Depending where your outlook places you on a spectrum from Fatalism to Free Will, it can be argued that each moment is pregnant with the consequences of the taken, or mistaken, step.

Edward Whymper wrote ‘.. look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.‘ His words hint at a philosophical view which believes there are a multiverse of consequences which swim, unseen, like dark matter around every moment of our existence. Some climbing – like violence, driving fast or any other risk-management activity, may be addictive partly through its capacity to amplify awareness of the unseen to the point where the practitioner experiences feeling ‘more alive‘.

I wonder whether one day processing power will reach a point where it can suck in the  billions of variables inherent in the complex dynamic system of human decision making in risky situations, and rapidly create a probability forecast of the consequences of our decisions. The forecast would be streamed in real time to help inform us about the wisdom of our next move – from a business venture to deciding to set off up a difficult climb. We do this everyday using a limited range of inputs to form simple on-the-go heuristics. Having more beta would be like living the flash instead of the onsight. Deep Blue predicting our next move on a chessboard of life.

Or, if you believe in the fated path, your life’s trail has already been blazed. All you’re doing is following it.

Dave was a pilot flying commercial jets for a regional airline in the far north of Canada. We meet up on a bitterly cold morning in Kananaskis Country just south of Canmore. He’s happy and excited because he’s starting his long-awaited Captain’s promotion course tomorrow. It’s Dave’s first day of the ice-climbing season so we aren’t gunning for anything difficult, King Creek seems like a sensible option. Earlier that year we’d rock climbed on ‘Canada’s longest sport route’ as our first outing together. It went fine, but ‘Canada’s longest sport route’ is over-egged: good enough, but not really deserving of the accolade when there are so many finer pieces of rock in that vast country.

The day was Canadian mid-winter cold. After moving to Canmore I’d developed a temperature heuristic: snot froze in the nose on the walk home from the bar at anything colder than around minus 15 degrees C. Walking in up the log-jammed creek that morning our snot was frozen, along with our toes and fingers. Not a day to have an accident; or so we thought.

We arrive below a slabby M4, gear up and do ridiculous calisthenics in an attempt to force some warmth through our bodies. Tricky slab-climbing to a crack. Just like Wales but not rimed. We do one pitch and then bail from the crack due to too much snow, oh the irony! We decide to head further up the creek to a wide area containing some easy ice routes. A group are there top-roping under the supervision of their stereotypically generic guide. Alpha male in Arc’teryx soft-shell, probably likes carpentry.

We each lead a couple of easy ice routes, enjoying the warm movement and care-free atmosphere. The guided group starts to pack up. It’s getting toward the end of a bitterly cold day, even for Canadian climbers. Minus 22 degrees C in the January afternoon gloom.

One more? We head further up the creek.

There’s a good-looking pitch of WI4 where the narrow creek opens out into vast alpine terrain beyond. We drop our packs at the base of the icefall and uncoil the ropes. I lead the route and anchor myself at the top. An impressive WI5+ ice pillar cascades down the wall behind me. Dave climbs up to me. It’s late now, the group left long ago and we’re alone. The winter sky quietly watches us.

We remark how good the ice pillar looks. Shall we take a quick look? I decide to set off up the pillar.

It’s steep and there isn’t any gear.

Can’t place a screw in the skinny pillar, I’ll have to reach the solid ice on the headwall 40 feet above.

I go up and down the first 10 feet, listening to my inner.

Will I won’t I will I won’t I will I won’t I? The CPU quietly hums, fan whirring to keep the elements cool in the deeply frozen air.

I won’t. Ego and a probability heuristic combine and deliver an answer. A memo from accounts arriving in a 1950’s mail room, delivered noiselessly down a vacuum tube. I retire for the day, content.

Dave says he’d like to take a look… Ok.

We swap ends of rope and he starts to climb.

He’s a mid-grade rock climber, a busy family man, a professional pilot. It’s his first day ice-climbing of the season but he’s got experience climbing hard ice in Alaska, he’s not a gym rat and not an ice climbing wad. Neither of us are.

The ice is steep, hard, unhooked; and unprotected for a long way.

He’s swinging and moving confidently upwards. He reaches forty feet up. There aren’t any runners in. I watch him, processing, the fan quietly whirring….

He’s swinging, his muscles are fatigued and his axes are bouncing off the bullet hard ice. He isn’t fit enough.

He’s pumping out and I’m watching it, blatant. It’s Probable. The processor quietly hums… The next stage.

Right tool in a poor placement, he swings ineffectively with his left tool and it bounces off the ice. A second swing, a second bounce. Heavy panting. Not fit enough. Half-way up, crampons. No runners. Unforgiving violence; or morning coffee and lessons on the Captains promotion course? Dave reaches the cul-de-sac. The poor right tool pops out of the ice and for his prior lifetime he’s airborne; if only he never landed.

Ice screws and carabiners noisily jangle as the weakest of the four fundamental forces instantly wakes up and slams Dave with bone-snapping force into the hard ground from 40 feet.

24 hours into the future a pilot receives a phone call: ‘a place has become available on this year’s promotion course, can you make it?‘.

I kneel down next to him. Leg-bones point sideways. Blood is there. ‘Oh my god it’s broken’ are his words, adrenalin masks some of his horror. It’s bitterly cold, it’s dark, we’re alone, a pitch up, hours from medical treatment. He’s fucked.

I lie to him and tell him it’s not bad and that he’ll soon be out of there. Legs strapped together with a sling he’s lowered, screaming, back down the previous ice pitch. I follow by abseil. We discuss how to get out back to the road. Crawling – dismissed. Carrying – dismissed. Hobbling – not a hope. I wrap him in everything we have and leave him to his demons in the cold dark night of the creek.

There’s a ranger station not far along the highway from where we left the car, hopefully there will be someone there. I take his keys and run down the creek for an eternity but is really around 20 minutes. I reach the car and for a fraction of a second acknowledge that I’ve always wanted to test drive this model of Suburu. The ranger station has a light on in the wilderness like in the films. I bang on the door. Canadian uniforms, radios, authoritative voices summoning a volunteer rescue team by telephone. Can I escort two paramedics ahead of the main rescue party?

Off we go back up the creek with the two inadequately clothed medics. It’s very cold and they’re out of their depths. We reach Dave. It’s been two hours since I left him and three hours since he smashed into the ground. It’s bitterly cold. Afterwards he told me how he was sure he was going to die of shock or hypothermia and had began saying his farewells to his wife and children, lying in the snow in the dark cold night. The thought brings tears to my eyes. The two paramedics start to unpack their cases full of equipment. The vials of painkilling morphine have all frozen solid and are useless. I rage inwardly. This is Canada in winter, don’t they put drugs in fucking insulated cases? –  but these people are just trying to help out a couple of silly climbers. The medics shuffle around, shivering uncontrollably. We put some morphine vials under our armpits to try to thaw them out. It doesn’t work.

The rescue team arrive half an hour later with a big old man in charge who’s a force. They package Dave into a large orange plastic sledge with a dirty perspex shield. Won’t be able to see much. The two medics are escorted out by one of the rescue team, they’re gone, with incipient frostbite. Dave has seriously broken bones and hasn’t had any pain relief since he smashed into the ground and we’re about to spend hours dragging him down a rough creek bed. The next couple of hours pass in an exhausting blur of dragging, screaming, and more dragging. We reach the road at 1 in the morning, the big leader guy lets me lead the drag for the last 50 metres. I thank him silently. A week later I’ll write him a letter thanking him and his team for being there that night. Solid oaks in a storm.

Dave’s transferred into the waiting ambulance; bright and warm contrasts starkly with the cold dark. The rescue team and medics go off for pizza in the ranger station. They invite me along, I decline and never see them again, I want to be alone. I drive Dave’s car back to where I’d left my little honda with the studded tires. I get in and remember the heater doesn’t work. It’s minus 25 and I’m hypothermic, shivering uncontrollably and trance-like as I drive the 45 minutes home to Canmore. I arrive home to my rented condo with the under-floor heating, dump my gear in the hall, and go to bed.

The next morning I don’t mention much about the previous night to my housemates. Blood on goretex soon washes off. I try but fail to reflect. I’m tired and a bit numb like after an alpine route, or two-week’s on a full-tac exercise, or a six-month operational tour. It takes Dave a year to come off crutches but his leg will never be the same. Running is out. The last time we spoke he hadn’t ice climbed since the accident.  I continue living the life of a climber in the Rockies. I try to remember to look well to each step but it’s an impossibility – a single brain can’t process all the variables at every moment. A processor with finite processing power trying to forecast an enormous, dynamic and unstable system. The sound of jangling ice screws snaps me back to his life-altering impact.

First ascent: Lateo

The Unnamed 1

Below the roof on the first ascent. The route goes through the roof on the right. The steep crack on the left is Travesty Direct.
Photo: Tom Livingstone

Three winters ago, after bailing from an attempted repeat of Travesty Direct on Clogwyn Du, Dave Garry and I decide to take a quick look at an obvious enticing line to the right. A crack line through the steepest part of the cliff looked to provide all the ingredients we wanted in a mixed route – compelling line, hard climbing, impressive position, and a reasonable chance of gear. The hook was baited and we were reeled in and landed like helpless fishies. Since then, my winter climbing in Wales has stalled for what seems like an eternity on attempts at the new route on this deceptively steep cliff.

Tuesday’s conditions are looking excellent. It will be my seventh day of attempts but my first visit for nearly 12 months. If it doesn’t go today, I don’t know if I’ll be able to justify spending any longer trying and failing to climb one route.

Finding willing partners to climb a hard new mixed route with had proved hard. Another hurdle. Firstly, people are understandably reluctant to try something new and unknown when they could go and try a known quantity – winter conditions in Wales are fickle at the best of times; why risk not ticking anything? Secondly, the climbing scene in North Wales, like any walk of life, contains its share of people hamstrung by self-limiting beliefs, many of which seem to me to stem from accepting certain axioms which circulate like disabling parasites looking for a host. Allow one to get it’s teeth into you and you’re fucked by an atrophy of the belief organ that can be chronic. Luckily for me Tom Livingstone is keen for a look – the right mix of youth, cheerfulness, ambition and ability to contrast with my innumerable years, focus, and drive to see this project finished. Tom hasn’t been around long enough to dissuade himself from trying hard so I’m safe from any negativity other than my own.

On arrival at the cliff it’s obvious that the variables are set up in our favour. Fluffy thick rime coats the rock – dry rock with no verglas. Temps are easterly cold yet there’s hardly a breath of wind, making for comfortable climbing. The turf is frozen solid. The only unknown will be ourselves.

An age getting ready. Food, a little chat, hot juice, the usual. Racking up and going through the quiet psyching-up process inherent in trying something you know from previous attempts is going to be difficult and which is likely to involve falling off… silently mantra’ing, bigging up, constructing belief. Make-believe.

‘just go for it’, ‘most of the gear’s held every time’, ‘just go for it’, ‘don’t leave anything behind on the ground this time’, ‘you’re good enough’, ‘you’ve worked hard for this’, ‘100%’.

I set off. The gear crib sheet I’d written after last winter’s final attempt proves wrong at the first placement. And the next. No worries, plenty of time to rest before committing to the steepness above. Leaving the rest ledge I start to execute the moves as I’d rehearsed hundreds of times in my head. It’s obviously hard but feels ok. I start to struggle as I reach the point where rehearsal stutters into 12 months worth of faded memories. I’m on overhanging ground, on a tenuous right hook trying to find something useable for my left, strength ebbing, my borrowed time ends and I’m in flight as the tenuous hook pops. The gear holds, I hit the slab with a thud but it’s ok. I’ve now hit the slab in the same place seven times. There’ll soon be a 5’10” imprint of a mixed climber. I’m lowered to the ground. It’s over. Relatively unfit after weeks of bolting but zero climbing, I’m doubtful that I’ve got enough juice left in my arms for success this day.

Tom’s eager for a look. I silently wonder to myself if I’d be as keen if it was me in his place looking at the route for the first time. The eagerness of youth! He gets to the lip of the roof and tries my beta, as he starts to move leftwards a tenuous hook pops and he’s airborne. The slab below receives him. A recalcitrant axe needs retrieving from where it was left above the roof so Tom goes back up with one of mine. Impressively, as he reaches the in-situ axe he accurately deposits mine onto the ledge below and continues questing onward into the harder climbing.

And then he falls again, slightly further on than before. We’re both shut down by the steepness and blind hooks. It’s all oh so familiar, it’s never going to happen, and I’ve wasted 7 valuable days of Welsh winter climbing – a whole season! – on an over-ambitious dream.

An hour has passed. I absentmindedly re-rack, the process consigned to autopilot by now, expecting to be stripping the gear and bailing in 10 minutes time. Rhubarb and Custards provide momentary tangy pleasure and the sugar rush essential for a falsely confident approach.

Starting the stein pull feels more cumbersome than last time. Internally: ‘No chance, I’ll just have a little huff and puff and we’ll bail‘. Reach through to hook above the bulge and match. ‘Not feeling strong after last time‘. I decide in an instant to try something different to the moves which I know work and which I’d rehearsed a hundred times in my head over the last two years. I’m on steep ground on tenuous hooks but I’m making progress. Before I know it I’m at the crack, but pumped. ‘No chance of holding on for much longer‘. A wire goes in, but the angle’s steep and the position strenuous. ‘I could just slump‘. A move upwards is made. I change. The internal polarity instantly switches from – to +. Ice caps melt. The internal dialogue becomes fiercely positive, an affirmation of commitment, I am not going to fall until everything has been given.

Everything isn’t required. I prove myself right to have dreamed as I nervously reach the belay ledge and secure myself. Three winters on, I’m where I want to be.

Clogwyn Du proj 5

Shaking the pump at the start of the hard climbing. Photo by Calum Muskett from the belay of Travesty, during a previous attempt in 2012.

Advice to people who suffer long-term back pain

This is for active people, it may not be good advice for sedentary people.

I’ve had disc-related back pain on and off for the last 10 years. During that time there have been month-long periods when I couldn’t walk more than 100 metres without needing to sit down in order to stop the breath-taking nerve pain. I’ve had long periods of bad sciatica down to the foot in both legs (thankfully not at the same time). There have been many flare ups after doing something that was too much for my back. I’m currently experiencing a flare-up which has been going on for four months so far. It took me a long time to fully understand that my pain is a mechanical issue, with some mind-trickery thrown in as well.

My advice is stay as active as possible. That might sounds obvious but when I say active I mean really active, to the point that it’s border-line whether you’re going to do it more damage. I’m currently bolting dry-tooling routes across roofs inside some slate mines. This involves the sort of hard labour that would trouble many people with healthy backs. I start the day hurting and finish the day feeling amazing. The most important thing is to build up your all-over body strength so that when flare-ups do hit, as they inevitably will, they knock you down to a level which is still respectable for a normal standard of living.

As any self-help snake-oil salesman will tell you, it’s important to listen to your body and ease off at times. But this can be counter-intuitive – I’ve had many days when I felt I probably shouldn’t be doing what I’ve been doing but afterwards I’ve felt amazing. That may sound trite but I think these are the times when you make progress from inability to ability. Keep the gain made by knocking back some heavy dosage of ibuprofen to avoid sliding back again through muscles over-tightening or nerve fibres becoming too irritated from activity.

A surgeon once drew me a sketch which showed the body’s decline into ill health that we’re all destined for eventually. He illustrated how his surgical procedure would put a little halt on the path of the slide by drawing a little right angle like a step. Everyone’s bodies will have different inherent rates of decline (I figure). You can put yourself in a position where you can slow, but never halt, that rate. That’s what I mean by building up as much all over strength and being as active as pain allows.

Learn and practice good posture, read books on body mechanics and imagery, and do core strengthening/stamina workouts every day for the rest of your life. You probably know that. If you decide pain-killers are needed, go large dosage and combine with caffeine for increased punch. Otherwise do without. I generally use pain-killers after hard physical work to give the irritated nerves around the disc a little breathing space and hopefully not slide back into pain. Lastly, don’t hang on one person’s opinion, especially physio’s/chiro’s/whateverio’s.

Understand it’s a mechanical fault, it’s not all in your head. But also notice how emotions do affect pain levels. If you’re grumpy the pain is often worse. Beware of the potential for a downward spiral – the pain can make you grumpy, the emotion can enhance the pain level.