Bowery Mural

My First... Part 3

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Here goes with Part 3 of the 'My First' series. Today's installment comes from a friend Oliver Metherell who heads up Super7.  Super7 is an attempt to make a first ascent on every one of the seven continents.  So far they have managed 5 continents and are currently fundraising for the next expedition to Antarctica.  You can find out more by heading over to the Super7 website.

Super7 runs a film festival which takes place on 18th March 2010 and is currently at the beginning of a Winter Lecture Series where speakers include Doug Scott, Sir Chris Bonnington and Keith Partridge.  These take place in the Boyd Orr Lecture Theatre, University of Glasgow.  Details are available here.  Tickets for the lecture series are available here.

Anyway enough of the commercialism, in his wn words here is Olly's story of a first new route on Ben Nevis...

Sioux Wall – By Oliver Metherell

This is a story I wrote about climbing my first new route on the Ben…

It seems, well, somehow appropriate, that Britain’s highest mountain is also home to its hardest and most committing climbs. On New Years Eve, while most folk are preparing for Hogmanay, two climbers are shouldering their brutally heavy packs and pounding up the most infamous walk in to the most infamous mountain in Scotland.

It is freezing cold. Too cold to remove their gloves so last night they fumble with the tent in the darkness and eventually got it pitched about half way to the CIC hut. In the morning the alarm goes off at half three and they struggle to get moving. Everything is frozen. Their boots. The water in the pan. The blood in their veins. Everything... They place their frozen boots in their sleeping bags and move around inside the bags to heat the boots. Welcome to their world. The walk in continues through a driving snowstorm. It is New Years day and they have the whole of Ben Nevis completely to themselves. The landscape is one of unimaginable desolation: two tiny figures in an arctic wilderness. There is no habitation. No roads. Just the wail of the endless wind, like the scream of a thousand haunted northern banshees.

’Hard work eh?’ says Ian Parnell ‘Yeah, but at least we’ve got the poles.’ One of the beauties of ski poles was that they allowed you to keep upright as you walked. They are carrying heavy loads but the poles will take some of the weight of the sacs and spare their knees. Oliver wasn’t sure if he could take all the weight of the sac on his legs on this chilly January morning. Ian moves ahead, working hard, blowing clouds of steam into the chilly morning air. Oliver can just about make out the crack of Darth Vader and the corner of Cornucopia in the morning mist.

Ian is a talented alpinist. Along with a succession of tough new routes in the Greater Ranges, he also climbed Everest earlier in the year as part of Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ expedition. Ian’s ability to succeed on the hardest routes was fast becoming the stuff of legend. ‘Watch out’ said the copy in Scottish Mountaineer. ‘This man is after your lines…’

Oliver had clipped the altimeter onto his chest strap and he glances down at it to check on their progress. Nearly 1000m. It is a big beast of a mountain. They’d walked in for over an hour last night and pitched the tent at about 700m. Then, this morning they were up before four, and now it is nearly seven and they still aren’t into the Ciste. They have the place to themselves– no other takers for the big hill on this day, the first of the year. He thinks about the last time he’d been here. He and Gareth Hughes had decided to make a winter attempt on The Long Climb. They had got stuck two pitches below the summit and the only reason why they were still alive was the Lochaber MRT. The MRT had dropped a rope down from the summit and, with a rescuer tied to an end, they had plucked the pair off from their stance in a daring and hazardous rescue. Not exactly his finest hour... He takes a deep breath and drives the rescue out of his mind. Ian turns around. Oliver can see the perspiration on his face. ‘Well’ he says, still panting. ‘Think of how fit we’re gonna be after all this.’ This is one of the best things about climbing with Ian, his optimism and his enthusiasm are infectious. He never complains or moans about how uncomfortable things are.

They can hear the skirl of the wind on the snow. They only stop for a few seconds and already they are freezing. It is definitely a lot colder up here than at the campsite. Crunch crunch; all sounds are muffled by the thick carpet of powder. Scottish climbing. Mountaineering skills have to be honed to perfection to be able to climb here. It is the ultimate test. Just getting to the crags is an adventure in itself. And only Scottish mountains in winter can look so wonderfully atmospheric with their gloomy, maudlin moods.

Sheer climbing talent isn’t enough to get you up the hard routes here. You have to have more than just talent. It was the aristocrat of mountaineering. You can go out every other weekend for an entire season and still accomplish nothing. It isn’t enough simply to be able to climb difficult moves. You have to be an expert navigator, have stacks of initiative and bucket-loads of determination. You have to be able to handle the cold, pre-dawn starts when you could have been wrapped up snug and warm at home. You have to suffer some of the most horrific weather on the planet. You have to be mentally cool and keep your enthusiasm going through all the ups and downs. You have to be able to deal with the Scottish mountains, and every hazard they throw at you, with your wits, your bare hands, and your axe.

He wished there was some way he could underline this to Parnell, but of course he couldn’t, not without sounding like a complete fool. Oliver had actually started training for winter in June and he’d bought an entire season of supplies in October. 10 packs of AAA batteries, 152 GU gel sachets, and a pair of crampons to be used exclusively for monopointing. He could have just fitted the monopoints to his existing pair of crampons but fiddling about with the front points always brought him out in a cold sweat. There is no logical reason not to take them out. – But just thinking about making any adjustments and possibly weakening the threads when these are vital pieces of equipment that are your sole contact between yourself and 1000 feet of vertical doom is too terrifying. He preferred not to touch his front points. And if he had to own a pair of ‘poons exclusively for Scottish winter climbing then so be it. Somehow he saw fiddling about with the 'poons’ as bad luck. And his luck had been good. Until now.

Scottish winter climbing was an intense scene. ‘The world’s bitchiest climbing scene’, according to one commentator. Some people could sure talk a good climb. Oliver often thought it was possible to make a fair assessment of someone by how little they bragged about how good they were, and how unenthusiastic they were about climbing gear. Look at Gareth. It was difficult to tell where the duct tape ended and his clothing began. But hell, he could climb. He remembered Gareth on Bulgy right at the start of the season in Coire an Lochan. Gareth wanted to climb Bulgy and everyone he met in the Corrie was being negative, saying things like: ‘Yeah, you need a friend 6 for that route, man. Ye cannae climb it without a big friend.’ Gareth just completely ignored them and powered up to the crux crack. It is this overhanging off width through a roof, a kind of winter climbing version of The Sloth. Gareth reached down to his harness and pulled out a Hex 9. He stacked it behind a Hex 8 and then powered across the roof. The grin on his face lasted for days afterwards. No matter how many times you went winter climbing, you never got immune to that warm glowing feeling that came over you when you were driving home with a big route in the bag.

The climbers grind to a halt and everything goes quiet. Here it was, Coire na Ciste. Oliver looks up and stares at the cliffs. They are glittering in a carapace of ice. All the exertion to ascend over a vertical mile of terrain with the weight of the big mixed rack wearing burning grooves into their shoulders has been worth it. The cliff was in. Both of the climbers break into massive grins and their nostrils flare. They start virtually running towards the cliff, laughing with excitement, all the weight on their shoulders forgotten now. Sioux Wall was first climbed by Nicholson and G. Grasser in 1972. Taking a direct line up number three gully buttress, it is HVS 5a in summer and climbs a vertical wall that goes right to the top of Britain’s highest mountain. The line they want is a spidery crack that snakes up plumb vertical for almost the entire length of the buttress. Oliver struggles on the first pitch, with the whipping wind freezing his face. Above them the big route looms. Enticing, menacing. Number three gully buttress. A real monster. A sinister but beautiful shield of overhanging rock

Ian grabs the rack from Oliver and he’s off. He inches up the crack. Inches up the crack, Inches up the crack… Inches past the gear left by the previous attempts. Torqueing competently up the crack, he slots his axes in the crack and climbs with consummate skill, occasionally stopping to place some gear. But vertical cracks are never easy, no matter how good the climber. Even on this desperate climb he radiates confidence. With his glasses perched on his nose and that perfect footwork: it reminds Oliver of the style that he’d seen the French guys using when he climbed with them in Fontainebleau. Perfect balance. Precise footwork. Confident moves from hold to hold.

Oliver seconds the pitch on the tight rope and Ian says. ‘The next pitch looks very steep and very hard. We’ll just have to take it as it comes: At least we’ll be improving our knowledge of the route’.

Oliver looks away. ‘I’m going to climb that thing.’ he thinks.

He can feel the pressure of Ian’s eyes fixed upon him as he starts to climb. He is hooking up the crack and it moves slowly past his face. There are hooks, torques, hand-swaps, jams and the occasional runner. ‘Breathe deep’ he tells himself. ‘Breathe deep and focus on using your feet with precision’. And he’s thinking: ‘This is it. This is IT. I’ve been wanting to do this since I started climbing and now it is actually happening to me: a new route on The Ben’.

With this type of climbing, the only way you could tell if the axe was going to hold was to slowly weight it, trying not to grind your teeth too much, with your eyes tight shut and your mouth clenched. Usually, if it was going to rip, it would be as you weighted it. When this happened, all your weight, together with the mass of the rack and another couple of kilos of axes and crampons would slam down on the arm that was holding the other axe. Sometimes after one of these routes his body would be aching not for days but for a week or so. His abdominal muscles would be agony and he would be unable to sit upright in bed, having to roll over onto his side and kind of flick out himself of bed, more like an eighty year old than someone in his early thirties.

A rap song pounds through his head as he starts the crack. In his mind he hears every single intonation of the music.


He hears the bass pounding as his axe smacks into the crack, adrenalin fizzing in his veins. Axe on shoulder. Hand jam in crack. Feeling strong, light and confident. God, he wants to climb it so. A rising tide of confidence, feeling utterly unfettered and unafraid. The endless hours of tedium in the gym. The boredom of stamina training. Endless circuits of the wall again and again, holding on to the holds for a full hour. The agony of cardio vascular training, the sweat cascading off his brow, the exercise bike making a revvy, high pitched whirr and his heart beating at 160bpm. Those hours were not wasted.


Breeze and spin drift completely unnoticed as he places good gear in the splitter crack. Feeling invincible now, wanting to climb above the gear, to look down and feel the surge of adrenalin as he sees the ropes snaking from his waist down to the clinking carabiner and feeling immune to the exposure on the headwall.


’Believe, believe’. Ian’s voice from down below. Conviction in his voice. ’Well done’ says Ian ‘You’re climbing REALLY well.’ Cliff lit briefly by two flashes from Ian’s flashgun.


Suddenly he feels the wind accelerate past his cheekbones. ‘I’ve fallen? Now?’ He thinks, incredulously. ‘How can I have fallen?’

The ropes come slowly taut and he’s suspended in his harness about ten feet below his leashless axes which are still embedded in the crack. He looks down at Ian who has held him on the ropes. Their eyes meet. They both grin and then start giggling like a pair of schoolboys caught doing something that they shouldn’t.

His next thought is, ‘Well, the route is over. It’s too steep, too hard.’
But another thought intrudes.

’Get on with it’

It is the same thought that has prodded him during all those long months spent working on the cycle taxi. During training. After Peru. After the avalanche on Mont Blanc. It has whispered to him, and nudged him, and poked him, and now here it is again. ‘Nothing will come of nothing. Get on with it. ’

He hangs in his harness and works furiously on his arms, shaking them as if he is fizzing a bottle of Moet, shaking out the lactic acid in them. He hauls on the ropes and the cliff passed went past his face. He is livid. They are trying to free climb the route and he’s gone and fallen off. He grabs the axes and drives them into the crack, adrenalin and fear and frustration in every swing. In a matter of moments he is above his high point. A ledge looms above and he swings over to it. There are some cracks for the gear and he belays on it. A surge of inexplicable joy shoots through him. He may have fallen off, but he has climbed the pitch, just as he said he would. It is an omen. What can go wrong now? Nothing.

By this time it is dark and Ian leads the next desperate pitch with his headtorch on. He shivers in the belay jacket as night advances its icy grip. On the wind he hears screams of agony, anger and aggression from above. ’Watch me’ roars Ian ‘Watch like f**k’. He hears the word ‘Safe’ echo down through the darkness and he starts to climb. It is steep, thin and not as well protected as the pitch he’s just climbed and he is thankful for the taut rope that he gets from Ian. He arrives panting at Ian’s belay. Above their heads the cliff kicks back into easy terrain. They have climbed the route. ‘Let’s just concentrate for the next few 30 minutes’ says Ian as he equalises the gear. Then they are sliding down the ropes into the cold dark night and within half an hour they are back at the sacs chugging on black tea mixed with high five powder and reliving the moment.   Happy New Year!

Oliver is supported by The Business, Crux, Montane, Lyon Equipment, and Pocket Mountains
Sioux Wall, VIII, 8. First Winter Ascent, Ian Parnell and Oliver Metherell, 1st January 2006.

Huge, huge thanks to Oliver for passing on his story for me to use and share with you all on my little blog.  Check his website for details of the latest Super7 expedition to Antarctica

Once again i hope you enjoyed that story.  If so please leave me some feedback in the comments.  Also if you have any 'My First' stories, drop me a comment/email.

Ange xx

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