What a start to 2013. Despite the best efforts of the UK snow, I’ve managed to get to 8 different countries and it’s still only February. And that has been the running theme…snow. I’ve seen lots of it in the past 8 weeks. Lots. From the stunning Highlands of Glencoe to challenging ice pinnacles in the Italian Alps. From the frozen streets of Warsaw to the 6ft drifts in Chamonix.
My ice climbing trip in France/Switzerland/Italy has been the most exciting trip this year, and probably the most painful. The day spent up at the National Ice Climbing Centre in Scotland was a perfect start to the season, but, as it turned out, I was nowhere near fit enough for what lay ahead in the frozen Lilaz Gully, North West Italy. The 7 pitch climb (which means we climbed 6 ice faces, with a different belay point at each one) was tough. And cold. Pitches 1 to 3 were fine, easy enough. The challenge came on pitch 4, where tired legs and aching arms make even the simplest of ice manoeuvres a tricky and slow affair. As I stood on the ice face, at an angle of around 60 degrees, the spin drift and ice from the climber above being cascaded onto my head, my arms screaming at me to let go of my climbing axes and my legs starting to tire, I realised that Patrick, our lead climber, did not have me overly tight on the rope 40ft above me. Any fall here would not be disastrous, but it would be the distance of the slack rope, and down on to the sharp ice wall below. My crampons were firmly in the ice, but I couldn’t shift the weight from my arms to my much stronger legs. I was, effectively, stuck.
Being a few thousand feet up from the village below, on an ice face, with only a few pieces of forged steel holding me against the frozen wall, I started to get cold. You get very warm when climbing on ice, that is until you stop. The mix of physical exertion and adrenaline that normally keeps the warm blood racing through your body as you move one axe swing at a time, also serves to chill you to the core when you stop for a rest. I decided to move, I saw a small hole in the ice a few feet above that I could hook my climbing axe into, where the ice melt had exposed the bare rock below, a perfect spot for the tip of my axe, a move which would take me towards a more friendly section of the climb. With my right hand and axe in a good position high above me, I extended my legs, now only the faintest tip of my crampon spikes digging into the thin ice, I reached for the hole with my left axe. And missed. The initial shock of the fall is the worst part. Out of pure instinct, you try and grab for something to save you from going. Anything. But there was nothing. Only ice. Again, instinctively, I let go of my ice axes (which thankfully were on a leash), and fell from the ice face, the slack rope only picking up my weight after what seemed like a few seconds, although it was only a fraction of that. I collided with the wall below, sending shards of ice down the face, thankfully only further down in the gully and not on to anyone climbing below. I had the shout from 40 ft above me, as the lead climber suddenly had a heavy rope to deal with, checking I was ok. I hung there for a while, mainly to rest my numb forearms and also to check for injury. Fine. I dug my axes back into the face, my crampons kicked into the ice, and began to climb up…..again.
For my next trip, I’m going somewhere where it doesn’t snow.