Thursday, July 29, 2010
No lingo, no problemo – Snowy days in Scotland
In climbing, especially the extreme kind where we dangle from non-existent holds and bullet-proof vertical ice slabs, words and languages are mostly superfluous. We often don't say anything, in order to save our breaths and energy for that one impossible move, and when and if we do, it is often an expletive to which we don’t expect an answer. For our last prayers, when the need arise for such devotion to God, we generally mutter silently inside the deepest and unknown recesses of our souls asking forgiveness for our stupidity. In none of the situations, as you can evince, are words or languages (that can be understood by your climbing co-conspirators) necessary. Climbing is an activity that transcends borders of demography, religion, sex, language and visions. Where we perhaps differ, fundamentally, is our individual ethics and reason to climb. Put any two climbers together on a hard route, who may have never met before, or don't understand each other's tongue, and they would be able to pair up and climb in perfect synchronization within minutes.
Fundamentally I climb, as do many of my community, because it is so much fun and it allows me to cross the limitations of my mind, body and soul; besides the opportunity to see and travel to some of the most exotic and unexplored locations on Earth. Take out the element of 'fun' and climbing would become a drab, high adrenalin activity full of only charged up athletes for whom only the end and summit matters. Though the techniques and tools for climbing are universal across the world, we can often identify a climber's nationality by her attitude on a face. And one of the funniest and fun loving nations in the world of climbing (or for that matter in the general world too) are the British climbing community. Brits climb firstly to get drunk and tell tall tales in a pub in the evening about what they did during the day; and if during the day a couple of them fell off and broke limbs or died then it would only add spice to the yarns. An international climbing meet anywhere in the world is a virtual assembly of some of the craziest human beings on Earth and if it is a winter meet then so much better and for that reason along with the chance to climb with British hosts, I always look forward to the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) International Winter Climbing meets that they organize every alternate year in the beatific surroundings of Cairngorms and Ben Nevis, Scotland, where different countries are invited to field their top climbers.
February 2009, BMC's International Winter Climbing Meet saw around 60 of the world's top (don't read 'famous') climbers, rock gymnasts and ice specialists, representing around 40 nations from all corners of the globe. When I arrived at the Glenmore Lodge (Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre and main venue for the meet) on a bone chilling evening I found some of the climbing czars lazing by the fire and downing gallons of Scottish brew accompanied with silly banter and dart games. Over the next week we climbed like possessed as if the end of the world was predicted by the day the meet would conclude.
The rules of the meet were simple – there were no rules at all, save that you write your name on a sheet, mentioning with whom you are going to climb on the day and the place if you know of any and had decided on a route (highly unlikely for such a bunch of crazy climbers) and then off you go like a torpedo to wherever you fancied. There was another rule that was not imposed but suggested with slight hint of authority in the typical British stiff upper lip fashion and Scotch humor; we should ideally rotate our partners each day so as to climb with a variety of climbers and preferably have a local climber (Brit or Scottish; these are two different species) in the team who knows (supposedly) the area and the routes well. This suited me fine since I was looking forward to climbing with different nationalities.
Anyone who has ever undertaken a routine hill-walk in Scotland during the winters would vouch that the only thing certain about Scottish winter weather is that absolutely nothing is certain. The sky can vary between 'spotless sunny' to 'raging hurricane blinding blizzard' within the blink of your eye. And when it rages in Scotland it really roars and rips you apart. The fierce North Sea wind cuts through layers of insulation and through bones like a hot steel knife through butter. Under such conditions it is often best to have someone around who knows where he is and has a head calm and cool like the ice shelves of Antarctica.
First morning of the meet I paired up with a guy who would outsize me even if I had two of myself stacked atop of each other. A local star, he oozed confidence and bon-homie from every pore. Ruddy, big, broad, rippling muscles and absolutely raring to go. He had a wonderful smile to go along with the package. I marveled at the ease with which he flicked the metal-laden sack from the floor and slung it across his shoulders. I breathed easy for if I fell he would surely hold but if the other way round happened I was sure we both would rip off the face. He was a youngster who had just appeared for his mountain guide exam and was hoping to emerge at the top of his class. He wanted to be a professional mountain guide, and as luck would have it, his practical exam, which would happen post the meet, would be under the watchful eyes of my friend and a British legend Andy Cave. I told him that if he managed to keep me alive till supper then for sure I would put in few good words to Andy when he arrived. We hopped into his mammoth pick up that was cramped with climbing gear and hardware and off we went towards the distant hills now beginning to blur under the transient snow.
On the way we found an Italian climber, doggedly twisted under his super sized pack walking like a bent old man towards the same horizon we hoped to reach. We would reach the horizon in less than an hour; the Italian (by his looks) may never reach. So we picked him up and became an impromptu team of three desperados; my guide desperate to show off that he might never have climbed above 2000 meters but he knew his ropes; the Italian desperate to get the 'hell' out of wherever he was, and I was desperate and disparate in various degrees for reasons swinging from the unknown to totally insane. My Italian is as good as my Chinese, which may not give you the right picture, and I managed to convey to our vagrant companion that my brother lived and worked in the vicinity of Vatican. He garbled something over the next ten minutes with such alarming display of animation that my guide nearly swiveled off into the deep void on the narrow mountain road that was now slippery and traction-less due to the snow. I have no idea what the Italian said but his smile said that he found our company jolly and worthy of his climbing skills.
My young local guide, now ever more determined to go the extra length, to show me his true worth (which he surreptitiously suggested I might mention accidentally to Andy later) bulldozed through the sinking snow like an ice breaker possessed while I and the Italian struggled breathless to keep pace with the giant. We crossed several interesting faces, where other climbers were assembled or ranting beneath, and finally reached the far end of the ridge, where only another small group were getting their gears sorted out before hitting the wall. Still reeling under jetlag my head spinned and my heart galloped. The Italian looked as wasted and emaciated as afore; so perhaps he was well conditioned. Our guide looked as rested and alive as the day he was born. He led us directly to a rock wall, almost vertically rising from where we stood, rearing nearly 800 feet into the whiteout azure above. The sheer rock wall had copious amount of ice plastered at various locations, which could be bridged to make it a mixed climb; only if the climber was beyond redemption and care and knew his nuts from his screws. We three met the QRs and we decided to go free for the bottom half, which had a moderate grade of 60 deg. After which the route entered a steep and overhung gully with rock slabs and roofs embedded with frozen turf that looked devilish enough for us to agree that from the mouth of the gully we must rope up and take turns leading. In all, we estimated, we had between 5 – 6 pitches to pocket. The Italian participated in our millisecond discussion by nodding his head vigorously sideways that could mean anything from 'I don't like it' to 'I want my pasta right now, since these are my final moments on Earth' and then some.
Ice is my element and I love to improvise on mixed ground and I offered to lead the first pitch that still had some semblance to a gradient marginally less than 90 degrees. Even as my Italian friend nodded and gesticulated with typical abandon, I quickly realized through the snow that in all possibility I would be leading the final pitch too of which we could see nothing since it lay hidden beyond a roof. So much for volunteering despite the fact that all my life I had strictly followed my dear departed dad's advice, 'never volunteer'. All of us were seasoned veterans, barring the guide who could easily outpace the other two with his youth, and what lay up and ahead was mildly challenging on a sunny day. And then the storm hit us in full fury.
In all of our lives there are several 'points of no return' and we often cross them unwittingly, unintentionally since we had no other options. On that furious morning, huddled beneath the face of the mountain I defined my own point of no return since we did have options of either going back or delaying our start. My guide screamed something in the wind and what my Italian friend ejaculated sounded something like 'Tutto il meglio, non preoccuparti, Dio è con te!' The only word I understood was 'Dio' a reference to God almighty. In my world when someone refers to God, it generally doesn't forebode anything good. But seeing two 'thumbs up' up I went into the pandemonium.
The ice was rock solid and the rocky patches totally devoid of any purchase. I clawed my way up more in desperation than anything else. First pitch ended when the rope ran out and the tugs told me I must find an anchor and take weight for my partners to follow. Easier said than done. My guide followed quickly, thankfully he did not put his weight on the rope at all. He crossed me and perched above. The Italian followed, throwing 'ben fatto' at me as he crossed my stance.
Eventually we emerged at the top and found that we could barely stand straight into the blizzard as tiny chips of ice cut our skins like razor. The guide stood like the rock of Gibraltar while I and my Italian friend hugged each other for support like long lost lovers aboard Titanic. I leaned back into the wind and did not fall and that became our game for the next couple of minutes. We laughed the universal laughter of relief and happiness and it sounded same in Indian and Italian tongue. Walking in the wind we had to literally maneuver ourselves like ships against tide and wind, so that we finally made good the course we wished to chart. My ski goggles were totally plastered with hard ice and only our guide knew where we headed. I thanked the Lord that I had followed one of the rules of the meet. We followed our previous climb with three more, equally insane and outrageous in the maddening storm that only gained momentum and strength with every passing moment. We were properly getting Scottish winterized. In our parlance such conditions are actually good and enjoyable and gave us ample material to get drunk in the evening and tell tales by the fire to the pretty ladies and equally drunk and dumb climbers. I don't think we exceeded 5 VI Scottish winter grade on the first day, which was fine with me. By the time we got back to Glenmore Lodge the sun had set and the bar had already been filled up with wild stories and wilder animals and the pretty ladies were tipsy and totally stunning. I had made two new friends and learnt some Italian and gained few trophies on my person not to mention of having gone nearly blind several times. So we quickly gobbled the excellent food and joined the dart throwing, beer gulping, raunchy joke telling and raucous crowd.
The next day when I found myself paired up with the Japanese super star, who had recently won the much coveted Piolet d'or for his incredible ascent of Kalanka in the Indian Himalaya, I knew I was in deep trouble. Not that my Japanese was any worse than my Chinese and Italian, but going by his reputation and of what I had seen and read of his Kalanka ascent, he would be a formidable companion on any ground. Nearly fifteen years my junior in age, the Jap was a slim tiny fellow with an easy charm and smile that bellied the fact of who he was. He was not a professional climber and climbed for all the right reasons and it was impossible not to like his modest bearings. He was the exact opposite of my guide the previous day. A Scot of fifty who had climbed in India (as he confided to me) joined us as our local support. He seemed totally unimpressed by the Jap’s or my (modest) credentials, which in an emergency could really be a good thing. I had never heard of the guy though he seemed to know everyone and he was a typical jolly good fellow. I loaded my sack with more carb and fruits than climbing hardware while Sato sharpened his crampons and axes. Our guide did nothing but laugh out loud. We boarded his much battered low roofed car and sped off in the direction of Ben. He suggested we just cruise along the road, keeping a sharp eye on the faces along and wherever we found something fanciful we stop and go for it. Nice plan it was.
I exchanged 'Ohio gozimasta' and something of the sort with the Jap who smiled more than he spoke. Our guide played music at ear-splitting level that discourage further conversation. Keeping a sharp eye on the passing mountain ridges was difficult through the snow drift, and finally we picked up a fine face and line of which my oriental friend seemed happy too, though he did not offer any opinion, besides a bucketful of smiles and 'vely (Jap pronunciation) nice'. In his parlance 'vely nice' could either mean a kamikaze or hara-kiri, take your pick and I was fine with either. Our guide was oozing with confidence and chattering hundred words a minute as we parked near a stream and waded through the mind-chilling water on to the other side. Ice slabs floated on the water.
Mercifully the snow was less furious than before. We crossed several frozen ponds and ice encrusted ridges to finally reach the bottom of the face that tottered like a totem pole with a very bad center-of-gravity. It was not more than 400 – 500 feet and that was the only thing in its favor. An ominous overhanging bulge, right on the top, hung precariously. It seemed ready to detach itself and come hurtling straight at anyone going up the face. And then we realized that we had left our ropes in the car. In the fraction of a second all our well-laid plans and climbing gear ceased to have any meaning. And I realized the moment I had stepped into the car, I had crossed my 'point of no return'.
Literally throwing caution into the blizzard, the three of us fanned across the face and climbed in three parallel lines like a well rehearsed opera. I was in the middle and directly beneath the ominous protrusion atop. I watched Sato as he made it look all too easy as he effortlessly shifted weight from one toe to another since we were climbing 'four-point' all the way to the top. He barely swung his ice axe, yet they gripped on first hit. My right knee with torn ACL gave me ample trouble but I too maintained a cool exterior and clambered up while our guide matched the roaring winds with his stentorian voice, regaling us with his stories of bravery. We all emerged unscathed and well within our breathing capacity at the top though I had to veer to my left a little to avoid chopping through the overhanging bulge. The Scot egged me to do it but good sense prevailed for once and I let it be, a beautiful natural ice cauliflower defying gravity and intrepid climbers. Scotland is breathtaking in all seasons but to gaze at the endless vista on a winter noon with clear skies and everything around coated in white is a vision from heaven. We ate our breakfast on top and then we decided to indulge in a bit of ‘hill walking’; that sedentary and all too purposeful occupation of British men of leisure. In short for those who had enough inheritance to do absolutely nothing while making it sound very rigorous and sporty. And off we went with our guide for a spot of hill-walking. After about quarter of an hour I realized it was more in the line of ‘hill-sprinting’ in which both my companions seemed well versed. With my limping knee I always take my time to descend and soon I was left far behind to take pictures and breathe the succulent air at leisure and feel like the Lord of the place. Sparkling blue glens lay beneath my feet and the brown rolling fields and mountain ridges mixed perfectly with the white summits. Frozen waterfalls lay suspended in places and it felt like a summer day of picnic. We did two more on-sight routes up the road and then returned to Glenmore since the main host for the evening was none other than our guide for the day.
The next morning lucky draw paired me with a rotund Portuguese speaking Argentine who had a solid and impeccable reputation as one who could outsmart a spider on a long wall like that on Cerro Tore. The moment I glanced through his bio I felt humbled at his audacious climbs in the Andes (my favored part of the world). Someone tapped on my shoulder and I turned to find the beaming face of my partner staring back. I liked the guy from the word go. More than dozen tape patches adorned his much abused ‘Patagonia’ climbing shell jacket and his calloused fingers told their own stories. Both his hands had one digit short and in their place only the stumps remained. ‘India?’ he gesticulated, poking his index finger into my middle. I nodded in assent, and then he introduced me to his girlfriend who would go with us to watch us climb. She was a real Latino beauty and I asked if she climbed, to which she gave a reply I dare not disclose publicly. She was a Chilean and we could muster few common words in Spanish and English. The surprise of the day arrived dressed in Scottish kilt, holding a leash, at the end of which a brute of a dog growled menacingly at us. A local royalty and ex-Royal Marines, he would be our local guide for the day.
Our guide paraded us like truant school kids and made us check our equipment and bag while barking commands like a private GI. No he had never climbed anything that needed friction and face but knew all about climbers like us who got themselves killed for notoriety and no sir, he wouldn’t have our blood on his hand, and he ran a tight ship, etc. etc. While the girlfriend giggled and played hopscotch with the dog, we two followed every word of our guide. He even made us wipe our shoes before he would allow us inside his shining landcruiser. As he started the vehicle, I felt heading for a public execution. We were finally deposited in front of a ridge that had little ice but plenty of twisted and gnarled rock to keep a rock climber busy and happy. I was seriously out of my elements.
Our guide left us a basket of food and water and instructed us to stick to the marked routes while he went around the corner for a walk with the dog. Once he departed my companion and his girlfriend got little intimate and I got little worried as to what I was supposed to do. Soon they disengaged and the girl spread her picnic sheet on the ground and started setting up her stall as if expecting the entire family to turn up any minute. The Portuguese climber took out his rack and did few pull ups for the want of anything better, and then the idea hit me. I pantomimed a bit and finally managed to get my point across. I am virtually lost without my ice gear and here we had little ice so the only way I could do anything here was dry tooling (using ice axes and crampons to climb rock). It’s still nascent in India though I had done a bit before in the Alps and wanted to do it in the company of my friend who was a champion at such things.
Once off the ground we worked perfectly and spent a fun-filled half-day hanging and dangling and falling too and waking up the entire place with our metallic jingles. The girlfriend, from time to time, threw us smiles and embellishment from below that did amazing things to my performance and endurance. Our guide returned a little after two and with that ended our fun. He nearly lost his wits when he saw our ice gear spread out under the face. Nevertheless he got us back to our lodgings and never before I had traveled in such complete silence alongside one, with whom I shared a common language. The rear seat was of course filled with noises that told us not to look back.
Next two days were complete washout as storm warnings followed by real storm kept us indoors and we had talks and slide shows and indoor climbing competitions, tight rope walking displays, much boozing, dart throwing, story swapping, eating, sleeping and bonding. The day after the storm abated I found myself in the company of a startlingly beautiful woman climber from Slovenia. Suddenly I wished I could speak her tongue and tell her what her appearance was doing to me. Soon her giant boyfriend arrived and demolished my dreams true and proper. We squeezed inside the tiny car of our day’s local guide, another Scottish legend and a man past sixty. En route to our climbing ground I learned that this diminutive girl and her boyfriend had done the direct north face on Everest and this was their first trip to Scotland. I had climbed in Scottish winter many times before so I assured them of things to come and that they needn’t worry or hurry (like Slovenians are wont to). We did moderate climbs, not exceeding 5 VI and I found new respect for my fellow climbers, the girl reminded me of my friend Nat with whom I had partnered some of my finest climbs across the world.
On the penultimate day I joined a large group of people who wished to travel by road till the end of Scottish main land and not climb at all. The weather was sumptuous, the company eclectic (with a smattering of beautiful women) including some of the finest contemporary climbers and we had great fun just talking and gazing at the landscape that never ceases to amaze me with its stark beauty and endless charm. We visited beaches, combed through the sand, climbed slippery boulders and peeked into lighthouses and abandoned castles, then sipped tea at quaint little joints literally hanging at the edge of cliffs with the growling sea waves crashing below with deafening roar.
The final evening did not need any language at all since it was all about eating, drinking, dancing, bonding and viewing the million pictures that we all had collectively clicked through the week. Typically on the morning that we all boarded our buses destined for the airport, the weather cleared and the sun shone brightly bidding us goodbye.
When I boarded my flight back to London, I realized that I did not necessarily remember what all I had climbed or how during the week but all the fun I had and the friends I met and made despite the lack of the common platform of language or culture.
Here’s to BMC and many more to come, hick!