to join their team and attempt their (incorrect) mountain with them. Really! However, all I registered was the part about scoring more food.

Remarkably we executed all of the plan as far as "attach ascenders to fixed rope", and then climbed up a hundred meters or so. At this point, a very irate sherpa, who I guess had been watching us from somewhere above, descended the fixed ropes, obstructed our path and escorted us back to their base camp. Along the way, inexcusably, one of us (possibly me) scrawled "anarcho-alpinists rule OK" with a trekking pole in the snow beside the glacier trail. We met the liaison officer again. He was apoplectic. We would be arrested and charged, he assured us, though it was unclear how, and he indicated that we should return to our camp. He added a short speech on the theme of anarchy being no joke in his country (obviously someone had found our snow-graffiti). Somewhere in my brain, the much-suppressed and malformed neurons that handled guilt and respect for others flickered; it was possible, I realised, that we were annoying immature jerks.

The next day was spent intermittently worrying that we might actually be in trouble while feasting on Korean ramen (no-one had thought to check our packs). Then our guide and porters reappeared. Our month was up and it was time for our return trek. We were saved!

Me during the return trek - I had not washed or looked in a mirror for a month
Subsequent non-attempts

John and I talked a few times over the next few years about going back to the Ganesh Himal, though never seriously. Thanks to the anarcho-alpinism in his resume (or perhaps not?), John spent almost all his time in the army packing boxes for well-funded expeditions to big peaks like Shishapangma and Everest then not quite summiting them. A few years later, in the early 1990s, he would find his true calling in sport climbing and become one of the first Brits to climb 8b+/ 5.14 (though receive no attention in the UK climbing media for it).

Meanwhile, for various reasons, I had soured on mountains and in fact wouldn't do anything resembling alpinism for almost thirty years. In late 1987 my resolve on this was tested by some London friends who I discovered had a permit for Ganesh III for spring 1988. By then I had become a working stiff, programming for a software house specialising in very dull insurance applications. Not-coincidently (it probably accounted for me getting the job) the founder of the firm was a climber. He said I could take the time off but pointed out that I might eventually need to take a career more seriously. I didn't go. Possibly a pivotal moment in my life.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

the nostalgia project: Rosy Crucifixion, USA (1984)

The route

The 300m Redgarden Wall, Eldorado Canyon. © Mountain Project
Rosy Crucifixion starts high on the ramp to the left and traverses right into the middle of the face
Rosy Crucifixion is a classic three pitch route on the Redgarden Wall in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Though relatively short by Eldo standards, it is famous for the intimidating exposure on its crux first pitch, which traverses horizontally to a hanging belay above large overhangs. The top two pitches are not much easier. The YDS grade is low or mid 5.10, sometimes with an "R" or "PG13" to signify the fear factor. Perhaps an E2 or soft E3 for Brits?

Unknown climber finishing pitch 1 on Rosy Crucifixion, October 2004
The context

In the summer of 1984, I visited the US for the first time. During the preceding winter, several second and third year students in the university club had discussed a group overseas trip but had eventually failed to decide on a common objective. The majority set their sights on Peru, to climb alpine peaks, while the then-president of the club, Phil Baker, and I were the splinter-group, favouring Boulder in Colorado. I guess we were heavily influenced by the book "Climb! The history of rock climbing in Colorado", published in the late 1970s and still circulating amongst UK climbers in the early 1980s. It was one of the first coffee-table style rock climbing books, with wild imagery of giant sandstone and granite faces that made UK climbing seem very tame. A similar book, Yosemite Climber, was also widely shared and made a persuasive pitch for Yosemite. We may have known that it would be too hot in Yosemite, though I suspect not (more on "conditions" in future posts); anyway, we chose Colorado.

President Phil, left. I forget the proud minibus driver's name
UBMC in the Lake District, December 1983
In August Phil and I flew to the US on Virgin Atlantic, which had just begun operating two months before, with a service between London Gatwick and Newark. It was by far the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic. To get to Colorado from New York we had $10 per day bus tickets with Trailways. We had worked out that if we sat on the correct buses for 48 hours, we would make it to Denver for just $20 each. The only flaw in this plan was that the flight arrived in the afternoon and the bus left early the next morning. Spending money on a hotel was unthinkable, so we just walked randomly around Lower Manhattan with our large backpacks for hours until finally giving up and bivouacking inside the Port Authority bus station. New York had a bad reputation for street crime in those days and I later learned that the bus station was regarded as some kind of epicentre of sketchiness. Perhaps we looked too poor to mug?

The two-day bus journey was a great experience. The bus stopped periodically at fabulous old-school diners with wholly-un-British features like countertop grills and free coffee refill. I remember pulling out of downtown Chicago at dawn on the second day and being astonished by the vast skyscrapers around us. Then, as the bus gathered speed on the freeway, I looked back and saw the Sears Tower, then the world's tallest building, dwarfing them at twice their height. A moment of genuine awe.

From Denver, we used a regular bus to reach Boulder. It was, I guess, mid-morning. Initial impressions were very favourable: the sky was clear, sun shining, beautiful people roamed the sidewalks and the downtown streets lined with exotic cafes, bars and stores. I remember especially Alfafa's, a giant wholefood supermarket; a commonplace phenomenon now but then at least a decade ahead of its time. We walked into the first climbing shop we could find and asked the staff whether they knew anyone with floor space, who might like to accommodate us for free. I forget now if our budget was actually dependent on this massive assumption about Boulder generosity? Whichever, it worked, a name and phone number was suggested and we headed back outside to find a payphone. The initial call resulted in another referral.

Two guys, Strappo and Crusher - I assumed not their real names - collected us in a pickup truck. They were expat Brits, in their mid-20s, I guessed, working construction, or, at least, so the detritus in the truck suggested. Strappo had rockstar looks, perhaps Steve Tyler from Aerosmith; Crusher someone who might be nicknamed "Crusher". Both exuded cool and a confident air that they "owned" the town. Yes, we could stay in their apartment for a night or two, though they wouldn't be there as they were heading to Rocky Mountain National Park that night to bivouac then climb the Diamond the next day, in fact, they thought we should join them, but, before that, we should get lunch - vast quintessentially-american stacked sub sandwiches (how do you eat them?) - then drive to a friend's house, Phil and I riding in the truck bed - a first for both of us - then drink beer and smoke pot by the swimming pool for an indeterminate period. Plans seemed (literally) fluid. The diary mentions another semi-legal stimulant.

At some point in the afternoon, jetlag combined with exhaustion, from the cumulative nights sleeping badly in a bus station, then a moving coach, started to kick in hard for me. I mentioned quietly to Phil that perhaps attempting a route on the Diamond, on our second day, at altitude with a long approach, was ambitious, possibly insane, and that staying in Boulder would be wiser. He acquiesced but I think that, swept up in the flow of this entertaining day, he was disappointed. Strappo and Crusher duly relocated us to their place, then disappeared to RMNP. The apartment was on the ground floor of a three or four storey building. I slept quickly but was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a fight erupting above us. A couple were arguing, then breaking windows, then hurling furniture into the street. It was too much to process; I went back to sleep.

In the morning, we remembered that we had a contact in Boulder, Pete, a post-doc chemist from Bristol who had found a job at University of Colorado. We tracked him down at his lab. He seemed reassuringly duller than Strappo and Crusher. We twisted his arm to let us stay. Accommodation resolved, we thought, it was time on focus on climbing some rocks.

In fact, accommodation was far from resolved and would remain an issue throughout our trip. Pete was in the middle of being evicted from his apartment. I had a notably challenging encounter one evening, about a week later, when I fell into conversation with a stoner on Boulder's downtown Pearl Street, smoked far too much of his pot, lost Phil, somehow found my way back to the apartment and ran into the landlord, who was significantly nonplussed to find an incoherent nineteen-year-old Brit in residence. Thankfully we were in liberal Boulder, not somewhere more redneck, so there were only stern words and no Second Amendment action. By the time I left Colorado, a week or so after Phil, nights had also been spent in a locked ski lodge, a disused goldmine, the south rim trail of the Black Canyon and a mesa-top llama ranch. In the interests of brevity, I'll omit the related stories ...

Phil wrote an article about our trip, which was accepted by a British climbing magazine but, strangely, not published until 1991! I kept a copy for years but couldn't find it when I started to write this post. Phil very kindly sent me a scan. This is especially helpful as my diary notes are terse. For example, for our first round of Eldo climbing I have just: "Yellow Spur - Green Slab Direct - Werk Supp - 1st pitch Tagger - Outer Space - Genesis - Rosy Crucifixion". Especially inadequate as some of these route names reference long multi-pitch climbs. Phil excelled himself on Yellow Spur, leading the massively-exposed and thin 5.10 fifth pitch. My big moment came on the equally exciting Outer Space, on which I somehow made a clean lead of the final 5.10+ pitch. Phil took a photo of me starting that pitch which made the magazine.

Leading the top pitch of Outer Space, 5.10+ in 1984  © Phil Baker
Scan of a photo in the article Phil wrote for Climber and Hillwalker magazine 
The ascent

Of the Eldo routes we did, Rosy Crucifixion left the strongest memories for me, and also received the longest description in Phil's article. Of the first pitch Phil wrote:

"After some soloing the first hard section is reached, a 40 foot traverse above the very lip of the overhang, providing 200 feet of instant space below. Unfortunately, the first move is very committing involving a fingertip layaway, left foot smeared out to hold the balance. Once accomplished, wild swings on good handholds (but no such luck for the feet) lead to a jug. I was so impressed with my position at this point that I posed for a photograph leaning out into the void. However, by the time I had explained the fundamentals of photography and the operation of a camera to my second, my arms were objecting and the rest of this superb pitch was accomplished with much cursing, lunging, sweating and shaking."

I don't remember the camera incident - sorry Phil! He continues:

"As I hung limply from the belay pegs I vowed to stifle my vanity for more important matters in future. Toby joined me in a similar style and we sat in harnesses swapping gear, enthusing wildly."

What I do remember is being very scared as I following the pitch - it may actually be more intimidating to second than lead - grabbing much of the gear to rest and arriving at the hanging belay in a frayed state. Phil's talk of gear-swapping infers that I led the next pitch. Maybe, but I am fairly sure I didn't do it clean. He definitely led the last pitch. Overall I came away quite frustrated by a flawed ascent of a route which the guidebook described as one of the "most aesthetic in Eldorado".

Subsequent ascents

Early in the 1990s, a climbing friend from Bristol University, Andy Donson, was offered an oncology research job in Denver, close enough to Boulder that he could live there and commute. I was extremely jealous but psyched to be able to visit him in Boulder in 1996 (en route to sport climb at Rifle), 2000 (heading to the Utah desert) and 2004 (ditto).

By coincidence, in between the second and third visits, Andy had become a lodger with Crusher, still resident in Boulder. He in turn had become a respected climbing writer and had married Fran, an astrophysicist at University of Colorado. So, twenty years on, I met Crusher again; reasonably enough, he didn't remember his fleeting encounter with Phil or me. However, it was really helpful for my climbing partner, Duncan Critchley, and I to have the opportunity to talk with him, as we had an ambitious project in the desert - climbing the Titan - and we knew he was a guru of that area. In fact, Alpinist magazine had just gone to print with a large article on the Titan, which Crusher had authored.  (In 2010, Sharp End published Crusher's large-format book "Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock", about the history of climbing towers in Utah and other western states; an extraordinary and scholarly work which every climber should own.)

For many reasons, some weather-related, some climbing-deficiency (mostly mine), our foray west was not hugely successful. We returned to Boulder two weeks later via a nerve-wracking snowstorm on the I-70 highway through the Rockies. On the positive side, we had two days available to climb in Eldo. From the diary, Saturday 23rd October:

"Went for breakfast at Lucilles (excellent spicy sausage and hash browns). Set out quite late to Eldo. Had some queue issues with people for Rosy Crucifixion ... Route was very straightforward for me though Duncan uncharacteristically climbed badly on the higher pitches. A 20th anniversary ascent for me. Easier than when 19."

Duncan following the first pitch of Rosy Crucifixion in 2004
"Uncharacteristically" is an understatement in relation to Duncan. I don't know any other climber as capable of pulling amazing performances out of a hat, even after months of alleged injury. Too many hash browns for breakfast, perhaps? More Duncan (and Andy) in future posts.

And another thing ...

A notable occurrence in the lead up to the trip was finally graduating from the EB rock boot. From the diary in May 1984: "Physiology shock today. Bought Firés as compensation.". I had skipped a full year of Physiology lectures on the mistaken assumption that there was no need to pass the end of year exam. The "shock", which required retail therapy, was that I had just learned that this was incorrect, that I would have to repeat the entire academic year if I failed and that I only had three weeks to cram the syllabus. I still have occasional nightmares about this. Boreal's Firé was the first climbing shoe with a sticky rubber sole. Radical at the time; now standard. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

the nostalgia project - Limbo, UK (1983)

The route

Limbo follows a shallow groove on the left side of the Suspension Bridge Buttress, a limestone cliff in the Avon Gorge. In the British grading system the route rates as "Extremely Severe", or, less dramatically: E1.

As the name suggest, the buttress forms one end of the dramatic Clifton Suspension Bridge; a masterpiece of 19th century engineering and one of Britain's most easily recognisable landmarks. The river Avon, which runs through the gorge for several kilometres, connects the old Bristol city docks with the Atlantic-facing port of Avonmouth. There are cliffs all along the east-side of the gorge, up to about 100m high. Unfortunately, most have been quarried in the past. The Suspension Bridge Buttress is an exception: natural limestone well supplied with pockets and natural threads.

Clifton Suspension Bridge from the south
Climber on the second pitch of Hell Gates, directly under the bridge, mid-1980s © James Ayres
Last few moves to the bridge parapet, mid-1980s © James Ayres
Climber topping out on the bridge parapet (no longer allowed!), mid-1980s © James Ayres
The context

I attended Bristol University between October 1982 and June 1985. In theory, to study Biochemistry. In practice, like many undergraduates, my attention was primarily focused on the awkward larval transition to adulthood. I chose Bristol because it was the only occupant of the intersection of two sets: universities regarded as a respectable backup choice for "Oxbridge rejects"; universities with local climbing. The Avon Gorge was genuinely close. From the medical school, where lectures and lab work took place, I could bike to its base in 15 minutes. The university climbing club was well-established and quite popular, so there was no shortage of partners. Bristol's climate was also mild. Rain fell often but temperatures rarely got prohibitively cold. It was just about possible to climb all year around.

On the negative side, most of the climbing in the Gorge was on the old quarried faces; very unusual in character and needing specific technique that was not obviously transferable to other climbing areas. Main Wall, the largest expanse of rock, was all about crab-like shuffling with weight mostly on the feet. The Sea Walls, further north, were more sculpted, with blank corner and arete features, requiring tenuous low-friction moves. Aside from the Suspension Bridge Buttress, the only recognisably "modern" and steep'ish cliff was the Upper Wall, but the routes there were all hard.

Protection was also typically poor: rusty pitons in horizontal breaks backed up by cams or sketchy horizontal wired nuts. Adding to the challenge, the prevailing UK ethic in the early 80s was to climb ground-up, and never top-rope or "work" routes. Attempting to climb harder always seemed to go hand in hand with taking more risk. Consequently we failed on routes often, and rarely by taking falls - far more common was a tactical retreat ("wimping out" was the usual expression).

The lineless intracy of Avon's Main Wall, mid-1980s © James Ayres 
As mentioned before, useful climbing gyms were still well in the future. The only training I recall anyone doing was traversing on any accessible bit of architecture made from stone blocks. The gorge itself had the "Bog Wall", a circular toilet block directly under the Main Wall. Later a similar but steeper wall, closer to town, The Hotwalls, became fashionable. Some people say that I have reasonable crimp strength and finger stamina. Conversely I don't feel that I have ever had much power for big upwards moves. If that's accurate, I probably have the 1980s traversing fad to thank/ blame.

The Bog Wall, mid-1980s © James Ayres
Me at Hotwalls, mid-1980s. © Owain Jones
Bizarrely the photographer made this into a commercial postcard,
sold for several years in gift shops around Bristol! 
In the British grading system, there is an obvious discontinuity from the adjectival grades ("Hard Very Severe", etc) to letters and numbers (E1, E2, etc). I believe the history runs something like this. In the 1960s the top grade was "Extremely Severe", but, inconveniently, standards continued to rise and climbers scratched their heads for grander superlatives. In the 1970s, "Exceptionally Severe" was toyed with, also prefixing "Extremely Severe" with "Mild-" and "Hard-" qualifiers, but neither stuck. Eventually, the E-grade appeared: an open-ended system of "E" plus a number, to be applied to all "Extremes". This system was in widespread use by the early 1980s. Inevitably, E1, the first rung on the Extreme ladder, became seen as a "magic grade" and rite of passage. For most of my first year at university it mattered hugely that I should do one.

In 1983, standards in the university club were fairly low. The best of the students were managing E1 and perhaps an occasional E2, and were quite proud of this. Standards were higher amongst the older "town" climbers. Most Bristol climbers gathered at a pub, The Port of Call, on Thursday evening every week. Some mythical heroes, who were climbing E5 and even E6, could be seen there - but they never spoke to us. (Amongst them a fierce-looking guy called Steve Findlay, these days famous as "Hazel's dad".)

In my first few months at Bristol I climbed several "HVS" routes and seemed poised for the E1 breakthrough. The diary records that I tried one: Catholics in late November 1982 but "wimped out ... abbed off a minute thread". Then there was a hiatus for several months. Miraculously, I had found a girlfriend: Kathleen, an elfin half-french girl, approximately as shy and peculiar as me. Fortunately (not really ...) by June 1983 she had dumped me and the E1 quest was back on.

Half-french elf-woman. The climb is Terriers Tooth in Cornwall

The ascent

I don't remember much about climbing Limbo or why I chose it. There is no earlier mention in the diary so it must have been an onsight ascent. I recall one or two abrupt pulls on pockets and a strenuous effort to pass a sling through a natural thread in a hole for protection. I imagine it would now feel like a warm-up route (6a'ish?) at a european limestone sport climbing venue, but without the bolts. The diary is silent on the actual climbing, devoting more text to the girlfriend crisis and that before the climb we had visited the Avon Gorge Hotel, a posh pub near the bridge, where we had "Nicked one of their umbrellas".

Leading Limbo, possibly in 1983 (or a later ascent?)
No more E1's were climbed until October, after which they started to become fairly routine. Notably, in early-November, I led all the hard pitches on the 130m Coronation Street in Somerset's Cheddar Gorge, "probably the best limestone E1 in the country".

Subsequent ascents

I climbed Limbo several more times while at university and during the next few years when I was still loosely in orbit around Bristol. It eventually became very familiar; the diary records that in June 1987 I seconded it "in bare feet".

My next two or three E-grade progressions were also at Avon. In April 1984 my first E2: The Preter, a multi-pitch on Main Wall. Later in the same month I then (unknowingly) notched up an E3: the runout Krapp's Last Tape, also on Main Wall, then only graded E2. In July 1986 I led Them, on the steep Upper Wall, in my opinion the best route at Avon, sometimes considered E4. However, by then, I had climbed two or three routes in Australia that were probably at least as hard, so quantifying the progression becomes more blurry. (Them was also the last route I climbed in the Gorge, on a fleeting and chilly visit to Bristol in January 1989.)

It would have been nicely ego-stroking had these higher grades been achieved in isolation. However, from 1984 onwards there was a sharp increase in competiveness amongst the younger Avon climbers and less complacency about the standards being achieved. I felt more that I was falling behind than getting ahead.

Amongst the newer university intake, the previously-mentioned Crispin Waddy was climbing E4's and E5's soon after his arrival. Similarly, several strong student climbers appeared in the Gorge from Bristol Polytechnic, an institution I had not known existed. Amongst them, I climbed a little with Guy Percival and Phil Windall, who were both keeping pace with Crispin. Another local student, Jamie Ayres, was diligently documenting the scene with his camera. He maintains a great album of 1980s Avon climbing on Flickr (and kindly gave me permission to use a few for this post).

Snarly young punks at the Bog Wall, Crispin second from the left, mid-1980s © James Ayres

And another thing ...

It used to be traditional that students performed annoying stunts and pranks from time to time (presumably that is still true, or are the current generation too busy waxing their moustaches?). In the 1980s, the surreal redeployment of common objects was especially popular. A 19th century civic statute modified with a traffic cone on its head, or condom on an appendage, would be a lame, entry-level undertaking. Or planting a pub umbrella in a grass-topped platform above a road tunnel entrance; as we did with the one we had stolen before climbing Limbo in 1983.

My only really significant contribution to this genre occurred in February 1984. One evening I walked past a builders' refuse skip, near where I lived, which contained an undamaged and apparently-clean toilet. On a whim, I contacted my friend John to suggest that we install it somewhere in the Gorge that night. We spent several hours messing around dangerously with headtorches on rappel ropes in order to secure the toilet to the hanging belay at the end of the first pitch of Malbogies, Main Wall's most classic route.

I suppose it could have been construed that we were making some sort of scatological comment on the route (personally I did think it was over-rated) but, frankly, it was just spontaneous silliness. For good measure, I did the first Malbogies-plus-toilet ascent the next day. Weirdly it then stayed there for at least a decade; either local climbers must have decided that they liked it or - more likely - no-one could be arsed (pun unintended) to take it down. Even more strangely we never received any flack for it, though our involvement was an open secret.

Phil Windall with the Malbogies belay toilet, mid-1980s © James Ayres

Friday, December 29, 2017

the nostalgia project - West Ridge Dent de Tsalion, Switzerland (1982)

The route

Arolla is a high-altitude (~2000m) village in the French-speaking part of the Swiss Alps. It has been popular with mountaineers, especially Brits, since the late 19th century. The Pigne d'Arolla rising above the village to the south is a summit on the famous Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt. The skyline on the east side of the valley is defined by several sharp summits, notably the needle-like Aiguille de la Tsa. The West Ridge of the Dent de Tsalion is a long rock spur dropping off the same skyline close to the Tsa; considered one of the best rock routes in the region.

The summits on the east side of the Arolla valley in August 2010.
West Ridge of the Dent de Tsalion is the obvious feature starting just left of centre.
Pointe de Tsalion is the smaller bump the Dent's left. Note the right to left slanting rampline on its west face.
Aiguille de la Tsa is the obvious pinnacle on the skyline.
The context

1982 was a sort of "gap year" for me. I had left school the previous December, having tried and failed to get a place at Cambridge University, and was due to start at Bristol University in October. Climbing was more or less my only interest but my default situation was being stuck at home in Hertfordshire, far from any rocks or mountains. Worse, I had only just turned seventeen - British driving age - and had not yet passed the driving test. My saviour was my school friend, James Wheaton, who was also frittering away a gap year living with his parents in Surrey, an equally bad location for a climber. Being a year or so older he had both car (a Ford Escort "estate") and driving license.

Though our homes were about an hour apart, it just about made sense for him to make a quarter-loop clockwise around London, make a small detour off the M1 motorway to collect me then drive north for three hours to the Peak district to climb. I recall that my inability to assist with the driving was a major irritation to him. At some stage, we came up with a plan to go to the Alps together in the summer but James made it contingent on me passing my driving test, scheduled for June. Frustratingly I failed. (I pointed out to the examiner that he was screwing up my climbing plans but astonishingly he didn't consider it sufficient reason for a re-think.) The diary records that after "frantic phone calls ... and soul searching" James decided that he could perhaps manage the driving by himself.

We fixed on Arolla as the destination as we had both been there the previous summer with a school group, snow-plodding the Pigne and scrambling a minor rock summit, the Petite Dent de Veisivi. It seemed uncomplicated and potentially not too expensive, unlike the other areas we had visited in 1981 like Zermatt and Grindelwald which heave with tourist in the summer.

We drove to the Alps over two days, breaking the journey with the traditional visit to Fontainebleau. The diary records that we managed problems 1-22 of the "yellow" circuit at Bas Cuvier (which I believe is now the orange circuit ). During the night there was a rainstorm that flooded the forest and set our small nylon tent afloat in three inches of water. James quickly reorganised himself to sleep in the Escort while I splashed around the forest in my underpants trying to retrieve the tent. The rest of the journey went smoothly.

Parked in Fontainebleau en route to the Alps
In Arolla we booked into the valley campsite for two weeks and, for reasons that I no longer recall, pitched an ex-WD canvas tent which belonged to my parents. Even then it looked very dated and eccentric - I wonder now what the other campers must have thought of us?

James and the giant white canvas tent
I don't recall that we arrived with any specific plan though we were aware of some objectives from our brief visit in 1981. An obvious one was the Aiguille de la Tsa, which we attempted via a night at the Bertol Hut. From the diary: "... whiteout in the morning. Back to Arolla after brief toddle in the snow." Obviously we had none of the meteorological tools climbers take for granted these days, like reliable hour-by-hour prediction from sites like SpotWX. But I am also guessing we didn't bother to check any local sources, like the newspapers. After the Tsa failure we ticked off the Grande Dent de Veisivi, a low rock peak not requiring any glacier approach.

I have no idea why we then picked on the West Ridge of the Dent de Tsalion as our next climb. In the alpine system, the normal route up the Grande Dent is graded F ("Facile"); the West Ridge AD+ ("Assez Difficile Plus") - several notches higher. And it involved 600m of rock climbing. The longest routes we had done up to that point had been four or five pitches. The route is directly above the campsite -  perhaps that was reason enough?

The ascent

According to the diary, one day we made the ~1000m ascent from the campsite to the base of the ridge, dumped gear and returned to the valley. Then woke up at 6:30am the next day and hiked back up again. (There is a small hut under the route, but it seems that was beyond our budget.)

James under the route
From the diary: "Reached bottom of the ridge at 8am then set off at 9am (mistake no.1) after continental team. Followed crest direct rather than using devious guidebook start (mistake no.2). Two hard pitches lead to less steep stuff. Climbing not too bad for ~1000' where there is a sudden step. Should have realised this was avoidable ... mentioned in the book. J leads desperate pitch ..."

James on the route
Then: "Another hard pitch higher up (again led by J) ... obvious approaching storm ... last 200' in hail/ snow ... we quickly eat a Mars bar in a hole on the summit."

Apparently we topped out the ridge at 3:30pm, so 6.5 hours on the actual route. The guidebook described a complex route back to Arolla, involving a traverse over to the Pointe de Tsalion to the north, then a descent of a ramp line on its west face (see photo at the top of this page). The weather was deteriorating rapidly so we set off straight away. As we reached the Pointe summit we were engulfed by a thunder cloud. There was no time lag between lightning and thunder so it was clear we were in the eye of the storm. I remember that we paused briefly to consider our options then scrambled unroped down the west face as fast as we could, on the assumption that the summit was the most vulnerable spot.

From the diary: "Descent from Pte. OK at first then stopped by steep smooth slabs and steep icefield. Slabs seem to take years to descend - eventually resorting to a fairly technical leap move from a poor foothold into a snow-filled groove (anything to keep moving). "

All this reads like teenage exaggeration but I still recall these moments quite clearly. The jump was committing: sideways on to steep snow plastered in a groove above the ice ramp, which we knew to be above large cliffs. The sensible choice would have been to stop, rope up, perhaps abandon some gear for a rappel anchor. But we were panicked by the storm. We jumped - I recall that I went first as it was my idea - and it worked.

On the ramp we put on crampons and "screamed down to the base of mountain" still concerned at being "frazzled by lightning". Then reversed the 1000m hike to the valley "terminally exhausted" in "sodden clothes". We made it back to the tent at 9:30pm - then somehow found the energy to cook. Generally the diary doesn't contain many recipes; in fact this may be the only one. "Fantastic meal of stewing steak, ratatouille, wine sauce, tomato paste."

The view we missed: the Matterhorn from the Tsa - Tsalion ridge
Photo taken a week or so when we climbed the Tsa
After a few days of what I would now think of as necessary rest and re-psyching - the diary refers to the period dismissively as "procrastination and apathy" -  we went back into the mountains and managed a reasonably significant alpine day, linking the Pigne d'Arolla and Mont Blanc de Cheilon, without any drama. The weather was perfect and no-one else apparently trying the same traverse. On the way up the east ridge of the second peak, a remote spot invisible from the valley floor, I remember being overwhelmed by the aesthetics of our position. The diary is full of superlatives: "ultimate experience ... of my life", etc. Shortly after we managed another no-fuss day, climbing the Aiguille de la Tsa. The diary mentions in passing that we beat guidebook time on both days.

Then we drove home.

The Pigne d'Arolla and Mont Blanc de Cheilon. We "enchained" both peaks in a day.   
James and I on a summit somewhere - probably the Aiguille de la Tsa.
Looking back critically at periods in my past, some that seemed worthy at the time now seem unexceptional or stereotypical of a life-phase. There are very few that I perceive the other way around, but this trip with James is one of them. For many years I just thought of it as some alpine bumbling that was fun but of no great distinction. Now I look back at my seventeen year old self and am quite impressed. It was just alpine bumbling, but we had the initiative to make our way out there by ourselves and have a go. Moreover, we somehow succeeded on everything we tried.

Subsequent ascents

In summer 1983 I went back to the Alps with a university friend and did two more routes around Arolla; both north faces requiring proper ice tools. Harder routes than the ones we had done the previous year but less memorable.

Twenty-seven years later I visited Arolla again, during a family holiday to Switzerland. We stayed in the venerable Grand Hôtel Kurhaus, which was built in the 19th century to serve the British gentlemen alpinists of that era, and still preserves that atmosphere. One day during our stay I marched everyone up to the Tsa hut below the west ridge of Tsalion. I asked the hut guardian for the hut's records from the 1980s to see whether I could find an entry by James and I . Which, of course, I didn't find; I had forgotten that we were too poor to stay there!

Looking east to the Tsa and Dent de Tsalion in 2010, from our hotel
The Tsa hut is just visible above the tree line below moraines on the left
Leo on the hike to the Tsa hut, 2010
James in the Tsa hut, 2010
Leo looking down at Arolla from outside the Tsa hut, 2010

And another thing ...

Also in summer 1982 my parents paid for me to fly alone to Canada; my first visit. I don't remember being excited by the prospect, as my climbing-myopia was so extreme that any kind of generic tourism seemed stupid. But I had time to kill before starting university. I was received very warmly by my father's two cousins, Mike and John, and their families. I hope I managed to reciprocate. I spent a week or so in Ontario, of which the highlight was staying at my cool second cousin Janie's central Toronto apartment. We watched the cult classic Diva - a french film! with subtitles! - on a VCR; itself a miracle of technology that I had not encountered before.

The itinerary then took me by air to Calgary and a bus crossing of the Rockies and BC interior over two days. John and his family lived in BC, in the Fraser Valley. Mike actually flew out from Ontario to Vancouver to spend some time with me there also. He and John asked me if there was anywhere specific I wanted to see on the west coast. Naturally, I said "Squamish", so they dutifully drove me up the 99 ...

I tell this story to non-climbers in Squamish occasionally, to try to reinforce how significant their town is to climbers. In 1982 there really were only three rock climbing areas in North America that most British climbers would have known about: Squamish, Yosemite and Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. Even now, ask any climber anywhere in the world to name a Canadian cliff and almost all would say "Squamish".

Miraculously I recently found some photos from this trip which my mother had stored, including three from Squamish (scans below). Ironically one of them includes the location of our current house!

The Chief from the south, 1982
The Chief from the north, 1982
Royal Hudson 2860 (at the time in active use between North Vancouver and Squamish) in front of the Smoke Bluffs, August 1982. A photo taken from the same location in 2017 would show about twenty houses, including our current home, on the bench just right of centre. The locomotive is still in Squamish, at the West Coast Railway Heritage Park