With less than a month to go until Everest 2015, I planned to hit Carrauntoohil (Irelands highest peak) on Friday last for a day of hiking with 25kg in my backpack to test balance, ankle strength, shoulder/core strength and any niggles with the backpack and gear ahead of Everest 2015. What transpired was a sheet of ice and snow on Curved Gully with no ropes, no crampons and a few hours of hacking out footholds in steep sections with my ice axe to get to the summit plateau.
The forecast was good (relatively speaking) and I knew the gullies would be wintry so with ice axe in hand I headed off from Cronins Yard for a solo day on the Irish hills. There were three other people on the mountain all of whom were taking the normal route up Devils ladder to the summit. I was going to investigate the area around Curved Gully where I had lost my GoPro camera a month before. I harboured ambitions of finding it again (I didn’t – it is somewhere under the ice and snow).
I was into cloud very quickly and at the bottom of Curved Gully I had to decide whether to try the gully or snake off on an easier route with less wintry conditions. I didn’t have my crampons with me, nor did I have my winter mountaineering boots, but my hiking boots were robust and with an ice-axe in hand I felt confident enough. The snow was workable, I could easily kick steps and make progress with my ice axe so I started up the gully to see how far I could get. Part way up I moved across to the right side of the gully so that I was less exposed. The kicking of steps started to become a bit more difficult so I headed onto rocks on the side of the gully and after 5 minutes of progress along the rocks it became clear that this option was going to be much more unpredictable than the snow/ice covered gully, so I moved back onto the snow which by this stage had become a solid sheet of ice. It was taking 4-5 solid kicks to gain foothold, and in some cases the surface was too hard to even achieve that. Balls… I’d misjudged this!
I immediately became aware of two things… (1) It was going to be more complex to descend than to continue upward from where I was now located and (2) If I lost my ice axe I was screwed. So I clipped a short bungee chord from my ice axe to my backpack and started to assess my options. Behind me I had two options to descend… (a) Across rocks which held a high probably of slipping while trying to secure footholds and (b) the exposed gully which for a stretch of 30ft was near-solid ice which without crampons would be ill advised. With 25kg on my back I didn’t have the necessary agility to look at spiriting up the gully wall (which also looked impractical due to the ice) and I couldn’t eject my backpack down the gully because my food, warm clothing and water was in it. So I decided the best available option was to continue upward and traverse the mountain via a less wintry route on the other side of the summit. Now all I had to do was get to the summit.
I started back up the ice/snow covered gully and eventually couldn’t kick any confident steps at all. I started instead to gouge out footholds with my ice axe which slowed down my progress significantly. For two hours I cut a series of footholds up the gully staying to the right side throughout so that if I slipped I would have some chance of having a handhold of some sort, albeit tenuous. Every 10 minutes or so I encountered a rock formation or rock surface which required change of direction or decision on how to progress. At one stage I was stuck with a sheet of icy rock in front of me, no options along the gully wall to my right and an exposed section of solid ice to my left. If I wandered out on to the middle of the gully the consequence of a slip would have resulted in me sliding the whole way down the gully (90kg of me and 25kg of backpack) which would not have ended well. I examined the options and found that the only way to progress was to flip myself horizontally, wedge my feet along the edges of the rock face and my arms outstretched agains the gully wall (not so easy with the heavy backpack) and snake my way along the rock face until I got a good enough foothold on the far side to flip myself vertical again. If anyone had been looking up from below they would have thought me completely mad, but it was the least risky of the available options and so with a deep breath I flipped myself, held my nerve and it worked.
After an hour of hacking footholds and with a new obstacle to negotiate, my ipod thought it amusing to start playing Europe’s “The Final Countdown”. If that was not bad enough, having got around that obstacle only to meet an entirely new and more difficult one, the next song was the theme tune to Mission Impossible – I elected to find this self mockery amusing. Every so often I looked back down and became aware of how precariously I was perched with no ropes or crampons on the steep ice section, but eventually I stopped doing this because such awareness was not adding any value to my decision making, and instead had the potential to add volume to my underpants. One slip at any stage and I would be thundering down the gully, but I was also aware that the focus and decision making with every step was exactly the sort of preparation I needed for the bigger challenges on Everest. Eventually 6 hours after I left Cronins Yard, I was at the top of Curved Gully. The wind was pretty strong and I just managed a few pics of the gully before heading across the summit to route myself back down before darkness fell. The cross on the summit was barely visible and conditions were typically wild and wintry on top.
I headed for the next decision point… Heavenly Gates or Devils Ladder to descend. I couldn’t fully see the heavenly gates route and I knew there were some steep ridge sections which would prove tricky in poor visibility, so I headed for Devils Ladder instead. I don’t generally have anything positive to say about the Devils Ladder route – It isa waterslide of rocks which will try its best to break every bone supporting your rear end. The 25kg backpack was starting to feel every bit of its weight and eventually after making it down the rain-soaked route I arrived back into Cronins Yard at 6pm after an 8-hour day on the mountain. My ice axe had endured an alpine level of activity and my decision making capacity had been tested alone on the mountain.
The obvious lesson learned is to always bring crampons on wintry mountain routes – that was my error. However I also learned that I have a variety of survival skills gained from 10 years of mountaineering, training and climbing all over the world which kicked in exactly when I needed it. I also managed to hold my nerve exactly when I needed to and flip into a military style regime of cutting footholds when it was needed (even though progress became pedestrian). I will confess that there were a couple of occasions along the route when I could not see a good option forward or backward and thought I was well and truly stuck. On each occasion I didn’t have long to assess the options, weigh up the risks and choose the best one before my foothold gave way or cramp started to appear. I arrived back completely soaked, shoulders feeling the 25kg backpack and pretty hungry because I had not really stopped for food or drink at any stage because my priority was firstly to get off the gully and into safety and secondly get off the mountain before darkness. It is interesting however to note that I was completely unaware of the backpack weight for most of the gully experience because my mind was focussed on finding ways to circumvent my precarious situation. It is also interesting how I was uninterested in stopping to eat or drink anything until I knew I was safe – irrespective of how long that would have taken. This proves (if proof was needed) that much of the endurance aspect of climbing is a mental challenge. I was also prepared to stay the night on the summit if necessary and had my downsuit and enough food and water (serving as extra training weight) to sustain me. Happily everything worked out, but it really only takes moments for your circumstances to change from something you feel you fully control to something with choices which are not easy and take experience and nerve to enact properly.
Risk is an integral part of mountaineering and is part of the motivation driving some who do it. Many will try and criticise this and force a risk-free environment in the mountains. I respectfully disagree with this nanny-state philosophy but you do need skills to extricate yourself from tricky situations, hence experience is the essential counterweight to risk. For anyone heading out into the Irish hills this month, be prepared, bring crampons, enjoy the experience and come back in one piece.