Cold War (or, Just Because You’re Paranoid, Doesn’t Mean The Russians Aren’t Out To Get You)

July 21, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


24 Responses to “Cold War (or, Just Because You’re Paranoid, Doesn’t Mean The Russians Aren’t Out To Get You)”

  1. Simon on July 21st, 2010 8:57 am

    I’m sitting in the office in a trance, mesmerised by words and images.

  2. Joe on July 21st, 2010 10:16 am

    (mouth wide open)

  3. George Baptista on July 21st, 2010 10:21 am


    Your piece has it all: history, culture, vivid scenes.

    You’ve also got me interested in learning more about Abalakov, that’s for sure.

  4. Alistair on July 21st, 2010 10:26 am

    I’m wallowing in nostalgia now! Throw in a facefull of wet spindrift and a river of snow down the back of the neck I could almost be there! Superb writing, thanks for that :)

  5. Fraser on July 21st, 2010 10:35 am

    Fascinating article, particularly for someone who knows nothing about climbing. Outstanding images as usual!

  6. Peter Skov on July 21st, 2010 12:01 pm

    This must be my all-time favourite post of yours, and there have been some stunners. I want these words in a book that I can open anytime to enjoy. As usual you spin your yarn with eloquence and honesty, a masterful rendering of your passion in the English language. But the fact that it was one of your longer posts leaves just that much more to satisfy the desire for your excellent writing.

    As for the damage to your flesh

  7. Peter Skov on July 21st, 2010 12:03 pm

    Weird. I got cut off from finishing my sentence.

    As for the damage to your flesh and bone, that is just part of the fun that’s not so great to have but quite a story to tell later.

    Heal and get back to it!

  8. Project Hyakumeizan on July 21st, 2010 5:32 pm

    This is quite the best writing on ice-climbing that I’ve read for many years – impressionistic and informative by turns. The background on Abalakov is fascinating and sent me scuttling to the web for more. This is what I found:-

    “In 1931 Abalakov was part of a team that made the first ascent of Khan-Tengri (7010m) in the Tien Shan but lost 7 fingers and half his foot from frostbite as a result. This event turned his mind towards mountain safety ….”

    As well it might. Well, I salute you for belaying off those things. Must admit, they give me the heebie-jeebies. Yes, I admit, I’ve never heard of one failing. But, then again, the folks who had them fail wouldn’t be around to describe the experience….

  9. Jason Collin Photography on July 21st, 2010 5:39 pm

    I really like the from behind a sheet of ice away from the mountain composition in several of the shots.

    How is your hand now?

    The whole time reading I could not help but wonder, what does such an expedition like this cost?

    I spent a week in Queenstown back in April of 2003. No snow or ice on the Remarkables then, but I did hike up a mountain across from them (Ben Lomond Peak).

  10. Mikael on July 22nd, 2010 12:22 am

    Another great piece, well worth the wait! Especially good reading as I’m in Tokyo for work this week, and the heat and humidity are sapping all extra energy. I’ll keep these images in mind when I go out today.

  11. Vlad on July 22nd, 2010 12:24 pm

    “We climb, not because “It is there”, but to remind ourselves that “I am here”.”
    Awesome! Thank you very much for sharing this stuff with us.

  12. snowlet on July 22nd, 2010 5:05 pm

    I think this one of my all time favorite posts. Magnificent.

  13. Tracy on July 22nd, 2010 11:57 pm

    YES! Maybe this winter Cogne, IT?

  14. Gen Kanai on July 23rd, 2010 11:52 am

    Thank you for a wonderful collection of images and ideas. Appreciating the cold of NZ from the hot of Italy.

  15. wes on July 25th, 2010 8:29 am

    finally getting around to reading this masterpiece. What an excellent way to escape the oppressive heat of Tokyo, eh?

    I’m wondering what else you have up your sleeve this summer. More journeys in the Japan Alps perhaps?

  16. Hendrik M on July 26th, 2010 5:58 am

    Another contender for “Most EPIC article”.

  17. hrXXLight on July 26th, 2010 9:45 pm

    Another epic trip with excellent pictures and great writing.I’m sitting here with a glas of wine and enjoy this report.

  18. NKJ on July 28th, 2010 11:09 pm

    Brilliant blog. As I am trying to learn more about mountain photography, your text and pics are inspirational.

    Noticed you often shoot at ISO 200 in daylight in your mountain pics. Any specific reason for that (i.e. why not lower)? Thanks!

  19. The Envoy on August 1st, 2010 5:33 am

    These look unreal….

  20. David on August 6th, 2010 10:33 pm

    Again and like most other readers I am blown away. It seems you’re really pushing your limits and that the rat is taking its toll on your flesh…

    You’ve also been pushing geographical boundaries, haven’t you?

    What about that Where is CJW window just below, is it a live kind of thing?

  21. Mike on August 9th, 2010 4:46 am

    Another fascinating post Chris. Have those injuries healed up by now? I might be heading out hiking in Kamikochi sometime soon. Nothing on the scale that you do, but it’s a step in that direction, I’m sure :) . Take care!

  22. Julien on August 9th, 2010 5:10 pm

    Great post! I don’t think I’ve ever commented but I’ve been following your blog for quite a while. It’s been a great inspiration – 1 for hiking in Japan and 2 for photography. But just when I felt I was catching up-you took a grand leap ahead. Great stuff!! Keep posting more and more!

  23. CJW on August 10th, 2010 5:44 am

    Simon: I’m back in the office now, too… All seems very unreal now..

    Joe: That was pretty much how I was all week!

    George: Abalakov was a hard, hard man. There’s not a lot in English about him, however, which is a great shame. I, too, would like to know more.

    Alistair: Ah, the spindrift, the chunks of ice down the front of the jacket, the ice screws tucked inside the T-shirt.. a grand sport!

    Fraser: Glad you enjoyed it!

    Peter: You’re always very kind. The wounds are largely healed up, thanks, if still a little painful in places – sure took a long time. Not as young as I used to be…

    Project Hyakumeizan: More on Abalakov, thank you!! There’s been some interesting new research on Abalakov strength, and particularly on horizontal vs vertical placement. The minimum in the tests was around 7.5kN for the horizontal and 12.5kN for the vertical, so they’ll definitely take bodyweight with a big margin of safety. The research is here:

    Jason: The hand is all healed, thank you! Queenstown is beautiful, isn’t it? Funnily enough, I climbed Ben Lomond the day before I flew out to the Remarkables. Great views from up there. As for cost, Adventure Consultants charge NZ$1950 for 5 days of ice climbing training in a group. I went for private 1:1 guiding instead, which is a little more expensive but I got so much more done.

    Mikael:I hear you about the heat… It was minus five when I left Queenstown, and plus thirty nine when I landed in Tokyo..

    Vlad: Always a pleasure to share these trips!

    Snowlet: Great to hear from you! Hope all is going well back in CT.

    Tracy: Hmmm, Cogne… very, very tempting! Reminds me, I have to order my BD Cobras..

    Gen: Hope you’re enjoying Italy as much as I enjoyed NZ :-)

    Wes: Absolutely! I could quite happily go from hemisphere to hemisphere just chasing winter all year long. For the rest of the summer, I’ll probably be in the Alps, trying to dodge the crowds..

    Hendrik: :-)

    hrXXLight: Very civilised, I like it! Hmm, why is your excellent site not on my RSS reader yet, I wonder… Fixed!

    NKJ: Good question. Inertia, mainly. I’ve just found ISO 200 to be a good all-rounder. Dusk and dawn tend to be around ISO 500. I always use a polarising filter, which tends to darken everything a bit, so lower ISOs are problematic.

    The Envoy: I know what you mean – the whole place had an utterly surreal feeling to it. About a week prior, a photo crew for one of the big fashion retailers was up behind the waterfall doing a photo shoot apparently, and were just giddy with excitement over the light up there.

    David: Heh, yes the rat is getting a decent feed this year too, damn him. I always thought that Japan would be very hard to beat for quality mountaineering in this part of Asia, but NZ really opened my eyes. Maybe I’ll just chase the winter in each one alternately :-) The Where Is CJW window is a live feed from my SPOT locator beacon. I’m interested to see how it works out…

    Mike: I’m pretty well recovered now, thank you, at least enough to make my way up to the Alps last weekend. So you’re headed to Kamikochi? Great! Shoot me an email if you need any info. You’ll love it, I’m sure.

    Julien: I’m immensely pleased that the blog is providing inspiration! Plenty more posts to come. And winter is on it’s way…. :-)

  24. Maz on August 16th, 2010 7:45 pm

    I’ve had a chance to go through a great deal of your blog and it’s very interesting to see the progression in your camera work. I confess to not having had the time to read all of it, but did you change to an SLR at some point? It’s some particularly evocative imagery that you’ve managed to capture but you really do compliment it with dramatic, vivid and moving prose. How long have you been climbing – do you feel like you’ve progressed as a climber too over the course of the time you’ve been writing?

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