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In this exclusive excerpt from his new book Cold Wars, it is winter 2002 and Andy is in Patagonia with Ian Parnell. Having retreated from Fitz Roy, they are attempting to climb Mermoz, which hadn't previously been climbed in winter. The route they are attempting, Vol de Nuit, was put up by Andy Parkin – solo – in 1993, and was at the time unrepeated.
'That was a cold one,' said Ian from deep within the warm confines of his bag, as the alarm clock beeped away somewhere near his head.
I could hardly answer, having spent most of the night awake and shivering violently. Only the warmth stolen by pressing myself against Ian had kept me alive.
'Let's go,' I said, not sure if I meant up or down, but hoping that the weather was crapping out so it would be the latter.
'I think this is colder than Alaska,' said Ian, with the air of a man who wasn't particularly cold.
I'd never been to Alaska but it sounded warm.
'Looks like another clear day,' Ian said, peeping out from the open door of the tent.
The snow mushroom remained stuck fast as we packed everything away, the stove hanging from a nut in the wall melting water for tea as I stuffed the tent away. Its fabric shed frost like old skin. I was cold to the bone and wanted to get moving, but needed a brew first. I thought about dancing to warm up but decided against it, too afraid the blob would give way. So I just stood there, like a moody popsicle.
'You're quiet this morning,' said Ian.
Tea drunk and a muesli bar scoffed, I climbed up to our high point, brought Ian up, and let him pass to push the route on. Stiff with cold I was still glad it was his lead as he took the gear and stepped over me. Above him was a steep slab, just off vertical, with a slim vein of ice trickling down, the kind of trickle you get from leaky drainpipes in winter, a few inches thick and only a foot wide. The rock down which it ran was blank apart from a slight overlap way above, the wall kicking out a little beyond, making the ice higher hard to see.
Utter commitment to style - Ian high on Mermoz, a proper steep bit of mixed climbing
UKC Articles, Sep 2011
© Andy Kirkpatrick
It was the perfect pitch for Ian – bold, gearless death. He tapped in the pick of one ice tool like a man hammering a very fragile copper nail into concrete, then the other, a little higher than the first, so as not to create a fracture line. Why or how ice stuck to nothing was a mystery, a mystery we had no wish to dwell on, just happy that it did. Ian was using 'mono-point' crampons, with just one tooth sticking out no more than an inch from each boot. He gently swung his boots at the ice.
He straightened up and took a breath, both of us expecting the ice to disintegrate.
'Okay,' he said in a soothing voice, perhaps addressing himself to the ice more than me, 'I'm off.' It wasn't a great choice of words, but off he went tiptoeing his way up the ice.
I fed out the rope, my head drawn in tortoise-like between my shoulders, my body racked with cold. My only comfort was the bomber belay, which gave me a rosy glow of security each time I looked at it.
Ian moved up higher.
'Any sign of gear?' I said, obviously a stupid question, although one meant as confirmation that I was taking an interest. If there were gear he'd have placed it. He didn't reply.
Moving higher, Ian stopped below the overlap, a sort of mini-roof, only a foot wide, but a place you'd hope nature would have left a crack.
'Thin up here,' said Ian softly, his expression as light as he could make it.
He was now twenty metres above me, a body-breaking distance to fall.
'Can you see anything above?' I asked, again a stupid question, as if he'd forgotten to check out the ground above his head.
I considered telling him that if it looked too dodgy he should climb back down, but I knew this pitch could be the key to the route, and that down might not be possible anyway. Plus, I had a great belay, so I was safe.
'Climbing,' said Ian gently, as if he was reminding himself that all this was for fun, rather than admitting he was trying not to die.
I held my breath as he placed his tools over the overlap and moved up, so carefully now, the ice so thin I could no longer see just what he was climbing. The rope fed out and out and out, its end creeping nearer and nearer, and with it my turn to follow.
I felt butterflies in my stomach.
'Peg,' he shouted down, and I craned back to see him balanced just one foot above the overlap, fiddling for a quickdraw then reaching out and clipping it into what looked like a thin knifeblade, probably left by Andy on his descent.
I heard the click of the karabiner.
The thick rope was pulled up a little.
Another click and the rope was clipped in.
'Any good?' I shouted cheerily, not feeling it.
'No,' came the reply. 'Climbing.'
The rope fed out again.
Out and out and out.
'Can you see a belay?' I shouted, no longer caring how stupid my questions were.
The rope fed out and out and out.
'Can you see a belay?' I shouted again. 'You're nearly out of rope.'
In fact Ian still had plenty of rope. It was me who was running out.
'Five metres left!' I called.
'IAN, FIVE METRES LEFT!'
'Start climbing,' came the distant reply.
I let go of the rope, which made no difference since I was the belay now, and started to take out the gear, one piece at a time, hoping that giving him a few extra feet might just get him to a solid belay.
The rope fed out.
The rope went tight.
The rope went tighter. There would be no reprieve.
I pulled on my sack, cinched up my axe leashes and began to climb, not tapping like Ian, just hooking my axes into the holes that he had made, my heart well and truly where you'd expect it to be, my mind nowhere to be found.
Now we were moving together, only a single poor peg between us. I hung there, waiting for Ian to make his next move and release some rope, and then I'd hook my axes a little higher. The chances of either of us falling seemed very high indeed.
We were soloing.
Exclusive edited excerpt from Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick.
It's the descent that kills you: Ian taking great care on our way down Mermoz
UKC Articles, Sep 2011
© Andy Kirkpatrick
© Andy Kirkpatrick/Vertebrate Publishing 2011.
No reproduction without the express permission of the publisher.
Cold Wars is the much-anticipated sequel to Andy Kirkpatrick's debut book Psychovertical, winner of the 2008 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature.
Psychovertical was a book about a man who is struggling: against the wall, against himself, but who wins through. The story is a hundred thousand word answer to the question: "Why do you climb?" Cold Wars asks a different question: "What is the price?"
Following on from Psychovertical, Andy has achieved his life's ambition to become one of the world's leading climbers. Pushing himself to new extremes, he embarks on his toughest climbs yet – on big walls in the Alps and Patagonia – in the depths of winter.
He has more success, but the savagery and danger of these encounters comes at huge personal cost. Questioning his commitment to his chosen craft, he is torn between family life and the dangerous path he has chosen. Written with his trademark wit and honesty, Cold Wars is a gripping account of modern adventure.
Andy is currently in Norway attempting to solo the Troll Wall.
Andy will be touring the UK in November and December. Find out more here.