Book of the month: Cold Wars
- Thursday 4th February 2016
Inspired by Colin Haley and Alex Honnold’s recent ascent of the Patagonia Torre Traverse – which was completed in just 20 hours and 40 minutes – this month we bring you a Patagonia-flavoured extract from Andy Kirkpatrick’s award-winning Cold Wars. If you can’t wait for Andy's 1001 Climbing Tips to be released in May, a few essential pointers can be gleaned here – prepare tracks the day before, take both a ten millimetre and an eight millimetre thick rope, and don't leave your karabiners and nuts in a taxi in Buenos Aires.
We woke at five, had a brew and some food, packed up and left for the mountain, following tracks we’d prepared the day before, not wanting anything to go wrong.
It was super cold, and every part of our bodies was covered. Only our eyes were visible, my lashes sticking together when I blinked. We reached the huge bergschrund, dawn breaking behind us, the first rays of light illuminating the face above.
It was so big. Bigger than I remembered.
We were so small.
And we knew it.
We sorted out the ropes, both sixty metres long, one ten millimetres thick, the other eight, a choice born from bitter experience. In Patagonia there are no easy ways down. For every metre climbed, you add another metre that must be abseiled. In a storm ropes can become unmanageable, impossible to pull when frozen stiff, or whipped away from you in the wind, their ends becoming jammed behind some distant flake of rock. In Patagonia your two ropes are your only escape. A thick rope will fall straighter in the wind than a thin one, but a thin rope can be pulled through a far-off anchor more easily than a fat one. Having ropes of different diameters gave us one more small advantage. On my first visit to Patagonia in 1999 we’d abseiled a total of three thousand metres, so I guess I had a PhD in retreat.
Tying on, we set off.
Ian led with a small sack while I climbed behind with all our bivy gear in a much bigger sack, shouting instructions as I climbed behind. I seemed to be possessed by a manic urge for speed, no doubt because I knew the longer we lingered at the bottom of the route the greater the risk of being squashed. We moved together, and every time Ian slowed, or tried to place gear, I’d shout up ‘Keep moving!’ or ‘Don’t bother with gear, you’re not going to fall.’ It was like our time on Les Droites again, Ian trying his best, while I bullied from behind wanting more than that.
Moving up an ice field on our front points, the ground grew more complex and so we began pitching it, me belaying while Ian climbed up a steep and difficult-looking buttress that ended at a snow ledge. He found a belay and I jumared after him, finding my own speed wanting under the weight of the sack.
I felt so small.
‘Your turn now,’ said Ian, taking the sack from me, a vast never-ending corner stretching up and up above our heads.
While Ian put on his belay jacket and made himself comfortable, I took the small sack and then racked up. This did not take long since most of our rack was now living with our taxi driver in Buenos Aires.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Climbing.’ I made a few free moves then stuffed in a cam and pulled up on it. The crack looked good but was gritty and dirty, no doubt from having a lot of junk falling down it from the summit. I climbed on, leapfrogging two cams up and up, one stuffed in and stepped on, the other removed, placed above me, and the action repeated again and again. All the while I knew if one blew while moving the other, I’d fall back to the belay, then on again for the same distance.
The crack widened a little and I stopped and looked down, taking a photo. Ian looked up at me, dressed in his blue belay jacket, one I’d designed, the face below sweeping away beneath us, the face I was willing to give anything to climb, the route I’d trained hard for. We’d climbed a long way in a short time, and could get up a few more pitches before dark.
I looked up.
I looked down again.
It was so cold when you stopped. It dug into you, fingers and face first, crawling down your back, biting, stinging, hurting, bitter like poison.
I was cold because I’d stopped.
I looked up and imagined what would happen if the wind came. It would be as cold as climbing on the moon.
I had never been scared of dying, never scared of suffering to some end. It was always worth it, to get to the top. But now I felt fear. This was a turning point in my life. How much did I want this? In that moment my headlong charge to be the best alpinist in the world stopped dead.
‘I think we should go down,’ I said, the words coming to my lips still half formed in my mind, as if some part of me knew my thought process too unreliable to make such a call, as if someone else was speaking on my behalf.
‘I don’t think we have enough gear to get up this, and I don’t think we have enough to get down if we can’t.’
Ian looked up at me and smiled.
‘Okay.’ Just like that I let go.
And so the long descent began.
We were back in the snow hole by midnight, neither of us saying a word about what we’d just done, or not done, crawling in and making ourselves at home again, reading another chapter as snow melted for a midnight brew before bed.
‘What are we going to do instead?’ asked Ian.
Approaching the Devil's Dihedral at dawn, Patagonia. Photo Andy Kirkpatrick
Ian leading on difficult ground on the Devil's Dihedral. Photo: Andy Kirkpatrick
Illustration: Andy Kirkpatrick