N is for North Wall

November 25, 2008

I’ve never been keen on the sun, only venturing out into if I really had to.  I know this isn’t natural, after all, every living thing on the planet bends towards it…well apart from vampires.  When I take my kids to school in summer they always complain and moan because while most parents walk down the sunny side of the street I stick to the shade.  Perhaps I should have been a caver?

It’s not surprising then that I have a thing about North facing walls, places where the sun don’t shine.  Just to be on the safe side I also prefer to visit them in winter, so what sun does shine is kept to an absolute minimum.

In fact, just the words ‘North Wall’ fill me with dark shady glee,  expectation and exquisite fear.  I know most people use the term North Face, but for me, the word ‘wall’ conjures up a mountainside with far more possibilities for pain, plus that term always makes me think of hoody wearing mini pimps down the mall.

The only way to explain why I love these faces so much is to describe what makes climbing them so special.

First of all, I love the approach; to see the face turn towards me as I stab across the glacier in my crampons, rear up as I get near, passing from light to dark as you enter its monster shadow.  The loss of the sun is always felt instantly, sending tingles down your spine as if ghosts were near.

You always stand and stare, telling yourself that the face is no way as steep as it looks, deep down wishing that it was, knowing it has nothing to do with steepness.

There’s nothing like waking in the dark below and looking up into the starless void above, where you hope that tomorrow night your head torch might make the face seem part of the heavens as you stamp up towards the summit.

I love the first placement; a pick in the soft lip of a bergshrund, a hook on the jagged toothy toe of a buttress,  my hole on a glacial polished smear.  It’s the feeling of setting off into the unknown; excitement and caution, wanting to take it steady but at the same time wanting to hurry and so get it over with.

It’s about moving well, but never well enough.  About moving too slowly and cursing yourself.  It’s about searching out little islands of security, a roof capped ledge, a looming flake, a boil of ice, places to stop and tie yourself down for a while.  It’s about feeling exposed again when you have to leave.  Most of the time it’s about not looking down.

You always kid yourself you can go bed to bed in a day, or at least prone to prone, but it never happens, leaving you feeling like an animal as the night approaches as you still scratch away at the difficulties; hungry for food, water and a place to lay down, a hunger that is very rarely satisfied.  Dreams of fondue and coke are shattered by half a cup of crunchy noodles peppered with grit, followed by tea that tastes of noodles, the king-size leisure bed ledge, a perch no bigger than your mantlepiece.

Yet there is nothing like the comradery of being perched one above the other in a pathetic scrape of snow or ice, passing a pan full of cold potato powder, every movement checked by a web of ropes secured to anchors of unknown security, although I’d recommend a party of three, so you can further divide the pain with dark humour.   

You mustn’t despair, remembering how blessed you are to have the chance to sleep on a North Wall - although often the pain in your backside, cramped misery and stormy doubt makes it hard to appreciate.  Never the less it’s rare to sleep sitting up these days, and I highly recommend a stint of car sleeping before embarking on any North Wall camping foray so you at least know what to expect.  The trick is not to expect to sleep so that any fleeting slumber you might get feels like a gift.

Did you know that dawn is the coldest time?  You will as you’ll see if approach through half-closed eyes, finding that now it’s too late your body is ready to give in to sleep.  But you have to go because you can’t even imagine another night on the face.

And so I usually pack stiffly and go, my love of darkness and shadow, of cold and ice, my ambition, and friendship, all replaced by the urge to get to the thing I came here to escape from, and know for a brief spell what all the fuss is about; the glorious sun.




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