Saturday, July 7, 2018

the nostalgia project: Right Wall, UK (1990)

The route

Dinas Cromlech © Mountain Project. No prizes for identifying Right Wall.
About ten years ago, when I lived in the UAE, I shared a long morning drive out to a climbing area with my friend Nick. His conversation topic, for at least an hour or more, was the word "iconic". He thought it had become massively over-used. As he worked in advertising, a business where adjectives matter, I paid some attention. At the time "iconic" was not a word that I used much, but, perhaps as an unintentional consequence of his rant, it has crept into my vocabulary.

Avoiding "iconic" or other cliched language is especially difficult when writing about Right Wall, not only as the route itself is iconic, but so are many of its neighbouring climbs and, indeed, the entire cliff: Dinas Cromlech in Llanberis Pass in North Wales. The Cromlech looms above "The Pass" like a medieval castle re-imagined by Frank Gehry, with big planar features rendered at intriguing angles.

At its centre is the Cenotaph Corner, E1, obviously sustained for most of its forty metre length. The legendary Joe Brown made the first ascent in the 1950s, notoriously using a few pitons despite his peer group, and preceding generations, considering that unfair. Focus then shifted to the two huge adjoining flat walls. Left Wall, E2, which is a few degrees less steep than the right, was climbed as an aid route in the same decade then free climbed in 1970. For modern climbers with strong fingers it is probably easier than the corner.

Right Wall was regarded as one of Britain last great climbing challenges in the early 1970s. It fell to a top British climber of that era, Pete Livesey, in 1974. Like Joe Brown, he used questionable tactics for the time. In this case, starting out onsight but tying off his lead rope at a ledge at two-thirds height, then soloing off sideways to arrange a rappel inspection of the final moves, before returning to the sharp end. Livesey would have graded Right Wall something like "Hard Extremely Severe" but once Britain's E-grade became generally adopted in the late 1970s the route was recognised as a benchmark at the then-highest grade: E5. In YDS grades it would probably rate as low/ mid 5.11 for difficulty but R or possibly X for seriousness. Most of the climbing is very runout.

The context

1990 was a tough year for me. Overshadowing everything else, my father died in April, from myeloma originally diagnosed in 1986, after a remission period of about three years.

During the 1989/90 winter I had earned some reasonable money from a programming contract but the commute to the client's office was long and the work tedious. I opted not to renew the contract. (The client was actually a subsidiary of a US investment bank, originating mortgages in Britain that could be securitised by the parent firm. Had I know that two decades later this type of activity would grow in size and complexity to a level that would almost crash the world financial system, I might have taken more interest.)

Gentrifying 150 year old floorboards
Meanwhile Catherine and I unwisely bought a small terraced house together in a sorta-bohemian but mostly-shit corner of east London. The house needed a lot of immediate renovation work to be liveable, for which we had limited money and no useful skills of our own. At an early stage there was a cartoonish, but not actually funny, moment when the ancient horsehair-and-plaster ceiling of a ground floor room collapsed while we were sanding floorboards above. We were storing all of our stuff, including clothes, in the fall zone. On another occasion, I ventured into the dusty roof void and discovered a crack in the side wall wide enough to reach right through into the neighbour's property: unrepaired bomb damage from the Blitz.

However I was in reasonable climbing shape. One reason was the Mile End climbing wall, which was only a few minutes drive from the house. This facility in abandoned industrial space near a canal was originally the headquarters of the "North London Rescue Commando", a sort of urban sea scouts group run by one of those elderly batchelor eccentrics who stereotypically involve themselves with such things. Somehow it had been infiltrated by climbers who had installed steep bouldering panels that were cutting edge technology for their time. It was by far the best indoor climbing available in London for several years.

Mile End was also a good place to meet other London climbers. Previously I had been feeling pressure to join one of the London climbing clubs, which seemed to involve a lot of forced socialising and other BS. A loose group of Mile End regulars were climbing regularly together from 1989 onwards. Most Fridays we would set off from central London for weekend trips to areas like the gritstone (2-3 hours), Pembroke (3-4 hours), North Devon/ Cornwall or North Wales (both 4-5 hours). We were starting to learn how to go sport climbing around Europe more frequently too, though that became exponentially more easy from the mid-1990s onward when low-cost airlines like Ryan Air and Easyjet began expanding. Sport climbing was good for stamina, which in turn made British trad climbing easier: fewer moments of pumped terror and more time to fiddle in decent protection.

Thanks to these factors, I was gradually progressing into higher trad grades, notably the "magic" E5. I had climbed my first E5 in 1988: Track of the Cat on gritstone, though as a solo after top-roping. In October 1989 I had managed another, Just Another Day, in Pembroke (since downgraded). This raised the question of trying Right Wall. There were rumours that it was "soft" for E5, though still serious. It was hard to get reliable information, as no-one in my immediate climbing circle had done it. (Being able to research routes online still lay a decade or more into the future.)

The ascent

A small group of us went up to Wales for the May holiday weekend. One guy belonged to a  Manchester-based group which the diary refers to "the misogynist Rucksack Club". I believe that referred to their then policy of not allowing women in their Llanberis Pass hut (yes, really, in 1990!) where we intended to stay. Unfortunately I don't remember whether Catherine and I camped outside or raised a finger to the rule entirely. I hope the latter.

On Saturday the weather was perfect. We headed straight up to the Cromlech. I remember a few things from that day. I had planned to warm up on an easier route but all the available options were already taken. So I started up Right Wall. The first few metres are unprotected and quite thin, but I almost immediately realised that the style of climbing suited me and that I wouldn't be falling off. The holds were all positive, either incut or well-textured flatties. I don't remember the middle section of the route at all. At about two-third height, a ledge runs across the face wide enough to allow a full no-hands rest.

About seven metres above is the final crux at the "porthole"; a recessed circular feature. I had heard of people taking long falls from there. For me there was no drama there either. I have a vague memory of rocking up into the porthole using an undercut, but I may have invented that retrospectively. Similarly placing some small RP nuts close to the porthole and wondering how people managed to take long falls there. At the top, I yelled down "E3!" to Catherine, no doubt to the irritation of other people at the cliff. But the climb had felt straightforward.

climber on the middle section of Right Wall © unknown
On the rappel descent I swung over to inspect the top part of Lord of the Flies, E6, the direct line left of Right Wall, next on the list of Cromlech classics and immortalised for my generation by a TV program (below) about Ron Fawcett's first ascent (25:08: "Come on arms, do yer stuff"). "Lord" was damp at the top so my massive overconfidence did not flow into making an attempt; almost certainly a good thing. Catherine led Left Wall cleanly, which was a new tick at her highest grade.

Subsequent attempts

I never climbed Right Wall again but did revisit the Cromlech a few times. In 1993 I hiked up there twice and climbed three more routes left of the corner: Resurrection, E4, the slightly-contrived True Grip, E5 and the dangerous Memory Lane, E3. I also have vague memory of climbing Foil, E3, left of Memory Lane, but can find no record in the diary.

Lord of the Flies is high on the list of British routes that I wish I had done. 1990 could have been my moment, when I was still young enough to summon the boldness/ stupidity. In those days the route was also better protected. (Subsequent years have seen Fawcett's original pitons rust away and break, then some critical nut placements disappear also. These days people are using skyhooks and even foot-placed slings for protection!) Unfortunately, about a month after climbing Right Wall I fell awkwardly at the start of a limestone climb in Derbyshire, landing on a boulder at ground level with an outstretched arm. I broke the ulna on that arm completely so it had to be set under anaesthetic. Though it eventually healed up fine, I was out of climbing for most of the rest of the year.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

the nostalgia project - T.C.F., France (1989)

The route

Turbo Cibi Facho:  no I don't know what it means either
T.C.F.  is a 7a (YDS 5.11d) sport route at Buoux in the Luberon region of Provence. Composed of an unusual sandy limestone riddled with pockets, Buoux was the epicentre of global sport climbing in the 1980s. Pocket-pulling trickery, like the "Rose move", was in vogue (and a whole generation of climbers learned about tendon injuries).

The context

In the summer of 1989 I "quit work" for the first time.  A year early I had made a bad career move, swapping an easy and emotionally-unengaging job as a programmer for a slightly-better paid but stressful client-facing job with a start-up subsidiary of the same firm. Worse, the subsidiary's base was in Gants Hill, a depressing hell-hole deep in the suburban badlands of east London. I set my departure in motion by demanding a large pay rise that I was pretty sure would be unacceptable. My judgement was right although they tested my resolve by making a counter-offer that came very close to my number. (Ironically, a year later I was back there again, working freelance for about 50% more than the last salary they had offered me.)

Catherine and I had already planned a climbing holiday in the south of France. As I suddenly had time on my hands, I decided to drive out ahead of her. I don't recall whether I had actually envisaged doing this alone but close to my departure date I found a partner: at the Mile End climbing wall someone called "Mo" had pinned up a note asking whether anyone could drive him to Verdon.

Mohit was still in his teens, visiting Europe from India and - impressively - somehow surviving on a budget close to zero. We meandered south over four or five days, checking out various cliffs around Dijon and in the Vercors and camping discreetly at various roadside spots. However, once we reached Verdon we realised that we had been wasting time with those lesser cliffs, as the gorge was so much more inspiring. A few days later I drove down to Nice to meet Catherine's flight. On the way back to Verdon, we had some drama when a tire blew out on a lonely road during a thunderstorm. I had never changed a wheel before and struggled accordingly. Catherine was not impressed.

Over the next couple of weeks, we alternated time between Verdon and Buoux, with various combinations of people including Mo and some London climbing friends. I was more drawn to Buoux as the climbing was predominantly single-pitch and more of a pure exercise in difficulty than the committing multi-pitches in Verdon. Also it was hard to escape the summer heat on Verdon's big open walls.

At Buoux, Catherine and I spent a couple of nights at the fabulous Auberge de Seguins, which is directly under the cliffs. The diary records the price as being about £15 per night, which must have seemed a good deal even then.

Auberge des Seguins (photos taken in 1999)
Most of us were still learning about steep limestone technique, French sport grades and the redpoint style. As far as I recall, we rapidly gave up trying to compare the local grades and British grading. More than any other factor, we found the new element of sport climbing to be managing the forearm pump. 'Ledge-shuffling" on British trad routes never felt so sustained.

Me on Pepsicomane (6b) in 1989. Scan from a damaged print.
Routes up to about 6b (YDS 5.10+ or low 5.11) seemed to go down reasonably easily. 6c was more of a challenge and needed a few tries. Beyond that was the magic grade of 7a (YDS 5.11d). I really wanted to climb one. Looking around the options at Buoux, T.C.F. seemed a good candidate. The route is not too long, maybe 25m or so, and follows an obvious line on pockets of various sizes.

Climber on T.C.F. © unknown
The ascent

T.C.F. took me two or possibly three days - the diary isn't specific. Successive days, for sure, as we had yet to really understand the importance of rest. Near the start is a distinct crux move - a long throw between big spaced pockets. Initially it felt too far but with more effort and precision I started latching it. After that, I assumed success would follow quickly. Instead I found that the "easy" climbing higher up became prohibitively hard with pumped arms. I had to refine the sequence and get more efficient. Then start dealing with the mental strain of making repeated attempts. All of which would later seem like a blueprint for every redpoint siege subsequently, but it felt very novel at the time. In some ways my experience on Milk Blood three years before was similar but T.C.F. was steeper and more sustained, and of course, purely on bolts.

On my redpoint burn, I found myself having that out-of-body experience, detachedly watching myself climbing, that some people call "flow state" (which, ironically, I have not experienced many times since). So began a mild addiction to sport climbing that I still have almost thirty years later ...

Subsequent ascents

I have been back to Buoux five times since 1989. Twice in 1990 then once in 1992, 1999 and 2004. The diary records various re-encounters with T.C.F. but no actual clean ascents. I guess that my excuse would generally have been that I was focused on other routes. For example, the beautiful exposed face of Les Diaments sont Eternaux (7a), the big roof Camembert Ferguson (7a) above T.C.F., the amazing pillar of Rose de Sables (7a) and the pumpy then slopey No Man's Land (7a+). By 2004 I had also become a father. The diary records some drama that may be familiar to other climbing parents: "... had to leave as L had wet trousers [from] having a poo ... had to lower L down approach scramble wearing my underpants!"

Aside from the climbing, the Luberon region is a gorgeous part of France. Less obviously spectacular than the Mediterranean coast or the Alps, but also less touristy and "bling". I especially liked Bonnieux, a hill village of spiralling cobbled streets and terraced stone houses with big views west toward the Rhone valley. Inevitably we developed fantasies of owning property there and - equally inevitably - did nothing about it, not least as in the early 1990s few of us had much money. I remember on the second trip in 1990 that Catherine and I visited a Brit climber, John Hart, who had actually bought a small place east of Apt near Buoux. But he was a noted over-achiever who was managing to combine careers as a full-time doctor and art gallery owner, as well as being one of Britain's strongest climbers at the time. These days Brit climbers owning property in European climbing areas, or even building lives in those sorts of places, are a much more common phenomena. I flirted with the idea of the south of France or Catalonia as a relocation option in 2012, when we moved from the UAE to Squamish. I don't think it would have worked but ...

How it might have been - Leo in the Luberon, 2004

Sunday, May 27, 2018

the nostalgia project - Bears on Toast, Croatia (1988)

The Route

Bears on Toast is a four pitch sport route taking a central line up the Stup pillar on the Aniča kuk face of Paklenica canyon in Croatia. Paklenica is a classic limestone karst area close to the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic, the sea between Croatia and Italy. The route seems to be regarded as a local classic and is on the front cover of the current guidebook. It features outsize examples of the classic karst erosion feature that the French call "cannelures" - self-explanatory in these photos. The first two pitches are 6c+ (about 5.11c), the rest much easier.

French crusher Charlotte Durif on the second pitch of Bears on Toast © unknown
In her blog she describes the route as "magnifique" 
Bears on Toast second pitch, front cover of the current guidebook
© unknown but looks like a shot from the same photoshoot as the image above
Aniča kuk face at Paklenica with the Stup pillar obvious on the right
The context

In August 1988 I spent three weeks in what was then Yugoslavia: an awkward federation of Balkan communist states which blew apart violently in the 1990s. It was an obscure destination for a European climbing trip, but I suppose was motivated by a couple of reasons. One being to experience another communist country, following on from the Czech trip in 1987. And also to climb in a Mediterranean limestone area, as the magazines at the time were full of glamorous photos of those sorts of venues, especially the Verdon gorge. I had read an article that described Paklenica as very similar to Verdon.

When we were very young - Catherine and I, late 1980s. Scan from a damaged print. I still have that shirt!
My then-girlfriend Catherine agreed to come too, despite having just started a job at a posh City of London investment bank. Generally those are not the sort of firms that grant three week holidays straight after joining but she was (and still is, when I last checked) a very persuasive woman. Reaching Paklenica required a couple of days travel. We flew from London to Split then took a sweaty crowded bus to a coastal town, Zadar. There we spent a large slice of our funds to stay a night in a small sea-front hotel. Our room had a big window which opened to let in a refreshing breeze and exotic street noise. This would prove to be the only conventionally-enjoyable part of our Croatian "holiday". The next day we made a shorter bus ride to Paklenica and checked into the only accommodation option, a stoney shade-free campground. 

There we discovered a few major errors in our planning. We had no stove, assuming there would be cafes nearby that would feed us. In fact there was just one store, selling not-very-nice bread and little else. Some distance further was a dismal pizza restaurant. Both seemed to open at very erratic hours. Ironically the campground was the other side of a fence from a large nudist beach complex, full of sunburned rotund Germans swinging their bits and enjoying too much all-inclusive buffet.

As to climbing, we discovered the gorge was several kilometres inland from the coast. We had no car and there was no public transport so each day began with a stiff hike. Modern day climbers might also question what possessed us to be there mid-summer. The answer is that we knew no better. Generally, the whole notion of optimal "conditions" for climbing had not yet been invented.

On the positive side, the gorge itself met expectations. Close to its seaward end were short cliffs which had recently been developed with modern-style sport routes. There was no topo so we just tried them all, chasing the shade. As far as I remember, none were harder than 6c (mid-5.11).

In theory, we also wanted to do one of the very long routes on the Aniča kuk face, but the prospect of a whole day exposed to the sun was too much. We compromised by climbing a moderate four pitch route on the Stup pillar, possibly "Utopija 85". While we were doing this I noticed that the very front of the buttress was unclimbed, perhaps because of a large body-length roof about 30 metres off the ground. Above the roof the rock looked very featured and climbable.

The next day I persuaded Catherine that we should take a closer look. We climbed back up the same route until above the steep part of the pillar, tied our two half-ropes together and rappeled to the ground. I was very excited to see that the roof had large sharp flake holds running right across it.

The ascent

I had bought a "bolt kit" just before our trip and brought it with us, along with a hammer. The kit was designed for cavers, with short self-driving one-inch bolts; an important detail wasted on me. I don't remember whether I had really thought we might encounter a new route opportunity, but suddenly it did seem we had one. I had hand-drilled holes for a few bolts in Australia two years before so very approximately knew what I was doing.

The diary has no detail on the preparation work. Catherine sensibly stayed in camp. I have a vague memory of hiking in to the gorge alone and feeling small and nervous (at no time during our trip did we see more than a handful of other climbers). I think that the job took two full days, swinging around on the bouncy half-ropes and pounding on the drive-in's. I have no idea how I retrieved the ropes without her help. Perhaps there was a nearby established route that I was able to rappel?

Looking up at the stacked roof section of pitch 1 © unknown
Then we both headed up to climb the thing. The roof went fine. I had installed a belay straight above, which was exciting - in retrospect even more exciting considering that we were both weighting twin 1" bolts. The second pitch started off with something close to chimneying, wedged between the giant cannelures. Higher up these features dwindled to nothing. The crux was a slab move, stemmed between the last remnants of two cannelures, stretching for a good hold. I fell once but managed it on my second try. We joined an established route for two more pitches.

Final moves on pitch 2 © unknown

As it seemed unlikely that we would do anything more substantial than this route and the heat and starvation diet were wearing us down, we then took a "holiday from our holiday": returning to Zadar, catching a boat over to Italy and taking a train to Rome. We spent three or four days there in the cheapest hotel we could find central to the city, doing standard tourist stuff and eating a lot.

After we got back to the UK, I sent a letter to a mountaineering club in Zagreb, listed in the guidebook, giving details of our route. The weird name, I think, had a two-stage origin. Earlier in the year I had been climbing on the UK gritstone and had managed a competent lead of The Rasp, a somewhat notorious and very classic overhanging crack. There were some old local guys at the base. One exclaimed - this needs to read in a northern English accent - "what do they feed these lads on these days - beans on toast and no sex?". Catherine found this very funny and repeated it often. Around the same time and in the same area, we often had breakfast in a cafe, Longlands, in Hathersage in the Peak District, after driving up from London. One day they had a typo on their chalkboard, rendering the British staple as "bears on toast".

As mentioned before, Yugoslavia spent much of the 1990s as a war zone. It seemed exceptionally unlikely that any record of our route could have survived. But, sometime around 2000, I stumbled over a Paklenica guidebook in a bookshop and there we were: correct ascent date, names spelled accurately and route name exactly as conceived! Hopefully someone has also replaced the caving bolts.

Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Croatia.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

the nostalgia project - Starosta, Czech Republic (1987)

The route

The Mayor and Mayoress, Adrspach © unknown
Starosta and Starastova are a pair of prominent sandstone rock towers in the extraordinary Adršpach-Teplice region of the Czech Republic, about 150km north-east of Prague. In English, the names are "The Mayor" and "The Mayoress". The classic route up Starosta is the four pitch Stará Cesta, graded Czech VII (perhaps YDS 5.10a) and first climbed in 1928.

The sandstone of Czech and eastern Germany has a strong claim to be the birthplace of modern rock climbing. Free climbing up to 5.10 was accomplished as early as 1906. The area is notorious for a very strict climbing ethic: no chalk, no camming devices, protection only from from rope knots placed in cracks or very spaced bolts.

The context

Some time in mid-1987 I stumbled over a small item in a climbing magazine mentioning that the BMC were looking for people to join a British delegation to Czechoslovakia (as it was then). Specifically the focal point was a climbing film festival taking place in Adrspach in September. I had seen images of the sandstone climbing in eastern Europe a few years before and had already logged it mentally as somewhere I would like to visit one day. The climbing style and rock architecture seemed unique.

I was also interested in seeing life on the other side of the 'Iron Curtain". The Cold War had been a major backdrop to my childhood. For my parents, who had both served during World War II and kept Winston Churchill's speeches in prized place in their record collection, the Soviet Union was unambiguously the enemy and an existential threat to liberty. I was raised to think the same. The unexpected rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980s had caused great excitement in our household. Somewhat for the same reasons I was a fan of the émigré Czech author Milan Kundera's books, all of which I had read at university. Ditto Kafka.

I sent a short letter to the BMC applying to join the one week trip, then thought little more about it. Invitations would only be extended to "known" climbers, I reasoned. Wrong. Or, more accurately: wrong in my case. There would be four of us, the others being Dennis Gray, the middle-aged boss of the BMC, and two guys whose names I knew from magazines, Craig Smith and Tony Ryan.

The flight to Prague from London was short, which makes sense if you look at a map, but somehow seemed disrespectful of the great fault-line of late 20th century geopolitics that we were crossing. At our destination my luggage was missing, including all my climbing gear. Not a great start but our minders from the Czech national climbing association assured me they would find it. As far as I remember, we spent a night in Prague then were driven to Adrspach. We spent most of the rest of the week based there aside from one short road trip to the Elbe region. In Adrspach we mostly drunk excellent Czech beer in bucolic country pubs and climbed, often in that order. I don't recall that we actually spent much time at the film festival itself, though I think I sat through one animation in which not much happened, then a character died violently and the audience laughed; Czech humour is notoriously dark.

Craig and Tony were really friendly, which was a relief, as I didn't feel remotely worthy to be travelling with them. Both of them were amongst the strongest climbers in the UK at the time. It was especially interesting to meet Craig as he was also a genuine climbing celebrity, in a period when that was still a rare phenomenon. Craig (and his lycra tights) had been on the cover of all the climbing magazines over the previous couple of years, notably in photos taken by the US photographer Beth Wald at Smith Rock, itself probably the most fashionable cliff in the world in the mid-80s. It would be too generous to say that he wasn't aware of his status but he was constantly entertaining and never arrogant. There was only one moment during the trip when he crossed the line into rockstar petulance: our hosts had taken us to a cliff quite early in the morning, where Craig insisted that he was insufficiently caffeinated to climb so we all got back in the cars and drove for about twenty minutes back to the nearest town so he could have more coffee.

Craig posing for Beth Wald's camera on Darkness at Noon, Smith Rock, mid-1980s
© Climbing magazine (from this article)
I wanted to like Dennis, as I respected his work with the BMC, but he was not the greatest company, prone to long monologues about his glory days in the 1950's Brown-and-Whillans era of British climbing or any other story in which he could name-drop famous climbers. Over time, we became curious about his frequent absences in the late evenings. Years later Dennis came out, authoring a book "Todhra", billed as the "first gay climbing novel" and apparently densely populated with casual homosexual encounters. It is a reasonable inference that the book is based on personal experience. Reflecting on that, it is quite impressive that Dennis had the balls (so to speak) to set out on cottaging missions on "enemy" turf.

The ascent

Dennis and I climbed The Mayor with several Czech guys sometime in the middle of the week. The diary records that I led most of it. In practise this meant soloing short cracks between large ledges with giant ring bolts to belay from. My luggage still hadn't arrived and I was climbing in carpet slippers (an actual substitute for climbing shoes in eastern Europe at that time). They were less useless than I expected. Perhaps someone in the slipper factory was a climber and was secretly optimising the fit and sole rubber?

It being festival week, a tyrolean had been rigged from the Mayor summit to the Mayoress, so we crossed that too, swinging around about a hundred meters above the trees. Then we rappelled the Mayoress. A nice feature of the Adrspach towers is that all of them have summit logbooks; we duly wrote in our names. I suppose it is very slightly possible that we were the first Brits on the summits of these two towers, but I doubt it.

Subsequent ascents

I made a second visit to Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1989. The only real link with the 1987 trip was that Craig had kept in touch with a young'ish Czech climber, Jiri, who was offering us accommodation back in Adrspach. After meeting briefly in London, we set off in two cars, Craig with Al Manson, and I with Dan Donson. As far as I recall, we didn't re-unite until Adrspach. Crossing the border into Czechoslovakia from Germany was quite daunting. I remember an interminable wait and long queues of stationary trucks. Unlike our flight two years before, the transition from capitalist west to communist east felt much more tangible.

In Adrspach, Jiri was amazingly welcoming and kept us fed and out of trouble for a couple of weeks. I was climbing much more confidently than in 1987. I even took a fall on a knot. According to the diary, Dan and I repeated The Mayor, but I have no memory at all of it. No tyrolean, for sure. The best thing we did during our stay was the Letecka Cesta route on the Milenci (the 'lovers') towers at about E3 (5.10+ R). Several high quality chimney and crack pitches lead to a final crux face up to the extraordinary twin summits. We also jumped the gap between the summits. Czech tower jumping is a sub-genre of the sport with its own grading system. We were told the Milenci jump was a grade three, which seemed a solid achievement given that the top grade is five. I wondered then (and now) whether we had subtly done it wrong - perhaps jumping in the wrong direction?

Milenci towers, Adrspach © unknown
(We jumped from left to righthand summits)
On the way home, Dan and I stayed in Prague for a few days with Matej Holub, a young Czech student who we had recently befriended when he was on some kind of exchange study program in London. We had a couple of memorable evenings exploring the city's nightlife; knocking on giant medieval doors in dark corners of the city in order to be admitted to secret beer halls. There seemed to be no other tourists. I remember crossing Prague's famous Charles Bridge while drunk one night, noting our absolute solitude and being shocked that we could be experiencing so much extraordinary historical architecture in such a private and exclusive way.

Charles Bridge, Prague © unknown
One day we also drove out to a limestone area south of Prague with Matej (possibly Srbsko). On the way back it was raining hard. The winding road had several corners with negative camber and on one of them I briefly lost control and slid across the centre marking, clipping the side of an oncoming vehicle. Remarkably no-one was hurt and both cars still driveable but Matej warned us that the bureaucratic consequences could be significant.

Back in Prague and after several phone calls to my insurers, I learned that I would not be able to "re-export" my damaged vehicle from Czechoslovakia without police sign-off, which could only be obtained from one senior officer somewhere in Prague's central police station. Matej offered to take me, but was clearly terrified by the prospect. It seemed our destination was very much the epicentre of the country's dictatorship and not somewhere Czechs visited lightly - the kind of place you might enter but never leave. Inside it did indeed fit the stereotype: many floors, harsh lighting and long echoing corridors with numbered doors. The office of the man controlling the destiny of my vehicle was distinctive. His large desk was entirely covered in explicit pornography, apparently glued to the surface and protected by a glass sheet. The message seemed to be "in this office I can do whatever I want." I awkwardly passed over various documents, evidence of the accident and some cash, Matej and the man spoke at length in Czech, a piece of paper was stamped and out we went. No big deal really, but disconcerting.

And another thing ...

Just after Dan and I left Prague, reforms set in motion by the last Soviet president, Gorbachev, led to eastern Europe countries like Hungary begin to open their borders with the west. Czechoslovakia had its own Velvet Revolution, and, by the end of 1989, a new government was in place, headed by the much-imprisoned dissident, Vaclav Havel. The Soviet Union imploded a couple of years later. Czechoslovakia fragmented peacefully into two countries in 1993.

The end of the Cold War, and Deng Xiaoping's de-Mao-ification of China around the same time, made the 1990s an optimistic time, at least as I remember it. American academic Francis Fukuyama rashly declared "the end of history", believing that western ideals of economic and social freedom were permanently entrenched. Seems quaint now. It is easy to make a case that freedom is in retreat globally. Xi Jinping abolished term limits for the Chinese presidency earlier this year, Putin long since corrupted Russian democracy and there's an authoritarian idiot in the White House.

A few months ago I had a fascinating conversation with a guy, now in his sixties, who grew up in Prague. He described his childhood experience of watching Russian tanks enter the city in 1968, crushing demonstrators who blocked their path. His father had been associated with the pro-democracy movement that preceded that event. By association, that led to him being denied university admission and other basic opportunities under state control. For a while he worked in the paper sector, trying to make sense of the constant shortages and surpluses in supply that were an inevitable consequence of the Soviet's inefficient planned economy. He described how he and his colleagues would buy time when surplus shipments threatened to overwhelm their warehouses by re-routing trainloads of paper bound for Prague back east to Siberia. He eventually concluded that he had to leave the country; an exercise that required he and his friends to roam unauthorised through several eastern bloc countries, be frequently thwarted by armed border guards and eventually succeed through an asylum application to Canada. It is shame oral records like this are not more frequently shared, especially as ever-fewer people remain alive with first-hand experience of communist dictatorships, and there are worrying signs that the ideology is becoming fashionable again.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

the nostalgia project - Milk Blood, Australia (1986)

The route

Milk Blood is a grade 23 (YDS mid-5.11, Brit E4) route in the Yesterday gully at Mount Arapiles, in Victoria, Australia. The line is a curving thin crack, but the crack is only used for protection; the route's style is sustained face climbing. Arapiles is a four kilometre wide quartzite lump rising incongruously out of the absolutely-flat farmland of the Wimmera plain. The Pines campground below the cliffs has been a fixture of Australian climbing for many decades. In the 1980s it was free; these days it costs AU$5 per night.

Arapiles from the wheat fields
The context

From November 1985 to March 1986 I was almost constantly on the move. I took a bus from Kathmandu to Delhi. Visited Rajasthan by bus. Left Delhi for Mumbai by train. Toured south India by bus, train and backwater ferry. Flew from Mumbai to Jakarta. Visited obscure cliffs in central Java by bus and motorbike. Flew from Jakarta to Sydney. Took a bus from Sydney to Canberra. Finally: hitchhiked 1000km from Canberra to Melbourne to Arapiles. On arrival there I pitched my tent and barely moved for three months.

It seems strange now but, at that time, there were only a handful of places around the world where an itinerant rock climber could live in the dirt and be guaranteed to find climbing partners. Camp 4 in Yosemite had held that status for a while, along with a few other areas in North America (possibly including the base of the Chief in Squamish). In Europe, away from the classic alpine towns like Chamonix, rock climbing was still a very “local” sport. In Britain the climbing scene was essentially urban, revolving around a few distinct climbing towns; arguably it still is.

In the early 1980s, this mysterious Australian place, Arapiles, had appeared out of nowhere and seemingly overnight became an international destination. Mountain magazine anointed it “the best cliff in the world”. A big part of the Arapiles story was Kim Carrigan, who had pushed standards there several grades, then set off on a global tour, demonstrating that he was one of the best climbers around. In turn, big name European climbers came to Arapiles, especially Wolfgang Gullich, who established Punks in the Gym, one of the world’s first 8b+/ 5.14’s. Another attribute of Arapiles, that made it perfect for that period, when sport climbing had just emerged but was controversial and ill-defined, was that the cliff neatly straddled both worlds. Most of the routes are naturally-protected but the quartzite takes nuts so well that almost everything is really safe.

Inevitably, by the time people like me started showing up there, Arapiles’ moment at the cutting edge of climbing had already begin to pass. During my stay, the glamorous German climber, Stefan Glowacz, the Chris Sharma of the time, was there for a few weeks to repeat Punks in the Gym, but otherwise the campground was occupied by nobodies. I fitted right in.

The only surviving photo from my first Australia trip
At Frog Buttress campground, June 1986. Hiro, Pete and I.
When I arrived, the Australian summer was still in full operation. The ground was hard, barren and dusty. A hot wind blew through the campground as if from a giant hair dryer. By the time I left, rains were frequent, and the land greened over. Looking back, I can rationalise my period there as “just the autumn season ” but at the time it felt much longer. Long enough that I started to feel ownership.

The permanent campground population, perhaps thirty climbers in total, almost all male, self-organised around a number of groups that each shared a campfire. Very few of us had a car. About once a week, we would somehow find a ride to Horsham, 30km away, where we would do some laundry, take showers and buy our groceries. The rest of the time we would sit around the campground, stare into the fire, and talk climbing or big ideas about “life”, rarely based on any useful experience. We were detached from reality to an extent that is impossible in the internet+cellphone age. For a time, we all wore bathrobes, bought from a Horsham thrift store, which perfectly suited our leisured limbo state. The drug of choice was alcohol. For some, this had long since eclipsed climbing as their primary interest.

Every Friday evening, to our great resentment, convoys of weekend warriors would drive in from Melbourne. Once, memorably, a Kiwi climber, Mike, a man whose drink problem had become chronic, rose up half-naked to confront them, blocked their path magnificently silhouetted in headlights and issued this incoherent but unforgettable command: “Fuck off you bumbly bastards. You come here to masturbate in front of your Subaru's ....”. Unfortunately, he had nothing to add to this, so sat down; protest made but ineffective.

The only facilities in the campground were a payphone and a concrete toilet block, some distance from the tent sites, whose lights were always switched on. In the middle of one dark night, I ventured down there sleepily and inattentively, passed the outer doors and into a cubicle. Then I looked up and saw a moth perched on the cubicle wall near to me. Not a normal moth, but a monster at least the size of my hand, even with its wings furled. Then I saw another. And another. And realised the ceiling was covered in the things. I have a phobia of normal-sized moths, especially in flight, so this was a cue to end my business abruptly and leave.

I exited the cubicle as quietly as I could, only to discover that the entire toilet block was full of the things, covering almost every surface. It had the feel of the final scene of Hitchcock's "The Birds". Thankfully I managed to get back outside without disturbing them. No-one else in the campground had seen the moths at all. It seemed they had been attracted to the toilet block - the only bright light for many kilometers - during the night and had descended en masse. They were gone in the morning. Thanks to Google I now know they were "rain moths", a weird phenomenon specific to south Australia. Apparently they only live for 24 hours.

Another local animal was a regular fixture of campground life: the "stumpie" lizard. Cursed to be both entertainingly-shaped and slow-moving, stumpies were often abducted from sunny ledges under the cliff and brought back to camp to be subjected to various indignities. The stumpie-poking-out-from-trouser-fly was one classic, the stumpie-sandwich another.

Stumpie abuse © Glenn Tempest/ Alpinist
One evening, someone spotted that there was a full moon coinciding with a clear sky. Apparently Pines' tradition required that a classic route, D Minor, on a detached tower, should be "convoy soloed" whenever these conditions occurred. About half the campground set off on this mission. Head torches were forbidden. The route is not very hard (Aus grade 13 - equivalent to 5.7 or Brit VS) but the crux is at a committing overhang 30 metres off the ground. Group banter kept the mood light for most of the way, but when I reached the steep section, the bubble burst temporarily and I had time to consider what a stupid way it would be to die.  Over-gripping and adrenaline saw me through.

Of course, there was also plenty of opportunity for conventional daylight-hours climbing. Oddly we tended to squander that. Looking at the diary I averaged one route per day during my stay. This seems remarkably lazy now. I recall that there were a few complicating issues. One being a tradition of discussing options for the day for an extended period over breakfast, often including a renouncement of booze-fuelled ambitions stated the previous evening. Another was that we often headed out in a big group to a single objective, so there needed to be consensus. Also, as far as I recall, the concept of warming-up, whether on one route or several, had not yet evolved. Or if it had, no-one had told us.

Very gradually, once I had ticked a number of the easier Arapiles classics, I drifted into a mode of behaviour somewhat similar to modern "projecting". This was a new and very helpful experience for me. Back in Britain, it had been generally required that routes were attempted onsight and ground-up, unless on a new route, but here on the other side of the world, it seemed "working routes" was fine. Even more helpfully, the prevailing style was the now long-forgotten "yoyo" in which you are allowed to leave your rope clipped through the highest protection piece that you (our your partner) had placed, if necessary overnight.

The ascent

Milk Blood was my first grade 23 route but is also significant to me because it was my first real experience of a hard "project", learning moves and managing the pump. Success was satisfying but I was also surprised how engaging the process had been and how much I liked clinically-executed, rehearsed climbing compared to the spontaneous sketching-about which I was used to. Arguably it was the biggest inflection point in my climbing.

Unfortunately I remember very little about the actual ascent. I believe that I spent three days trying the route. Progress was steady but slow. I recall that an american girl, Karen, was my belayer and that some other friends were nearby, as two of them were attempting the harder Arapiles classic, Yesterday, so we would alternate climbing on Milk Blood and watching them. Not much else.

I had planned to fly onwards to the US after my Australia visa expired. I sometimes ponder a  counter-factual version of my life, in which that happened, then I somehow stumbled over the beginnings of sport climbing at Smith Rock or American Fork, and my climbing continued to improve on the same trajectory. Instead I learned that my father was ill and flew back to Britain in July to be with him. I didn't climb anything substantially harder than Milk Blood for several years.

Subsequent ascents

I have returned to Arapiles once. In 2002 I was jobless but reasonably solvent. Leo was two years old. It seemed a good opportunity to travel. Shoko, Leo and I spent several months in Australia then Japan. We toured in a campervan from Sydney to Alice Springs via Melbourne and Adelaide, then flew to Queensland. A fantastic holiday. Along the way I negotiated two weeks at Arapiles.

Returning to the Pines after sixteen years was an odd experience. The passage of time had turned it into a mythic place in my mind. Unsurprisingly, it had changed. The campground had better facilities and seemed a lot cleaner. More people than in the 1980s but they looked wholesome and less neurotic. The gender ratio was much closer to parity.  After a few days climbing with random partners picked up in the campground, I discovered another interesting detail: average climbing standards were lower! It was my first experience of a phenomenon now often talked about: that climbing gyms have created climbers who are stronger and more technically-proficient, but less comfortable when leading, and especially when leading trad routes, than the pre-gym generation. Bizarrely I found myself in demand as a rope-gun. Indirectly this led to me re-climbing Milk Blood. I was pleased to manage a "retro-onsight": couldn't remember the beta, didn't fall off.

#vanlife #marsupial

Leo at the wheel
Leo exploring the Pines on foot
No photos exist of either of my Milk Blood ascents. Instead, this is me on the uber-classic Kachoong in 2002 
During our 2002 visit, I was also delighted to find a stumpie. Naturally I brought it back to camp. There I learned another lesson in changed attitudes. In the new millenium, Pines campers didn't find it funny; in fact, it was suggested strongly that I return the lizard to where I had found it. Before doing that I thought that I should at least pose Leo with the stumpie for a photo. Unfortunately this act just cemented everyone's opinion of my idiocy as the stumpie proceeded to bite one of Leo's fingers and not let go. A true Jurassic Park moment, only resolved by pulling hard on the lizard. Considering the obvious comic-book precedents (Spiderman, etc), I assumed Leo would eventually acquire super-hero lizard powers because of this incident. So far the evidence is slight: in his mid-teens he was quite lethargic; he often has an extra heater switched on in his bedroom. Perhaps when he is older ...

The stumpie that bit Leo

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.