I’ve spent a lot of energy writing articles for Alpinist and Trek & Mountain magazines recently. The Alpinist piece was about my trip to Pakistan, whereas T&M covered 2018 in general. Below is a more relaxed, informal, sit-down-by-the-fire account about my busy year of climbing. Both magazines are in shops now.
Spring 2018. Revelation Range, Alaska
The sun hit base camp early - because Uisdean and I had shuttled all our junk up the hillside to catch the morning light. We’d spent our first morning in a freezer-like shadow, down on the glacier, and that was enough. Without the sun’s warmth to lure us from our sleeping bags, we’d be waiting until noon.
We spooned peanut butter onto fried bagels for breakfast. ‘The great American diet, yeehaa!’ and I plunged a quadruple shot of coffee, laughing. Bruised knuckles nursed the warm mug, and we basked in the sunshine like lizards, free from the stresses of yesterday’s alpine climbing.
The day before, an attempt at the unclimbed north face of Mt. Jezebel (2880m) had ended when we reached a giant, slot-like chimney after nine terrifying, rope-stretching, don’t fall! pitches. Spindrift poured out of the bottom like a giant sugar shaker; we hung on the belay, getting shat on. No hooks for axes, no cracks for gear… I thought. Down we go. I battered brand new wires into a flared seam, and gingerly weighted the ropes.
That was yesterday; today was for talking smack. ‘Here it is,’ I announced, waving a spoonful of peanut butter. Uisdean - stretching on a roll-mat - opened one eye. ‘My theory. Imagine falling off at any point yesterday: shite! The gear was just for show. Alpine climbing is all about going “balls to the wall,”’ I drawled in my best American. The gesturing spoon was now empty.
‘It’s like a high-speed car chase. You can’t fuck up, you can’t get caught… and yet it’s a thrill. It’s serious, but fun.’ The spoon was re-loaded with peanut butter. ‘Huh! It’s seriously fun!’ I chuckled. Uisdean just changed his stretch.
Uisdean gets straight to the point. When I first met him, he said, ‘I just love to climb thin ice.’ He’s teetered up bold winter routes in the wild Nor-West of Scotland, and now says even more with even fewer words. When we finally hit the glacier below the north face after yesterday's terrifying abseils, his only words were: ‘Well… shit!’
The attempt had left us drained. Our faces were sunburnt, wide eyes pocketing pink cheeks. I was just glad not to be facing an 80-meter Factor 2 fall. In the afternoon, we enjoyed the simple pleasure of launching ourselves off our Base Camp ski jump, getting higher and higher…
We turned our attention to the 1100-meter east face of Jezebel. Bizarrely, the skies remained clear - but our sunburn worsened. This wasn’t the Alaska we were used to, but we seized the opportunity and packed our bags for two days of climbing. After our north face attempt, we were missing most of our rack of wires - but hopefully, this time, we’d actually get to place them whilst climbing!
With a head full of ‘unknowns’, we climbed pitch after pitch of squeaky ice and snow, wondering what’s around every corner. Our new route gave a fight: Uisdean cut loose on ‘The Breakfast Pitch’; and I climbed a detached skin of rotten ice for 10 meters. It boomed and cracked as I tap-tap-tapped my axes as gently as I could. When I looked into a porthole of missing ice, I saw - in horror - my pick as it poked into the four inches of air between ice and rock. This quickly became ‘The Emotional Pitch.’ Nerves recovered, the partnership carried us, and we pushed on.
An east-facing bivy - for the morning sunshine, obviously - the summit, and a descent down the wrong side of the mountain were all I could remember from the second day on our route. Late that evening, euphoric shouts echoed around the glacier as we flipped cheese quesadillas in base camp, recounting our route…
Back in civilisation a few weeks later, and after the customary drunken night in the Fairview Inn, we tried to name our new route. It was either purely enjoyable, well-protected climbing… or run-out and sketchy. ‘Fun or Fear’ seemed fitting.
Summer. Karakoram, Pakistan
Pakistan was a rare example of the stars aligning. For a big alpine route like the North Ridge/Face of Latok I (7145m), you need the right weather, the right conditions, the right team, in the right place, acclimatised and ready at the right time. Considering this was my first expedition to the Greater Ranges, I feel very fortunate we climbed anything - let alone something. With Luka Stražar and Aleš Česen (the hats on the letters mean they’re wads), we climbed a variation of the North Ridge, and I’ll never forget our seven-day adventure. I was grateful to be with two experienced climbers, who quickly became good friends.
I first met Luka during a BMC Winter Meet in Scotland. We shared a belay beneath the Pic ’n’ Mix Buttress on a classically shit winter’s day. Wind-blown snow blasted with spindrift in a bleak, monochrome world. We constantly swung our arms as the cold and damp crept deeper into our layers. I could only see Luka’s eyes and nose - the rest of him was wrapped like an eskimo - but the eyes knew. They looked knowingly at the grade VIII,8 pitch above. They knew about the weather; they agreed it was shit, but what can you do? And the eyes crinkled when we joked. When it was time to leave, the eyes said, ‘see you later;’ Luka turned from his snowy ledge and climbed into the storm.
Aleš brought a special kind of serious humour. ‘Fuck!’ he yelled, when he forgot his harness during a day’s cragging in Slovenia. ‘Never mind, I will use this,’ he chuckled, holding up a 10mm sling. (I know I’ll forget my harness one day; I’m just waiting for my turn). When ice climbing, Aleš precisely placed the pick of his axe like placing the tip of his finger. He moved efficiently, but remembering to appreciate the surroundings. Every pitch, decisions came easily; little needed to be said.
Pakistan seems like a distant memory now, but I’ll always remember the trip, and our route on Latok I. It felt like a roller-coaster ride, exploring ourselves and our comfort zones. I hope to climb with Luka and Aleš again soon, and continue our fortune.
Autumn. Jammu & Kashmir, India
In contrast to Pakistan, India was less ‘lucky.’ Three and a half weeks after returning from the Karakoram, I did the duffle shuffle all over again, and flew to Jammu and Kashmir with Will Sim and Uisdean. Although we didn’t climb anything due to unseasonably early and heavy snowfall, we still throughly enjoyed India.
We travelled through diverse landscapes, cultures and languages. India seemed like a melting pot of variety, and we soaked it in. ‘Yak walla,’ Will said as we watched the herders round their yaks at dusk. They saddled the beasts and carried our bags to base camp.
Day after day, we ate delicious curries made by our base camp cooks, Pritam and Sanju. There was flavour and spice without heat; colourful sauces and a chilli pickle; rotis, chapattis, phulka… I’ve tried to re-create the dishes, but it’s just not the same.
But after the grassy meadow of base camp was buried under a metre of snow, we faced fresh complications. Two perfectly-dressed and polite J&K Police turned up at BC and tried to ‘rescue’ us, determined to follow orders and ‘bring our expedition to safety.’ We drank tea in the sunshine and wondered what all the fuss was about. I travelled to the nearest town to regain permission for our expedition to continue, and returned a few days later.
Back in BC, the mountains were still plastered with snow, and even approaching was tortuous. We walked to the base of Chiring (ca. 6300m), tiptoeing on eggshell snow. Every ten steps, one of us would break through the crust and sink up to the knee. This continued for two days. I think the approach would normally take six hours.
The only upside of the bad weather was our improved our card-playing skills. Shithead! and the snow slumped by another foot. Shithead! and another week went by. When I finished reading On the Road by Kerouac, I digged the hype and mayhem, but our reality was very different. We bailed for home.
It’s good to be back in North Wales. The familiar skyline, the good mates, and the mountains in between. I sit in Brynrefail; it’s peaceful, quiet. The sky darkens outside. A single lightbulb above the kitchen table casts a faded yellow circle, and I’m held within the pool. A drip drops from the tap. It plunges towards the sink, and the ceramic surface resonates when it hits. My chair squeaks on the tiles as I draw it closer, closer to the notion of warmth and light. After many months spent living on a glacier, the comforts of home feel luxurious.
Night comes early in December. The corners of the room recede, blacken. The yellow circle becomes stronger. Ripples shake and bounce in the cafetiere beside me as I tap-tap-tap the laptop keys. I feel relaxed, content, and I’m happy to reflect on the previous 12 months. I sit back in my chair, and enjoy the silence.
The pool of light around the table reminds me of climbing at night. My world is reduced to the white circle which shines from my headtorch. Outside this circle is black: unknown and immaterial. The only focus is to keep the ground moving out of the bottom of the circle. I focus on a steady rhythm of movement in my solitary pool of light.
Photos: Uisdean Hawthorn
Photos: Luka Strazar and Ales Cesen
Photos: Uisdean Hawthorn