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Book of the month: No Easy Way

Monday, 4 February 2019

‘Every generation has a climber that sets standards – Mick Fowler is one of those people.’ – Kenton Cool

Dubbed the ‘Mountaineer’s Mountaineer’ in a poll in The Observer, Mick Fowler is one of a specialist number of mountaineers who – far removed from the high-altitude circus of the world’s highest peaks – set his sights on the far-flung reaches of the greater ranges, seeking out remote, technically challenging lines that most Westerners will never have seen, let alone climbed. Despite having put up new routes in most fields of climbing and owning an impressive climbing resume, Mick is a modest, gentle mountaineer with no trace of ego – inspiring for more reasons than just hard climbing.

In his third volume of memoirs, No Easy Way, Mick manages challenges along the way including a full-time job in the tax office, duties as Alpine Club president and his battle with colon cancer, all the while pursuing his passion for exploratory mountaineering with annual trips to the greater ranges. 

In this extract, Mick’s former principal Himalayan climbing partner, Steve Sustad, persuades him to spend his annual leave rock climbing in Scotland. Heading for the sea cliffs on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkney Islands, they eschew the island’s honeypot, the Old Man of Hoy, and make their way to a rarely visited headland on the south end, bisected by a 200-metre gully – a compelling objective which promises a technical descent and inhospitable terrain – for all the greater sense of achievement. Relishing the challenge, loose rock, projectile-vomiting fulmars and, if they’re lucky, an abseil into the incoming tide make for a memorable experience. 

Buy a copy of No Easy Way this month and receive Mick's second set of climbing memoirs, On Thin Ice, free.

While my children were at school my climbing was generally restricted to one mountaineering trip per year and one evening per week. That wasn’t really a problem as I managed to keep a reasonably high level of fitness and was keen to spend as much time as possible at home enjoying family life. But in 2006, I still had a surplus of leave saved from the aborted trip to Kajaqiao, and Steve Sustad persuaded me that a week rock climbing in Scotland was in order. 

Stephen was my main Himalayan partner before he decided to give up visiting cold places and instead focus on trying to derive equally memorable experiences from activities ranging from horse riding to wild and remote rock climbing trips. Ever adventurous, he is not the sort of man who normally looks uneasy when surrounded by steep, intimidating stretches of rock. But on this particular occasion, despite having bounded gleefully down a dripping parallel-sided gully cleaving a 200-metre-high Scottish sea cliff, Steve was looking disconcerted. 

‘It’s my glasses,’ he explained as I slithered down the greasy rock and vegetation to within hearing distance. ‘They fell off. I think they are down in that grass. But I can’t see to see them.’ 

This was not a problem we used to experience in younger years. Additional challenges confront the exploratory climber as the years pass by and, after some deliberation, the rope came out and the sighted member of the party (glasses on) made a tricky traverse to spend some time precariously poking about in fulmar-vomit-splattered grass. If I was unsuccessful then 1,500 miles of driving and accumulated family credit points would have been wasted. But luck was with us; smelly but intact glasses were recovered and Steve was once again able to get a good look at our intended line.

‘Shit! Not sure whether that’s better or not!’

We were on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland. Hoy is best known for the Old Man, a fabulous 140-metre rock tower that graces the north-west coast of the island. We, however, were at the south end on a remote and infrequently visited headland called the Berry. The Berry is cleaved by a 200-metre-deep gully, the Gash, which it is possible to descend to sea level with only a short section requiring a rope. In the dark and dank depths the terrain is steep with unstable, slimy rocks, slippery grass and, perhaps most disconcertingly, enthusiastic fulmars. These birds are Britain’s undisputed experts at projectile vomiting. Why some chose to live in such an inhospitable place was beyond us. That said, I suppose some humans tend to hang out in some pretty odd places. It’s a funny old world. 

The aim of our efforts was the 170-metre-high north wall of the Gash and in particular a dead-straight 100-metre crack which we had spotted piercing the upper section. Viewed from the top of the south side the line looked to be on clean, good rock and offered a compelling objective. But now we stood near the bottom, Steve’s comments, said in jest as they were, looked to contain more than a grain of truth. 

Over the years Steve and I have found that we derive enormous amounts of pleasure from weaving about on steep, inhospitable terrain trying to escape self-induced commitment. Occasionally we have tended to enhance the degree of commitment still further by choosing lines that necessitate a swim to get to the start. As a non-swimmer Steve finds such climbs particularly memorable. Here, much as it was disappointing that the access did not involve swimming, the swooping fulmars and crashing waves in the deep, narrow confines of the Gash were enough to heighten the atmosphere and guarantee an experience which would likely stand the test of time. And the tide was coming in, so there was always the possibility that we would be forced to abseil into the sea. 

Eighty metres or so of challenging activity was necessary to reach the start of the crack line. The rock looked steep, green and slimy and it was not at all clear where to go. An easy ledge looked to provide an obvious traverse pitch to start. Thereafter it looked to be a choice of extremely loose and green corners or extremely steep and greasy walls. I led out along the ledge, Steve led the corners and then we were at a point where further walls seemed to bar the way forward. 

It was while I was looking around wondering where to go that I noticed that our ropes had slipped off the belay ledge and were resting solidly on a fulmar, which was still sitting resolutely on its egg. Fulmars might be unpopular due to their propensity to puke on climbers but they are indeed remarkable birds. In human terms, this bird had the equivalent of perhaps 2,000 metres of rope resting on it. If I was a bird I would fly away rather than allow myself to be pinned down in this way, but fulmars are made of sterner stuff. Having defensively covered both ropes with putrid vomit this one moved on to pecking at them so violently that I felt more concern for our ropes than the bird. 

But there were other things to worry about. A ten-metre green and greasy wall looked to guard access to a horizontal break. After several up and down efforts, I concluded that i) the wall was overhanging, ii) the rock was loose as well as green and greasy, and iii) my ability was going to be severely stretched. Most importantly though I concluded that the protection I had finally managed to place would probably hold a fall. 

‘Trying again.’ 

Steve gave me a withering look which I interpreted as a wish that I had got on with it ages ago. 

I would never claim to be an elegant climber, but as the crack I’d just lunged a hand jam into began to open at the same time as a large foothold broke off, my movements were indeed less than fluid. Steve seemed to find this very amusing. 

‘Thought you were off there,’ he cackled as I arrived at the relative security of the horizontal break. 

Routine climbing led out over the void to our left and up to the foot of the crack which we had by now inexplicably christened the Goody Gash. 

Close up the Goody Gash was very different to what we had expected. From a distance we had thought it would be a fist- or leg-jamming crack, tapering after fifty metres or so to a hand/finger crack. Now we found ourselves peering into a deep, wet chimney which led up through overhangs before disappearing out of sight. Precarious-looking blocks wedged in the main overhangs looked likely to add interest. Steve moved the belay to one side as I hesitantly made progress. The blocks were indeed interesting. Several very large ones were clearly supported solely by a crumbling ten- centimetre-diameter block. Fearing the consequences of trying to trundle them, I sneaked past as quietly and carefully as possible. Having taken a fine stance above the overhangs it soon became clear that Steve did not share my concern. Blocks rained down into the base of the Gash, 100 metres below, sending fulmars wheeling in surprise at such a noisy assault.
 
‘Pat spends ages cleaning when he is seconding,’ wafted up from below as Steve recalled the actions of the legendary Pat Littlejohn, his usual new-route partner nowadays. This was an approach I had not considered before. We explored the issue further as an enthusiastic Sustad reached the stance. Some first ascensionists abseil down and clean routes thoroughly before they start to climb. I had done that on occasion but, logistical considerations aside, it just didn’t seem the right thing to do on the adventure-climbing scene. Knowing what was coming in advance would, we agreed, destroy the challenge – and it is a degree of uncertainty that gives such climbing its appeal. But what about the second cleaning new routes during the climb? Could that deprive future ascensionists of the challenge of dealing with loose rock and thereby reduce their level of enjoyment? We were high enough to just catch the sun now and sat there absorbing the rays while contemplating the complexities of the desirability or otherwise of new route cleaning. 

‘Bummer that I couldn’t shift those big ones,’ announced Steve, his disappointment clear. 

Conversely I found myself speaking in favour of future climbers coming this way being able to experience such a key feature of the pitch. 

Above us the crack cut through an overhang and then, from what we had seen from the opposite side of the Gash, narrowed for a long section leading to the foot of a deep final chimney. But, as we now knew, the scale was deceiving. Everything was so much bigger than it had appeared. 

Being half American, Steve flowed easily up a desperate-looking offwidth section and plugged into what turned out to be a long stretch of fine jamming crack. The occasional piece of rock or clump of vegetation sailed past but, judging by the chirpy noises from above, all was well. Soon a shout indicated that I should stir from my sunny slumbers and exert. 

The pitch was excellent and led to Steve, who was lying down soaking in the sun on a horizontal break, enthusing about the pleasures of Scottish sea cliffs and pointing gleefully up at the final section. 

We were about thirty metres from the top, but what we had expected to be a wide chimney was in fact a gaping gash perhaps five metres wide. A crack up the back corner gave some hope, but it did not exactly look an easy finish. Steve, though, appeared to have little concern other than to find the warmest, most comfortable spot on the break he was belayed in. 

It is one of those wonderful feelings in climbing when a pitch turns out to be much easier than it looks – and this was one of those pitches. Awkward but well-protected climbing led to a large capping roof where, just as all looked bleak, a hidden, fulmar-free ledge allowed an easy exit to a short finishing groove. Elation! 

I can’t honestly say that the retrospective pleasure of such climbs is as enduring as that enjoyed after a big mountain climb, but the rarely visited nature of the cliffs, the challenges of getting there, the uncertainties inherent in the climbing and the sense of achievement on getting up a long-anticipated objective ticks a lot of the criteria boxes I have for greater-range objectives. 

And it is amazing what great memories the smell of fulmar vomit can induce. 

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