© Matt Helliker, Nov 2006
The thin skin of the tent stretched and pressed into my face, a freezing cold bump, bulging like a pregnant woman's stomach. Outside the snow continued to fall. Turning from the pregnant bump, I shuffle in search of a new position that will relieve the ache on the bulging walls of my bladder. My bladder had pushed with insistence for fifteen hours. The tent was dark. The tent was dark, damp and festering. Almonds of condensation stuck to the ceiling of the tent like frozen teardrops. Twid and myself had hardly moved for five days. I started to drift once again and hoped for dreams of warmth, fresh food and female companionship: but the cell-like deprivation took me once again to my past. Memories flooded like the condensation that filled the hollows beneath my sleeping mat. Fifteen years of working in the Prison Service mingled with memories from early expeditions, innocence and ignorance, fighting, tension, gut-twisting terror and hatred.
I discovered climbing at the age of 27 while training to be a Physical Education Instructor in 1992. I discovered aggression and violence, loathing, lying, pain and prejudice several years before. At the tender age of twenty one I walked into a new world, one that society would rather forget. The great wooden double doors opened and the red brick towering walls loomed, entombing me. The shadows clinging to the dark beneath the walls changed me. The dark corners in the sick minds rearranging my mind. Fifteen years later fortune shone, light entered like a shaft of sun braking from a storm cumulus-cloud-filled sky, the doors opened and I was released from a life sentence to begin a life of adventure, risk, travel and people. Fear and terror were still with me, but there was no risk now of a red-hot pan of cooking oil mixed with sugar being thrown into my face.
© Nick Bullock
The punishment block of Gartree maximum-security prison is dark. The corridor runs in the shape of an L. Footsteps echo, painted pipes run around the low ceiling, uncovered like an engine room of a ship. The sick-sweet smell of sweat, shit and fear cling to clothing and soak into the pores of my skin. Twelve steel doors face into the gloom locking in the hatred. Strip lights provide the only light, an artificial sulphurous glow that gives no warmth or revival. There are no windows to look into this microcosm of misery that is enclosed inside a microcosm of misery. Life is artificial. Rules of life do not exist here just rules of survival. Life is brutal, separated, secluded. Normal everyday values are not to be entertained. Normal everyday values are a sign of weakness, and weakness is something to be exploited. As a prison officer waiting to be accepted onto P.E. Officer training, this was my life. Deemed to be fit and healthy and less prone for a heart attack, this was the normal position for those waiting to begin the twelve month's training. I worked for 18 months in the Block, at the time I never guessed it would stand me in good stead for time on rock and in the mountains.
Waking after only two hours of sleep/worry and stress made the night an intimate companion. I would drag myself from bed in the morning, dress, blue trousers, white shirt, tie, whistle, stave and key-chain, knowing I would be dressing again as soon as I arrived and entered the gloomy medieval environment of the block. A flame-retardant boiler suit and plastic shin guards, thick leather gloves, steel toecap boots and a helmet were my suit of armour and the shield I hid behind was made of Perspex. There was no way to avoid the oncoming fight. I drove the ten miles to work with the radio playing music I didn't hear. In a daze, I nearly crashed into the rear of the car in front most mornings. No food - I couldn't stomach it - concern coursed through my veins pumping fear, twisted guts bubbled and tension gnawed. Eating was impossible, like the morning after the night before, my stomach would churn. Reaching the prison car park, I hoped there would be no space so I could turn around and drive home. On entering the prison I would joke with other Prison Officers. False laughter, bullshit and bravado; the maggot in the intestines squirmed, the fear and bitterness was simmering beneath the surface. Breathing deep, savouring the second before entering the madness, before opening the four-inch-thick wooden door of the block and entering into the dark sub-world of the underworld.
The time arrives when psychological turns too physical. Stressing before opening the door on hatred and aggression, before being smashed into brick and slammed to the floor is good mental and physical conditioning for the hardships of the mountains.
Huddled all night, wrapped in a Gore-tex bag at 5500 metres on a crest of snow, the wind buffets, the void dropping sickeningly on each side claws at my psyche. The fabric pushes into my face, damp, humid and claustrophobic like someone pulling and holding a plastic bag over my head. The rime-encrusted wall above is mentally taxing, it whispers sweet nothings to me through the night, enticing me on, leading me into the unknown. My character will not be able to back down from the challenge. No escape, no way around the on coming confrontation. The wall is like a murderer holding out his meal tray waiting for more food at the serving hatch. Wooden fingers attempt to tie the laces of frozen boots, slow ungainly movement, delaying tactics. Confrontation is unavoidable. The ice-coated metal work is packed and the ropes, solid-like wire, are uncoiled.
Jamie Fisher, Jules Cartwright, Owain Jones and myself attempted the Shark's Fin on Meru Central in the Gangotry region of India in 1997. This was my first expedition, my first time in Asia. The mental and physical training of life in the Block were a good grounding. We struggled every afternoon with the heavy snowfall, altitude exposure and inexperience. The rack was too big and our objective difficult. Six thousand five hundred metres of unclimbed, uncompromising mountain, an avalanche-prone slope at the base led to a mixed ridge of hewn granite blocks, teetering on a knife-edge separated by ice runnels and exposure, topped by the monolithic 400 metre high fin of smooth overhanging rock. The snow plastered the rough granite like the shit smeared to the walls of a cell and smeared into the ears, eyes, hair and body of an inmate on dirty protest in the block. The intimidation was similar also.
© Matt Helliker
The mental strength needed to face another day of savagery on a winter climb in the French Alps or the Himalayas, or force myself on when every inch of my mind screams to stop, turn around, run away, re-warm and recover, is never as hard as what it was like to open a cell door knowing aggression and hatred, pain and brutality a certainty.
Fisher, Cartwright and myself reached a high point 400 metres beneath the summit of the Shark's Fin. It does not sound far; it might have been in outer space. The final 400 metres of the route were the awesome fin of overhanging granite that no-one to date has climbed. Our naivety didn't allow us to look from the valley and run away, we were proud and pushy. Like dishing out the chips from the prison hot plate, I couldn't live with myself if I bowed to intimidation. A queue of murderers, terrorists, rapists, hell's angels, drug-dealers, kidnappers and thieves watched with microscopic interest every second of the day looking for a way in, an easy touch, someone who would fold with intimidation. A smack in the mouth was better than the self-loathing knowing I was a coward and opening myself for more of the same. Giving two scoops of chips instead of the regulation one just wasn't worth the easy quick fix.
I jumared ropes for the first and only time on the Shark's Fin. We had fixed our four climbing ropes on the first attempt and ran away when the regular afternoon snow had started to fall in the morning. The two 10mm ropes and the two 8mm ropes had been fixed and left in place for a return match. All four ropes were stretchy climbing ropes. For a week between the first abortive attempt and the second attempt the ropes had swung in the wind, chafing like a scab on a kneecap. Jumaring with a 25kg sack adding to my 70kg bodyweight, while watching 8mm of nylon repeatedly saw across a sharp edge above terrified me. Inexperience didn't entertain the thought of fixing the ropes tight or duct-taping the ropes where they ran over edges. Thoughts of John Harlin on the Eiger ran through my head constantly. Thoughts of chafing sheaths, white mantels and death were with me every time I pulled on the rope. I do not believe in God, but as wide, scared eyes, hypnotic, turned red-raw with intensity, I stared, mesmerised by the sawing of the rope over rough granite and the imagined sound of the grating, chafing sheath entered my head; I prayed. The gaping space dropping away for hundreds of feet and the fear of falling were as addictive as heroin and as deadly.
Cartwright broke one crampon on the first day and continued. A second crampon braking slowed him more, but still we continued as a team of three; Jones had opted to remain in the valley. Cartwright's drive refused to allow him to accept the obvious and our faith in Cartwright refused to allow him to leave, he was our good luck talisman. Reaching a testing traverse on ice at 6100 metres on day four was the deciding factor. Jumaring sideways with no crampons on vertical ice, an anchor pulled with the extra strain of yarding and relying solely on the rope. Cartwright plummeted. He fought for a second with gravity then he was gone. Fixed to the rope by his two jumar clamps and nothing else, he swung like the pendulum of an old clock, gathering speed with the arcing precision of a missile locked into its target. Smashing into rock 30 metres below I heard the sickening crunch of forgiving flesh. We turned and ran at this point, Cartwright's leg was bleeding and badly injured. Fisher's and my head were battered and mentally exhausted. Reaching the base of the climb two days later the gasp of relief poured from us in nervous laughter. Relief, the same as after a battle in a cell, the grappling and grasping done, the smashing into walls and sliding in shit done. Avoiding the spit and snot and successfully dodging the bucket of piss thrown at us. With the inmate laying trussed into a body-belt, naked and face down in a secure cell, the nervous laughter would begin and the day could start. *
Expect the unexpected.
Like fire fighters in the station on a slow Sunday afternoon, four of us would doze in the office of the Block, feet up and prone, relaxed on the surface, but guts twisted and messed up. It would only take the sound of an alarm bell to break the monotony. In the Block any bad shit happening would be flushed our way. We were the U-bend between the pan and the sewer of the prison population. Gartree prison is for the worst offenders in society, a Category A Prison. The key had been thrown away for most locked inside its walls, and because of this, most had little to loose. Sitting dozing, waiting and wondering before jumping into action when an alarm bell rang, was great preparation for the mountains.
© Matt Helliker
Paul Schweizer and myself were on the second day of climbing a mountain called Savoia Kangri in Pakistan. Savoia Kangri stands next to K2, it is 7263 metres high and unclimbed. The first attempt stopped abruptly when Jamie Fisher, climbing as a pair with Jules Cartwright, was hit by a rock that rattled from high, loosened by the sun and bounced like a pin-ball until glancing off Fisher's Bicep.
On the second attempt, Schweizer and myself, climbing through the night, pulled from the gully onto a large rolling cornice of snow that had formed at the top of a ridge. The cornice overhung so far - a great rolling ice-cream dollop that a semi-detached house could stand beneath it. A cliff of black blocks jutted from a frozen pebble-dashed wall of rotten snow and ice dropped sheer, until reaching the Savoia glacier a thousand feet below. Arriving late in the afternoon, we hurried to cut a level platform from the snow of the cornice. In the fading light of the early evening we moved around on the top of the cornice with a long lead of rope attached to rock anchors fifty feet away and we tried not to think of the gaping void beneath the floor of snow.
Gasherbrum 1V, Broad Peak and K2 stood towering above our viewing platform. Eric Escoffier and his client were missing on Broad Peak, presumed dead. I stared intently on the West Face of K2, a plume of snow and cloud streaked from the pointed summit. I tried to imagine the avalanche that had swept Nick Estcourt to his death and the deaths in '86 of 13 climbers including Julie Tullis and Alan Rouse. We anchored the tent to the same rock as we had attached ourselves too fifty feet away. There was nothing else. The ropes ran in a curving arc and grew heavy as ice gripped, encrusting to the colourful sheath. To pin the tent onto the top of the cornice we drove the shafts of the axes into the snow at each corner.
We brewed and survived. Life above 6000 metres is not easy. Noodles and soup boiling in a hanging stove, spilt and soaked into down, reducing the warming properties of the feather insulation. The litre pan full to the brim with gruel swung and rattled, it reminded me of an incense burner in a Greek sermon. The slop slithered down the outside of the pan cooking into a dry crust, like blood from a cut. The wind tore across the cornice battering the little tent and the snow fell in large flakes threatening to bury us. Settling down for the night, fully-zipped, arms strapped straight along my side, unable to move, but warm, I thought of the inmates I had fought and held face down, hand pushing into hair, warm skin pushed into the cold rough concrete floor of the strong-box, their face pushed so hard into the floor that the blood left their cheek and the crazed etching of the concrete was copied on tender skin. The special cell was like a padded cell, but not as comfortable! Their wrists were locked into handcuffs that were fastened to a 6-inch wide leather belt around their waist. Trussed, arms straight and by their hips they would be left to contemplate the error of their way. More than once, even after being trussed the inmate would attack us as we entered into the cell. A team of three, in arrowhead formation behind a shield, spitting, head-butting, kicking and charging were all in the rules of engagement and used against us regularly. There wasn't an inch to spare in the tiny single skin tent; this was our cell, a cell of deprivation, I wondered what crime I had committed to put myself through this torture.
Schweizer began to snore, he always snored and it really pissed me off. I lay there in the dark with my sleeping bag pulled tight around my face listening to the wind and the snow and the snoring. I must have dozed off but suddenly woke with a jolt. Paul stopped snoring. I lay petrified.
“Did you feel that?” Paul whispered in his Californian-pot-smoking-hippy-drawl.
“Of course I felt it, shit, you know what's happening don't you?”
The cornice had loaded with fresh snow and the extra weight had caused it to crack and settle. It was two in the morning. We frantically pulled frozen boots on without tying the laces, the inside of the tent was as cold as a freezer. We had to get out of the tent. I could imagine the cornice breaking off and the tent with us wrapped inside like a chicken in cellophane, hanging, suspended on a thread, unable to escape before the tent ripped apart spawning the contents from the fabric-bowels, hurtling-screaming into the night, into dark void, grating and tearing, hitting the pebble-dash in pieces thousands of feet below.
The snow blew into the tent as soon as it was unzipped. Heavy flakes slapped into my face. I crawled from the entrance, floundering on all fours, out into the maelstrom of a full-blown blizzard. Crawling through deep snow on all fours, it lapped cold against my chest and thighs. I edged from the overhanging section of the cornice and balanced on the crest of the ridge. I was unclipped, but the only anchor was the one the tent was fastened and I wasn't keen to clip that.
Schweizer joined me, a snow-covered apparition crawling from the dark. Whiskers of his goatee mingled with the ice encrusted to his face. Round John Lennon glasses streaked, steamy and lopsided, hid his eyes, eyes that were wide and wired like a crack addict - like my own. We crouched, scared a gust of wind would blow us from the edge and wondered what to do. The cornice had dropped a foot. A crack had opened running its length. The wind cut through my body and soon we both were shivering. We were still undecided on what to do but it was obvious we couldn't stay out in the open. Clipping to the rope we cautiously stepped onto the cornice, expecting it to collapse. It appeared to be solid so without using much imagination we began to clear the new snow off the cornice to lighten the load. An hour later we crawled back into the tent to start the long wait and several more snow clearing sessions each hour. Schweizer didn't snore again that evening!
Escaping from the deadly cornice camp the following day we met Fisher and Cartwright retreating from the summit ridge. They had been battered by the storm all night but had found a good bivvy site and left a stash of food and gas. All four of us retreated to return several days later and reach 7000 metres. We existed for four days being battered once again by high winds, snow and Baltic bone-numbing temperatures. We stretched two days food into six, but our chance to sprint the final 263 metres to the summit didn't arrive. On the evening of day eight since beginning on the third attempt, we made it safely back to Advance Base and the following day Schweizer led Cartwright, Fisher and myself down to Base Camp suffering with snow blindness.
Brutality is something I equate to the mountains, but the mountains are not brutal. People are brutal. Death and injury, disfigurement and distress occur in the mountains, but the mountain has no soul. Occasionally being in the wrong place at the wrong time or sheer bad luck takes a toll. Sometimes a mistake or a bad decision, or when ego and ambition get in the way, accidents happen.
I witnessed brutality first hand inside a prison. For fifteen years slashing, stabbings, beatings and bludgeoning were common in my life. I watched an inmate spin and break the cheek of a colleague as we escorted the inmate into the strong-box. My colleague was 6ft 5” and built like a brick-shithouse. He fell to the floor unconscious in a bloody pulp with the single punch. Another Prison Officer and myself fought for twenty minutes, separated from the rest of the prison, no-one knew and we were fighting for survival before another Prison Officer happened on us and rang the alarm bell. Rolling, twisting, grasping, writhing, two against one, and still we were out numbered until the cavalry arrived.
On another occasion I held the head of an inmate, pushing a gym vest into the hole in his skull where he had been hit twice over the back of the head as he leaned forward to pick up a weight from the floor. A contract had been taken out on the inmate as it had been discovered that he was a paedophile. The price I found out later was a twenty pound crack deal. The second swing from the iron weight-training bar puncturing the inmate's skull, saving his life, reducing the pressure that had built from the first death-dealing blow. I wallowed in tangled, twisted, sticky, strings of clear cerebral fluid that hung from his ears like Nepalese prayer flags. The grey matter running freely from ears and nose mixed with vivid bright red blood. I lay slithering and slipping while attempting to save the life of the inmate who writhed in agony. He was 15 stone and thrashed like a fish on the deck of a trawler. Thirty inmates in the gym stood and watched, none helped.
A clot dried on the gymnasium floor, large and jagged, like the outline of Australia, dark and crispy. The police arrived immediately and began an inquiry. Two days later they decided I was innocent of taking a bribe to look the other way. The prison governors had been warned that that this inmate was at risk but they had ignored the warnings and attempted to place the blame on me. Luckily the original paperwork that had disappeared had been copied and the internal blame shifting inquiry collapsed. My evenings were spent on my own for a while after this episode and my clothes were thrown away.
Red-hot, oil-filled chip pans with sugar added, making the oil stick on contact with skin, were a favourite of the clientele for the delivery of maximum pain and permanent scarring. PP9 batteries in socks made superb implements to cave in skulls with one quick swing. A table leg wheeled like a baseball bat was a great weapon to break bones. Bic razor blades melted into the head of a tooth brush replaced the want for a Stanley Knife and tubes of steel, machined in the engineering shop by I.R.A. terrorists made to fire a single round were all a part of my life in the late '80s. The learning curve was steep on the way to prejudice, paranoia, bitterness and loneliness. Luckily I found the gym, which led to the mountains and finally my escape.
Witnessing so much injury, and having to deal with savagery on a daily basis, probably helped me with some of the incidents I have seen occur while mountaineering or rock climbing.
“WATCH ME MICHAEL, IGNORE WHAT'S GOING ON ... OK?”
I remember calling down to my climbing partner vividly, his eyes were as big as an owl's as the blood pumped, hitting the grey rock all around him. I had only just recovered from breaking my kneecap after falling from a climb on the Rainbow Slab. On that occasion Michael had been sitting too far from the bottom of the slab, half asleep when I fell from the crux moves of Cystitis by Proxy. The one good piece of protection on the climb was a bolt. The bolt was just below me as I fell and I remember thinking at the time why am I still falling? I hit the ripple of the rainbow, 30 feet below the bolt after surfing the slab and watching Michael being pulled across the ground like he was water skiing. My knee took the full impact smashing into a lump of slate standing proud from the smooth-sheen of the black-velvet. I finished the climb and walked back to the car knowing that something was amiss. A week later I had reduced the swelling and was climbing 7a, but I had booked an appointment for an X-ray just in case. Seven weeks later, fresh from a full leg plaster, the knee cap that had been split in two had knitted together and I was with Michael again on an even more serious climb called Tess of the Durbivilles.
Tess is a scary E6 high on Left Wall of Dinas Cromlech in the Llanberis Pass. It has limited protection and only the best at placing devious bits of gear could make the climb justifiable. Unfortunately, I do not fit into this category. I was onsighting the climb and, as normal, I took the approach of why bother wasting time and energy fiddling bits of brass into marginal placements when forging on makes more sense. This approach is all well and good until outside forces intervene, or my arms get tired.
Several rock-over moves forcing my still-not-fully-functional knee into positions it didn't like, caused it to ache like a bastard. My eyes attempted to focus on the sharp crozzled rock inches from my face but failed. The combination of sweat and tears, brought on by pain and effort, stung and blurred. My head threatened to implode. I was still 'on the sick' from work and I was facing a ground fall from 70 feet. Forearms burnt with the effort of crimping edges no thicker than tiles around the sink of a washbasin. I attempted to work out the 6b moves that led to the comfort of the first piece of good gear since starting on this madness. Concentration paramount. Time stood still. Clarity. Nothing else mattered apart from moving right 10 feet.
The climber tackling Cenotaph Corner to my right was a blur, an insect buzzing on the periphery. There, but only in the grey mist of my subconscious. Buzzing. A minor distraction. I lock off, the muscles in my shoulder tense, shake out, chalk up, study, plan, breathe deep with control. Prepare. Once committed to the sequence of moves, I would be continuing in one of two directions, reverse was not an option. The insect moved to my right. A move he will not forget for the rest of his life. A move I will never forget for the rest of my life. He pulled on the Pudding Stone, a house-brick lump of rock wedged for years into the crack of Cenotaph Corner. The Pudding Stone ripped from the corner as easy as a vegetable knife is pushed into a Prison Officer's neck on a quiet evening in Gartree Prison.
The clarity coursing through my veins, heightening my senses made me watch with deadly fascination. Slow motion. End over end, the block spun, plummeting. The insect stopped buzzing and screamed. His belayer took no notice. I watched with deadly fascination, still unable to pull my eyes away from the 5kg lump of death spinning its way to misery. The insect screamed again. The block twisted and turned closing in on its target. I watched with deadly fascination. Only several feet above the skull that the stone was about to smash into a grey-splintered mess of pulp the belayer looked up and jerked his head back. The pudding stone missed his brow by an inch, ripping into his bare arm. Blood shot high into the air covering the grey rock. The belayer collapsed, the insect whimpered, no longer on belay. Mayhem ruled. Blood spurted.
“WATCH ME MICHAEL, IGNORE WHAT'S GOING ON ... OK?”
I made the moves. A rock-over, a match, a foot swap, flagging gently, easing body weight, controlling the barn-door my body wanted to emulate and finally into Left Wall. Protection. Life. Living.
Hanging from big holds with the gear placed, I looked into the owl-sized eyes of Michael. Not once had he taken his eyes from me. Blood covered the rock around him. The unconscious body of the belayer had been lifted over Michael and still he had faithfully watched me ignoring the bleeding body passing beneath our ropes. The insect had been lowered from Cenotaph Corner as his motivation to continue with the climb had waned, leaving me to finish Tess half an hour later very relieved.
As the rain hammers against the window of Ynes Ettws, the Climbers' Club hut that is nestled into a grassy, damp fold, deep in the heart of the Llanberis Pass (and what is now my unofficial home) I take stock on my life. The big open fire warms me. The wind rattles the door and the memories rattle my mind. No longer a Home Office cheque at the end of each month. No longer TV. No longer the comfort of a pension and regularity.
The rain soaks the hillside and the streams pour in white, gushing torrents. The leaves on the trees open with new vivid-green fresh and innocent leafy-life. Grey rock drips with the deluge and sheep shuffle beneath boulders. No longer hate and misery. No longer bigotry, violence, aggression and mutilation. No longer a life tracked until retirement, the right to vote or possessions. No longer wealth but now I have more riches imaginable.
Nick Bullock is one of a dying breed of full-time, homeless climbers in Britain, that spend a lot of time climbing abroad. Most recently with Jon Bracey, he climbed a new route on the North Face of Pharilapcha (5977m), Nepal. 'Snotty's Gully' - 1000m, graded ED+, WI 5, M5+ (Scottish 6) - takes a truly spectacular line up a steep ice couloir in the back of a deep cleft going straight to the previously unclimbed west summit of Pharilapcha.
© Matt Helliker
He receives gear sponsorship from DMM, MAMMUT, VASQUE, and LEKKI whilst living off savings from 15 years working in the Prison Service and the rent off his house. He writes the odd article and has been doing a small amount of work for DMM. Big trips are funded by the MEF, BMC, Sports Council, grants and occasionally sponsors (MAMMUT).
This winter will be spent living with Kenton Cool in Chamonix. Nick said, "Next year Kenton and I are hoping to climb something big and commiting in India but if I told you where I would have to kill you, and if I didn't kill you I know someone who can!"
He is writing a book of his climbing tales and experiences which is hopefully going to be published next summer/autumn by Baton Wicks.
You can read more Nick Bullock including, Biffa and Boy Wonder, Blind Date on Quitaraju, Footsteps, Edge of Nevermore, Packing Up, Recovery, Tales from the Top Shelf, Into the Never Never, Andean A La Carte and Edge of Darkness at Nick's website.....click here