November 24, 2008
“Don’t you just hate it when you suddenly get the crazy idea to solo something - when you
know you just have to follow the impulse?”
I pulled my head back into the tent from the gathering dusk outside.
Rich Heap and Ben Pritchard looked up from tea and biscuits, cosy in their bags after our walk back up the Ben that afternoon to our small green tent pitched beside the CIC hut.
“No,” they both replied and returned to their dunking.
“You know,” I went on, “the one where you suddenly think ‘I fancy soloing that’ and the next thing you know you can’t help your- self…”
“No,” they repeated, not even raising their heads this time.
I looked back out of the tent and watched the tired and wet climbers trailing past on their way back down.
I thought about the war that had started the day before, the announcement that tanks and armoured personnel carriers were moving over the border into Iraq coming in over the car radio as we sped across Scotland.
I thought about all those defeated – or soon to be defeated - soldiers who would give anything to live, while thousands of miles away I sat in total safety and contemplated the exact opposite.
I turned my head and looked up at Zero Gully, one of the few routes left on the rapidly stripping mountain, and wondered how bad conditions were up there.
It was warm even in the wind and the river was running strong.
It would be a stupid thing to do.
We’d been filming Point Five and Smith’s over the last two days and even with dawn conditions, the routes had been like climbing out of a defrosting freezer.
“I’ve just had the mad idea of soloing Zero,” I said, wanting to explain what I’d been babbling on about.
There was a pause.
“Talk me out of it will you?” I went on.
They looked up again and said nothing. They were filmmakers after all and this is their bread and butter. Crazy stunts make great footage.
I picked up the guidebook and tried to take my mind off the idea; the thought of being alone in the dark on a classic route, maybe being on the summit in time to see the sun setting, to climb with myself again.
No. It was a stupid idea.
“I’m off,” I said, stuffing on my boots and hastily grabbing my axes, head-torch and crampons.
“Quick Ben!” said Rich, suddenly animated.
For a second I thought he was going to tell Ben to wrestle me to the ground.
“Grab the camera and film him!”
Once I was ready I sped off before any excuses entered my head, shouting back that I was sorry if I died and ruined their film. It only occurred to me later that those doom-laden words would of course have made a fine ending.
It was still light at the bottom of Zero Gully.
I was roasting, and the snow was wet and a worrying amount of debris was clattering down.
Suicidal soloing conditions.
I knew it was stupid to even try but didn’t want to fail just because I’d given in to weakness rather than rational self-doubt.
I moved up.
Thirty feet gained and not one placement that would hold my axes. The slush bulged out from the passing of many climbers and the ice on the walls, which would have offered the possibility of by-passing the crud, was melting and detached.
“Don’t do it,” said the dominant voice within my head, backing up the warning by flashing up an image of my daughter.
I listened and climbed carefully back down.
Not wanting to go back to the tent yet, I traversed round to Hadrians Wall.
By now it was fully dark and the line looked forebodingly steeper than I remembered.
“I’ll just climb up and see what the first few feet of ice are like,” I murmured to my inner council.
Thunk, thunk, went my tools. The ice was soft but secure enough to climb.
“Just go up a little way,” I promised myself, “I can always climb back down.”
Up I went, splashing up the steep slabs, moving left to skirt an exposed angled rock band, the ice was thin and my picks rebounded several times, the ice vibrating when I hit the right spot.
The thought of the whole lot coming away crossed my mind for a second but was quickly bundled away for later analysis.
The only way over the rock step was a short vertical trunk of gargoyled ice, which looked too fragile for comfort, but with no other choice, I moved up carefully - but quickly - eager to get over this and onto slabby ground above.
Placing my feet as best I could, I inched them up, not keen to pull too hard on my tools, very aware that this was not ideal solo territory, as ice de-bris rattled down on my helmet, filling my open jacket. The sudden slowing of pace steamed up my glasses, which, with my feet out of view of my head-torch, only made this delicate bit of climbing even more awkward.
All the voices within my head went silent apart from one, that calm inner voice, choreographing me through the moves. It was apparently some kind of inversion that was taking place on the mountain, as the ice was getting poorer by the metre, which only helped to draw my attention to the black void beneath me, the steep gully below, and the rocks beyond.
Blindly stabbing my feet I planted both axes in decomposing snow ice and started to pull, now close to escaping the trap, wishing as I did so that I’d brought a rope and some gear for a self-belay.
Without warning the ice buckled. Collapsed. My feet going with it.
I fell straight-armed onto my tools.
I closed my eyes and felt the force enter through my hands, travel up the shafts and into the picks and out into the ice beneath them. I felt the ice give as the picks began to slice through. I could feel myself falling backwards, not touching anything for a hundred metres or so, just spinning, almost believing I could make it, how I could take the hit and survive. I felt a million and one emotions run through my head – not one of them good, and when they had passed I knew I was dead…
The picks sliced through the ice for four inches, slowed, and lurched to a stop and held fast.
My brain turned over and rebooted, checked I was still alive then slowed my beating heart to rolling thunder.
Dead calm I pulled up and placed my feet higher, stepped up and replanted an axe on the easier ground above and pulled onto the slab.
I sat crouched there on that sheet of ice for a long time, my head-torch like a single star in the black night of the Ben. I thought about a lot of things, the thoughts coming like speeding cars out of the night.
Luck and stupidity.
I thought for the first time about my younger brother, fighting in that war, about his wife and his two children and his life. I thought about risk and empty excuses that mean nothing when you’re too dead to speak them.
Finally, I calmed down and thought about what lay above and what lay beyond, and promising myself that I would be more careful, and to any gods that were listening this was it, I planted my axes once again and moved onwards.