A Scotsman's Duty Article

© Dan Bailey

Gordon Smith writes about Scottish winter and alpine climbing adventures from the mid-seventies...

Part 1: A Promise Not Quite Broken

In my day, walking up the Allt a' Mhuilinn to the CIC Hut from the distillery was a horrid, mucky business. Bog-trotting was what we called it and often we wore wellies to keep our climbing boots, our socks, and our enthusiasms dry. There was this one time that I was bog-trotting up the hill and I came across one of those Englishmen. He said his name was Terry King; Terry to his pals but he was Kingy to me from that day on. He was wandering down in the late afternoon with his mate looking fed up after a day of mucking about doing nothing much at all. I was on my own which, being a teenaged climbing vagrant, I often was. I had a vague plan to do some soloing the next day but Kingy straight away made me, an utter stranger, promise to stay an extra day or two after and do some climbing with him when he came back up the hill. And so I did. I promised.

Ben Nevis, approaching the CIC.  © Dan Bailey
Ben Nevis, approaching the CIC.
© Dan Bailey

Now, I didn't have a tent and being a vagrant had no rights or expectations of staying in that luxurious den of the Scots Climbing Aristocracy and their well-appointed guests, the CIC Hut. But never mind I had my orange polyethylene bivouac bag with me together with a foolish intention to bivouac under the stars. Stars indeed. In Scotland. In the winter. I kipped that night outside the CIC but inside my poly bag, having dined sparingly upon cold stovies(1), boiled up a day or two previously in my mother's kitchen in Blairgowrie and carried in a poke(2). The stovies were chased down with a handful of damp peanuts from a family-sized bag spirited out of my mother's cupboard. Cold water was supplied by the burn on the other side of the CIC, dug up out of its covering of snow. There were no stars. The wind howled. Powder snow drifted over the poly bag with me, damply, inside. I didn't sleep very much. Then in the morning, there being no incentive to stay long in my bed, I was up early and out at the crack of dawn.

Just as I was gathering my meagre belongings from out of the drifted snow Sudsie and Spike from Nevisport went thundering past, full steam ahead. So I jumped up and followed them like a little lap dog towards Point Five Gully. They busied themselves at the foot of that the most famous gully in all the world while I wandered up Hadrian's Wall Direct in order to try out my new Terrordactyls. It didn't take very long and so, it being still too early to clock off for lunch, I ran down Number Four and up Green Gully.

It is an interesting point to note that a year or two later, once I had acquired some experience of real climbing, that is to say climbing in the Alps, Green Gully became the standard of difficulty against which I compared everything ice-climbing in the Alps. A bulge of green ice in some snowy alpine couloir; a dizzily vertical goulotte plastered in ice and cleaving a silver line up an alpine face; a precipitous field of ice clinging precariously to an alpine north wall; all were compared with Green Gully on Ben Nevis. But on that particular morning all this comparisons stuff was future nonsense. I ran up Green Gully and, finding myself on the plateau with it still being too early to clock off for lunch, I ran back down Number Four and set off up the Comb Gully. Green Gully and Comb Gully are a natural pair of twins. I had done the one and so I had to do the other also, no question about it. I ran, therefore, up that one too and finding myself on the plateau with it still being too early to clock off for lunch, ran back down Number Four again and right back up the Comb Gully Buttress for a bit of fun.

'...that luxurious den of the Scots Climbing Aristocracy and their well-appointed guests, the CIC Hut.'  © Dan Bailey
'...that luxurious den of the Scots Climbing Aristocracy and their well-appointed guests, the CIC Hut.'
© Dan Bailey

At about this time I was starting to flag a little, but thinking that Sudsie and Spike might be finishing up on Point Five I ran back down Number Four, around the Douglas Boulder and up the lower part of Observatory Gully to the base of that the most famous gully in all the world. There was a party, not Sudsie and Spike, at the top of the first pitch footering about and getting ready to do the next, when I arrived at the stance. Of a sudden I hit the wall. Oh I was that hungry. So much rabid exercise after forgetting to eat my breakfast, cold stovies from that poke together with more of those damp peanuts. I had to eat. Straight away. And thus back down again I climbed. To eat. My lunch.

Being fed up with cold stovies and those damp peanuts I gathered together my poly bag and bits of stuff from their snowdrift outside the CIC and snuck off down the Allt a' Mhuilinn towards the fleshpots of Fort William clutching my shilling, or whatever it was in those days, and dreaming deliriously of the delectable delights at the closest chippy. Unfortunately, and almost within spitting distance of the distillery and the road, I met Kingy coming the other way. He sternly rebuked me and reminded me of my duty to keep my promises. He dragged me, my belly still empty and whimpering, back up to the CIC and another cold, windy, and snowy night tucked up in a wet poly bag. And fed, sparingly, on cold stovies from my poke chased down with more of those damp peanuts. And a cup of icy cold water. Kingy had brought his own poly bag and his own provisions, including a stove for his regular cups of hot tea, which only goes to show that even then he was a clever chap, not relying on Scotch accommodations and Scotch food.

The next morning, there being again little incentive to linger long in my bed under the drifted snow, I was up early and dragging Kingy out from his frosted burrow. After Kingy's cup of tea, we climbed the length of Observatory Gully towards the higher flank of Observatory Buttress. Tut Braithwaite, one of those famous English mountaineers who later went on to climb on Everest and other very big mountains, had told me the previous day, before my attempted escape from Kingy's clutches, that he and Jeff Lowe, an American climber with an enormous reputation, had just done some wonderfully fine new route up on the Indicator Wall. He also told me that the crag was dripping with them, new routes to do, like ripe raspberries just waiting to be plucked. As soon as I had told this story to Kingy his eyes lit up and he insisted that we should go up there straight away and start plucking. And so we did. To a degree at any rate.

I ambled up the hill at a gentle pace, Kingy lagging far behind for he was a desperate addict of the leaf in those days and therefore huffing and puffing and snorting like a steam engine due for retirement on some scrap heap. When at last Kingy rejoined me perched in a little bucket hole in the snow at the foot of the wall, just to the right of the central rocky section, and after he had rested awhile and satisfied his abominable cravings, we decided upon a certain steep slab, thickly iced, as a good line that would go. We were, of course, hoping that Tut and Jeff had chosen some other good line as their new route.

I don't remember now, after more than thirty years, the details of the climb. Some glimpses, some disjoint flashes, reveal that well iced slab, at the top of which was a great bank of ice on the left, and beyond that another slab with delicate and gripping tip-toe-tapping over thin, eggshell ice. There was a rock corner bounding a little rock buttress fringed with ice above and on the right. To the left of the corner there was a steep frieze of ice that strenuously dripped large icicles. A steep swing out of the corner onto that icicle fresco led, via a ramp of snow above and left of the little rock buttress, finally to the summit cornice. The plateau again. And when we got there I was hungry. So very hungry. A Spartan diet, I must say, has not much to be said for it. We retired, therefore, a lazy pair of rogues with just the one raspberry plucked from that wall generously dripping with the fruit, to our bivouac site and more hard rations for the night.

After another cold, windy, damp night drifted over in our poly bags we were back up the hill at the crack of dawn for more climbing. I'd read Murray's account of climbing the long rock climb Slav Route, on the Orion Face, in the wet. It was that account where MacKenzie, standing in his stockinged soles on a slab streaming with water, calls for a piton like Richard the Third calling for a horse at Boswell. A winter ascent of the Slav Route boded a fine expedition, almost of alpine proportions and a fit entertainment for young vagabonds out to make names for themselves. Unfortunately I'd heard vague rumours that Messrs Quinn and Lang, a pair of elderly gents from Dundee, had already done the first winter ascent of the route the previous year. Hacking steps, no less. Well, what the heck maybe it wasn't true. We reached the foot of Zero Gully with Ed Grindley and Alan Petit hard on our heels. They were bound for Zero, we for Slav.

Slav route and Zero Gully  © Tim Sparrow
Slav route and Zero Gully
© Tim Sparrow, Apr 2013

Kingy had the first pitch, a shallow rocky groove thinly coated with ice and frosting and just below and to the left of the first pitch of Zero. Having flowed up that icy gutter like dear Mr Murray's friend MacAlpine progressing towards a milk saucer, in the manner that is to say of a Persian cat(3), Kingy belayed below a large overlap. A single, slender icicle drooped languorously, rather like a Chinese moustachio (the sort of moustachio that would have belonged to a very ancient Chinese Sage, of course, being silvery-white), down from the lip of the overlap to merge with the iced slab to Kingy's right. I had graciously permitted Kingy to lead the first pitch so that, in the natural order of things, the icicle would fall to my lot. While I grunted and grappled with that icicle, a mere boy engaged in a man's work so to speak, Grindley, directly below and choosing to ignore the twenty downward points of my crampons and the Damoclesian icicle to which I was pinioned and, of course, the important factor that all were aimed straight at him, hurled abuse from the first pitch of Zero for all the snow and ice I was dropping on his head.

'Cut it out, you bloody wee Jock', he cried at me in his exasperation, 'you keep your rubbish to yourself or I'll throw you into Loch Linnhe.'

Finally he called out, very loudly,'Bloody Scots!' clearly forgetting that a Scotsman, Petit, was safeguarding his own rope. Fortunately for him I managed to finish struggling over my icicle with it still standing. Thus Englishman Ed survived unscathed and the other Englishman, Kingy, still had something to climb in his turn. Kingy, as he approached the foothold in the ice that was serving as a belay stance, gave me that sideways look of his, with lowered brows.

'Very nice, very nice indeed youth. Now, when does the hard bit start?'

Och these English with their games. 'When does the hard bit start', indeed. When, indeed, will the Scottish National Party rid us of the pests?

Many, many long and bare white run-outs have collapsed together among my memories from thirty years ago and more, except for the vast volumes of crusted windslab in the grooves and runnels high up on the wall breaking up under my feet and deluging down on that unlucky pair in Zero Gully. And for the shocking clatter and roar of a hapless climber falling the lengths of Tower and Observatory Gullies, all the way to the bottom, late in the afternoon. Ed and Alan were done and gone when we reached the plateau and so we wandered down Number Four by ourselves in the twilight. It was time to give up the hard living, pick up our poly bags and get on down through the night to Fort William, with its chip shops and the warmth of the rented caravan where Kingy was living. And plans for a summer's climbing in the Alps.

Part 2: North Face Novices

The very first alpine expedition that Kingy and I undertook together was planned in the warmth of Kingy's caravan in Fort William after several nights of sleeping rough, curled up in the snow on Ben Nevis like husky dogs. It should, I must say, be remembered that it is very easy, sitting in the warmth of a caravan and lingering over a poke of fish and chips and with several days of doughty deeds in the snow behind one, to imagine that great, stark north walls, wrapped up in ice and darkly threatening, are places where it is desirable to be.

The first alpine route, therefore, at which Kingy and I pointed our noses was a north wall; the Merkl–Welzenbach Route on the North Face of the Grands Charmoz. The Merkl–Welzenbach was graded Difficile Sup at that time, according to an Alpine Club guidebook on the shelves at Nevisport, which we felt made it an appropriate north face upon which north face novices, Ben Nevis trained, could cut their teeth. But the way it all turned out things were a lot tougher and much more uncomfortable than we had imagined. And in the end it was only because we had had the gods, or fate, or beginner's luck, or whatever you please, with us that we survived the rigours we had invited down upon our own heads like foolish virgins. We did, however, eventually and after a number of false starts, achieve our first great victory, our first North Wall.

The original team for the ascent included Kingy and me, of course, and Dirty Alex and Bushman Rhodes, a couple of the grubby English ragamuffins hanging about the muddy campsite in the Biolay woods and looking for something to do. We thoroughly cemented our team esprit by going out as four of the numerous co-conspirators upon a famous and highly successful raid on a Chamonix Building Site led by Colin Somebody-or-Other, also known as 'Our Man from the Petit Charmoz' on account of his frequent solo attempts to climb that mountain.

The purpose of the expedition was simply to pinch some polyethylene for our camp site kitchens. But we had returned to the Biolay, in the middle of the night, with an enormous roll of booty, thirty feet long and a yard at least in diameter, on our heads and looking rather like the sort of giant centipede that the late, rather peculiar, Mr Kafka might have enjoyed describing in grotesque and intimate detail had he but known. Burdened by our ill-gotten gains and giggling foolishly from time to time, like a squadron of silly school girls, we sauntered casually through the centre of Chamonix, past the hordes of tourists enjoying late night revelry in les bar-restaurants and past, even, the police station. That roll, as it happened, was destined to provide the Biolay Campers with kitchenettes for several seasons to come.

We hooligans learned very quickly that the walk up to Montenvers is best avoided by lazy buggers, other economies being always preferable. On our first attempt at the North Face of the Grands Charmoz, therefore, we four left Montenvers after an expensive train ride for the trudge towards the great wall of the Grands Charmoz that frowns over the Mer de Glace. We barged importantly through the crowd of tourists milling around the station like alpine sheep and we pounded the path for an hour or so until we arrived at a large boulder in a copse of stunted trees. This was declared a fine spot for a bivouac. Very early the next morning we set off up the north face of our mountain, scrambling over hideously loose and dangerous ground in the dark, rocks and boulders raining down over those behind from those in front; and we slithered incontinently upon our crampon points and waved our ice axes about ineffectually while struggling up simple slopes of soggy snow in pools of anaemic torchlight. Until, at dawn, we reached the top.

We had reached the summit, but unfortunately it was not the summit of the Grands Charmoz. Indeed we looked down the other side of a very minor ridge, entirely divorced from the North Face of the Grands Charmoz, to the foot of our intended route a couple of hundred feet below us. A very fat alpine marmot surveyed us from a nearby boulder with evident disdain before slowly turning around and waddling off. Turning around ourselves, as if on command and without a word, we scrambled and walked back down to Montenvers. We continued walking down the track to the Biolay campsite because other economies could not be justified against such abject failure. Oh we were such fine budding alpinists, Ben Nevis trained though we were.

Grands Charmoz  © Jamie Simpson - Alpine Dragons
Grands Charmoz
© Jamie Simpson - Alpine Dragons, May 2008

The second attempt was marginally more successful in that we four arrived properly at the foot of the correct face in good order and in good weather and prepared to bivouac on the snow. But it stormed that afternoon, as often it does in the Alps, and after a wet bivouac we retreated like whipped curs, in lovely sunshine, to the fleshpots of Chamonix and to our Biolay campsite once more. Those, it must be said, were our failures and we were four.

Now, three is a much luckier number and so for our third attempt we went without Bushman, who was far more interested in sneaking off to climb something else, and with someone else, than waste any more time and energy on that clutch of fumbling fools, Kingy, Dirty Alex, and me. And this time we reached the foot of the face in good order and bivouacked without getting drenched in an afternoon downpour and everything seemed set for the climb on the morrow. On the morrow the weather was indeed fine and we set off as a string of three, not four, and not too early; Kingy, followed by me, and with Dirty Alex tagging along at the back end of the string.

Being a gentleman I do hesitate to point the finger at anyone in particular as having been the flat footed bringer of bad luck to our earlier attempts, the vile churchman, as it were, on our wandering barque. Indeed, we Scotch not being at all superstitious, I regard this very idea of someone being a jinx to be an utter and complete nonsense. The astute reader, however, might note that as soon as Bushman resigned his position on the team's roster the team's fortunes did seem to improve. This may, of course, have been due simply to three, rather than four, being the lucky number. Or it may have been that unlucky Bushman … but I digress. Enough beating about the bush and on with the story.

The opening pitches of the climb involved hard mixed climbing, the kind of mixed climbing which you would have expected in the seventies on Ben Nevis and much harder than we had expected on an alpine route first climbed in the early thirties. Kingy led the first section up a rocky chimney and grooves with an occasional ice bulge, and I led the second section up snowy grooves with rocky bits and icy bulges to a long, shallow trough leading to the bottom left hand side of the central ice-field. Dirty Alex, meanwhile, tagged along at the back end of the string.

By the time we reached the central ice field we were all quite tired. By the unaccustomed effects of altitude, I should point out, rather than by exertion for we were young and should, theoretically at least, have been fit. Altitude is, of course, not something that you have to bother much about on an ascent of Green Gully or even Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis even though those climbs do lead directly to the summit plateau of the Ben, the highest mountain in all of Britain. But now, being at altitude and with miles and miles, or so it seemed, of plodding up a sheet of ice before us the effects shortly made themselves felt. In addition it was terribly easy climbing up that ice, and very quickly we dispensed with the idea of climbing for ever and ever from wobbly ice screw belay to wobbly ice screw belay and just moved together, a little caterpillar of three, puffing up the slope. I led, Kingy followed and Dirty Alex, meanwhile, tagged along at the back end of the string. We did have to be careful, as even we novices realised, for the ice, higher up the slope and in the lower reaches of the summit couloir, was covered in snow, fresh powder snow, and in imminent danger of sliding off the face. And us, a trio of huffing, puffing and gormless little vermicelli, with it.

We arrived, in due course and with great care, at a steepening of the summit couloir. Here there was a great bulging of the snow in a constriction. Looking at the face from below, and in our ignorance, we had assumed that all the white bits were just easy angled snow and that we would run up them no bother at all because we had climbed in Scotland in the winter and this was just the Alps and in the summer. The opening pitches of the climb, however, had made us wonder. And the upper couloir was to provide two of the hardest pitches of pure snow climbing that I have ever undertaken. Even Kingy, My Famous Kingy who had led Stony Middleton's Our Father without so much as a prayer, who had battled through the jaws of Wen's Tyrannosaurus Rex on the sharp end of the rope and won through, and who had winked up Gogarth Upper Tier's Winking Crack in the blink of an eye, turned down the offer of a lead on the second rope-length in the bulging constipation of the upper couloir! It was that hard and very, very scary.

Having been handed the short straw, being the Scotsman, I led off up the first steep pitch of the upper couloir. It didn't seem so hard … just steepish snow. But the steepish snow got steeper and steeper, and remained snow and very powdery. And it didn't turn out to have reassuringly solid bulges of good ice poking out from underneath. I had a Terrordactyl axe, with its lovely broad adze, that worked so wonderfully well in this kind of thing; and I had a Terrordactyl hammer that didn't work worth shit in this kind of thing. I could have asked Kingy for a loan of his Terrordactyl axe, so that then I would have had two axes, but pride would not let me admit that I was having difficulty on this simple snow slope. And, as we all know, pride comes before a fall! But I didn't fall off, although it was a close run thing indeed. Instead I patted out big footholds in the snow and tried to make them firm enough to support me by pressing down on them. And I tried digging a deep trench up the snow, with my wonderful Terrordactyl axe in lieu of a shovel, in an attempt to make the angle of the snow seem less than vertical. I ended up, therefore, looking like a little pile of snow slowly moving straight up the middle of the couloir and leaving a shallow groove behind to mark my progress. How much I succeeded in reducing the angle of the slope with my trench I don't know, but it was enough. I didn't fall off. In spite of my pride.

Meanwhile the afternoon storm began and today, unlike yesterday, thunder and lightning did their noisy and noisome thing above us. And snow began to fall, quantities of powder snow and a furious gale with it, and constant spindrift avalanches that plastered up my face behind my spectacles and built upon my eyelashes little piles of snow, so very like piles of heavy sand. I climbed with my spectacles jammed into my mouth so that I could see where I was going. And I climbed with my eyes wedged shut by those little piles of what felt like heavy sand so that I couldn't see at all what I was doing. And, perhaps that was just as well, for Kingy and Dirty Alex down on the stance were getting impatient with the slow progress of the 'Scottish Master of Ice Climbing' on this simple snow slope, and fidgeting and mucking around and playing the fool to keep warm. With the ropes full out I was able to find a rock spike deep under the snow to loop a sling over, and I sagged down on the rope clipped through the sling and wept over my frozen hands in my frozen Dachstein mitts and stuffed under my armpits. After an age of weeping I tied on properly, realising as I did so that I had been staring Auld Nick straight in the face and me without a single runner between myself and my friends playing about in the cold one hundred and fifty feet below like naughty schoolboys.

Kingy followed, floundering wildly up my groove and looking more and more desperate as he realised that there was nothing in the bottomless powder to get a hold of and that there was a serious risk that the snow was all going to fall down with him balled up inside like the jam centre in a roly-poly pudding, or the chewy caramel inside the yummiest of Roses Chocolates. Dirty Alex, when Kingy finally had arrived at the stance and had wept over his burning hands, was brusquely told by Kingy to wait. And then Kingy backed off the next lead – the only time I ever saw him do that.

'No, no, you just carry on. You're doing fine. Besides, it's much more your kind of thing. It is snow, after all, and you're the Scotsman. This is what you're here for!'

I had to lead on first before Kingy could bring Dirty Alex up to our little bucket in the snow. And I led on up more of the same. Patting down big footholds in the bottomless powder and attempting to dig another deep trench through the falling snow and hissing spindrift avalanches. By this time, however, the spindrift had become even worse than before and as fast as I dug my Sisyphean trench it filled the bloody thing up. And it topped up those little piles on top of my eyelashes that felt so very like little piles of heavy sand. And it coated me in layers of frosted snow so that I looked very much like a large snowball rolling upwards in defiance of all the laws of gravity, real and imagined. And that flood of spindrift, it tried and tried to push me off. Blind, frozen, numb with terror I ploughed my very slow and lonely furrow up that vertical wall of snow that seemed to be moving down as fast as I was moving up until Kingy called out 'stop!'

And I stopped straight away, grubbing around under the snow to find myself another rock spike. The little one that I found was the only protection of the pitch and I lashed myself to it, shuddering. Then I wept and wept over my frozen hands in my frozen Dachstein mitts and stuffed under my armpits as I hung there, a sad little bundle of frozen, weeping snow.

I had a fair bit of time to recover, for Kingy still had to bring Dirty Alex up to the stance below, and Dirty Alex, after his long wait in the blizzard, was frozen almost into a statue. Dirty Alex, having cracked off his statuary of ice, climbed up to Kingy, Kingy climbed up to me, and Dirty Alex climbed up to us. Then, when we were all together again, both said simply, not knowing the full story and in unison like the opera chorus after a particularly riveting aria, 'good lead Smithy'.

Kingy led us on up a mixed face through the falling snow that was being whipped up by the wind, and I resumed the helm and steered us into a narrow passage, and Kingy continued along the narrow passage that led him to a col on the summit ridge between 2 pinnacles. I followed Kingy up that last pitch, and Dirty Alex, meanwhile, tagged along at the back end of the string and finished the climb.

As darkness was falling rapidly we got out our orange polyethylene bivouac bags, a tiny crew of miserable, dripping ne'er-do-wells who lacked the fortitude even to get out the stove and brew up something warm to drink. I carried a large bag for Kingy and myself to pass the night in, while Dirty Alex, travelling, as it were, supernumerary, had his own little one. Like fools we took off our boots, in order to be more comfortable, sitting in our poly bags. This was extremely silly for they froze very hard in the night, being heavy leather things in those days and soaking wet. In the morning, therefore, we had a heck of a job to get them bent enough to fit onto our feet, without socks even. We sat wretched through that long night without brewing up (even Kingy went without his cup of tea); without eating even the tiniest nibble; and without a moment's kip. For the afternoon storm went on into the middle of the night. Then, when the stars came out at last, it got very, very cold and perched on our little ledge between the pinnacles, stuffed into the sopping insides of our poly bags which froze solid into crackling crisp pokes of ice, we could do little but sit and wriggle and squirm.

In the morning we hobbled slowly down a ridge, making long abseils because we had no idea where we were going, and we hobbled slowly down a baby glacier with our noses pointed towards the wooded meadows of the Plan de l'Aiguille, and thence we hobbled slowly down the long path through the trees to Chamonix and to our campsite in the mud of the Biolay woods. I had a blistered toe and a black toenail after that little outing that hurt like hell whenever I went climbing, causing me to forswear Alpine climbing forever after each successful ascent of the summer. The toenail eventually fell off and the blister turned black and then all the skin fell off. It wasn't until a couple of years later, after I had been badly frostbitten on the Grandes Jorasses, that I realised what that black and blistered toe had meant. I had been suffering quite badly from frostbite. But at the time I was just an alpine novice and too ignorant to know. And what the head doesn't know the heart doesn't grieve over. Which is what they say, anyway.

Choughs gaze up at the Chamonix skyline from Plan de l'Aiguille.  © Natalie Berry
Choughs gaze up at the Chamonix skyline from Plan de l'Aiguille.
© Natalie Berry

Funnily enough it just so happened that sitting here thirty years later and declined, so to say, into the dismal vale of years I started thinking back over the remarkably difficult and frightening Difficile Sup with which we had opened our Alpine partnership, Kingy and me and with Dirty Alex tagging along at the back end of the string. Looking at a topo photograph of the North Face of the Grands Charmoz generously provided by that most famous of Alpine Databases, known to us all as Luca Signorelli, however, it soon became apparent that instead of doing the Merkl–Welzenbach Difficile Sup as we had supposed, a route which wanders off onto reasonably easy rocks on the left of the summit couloir, we had done, in fact, an approximation of the Heckmair–Kröner North Face Direct, straight up the central couloir itself, a climb graded Tres Difficile Sup or, in modern parlance, V4+M. Whatever such a grade actually means, and I should be remiss if I were not to admit that I do not in the least understand the meaning of modern grading systems, our little excursion up the north face of the Grands Charmoz certainly provided a deep enough bowl of adventure for a daft trio of fresh-faced North Face Novices to sup their fill. For their first alpine route together, at any rate.

For our next North Faces Kingy and I, bursting with ambition, went on to make the first British ascent of the Shroud, again towing Dirty Alex along with us. We followed the line of Desmaison's notorious Walker Spur route for nearly a thousand feet of difficult rock climbing entirely free in order to avoid the large rocks falling down the lower runnels of the Shroud, before dribbling over onto the Shroud ice field itself and running up that in a couple of hours under a hail of shot and shrapnel from higher up. Kingy and I followed the Shroud with a rather athletic race up the Cornau Davaille Route on the north face of Les Droites against a pair of cheating Americans (they pipped us at the post, trailing us out of the rimaye and for much of the face, having a single 300 foot rope which they stretched out into 300 foot pitches while we were stuck, seething, with our 150 foot pitches). Dirty Alex had, by the way, been divested to a competing rope which came in a very poor third. A few days later we continued our efforts with the first British ascent of the Dru Couloir. Both the 'Davaille and the Dru Couloir were, in those days, graded Extremement Difficile and therefore significant objectives. It has to be admitted however that those two cheating Americans, being American and therefore far less indolent than we, having pipped us on the 'Davaille managed to turn around and get to the Dru Couloir the day before us, thereby robbing us of the bronze medal for that particular climb. Damn their eyes!

That same season Kingy and I also wandered up the Cassin Route on the Walker Spur, free-climbing Cassin's original line right from the bottom of the pillar (just because we were too lazy to go around the corner to the easier French start) to the top of the mountain, except that Kingy dragged me kicking and squealing over Whillan's free-climbing traverse instead of doing the usual abseil pitch. I must say that when Kingy goes absolutely silent for a long time and the rope doesn't move you know it's going to be tough; and Kingy was silent and unmoving on that traverse for a very long time. He says, even now, that it was hard. Finally, before the end of the summer and at Kingy's interminable and bleating insistence, we travelled all the way to Grindelwald and did the notorious Heckmair Route on the north face of the Eiger. The whole dark frosted up pile of limestone interspersed with a kilometre or two of plodding up sheets of ice and powder snow (we were far too frightened to be bored, but we still huffed and puffed our way up together, as a little caterpillar of two, rather than climbing for ever and ever from wobbly ice screw belay to wobbly ice screw belay). We climbed in crampons every foot of the way; and without the whiff of a single falling stone! I wept with relief on that summit. Secretly.

In spite of the awful reputations held by all these other great north walls for difficulty and danger I must confess that I have always felt for our first great north wall, the North Face of the Grands Charmoz, a great affection. I feel, even now, that it was the equal in many ways of those other, greater, north walls. I have never again, for example, felt quite as heroically frightened as I did in that upper couloir when Kingy pointed out to me that, as a Scotsman, it was up to me to dig those trenches in the snow for my English companions to follow. Indeed 'A Scotsman's Duty' was what he called it. Pah! These English! 'A Scotsman's Duty'! Digging trenches in the snow 'for my English companions to follow', like any old Irish navvy(4)! When indeed will those Scottish Nationalists rid us of the pests?

Footnotes for our English friends, who may not know:

(1) Stovies: A delicious and cheap Scotch dish of potatoes and onions boiled up with beef dripping. It goes excellently well with cold ox tongue, or tolerably in a sandwich made with thick slices of Mother's Pride bread lathered in Blue Bonnet margarine. Unfortunately I had neither the cold ox tongue nor a loaf of Mother's Pride with me on Ben Nevis.

(2) Poke: a bag. On this occasion a little polyethylene poke, as from a supermarket, as opposed to the big orange polyethylene pokes that we kipped in..

(3) According to Mr Murray "…MacAlpine flowed up the icy gutter like a Persian cat to a milk saucer." W.H. Murray Mountaineering In Scotland. Murray et al were not, it should be noted, climbing Slav Route at that time; it must have been an icy gutter somewhere else.

(4) Irish navvy: This may seem, it must be admitted, a dreadful and very racist slur on the Irish. But 'Irish navvy' was, in those days, simply the standard illustration for referring to one who worked hard at manual labour. The English, as is generally recognised, never worked hard at anything, preferring that the Scots and the Irish should do their hard work for them. The Scots, naturally, reserve themselves for hard work of the pecuniary kind, while the Irish have always been reserved for more manual labours even though they do seem to be unaccountably good with words (when, of course, the words can be understood).

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24 Feb

Great stuff

Really enjoyable read


24 Feb

Enjoyed that. Well written, and what climbing memories are made of.

24 Feb

A long read, but a good one . They were great days when we had Terrors and the continentals didn't. Anything with a hint of snow or ice was ticked off in super quick time. I can recall a hut warden telling us that such a route was not in condition and had not been climbed that season. We returned that evening with the route ticked and all the local guides inspecting our Terrors. Early 70's I guess Gordon. Thanks for posting.

24 Feb

Wonderful. :-)

Excellent, I really enjoyed your article Gordon. Great to hear about your exploits with Dirty Alex and Terry King who I haven’t heard of for many many years.

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