The Year of Living Dangerously - 2016
This article first appeared in The Alpine Journal 2017. Ed Douglas called it (rather tongue-in-cheek) 'The Year of Living Dangerously.'
At 26, Tom Livingstone is one of the best young alpinists in the UK, as well as a high-performance rock and winter climber. In 2016 he had an exceptional year, which included high-level ascents in Scotland, a winter ascent of the Walker Spur, his first rock climb of E9, an ascent of Divine Providence and the American Direct on the Dru in the same week, the third ascent of the House-Anderson route on the north face of Mt Alberta in Canada and finally, in early 2017, an ascent of the Supercanaleta route on Fitzroy in Patagonia.
My year began with a yell, and the steady drip, drip of blood. Working on a rope access job, two of my fingers were squashed in a drill. I ripped off my glove in horror, expecting to have lost digits. When I saw crimson splashing into the mud, I thought I’d be doing a ‘Tommy’ [Caldwell: see Book Reviews] and having to amputate. Luckily, one finger was only broken and another scarred, and they soon began to heal.
Four days later, I drove up to Scotland for the start of my annual winter climbing trip. I’d called my partner, Uisdean Hawthorn, and explained there ‘might be a minor complication … nothing serious.’ My sausage-shaped fingers throbbed in their bandages but conditions and the weather were looking great. Uisdean and I spent many fine days in the mountains; highlights included the second ascent of The Vaporiser (VIII,8) on Creag an Dubh Loch and an early repeat of Shoot the Breeze (IX,8) on Beinn Eighe. We also visited many Scottish hospitals and GPs as I needed near-daily dressings for my fingers. The GP in Glenelg gave me quite a scolding when I told my story. I received quite a scolding from the Glenelg GP when I confessed my story.
I rented an apartment in Chamonix with Pete Graham and Uisdean for March and April. Our box-like room was filled with huge piles of climbing equipment. We lived off coffee, porridge and French ‘cake-bars’. When I arrived, the valley had just received a huge snowfall, and my trusty Peugeot skidded and crashed into barriers as we careered down the roads.
Happily the weather quickly improved and I met up with a grizzled Australian named Kim. Although we’d never climbed together before, we got on well and lifted our eyes to the Dru. Conditions were dry this spring, with little ice in the mountains, so we opted for a winter ascent of Pierre Allain’s route on the north face.
For two days we inched higher, forming a strong partnership. Kim’s straight talking kept me laughing: ‘It’s not this way, what a bugger!’ he’d say if we took a wrong turn. When he reached a belay he’d shout: ‘Hell mate, that’s a good pitch!’ At the bivy at the end of the first day, I dropped fistfuls of snow into the stove and watched them saturate. A crimson sun dipped into a cloud inversion. Shortly afterwards, the orange lights of Chamonix glowed ghostly from beneath the white blanket. I took it all in. This was where I needed to be.
Late in the evening on the second day, as night drew in, we sprinted for the summit, the metal statue of the Virgin Mary flashing in my headtorch’s beam as the Chamonix streetlights came on again. My breaths came in heavy, slow gasps as I belayed Kim up the final step. I had dreamed of climbing Le Dru for many years; to finally be there after a winter ascent let me contented. I almost enjoyed the 14 rappels back to our tent.
After some serious ‘inactive recovery’ and more cake-bar, Pete and I made a winter ascent of the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses, with three bivouacs and numerous interesting moments. I particularly remember being caught in a small storm just a pitch below the summit on the third evening; we huddled in our yellow bivy bag, perched on a small ledge, and slowly froze in our icy sleeping bags. Social media and alpinism is a modern combination. Thankfully, Pete is good at these things, coming up with the hashtag: #freezing-our-asses-on-the-Grandes-Jorasses. When I topped out next morning, moving from shade to sunlight for the first time in three days, I felt I could actually taste the warmth. It prickled my cheeks and a sense of joy bubbled up from within.
My girlfriend, Victoria, came to Chamonix for a long weekend afterwards and we did some skiing and went to a techno party, redressing the life balance. I’m lucky she gives me a lot of independence. The weather was poor for April, unfortunately. I made a few attempts in the mountains, but they always resulted in the same scenario: standing in swirling snow, looking up at a mountain wreathed in cloud. I put the poor weather to use and climbed my hardest sport grade on La Ligne Noire (8a+). Who says alpine climbing gives you heavy legs? I felt ready for home and trad climbing.
I joined a few DMM climbers for a trip to the Isle of Arran. James McHaffie led us straight to The Great Escape (E8 6c) and we spent the rest of the trip debating which of us he’d sandbagged most. Ryan Pasquill didn’t seem to notice the crux moves as he flashed the main pitch, but I had plenty of time to appreciate the exposure when I fell on my attempt.
I really enjoy climbing in Pembroke and it’s a great place to push your grade. I spent some time here with James Taylor. I hadn’t done much headpointing before, but learnt plenty when I climbed Boat to Naxos (E7 6c) in Huntsman’s Leap. I’d originally tried this line on sight, but took the ‘monster lob’ in the middle of the run-out. I went back and, due to time pressures, tried it on top rope. I went for the lead shortly after, with a giant swell crashing and booming in the zawn.
Tony Stone and I cancelled a trip to the Alps due to poor weather, and instead drove north for The Long Hope Route on Hoy. The island has a few eccentric characters, many thousands of angry fulmars, and one giant overhanging wall of semi-choss: St John’s Head. It’s undoubtedly one of the most impressive cliffs in the UK, and The Long Hope weaves a 450m line through some incredible terrain. Overhanging walls are interspersed with ledges and slots, which stretch deep into the rock. We gently crimped on the sandstone faces, clambered onto ledges and shuffled, sometimes on stomachs, along slotted breaks. The remote and committing feel, with fulmars wheeling and screaming in the wind, eyeing us as we tiptoed past, make it feel like Jurassic Park.
We repeated the E7 version of the route, originally put up by Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill, but I’d like to return for Dave Macleod’s direct pitch. There were a few memorable moments, such as trying not to weight the belay at the end of the ‘grass pitch’, and making a mental note to get a health check after thrutching up the ‘vile crack’. We trundled giant blocks and snapped holds. The belays usually required five pieces of gear. A stuck wire near the top forced us to escape out left, and we returned the following day to remove it, then clean the crux pitch. Tony dispatched this in fine style and we soon topped out to glorious sunshine.
It was my childhood dream to climb E9. I knew, one day, it had to be done, and I found myself drawn to the soaring arête of Rare Lichen, on the Gribin Facet in the Ogwen valley. The route follows such a striking feature, it’s like being slapped in the face. You can see the line from Bethesda, a perfect right-angle cut from the mountain. I couldn’t take my eyes from it as I swerved up the road.
I approached this route from above, on the safety of a top rope, with Oli Grounsell, but all I felt was fear. I saw it as an opportunity to learn, to develop, to fall off without dying. I certainly did fall off on my first visit; I punted off virtually every move. Oli is light and strong and described locking each hold, moving between them as if they were jugs. In bitter winds, high on the arête I couldn’t feel my hands, but that wasn’t why I couldn’t do the moves: I was weak from winter, fingers soft after months of gloves and ice axe jugs. The ratty crimps were horrible, skin-shredding, tip-trashing little edges.
Returning as summer 2016 started in North Wales again, I was jealous of those who’d felt strong on the initial moves, flowing through the no-fall zone. ‘I get butterflies every time I think of just being up there!’ I confessed to my friend. ‘I won’t fall … but if I do, the gear might rip; and if that happens, I’ll crater from 20m.’ I found a ‘tall-man’s’ way to climb the middle section which felt a bit like cheating, but now I could climb the route cleanly on a top-rope and the proposition of leading became a reality. The devil on my shoulder chanted: ‘you’re off!’ The angel said: ‘crimp harder!’
Next day I stood beneath the route with only two half ropes tied to my harness; the top rope lay in a crumpled heap by my feet. I hoped the few brass wires might stop me from the same fate as the top rope if I fell. The Ogwen valley was in bright sunshine, a contrast to our shady cliff. I wanted to be swimming in the lake below. Instead, I waited for the internal chatter to quiet and then I stepped off the grass. The route hadn’t changed: only my perception of its danger. Where I’d previously slumped onto the top rope, now I’d risk clattering into the ground. I tried to kid myself as I wedged in tiny wires: ‘they’ll definitely hold me.’ Then I moved from left to right on the arête, on autopilot.
The top arête, a fat bottomless wedge jutting into space, was the only thing between the finishing jug and me. I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine myself on a top rope again: nine quick movements of my hands and four subtle foot moves were all it would take, but I couldn’t commit. Why am I here? Do I really want to take this risk? The breeze grew stronger and my mind spoke louder, and when I opened my eyes I knew what to do. I just had to switch off my brain and execute. Committing, I bumped my left foot higher, squeezing the arête with everything I had. Slapping my hands up, my brain came back to life: I had this, I have this, and I have the finishing jug in my hands.
I should have felt elated. The sunshine should have been warm. Instead my mind was raw and could barely comprehend. I felt the effects of a heady cocktail kick in slowly, a mix of satisfaction, boldness – pleasure. My voice bubbled up, so I let out a long whoop of joy, rippling round the valley. I sat for a long time at the top of the crag, finally at peace with myself.
At the start of July I received a call from the European brand Tendon. I’d entered a writing competition many months earlier, but heard nothing since. Now they announced I’d won and was being treated to a week’s sport climbing on the Norwegian crags of Flatanger, to spend a few days with Adam Ondra. It was an incredible experience in a truly world-class sport climbing destination and Adam was great company. He gave me beta so I could project his warm-ups, and I tried not to mess up as he worked his ‘Project Hard’ and ‘Project Big.’ The cave of Flatanger is so vast, so impressive and so good, it’s impossible to fully describe. I left having redpointed a few 8as and flashing 7c+, and with a deeper awe and respect for Adam and his friends. Their projects are on another level of difficulty and length.
Then a quick hit to the Alps that coincided with good weather and conditions. On the Friday night Uisdean and I bounced into the bar in Chamonix, celebrating our good friend John McCune’s success: he had just completed the British Mountain Guides scheme. Beer flowed, and John, already two pichets ahead, was in full swing.
‘You’re going to Divine!’ he shouted in his Irish accent. ‘And I’m coming with you.’
It’s always a pleasure to climb with John and we’d talked about Divine Providence, the hard rock climb on the Grand Pilier d’Angle, before. Now he was free and psyched.
‘Fine,’ I replied. ‘We leave on Sunday.’ I wondered if John would be sober by then.
From the Fourche bivy hut we studied the Grand Pilier d’Angle. Snow covered the lower and upper faces, but the 300m headwall appeared dry. I hoped snowfall the previous day wasn’t going to cause any wet sections on the route, but we had our doubts. I told the story of Twid Turner and Dai Lampard nicking a hut blanket when they climbed Divine in the 1980s. Uisdean and I had our insulated trousers so we’d be fine. John only had a pair of leggings. His eyes began flicking between our trousers and the lovely hut blankets.
As is so often the case in Alpine climbing, the experience of Divine Providence was richer and more fulfilling than I imagined. The physical difficulties of the route were harder and longer. But it was also easier and shorter than the stories made it out to be. Mentally, just getting on the route was a major crux and I felt great relief when I started the first pitch. Of course, this was soon replaced with the usual uncertainty and fear of the unknown. We made good progress with the leader climbing free, and the seconds carrying bigger packs. Strong winds caused melting ice to rain down on us, making it feel very Patagonian. Our dreams of freeing the route also came crashing down when we reached the crux pitches: they were dripping wet despite the outrageous steepness. We resorted to aid.
As we climbed higher and the sun moved off the wall it became very cold and windy. The temperature dropped but we reached easier ground near the top of the wall, while still being buffeted by the wind. To continue along the ridges and snow arêtes to the summit of Mont Blanc would have been dangerous, despite reaching the top of Divine Providence if not the top of the Grand Pilier at about 6.30pm after 13 hours. We found a small bivy ledge and spooned through the long night. At dawn we thawed ourselves out, finally huffing and puffing our way to the summit of Mont Blanc at noon.
On Thursday morning, barely 36 hours later, I puzzled at the reflection staring back at me in the window. I was awake, but my reflection was asleep and badly sunburnt. I rubbed my eyes and drank more coffee. The forecast gave us two more days of sunshine, but we were both satisfied; we’d climbed the big one and were left wondering what to do. I thought most people would be content to sip beers in the sun, rather than suffering all over again. Then we bumped into Jon Griffith. He was a bundle of energy: ‘what’s next, boys?’ Within an hour a message arrived from him, listing all the options of routes to do. We knew we had to make the most of the opportunity, but our bodies felt slow and sluggish. We couldn’t go big, but we had to do something.
When we stepped off the Montenvers train that evening and walked towards the Dru, it didn’t feel right. We’d set our sights on the American Direct, but the walk-in took ages; we reached the bivy at 10pm, ready for only five hours sleep.
We were already awake when the alarm sounded at 3am. The night before we’d talked about our doubts; they still hung in the air in our bivy cave. But when we crawled out, neither Uisdean nor I were willing to break first. We strolled over to the base, just to take a look, and started climbing. The initial ground was easy and we followed the circle of light cast by our headtorches. Uisdean climbed his pitches quickly and the ground dropped away. An imposing black wall stretched above us but we had no sense of scale until dawn hit the summit far above. Then we realised how far we’d come, and pushed on. My brain-fog began to clear; positive thoughts returned.
By the time we reached the Jammed Block at about one-third height, I felt I was ready to ‘punch up’. I was fixated on the summit rather than the ground. Uisdean’s encouragement spurred me on. But I was still an amateur in crack climbing, and the 90m corner looked menacing. At the first technical pitch a few hours ago, I’d had to ask Uisdean how to tape my hands for the rough granite. The 90m corner didn’t disappoint; it made Dinas Cromlech look like a kindergarten. The two open-book walls soared and soared, and I climbed and climbed until there was nothing left in my arms. At the top of the corner an aid traverse out left brought us to the north face. I wobbled out over the 90m corner hanging from thin rusting nails, eyeing the finishing ledge. The air below me made it feel like flying.
I’d climbed this way during the winter ascent earlier in the year. Where previously we’d used axe torques we could now jam our hands and pad up slabs. Skirting round the summit of the Petit Dru and reaching the top of the Grand Dru at dusk was very special, because it marked a place I thought was unattainable only yesterday.
We had a long night ahead: I’m always wary of the descent from any mountain but these rappels sounded especially tricky. In the fading grey light we hurried down, turning our headtorches left and right, searching for the tell-tale flash of metal. Of course we lost the bolted belays, spinning down the 800m cliff in the dark, resorting to hollow flakes for anchors. Our minds slowed and the brain-fog returned. Uisdean’s phone alarm went off again at 3am; I would have laughed if I wasn’t so tired. We started falling asleep at belays, waiting for the other person to find the next anchor or make something out of a piece-of-shit spike. I didn’t care what we abseiled off any more. I just wanted to be down.
At last – at last! – we both stood on the glacier, dizzy and hungry, with the mountains shadowed above. We wanted to be in the Charpoua refuge, just a short walk beneath us, but the mountains played one final trick; the glacier was a jumbled mess of crevasses and we had no idea how to get through. So we found a rognon of rock and slumped onto the least lumpy area. The shivering was life enhancing. The hunger and thirst was a reminder to consume more next time. The fatigue was absolute, our heads nodding forward and then snapping back. Cramp screamed through my muscles like fire.
But dawn finally came. The morning sun glowed orange on the summit of Mont Blanc and crept down towards the valley. We shook ourselves upright and walked towards the refuge.
Uisdean Hawthorn and I had attempted the House-Anderson route on the north face of Alberta (3619m) last year, having been inspired by Nick Bullock and Will Sim’s second ascent, but we had to bail due to poor conditions. This year, however, we found the mountain in much better shape: the ice was well formed and the rock was well frozen and mostly bare.
On our first day we left the nearby hut – in reality, more of a shed – at 1am and rappelled down to the glacier beneath the face. It felt incredibly committing as we walked beneath the mountain, with no real chance of a rescue if something went wrong. Having just come from the Alps, with a phone signal, cable cars and helicopters everywhere, it felt pretty ‘out there’ beneath the towering, 1,000m face and be self-reliant.
We climbed the bergschrund and moved quickly together up the ice field as dawn broke, reaching the base of the headwall at 8 am. Uisdean quickly climbed past the wire we had bailed off on the first M7 pitch during our attempt in September 2015. We climbed a few more mixed pitches around the same grade, and a short section of aid where there should have been ice, to reach a gully clogged with solid clear ice and snow mushrooms. In a moment of sheer amateurism, I fell off the start of the steep WI5+ pitch when I stepped too high on my axe. I didn’t fall far but the bruise on my hip reminded me to be more careful.
I crossed a section of severely undercut ice on aid; this was no place to take a big fall. Then it leant back to vertical, leading to the cave bivy, which we reached at 6pm. The cave is in reality a tunnel that twists and turns into the heart of the mountain, one of the craziest features I’ve ever seen on a mountain. We spent the night here, feeling very lucky to be relatively warm and lying down.
On the second day we climbed the final three pitches to reach the top of the headwall, and then Uisdean climbed the last 150m to the summit in one big pitch. It was 1pm and we were surprised at how early we’d arrived. Unfortunately cloud had covered the upper part of the headwall since daybreak. We were worried about being caught in a storm but occasional patches of blue sky helped our descent down the long ridge of the Japanese Route. By the time we reached the start of the rappels, we were below the cloud and relaxed. It began to snow and rain during our descent and we still had to negotiate numerous cliff bands, so kept our focus throughout. It felt so sweet to reach the hut just as it got dark, late on the second day. It had been an epic route, which kept us involved and tested us, mentally and physically.
I know a lot of the draw of climbing in the Canadian Rockies is about adventure, and ‘the unknown.’ I realise we weren’t very original in our route choice: essentially copying Will and Nick. If I were to nit-pick our ascent, it’s only for this. I realise with each ascent, an almost mythical route like the House-Anderson becomes slightly more ‘known;’ slightly less mythical. Yet despite our lack of originality, I’m very content.
I spent most of October working and then climbing George Smith’s Rock of Ages, an impressive E7 which, to my knowledge, hadn’t been repeated. It climbs up an overhanging ship’s prow in a giant cave, a true Gogarth pump-fest, but thankfully has good gear. I tried it once with James Taylor, leaving some cams near my highpoint, aiming to return a few days later. Two weeks went by and I still hadn’t returned due to tides, weather, swell and partners. Finally I made it back with Tony Stone, finishing a great day by the light of my headtorch.
After some rope access work fell through, I sold Christmas trees for a few weeks in December. My life seems permanently strapped to a roller-coaster, with frequent money worries from my hand-to-mouth existence and monthly peaks and troughs. I can’t complain: it’s all self-inflicted because I devote so much to the mountains. I do wonder how sustainable this lifestyle can be.
Calum Muskett, Tony Stone and I flew to Patagonia in December, drawn south by recent seasons of good weather. We spent a few weeks in Torres del Paine, sitting in base camp waiting for stable conditions. Unfortunately, settled weather never arrived, and we moved to El Chaltén and the Fitzroy massif. In January, Calum flew home but Tony stayed, sitting out poor weather. We walked into the mountains five times for various objectives, each time turning around. On the sixth and final time, right at the end of our seven-week trip, we climbed the 1,600m Supercanaleta on Fitzroy. We had plenty of excitement battling giant fins of rime ice on the final gendarmes. It felt special to reach the summit on a calm, sunny day, just with our return flight beckoning. It was time for home and the end to a fantastic year.