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Last Men on the Moon | Ascent

Some days everything goes wrong

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Dave Wilkinson and Brian Davison on the first ascent of Shot in the Back(Grade V) on the Psychedelic Wall, Ben Nevis, Scotland. At 4,409 feet, the Ben is the highest mountain in the British Isles and the scene of many infamous winter escapades. Photo: Dave Cuthbertson.
Dave Wilkinson and Brian Davison on the first ascent of Shot in the Back (Grade V) on the Psychedelic Wall, Ben Nevis, Scotland. At 4,409 feet, the Ben is the highest mountain in the British Isles and the scene of many infamous winter escapades. Photo: Dave Cuthbertson.

Out of a perfect azure sky came the sound of screaming. The wail was continuous, changing pitch like a locomotive klaxon as it obeyed the Doppler Effect. A black object, spidery with flailing limbs, was careening down the snow slopes of Coire Leis, the cirque at the base of Ben

Nevis, from the mountain’s upper slopes. As it hit the first boulder with an audible crunch, the wailing ceased abruptly and a spurt of red sprayed out like chaff from the back of a military aircraft. The now silent body continued on its downward flight, cannoning off rocks and bouncing hopelessly out of control, finally coming to a noiseless rest in the center of the cirque about 100 yards from where Neil and I were gearing up.

Before I could stop myself, I said, “Damn, there goes today’s climbing.”

Neil, on his second ice-climbing trip, was appalled by my insensitivity.

We clanked over to the motionless form. I was convinced the man must be dead. But a low moan emanated from the body like a collapsing bagpipe, suggesting otherwise.

Neil was appalled for a second time. “Oh, Christ, he’s still alive!”

More than that, the body could talk. It was Richard from Romford, he explained haltingly through gritted teeth, and he’d tripped over his crampons just before reaching the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. His wife was still up there. I glanced up and spied a small figure making its way uncertainly down the hard nevé.

I sighed. “Neil, wait here with Richard while I go and escort Mrs. Romford down.”

I stamped up the glassy slope and quickly reached the wavering figure.

“It’s all right,” I said, adopting my best reassuringly chipper tone. “Your husband will live.”

“Oh, he’s always doing this,” she said tetchily. “He fell off the Mamores last year and broke his arm, silly bugger.”

We staggered down to Richard’s broken body, which was efficiently staining Neil’s shiny Gore-Tex with blood and snot. Mrs. Romford immediately set about asking the prostrate body with vehemence: Did he realize just how thoughtless he was? And how he’d ruined their holiday?

“Erm, I’m just going to raise the mountain-rescue team on the CIC Hut emergency phone,” I announced above the din. I fled from the frightful scene, leaving Neil to protect the victim from further injury. Ten minutes’ jogging down the slopes brought me to the Charles Inglis Clark Hut, Britain’s only alpine hut, situated at the foot of Ben Nevis’s North Face, and its direct telephone line to the Northern Constabulary in Fort William.

“Hello, Forrat Willum Poliss,” said a young Scottish police officer in a bored voice, a few seconds after I lifted the receiver.

“I’d like to report an accident.” “Furry boots?”
“Um, no, plastic actually.” “No! Furry boots?”

“Eh? Come again?”

“Furry boots is the accident?” said the officer, now becoming animated with exasperation. “Wheer-is-the-accident?” she added slowly, as though spelling it out to a particularly dense child–or an Englishman.

“Oh, right, gotcha. It’s in Coire Leis.”

“Whe-er?”

“Coire Leis.”

“Furry boots?”

Coire Leis!”

“Ach, you mean Coory Leesh,” she admonished. “How badly hort is your friend?”

“He’s not my friend. In fact, I don’t think he’s got any friends, not even his wife,” I said. “About two broken legs and … ”

I suddenly became aware that a slobby-looking youth with a monumental rucksack on his back (adorned with what looked suspiciously like sewn-on Boy Scout badges) was standing next to me listening attentively.

“Please maintain your position until contacted further, the unintelligible officer said, sounding even more bored than before. The phone suddenly went dead. Damn. Stuck outside the CIC Hut on a freezing February day with perfect ice all around and nothing to do but fend off a coffin-chasing gawker.

“Has there been an accident then?” the Boy Scout said eagerly.

“No, I’m just phoning for a taxi.”

“Is anyone dead?” he persisted hopefully.

“Not yet,” I said menacingly.

It was 40 minutes before WPC Unintelligible got back to me, during which time I’d had to endure an endless voyeuristic interrogation from the gawker and his tedious bragging about how much Grade 6 climbing he and his mates had apparently been doing in the Cairngorms. Judging by his girth, his mates must have had a bloody good winch.

“Yeah, I was going to solo something easy today, like Point Five,” Sumo Scout boasted unconvincingly, “but conditions are terrible.” I looked around. It was 20 degrees F, perfectly clear, no wind, and every gully and buttress was cased in perfect blue Styrofoam packaging.

“Yes, it’s a shame about all this snow and ice, isn’t it?” I said pointedly. He didn’t get the hint. Eventually he got bored of waiting for anything to happen and waddled off hopefully toward Coire Leis, toting a camera as large as his head.

Suddenly a chopper clattered lazily overhead and hovered over the accident site. I observed the gawker trying to run in order to capture the scene of gore on film before it was whisked away. I’d now been standing still for 1.5 hours and was freezing. It was obvious the cavalry had arrived and there was no need to hang around. I rang Fort William Police again.

“Haylow?” came a familiar disengaged voice.

“Yes, hello, it’s me again,” I said impatiently. “Can I go now?”

“Please maintain your position in case the MRT require assistance locating the casualty.”

“They already have!” I cried. “They’re winching him up already. It’s a perfectly clear day.”

“Please maintain your position.”

I put the receiver down and made a unilateral decision to quit the bum-numbing boredom of the CIC. I’d had enough of being pestered, and looking at the graveyard of hillwalkers’ turds scattered around the hut.

I soon overtook the sweating Scout.

“Hey, I hope they don’t winch him up before I get some photos,” he shouted as I sped past. “Tell ’em to wait!”

I arrived at the bowl of the cirque just in time to see Neil’s blood‐ stained sit‐mat being blown away by the downdraft from the huge yellow bird hovering 30 feet in the air. Neil was bent double under the blast, cowering from the onslaught of frenzied ice chips.

The bent, bleating body of Richard of Romford was levitating skywards on a stretcher, the winchman rising with him, waving his arms in complex signals. Above the thudda‐thudda‐thudda of the helicopter blades I fancied I could still hear Mrs. Romford slagging Richard. At last the big yellow machine hauled itself up, and spun away just as Sumo Scout arrived, red‐faced and panting.

“Bugger, missed it,” he said. “Was it a Sea King HAR‐3 or an HC‐4?”

Neil looked exhausted from the strain.

“He’s still got my fucking hat,” was all he could say, looking doubtfully at the blood‐ and mucus‐stained balaclava he’d inadvertently exchanged with reckless Richard.

It was now 2:30 p.m.—2.5 hours of usable daylight to go.

“Still time to snatch a route,” I said brightly.

Neil looked at me as though I’d asked him whether he was up for a few rounds of Twister with Mother Teresa.

“Oh, go on,” I cajoled. “It’ll make a great story for the pub afterwards.”

We re‐racked the gear and clanged over to the steep snow slopes leading to the silver cascades of the Little Brenva Face, where four pitches of perfect Grade IV ice draped seductively over steep buttresses. Moonwalk looked the ideal way to end an eventful day. The cirque was now empty, the gawker having wobbled away muttering.

The CIC hut on the north side of Ben Nevis. The entrance to Coire Leis (cirque) is on the far left side of the photo, with the Carn Mor Dearg Arete just visible as a short horizontal ridge. The left of the two big buttresses is the Northeast Buttress: Little Brenva is on the opposite side, and on the near side, the narrow, central Observatory Buttress separates the famous Grade Vs Zero Gully on the left and Point 5 to the right. The massive right-hand buttress is Tower Ridge. Photo: Dave Cuthbertson.

I hacked up the first pitch rapidly, relishing some axe action at last, and belayed on a couple of screws. Neil followed more slowly, unused to the simple brutality of ice climbing. The second pitch was steeper, but just as enjoyable, rearing up to a handy rock spike over which I threw a sling, and bellowed at Neil to follow. A final steep and scintillating cascade of ice was left before the summit slopes and plateau–and all with half an hour of daylight to spare. Ha ha! I thought. What cavaliers we were, challenging fate and laughing in the face of ill fortune!

“Me crampon’s come off.” Neil, stuck halfway up the pitch, interrupted my reverie.

“Well, put it back on,” I said crossly.

“I can’t,” he wailed haplessly. “The metal thing on the front has snapped.”

It was true. Peering down through the fading light, I could see that the bail bar on one of Neil’s budget Italian step‐ins, the left one, had sheared right through and tinkled merrily away down the ice slopes. His crampon was dangling like a Jack Russell worrying his ankle.

I lowered him back to the stance, then rappelled from the handy spike to join him. We were in a bit of a tricky situation. It was going to be dark soon and we were a long way up the mountain now. The spike I’d rapped from was the only piece of rock we’d encountered on the entire route–the only safe anchor on the entire face– because this was 1996. I was a full year away from my first visit to Canada, where I would discover the astonishingly simple method of retreating from steep ice using Abalakov V‐threads. But this Ice Enlightenment might as well have been a hundred years away. In the mid‐90s we Brits were unknowingly trapped in the end of ice‐ climbing’s Medieval Period: Ice screws needed two hands to place, full‐length runouts were de rigueur, and racks were laden with Snargs, Warthogs and pegs. Ice was still very scary in 1996.

To make things worse, to save weight I’d only brought a single rope, which meant that descending the steep ice pitches below would require multiple raps. Rappelling wasn’t really an option—I didn’t have enough ice screws and, anyway, Neil weighed 190 pounds. Instead I hoped we could traverse off to the left onto snow slopes and up to the top.

Darkness fell as I chopped steps in the iron‐hard snow. Neil hopped along unsteadily in my wake but after an hour I was knackered, my right arm limp and pathetic after all the unaccustomed step cutting. How on earth climbers of yore like Tom Patey and W.H. Murray had had enough energy left for a full and varied sex life beats me. It was going to take ages to get down, but I thought we must be somewhere in the vicinity of Bob Run, an easier‐angled Grade II that I vaguely recollected from the guidebook diagram. Sod this. We would rap down after all.

I placed a Deadman. As is traditional, I had carried this metal plate religiously and uselessly for many winters, dangling it from my sack like some talisman against winter evil. And although its edge had become rusty with lack of use, and its infuriating ability to catch on icicles and overhangs had provoked me to fits of rage over the years, I’d persevered. Vindicated at last, I thought triumphantly as I lowered away from its previously untested cable.

I came to the end of the rope still on steep snow. At the outer limit of the torch beam I could make out a tiny rock outcrop to the left. I swung across. Aha! An excellent crack. The crack became less excellent as it expanded under the force of the peg being urgently whammed into it. Shit.

Leaving the peg half-inserted, I stuffed in a Friend. This was getting expensive, but it would be even more expensive if the Friend didn’t hold. Neil joined me. I tactfully failed to inform him how dodgy the anchor was.

“Only one more rap to freedom,” I brightly assured him, and went off with my heart in my mouth.

Although the anchor held, the fact that I found myself once more at the limit of the rope still on steep snow and, what’s more, just above an ice pitch, soon robbed me of any joy. I banged in a Snarg and hoped for the best. Neil’s substantial body slid erratically down directly above my head. There was a clatter, followed by a cry of misery out of the gloom.

“Me other crampon’s broke now as well!”

He arrived with his feet slithering and sliding on the glassy surface.

“Only one more rap to freedom,” I repeated, slightly more uncertainly.

I launched off, clearing the bottom ice pitch OK, but landing at the top of 500 feet of iron nevé. An involuntary shudder ran through my body. Our troubles might just be beginning.

By this time I’d gotten so stingy that rather than leave yet another carabiner behind, I’d simply abseiled off the 4-mm tat attached to the Snarg for racking. All too aware of this fact, I watched the moon eclipsed by the square form of Neil as he skittered and bounced heavily on the rope directly above my head. The tat held. But this potentially fatal action was evidence that I was losing it, that tiredness was encouraging rash decisions.

Anyhow, we’d made it, and Neil and I were reunited once more. Now we were off the ice, but still on steep snow, so the laborious sequence of step cutting recommenced. After half an hour, with my cutting arm as limp as wet toilet paper, I found the angle of the slope to ease. It now became possible to lower Neil like a sack of spuds.

“It’s a shame I haven’t got a Swiss Army Knife and there aren’t any crevasses, otherwise you could end up rich and famous,” I said cheerily.

“Shut up!” said Neil.

After some time we reached the leveling bowl of the cirque, where we’d begun the day’s activities. Liberal smears of congealed blood reminded us of the fate awaiting us had we failed to retreat in good order. We plodded down toward the CIC Hut, relaxing at last–too soon. There was one slight steepening among the boulders on the way down to the hut. It was the final snare and as I exhaustedly trudged down in my secure crampons, I suddenly became alive to the danger.

“Stop!” I cried to Neil. But it was too late.

“Whoa!” came Neil’s strangled cry as the coefficient of friction between Vibram and bone-hard nevé was exceeded and the cramponless Neil toppled like a mighty oak, thudding to the ground and beginning an inexorable slide down the icy slopes.

I reckoned I had two seconds to try to block his path before he reached terminal velocity. But I was too late. By the time I’d gotten in his fall line, he was moving with the momentum of a heavily laden bobsled. I leapt out of his way, and watched as Neil’s headlamp disappeared down the slope, which, together with his accompanying wail, gave him an uncanny resemblance to a speeding police car. The police car collided with several bollards shortly after and the siren was cut off brutally, replaced by a series of concussive grunts.

“Bloody hell,” I thought. “After all that trouble and expense! I might as well have chopped the rope.”

But miraculously Neil was not completely smashed. A huge red rip in his very expensive oversuit indicated the force with which his thigh had arrested his body. I found him crumpled fetally among the blocks like a little boy anticipating another blow from a particularly keen disciplinarian.

“Are you all right, Neil?” I asked concernedly.
“Uuurgh,” he said.
“Oh, good, because if we hurry up we might make last orders.”

“You bastard,” said the crumpled body, suddenly coming to life and swinging at me with his axe.


As befits a British winter climber, Colin Wells literally lives in Hope, a small village in the Peak District of England, escaping to the mountains to climb frozen choss at any opportunity. Photo: Steve Razzetti

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that memorable day and night on the Ben with a novice climber—most of it from melting ice thanks to ever more catastrophic thaws in our world. So what did we learn from our chastening experience?

Neil (once he’d more or less healed up), very sensibly decided to turn to less risky pursuits, and became an obsessive cave diver. I think he’s finally forgiven me. Although that’s just a guess, as he hasn’t really spoken to me since.

Me, well, I’m a slow learner. I continued to experience hair’s breadth escapes and shed expensive equipment on nighttime retreats in various exotic locales over the following decade. If there’s a mountain range anywhere in the world I haven’t retreated from, I’ve yet to see it. But that, of course, is the paradoxical allure of adventurous mountaineering: The game is worth far more than the prize, and if it was easy and guaranteed, it wouldn’t be interesting, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be climbing.


This article appeared in Ascent 2012.