From what is admittedly a very limited amount of experience, there’s one thing about first ascents which stands out to me. Perhaps I do have a shred of paternal instinct and it’s finally kicking in, but in many ways, I find a first ascent to be akin to having a child (again, limited experience).
It’s a fraught process, into which you invest a significant part of yourself. More than anything, a first ascent is a journey: a formative journey replete with angst, joy, relief and a small shred of pride.
It’s rare that new routes are conceived by mistake. Rather they’re the result of often hours of research, either by yourself, or some other benevolent climber who’s done that research and written about it in The Climber.
Mt Percy Smith was no exception. The conception was the most drawn out part. I’d been trying for a number of years ever since the seed was planted by a Paul Hersey article on the prize of the SW Face in winter. Finally, I found a willing partner with whom to bring this child to bear, and once we agreed on an approach and strategy, all that remained was to carry out the act itself.
It is mildly ironic that riding up the Hopkins valley on my bike, it truly felt like any vestiges of the child-bearing ability I once had were rapidly being lost. Nevertheless, it was a fairly painless process in the early stages. After the mountain bike from the car up to Apricot Flat, and the subsequent walking stage to Erceg Hut, it was always going to be the daunting third trimester over from the Hopkins to Baker Stream which was the true test of mettle.
Much like the approach up that face, no-one really wants to be regaled with tales of the irritations of the late stages of pregnancy. Everyone knows it’s difficult and no-one envies you at the time, but the end result is usually worth it. True to form, upon reaching the Percy-Smith-Mt Williams Col, the mountain really delivered.
The first view is the most precious. Stretching down below us was a barren valley devoid of any life, spanning all the way across the iceberg riddled lake into the Landsborough and then back up and across to the snow sentinel of Mt Dechen. Watching over all is the mighty South-West face of Percy Smith; a truly awesome and imposing sight to behold.
It’s still dark, and yet you’re already up to the crying child who’s having a nightmare. As the first glimmers of sunrise shine on your child’s cheeks, they glance off the slopes of those distant mountain ranges; making this early start worthwhile. The sweat coalesces on my back as we plod our way up the easy approach slopes of the West Ridge in the muggy early morning, bringing back memories of my own childhood night-terrors, when I’d awake drenched in sweat, piss and tears. I try and shake these memories: they’re the last thing I need in the face of the growing cloud bank out west, and the narrowing ridge ahead.
The Teenage Years
These are the battleground. A time when the strong-willed ignorance of youth seeks to battle against the wisdom of many years of established knowledge. Perhaps that ignorance is what made us initially eager to try the SW Face; but an element of that still permeated the decision to try an unclimbed ridge on notoriously loose horizontal strata.
As the clouds of indecision circle, you find yourself stuck in hopeless place three kilometres up. You refuse to concede you were wrong and that there might be a good reason the ridge hasn’t seen an ascent. You sit there stranded on a bump in the ridge, with a one-hundred metre headwall between you and the summit, and a horror-show of a descent behind. There’s no way off either side. All of a sudden you’re an adult. There wasn’t an initiation or some monumental change. Instead, there’s just a sinking feeling of responsibility and the reality that you may have fucked up, and you’ve got to fix this. You’re the only adults here now kiddo.
Deep within, there’s a huge sense of pride. The kind of pride that only a parent feels. The pride that comes from seeing your child become all you’d ever hoped. There’s still a taint of unease in this pride though. There’s more to come, more hurdles, more challenges, more ground to travel.
The golden years pass us by as we descend into the shadow off the eastern flanks of Percy Smith, rappelling into the void. You sit by now and watch as your child ages. Life’s not done yet, and there’s still a fair share of challenges, as we stumble back to camp, race out the Nor-Wester, and get swept away carrying bikes across flooded rivers. In the face of raising such a child though, these are nothing but part of the journey, creating more stories to share with your next partner and new child.
It wasn’t until a week later that I finally found a suitable conclusion to this slightly disquieting birth-come-life-cycle analogy. The relief of seeing my child grow up, survive the teenage years, and become its own creature had settled in. There was thus a certain poetry to the final act which saw a death knell sounded to this eventful adventure; as the robbers came barely a week later and relieved me of my valiant bike which had battled its way there and back again.