But can we trust the Soviet? Is he really on our side? He’s a genius, they say, but your neck is on the line and the valley floor glimmers three hundred meters below the tips of those razor-sharp monopoint crampons. How are we to know it’s not just another plot to rid the world of one more 21st century capitalist? The febrile mind of Vitaly Abalakov is all that is keeping me from tumbling into the icy maw of the valley, taking the eternal fall where the sky is never bluer and the rope never goes taught.
It’s a lot of faith to place in a dead Russian.
Born in 1905, Vitaly and his brother Yevgeniy would become both prolific first acentionists as well as pioneering inventors of climbing gear and techniques. The first tube chock, the first hauling pulley, retrievable ice screws, tri-cams, indeed much of modern climbing paraphernalia sprung from Vitaly’s incredible imagination. Yet this profusion of novelty was to bring him profound sorrow as well as great fame. In 1938, the Soviet Commissariat for Internal Affairs arrested him and many of his climbing team, charging them with the crime of “open public propaganda” in their use of western mountaineering techniques. Several were executed, others faced the gulags. By the 1950’s though, as the wheels of cold war realpolitik turned again, Abalakov regained his former status, was showered with accolades and recognised as the true “Father of Soviet Mountaineering”.
His greatest gift to me, and every other modern ice climber, was the impossibly simple technique that still bears his name: the Abalakov Thread.
In front of me, I’ve bored an “Abalakov”: two intersecting holes drilled into the ice at 45 degrees, through which a 6mm cord has been threaded. My harness is clipped to this cord, and my whole existence now depends upon the strength of a bootlace thick piece of nylon and the incredible properties of waterfall ice. Lean. Out. On. It. Let the frontal lobes overcome the fearful reptilian cortex of the brain. Trust the Russian. I relax into the harness and hunker down on the anchor. Somewhere down below, the taught jiggling of the rope tells me, Adrian is taking out an ice screw and will shortly climb up to join me on these same thin threads.
It’s absurd. What are we doing here?
The helicopter spirals through the air, and in seconds we are at eye level with the jagged peaks of the Remarkables mountain range outside Queenstown. With dazzling precision, the pilot weaves the machine between the snow covered spires and puts us down at the head of Wye Creek in the heart of the range. The walls are thick with columns of blue ice. Seconds later, the helicopter disappears into the early morning sun again, and there is nothing but Adrian, my guide for the next ten days, and me. We walk to a squat, grey rubber tent, the only feature in the barren landscape, and Adrian unzips the heavy door. “Welcome to the office,” he says. We drop our packs inside and start to kit up for the first climbs of the trip.
Ice climbing: space age technology combined with medieval siege warfare. Reverse curved axes and vertical point crampons, sharpened to terrifying edges, bite into the brittle ice. Fuck gravity, we’re going higher, they scream. Precision bored ice-screws hang thick from our harnesses. The weaponry of our sport. We hunt at the fringes of the world, those cold places where nature conspires to percolate tonnes of dihydrogen monoxide into terrifying sculptures hundreds of meters high. Frozen waterfalls. Rock just sits, unmoving, unchanging, but these mighty edifices are in constant flux. The ice changes by the year, never quite forming the same way. It changes by the hour, as the interplay of sun, wind and temperature collude to alter texture and stability. It even changes as the climber puts his tools to it; stress fractures radiate as the ice screws bite; a swing with the axe will stick with astounding rigidity one moment, and with the next a huge dinner plate of ice fractures off the surface, to crash down to the slopes below.
As dangerous as the job of the lead climber is, perched hundreds of feet up on metal points dug mere millimeters into the ice, the job of the belayer below is arguably more so. He pays out the rope vigilantly, ready to hold it fast in the event that the lead climber falls, and yet is subject to a near continual bombardment of ice from above. Thick dinner plates roar past, followed by milk-jug sized slices of icicle. At the end of the day, the bottom of the route is strewn with glassy fragments of ice embedded in the soft snow. Ever wanted to know what it feels like to be in an air raid? Belay an ice climber. “There are three types of fun,” Adrian explains, “Type one is where you have fun at the time, and it’s fun when you tell people later. Type two fun is where it’s not fun at the time, but it’s fun when you tell people later. Type three fun is where it’s not fun at the time, and it’s not fun when you tell people later”.
I suspect most ice climbing is about Type 2.4.
By the end of the second day, Adrian tells me there’s nothing left to teach. Like a duck to water. Rock scares the bejeesus out of me, but ice I get. “Let’s just go climbing.” he says.
Each day we cruise the walls of the valley, picking off lines here and there. One pitch turns to two, two turns to three, before we rappel back to the bottom of the climb and sit on our packs eating humus and crackers. High above the valley lies the Upper Tier, a cascade of ice which tumbles over a lip at the top of the cliffs, leaving a wide cave behind. There’s room here to camp even; on several nights we would glance upwards from our tent to see the headlamps of bivouacking climbers shining out from behind the ice. At the far left-hand side of the formation lies a route named Iron Curtain, which starts with a five meter vertical section with a spectacular drop away below it. Adrian leads it twice; a few days later as my confidence builds, I lead it too. A hundred feet higher up, my arms are burning and my head is spinning. Another Soviet ploy.
“There’s a formation here that’s not shown in the guide book.” Adrian says, pointing to a leftward sloping route, like three giant jellyfish stacked upon each other. I duck around the bottom of a rock outcrop and start to pay the rope out as he climbs. A cacophony of ice starts to fly overhead, thudding into the deep snow below. “It’s a bit brittle!” comes the shout. The bombardment ceases; I dare to stick my head out. A sniper’s bullet of ice catches me straight below the eye. Adrian is teetering a hundred feet up, and his axes are hitting the ice with an ominous hollow thud.
“How’s it look?”
“I’m not happy. It doesn’t seem to be anchored to anything. I can see a big gap between the rock and the ice.”
“You want to lower off?”
A few minutes later Adrian is on the ground.
“I can see why that one isn’t in the guide book..”
On the final day, we climb “Trigger Finger”, a steep three-pitch route. I lead the first pitch to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine”, and the third pitch to the Scarecrow’s song from the Wizard of Oz. I would wile away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers, if I only had a brain… The sun arcs across the sky as we look for one final line. A route in the middle of the wall looks unclimbed this season; a cave in the rock some eighty feet above is fringed with thick icicles, a perfect belay point for the second pitch. I cruise up to the cave, drill an Abalakov, and set the anchor. Adrian flashes up behind me and takes the rope taught as I climb out of the comfort of the cave and back into the vertical world. At the base of a three meter pillar of ice, I fire in another screw and clip the rope. Tools high overhead now, gentle kick-taps with the crampons, and I’m there. I reach, plant the axes deep in the sloping ice at the top of the pillar, and step up…
Bang. Both axes pop, and I’m floating in space. Everything’s sky blue, then white, then blue again, and then stops as the rope goes taught and I slump in my harness. Looking up, I see Adrian’s head poking out of the cave. “Logging some air time there, dude?” he shouts down. “I’m in Queenstown, I figured I might as well do some bungy jumping,” I shout back. Someone’s dragging a scalpel point around the inside of my skull. I wait for the stars that are streaming before my eyes to vanish, then climb slowly up the slope and back into the cave. “Fingers and toes all wiggle?” he asks. They do. I need to get back on the horse, so again I climb out of the womb of the cave and back into the cold and vertical world outside. The ice screw at the bottom of the pillar has barely moved, and the Abalakov acts as if nothing had happened. I swing the axe, and pain explodes through my right hand. Back into the cave. The adrenaline has worn off. My hand is swelling through my glove.
“I don’t think it’s broken, but I can’t climb on it. I guess this is the end.”
“Let’s rappel off, then.”
“C’est la vie.”
“C’est la guerre!” he shouts.
They say that deep sea fish cannot be bought safely to the surface, so pressurised are they that they will explode.
The next day the helicopter reverses its journey, whisking us from the cradle of the mountains and back into Queenstown in a matter of minutes. I catch sight of my reflection in a window. Bearded and glassy eyed, I’m suffocating in the warm, thick air. I’m a deep sea fish in a strange world. Decompression. Back at my hotel, I strip the layers of clothing away for the first time in many days and survey the damage. My right hand is like a baseball catcher’s mitt, my knees and elbows are swollen and blue. A huge yellow bruise is rising on my left thigh, and worryingly I have a small axe-tip shaped puncture wound in my left pectoral, which matches a hole in my jacket I’d noticed earlier. I try not to think about it. I pull a beer from the fridge, and stand under the shower for a long time.
“A friend asked me the other day, if I had the choice between never taking another turn on skis and never swinging an axe again, which would I chose? I told him I’d take the axe every time.The sense of achievement is… it’s like nothing else…” Adrian’s voice trails off in the dark of the tent. But really, why do we do this? This utterly pointless, often dangerous, always strenuous activity? What is it about a mountain, or a cliff, or a frozen waterfall deep in the hills that compels us to climb it, to walk along its ridges or to see what’s at the top?
We climb, not because “It is there”, but to remind ourselves that “I am here”.
With thanks to all the guys at Adventure Consultants, the pilots of Heliworks, and especially to Adrian, his patience, skill and strong belay hand. And, of course, Vitaly Abalakov, without whom our racks would be twice as heavy.