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TNB: A Year Ago - Athol


Lindblade and Whimp on the summit of Half Dome.Sometimes Andrew Lindblade, shaken by a near-miss or just discouraged during a bad day in the mountains, would tell Athol Whimp that he was retiring. Whimp, the other half of that powerful, intuitive climbing partnership, paid no attention. Whimp knew to laugh at doubt, Lindblade told me recently.

Messner and Habeler, Terray and Lachenal, House and Anderson. Lindblade and Whimp, cutting-edge alpinists from Australia and New Zealand, respectively, were in the pantheon of great synergistic combinations, until a year ago, when the unthinkable happened.

They had been through everything together: the first direct line up the North Face of Thalay Sagar (6904 meters), India, for which they won the 1998 Piolet d’or; a new variant of the Pedrini-Locher route on the North Pillar, Fitz Roy, involving three consecutive open bivies, in Patagonia in 1994; and, in 2000, the fourth ascent of the technical North Face of Jannu, Nepal.

On Jannu they had first tried an unclimbed direct line, until a terrifying onslaught of snow, rocks and ice pounded their portalege. Whimp was sitting in his sleeping bag, helmet-less, when the onslaught hit, and as Lindblade tried with numb fingers to unclip and pass over the helmet, Whimp grabbed their cooking pot and clapped it on his head. Their portaledge shredded, the two retreated and regrouped, then made an alpine-style ascent of the 1976 Japanese route Wall of Shadows.

In 2003 they retreated in storm from high on the enormous west face of Gasherbrum IV (7925 m).

Whimp also climbed up to 5.13c on rock.

But he died a year ago next month, on February 23, when he slipped on wet rock and fell 800 meters off a ridge while traversing toward the Homer Saddle from Mount Moir, the Darrans, at home in New Zealand.

* * *

Whimp in the tent at 5500 meters following the alpine-style ascent of the North Face of Jannu, 2000. Photo by Andrew Lindblade.“Athol always had a strong work ethic with his climbing, just like he did in all aspects throughout his life,” Lindblade recently replied when I e-mailed asking about his friend. “We both found ourselves wanting the same things from climbing; the harsh reality of being completely strung out and pushing through. This led to Patagonia, Thalay Sagar, Jannu, etc. As Athol sometimes liked to say, ‘Unless you were doing big hard routes, why else would you bother?’ … This might seem a bit brash to some, but Athol knew that only in this sort of climbing experience lay the bigger experience, the potential to find out what you were really made of.”

Lindblade now lives in the United States, but of course they met at the steep proving grounds of Arapiles. That was 1991. Athol was a hard climber, yet his resolve was leavened by, Lindblade wrote in the excellent 2001 memoir Expeditions, a “constant piss-take of everyone around him.” Whimp believed that “everything was possible.”

Athol was 10 years older, already an alpinist, but he and Andy Lindblade started climbing together right away. Lindblade tells me: “We did a lot of climbing at Araps and the Grampians together...similar, perhaps the same, ability. We had similar harder routes we wanted to do. Athol then moved to Melbourne and we trained a lot together. Around this time I went alpine climbing in New Zealand for the first time at Mount Cook.

On Thalay Sagar a falling rock smashed Athol in the leg through the door of the portaledge, yet he shared leads, forging up a “polished blue strip of ice,” even as both were strung out.“Athol must have had some faith in my ability/potential in the mountains because we soon went in to do a route on the Balfour Face of Mount Tasman [next to Cook] in winter. There I was, strung out high on the Balfour with Athol yelling up at me, "Go for it, Andy!" A great time. We got to the top of Tasman in the dark. Here is where a sense of momentum in our climbing really started ... we were always planning and doing climbs, both on the rock and in the hills.”

“They were closer than brothers,” says Greg Crouch, author of the great memoir Enduring Patagonia, who knew and admired both, and recalls Whimp as "razor-sharp mentally, quiet in a crowd but absolutely hilarious once he'd gotten to know you." Crouch chose Expeditions for his “My Favorite Climbing Book” essay in Rock and Ice magazine.

He noted in it, “Self-motivated to the core, the Lindblade/Whimp partnership never received a penny of sponsorship. They did it all themselves.”

* * *

From Expeditions:

At the end of the pair's 1994 season in Patagonia, a few weeks after the two climbed the Compressor Route on Fitz Roy, Whimp returned to solo it:

Off season: Whimp with Greg Crouch (alpinist and author) near the boardwalk in Venice, California. Lindblade and Athol Whimp were on their way back to Australia after winning the Piolet d'Or. Photo by Andrew Lindblade.“Athol and I shook hands, and he turned away and headed back up the glacier. He had talked to me earlier about staying on. … As we stood there in the wind, the river sands blowing about our faces and the tents cracking in the wind, I knew he was comfortable. Despite this, I felt nervous for him. However, he knew the deal, and knew himself very well in the mountains. He was the right man for the job: attempting Cerro Torre solo. It felt very strange not to be going with him. The mountain had only ever been climbed solo once before.”

On Thalay Sagar a falling rock smashed Athol in the leg through the door of the portaledge, yet he shared leads, forging up a “polished blue strip of ice,” even as both were strung out:

“I could hear Ath calling, ‘Step right, step right, then you’ll be in line,’ as I turned a bulge in the ice. Thankfully he was keeping me in check …. Icy debris fell in my face and into my neck. Nausea rolled through me. I literally could not remember where I had placed my last piece of protection.”

When they reached their high portaledge camp again, they sorted all their gear for the ultimately rewarding final push.

“We were surprisingly mercenary, a coping mechanism driven by a deeper knowledge of what we had to do to succeed.”

Another time, on the Wall of Shadows, Lindblade was on a thin snowy ridge when Athol suddenly bellowed: “Andy! Get back!”

As the cold probed deeper into them, “looking for our hearts,” as Lindblade later put it, Athol said, “Andy, I wouldn’t be here with anyone else, mate.”

“I heard something different in his voice, and front pointed back around to him, my lungs burning. Athol was totally alive with electricity, like a light bulb shorting out. There was a constant buzzing noise, a loud and sharp electric hum …. Athol could feel it running all over his body. We didn’t know what was going to happen next. Then he could hear it on me.”

In the wind and snow, they retreated to hide in a slot at the edge of a cliff, sitting on their packs, for an open bivy with snow blowing up through a hole in the north face “like a blast freezer.”

As the cold probed deeper into them, “looking for our hearts,” as Lindblade later put it, Athol said, “Andy, I wouldn’t be here with anyone else, mate.”

“'Same,' I replied, and felt an enormous sense of gratitude towards him, for the years of climbing together.”

* * *

Athol Whimp’s accident was on moderate terrain, on which he and two other experienced partners moved unroped. Whimp wasn’t worried and wasn’t wearing his helmet. It is one of those heartbreaking, human, absolutely feasible climber tragedies.

“Look well to every step,” wrote Edward Whymper, in some of the wisest words ever penned, “and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Lindblade describes it: “Athol, Matt [Evrard] and Jon [Sedon] were walking down Homer Ridge, easy but incredibly exposed, after a lot of overnight rain. They had heavy packs and were cruising along talking about all the climbing they had done up higher. As Athol made a step down, a foot slipped. The climber in me knows how easily that can happen. But when I think of Athol I can't understand it.”

Whimp was just 50. As he fell, he never made a sound.

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