In 1965, Tony Howard, John Amatt and Bill Tweedale succeeded on the British first ascent of Europe's tallest rock face, the Troll Wall in Norway. Joe Brown later described this ascent as 'one of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers.'
In this exclusive excerpt from his new book Troll Wall – The untold story of the British first ascent of Europe's tallest rock face – Tony Howard recounts the team's first attempt to crack one of the key sections of the climb, the Great Wall. This climbing is pure exploration; on-sight and very exposed. The team on this first attempt consisted of John Amatt, Tony 'Nick' Nicholls, Bill Tweedale and Tony Howard.
The Great Wall
I knew I hadn't underestimated its size. The whole of this part of the wall was vertical and the stance was merely a sloping scoop in the rock a few inches wide. To make matters worse, our belay consisted of a wooden wedge in a crack that was too awkward a shape to fit anything else, and a large nut. Neither looked very secure.
Nevertheless, John, who had put them in, seemed to think they were perfectly sound. Preferring to believe him rather than think about the possible consequences if he was wrong, I clipped in alongside him and took my sack off, hanging it from the wedge. Gasping up the last pitch with the weight of the sack tugging downwards at my shoulders as I fought up every move had been, for me, just about the limit. I gratefully accepted John's offer to continue in the lead.
He moved back onto the last pegs and regained the crack, once more climbing free in a superb position. Below, the clouds from the valley, which was now hidden from view by the angle of the wall, were creeping into sight. The weather was obviously worsening. Grey fingers of mist were groping towards us and overhead the sky was almost overcast. In the shadow of the wall it was becoming cold and damp. Almost a hundred feet below, I could see that Bill had joined Nick and the two figures were curled together in their duvets between the jumble of sacks.
Above me, John was still climbing steadily, pausing occasionally to place a peg or dislodge loose stones jammed in the crack, which were barring his progress. He threw them off into space and they went spinning dizzily past, crashing only once in the giant chute formed by the huge groove below the Great Wall, before howling off into space to be swallowed up by the mist below. It was horribly unnerving to watch and I cast an uncertain eye at the belay, whose security I still half-doubted.
Time was passing, mostly absorbed by the laborious process of sack-hauling. If we didn't escape from the Great Wall soon, we would be trapped on the open face without any protection from the weather or anywhere to sleep. Furthermore, knowing there were snow ledges above, we had very little water with us and my thirst was growing powerfully.
Still John moved up, and eventually he reached a small black depression large enough to belay in, once more almost a hundred feet above me. 'How far to the top of the Great Wall now?' I asked. Surely it couldn't be far, as he was at the start of the diagonal cracks that led out below the prow to its left edge. I saw him lean out, gazing upwards, then the answer came down: 'It might be another hundred feet yet. I can't say how hard it'll be, but it doesn't look too bad.'
The mist was still hanging furtively round the bottom edge of the Great Wall as if undecided about its next move. There was still a chance we could get to a ledge before the bad weather set in. If only we didn't have those blasted sacks. Hoping for the best, I took in the ropes that hung down to Nick. Below, the two white-helmeted figures bobbed into activity as they re-arranged themselves and then Nick moved up into the crack.
He was just reappearing through the gash in the small overhang when one of the threaded chockstones pulled out. Suddenly off-balance, he went swinging backwards, out over a thousand feet of space. For one brief moment he was silhouetted against the grey swirling mist before swinging back onto the rock on the end of my rope. 'Thanks, mate,' he said, and the event was over. Had this happened to the leader it might have proved disastrous; now it was nothing more than a passing incident. Unperturbed by his brief flight in space, Nick continued upwards and was soon beside me, looking with equal distaste at the belay. 'Is it okay?' he asked, warily. 'It is so far,' I replied with a grin, and once more we began hauling the sacks up from Bill, struggling as they jammed and snagged on every projection.
Stood with only the toes of our boots on the minute ledge and now completely dependent on the security of the belay, we were from the start hampered by my sack hanging beside us. When the next sack and then the third came up, it was almost impossible to move. Each bag was hung onto the dubious wedge. Even wearing gloves, the ropes cut painfully into our hands and lifting the fourth sack up those hundred feet of rock seemed to take an eternity. At last, with our hands sore and cramped into a clenched position we clipped it in alongside us. Time had flown. We had been on the Great Wall almost fourteen hours and it was after midnight.
As I started up the next pitch to John, the mist was now beginning to rise up stealthily. Below me, Bill was already hidden from view. The ropes hanging down from Nick simply vanished into the mist. This had swallowed Bill whole and seemed to be closing malevolently around us. The pitch was hard, and when I arrived at John's small stance I was greeted by water dripping remorselessly down from the huge prow, now also hidden in the mist above. John was huddled dismally in his anorak, which was thoroughly soaked, and I tried to shelter unsuccessfully beneath a small overhang beside him. The mist was everywhere and we were completely shut off in our own small world, only able to see a few feet on either side. It was almost two in the morning. Bill, who had been on his small ledge for half the day, was now invisible almost two hundred feet below and must have been feeling very lonely. Nick too was now isolated and out of sight, hanging with the sacks from the wedge, whilst above our heads, the crack still continued, slanting out left, black and wet into the mist.
Its difficulties were unknown, and to start it now, tired as we were and not knowing the outcome, would be futile. As if to emphasise the impossibility of our situation, it was starting to rain, a cold saturating drizzle. We began to shiver. A decision had to be made. We would have to go down, there was no other choice. After all the toil, after all the graft, after almost reaching the top of this most coveted section of the route, which we felt sure was the key to the lower half of the climb, we had to go down. The decision was obvious but the words were hard to say.
We stood for a while in the rain wondering if, after all, there was another way out. But the decision had to be made, abseil pegs had to be placed and we had to start on the descent. The Great Wall, which had impressed us so much, had won. Having made the decision, I doubted very much if I would ever return.
Exclusive edited excerpt from Troll Wall by Tony Howard.
© Tony Howard/Vertebrate Publishing 2011.
No reproduction without the express permission of the publisher.
Norway, 1965. A team of young climbers from the north of England camp at the bottom of the tallest vertical rock face in Europe – the Troll Wall. No one has dared attempt this gigantic challenge before. Some say it will never be climbed. This will be the adventure of a lifetime.
Rain and snow soak them as they climb. Avalanches and loose rock threaten their lives. A Norwegian team arrives to compete for the glory as the world's media look on. Pushed to the limits of exhaustion, the team spends days on the wall, refusing to give in, even when failure seems certain.
Troll Wall tells the gripping story of one of the most dramatic first ascents in British climbing history. Written days after their success, almost half a century ago, and newly rediscovered, Tony Howard's account is a fascinating insight into the challenges of climbing a big mountain wall.
From the Foreword by Doug Scott
'It is somewhat typical of Tony Howard and the era when he did his greatest climbs that in 1965 he should write a comprehensive and, as it turns out, riveting account of his epic ascent of Troll Wall, then escape to the hills to avoid the limelight and forget all about it for nearly half a century. How wonderful that we can now read about the life and times of all the characters involved in this gripping Norwegian saga. It is about time we had more information about this mountaineer, who has contributed so much to climbing here in Britain and abroad. I found his account compulsive reading, a real page-turner, not just for those interested in big-wall climbing, but also anyone who enjoys reading of epic journeys into the unknown.'
Troll Wall is available from book shops, outdoor shops and direct from www.v-publishing.co.uk