A chapter from Brian Hall's Boardman Tasker Award-shortlisted book High Risk: Climbing to Extinction.
The Silver Fox: John Whittle
An attempt on Cerro Standhardt in Patagonia which fell a few metres short of the summit with John Whittle and Brian Hall in 1977. Also on the nine month long South American expedition, though attempting different objectives, were Alan Rouse with Rab Carrington and Al and Adrian Burgess.
At last, the altimeter indicated another rise in pressure, and we set off on our next foray on Standhardt. We climbed to the col and across the ledge and ramp in a single day. Optimistically, the next day we left our bivouac gear behind at the top of the ramp, at the edge of the south face. Our strategy was to carry nothing and make a run for the summit before any incoming storm could stop us. After ten wild pitches up the face, using mixed climbing and some direct aid, we were two rope lengths from the summit, confident of success. But ominously the clouds were descending on Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre; our window of opportunity was rapidly closing.
John remembered, 'We now started to climb the honeycomb ice that draped down from the summit. The only way to negotiate this stuff was to kick away until the snow had consolidated under your weight, then punch and slash arms into the crystalline mass, Karate-style, and ease up gently. Brian led through to the summit. Well above me he pulled himself over a crest of snow, only to be knocked flat by the full force of the wind. The gear on his harness was being blown vertically, and his arms were blowing wildly about him so that Brian had to embrace himself, pinching his anorak with his hands to bring them under control. He crawled to a point a few metres below the summit mushroom.'
I was pinned insecurely to the slope, being beaten senseless by the wind. John was belayed to the last rocks below me, his hoarse cries lost to the gale while, all around was unconsolidated snow. Just above I could see a V notch in the mushroom. Could I make it? Would I be able to dig through the crown of snow? I forced myself to breathe and think. No, the storm had beaten us. Now success was going to be measured by survival. Our last descent was a dress rehearsal of what was to come. This time we were much higher on the mountain and the storm far stronger. We used every piece of knowledge and all our experience on that descent. We lived because we had to, survived because we knew how, but above all, luck was with us.
At Base Camp, we found that Al, Rab and the Twins all had similar tales of failure and survival on Fitz Roy. It was a shared experience in Patagonia, one of the earth's most beautiful yet desolate corners.
Soon after, Yosemite veteran climber Jim Bridwell visited our camp. We described our attempt and claimed the first ascent of Standhardt, but we knew full well we had not finished the job and had failed to reach the summit. With Jim came an unexpected delivery of mail. It bore sad news. Our friends from Bangor, Dave Robinson and James Boulton, who had made such a remarkable ascent of the Droites the previous winter, had just succeeded on the equally demanding North Face of the Matterhorn. Tragically they fell to their deaths on the descent. To make the news worse, the letter also carried word that Dougal Haston had been buried in an avalanche while off-piste skiing above his home in Leysin. John was distraught. He knew Dave and James much better than me, and Dougal had become a soulmate during our winter in Argentière.
'I'm going home, this life is not what I want.' John sat cross-legged, with head in hands and started to sob.
'John, you can't go. Just think about it for a few days.' I tried to persuade him to change his mind.
'I'm thinking about it too much. It's just not worth it,' John blurted.
John wandered around camp in silent bewilderment, somehow lost in another place. Although not physically injured, it seemed as though a spear had pierced his heart. There was no discussion or analysis; our camp fell strangely silent. I needed to marshal my thoughts, but emotion defied logic, and my mind was in conflict. Like a fatal car accident, I put myself in the driver's seat and relived the carnage. We were in the same situation as Dave, James and Dougal, just in a different mountain range. I asked myself if the reverse were true, and they heard of our demise, would they give up mountaineering? I doubted they would, having invested so much in their chosen lifestyle. I felt very detached from the real world, living in that cabin in the woods; our Shangri-la, our adventure, our 'silent' place. If John left what would I do? Eventually, my mind defaulted to doing nothing, and I decided to stay and see what transpired, hoping that time would heal the wounds. For sure thoughts of returning to Standhardt's defiant walls were forgotten. Next day John walked out of Base Camp.
The snow-encrusted cap of Standhardt frustrated climbers for the next eleven years. Finally in January 1988 Jim Bridwell, together with fellow Americans, Jay Smith and Greg Smith followed 'our' ramp on the East Face. But before turning the corner onto the south face, they discovered a steep thin chimney choked with ice (one hundred metres left of the chimney we failed to ascend). Climbing at the highest standard they eventually reached the summit.
'High Risk: Climbing to Extinction' by Brian Hall
Mountaineer and author Brian Hall's first book 'High Risk: Climbing to Extinction' was published on September 1st. It is one of the six books shortlisted for the prestigious Boardman Tasker 2022 Award.
The memoir gives a unique insight into risk taking and climbing in the Himalayas and the world's other great mountain ranges. He was at the forefront of the golden age of British and Himalayan mountaineering in the 1970's and 1980's. A generation of radical young climbers emerged, with tiny budgets and high ambitions they pioneered light and fast Alpine-style expeditions on great peaks including Everest, K2, Jannu, and Nuptse.
Published by Sandstone Press
Kendal Mountain Festival —the social event of the year for outdoor people takes place across the town from 18th-21st November.
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High Risk: Climbing to Extinction is shortlisted for the 2022 Boardman Tasker Award. The award ceremony will take place at Kendal Mountain Festival on 18 November 7-9 p.m. and will include readings from the six shortlisted authors. They will be in conversation with presenter and legendary mountaineer Stephen Venables.
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