Emptiness: Saas Fee Ice Climbing World Cup and West Central Gully (Beinn Eighe)
Emptiness.... the mind accustomed to experiences, strong and painful, now just devoid of emotion, no wait, disappointment. The end swallows me up before my time. But why? Hollow congratulations and pained smiles stain the crowd and my team mates. The first bitter taste of experience, all the sweeter with company. A freezing car park in southern Switzerland set amid beautiful and alluring peaks and faces, so this is high level competitive ice climbing? Safe, exceptionally hard, timed, yes timed, designed to separate and measure ability in a single effort, identical conditions for each competitor, sanitised and scrutinised, separating the starlets from the also–ran’s.
Sweat clings to my neck. Heavy pumped arms hang limply from my axe handles. Terror subsides, but unquestionably I can’t belay here and relinquish the fear, I have to carry on. I heave air into my lungs and check the view back down into the void. The rope hangs unblemished by gear or protection back down out of sight into the abyss. A spacious foothold provides sanctuary amid the vertical and overhanging ice. Another roof looms above me guarded by hanging ice daggers reminiscent of castle gates and an unwise path. But above I know I can climb. Another 15 metres of vertical ice show the path to safety, a bold path, but a test of the mind. The ice will be good, and gear will appear. A test of the mind. Hell The Fowler climbed this with straight shafts and balls the size of watermelon’s decades ago! Modern tools and occasional training, this should be easy.
Craning my neck upwards I survey the route, analysing the moves I know I won’t have a chance to try. Fellow competitors jostle for space, arms fly skyward as the moves are rehearsed. I scribble down a few notes and peer through binoculars at the tiny holds scattered across the wooden boards. Sequences are conjured up, clipping positions evaluated, all with best endeavours to commit to memory, while knowing the pressure and stress will empty my mind and simple tasks will become near impossible. Where will I fall? The oppressive Thunderdome awaits, but first the nervous tension of the isolation room, like the minutes immediately prior to that crucial exam that you haven’t fully prepared for….. except drawn out for hours, and just like the exam you can walk away at any time, only knowing that all those hours of focus and dedication are for nothing. You must stay and suffer.
The nest of optimistic gear looks pleasing on the eye. A solid tiny nut off to the side provides confidence. The world is a better place. My solitary blunt stubby screw still hangs from my harness after a few desperate attempts at placing from the most strenuous of positions in the void below. I am glad as I’m sure I will be able to place it on the ice above. All in the mind the optimist comforts.
I seek solace in a beer. I came I saw I conquered, ha as if! The optimist inside me measures and analyses the plus points in my performance, while the realist savours the taste of the cold beer and banter with friends and team mates. Food, wine, shared anecdotes and stories, the mind at peace in a familiar and happy place. Thoughts of competing drift back into the ether to be replaced by the sense of being part of something more. An experience not to be forgotten.
The nest of gear is long gone, hidden nearly twenty metres below by another roof, and the ice is poor. My stubby still hangs limply, apologetically from my harness. My axe planted to the shaft pulls an inch as I swing again to try and find a half decent placement in the steep snow ice, the good water-ice a distant memory. I can almost reach out and touch the crack. Protection at last, so close. My nerves and reserves depleted, replaced only by tension and fear, the volume turned up loud. I check the fall zone and hope I don’t reach Duncan, who I visualise happily chilling out on the expansive snow ledge in the void, oblivious to my terrifying position. The axe lands with a more reassuring thud and my heart slows. A few more moves and a satisfactory belay appears. I am near empty. Ecstatic but too tired for elation. The beast is tamed, just. Ferocious, demanding, questioning, the gully will not be forgotten in a hurry.
|Pulling hard in Saas Fee (Credit Chris Prescott)|
|Starting up the crux pitch of WCG (Credit Duncan Hodgson)|
|Fully engaged in the crux (Credit Duncan Hodgson)|
|Duncan emerging from the void|