A Grand Day Out 23: Dilated Moments of Struggle

by Colin Smith Mar/2009
This article has been read 2,154 times
Grand Day Out
© Colin Smith

"Slow down. Breathe. You can do this".

I know the voice well, envy its calm detachment. Looking down the gully, I listen for the father and son team I left at the fork below. Silence. They're probably finishing their next pitch, way out of earshot. I'm alone. A wave of fear washes over me, drowning my confidence, blurring the walls around me into a towering swell of cold black rock.


What are my options? Retreat? Maybe, but the two lean steps I passed would make a difficult down climb. An abseil is still possible using the rope I overconfidently left at the bottom of my rucksack, but I'm craving the feeling of reaching the summit, seeing the angle suddenly ease as I pull over the cornice, vista opening to panorama. Up? I desperately survey the rock step that's blocking my way ahead. The cover is much too lean for the grade I was expecting. This is only my second winter season, my sixth winter route, my fourth winter solo. I'm out of my depth.

"Slow down".

This time I listen. The fear ebbs and I rise from its dark abyss, break the surface and breathe again, vision clearing. Then I see the moves, the protection, a way forward. The crack tapers at two points, just enough to grip two nuts. They're not bomber, but I believe they'll hold. I join two long slings and fasten them to the equalised anchor. I'll unclip the first sling when it's fully run out, the extension of the second taking me over this crux. It's unorthodox, but if I fall it should stop me before I accelerate towards the valley floor far below. I double-check everything, preparing to start the sequence. A new surge of fear rolls in. I ignore it this time, because it won't help.


I swing my right axe deep into a pocket of ice, way above me. It feels solid but I can't see it properly. My left pick slots into a crack and I twist the shaft to torque it. It feels strange, precarious, but I've read about this technique and know it should work. My right crampon buries into semi frozen snow and my left frontpoints find a small rock bulge. Up. Delicately coaxing my right axe free I reach again, swinging from the wrist. Three swings and it finds solid ice. My left axe slips easily from the crack and I hook the tip of the pick on a tiny ledge. I remember seeing thin ice smeared on the rock to my right. Bringing my foot up and around I kick in. It's a stretch and my centre of gravity is way off to the left. Trying not to lift my heel, my body tenses, I push and pull. The axes hold. I move up.

Instantly, my entire universe exists on this wall. I can almost see the molecules of ice, rock and steel, compressing together, straining under the tension. My muscles are pumped, fibers starting to tear and fail, but I'm not aware of it, adrenaline numbing the pain. In time, I won't think about the long approach along the valley, or the endless walk out in the dark. It will be these dilated moments of struggle that will define the day.

"Keep moving".

Two more delicate moves and I can see the easier ground above. Then I feel gravity multiply. Fear. Panic. I'm held.

"Slow down. Breathe".

I do, and then I realise that I haven't unclipped the first sling from my harness. Three points of contact in delicate balance, I reach down and release it. I see the next moves, solve the problem. I climb.

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