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I took a deep breath as I passed the bronze plaques bolted to the wall just above the bergschrund. Dawn had just broken a thin crack of red on the horizon, and there was just enough murky light to look up at the five thousand feet of shattered limestone hanging above me. The enormity of what I was about to do flickered briefly on the edge of a panic, but I shut it out quickly and looked up at the route just ahead as I picked out the route through the first rockbands. “One step at a time buddy”, I told myself. “This is it. Here we go…”
It took six long years to complete this challenge that I had set myself, but I am a patient man, and in the end it didn’t seem like a very long time. I wanted to solo the three classic north faces of the Alps: the Eiger, Matterhorn, and Grandes Jorasses: those towering, inspiring and intimidating objects of every Alpine climbers’ desire. I had climbed them all previously with various partners over the course of two very intense Alpine summers, and it may have been enough at that. So why go back and solo them? The easy answer would be: “To see if I can”, but nothing is ever obvious when it comes to the complexity of our drives and motivations.
There is a subtle paradox in soloing: Is it something you do for yourself only, or are there elements of doing it for yourself once reflected off the admiration of others afterwards? This paradox is boldly drawn while you’re climbing: soloing contains an intimacy, a sublime beauty in fluid movement, and an intense self-reliance, all of which are contrasted sharply with the very real consequence of your own death. The question cuts directly to the core of why we climb, and after many attempts and many years of trying to complete this goal, my answer, finally, would be: “Because I had to”. Part of the beauty in mountaineering that has been laid out in so many epic tales is that we set ourselves challenges we don’t know whether we will be able to meet. Then, despite ourselves and against all odds, we go out into these wild places and try anyway. Success and failure are clear. It’s about the human quest: about adventure; about setting out and not knowing the outcome.
Two years previously I had started up the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorrasses at 10pm, reaching the top at dawn. I had climbed the entire route at night by headlight, partly to avoid the crowds, but mostly to avoid rockfall from people above me. On the summit I watched Monte Rosa glow pink for a minute as the sun rose, and looked down at the Shroud and the Petits Jorasses, picking out the line of Anouk a route we had done a few days before. I remembered Michel Piola at the Maison des Montagnes; veins bulging as he returned the Hilti, eyes shining as he described the route and drew us a topo, and rockdust fresh from the bolts that we clipped dribbling out of the holes like geological spittle. The Alpine rock rage had just begun to take hold, but the lure of the big, cold north walls was stronger, the uncertainty higher, the risks very much sharper.
A month later we had gone back to Zermatt and I had climbed the Schmidt Route on the Matterhorn. It was a long ice route in excellent cold conditions. The ice was thick, and the only really precarious moment occurred in the twin dihedrals where I climbed higher than I should have and traversed across back out to the good ice on loose, unconglomerated and tenuous limestone. The rest of the route consisted of avoiding rock as I wound my way up on ice. I reached the top and the big iron cross glinted in the thin sunlight, and I endured the perplexed stares of the Swiss mountain guides who didn’t know where I had come from as they short-roped their clients down the Hornli Ridge. All that was left was the Eiger. I didn’t know it at the time, but it wouldn’t turn out to be as easy.
I climbed up towards the ‘Shattered Pillar’ over loose, rubbly limestone. Moving mechanically upwards, my body seemed strangely dissociated from the rest of me, almost as if I needed the dislocation to numb me from what I was starting. I tip-toed in Koflachs on rounded limestone footholds and then pulled over the ‘Difficult Crack’. It was strenuous and overhanging, but I had found my rhythm and I moved quickly up to the ‘Rote Fluh’, up towards the key of the lower wall: the ‘Hinterstoisser Traverse’. It still looked improbable and even harder this time. I teetered from ice boss to ice boss just barely in balance, one hand holding the same mangled fixed rope that had been there when Sandy Britain and I had climbed it six years previously, the other holding my axe hooked on sloping edges. A lurch at the end, and I was onto easy snow leading up to the ‘Swallows Nest’. The sky was cobalt blue beyond the shadow of the wall. I was doing well: It was 9AM and I was already ahead of my planned schedule.
Seven hours earlier, I had lain in the darkness in the meadow far below me listening to the distant sounds of cowbells. Sleep hadn’t come at all, just the endless stream of doubts and fears that had arrived like the familiar but unwanted guest that I always hope won’t arrive, but always does. I replayed the route continually in my mind: imagining myself on the huge black and white wall that blocked out half of the clear night sky above me. I have always found visualisation easy. I am able to remember long complicated sequences on sport routes – imagining precisely how I would grasp a hold, or how the balance change would feel as I weight a tiny foothold that I can clearly picture. And as I imagined the route above me I had one of those subliminal senses that everything would be okay. Underneath the tension in my body I simply knew I would do it this time.
I’ve always had an uncanny sense of intuition when it comes to danger. Three times I have ignored the warnings and three times I have been hurt: twice BASE jumping and once when my knee was hit by a falling rock the first time I tried to solo the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses. I strongly believe that we are able to sense the future, not in the form of soothsaying or fortune-telling, but in the fragile, but no less profound, connection to what lies underneath our strong efforts in extreme places. Perhaps it’s because we willingly put ourselves into this very uncertainty in the first place that we become more receptive to our intuitions. I credit this to keeping me alive. I’ve turned away, and have had my partners turn me away from routes in perfectly good weather for no apparent reason at all other than a vague feeling. The bottom line is that you have to trust yourself and your instinct because they’re all part of the same thing. Even then, a large measure of it comes down to luck. In the ‘Bonatti Couloir’ on the Dru during my second season in the Alps, I came the closest to being killed by rockfall. I looked up and the sky was black. My last thought was: ”Oh Fuck!” as the boulders fell right through me, missing me by only fractions of millimetres. To this day, I am still amazed at how a whole couloir full of rocks managed to miss me. There had been other close calls too, on the Brenva, on the Grand pilier d’Angle and on the Courtes: near misses that can only be put down to luck, or fate, or chance, or whatever other reasons you choose to give as you roll the dice and gamble with your very life. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that there are only two kinds of sports: bullfighting and mountain climbing. All the rest being games. Alpinism is dangerous, but we knew that before we even went up there.
Above the ‘Swallows Nest’ the ‘First Icefield’ was easy and I made rapid progress up to the ‘Ice Hose’. It was covered with verglas again and looked treacherous. I took the single rope out of my pack, clipped into some rusty pegs, and self-belayed as I delicately cramponed up the smooth slab covered with a thin veil of ice. Halfway up, the ice degenerated into sloping friction climbing in crampons. My focus was acute, my climbing so careful, and my movements so deliberate that I scarcely noticed that there was no gear. The empty rope that snaked down to the belay was just enough. I found some anchors at the top, rappelled down to unclip the end of the rope, and climbed back up with one jumar and a deliberate precision that I had rehearsed in my head so many times before.
I moved quickly up and across the 500 meters of the ‘Second Icefield’. The snow was hard and my crampons bit easily and solidly. The wall was in excellent condition: dry rock, firm snow, cold temperatures and very little rockfall. I was glad to be there, glad to have waited for this, and exhilarated from the climbing as my movements simply pulled my head along as I relaxed into the movement. The rock band at the end was delicate and surprisingly hard: more balancing crampon points on rock, but I reached the ‘Flat-Iron’ and the ‘Death Bivouac’. I stopped for a cigarette and looked down: the wall was immense. Below me hundreds of meters of steep ice and snow and black rock fell away into the shadow that stretched far down the green slopes towards the sun.
There hadn’t been much sun when I first climbed the route with Sandy Britain. Mornings had started out clear and then rain and snow and clouds and wind had boiled into afternoon storms which sucked themselves into the concave bowl. It had taken four days, but we had carried on, battling the weather as much as the psychological aura that surrounded the mountain and made our packs heavy.
Everybody has read Heinrich Harrer’s book; The White Spider, that seminal book which so clearly describes how the mountain came to be firmly embedded in lore and mystique, with descriptions of brave lives frozen immobile or shattered by dark rock, and of horrific tales of misery and suffering. Only after we finished the route was I able to separate the climbing from the aura. We had been battling demons inside our heads, when instead it really was just another route like any other in Chamonix.
My first solo attempt had been with Julie Brugger and John Stratham: them climbing as a roped pair with myself going ahead alone. The forecast had been ambiguous, but we thought we might have had a good chance. I reached the ‘Death Bivouac’ just in time: rocks were peppering the ‘Second Icefield’ as I raced across in the rain. Safely sheltered, but incongruously trapped, I huddled in my bivvy bag as the sleet raged beyond and washed the whole wall white. I dozed off in that netherworld of isolation, and was startled at 11PM when I heard a shout from below. I had simply assumed that the others had retreated since they had been so far behind, but two headlamps appeared out of the snowy gloom and traversed across below me. They were frozen incomprehensible and hypothermic. I brewed them tea, thawed them out, and we all three lay there uncomfortably for another day and a night as the storm slowly spent itself. I replayed in my head every single rappel anchor on the route down, planning with cold precision how our descent would occur, and I executed that exact route down on the third day as cold spindrift blew across the wall. The Eiger held no demons for me: I knew I could get off.
My second solo attempt had ended at the sluice door above the ‘Ice Hose’. The weather had been good, but there was verglas everywhere. Ice had plastered the wall in a glistening frozen hush, and the climbing was slow, precarious and treacherous. Without even realising that I had made a conscious decision to bail, I veered off the route and angled over to the trapdoor. It was the right choice. I stepped off the North Wall and into the inky depths of the mountain. Thirty minutes later I walked out of the tunnel, blinking in the sharp sunlight above Kleine Scheidegg. It had been a strange day on a strange mountain, but I had known, before even starting the route, that I was destined to fail. Margo Timmins once made an interesting observation about life: “You can always see it coming, but you can never stop it.” I had to go, to try anyway, before the senselessness of continuing became apparent. There is such a fine balance between ambition and judgment, that it is often difficult to separate the two elements, but I think that if you listen carefully, and are honest with yourself, the clear choice is always evident.
I finished my cigarette and stepped onto steep ice of the ‘Third Icefield’, pock-marked by stonefall, quickly climbing across into the ‘Ramp’ and up icy chimneys in the back of this narrow passage cleaving two blank walls. I reached the ‘Waterfall’ pitch: the key to the upper wall. It looked desperate. Globs of ice and needle-like chandeliers draped themselves over a small roof at the top of the chimney like a bizarre lop-sided ice cream cone. I pulled out the rope again, fashioned a solid belay, and started delicately up. Wedged off a handjam, and precariously balanced on my crampon points on rock footholds, I carefully and very methodically demolished the chandelier until I was able to tip-toe up to reach a good axe placement over the lip. A wobble and a contorted grovel put me over the bulge, and I slowly, very slowly, climbed up the steep ice-filled chimney above and onto the hanging snowfield at the top. The pitch had been all about control and careful, methodical climbing. A quick rappel, a strenuous jumar back up, and I suddenly became aware that there was sunlight on the buttress above me. My concentration had been intense. The Eiger catches the sun in the afternoon near the ‘Traverse of the Gods’, and as I diagonaled past the ‘Brittle Ledges’ and into the traverse, I felt as if the Gods were smiling on me. Everything had just somehow clicked into place. The ‘White Spider’ was solid neve ice and I made rapid progress up to the ‘Exit Cracks’. It was a wild place to be: high above the ground with blue-grey hazy verticality dropping straight down to the depths of the Scheidegg below, good snow, and perfect climbing. There was nowhere else I would rather have been.
The ‘White Spider’ narrows at the top into labyrinthine gulleys, and previously Sandy and I had spent half a day struggling up the wrong one in the middle of a storm and heavy snowfalls. The right gully was obvious this time, and I could see the quartz crack at the top where it pinched before opening out onto the upper snowfields. My concentration focused again, and the climbing was excellent up fairly easy mixed runnells. A final roped belay up the awkward quartz crack, and the way above was clear: the white, easy angled snowfield went straight to the top. I felt a brief pre-recognition of success: a momentary lapse of concentration that was quickly squashed, because nothing is ever finished until afterwards, until after you’re safely down. I sunk my axes and carefully kicked steps, suddenly very conscious of the empty space below me. After having emerged out of the narrow confines of the wall, everything had seemed very exposed. The Eiger refused to release its grip on me right until the very end.
Fifteen hours after crossing the bergschrund, I pulled over the north-east ridge. The route was done. It was 7PM, and not much daylight remained. I had to get as far down the west flank as I could before dark because there’s no clear and obvious way down. A glance was all it took: a glimpse of an instant was all that I needed from the summit. Long shadows crisscrossed a beautiful and desolate glaciated landscape, punctured only by the sharp pale yellow peaks far in the distance to the west: the Dent Blanche, Arolla, Midi, and just beyond, the broad slopes of Mont Blanc glowed in the evening sun. It was just an instant, but it contained so much: familiarity, strangeness, and ultimate sadness. I was a stranger in that transient other world; a world of my own making, but yet I also firmly belonged in that world. I had risked everything to get there, only to discover, after arriving, that there had been nothing there in the first place. Like trying to catch a cloud with your hands, I suppose I had been looking for something more, something tangible in uncertainty, but there really is nothing to find on the summit of a mountain other than yourself.
I headed down, as fast as I dared, winding my way over loose rubble, steep cliffs and slick icefields, peering harder and harder into the gloom as the light ebbed away. And then it was dark and I wandered around slowly trying to pick out the easiest way down, always unsure if I was going the right way. One short rappel over a cliff that I couldn’t seem to bypass put me onto what I thought I remembered was the last snowfield, and gradually the angle eased and then suddenly, I spotted the railway tracks glinting in the headlamp beam and it was all over. Finally, I could relax the iron grip of concentration that had locked my head in a vice-like focus. Finally, I could ease up because I was safe, and alive, and suddenly very, very tired. I cut across above Scheidegg and across the meadows to my gear, numbly made a cup of tea, and fell asleep, completely drained.
Morning came softly. It was to be another blue bird day. Overnight, my body had drunk in the sleep it so badly needed, and escaped from the powerful intensity of the previous day. I woke up feeling very much alive. I packed up and wandered over to some tents in the next meadow where two Italian girls were watching their friends on the lower part of the wall through binoculars. I took a turn and spotted them under the ‘Rote Fluh’. I started to trace the route upwards and then stopped. I lowered the binoculars and could just barely make out the two climbers, but it was enough. I looked up, and it was only then, only afterwards, after the pressure had gone, that the true scale sank in: the wall looked absolutely immense. It seemed unbelievable that only a few hours previously I had been up there. I had broken the whole route down into manageable chunks that I could comfortably get my head around, and now that it was finally over, the whole had overwhelmed me. I was excited. I had finished something that I had set out to do, alone, without anyone else to rely on, and I had finally done it. I wished the Italians good luck and walked down to Grindlewald, my senses alive: the vibrancy of colour, sound and smell making Swiss pastoral life seem almost magical.
Eventually, the excitement turned to fulfilment and then to a deep melancholy, but that always happens after you have given everything you have towards a goal which you then finally reach. We spent a few weeks cragging in Provence and then returned again to Chamonix right at the cusp of the late autumn, intending to climb a few more Alpine rock routes. Instead, we watched the rain pouring down from beneath the sheltered eaves of a deserted Rue Pacard. I realised then that I had finally finished with the Alps. They had defined my life for quite a while, but I was ready to move on to bigger things. As we drove our car out of Chamonix to the north, on the long drive to Paris and eventually home, I thought back on those years, and what stuck with me was not all the years of climbing, but how a brief instant on the summit of the Eiger, can carry a lifetime’s worth of joy.