25 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
It was already light when we woke below Longs Peak - not good when you’d meant to wake at 5 am for what had promised to be a very long day, especially when days weren’t that long, to begin with. Ian hadn’t heard the alarm as he’d been wearing earplugs because he said my snoring kept him awake. I personally preferred the term ‘heavy breathing’.
I’d forgotten to bring my watch, so I couldn’t complain too much, and Ian’s sleeping bag was so thick – due to the fact that we’d slept out at 3000 metres in January in Colorado - that I hadn’t heard it either, buried deep below the down.
I’d also forgotten the bivy food, which turned out well, as it was only my rumbling stomach that finally woke me.
We’d driven up the day before from Boulder in ‘Frank’s truck’, a municipal climbers truck once owned by the late ‘Frank’ who unfortunately died two years while soloing Fitzroy. The truck seemed to have as much get up and go like us, who hadn’t gotten up and done anything really in the two weeks we’d been in the States.
It was turning into one of those crap holidays I hate, not fun enough to be a good holiday, not bad enough to be a great climbing trip. We’d been staying with the legend’s legend Rolando Garibotti – alpinism’s answer to Julio Iglesias, who’d been a real gent in putting us up, seeing as we just turned up on his doorstep having found his address in the yellow pages.
You could say he hardly knew us, but I had met him once in Camp 4 in 1997 for about 15 minutes, but never the less he made us welcome, and it was only when he said in his Spanish accent ‘I think I am going to have nervous breakdown’ that we thought perhaps we’d outstayed our welcome and headed off to Longs Peak in Franks truck.
Everyone had said it was too cold, too early in the year, and how there would be no ice, but what the hey – we were on holiday.
Now Ian isn’t one to apologise for such oversights as oversleeping, which is a good technique, as you start thinking that it must be your fault after all, so nothing’s said. It also turned out that Ian had left his head torch on all night, meaning its bulb was now about as strong as my enthusiasm to climb. Never the less we’d tramped up 7 miles of forested zigzagging trails to get here so it seemed daft to turn around now. We’d also signed in at the ranger stations booth and it seemed like we’d be letting the side down if we went back and ticked the ‘did you fail box’ – plus I think Rollo was hoping we’d be gone longer
The climbing was good but although I felt that I was climbing faster the usual it turned out that I wasn’t, something very apparent when reviewing the pitch on Ian’s mini DV video camera later. In fact, I couldn’t really understand what the fuck I was doing. Instead of seeing the super slick and super quick dude that I thought I was, all I saw was a bumbling idiot, who it seemed, had no understanding of the word ‘urgency’. I would seemingly make a very small movement, stop, think about it for a while, then either reverse that movement or make another very small movement. It was just painful to watch, reminding me of my old 16 mb computer, which did the same sort of thing if you opened word 3.1 and anything else at the same time.
At first, I thought the tape was on pause. It wasn’t.
Ian came up and led the next pitch, which again seemed to take a while, disappearing for half an hour behind a big flake. At first I thought he’d just stopped to have a crap, as nothing had happened for quite a while, and although the days were getting longer, they weren’t going to be long enough at this rate. The next thing I saw was a hand waving from deep inside a crack high on the wall, which was off-putting. It turned out that the route involved a bit of caving, passing a huge chockstone.
The exit was pure Parnell, as, with very little ice to help him, he bullied his way up to the belay. You could tell it was hard as the wordage dropped by the metre – always a sign that things aren’t good if the climber is a journalist.
It when something like this: -
“Watch me on this bit Andy.” Pant. Scrape.
“Watch me here.” Scrape, scrape, pant.
“Watch me.” Pant, pant, scrape.
“Watch.” Scrape, scrape, scrap, scrape.
“Me.” Scrape, scrape, deep breath, scrape.
Total silence for 10 minutes, then “SAFE – thank fuck for that!”
The next pitch looked unpleasant, and very fall-offible, with either narrow snow and icy choked slot to the left, or an off-vertical corner with a dribble of ice down it to the right. Imagining myself getting upset on the right option I traversed over to the left and started excavating someway of getting into the slot. Ian wasn’t convinced, and neither was I – the difference being he thought I should go right and I thought we should go down.
Half an hour later I’d jibbered my way up the corner, feeling like a mixed climbing Homer Simpson. It seemed to me that I’d put in a valiant effort and had got higher than I’d expected, but the next section looked like you couldn’t wing it – unless that meant flying off the pitch. Instead, I just moved around a bit, groaned and put in and took out dubious wires.
Then I dropped my axe.
Off it went, having ‘unclipped itself’ from my leash, spinning back down to the bottom of the first pitch. Unluckily for me, that wasn’t going to be the end of it as Ian was using the same axes so up came his tool so I could carry on, which I did, but not before I down climbed – rather easily I thought considering how hard it had been climbing up – and went back to plan A – muttering a quick ‘I knew I should have gone this way in order to make up for my performance.
The groove went slowly, but eventually, I had made enough progress to make it to easy ground, at which point…I dropped my other axe. Luckily it landed fifteen feet lower in all the snow I’d excavated out of the groove, meaning I now had the double misfortune of being lowered back down like a fool and then scrape back up again feeling a total failure.
The pitch went on for what seemed like several more hours, at which point I was about 50 feet above the belay, poised beneath a dubious hanging pinnacle with nothing to clip into apart from a white sling that seemed to be stuck or frozen under a boulder (when I say white what I mean is bleached). Blame is the better half of valour; so I belayed off the sling and brought Ian up, so that if we did die then it would be his fault for falling off, not mine.
With total disregard for my safety, Ian yarded up the pinnacle with his axes and run it out to the wall, then made what looked like a series of uncomfortably contorted and bold moves up the direct finish.
There was about an hour left before it got dark by the time I reached the top of the route. It had taken us all day to climb four bleeding pitches! Dean Potter had soloed Cerro Torre in less time than it had taken us to climb a scrappy M5.
Thank god our sponsors couldn’t see us.
We looked up towards the summit, still a long way away. With only one head torch we’d have to bivi, something neither of us wanted to do even though we’d lugged all our bivi gear up the route. We just couldn’t face a miserable night on the mountain - we were too old – plus we were on our holidays. The desire for a warm bed, warm feet, warm food in fact warm anything overpowered our desire to visit the summit of Long’s peak. There was no paper scissors or tossed coins, the only thing thrown were the rope ends and down we went.
It was dark by the time we reach the tree line and began stumbling down the four miles of zigzagging trail back to Frank’s truck. My tired feet moved faster than they were able, sped up by ‘Blair Witchian’ thoughts, made all the more real as we passed an old twisted sign pointing deep into the forest that read ‘Goblin forest’.
“Goblin forest?” I thought, my mind racing, easily startled by fatigue, “Why is it called the Goblin forest?”
I started imaging the rangers standing over our shattered remains, flaming torches and shotguns in their hands, nervously eyeing the woods, ‘We told them to stay on the track and be down before sunset, god have mercy on their souls’. To make matters even worse my mind played tricks on me, with every scrape of a boot or squeak of a ski pole tip being transformed into the trace of a blood-curdling scream escaping from the deep wood, or a mind-snapping yelp as some poor victim was dragged into a Goblins lair. I got myself into such a state that I fully expected that at any moment Ian was going to scream out in true Blair witch style –
‘Holy mother of God what’s that!’
Luckily he didn’t, in fact, he didn’t say a thing. He just tramped on behind me in the dark, no doubt wishing he could see where he was going.
It was 10 pm by the time we reached the signing out booth, which I did, glad to be out of the woods. Once back in the silent car park we stripped off all our steaming layers and threw the lot into the back of Franks truck, and with aching bodies slowly climbed inside for the hour-long drive back to Boulder and a big Mexican meal as a reward for nothing in particular – thinking we could invite Rolo to make up for the past two weeks.
All my luxury bivy food sat on the seat between us but I could wait. Ian turned the key and nothing happened.
He’d left the lights on.