Eyeing the next thin slot above, I jammed my fingers in deep and wedged them into the constriction. Far above my last piece of protection, I reached for the silver cam on my harness that would fit inside the crack, before suddenly noticing a rusted piton in the granite to my right. Hammered to the hilt and likely fifty years old. I tried to imagine myself in the footsteps of Fred Beckey, and Yvon Chouinard, questing up the 2000 foot west buttress of the South Howser tower, way back in 1961.
My legs hung over the edge. Daisy chains reined me in taught to the wall. I reeled myself back onto the ledge, shortening the tethers with my fifi hook. A bout of cramp surged through my dehydrated legs. I jerked stiff and straight, hamstrings tingling where the harness dug in, then slumped back over the edge and waited for dawn to arrive over Camp V. Only seven pitches remained between us and the summit plateau of El Capitan.
"Alastair! Come help me!"
I spun around and sprinted down a slope of broken granite, when a whiff of something toxic temporarily blinded me. Confused, rushing, I tripped down the scree to find Gemma doubled over, screaming, a quivering hand held up covered in orange oil. "What's happened to you!" Strolling down from the summit of Half Dome an hour earlier, our tallest big wall climb to date, we thought all the difficulties were over. Who would have known the last two hours to the valley floor would prove to be the crux.
The Expedition Climbers Club (ECC) recently organised a rock climbing trip to Cloudy Peak in late February this year with the intention of encouraging alpine rock climbing on new and existing routes. With a reasonable but less than ideal weather forecast, Steve Fortune along with Arthur Lachat and Coco of the French Alpine team headed up to Erewhon late on the evening of the 23rd, armed with a rack, a savage looking machete and several rolls of pink tape.
After two months of fantastic ice & mixed climbing in the Canadian Rockies, finally the seasons were beginning to signal a change, with warm temperatures melting off ice pillars and sending avalanche ratings up to extreme. Colours of Instagram were also transforming, from the white, blue and grey of the alpine to the rich orange and red of the desert. Canadians were flocking southwards to the sandstone splitters of Moab, and I felt compelled to join them.
The words “Arthurs Pass” and “ice” are two words most climbers never use in the same sentence. The fact of the matter is, ice routes do exist in the Arthurs Pass area. These routes are often not in the form of semi- transparent blue pillars with easy approaches but instead may be mixed with rock, turf and may be difficult to access. Some climbers often slag off climbing around Arthurs Pass, but the benefits gained from a backyard of Arthurs climbing can quickly silence the staunchest climbing folk.
I’d done several of the classic rock routes up on Moir’s and on the back of Barrier Knob over the past summer months but I’m ashamed to say I’ve done none of the winter routes at all in the Darrans. I was eager to see what it was all about. So with a fairly dry and dismal start to winter, Steven Fortune, Kieran Parsons and myself remained optimistic and headed to Fiordland to catch the last few days of the annual Darrans Winter Meet based out of Homer Hut.
While there may be a lacking of high mountains or ice and mixed climbing, with some imagination, there is no shortage of opportunities to train the mind and body for alpine climbing in Australia. I will recount three recent training missions in Australia - an 850m climbing link-up in the Grose Valley, alpine rock climbing in the Warrumbungles, and a 90km run traversing three of the highest and most remote peaks in the Blue Mountains.
Pierces Pass Triple
It all started at the 'Death Stairs', a flight of 250 steps above Coogee beach, Sydney. The endorphins were obviously running rampant after those sweaty laps, because when I asked Michael Mate whether he wanted to join me for an ascent of the infamous big wall aid climb Ozymandias at Mt Buffalo, he said yes straight away. A wise decision on his part? Time would tell. But I was stoked.
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.