Mountain author Alex Roddie's new novel The Only Genuine Jones is a fictionalised alternative history of mountaineering. In this exclusive extract our hero Jones pre-empts history by about 60 years to make a bold early attempt on the Orion Face of Ben Nevis, armed with a newfangled ice climbing technique.
20th of February, 1897
Jones hacked his axes into a bulge of ice above his head, heart pounding. He felt exposed. Looking down between his legs, the ice swept down for a rope's length to Elspeth, anchored to her axes on the vertical wall.
With shaking hands, Jones retrieved a length of cord from around his shoulders and tied himself to his axes. He had never felt so insecure in his life. At first, the climb had felt easy, and they had made rapid progress. As the exposure mounted, hundreds of feet of air between him and the snow-covered screes beneath the wall, Jones started to feel a creeping horror that he had never before experienced on an ice climb. Always in his thoughts was the terrible prospect of that two hundred foot fall through space, to be brought up to a sudden, bone-cracking stop when the rope came tight. Everyone knew he had a habit of falling off. Today he could not afford to make that mistake.
He took a few minutes to compose himself, slowly tensioning his belay line and letting his axes take the strain. His calf muscles screamed for relief. His arms, always his strongest attribute, complained with a duller ache.
'Releasing reserves of strength he did not know he had, Jones pulled on his axes, feeling his fingers starting to fail from the strain'
Elspeth began to climb. As he took in the rope and carefully laid it in coils over his axes, he started to doubt the security of the new tools. Would they really withstand the force of a fall? They had done so on New Year's Day, and saved all their lives, but this was an altogether more serious situation.
Elspeth reached his stance. Her face was white, wide-eyed, scared. She seemed to be at the last of her strength as she made herself secure.
'A bit steep, that last pitch,' she gasped.
Jones looked down. A lump of ice fell from his mitten and dropped through space, bouncing only a few times until it exploded on the rocks far below. Looking up, it seemed that the route opened out into a basin some distance above, and beyond that, a forbidding headwall of ice-laced rocks.
With difficulty, he reached into the pocket of his waistcoat. The broken shell of ice that clung to his mittens rattled whenever he moved, making any kind of dextrous movement impossible. He retrieved his watch and checked the time. It was a quarter past three.
'It will be dark before long,' he reminded her.
'Then unless you know of a quick way off to the left or right, I suggest we keep going. We are committed to it now.'
Jones climbed on. His muscles hadn't had enough time to recover since the last pitch. He had found one disadvantage of the new ice technique: since it was more efficient, there were fewer opportunities to rest. The uncompromising strain on the calf muscles would take some getting used to.
He paused after maybe forty feet, and placed both axes high above his head to secure himself. The rough wool of his gloves stuck to the ice that had accumulated around the handles of his axes, providing a good grip. Nevertheless, his fingers felt tired and he suddenly panicked at the thought of what would happen if he let go. His journey into space would end with an abrupt return to planet Earth.
There was no way to fix a running belay on this kind of ground. If he fell off, he would fall all the way to Elspeth's level and then the same distance again. No convenient spike of rock or threaded chockstone would arrest the plunge. Was this it? Was this how it felt to experience your last seconds of life?
His arms shook, his vision blurred, and Jones knew he would fall off.
'I am going to fall!' he shouted. He could hear the fear in his voice.
Elspeth said nothing, but, looking down, he could see her brace for the fall that would surely kill them both, her terrified face framed by his boots.
One last effort, then.
Releasing reserves of strength he did not know he had, Jones pulled on his axes, feeling his fingers starting to fail from the strain. He kicked in with his left boot. His body shook so much that the claws skidded off the ice, and he thought he was going to fall then and there. Somehow, the points bit, he stood up, and all of a sudden the ground seemed less steep.
He felt a little more secure. A little further, he urged his tortured limbs. Soon the angle eased right off, to normal steep snow, and Jones felt that he could at last relax. His whole body seemed to beat with the rhythm of his heart.
Then the slip occurred.
The snow gave way, crumbling beneath him, and in seconds he was shooting down the slope like a bowling-ball. He tried to dig his axes in, but they simply scraped through the snow, engaging with nothing. He felt a moment of blind despair.
Over the edge, and into the silence that wrapped around the mountain like a blanket.
He felt nothing. All efforts to save himself ceased. He watched the ice rush upwards, felt the cool blast of air over his skin, noted the surprising patterns made by strands of wool embedded in the ice around the shafts of his axes.
Elspeth passed him in slow motion, shouting silently, gripping the rope tightly around her waist. He wondered why she was belaying that way. The proper way was over the shoulder. Jones reflected, in a detached manner, that the force of his impact when the rope came tight would probably crush her to death even as it ripped her axes out of the ice. He puzzled over why he felt nothing at that thought.
Then the impact came. The rope snapped bar-tight.
It did not hurt as much as he had expected. He heard a crack, and the rope creaked as it slowly twisted. Two inches from his nose, three Manila strands of Mr Beale's finest rope kept him safe in one of the deadliest situations he had ever experienced. In truth, Jones had expected Elspeth to let go from the pain, shortly followed by the final plunge as the belay failed and both climbers tumbled to oblivion.
The loop he had tied around his waist now constricted his chest, making breathing difficult. He must have broken ribs; it was inevitable in any major fall. Both axes were still frozen to his gloves. If they were to survive, small miracles like this would count.
With the initial shock of the fall fading, Jones felt his reason return, and with it the pain that gripped his ribcage. He raised his weakened arms and struck both axes into the ice, securing himself to them to take the strain from Elspeth.
He looked up, but could not tell if she was conscious or not.
'I'm safe,' he shouted up to her—or tried to shout. His voice sounded feeble.
'You are a heavy bastard, Jones! Get back up here!'
He looked up. Far beyond Elspeth, that rocky headwall still frowned down, steeper and more inaccessible than before. He knew the wall had beaten him.
'No, we have to go down. I will belay you.'
'This must be the feared Man-trap. Elspeth seemed to be having trouble with it. Her position looked grotesque, splayed against the overhanging step'
After a few minutes, Elspeth began the difficult and dangerous climb down to his position. When she drew level, breathing heavily from the effort, she offered a weak smile.
'I thought that was the end for both of us.'
'So did I,' Jones said. He realised his arms were still shaking. 'How did you hold the fall?'
'At the last moment, I realised that if I belayed the usual way, with the rope over my shoulder, I would be crushed and the force would rip out my axes. I passed it around my waist and arm. That way, the rope came to a stop gradually and the force was dissipated.'
Jones the scientist appreciated the facts of what she had done, but Jones the man marvelled that she had been able to appraise all this in the space of an instant.
'You saved my life ...' he began.
She ignored him. Now was not the time. 'I noticed a shelf cutting left across the cliff. Perhaps we can use it to reach the North-East Buttress. What do you think?'
Jones looked down. He doubted he could climb back down that distance of vertical ice, even when fresh and uninjured. In his current condition, a mental and physical wreck, it would put both of them at risk. He decided to hand over control of the situation to Elspeth.
'I am in no fit state to lead. Do whatever you think is best.'
Somewhere near the end of that horribly exposed and dangerous shelf, the weather closed in once again. A bitter wind blew shreds of mist across the face of the mountain, and it seemed that every time Jones looked up, a plume of spindrift descended from the heavens to batter him. His spectacles glazed over with frost, rendering him little better than blind, and his cap was lost to the gods of the mountain. A deep chill, a killing chill, settled into the core of his body as he shivered in a miserable ice-cave, paying out the rope to Elspeth. His chest hurt, a sharp pain from his broken ribs, but at least the cold helped to take his mind off it.
Not for the first time in his climbing career, Jones reflected on the utter absurdity of his situation: tied to an icicle the width of his arm, snow whirling all around him, perched a thousand feet above the ground in a place no man had ever been before.
When Elspeth gave the signal, he climbed on. Another rope's length, and another, and they reached the ridge, a wild place of shrieking winds and perplexing rock formations. A frosted tooth reared up ahead, barring their way. This, he realised through the pain and confusion, must be the feared man-trap that had defeated several since the first winter ascent of this ridge just under a year previously.
Elspeth seemed to be having trouble with it. Her position looked grotesque, splayed against the overhanging step. After a while she surmounted it with an ungainly belly-flop, and signalled for Jones to follow. He wanted to remove his claws to make the rock-climbing easier, but gave up after minutes of fiddling with frozen straps that refused to untie.
Two more pitches, including the difficult Forty-foot corner, and they reached the summit of Ben Nevis. The light had failed. The gale blasted snow and icy pellets into his face. Looking ahead, the rope curved down into the snow, leading on to the shadowy figure of Elspeth fighting her way through the storm. A persistent ringing filled his ears.
A faint shout: 'The observatory! I've found it!'
'Jones felt bewildered by the abrupt change from chaos to civilisation at the highest point of the British Isles. They stood side by side in a puddle of melting snow, utterly at a loss for words
Jones struggled on. Pain stabbed him with every step. Normally such dangerous weather would inspire him to fresh efforts, but he felt destroyed in a way he had rarely experienced in his life. Now all he wanted was food, warmth, and sleep. Soon he reached Elspeth, but hardly recognised her: fog-crystals coated her entire body except her face, which was red and raw with the wind. He realised he must appear similarly macabre, and raised a glove to touch his hair. It was entirely encased in ice.
He looked around, but could see nothing of the observatory. 'I don't see it,' he yelled.
Elspeth pointed. A low mound in the snow concealed what appeared to be the top of a wooden door, heavily drifted in snow.
'That's the tower. Help me dig!'
Considering that the observation tower was nearly thirty feet high, Jones did not believe her, but had not the energy to argue. He dug, with an axe and his hands, helping her to excavate more of the door. The more they dug, the more the snow slipped back into the pit, confounding their efforts. After what seemed like an hour they had finally dug enough snow free to make an attempt at getting inside.
Elspeth turned the handle. The wind immediately caught the door and flung it inward with a bang. Snow whirled down the ladder that led into the depths of the observatory, and Jones hurried to follow his companion.
He helped her close the door against the wind. Now they stood in almost total darkness. A suggestion of light drew them on, and after descending for some distance they broke out into a subterranean office. The spacious room was stocked with comfortable desks and a roaring pot-bellied stove. Wooden walls accommodated bookcases and glass display cabinets. To the left, a stairway led down into another room. Jones felt bewildered by the abrupt change from chaos to civilisation at the highest point of the British Isles.
They stood side by side in a puddle of melting snow, utterly at a loss for words. Elspeth recovered her senses first, and after untying from the rope she dumped her equipment next to the stove and began shouting for help.
Jones staggered to a chair and sat down with relief, hardly able to keep his head high. His broken rib throbbed with pain and he could feel blisters on his heels from hours of steep climbing.
When he looked up again, two men stood in the room. One, carrying a lantern, was a stranger; the other was Eckenstein, wrapped in a blanket and smoking his long pipe as usual. Eckenstein strode forward and gave the blanket to Jones, draping it over his shoulders. He suddenly started to shiver violently. The ice covering every inch of his body was melting, trickling through to his chilled skin beneath.
'You look done in, boy. An eventful day, then?'
'I could do with something to eat,' he whispered, but in that moment exhaustion caught up with him and he slumped forward, insensible.
The Only Genuine Jones was released as a Kindle eBook in October 2012 and as an illustrated paperback in February 2013. It has achieved twelve 5* ratings on Amazon and has been praised by novelists including Susan Fletcher and Mike Hogan.
'The book can best be described as an alternative look at the history of mountaineering' says Alex. 'It's historical fiction with a twist: all events after July the 24th, 1896, are imaginary and exist in a timeline that diverges from real events. Issues relevant to today's mountain culture (access, ethics, new technology, increasing participation, and justifiable risk) are explored through the medium of a good old-fashioned adventure story.'
Pick up a copy here
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