Sometimes climbing is a lot better in retrospect than at the time. Sometimes climbing is no fun. Sometimes I think most climbers wonder what the hell they are doing. This is an account of one of many moments of doubt. I haven't been out to the Alps in winter for a few years. I don't know whether my life will take me back in this direction. I do know that if it does, the north face of the Dru will be at the top of my list.
Growing Cold Gracefully
Chill seeps inexorably deeper. Cold, not a killer but a misery, competes with cramp and just the discomfort of trying to sleep on a small, hard ledge instead of a big, soft bed…
The Dru North Face, January 28th 2002
Today is my 30th birthday. At 2:48 pm thirty years ago, I made a break for freedom somewhere in Birmingham and have been on the run ever since. It took me a fortnight to lift my head, and a month to learn how to catch a hold. Sometime in the autumn of that first year I said ‘brick’; another year on and no-one could shut me up. I fell head-first out of the cherry tree by the front gate at five and repeated the performance at Stanage, nearly bringing the story to an early conclusion at twenty-one, but lived and learned and, exactly thirty years on, tend the ropes as Owen thrashes his way up the ugliest pitch I ever want to see on a mountain.
And the truth is I don’t want to be here. This is too much, too hard. We had banked on two days climbing taking us to somewhere near the summit but this pitch is taking ages and the one above looks like more awkward aiding, so maybe two pitches before dark from here, and we’ll be barely half-way to the big terraces, with harder climbing still to come. Owen grunts and wails in his crack, in a manner that suggests he’s still thinking upwards…
…the top of the next pitch, which might have been a ledge, is just a snow covered slab. This is one of those bivis where the hard boys just stand there all night with their bags pulled over their heads - we head down. Down to a more reasonable spot we passed in the morning. Even Owen knows that we won’t get up before the weather breaks, and even he doesn’t want to be up here then.
And so, as the chill sinks inexorably deeper, as the small, hard ledge destroys the nerve endings in my arse, as I contemplate this relative luxury and safety compared to what lies above me, I think about the endless quest to climb harder, to move on from the cherry tree to that bald grit slab, from bricks to verbosity.
Which are the best days? Are they the hardest routes?
Under empty skies, above an empty loch. Grey granite, orange under broken scabs and at the edges of the harsh cracks. Cold and rough, against cold, rough skin. Pitch after pitch of it.
The heat of a summer sun, the Earth spit-roasting slowly below like a fat joint, the aroma of heather and moss drifting above the haze lying like thin smoke over the sea, and the worn, warm schist under my hand. The rope curves down to my father.
The wind dies and the skies clear and we climb swiftly up between laughable belays but always in balance and secure, to struggle panting over the cornice onto the flat white field of the summit on an afternoon so fine and still that you can see from the far islands of the Hebrides to the high peaks of the Cairngorms; from the cone of Ben Lomond to the endless, unknown summits north of Glen Shiel. The perfect blue-white of the snow against the deep rich brown of the glens.
The crack curves gently down, then accelerates and dwindles as it falls away, splitting just once the perfect terracotta dunes of ancient desert. The icy shadows of the morning give way to the delicious warmth of the afternoon sun and then the cool torchlit night just as we stumble through the little trees and spiny undergrowth of the canyon back onto the empty road.
Between legs and below roofs, the sea sucks at boulders. Here in my groove I seize great handfuls of crack and swing gloriously upwards to the belay, revelling in the pure physical pleasure of it all.
Where is the requirement for this suffering? What is it, up here on this mountain that I need? Nothing; there is no joy here – only the cold and the fear and the ghosts of other climbers and the cold, and the cold. This is not for me. I want to climb warm rock - with good gear. I want to spend Scottish winter evenings in the pub, not half-way up the second last pitch of some desperate mixed test-piece. I want to spend my January holiday having a good time climbing ice and getting drunk in Cogné or La Grave, not freezing my arse off on the Dru. I’m not talented enough to climb big, bold rock routes, I’m not determined enough for really difficult Scottish mixed stuff, and I’m not hard enough for this mountaineering game. And it doesn’t matter does it? You don’t have to always climb harder and harder things because the best days are not the hardest. So I’m going to change; I’m going to remember that it’s not about how hard you climb, it’s about how much fun you have.
And there’s no fun here now, on this little ledge, growing cold.
When I started out, at 2:48 pm, somewhere in Birmingham, I had no doubts. I pushed my limits, pushed at the boundaries of my world, and all fell before me. For thirty years it has never occurred to me not to keep pushing, even as progress has become harder, successes fewer and further between, limits reached. But now? It comes to us all, perhaps, this growing up, growing old, the search for contentment in place of achievement; happiness not hardship, that’s what I’m going to remember from now on…
Lagarde Couloir, Les Droites North Face, 2nd February 2002.
I open my eyes for a moment as the spindrift battering my head seems to ease. In the pool of light from my headtorch there is one small patch of mountain that seems to make sense whilst the rest of the world is hidden in the crazy, hissing, whirling snow all around. I manage another two moves upwards before even this dissolves into the next great battering wave of unreality. I close my eyes again…