A Grand Day Out 14: Feeding the rat - fear and ice in western Norwayby John Howell Mar/2009
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The rat lives on a mixture of fear, adrenaline and the endorphins that come from hard physical labour. He gets his preferred sustenance when I am climbing steep, technical ice. In the summer months he sleeps and snacks on the more meagre rations that come from climbing rock. However, winter is his feast time. As the days shortening days and the weather gets colder he awakes from his summer hibernation. By early December his gentle scratching makes me browse the weather on the internet, checking the temperature in the mountains. Each morning as I drive to work I involuntarily look up at the water fall that hangs above the town. Is it frozen yet? How fat is it?
As he gets more hungry I start to pay more and more attention to the weather. By early January, he is starting to become demanding. Conversations while driving to ski in the mountains are interrupted by pregnant pauses as another frozen waterfall, high on a hillside come into view and I try to see a line, is it connected all the way? How easy is it to get to the base? Walk off or ab the route? How many pitches? Eventually his constant agitation is too much, I have to feed him or there will be no peace.
So I submit and start to sort out the gear, 10 BD screws and some crappy Russian ones, 12 extenders, a couple of slings, a rack of wires and a krab of old pegs. The pegs and wires never seem to get used, but they comfort me and remind me of past days winter mountaineering in Scotland. The clanking of the gear wakes the rat and he is quickly alert. He is clearly agitated by the small spots of rust on the scarped metal of the picks and crampon spikes. The rust reminds him of the neglect that he has endured and I feel mildly guilty as I try to rub the spots away.
We head to the hills. There are no guide books here, just driving around and looking up. We stop and stare upwards at the sky line, trying to judge how do-able a frozen fall high on the hillside will be. Now he is going wild he is scrapping and scratching, screaming at me to get on with it. It's a Pavlovian response and his gastric juices are flowing, driving both him and I to distraction. I know I must battle his urges, control him so that what we try is both achievable and satisfying. Some low angle, dripping piece of choss will just leave him hungry for more, while something too steep, climbed without due consideration will result in failure. But he is a simple soul who ignores the fact that he needs me to feed him - driving me to injury or worse will be his own demise. But he doesn't understand or doesn't choose to care, he is starving and he just wants to feed as soon as he can.
We pick a line, two, maybe three pitches, sitting up on the hillside and start to walk up through the snow. The approach to an ice route is a cyclic process. Firstly I look from a distance and thinking the route seems easy. As I get closer it seems to get steeper and harder. Then just before the bottom it looks easy again, not vertical with some good rests along the way. I feel positive while I gear up and it's all going well until I stand directly beneath it, axes in hand and look up - all off a sudden it seems very, very steep and the adrenaline starts to pump. I seriously begin to doubt if I can actually climb this and wonder why I am here...
A deep breath and I resign myself to my fate. I swing the first axe and it makes a satisfying low thump as it sinks into the ice, the second follows suit out to the left. Then I kick my right foot in and pull up...
In a wild and uncontrollable frenzy my rat begins to feed!
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