The ‘Good - Bad’
‘Watch me!’ Echoes mocked around the gorge. I met John McCune and Uisdean Hawthorn in the south of France, sharing a mutual appreciation for the end of winter. They’d just bailed from the Grandes Jorasses, and I from the UK. We shocked our arms after a winter of soft gloved hands and cold pale snow, climbing under crystal skies. Each time John lowered from a 40-metre route in the Gorges du Tarn, he’d shrug his Irish shoulders. ‘You know, it’s not that bad.’ I quickly found just how bad ‘not-that-bad’ could be, and just how fit ‘Strong McCune’ is.
I’d swallow my pride, tying in to our battered orange sport rope, then sweating and cursing my way skyward. The quickdraws teased, 20 of them hanging above my head. I’d desperately ask John for beta. ‘Just keep goin’ up, there’s a good pocket somewhere!’ he’d say. Like an insect stuck to flypaper, I twitched on the yellowing limestone, starfished to the wall. I huffed and puffed some more, my arms filled with a thick lactic soup. ‘Go arn, go arn,’ John’s encouragement floated from the trees. I wanted to give up, to let go and free-fall into the rope’s embrace… but something kept me fighting. Keep going was something I remember from my childhood. I distinctly remember one of those ‘motivational’ posters at school which said: Persistence prevails when all else fails.
Of course, sport climbing is the good life. It’s (relatively) safe and (relatively) stress-free climbing. Our diet consisted of coffee and sunshine in the morning; red wine and bright stars finished every evening. But despite this, we wanted more. Between routes, Uisdean and I hatched ambitious alpine climbing plans in the Canadian Rockies that autumn. I guess you have to start somewhere, but in hindsight, the Rockies might not be the easiest place.
Upon our arrival in September, we discovered that youthful enthusiasm is a great spark to the fire of advice from local Canadian climbers. It stokes their optimism and welcoming attitudes. ‘Oh yah, the conditions could be really good right now… but who knows!’ they said. ‘No-one’s been back there in a year. Watch out, too: it’s big country.’
‘Oh. But the rock gets better higher up…?’ we said. The hours of driving north up the Icefields Parkway, through dense pine forests and sweeping limestone peaks, was nothing like my home and the Llanberis Pass.
There are many challenges to alpine climbing in the Rockies. Only a few people test the spooky, faceted snow-pack, or gingerly weight their tools in rotten limestone cracks. The gear is often ‘joke pro’; the approaches long; and avalanches monstrous. Rescue is mostly a concept, usually preceded by self. And did someone mention bears?
You have to really want it, too. Uisdean and I tip-toed into the mountains numerous times, sometimes on an educated guess, sometimes only with hope. September’s ‘usually’ stable weather was lost beneath dark, drifting clouds which smothered the rugged peaks. We lived in our rented ‘family-size’ car, dossing in the valley. Life wasn’t easy when it snowed a foot in town.
In various stages of ‘attempt,’ we bailed from classic routes on the north faces of Mt. Kitchener, Mt. Andromeda and Mt. Alberta; (if it’s classic, the route might have been climbed once in the last year). We listened to the rumble of distant seracs which collapsed in the middle of the night, or swam against waves of spindrift. As a silver lining to our trip, we climbed the Greenwood/Jones on Mt. Temple; it was just the bait we needed to return. ‘Maybe Canada’s not all bad,’ we agreed on the return flight.
2016 - A year later
Uisdean and I climbed together for six more months. Our partnership developed, and our understanding of a ‘big’ alpine day had been tested, stretched and re-imagined. Where previously we might have found reasons to bail, we now found answers to keep going. We gained perspective, and our home mountains of Scotland and the Alps were more understandable. When we climbed on Scottish winter crags like Beinn Eighe, at least we weren’t 30 abseils from the ground; when we surfed oceans of granite on Divine Providence (Mont Blanc), at least we’d find something to abseil off if we needed to. And at least we could hand over the rack when one of us slowed during a single-push ascent of the American Direct (Le Dru).
When we returned to the north face of Mt. Alberta in September, the crux headwall loomed menacingly but we climbed with the desire to ‘get it done’ - almost a revenge. A midnight alarm, the long snowfield, and suddenly we were pressed up against the headwall again - but it felt more familiar. We slotted our picks into the cracked limestone, black as the heart of the mountain. Metal screeched against stone, and metal usually won. But this time we focussed on the pitches above, rather than the ground far below. M8 R/X became just that: an opaque grade. We followed the House/Anderson route over two days, finally reaching the glacier as a storm enveloped the mountain again. It felt like we’d been granted a brief, safe passage. We shouted with relief at everything - the route, the mountain, and returning safely. ‘Alpine climbing in Canada is good bad,’ I thought afterwards.
Time flies. I realise each year slips through my fingers, and all that remains are the memories of experiences. It’s a cliché, but there’s no second chance - time is a precious concept which makes me want to use every beautiful, fleeting minute. As Steve Swenson said in a recent article, in the end ‘only two things will really matter: the quality of your relationships, and whether or not you put the effort into being the person you wanted to be.’
I feel a quickening, an emphasis on the now, for each opportunity may not appear again. I ask myself, am I spending my time in the best possible way? Am I climbing (or trying) exactly what I’d like to achieve? But then I remember the mountains dictate the time. Perhaps I’m being impatient, forgetting that a satisfying goal can be achieved regardless of age or health. But… before I know it, another year has flown.
Canada, again. Only this time, my memories are inextricably linked with Marc-Andre Leclerc.
Uisdean and I sit in the same apartment as our last visit together, in 2016 - Nick and Ange’s incredible generosity and hospitality stand the test of time. Outside, the spine of the Rockies stretches into the night, a world-class alpine range because of the difficulties, not necessarily because of its qualities. The limestone cliffs shatter and clatter with rocks, welcoming me back.
What draws me here? At a recent presentation by Geoff Powter, he spoke of his three attractions to alpinism. Risk adds value to the game we play; my heart thumps out of my chest at the end of a run-out, and I’m left feeling completely alive. Romance paints a soft pastel glow as dawn spills down the mountains’ faces; despite the cold, I stop and stare. And then there’s the Right way to climb, meeting the challenge of the mountains as we find them, alpine style. Because, after all, style matters.
Uisdean and I encourage each other on, entertaining our mad alpine ideas (ok, my mad ideas). As usual, local climbers are uncertain of the alpine conditions and we debate our objectives, trying to decide if they’re on the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ side of life. It would be easy to sport climb in the valley, enjoying the ‘good-good’ aspect of climbing. It’d be simple to go back to those days in the Gorges du Tarn, getting pumped on bolts… but instead we test ourselves against the sounding board of the mountains. Each time we return to the apartment, Nick’s eyes light up in anticipation. ‘Not this time, unfortunately!’ we answer. The loose rock, warm weather, terrible snow or simply ‘us’ are reasons enough on Mt. Cephren and Ha Ling, and Nick understands. ‘Maybe Canada is “bad-bad,”’ I complain. When the rock disintegrates, when the gear’s shit, when you sink up to your chest in unconsolidated snow… But wait! Another window appears on the forecast!
When Uisdean and I returned over Woolley Shoulder in 2016, back to civilisation, we took a final, parting glance down the valley at North Twin. We both knew it was the darker, meaner, bastard brother of Mt. Alberta. ‘That face is a proper beast,’ said Marko Prezelj succinctly. With this in mind, and the possibility that a winter ascent of North Twin might be ‘bad-bad,’ Uisdean and I were about to attempt it last month when we paused… the temperatures were shooting up from -30ºC a few weeks ago, to 20ºC in a few days. The warm weather would surely release multiple avalanches. Our backpacks stood upright by the door, two red unexploded bombs, waiting and tense like our nerves.
Barry Blanchard knows the Rockies better than most. With Dave Cheesmond, he made the first ascent of North Twin’s North Pillar more than 30 years ago. Barry agreed to meet Uisdean and I for a coffee during our ‘stay-or-go-North-Twin’ dilemma. He barely needed to use his walking stick after a recent hip operation, and his long silver hair shook as he laughed. I secretly hoped Barry would impart some wisdom on North Twin, and I listened intently. His stories came easily, alpine epics and adventures: ‘I was hit by an avalanche, it tore my pack off and I smashed my leg!’
I wanted time to pause, to ask Barry more. What was it like having “sex with death” on the Rupal Face?!’ but a couple of hours had already passed. Barry gave us exactly what we needed: he offered no secret beta about North Twin. His stories helped enough: ‘if you don’t have lots of knifeblades, you’re gonna die!’
I watched Barry walk down Main Street, then turned to Uisdean. ‘Let’s get some more knifeblades!’
Later that day, however, we realised the sensible decision. Our backpacks slumped, now forgotten. The sensible decision is always hard to choose; it takes skill to unpick your motivations for climbing, and to correctly say when to continue. The climber who ignores rockfall is reckless; but if you always stay at home you’ll never climb anything.
Alpine climbing is so much about the unknowns - will it go? Will I find gear? Like a game of chess, I investigate possibilities: what happens if I do this? Most of the time, you don’t climb anything. The chances of success on a big route surely drops below 50 per cent, particularly if you’re trying ambitious projects or first ascents. But that’s the way it goes.
I hadn’t climbed anything significant in the last few weeks - but not through lack of trying. After Uisdean returned home, Fabi Buhl joined me in Canada, partly persuaded by my constant messages. We tried an impressive-looking new route on Mt. Fay, but our line blanked out after five long, testing pitches. Returning to town, we learned of the tragic deaths of Jess Rosskelley, David Lama and Hansjorg Auer on Howse Peak. The Rockies now felt like a harsh, repelling arena, and everyone was shocked. There was a low energy in town. Grey cloud and drizzle rolled in from the west. Geoff Powter’s attractions to the mountains felt briefly absent.
I feel fortunate to be able to climb in the mountains. We’re all drawn to them, despite their inherent risks. There’s rich pleasure when embracing the simple challenge of climbing up. We can’t resist the poisoned appeal. But the recent tragic events in the Rockies encourage thought. Is it worth paying the ultimate price for something you truly enjoy?
Every trip must come to an end, and I must return to home. The airplane thunders down Calgary’s main runway, propelling me into the air. I fly east, crossing the Greenland icecap. This trip to Canada - my fourth - was great fun, despite the challenges and no summits. I remind myself that sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t; that’s just the way it goes in the mountains… and it’s important to keep life in perspective.
Alpine climbing in Canada. I can’t decide… is it good-bad?
Uisdean and I in Canada, 2015
Uisdean waiting for cooler weather on Mt. Cephren. We got off route and then waited for the mountain to chill out… which never happened.
Selected alpine choss, which has made for fun cragging.
Fabi on our east face of Mt. Fay project, which was great climbing - until it wasn’t.
Many, many thanks to Nick and Ange for their amazing hospitality, to all those I shared a rope with, and new friends. See you soon.
I’d like to pay my deepest condolences to the families of those lost to the mountains this season. Hansjorg’s words are powerful:
"Climbing and mountaineering on the borderline of possible is a game – a risky game… but one that I cannot live without. The game is simple, the rules always the same. The present moment counts for everything. I want to do things that push me. With all my heart or not at all. The more intense it is, the more enriching it is, and the stronger the feeling that I am heading in the right direction.
I do however begin to ponder. Especially when I am injured or after a close call. I think about my friends. I think about what it would be like if one day I didn’t return, if I had to pay the price for the mountains. And yet I cannot resist to take on the challenge time after time. I will never stop searching because what I find fascinates me every time I head out.”
This article jumps around a little, but I hope you persevered. There’s no hidden meanings; and it briefly touches on some interesting thoughts. I’ve recently had a lot more free time, so I’ve been working on this article for a month, but I still don’t know what the finished product is - or should be. I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon.