Most of the time, I climb or ski for fun. But lurking in the background, not very far away, is the motivation to push that little bit more. The little demon sat on my shoulder that whispers – “ Go on, just try harder. Who knows what you might be able to do? Not scared, are you? Go on – you know you want to”.
And so the measuring of my own performance against certain set standards has become an intrinsic part of my personal climbing over many years. It’s nothing to do with comparison or competition with others. Just the desire to see what might happen if I try that little bit harder, and at the same time see what all the fuss is about when it comes to certain routes that have a reputation as a great climb.
As a result, I’ve had some great days out that remain etched in my memory:
- Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis – pinned down for 45 minutes by spindrift. So exhausted on the summit plateau I kept falling over and could only be persuaded to go on by the promise of a chunk of chocolate if I just did another 100 yards downhill.
- Astroman in Yosemite – “Only the Best Route in the World” (to quote Pete Livesey’s seminal article of his ascent with Ron Fawcett of this classic free line ). Getting every single one of the 5.11 pitches on sight but being spat out of the 5.9 Harding slot before managing to wriggle into the elephant’s arse and spend an hour thrutching up the chimney above.
- The Freney Pillar on Mont Blanc – 24 hours of non-stop alpinism, a 90 foot fall on the Chandelle, a chilly bivvy on the summit ridge and then arriving back in Snell’s field and partying for 12 hours before getting the bus back to Leeds in a state of some disrepair
- Climbing Rêve de Singe, my first (and only, to date) 8a sports route. An exercise in precision and timing (amongst other things) that just showed that even after 30 years of climbing, I still had lots to learn.
Savvy readers will see that a common thread runs through these – purity of line, a recognised challenge and quality of climbing that add up to a solid reputation.
So I understand why my guiding clients may, on occasion, be after the same thing, and it’s great to be able to facilitate that. Just this season, I helped Alan tick off the ENSA couloir in Chamonix, a personal benchmark that has proved elusive for him and subsequently both of us for a number of years. Although it was in feisty nick, it was a great day out and memorable in all sorts of ways, for me as a guide as well as for Alan.
I’ve never really had any personal benchmark goals in skiing until recently. Skiing has been less of a challenge and more of a pleasure. That’s partly because, until about 5 years ago, I couldn’t see the point of steep skiing (for all sorts of reasons). And then, on a trip to Arabba with Pete, that little demon came and sat on my shoulder and started whispering. “Who knows what you might be able to do? Not scared, are you?”
So every year since then, I’ve been doing courses with the Talented Mr Christy down in Trois Vallées, half convincing myself that it was just so I could be a better skier and a better guide without the need to push the envelope. But just in the last 12 months, I’ve been considering the idea of pushing the envelope, licking the stamp, and posting it (as my good friend and partner in rime Mal Duff used to say). In order to justify that effort and commitment, I needed to find the right level of challenge combined with a purity of line and a big rep. Just the spark of desire to justify the effort, commitment, risk to get…. What? Some reward? And what reward is that? Only justification of my existence on the planet. So not too much then…
In 2014 and 2015 I worked in Lyngen with groups of ski tourers from the Eagle Ski Club. It was very different from the Alps, with long days, a stable snowpack, and above all enormous slopes of steady gradient. Coming from Tromsø, there’s a road that cuts through the peninsula, and on the right as you approach the village of Lyngseidet, the line jumps out at you and screams “Ski me – if you dare”. The Godmother of All Couloirs on Forholtinden didn’t really work its way into my subconscious. It just jumped in with both feet and refused to go away. It has it all – purity of line, a straight drop from 1300m to the fjord, enough pitch at 40 degrees ( with the odd section of 45 ) to make things committing without being ridiculous. And the name too. How could I not want to ski it? Things were only made worse when, in 2015, it was in prime nick and my two friends Alison and James skied it while I was there working, and I had neither the time nor the skiing partner to get onto it.
The only solution was to recruit Pete for a non-working ski trip. After all, it was his fault in the first place that I’d got involved in steep skiing at all. So in mid May 2016, we found ourselves based in Lyngen for a week. Though we pretended that whatever we skied, things would be good, in the background the Godmother was at the forefront of our thoughts. Conditions during the week were quite variable: quite warm at times, some cloud, some wind, a minor snow fall to top things up half way through the week – your typical Norwegian mixed bag. On the Thursday, the zero isotherm went above summit level but we pushed into some steep terrain, small wet slides popping off all around, just to get the feel of what 40 degrees might feel like, knowing that it was due to clear that night and that things should freeze and it would all ( hopefully ) fall into place.
Present and Tense
At 5am the alarm goes off and a glance out the window reveals clear skies and even a hint of frost at sea level, the first for a couple of weeks. After breakfast, Pete and I drive through Lyngseidet and park up next to a tiny bay where our borrowed boat is tied to a birch tree. The sum total of our boating knowledge is that, like a ski, the pointy end goes at the front. Luckily we’ve checked things out and we can actually make progress using oars. Giggling like a couple of naughty schoolkids, we take turns rowing across the fjord. A school of porpoises check us out on the way. Is that a good omen?
Tying up the boat, strapping skis to packs, we stare up at the line before setting off through the bouldery birch-covered slopes on foot, absorbed in our thoughts. Reaching the snow, we find it frozen hard and very quickly skins are supplemented with couteaux as we gradually zigzag up the wide exit fan. Pretty soon we come across a boot track and transfer to crampons. By this time we’re crossing long smeary mounds of fresh avalanche debris from the previous day’s heat wave. Although lumpy, it feels softer and gives ( perhaps ) an illusion that i might stop if I stack it. Not that I feel uncomfortable at this stage – the angle of about 30 is fine and there is no doubt that this lower section can be skied.
Then the couloir kinks slightly left and the angle begins to kick up. At first it’s still mellow. I keep looking down past Pete plodding away and thinking “Turn here? Yep, that’s fine.” And the snow has enough softness on the surface to give an impression it will hold an edge nicely. But as we continue to gain height, the angle kicks past 40 and the soft surface thins to almost zero in places, crampons chunking into firm refrozen and sluff polished base. We see evidence of a previous descent where it’s fairly clear two skiers have ended up somewhere they didn’t want to be on the steep right bank of the couloir. Make mental note to self – don’t, repeat, do not, follow those tracks. Then the boot track disappears for a while, wiped out or filled in by more sluffs and there’s time to feel the undisturbed surface with every step. How far does my boot sink in, if at all? How happy will I feel turning on it?
A murmur of self-doubt creeps in. Will I be ok? Will I have to sideslip or side step huge sections? I must make sure to only turn if and when I’m happy. No – happy is the wrong word – confident, that I can finish the turn in good order. Neither of us is wearing a helmet. Should I have done? No – if I stack it anywhere around here my velocity will be terminal as I fire through the narrows, ricocheting off each bank and I’ll be lucky to stop before the boulder field at the end of the snow apron. Helmets will make no difference at all. And besides, I’m not, repeat not, going to stack it.
A hundred meters below the top, Pete slumps over his axe for a pause and we have a brief conference.
Me – “What do you think of this snow, mate? It’s a bit firm in places” (translation – I am quietly shitting bricks at the thought of turning on it.)
Pete – “it feels fine. I’m totally happy. I’ve done loads of this sort of stuff”.
Me – think to myself – “um, okay… perhaps I’m getting worked up over nothing. But it does feel effing steep with zero margin for error.
The thought of the first turn is growing larger and larger, which I’m simultaneously trying to calm. If I can make the first one, then the rest will all be fine. If I fluff the first one, I’ll be toast. So make it or don’t even try.
I reach the top and peep over the notch. No real chance to rest the brain here, with an equally steep drop on both sides. Pete arrives looking a bit drained but his usual positive self.
“You okay, mate? You look a bit wasted”
“I’ll be fine,” he replies. “Give me a few minutes and something to drink. The snow looks fine”
I concentrate on the mechanics, the physical, to blank out the psychological. Skins off, crank up the boots, step in, lock the toe bindings in.
Better to die with skis on than risk a pre-release here.
Pack on, all ABS straps cinched up. Not that there’s any risk of avalanche, but the act of tightening straps also tightens the concentration. Though I need to be relaxed in a tense kind of way. Or is it the other way round? All very Zen.
Ice axe stowed behind the shoulder (though arrest isn’t really on the menu).
Pull hat slightly more firmly over the ears (even though it’s warm in the sun, I’ll be dropping into the shade after the first 10 meters of single ski length slot).
Pete senses my tension.
“You want me to go first?” he says.
“No thanks.” I reply.
I don’t want any preconceived ideas about how it might ski. Or perhaps it’s just the guide’s habit of always being first kicking in, or maybe I selfishly want as much of the limited soft surface available to turn in.
Right – concentrate now.
Some solid side steps to start the narrows. Yes – the edges hold. So I can remain stopped if I need to.
Try some side slipping. My tips catch and I lean forward and my downhill leg straightens.
FFS. Sort yourself out. You look like a muppet.
Out of the narrows, the couloir widens to maybe 10 meters. A few short sideslips to test the water. Seems ok.
Right – no time like the present. Concentrate now.
A few deep breaths. Come on – you know you can.
I wind up the angle at the knee, then straighten the top leg and swing my shoulders into the fall line.