Sneak peeks of some of our bestselling books!
- Thursday 16th April 2020
While the coronavirus is ongoing, we believe digital is the way forward; with unlimited reading material at your fingertips, audiobook and ebooks are perfect for keeping you occupied in these strange times. There's a lot of choice out there though, so to help you decide we've shared some snippets and extracts from some our our bestselling titles below. Check back every week for new, free content!
Tony Howard's Quest into the Unknown is the story of a climber that has in no small way shaped the places and gear people climb in today. Rising to fame in 1965 as part of first British ascent of Norway’s Troll Wall, Tony went on to design the modern sit harness, now used worldwide by most climbers. Dedicating his life to travelling the world, Tony has visited everywhere from the crags of the English Peak District, to living amongst the Bedouin in the rocky mountains of Jordan. Full of jaw-dropping stories that come from a life of adventure, this is an unmissable account of Howard's incredible life. Click below for a free extract.
In 2012, climbers Sandy Allan and Rick Allen set out to attempt the first ascent of Nanga Parbat's ten-kilometre Mazeno Ridge – one of the most coveted then unclimbed lines in the Himalaya. Though their successful ascent earned them the prestigious 2013 Piolet d’Or, it was also an eighteen-day ordeal of endurance, which saw them run out of food and water and hallucinate wildly from the effects of altitude. In Some Lost Place is an account of commitment at the very limits of survival. Click below to listen to the first chapter.
Savage Arena details Joe Tasker's attempt to climb Dunagiri, one of the first true alpine-style climbs in the Greater Ranges. His superb writing captures the adventuring spirit which drove him on to remarkable climbs, including the first British winter ascent of the Eiger North Face, the West Wall of Changabang and two unsuccessful attempts of K2. It is also an account of endurance, detailing the stresses and constant anxiety of living at high altitude for long periods of time. Completed just before his death on Everest, attempting a new unclimbed line with Peter Boardman, this is an outstanding work of mountaineering literature. Click below to listen to the first chapter.
The Shining Mountain is Peter Boardman's honest, personal and captivating account of his and Joe Tasker’s attempt on the unclimbed West Wall of Changabang. Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker undoubtedly provided mountaineering literature with some of its most affecting accounts, and there is no better example than The Shining Mountain. Their astonishing climb, at the time more significant than anything done on Everest, is brought to life in this audiobook. Click below to listen to the first chapter of Boardman’s classic text.
Tides, narrated by Nick Bullock himself, is his follow-up to the critically acclaimed debut, Echoes.Though it follows his journey from life as a prison officer to climbing around the world with some of today’s leading climbers, it is much more than an account of his achievements. Delving into the elation, self-doubt and grief, this is a personal and gripping story of what it takes to dedicate one's life to climbing. Listen to the first chapter below.
And finally, a sneak peek into our most recent audiobook, not yet published! The Last Blue Mountain is Ralph Barker’s moving account of the 1957 expedition to Mount Haramosh in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range. After their summit attempts are brought to a halt, four young climbers become stranded as an avalanche strikes, and an epic tale of friendship, resilience and tragedy ensues. Listen to the first chapter of one of the most dramatic tales in mountaineering literature by clicking below.
There is no Map in Hell is the incredible story of Steve Birkinshaw’s 2014 attempt to run all 214 Wainwright fells in the Lake District, a feat which saw him break Joss Naylor’s 1986 record. Recounting Birkinshaw’s preparation, training and mile-by-mile experience of the extraordinary and sometimes hellish demands he made of his mind and body, this is an astonishing account of the determination needed to complete the ultimate British ultramarathon. In the extract below, Birkinshaw reflects on his first forays into running.
'I did it!’ Crossing the finish line of the 1976 British Orienteering Championships, I say these words to my mother and then burst into tears. It is just before my eighth birthday and I have completed my course in Cropton Forest, North Yorkshire, in two hours and twenty-four minutes. I am in the M12B class, M12 being for boys younger than twelve and B (as opposed to A) being the less-good class. I come in last by twenty minutes, but the important thing is I have completed the course. This means that my club – the West Anglia Orienteering Club – have won the team competition. Even though we were the only team. As well as me, there is my brother, Julian, who finished in the middle, and family friend, Alan Braggins, who finished second to last. An hour later we go up on to the podium to collect our certificates. I am so small I trip trying to get up the step.
I have only vague memories of what I did in the forest to take two hours and twenty-four minutes. My two-kilometre course had ten controls or checkpoints which I had to navigate round in sequence, and which the winner completed in thirty-six minutes. As it was an easy course for young children the controls were just off paths and tracks and I seem to remember I found most of them without too many problems, but one of the controls I just could not seem to find. I would leave the track and go into the forest, but I wasn’t leaving the track at the correct point. The frustration of not being able to find the control meant I started to cry. A passing walker saw me crying and tried to help but was not much better than me; I think the orienteering-specific map, rather than the standard UK Ordnance Survey map, confused her. Eventually I followed someone else on the same course into the control. This was usual for my orienteering at this time; I got round by a mixture of asking people, following people and trying (but usually failing) to make sense of the map. There were lots of tears but I was never forced to go orienteering, in fact I was desperate to go out and determined to get round the course, however long it took.
It’s funny that determination in an adult is seen as an attribute, whereas similar characteristics in a child are seen as stubbornness and awkwardness. I did have plenty of stubbornness and awkwardness, and it obviously helped me get round orienteering courses, but it also drove my parents, my older siblings, Karen and Julian, and my younger sister, Hilary, mad. I would regularly fly off in a rage or a tantrum. I was known by my siblings as the ‘Special Case’, ‘SC’ or ‘Swimming Club’, as my parents always had to deal with me differently and carefully. The few times my parents argued it was all about how to deal with my rages. On one occasion after a particularly bad rage, my dad, Ian, wanted me to promise that it would never happen again. I refused as I said it was impossible to promise such a thing but that I would do my best, and my mum, Sue, took my side as it seemed like a logical argument.
Part of my frustrations came from the difficulties I had expressing myself. I started off being barely able to talk until I was three years old as I was tongue-tied, a condition where there is a tight piece of skin between the underside of the tongue and the floor of the mouth. This required an operation in hospital and my first ever memory is of being in hospital just before this operation. After this I still struggled really badly with my reading and writing. As a seven year old these were well below average for my age and so different from my excellent mathematical and logic ability that my parents went to see a specialist. They were told I could probably be classed as dyslexic, or they could just let me get on with life, without such a classification, and see how I coped. My parents thought it was best that I just coped with it, so that is what happened. My reading gradually improved, although it is still very slow, but I still have problems writing. I have these thoughts in my head but transferring them from my head to a piece of paper is something I struggle with.
My awkwardness extended to my diet. I refused to eat most foods and ended up living mostly on breakfast cereals, toast and fruit. Unlike many children I refused to have a story at night before I went to sleep. Instead, I wanted to play a game. So every night my mum would play a game with me, but the difficulty was that I would only go to bed when I had won the game. Even harder for my mum was that if I saw that she was deliberately letting me win I would get very cross. So she had to work out clever ways of letting me win without me noticing.
I was very attached to a puppet rabbit called ‘Haddit’. It was black and white and fitted on my child’s fingers perfectly, with holes for the legs and arms and one for the head. The head was really hard which was important. When my siblings started to annoy me, I would get really cross and say ‘you’ve Haddit’, then I would put the rabbit on my hand and try to hit them with it. On one occasion Karen and her friend, Karen Burns, went into the shower cubicle in our house to protect themselves from me and Haddit. They were standing there scared while Haddit was banging and banging on the cubicle door. But no one could ever get cross with me as it wasn’t me hitting them but Haddit the rabbit.
Although I was often cross and angry, I was happy and my stresses went when I was out orienteering by myself. There were no people to annoy me, nobody around telling me what to do; it was just me trying to complete the challenge of finishing the course as fast as possible. I would quite often cry, but these were frustrations at my own lack of ability and my determination to get round the course as fast as possible.
The first British orienteering events took place in the 1950s and 1960s, and by the 1970s there were regular events throughout “My whole family (apart from Hilary, who preferred team sports) enjoyed orienteering, due to the combination of an individual running sport together with the mental challenge of navigating. So if an event was organised within a two-hour drive of home we would attend – for the big events we went even further afield. Eventually my map-reading skills improved, although I was very unreliable and would still have some disastrous days.
The 1977 British Orienteering Championships were in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, and I was delighted to come third in the M10 class – a class for children ten and under that had just been introduced. I went up to collect my prize from Denis Howell, minister of sport, and my picture appeared in the National Orienteering magazine.
However, I missed the next year’s championships as I was recovering from a bad mastoids infection in my ear. For years I had been taking regular courses of antibiotics due to really painful earache. They helped for a bit then the earache would return, keeping me awake at night, and making me even more temperamental. Eventually it blew up into a full infection; for several days I was throwing up anything I tried to eat or drink and the room seemed to spin round and round. I said to my mum ‘Will I die?’ which was a possibility, especially as her sister had died from a mastoids infection when she was a child. I was rushed to hospital and had an immediate operation to release the pressure in my head and two more operations to sort it out. I spent ten days in hospital and lost a third of my body weight. Afterwards, I was still desperate to go to the championships but my parents wouldn’t let me. In fact, I cried more and was more upset about missing it than being ill in the first place. Clearly, not going was the right thing to do as it took me a long time to recover. For six months I could not manage a full school day; I used to arrive a couple of hours late every morning. It was over a year until I could run as fast as I could before my spell in hospital.
Revelations is the awe-inspiring story of Jerry Moffatt's meteoric rise to stardom. When Moffatt burst on to the climbing scene, his fierce ambition meant he quickly got to the top of his game, and was considered among the best climbers in the world for over two decades. Top sport climber, brilliant competitor and a pioneer in the game of bouldering, this is the story of a true sporting legend. In this extract, he recounts one of his first climbing experiences while at school in Llandudno.
After two years there I went to a boarding school in North Wales called St David’s College. St David’s had a special dyslexia department, and like Eddington, offered lots of sport. Not many pupils achieved top grades in their exams, but they were getting a good education. I got into cross-country running and ended up doing a lot of it. I beat the school record, and won the county championships against all the other schools in the North Wales area. Although I was good at running, I didn’t like it all that much, and once I had won the county championships, I was made to train and run every weekend, which soon became a drag.
I enjoyed rugby much more. I played scrum-half, and quickly got onto the first team, the youngest player ever to do so, at fifteen. The school had a rugby cup for the player who did best overall in each year, and I won that. I loved playing matches and spent lots of weekends playing against various teams from the area. However, one Saturday, we were playing against another local school from Llandudno, John Bright’s. I played a really good game, made lots of good plays and tried really hard. Yet we still lost. The other team hadn’t played all that well, but the rest of my team had played terribly. It had been an important match and I was bitterly disappointed. I felt a real sense of disappointment with the other players. Despite having done my best, I had been let down. What was the point, I thought. Why play in a team when you don’t have any control over whether you win or lose? That one game really disillusioned me with team sports, and I started looking towards more individual activities. Luckily for me, something else had recently come along.
My best friend at St David’s was Andrew Henry. The school had a climbing club, and he had been going out to do this a few times.
‘Rock climbing’s brilliant,’ he told me. ‘You should do it.’
I told him no, that I didn’t much fancy the idea of hill walking, and anyway, I was so busy doing other sports that I didn’t have the time. Andrew and some other friends kept going, and would talk about it a lot. It seemed to get them really excited, and when they came back from climbing days, they were buzzing about it for hours. I slowly started fancying a go, but by this stage, Andrew and the others had been doing it for months. I didn’t want to go out with them and find that they had become really good and I couldn’t do it, so I always turned down their offers to take me out. One Saturday there was to be another climbing trip. It so happened that Andrew and the others couldn’t go. This was my chance. I asked the climbing master, Mr Levers, if I could come along, and he said yes.
We met on the Saturday morning, and he loaded the school minibus with coiled ropes, loads of little metal things, red webbing harnesses, yellow helmets and big boots. I climbed in. We were going to a cliff called Craig-y-Forwyn, he told me. After a twenty-minute drive we arrived at a car park. I put on one of the huge pairs of heavy leather boots, was given a harness and rope to carry, and walked up through the trees after Mr Levers. I don’t know what I thought rock climbing was. I think I imagined something like a steep hill walk, where you pull on some bits of rock to help you along from time to time. But we turned a corner, and there in front of me was an enormous vertical sheet of white rock. It must have been a hundred feet tall, and looked completely blank and featureless.
'You don’t mean we’re going to climb up that?’
I couldn’t believe it.
‘Yes,’ he told me. ‘Now come over here, I’m going to show you how all this stuff works.’
He was laying the various bits from his rucksack onto the grass beneath the cliff.
‘Now, first of all, I’m going to lead a climb. This means I attach the rope to my harness and climb up with it below me. I will put protection into the cracks and clip the rope into the protection using karabiners.’
He held up one of the D-shaped metal rings that had a sprung gate on one side, and let it flick shut a few times. A karabiner. Then he held up a bunch of loops of rope with little square or hexagonal-shaped blobs of metal on the end of them.
‘And this is my protection. These are nuts. They are called nuts because years ago Joe Brown and Don Whillans used to use engineering nuts with bits of rope tied through them for protection. Nowadays you can buy them specially made. You slot them into cracks and they are bomb-proof. These bigger ones here are called hexes.’
He held up some bigger versions, great lumps of metal the size of a tea mug. I was looking and listening, but I don’t really think I was taking it all in. ‘I insert one of these into the rock and clip the karabiner into the end of it then clip my rope into the karabiner. The rope runs freely through these. They are called “running belays”. Runners. Got all that?’
What was he saying?
‘Good. So I’m going to lead off, and you belay me. This means you pay out the rope just as I need it. If I fall off, it’s your job to hold the rope tight using a belay device. Then the protection will stop my fall. You are a belayer, you are standing on a belay, and it’s your job to belay me. When I get to the top, I will set up another belay. Then you will second the pitch – we call the distance between two belays a pitch – and remove the runners that I put in. The rope will be at the top for you. We call that a top-rope. If you slip off, you won’t fall any distance. Does all this make sense?’
He climbed upwards following a groove crack thing for about sixty feet, and just as he disappeared out of sight, he leaned over and looked at me.
‘Safe!’ he called.
I looked at him.
‘I’m safe. That means you can take me off belay and get ready to second me.’
I looked down at the rope going to my harness, the belay. Mr Levers had given me a metal plate about the size of a biscuit with slots for the rope – the belay device – which would be how I would control the running of the rope to him. The ropes ran through the slots and into a heavy karabiner clipped into my red nylon waist-belt. I had found earlier that it had interrupted the flow of the rope as he climbed upwards, so had disengaged it from the system to stop it confusing me. He looked to be off belay already. I walked towards the cliff face and Mr Levers took in the rope. The slack “loops at my feet snaked upwards until it came tight onto my harness. He looked over again.
‘Climb when ready,’ he called to me.
I was wearing a massive pair of leather boots designed for walking through ice and snow. They weighed a ton and I couldn’t feel anything through them. Our school had a policy that wearing these monsters would give you good footwork in the end, so I bashed my way up the climb on top-rope.
It was a cold December day and as the blood began to pump into my cold hands, my fingers began to throb. Climbing is very painful, I thought. I had never heard of hot-aches before. We did a couple more climbs, and these hurt too. On the way home in the school minibus, I asked Mr Levers how he thought I had done.
‘You did great,’ he told me.
‘Really? Were those hard climbs we did, sir?’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘The first climb you did was one of the easiest. That was a Very Difficult, or V Diff. The next one was a bit harder, Severe. And we finished on a Hard Severe.’
‘Is that good?'
'Yeah. That’s okay.’
‘What’s after that?’
‘Then you have Very Severe, or VS, then Hard VS. Then you’re into the Extremes, E1, E2. Desperate stuff. Absolutely desperate.’
‘Have you done extreme, sir?’
‘No, I haven’t. I’ve done HVS.’
‘And what about Andrew and the others?’
‘They have done VS.’
VS? I had done Hard Severe, and Very Severe was the next one up. And this was my first time. On the drive home I felt really happy that the others were only one better than me, and that they had been doing it for months now. I might do rock climbing again.
Clouds from Both Sides is the is the moving autobiography of Julie Tullis, the first British woman to climb an 8,000-metre peak – Broad Peak – and the first to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. Poignant and timeless, Tullis’ autobiography charts everything from her experiences as a filmmaker to frostbite, avalanches and exhilaration alongside climbing partner Kurt Diemberger. This is a tribute to an inspiring woman ahead of her time. In the extract below, Tullis recounts a harrowing escape from an avalance on Broad Peak in 1984.
There was a whoosh … then a dull thud!
My instincts told me that something was happening: something I should be aware of. I struggled for a moment, trying to regain consciousness from the deep sleep that engulfed me after the enormous exertions of the previous days, but my heavy eyelids just would not obey my brain’s instructions to open and I gave up trying. I felt Kurt moving, trying to free himself from the straitjacket restriction of the tiny one-man bivouac tent into which we were both tightly squeezed, and took the opportunity to stretch my cramped limbs into a more comfortable position, snuggling deeper into my warm sleeping bag, and gave in to the over-powering urge to sleep.
‘Julie, Julie! Wake up!’ The urgent panic in Kurt’s voice woke me instantly. I had assumed that he had rushed out to answer a call of nature, but his tone made it obvious that all was not well, and immediately cleared all thoughts of sleep from my mind.
‘What is it?’ I started to ask, but another ‘whoosh’ and ‘thud’ on the front of the tent answered my question most graphically. Avalanche!
The front part of the tent where an integral extension housed our rucksacks went dark and flat. I heard Kurt moving frantically outside. Finally the doorway was clear again and I could see the grey-white of the snowstorm outside.
‘Quick, Julie, my boots. It must have snowed very heavily after our descent last night, and now … God, we must be very fast!’ I found one of his heavy double boots and passed it out of the tent, but the other one? I could not see it. Kurt’s empty sleeping bag covered all the spare space in the tiny tent. I managed the difficult cramped manoeuvre to reach the tapered far end where the tent was only eight inches high (it was only three feet wide and twenty-four inches high at the front end). I felt around but his second boot was not there, then returned to the entrance gasping from my exertions and the lack of oxygen in the thin mountain air. This was Broad Peak in the Himalayan mountains, and a height of 25,000 feet was no place for such contortions. Frantically I dug at the fresh snow deposited by the avalanche in the entrance. To lose altitude on one of the world’s highest mountains meant disaster for both of us, and there was no one else on the mountain. I had to find it if we were to survive. I dug more frantically still into the cold wet snow. I unearthed a torch, and some rubbish, and then … I almost cried with relief … Kurt’s other boot! I passed it out to him and dived to the end of the tent again to get my own boots.
The next minutes were filled with frenzied activity. My boot would not go on over the normal two pairs of socks. In the early morning my feet were swollen from sleeping at altitude, one pair would have to do. I hoped it would not be too cold. It would be ironic to get frostbite now after returning unscathed in the night from the summit.
I was about to stick my foot into the second boot when Kurt shouted, ‘Here comes another avalanche!’ and I bent my head forward between my knees. Again he worked to free the front of the tent, his arms thrashing like windmills trying to divide the force of the snow, sending some down the steep slope on the outside of the tent and the rest into a deep crevasse on the outer edge of which we were camping – the only flat place we had found to put our final assault camp. Thank goodness he had reacted to the first avalanche while I slept on, otherwise we might have been buried alive in our refuge. I lifted my head and looked at my poised boot. Hell, it was full of soft wet snow. Well, perhaps frostbite was better than dying! With fumbling fingers I struggled with the laces and my snow gaiters.
Once outside the tent Kurt’s eyes and the weather quickly conveyed the full seriousness of our position to me. The avalanches were funnelling down from the high summit ridge rocks above. Worse, we could not just retreat straight down the mountain as the steep snowfield ended in an abrupt drop some 9,000 feet to the Godwin-Austen Glacier far, far below. We would have to make a long traverse underneath these avalanche prone rocks, and with so much fresh snow and more silently falling all the time, our chances of reaching the safety of the lower camps were not at all good.
Almost mechanically we had put on our double boots, snow gaiters, helmets, snow goggles and gloves, a well practised drill, and hurriedly thrust our sleeping bags, a stove, matches, some tea and food, spare socks and a torch into our rucksacks. We unburied our crampons, ice axes and ski sticks from under the deep snow outside the tent and, last of all, with cold numbed fingers, had struggled to untie our safety rope, which, thankfully, we had used to secure our tiny refuge to the mountainside.
I glanced at my watch. 5.45 a.m., only fifteen minutes since Kurt had woken me. Usually at altitude one’s movements are painfully slow, especially first thing in the morning. I could never have been ready so fast at Base Camp where we normally allowed at least an hour for dressing and packing. We had hardly spoken during our preparations; we were both experienced enough to understand what a very serious situation we were in, and muffled in our bulky down jackets, helmets and big snow goggles, heads bent under the heavily falling snow, conversation was a great effort.
We each tied one end of the short fifty feet rope to our harnesses. Kurt gave me a quick hug and a thumbs up before turning round and moving slowly forward, his body leaning into the storm. Carefully he probed for hidden crevasses with his ski stick, and slowly placed each foot, sometimes sinking up to his crutch where the snow had filled a hollow. I waited until the slack rope between us was stretched clear of the snow, and with adrenalin flowing forcefully through my body, stepped with exaggerated carefulness into his footsteps.
Summits and Secrets is a unique and captivating look into one of the world's toughest high-altitude climbers. A prequel to his award-winning book The Endless Knot – in which Diemberger describes surviving the 1986 K2 disaster – Summits and Secrets recounts his earlier climbs, including his first ascents of Broad Peak in 1957 and Dhaulagiri in 1960, which saw him become one of only two people to have made first ascents of two mountains over 8,000 metres. These awe-inspiring achievements, which earned him the prestigious Piolets d’Or lifetime achievement award in 2013, are recounted with wit and an infectious enthusiasm. Read on for a free extract, in which Diemberger recounts his and Wolfgang Stefan’s ascent of the North face of the Eiger.
A stone whizzing past, not very far off – the first sign of life on the face. Then all quiet again, here in the shadow; utter silence. High above, rock and snow lay bright in the sunshine, quiet, peaceful, warm looking. And that was precisely where the menace hung – the menace that could at any moment shatter the cold silence down here, the menace of that beautiful warm glow.
Tick … tick … ssst. Just a baby stone, hopping harmlessly, dancing down the rocks, whispering past like an insect, small and no danger to anyone. But how long before the cannonade would start, to shatter the peace and quiet down here? It could be minutes, it could be half an hour … It was 9 a.m.
I looked up at the warm, even light on those rocks. Then I started cutting steps again, smaller ones, quicker than before. I was up. In went a piton and then I hacked out a stance.
I shouted down to Wolfi: ‘You can come now – but look out! The first stones
‘So I noticed,’ came up from below. ‘One has just gone past me.’
Wolfi was coming up – the traverse, the piton, retrieving the sling, pushing a leg into the crack, reaching up with his arm. At that moment there was a ‘click’ on my helmet, and I enjoyed an instant’s satisfaction at the thought that I was wearing it. Then Wolfi joined me.
‘We’ll have to get up there before it really starts,’ he said, pointing to the upper rim of the huge ice field. He was right; there seemed to be at least a measure of cover under the jutting cliffs up there. We should take much longer by following that long curving rim than if we traversed diagonally, but – ‘Look out! Something’s coming!’ Wolfi, six feet above me, reacted instantly, pressing himself hard into the ice. A host of little dots was coming down in a grotesque dance across the grey surface 300 feet higher up. They grew larger, bounding down towards us in great leaps, a grey army of them. Now! … that one’s missed me, and that one, but what about this one? … sssst, ssst … Suddenly everything was quiet again. It was all over.
Wolfi straightened up slowly. ‘Benediction over?’ he asked. ‘Then I’ll lead on again. You keep watch and shout if you see anything coming.’
I cast an anxious eye up the face, the surface of the ice, the groove running up to the rocks above. Nothing stirred. The rope ran out quickly, as Wolfi went diagonally up the next 130 feet. He dispensed with step cutting; we had to get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. Tack … tack … tack, his crampons bit into the smooth surface, tilted at fifty degrees or more. It looked uncanny.
The view down the face had completely disappeared; all we could see was the lower edge of the second ice field projecting over the abyss like a ski-jumping platform, with green ground beyond it, sending up a pale green reflection, mirrored by the surface up here, making the blue shadows look even colder.
We wondered whether we had been spotted yet. Not that it makes the slightest difference. There is no place on earth where one is so utterly alone. I squinted up the runnel to where Wolfi stood, with only the frontal points of his crampons biting into the steep, bone-hard surface. I stooped and took a tighter hold on the rope.
Everything else had lost all meaning. Wolfi was standing up there on four steel spikes. Whether they held or slipped depended on his next movement …
We were alone … alone with the North Face of the Eiger. At that moment even our friends had ceased to exist for us.
Sea, Ice and Rock is Chris Bonington and Robin Knox-Johnston's account of their 1991 expedition to Greenland’s previously unexplored Lemon Mountain Range, which culminated in two attempts of the range’s highest peak, the Cathedral. Despite their collective achievements, neither had experience in the other’s field. Sea, Ice and Rock is the story of the expedition which placed both of them firmly out of their comfort zones. Read on for a free extract, in which they recount their first attempt on the Cathedral.
It was 8.30 a.m. when we reached the col and gazed over the other side at a jumble of craggy peaks, icefalls and tumbled glaciers, all of them untouched, unexplored. The sun was pleasantly warm and we sat down, had something to eat and drink and sorted out our gear for the climb ahead. The ridge seemed an easy scramble with rakes of scree and short rocky steps. I decided therefore to leave our ice axes and only take one pair of crampons. Coiling most of the rope and carrying it around my shoulder, I had Robin on a short length, intending to take him up guide-style, keeping the rope taut at all times so that, should he slip, I could immediately respond, and heave him back into balance.
We set off, Jim ranging on ahead to pick out the route, while I followed more slowly, plodding up the stretches of scree and scrambling up the little rock walls. There was an occasional awkward step which slowed Robin down. Jim had gone out of sight and beyond shouting reach. This meant I no longer had my route-finder and had to start picking out a line for myself. The way led up a steep little groove with a hand-jam crack at the back. I thrutched up it, took a good stance to hold Robin and talked him up, trying to explain the principles of hand jamming. Though we had had some practice a few months earlier on a gritstone crag in Derbyshire, Robin did not find it easy.
‘As we made our way upwards, the climbing seemed to be progressively more difficult. At one point we were faced with what appeared to me like an impossible vertical face, but after looking at it for a couple of minutes, Chris found a route and started to climb. Once he found a ledge he took in the slack on the safety line and called down for me to follow. I looked up and was alarmed to see the best part of Chris’s boots sticking out over a ridiculously small ledge. I did not like to say anything, but it did not look as if he could hold me if I fell and this was certainly the hardest pitch yet. To make matters worse, as I gingerly stepped out and placed my boot on a tiny ledge, no more than a couple of centimetres deep, I realised I was looking down vertically perhaps 900 metres to the mountain’s base. I took a deep breath, this was not the moment to wonder what on earth I was doing here. If Chris thought it possible, it probably was all right. I put my weight slowly on to the ledge and searched around with my hands for something to grip.
From above came Chris’s voice.
“What are you doing?” I yelled that I was looking for a handhold. “You don’t need one, just use your legs,” came the far from encouraging response.
“You may not have needed one but I bloody do,” I shouted. Chris and other mountaineers might feel secure just relying on their legs, but after a lifetime at sea always making sure of a good handhold, my instincts, when feeling endangered, were to have a firm grip. Fortunately I found a small crack and commenced hauling myself up as I could sense Chris was becoming impatient – which I later recognised as the outward sign of his growing unease.
This climbing was far more strenuous than anything I had tried in the Cuillins, and although I was enjoying considerable satisfaction every time I reached the top of an awkward pitch and felt I was improving, I was still terribly cautious and slow in comparison with the others.’
I saw some boots dangling over a boulder thirty metres above, and yelled to Jim that it would make life a lot easier if we kept together. He had been taking a siesta in the sun and when Robin and I caught up with him we ate some chocolate and had a swig of water before setting out once again. Amazingly, there were signs of life in what at first glance seemed an arid world. Fragile yellow Arctic poppies clung to sheltered corners on some of the ledges, a big bumble bee bustled along in search of nectar and a pair of snow buntings dipped past the ridge. But it was after midday and we still had a long way to go. A grey scum of high cloud had been creeping across the sky, and was now overhead. Jim was sanguine, assuring us that as long as we could see the Watkins Mountains to the north-east it would be some hours before the weather broke. I wasn’t so sure. I was getting increasingly worried about the slowness of our progress and our prospects if we had to make an epic retreat in bad weather. Robin was as cheerful as ever but the climbing was becoming more difficult and he was having trouble in following me. I couldn’t help expressing my doubts.
‘If we don’t manage to go any faster and this weather looks any worse, we might have to think of calling it a day.’
‘Look, if I’m holding you up, you could always leave me here and press on more quickly,’ was Robin’s response.
‘No. We couldn’t possibly do that. We must stick together.’
‘I’d be all right. We’ve got to make it to the top.’
‘You’ll do as you’re told,’ I flared. It was a completely unjustified explosion caused by the extent of my concern. I apologised immediately and Robin assured me, as I knew anyway, that he would do exactly as he was told.
I had seen from the bottom that our way to the summit mass was barred by a huge pinnacle which I was hoping to bypass. Looking from the col, there had appeared to be some scree ledges reaching out across the left-hand, or western, face that would enable us to do this, but now, as so often happens, this proved to be an illusion. The easier line led across and up a series of basalt dykes across the right-hand, or easterly, face. We followed these and about four o’clock in the afternoon reached a shoulder below the pinnacle. It was not reassuring.
The pinnacle seemed so much bigger than it had been from the bottom and the drop into the gully, which was the alternative route, avoiding the pinnacle, was both long and steep. I couldn’t see the top of the gully as it was hidden by the pinnacle. All I could see was its snow-clad bed and ice-glazed rocks on the walls to either side. We certainly couldn’t go that way, since neither Jim nor Robin had crampons. We’d have to go over the pinnacle. The face above the gully seemed to have the easiest line of weakness, but the ledges were covered in snow and the rock was chill in the shadow. I reached a little bay at the foot of the pinnacle, brought Robin over, and started up an open groove in the corner. It was split by a wide crack, reminiscent of gritstone. I was quite tired, and with big double boots and a rucksack on my back, I felt heavy, clumsy and fearful. Even a minor fall and injury would have been desperately serious. I thrutched and struggled, did everything I had been telling Robin not to do, hugged the rock, reached up too far above me, finally managed to place a Friend in the crack above me, straddled clumsily and thrutched up to a ledge from where I could bring up Robin and Jim, who had put on the rope.
We now had two choices, either to continue up the groove line to the left, which seemed to ease, or follow one steeply to the right across the wall above the gully. It was Jim’s turn to lead and he fancied the easier looking line to the left, but I was anxious to try to bypass the top of the pinnacle and reach the col behind it, and therefore urged Jim to take the right-hand line. He started up, quickly disappearing round the corner, but from the slowness of the rope running out through my hands and the grunts I could hear from above, it was obviously hard climbing. Here is Jim’s view of our activities.
‘Up to the base of the pinnacle the climb has been fairly straightforward, consisting of mixed easy rock and ice climbing with the odd scramble thrown in. Chris led his pitch of severe and I stood at the bottom waiting while Robin followed up. It looked awkward with a large flake laid back from the rock, and filled with ice behind. Provided you hung outwards from the flake it was okay, with small thinnish footholds, and Chris had made it look easy. Robin got about halfway up this and started “umm-ing” and “aa-ing” about footholds and handholds and whether there were or weren’t any. It had become our standard practice up to this point, and it seemed to work, that I would stand at the bottom shouting up to Robin,
“Left a bit, right a bit, there! That’s your right foothold . . . now your left foot . . . see if you can stretch up to that wrinkle of rock by the foot of the flake.”
At this stage Robin was doing marvellously considering this was his first ever proper climb, and if I’d been in his boots I don’t think I’d have kept my cool and patience as long as he had. But he was getting more and more tired, as we all were, and his climbing technique was becoming less efficient. Instead of using his legs to maximum effect, and pushing up on them he was doing the opposite, pulling up on holds with his arms, and of course to keep that up with a sack on your back you need to be something of a Rambo.
I remembered Robin saying something on the boat about only using your legs for balance. On a boat, he explained, arms are what do most of the work. So here he was, on a mountain, doing what his body was used to – using his arms. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Oh! I’m going to fall off unless I hang on tighter, and the tighter I hang on the more tired my arms get, so sooner or later I definitely will fall off, unless I get my feet on to something, but the rock’s blank, and everybody’s shouting about this and that foothold and I can’t see any of them!”
At the top of his pitch Chris wasn’t quite his normal bubbly self. Robin was just as quiet, and so was I – leaving the leader to his job of leading. Above us the rock looked blank and overhanging and to the left there looked to be a way up some broken but tricky looking flakes and blocks. Chris thought that the way went up to the right, up a chimney, and then a steep bit to a platform with one more steep bit above that. It was my turn to lead so this was the route we chose. To start with I could hardly fit inside the chimney – it was about the width of my body – and with the rucksack on my back there was a lot of friction coming from the walls on both sides. But with a bit of puffing and panting I squeezed my way up that and then paused to look up at a smooth-ish steep corner with little on offer in the way of holds.
The corner, when I was on it, was delicate and thin, about HVS, and the exposure was terrific because at this point of the climb we were on the face of the mountain. Robin got into some difficulties on this, again because of the leg/arm problem and I was having to give vertical assistance by heaving in on the rope. I was in the middle of a strenuous heave when a cheery “Hi, there” floated down from above. It was Chris peering down, saying how nice the view was and how he’d found a really easy way up to the left, and I’d been right after all.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m just popping back down to get my sack, and when I’m back up here I’ll let down a top rope and bring you both up. This is the top of the pinnacle by the way.”
I asked him what it looked like on the other side.
“Well,” he replied, “I think we should have gone round the bottom of the pinnacle, so it looks like this is about as far as we’re going to go.”’
By the time Robin and Jim were on top of the pinnacle with me it was around 6.30 in the evening. The sky was now a uniform grey and there were a few snowflakes in the air. We had been on the go for over twelve hours and still had to abseil down to the col. This was out of sight, hidden by the bulging of the rock, but it certainly seemed a long way below. Once there, there was still a lot of ground to cover to the summit. The ragged skyline of serrated pinnacles seemed to be at least 200 metres above us. I turned to Jim.
‘You know, I think we’re getting a bit out of our depth.’
‘That’s what I’ve been thinking for the last four hours,’ was his comment. That settled it. I turned to Robin.
‘I’m desperately sorry, mate, but it really isn’t on. We’ve got a good 200 metres more, quite apart from having to abseil down to the col, and I think it’d take us at least eight hours. In addition to that it looks as if the weather’s breaking.’
Robin accepted my decision without a murmur. He had brought his own flag, as vice-admiral of his yacht club, and we photographed him holding it. There was just time to look around. I examined the summit mass which still towered above us. It seemed quite broken, with rock walls interspersed with talus slopes, leading up to a notched crest, where it was difficult to discern the highest point. We were at a height of 2,400 metres, as high as most of the peaks around us, and we could therefore command a superb view. Looking down the valley there was a vista of peaks, rising out of glaciers and snowfields, that stretched to the far horizon. Jim assured us that the mountains in the far distance were the Watkins Mountains, the highest in Greenland and ones that he had climbed in.
But I could barely appreciate the beauty of the scene. I was too worried about the descent and had a nagging sense of guilt. I knew how important it had been to Robin to reach the top and couldn’t help feeling I had let him down. He had fulfilled his side of the bargain in getting through the ice to the coast, Jim had got us to the foot of the mountain, but I had failed to get us to the top. It brought out the difference between our situation on the boat and on the mountain. On Suhaili my inexperience didn’t matter a jot. If I had collapsed on a bunk in the throes of seasickness, I could be a passenger and Robin would have continued to sail the boat at full efficiency and cope with any crisis that might occur. On the mountain, however, I could safeguard him with the rope, but he had to overcome each difficulty for himself, and it had been really tough on him. It was about to be tougher. Descent is always more awkward than climbing up.
So Jim soloed down first, just in front of Robin, whom I let down on the rope. On steep ground you can’t see where you’re putting your feet and, because you are constantly looking downwards, you become much more aware of the drop. Jim advised Robin which holds to use, while I paid out the rope that secured him. It was a slow process. Just after we had started, the sun broke through the clouds that now covered the entire sky, bathing the peaks and broken cloud to the immediate south-east in a rich, yet angry, gold. It was both beautiful and threatening, emphasising the wildness of the scene around us and our own isolation.
We abseiled down the steeper sections, but had to be immensely careful that the doubled rope could be pulled down behind us without snagging on a loose rock or pinnacle. The light was fading and it became progressively colder as we slowly picked our way down.
It was about one o’clock when we at last reached the col at the head of the wide ice slope. Jim now joined us on the rope and, with Robin in the middle, we went down one at a time, with first Jim or myself being let down on tension, walking down the ice to the end of the rope, cutting out a ledge and setting up belay points, then Robin was let down, and the last man climbed down, facing inwards, front-pointing and using his ice tools. It was a slow process and we were all so tired that we were dropping off to sleep on the stances while waiting our turn to move. It took six hours, twice the time of the ascent, to get back down to the bergschrund. At last we could unrope and stride the short distance back to the tents by six o’clock that morning. Allen and Jan had mugs of tea waiting for us. Robin produced the vodka bottle and some delicate little vodka glasses and we toasted each other.