Tuesday 5 April 2011

Ben Wyvis

Action Man 53

Throughout my school life in Dingwall Ben Wyvis loomed over me, its mass serving to act as a barrier between the known and civilised world to the south and the wild lands to the north. To the south the farms were green and lush then heavy with barley. To the North wild rolling moor land filled with small crofts and red nosed deerstalker tooting men with hands as craggy and hard as the countryside. Its cap of winter snow often lasts until mid June white gully shaded patches an ever present reminder of harsh winters a ahead and behind.

I had never thought of walking up it, its mass to imposing, too significant, too grey, a dominant feature of my childhood, kind of a spell which many excuses in early adulthood had kept me compressed in the valley under its shadow and unable to embrace its challenge. When I did find myself with time to play in the mountains when staying in Dingwall, I always escaped to the glorious west where sparkling sea, meets rocky coasts cliffs and mountains. To me the west coast represented a crossing of a physical and emotional watershed, to the east a childhood in a small northern town, restricted familiar and dull, a place where I was never fully comfortable, too many eyes and tongues. The west was freedom. It is the place where I discovered pubs, folk music, and love; Sheildaig, Applecross, and Skye, magnificent and shoulder widening. Bolstered by the youthful arrogance of the climber, Ben Wyvis seemed featureless, a lump of heather with no mountaineering value, almost an east coast disappointment. I used to bemoan the fact that the best of Scottish climbing was in the northwest. What a shame it was not nearer home, the hunger for rock and ice inexorably pulling me west, leaving the brooding mass of the east sitting in the clouds.

But I think the time has come. My car stops, almost of its own accord in the pull out where the main path starts from. The board walk floats over the soggy peat and leads to the huge rounded shoulder, where the mountain path begins to toil to the twin summits of the hill.

To walk on Ben Wyvis is a very monochromatic experience, there are no huge cliffs, gullies or towering peaks to animate and amuse your senses. Its just you on the mass of the mountain, one foot in front of the other. The details, of the walk are in the crunch of the snow under foot, or the grinding of a quartz crystal on an gneiss pebble. What strikes me is how ancient it seems, how ground down the landscape is, the movement of history, glaciers, frozen lochs and tree felled and cleared crofts. To walk on this mountain is not to celebrate the picture perfect beauty of Scotland, but it is a walk, which is about appreciating its solidity its ancient mass, it’s a subtle enjoyment. One foot in front of the other moving over history into the present. For me I am walking out of the shadows and the veils of youth, judgement of place, people and home, school memories and feelings of being somehow restricted. On the summit ridge I breathe in the air of the mountains of our magnificent land, the view is clear and vast, acceptance of what has been and what will be.

Ice Temp

Action Man 52

One degrees centigrade, 1700m in elevation facing North West. I pick up my Black Diamond Raptor and swing, instead of the imagined arrow tight thud, the head of my ice axe on contact with the ice makes a plastic shattering sound followed by a sound like tearing polystyrene, a slow ripping sound that last for what seems like seconds. Its an audible reminder to take care, choose my ice axe placements well and realise that concentration and guile is required for success. The second axe finds a small dimple on the surface of the frozen waterfall and twangs into the ice with a satisfying thunk. “A Luke, seek out the weakness in your foe” calling on my imagined internal climbing yoda I move my cramponed boots from the snow onto the glass smooth translucence. Its been a while ( 18 months ) since I ventured onto a large ice fall weighing more than 400 tonnes.

Despite being a very simple technique to climb ice, place the axes high, more than 30cm apart, hang on them whilst bringing you feet into a crouch, repeat, it full of subtleties. With a rope above your head, top roped climbing wall style its simple and fun and you can hack away to you hearts content smashing your way up a climb. To lead, to tie into your figure of 8 knots with 60meter of rope coiled on the snow at you feet with an uncharted path towering above you, its a different matter. They say that a well placed ice screw, in good ice will hold a 2000kg force and the steel will shear before the ice will give up. All well and good in theory, but what is good ice? It’s a plastic evolving medium, never consistent, and ever changing.

That is why falling off is unthinkable. I have fallen off hundreds of rock climbs and a couple of winter Mixed rock ones in my time, but never off a pure ice climb. The idea of loosing contact with the ice, having an ice tool pull out followed by another and then being sucked downwards heading towards 120mph terminal velocity, whilst wearing 24 razor share teeth attached to your feet and holding two ice picks that would have easily done for poor old Trotsky, (ok its was not that kind of ice pic) scares the living shit out of me. If it were ever to happen, it may will be the, straw, camels back thingy; the end

Other axe blow higher up, an area the size of a huge Hester Blomintal soup plate centred on the point of the axe turns from deep grey blue to flawed, layered air filled white, the axe point is now in broken and unstable ice. The technique is to take the axe out gently and break it in to small pieces so it does not come off in a 3kg lump and land on you foot dislodging you crampon placement, leaving you with only two icy points off contact. As I ease the pick upwards, this is what happens, the entire dinner plate slips off and hits my toe with a sold crash; Its sits there resting on my feet, before I take a foot off and send it into spinning to the snow below.

And so the entertainment continues upwards for 60m then another 60m above that, it’s a game of cat and mouse, the most Zen of climbing. Try to use almost no energy both nervous and physical in the most demanding of climbing disciplines. A good rock climb well done deserves a pat on the back, but they are Ten-a-penny. A good ice climb deserves a fine ale, or a well-earned bottle of claret. It’s a fine line between fear and loathing and fun, between perverse enjoyment and sheer vertical hell.

So then why do it?

well when all you senses are working in harmony, when you face something not only physically challenging in a difficult and hostile environment when your urban soft self is saying no, but the hunter gatherer say yes go hunt, in todays hermitically sealed and banal “toys r u”, “strictly come prancing”, X Factor entertainment on a plate, Redbull fuelled stupidness, you will never feel so alive.

Wyoming 1

Action Man 51

Jackson Hole is the place of legends, the late Doug Combs and the Jackson Hole bad ass skiers who called themselves the “Airforce”. The inbounds skiing is a legendary as the skiers who shred it, but to me the real white gold is in the Back Country. Back Coutry is what the new worlders call ski mountaineering and in the Tetons there are literally mountains of the stuff. We expected to breeze into the Tetons buy a guide book talk to a few guides and good skiers and head off into the wilderness “tout seul” , but not. The guidebook that did exist is a 30-page picture book, no directions, no elevations, no face aspect, and no timings and danger information. The most helpful information we gleaned form a local on a lift was , “just head up the pass and follow the boot track” err sorry which pass, which mountain and where do the foot prints go?

Hence our now fortuitous and entirely necessary hook up with Mike Poborsky partner in the world famous Exum Guides company. Mike an unassuming quiet spoken mountain guide. “How fit are you guys” is Mikes first question, “I wish I was fitter, but we are up for a hike if we can find some fresh snow”. With the eye of experience he scans our gear and how we handle it, Are they familiar with it?, how do the carry their kit?, is it part of them or it an uncomfortable showy fit ?. A few expert loaded questions later Mike has made up his mind. Ok were going to do 25 Short if you’re up for some work. What’s that I ask ( not the work bit, but maybe that is a good question to), “oh its 25 feet short of 10,000 and it’s a 3 and a half hour hike to the drop in point off the summit”.

After a longish flat section to the base of the mountain the climb starts almost with out a warm up. The skinning up ( climbing with skis using artificial seal skins to stop you sliding back) is steep 25-30 degrees and in the trees. My experience of skinning on steep ground is ok but in the Alps I have never climbing anything at this angle for big distances. After the first 1000 feet I am feeling it and call of the customary 5 min break. It odd having to translate feet into meters to gauge our pace, but 1000 per hour is not bad going but Mike is obviously coasting. The Teton National Park is not a spit away from Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton its gem mountain, it looms above us to the right. During our refuel stop Mike points our some outrageous off-piste, couloirs and gullies that have been skied. It an amazing and beautiful place, with endless ski-touring possibilities. Even though the mountains seem more benign than the European Alps, the snow-pack is always a concern, but today the avalanche forecast is low danger and it’s a great opportunity to get high with relative impunity. After three and a half hours of uphill we are sitting on the summit drinking sweet chi tea and munching on a semi frozen bagel with alfalfa sprouts, mayo and a multitude of other “only in the USA” ingredients. Mike produces a bag of self hunted elk jerky and nuts, this cultural combo indicates how close the people in Wyoming are to the country, they hunt, fish, ski and play on the land with seemingly seamless integration. It’s a wonderful blend of cowboy and adventure sport, which in Europe seems hard to find. Before we chill of too much our attention turns to the descent, I clip my split snowboard together, converting it from climbing skis to 173cm powder gun and point it towards 3500 feet powder snow nirvana. God bless America

Ice Thinking

Action Man 50

Ice Decisions

It’s been unusually dry with temperatures positively balmy in the valley and freezer like on North facing slopes. I am in Samoens, France during one of the worst months for snow that most people can remember. A 2-week trip to the USA has meant I have missed the best of the ice climbing conditions but some waterfalls are still frozen and today I am walking up to Le Lignon to see if we can climb some “cascade de glace”. The frost on the car in the early morning suggests that it has frozen at 800m but the icefalls sit at 1700m so things may be different. I am still learning about pure waterfall ice climbing. In Scotland on the Ben or in the Cairngorms long pure ice routes are quite rarely in condition but in France they almost never climb snow on rock or neve’ snow as we do. We manage to drive a good 3km up the closed winter road as there is almost no snow but even my Japanese 4x4 cant cope with the old road polished ice after a while, so we stop in a pull out having saved ourselves nearly half of the 1.45min walk in. Oddly at the car it is 2 degrees warmer than in the valley. Normally the temperature goes down with altitude but now at 1300m it has risen to zero degrees. I attach my watch with temperature guage to the out side of my rucksack away from my warming skin and make a mental note to myself that if the tempo is above 4 degrees at the base of the route we will probably not start the route. The hour walking passes quickly with glimpses of chamois and tales of daring do and did not. Most of the really big free standing ice falls have long since collapsed. The lack of surface water has dried them out, made the ice brittle and without new water to feed them they basically rot and fall down under their own weight during the extended drought and freeze thaw. We cross a massive debris path, a clearing in the trees caused by hundreds of tonnes of falling ice crashing down each spring. It’s like stepping in front a fan heater and a wall of warm air hits us as we plod up the snowshoe tracks. It’s a temperature inversion with a definite edge between warm and cold. The snow on the path turns from hard pack to sugar granules. It’s not been cold enough to bond the old crystals together. At the base of the route I put my pack down and look at the thermometer. 4.6 degrees, 0.6 degrees beyond my cut off. However this is not about an arbitrary, artificial cut off. It’s been a walk about reading signs, smelling the air and feeling the snow. The snow tells me that it barely froze at 1700m during the night whilst 300m below it’s bullet hard. The feel of the air tells me it’s going to stay warm and with the sun heating up the surrounding air and 1000m more of the mountain above our heads, things could well start falling on us. I kick the ice with my boot. It’s smooth and hard and there is a tinkle of running water behind the fall which tells me in colder weather its mass is being replenished and this is good, but I have a nagging doubt. Small icicles fall off the fringes of the cascade, and I decide to wait for another day. Ice climbing is a marginal art. It requires experience and motivation and it requires judgement and determination. 20 years ago I would have set off and it would probably have been fine. Today with all my experience I know I don’t know enough about the conditions or this environment to make a positive call to climb it. This maybe the last time I get a chance to climb ice this year but it does not feel right for me. I would love someone to tell me I am doing the right thing, or to not be so stupid, do it and it will be fine. But as with some tough decisions it’s a lonely place to stand. We shoulder our packs and head for the cafĂ©’

Wandering With Mal

Action Man 49

We prised open the car door that had frosted shut overnight and tried to open our stiff jack knifed bodies into something resembling a fully open upright state. Whilst sleeping in the car is always an option, it’s never really preferable to a tent never mind a B&B. It was six in the morning and still very dark. A particularly luke warm flask of sweet coffee and some day-old bread with half a squished brown banana constituted what Mal called breakfast. At 11.30 pm the night before he had guided, or more like scraped his old car up the frost track to the deer gates that blocked our progress any further into Ben Nevis’s North Face.

As ever Mal had a plan to do another new route in winter on the “Ben” and I, as a willing accomplice to the randomness, had no clue to the destination and methodology required. After our hearty breakfast, we shouldered our winter packs and hiked into the CIC hut which rests below some of the most famous routes in Scotland. By the time we had decided, or Mal had decoded our target, a pair of famous French mountain guides were already half way up point five gully. We walked up to our target and as instructed I took the lead up a narrow, but not too difficult ice chocked gully which marked the start of an existing route. I stopped after 100 feet and brought Mal up to the stance. He then decided that instead of continuing up the gully he would head out left on to the sidewall of the gully and after 30 feet progress came to a halt. Much cursing and scraping of metal then followed as Mal teetered and muscled his way over a small, difficult rock bulge onto the easier angled snow and ice above. This was a man propelled more by desire than pure technical ability. Not altogether a pretty site and slightly worrying to be at the other end of a potential fall whilst on a poorish belay, but highly effective nonetheless. Finding a slightly different line over the bulge we soon stood side by side on the wall in the middle of the vastness of Ben Nevis rock and ice. Three easier pitches later and we were standing on the summit plateau.

Winter climbing sometimes feels gladiatorial, armed with metal in hand and on feet, helmeted, shrouded in Gore-Tex, and slightly removed from the world. But today walking back to the car in the pink light of an oncoming Scottish winter sunset, we were truly alive. Stories of daring do, Himalayan exploits and dodgy days surviving by wits and scams in Chamonix brought us with laughter back to the deer fence which divided our mountain life from the process of rejoining the rest of the sedentary Scottish Saturday winter world. New route or not I will never know, but I do know that to have shared this day with one of life’s true characters is more valuable than any tick in a guide book. Those of us who new Mal Duff well will always cherish his energy, love of life, and ability to tread a very different path,. Mal died tragically at Everest base camp some years ago and is sorely missed by many. Thinking of him always makes me smile. It’s a pity in life that we do not always appreciate those who truly march to a different drum a bit more deeply.