Learn from (my lack of) experience!

19th Feb 2012

Top tips for advanced adventures.....

Mountain epics are great experiences – if you survive them!  All those stories to bore your mates in the pub, that adrenalin fuelled buzz that you have escaped the grim reaper again and even those heroic war wounds to show your grandchildren.  The trouble is, you’ve usually had to suffer some hideous situation to get the experience and in reality there are already enough odds stacked against when you head for the big mountains.  So here’s my top five tips for the savvy mountaineer – provided by a fool that’s been there and blown it more times than I’d like to admit.

Knowledge is power

Alpine season one.  Alpine long route one.  The famous Frendo Spur.  Al and I shivered through a long night at the top of the lower rock buttress then headed on to the famous spur at first light on day 2.  Alpine heaven up crisp virgin snow led us to the upper rock rognon and the start of our problems.  Although we had vague recollections of hearing about an option up the ice to the side, we stuck to our plan and set off up the rock.  There lay our big mistake!  The cracks were filled with ice, the climbing was too hard and soon I was knackered.  It took us a very long day to aid, battle, fight and panic our way up, and we started running out of day before we were running out of route.  Only a superhuman effort from Al got us to the telepherique station in time to avoid a freezing benightment and the inevitable walk of shame down to the valley the next day.

Time spent researching your route is ALWAYS time well spent.  Peruse as many guidebooks as you can, surf the net, talk to as many people as you can who have been there before or put a posting on climbing forums to seek advice.  If you know about your route you’ll be far more confident, faster and more efficient – all ways to increase your safety and avoid the ceaseless ribbing from your mates when you tell them you went the wrong way (although many people have got around this by calling it a new route!).

If in doubt leave it out

Phil and I were kitting up for the Walker Spur but I could have crossed the Antarctic with the sack I carried.  Extra this, more of that, chunky this and bulky that – it was never going to work.  By the end of day one we had only just passed the Rebuffat Crack and the attempt ground to a back breaking halt.  The only way was down.  We abseiled long into the night, shivered till dawn on a glacier bed, then eventually stumbled into camp late the next day with our shoulders by our ankles and our tails well and truly between our legs.

There’s obviously a very fine line between safety and speed.  Make sure you don’t leave out any essentials but try to keep what you do take as light as possible.  Lightweight kit usually costs a bit more and won’t last as long but you won’t be stressing about that when you take your final steps onto that elusive summit.  Don’t scrimp on food but try to pack lightweight calories that don’t need much fuel to prepare (my article ‘mountain food the Ramsey way’ gives more ideas on this).  Read some books and ask around – check how others do it and learn from their successes and failures.  It’s also worth taking a rucksack that is just big enough rather than one with loads of spare room – you are bound to find things to fill all those extra litres.

Personality counts for a lot

Ian had headed home and Jim was long gone.  I had time to spare but needed a partner.  The obvious choice was big Bruce from Bloemfontein.  He’d been hanging around our campsite and eating our food for weeks and I thought he could repay the favour by holding my ropes.  I knew he could talk the talk (his lengthy campsite stories became legendary) but could he walk the walk?  Our chosen route was Majorette Thatcher on the Blatiere and it soon became clear he was well out of his depth.  He spent the day learning new aid tricks to bypass anything he couldn’t climb (which meant aiding just about everything!) and I polished my winching technique.  I still have rope burn scars from his uber lead fall, and the abseil rope getting jammed when he forgot to untie a knot was the final nail in the coffin of our fledgling relationship.

You really can’t beat a partner you’ve climbed lots with.  You will know each others strengths and weaknesses, and good partnerships can play to these and become more efficient as a result.  If you have a big objective in mind it’s worth getting plenty of training time together beforehand.  This will make you quicker and slicker and also give you time to work on any weaknesses before it really matters. Knowing your partner well also enables you to gauge how they are feeling and allows you to support each other when the chips are down.  The good and bad are all part of the crazy big route experience – just make sure you find the right person to share it with.

Make time to acclimatise

Bob and I arrived in Chamonix and found our friends festering happily on a squalid campsite behind the railway.  They told us they had just climbed Mont Blanc and Bob and I got inspired.  We packed by candlelight and headed up confidently at first light.  It was all fine until day two when altitude sickness struck Bob below the Vallot Hut (and the fact I completely failed to recognise any symptoms suggests I was probably losing it too). We pushed on and Bob started spontaneously falling asleep whenever I wasn’t looking, but still I prodded and cajoled him upwards.  I finally realised there wasn’t enough time left to summit safely at about the time Bob became incomprehensible, and I finally had the common sense to prod and cajoule him down to safety.

Bob and I were so lucky that day.  I can only imagine what would have happened if we’d gone any higher, but I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have had a happy ending.
At the very least acclimatising will allow you to enjoy your altitude experience whilst at its most important it will be a lifesaver.  It’s beyond the scope of this article to give detailed information on safe acclimatisation but luckily a world of knowledge is only a click away.  Have a look at www.netdoctor.co.uk or search for ‘acclimatisation’ on www.thebmc.co.uk and you’ll head to the heights well informed and confident – unlike Bob and I!

Tales of the unexpected

Everything conspired against us that day.  Andy and I were climbing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps and some of routes we’d tackled had already pushed our route finding skills well out of their comfort zone.  Trouble was that this was our most ambitious climb so far and by the time we found it we had already blown two valuable hours fumbling on a neighbouring route.  Pitch followed pitch and we began to claw back time until my sloppy belaying on pitch 9 allowed the rope to slip behind an evil looking flake.  After 3 hours we had only salvaged a 25 metre length and a couple of scraps – it was going to be a very long day.  At 25 metres a pitch we were soon resigned to our fate - one very cold night and a partner who hasn’t let me forget my blunder 7 years later!

It’s a simple one really.  Leave some contingency time and then if something crops up you’ll have time to deal with it.  If nothing crops up you’ll be back in the valley drinking celebratory Stella’s that bit quicker - which simply leaves you time for more celebratory beers!
So that’s it.  Five pants experiences for me to save you five epics – and if it leaves you short of tales to tell your mates feel free to use one of mine.  Just promise not to mention my name!
Obviously this information is only my opinion and if you choose to follow it you do so entirely at your own risk.  If you are in any doubt of the techniques or issues described please check before you do anything dangerous.  I should also just point out that all these epics happened very early on in my climbing career – of course I NEVER make mistakes nowadays!!!!   Happy climbing.