Sunday 18 August 2013

First Alpine route - Paciencia 8a, Eiger nordwand

On the crux of Paciencia, Eiger north face. All photos thanks to the talented Alexandre Buisse

June and July were some of the most busy and challenging days of my life, none of which involved any climbing. The death of my father Norman was not a good time. Not wishing to talk about it much more on this, my climbing blog, all I should say is that at least I was able time to spend time with him first.

There wasn’t much time before other life events called for action. Claire, Freida and I moved house. Just ‘round the corner’ to Roybridge. We now have a great base for Freida growing up and it was a pleasure to put my back into working on it and preparing it for my family. Each day, I got up early, worked until the wee small hours and repeat…

So my planned trip to the alps with Calum Muskett crept up on me. I’d done next to no climbing for several weeks with everything that had gone on. A few fingerboard sessions, a couple of TCA sessions, that’s it. I could still one arm a first joint edge. But endurance was nil.

Here mate, is that the Eiger?

When I started to drive south from the highlands, the extent of the problem with this started to dawn on me, since our discussed objectives were basically a list of the hardest routes in the alps. Top of the list was Paciencia, the hardest route on the north face of the Eiger. First freed in 2008 by Ueli Steck and then repeated just once by David Lama in 2011. Reading Lama’s blog made me wince. He rated it one of the hardest routes in the alps and said he was utterly exhausted by the time he reached the top. Although the pitch grades don’t too bad; 6b, 6a, 6a+, 7c, 7c, 7a, 8a, 7a+, 6b+, 6a+, 6a+, 7c, 7c+, 7b, 7a, 6a, 7a+, 7c, 7a, 6c+, 6b, 6b, 6c+ Many of the pitches are tad on the sandbag side. For instance, one of the 6b+s we thought translated to E4 6b.

On paper it was completely ridiculous for me to go near it. However, predictably, after meeting Calum in Chamonix we decided in about 2 minutes we’d head straight to the Eiger for the first route. It would also be my first alpine route.

Another great 7c pitch, full of north face atmosphere

A day later we were scrambling up the classic 1938 route to the foot of Paciencia. It was misty, damp and cold and after a drippy bivi I woke up ready to fail. Thankfully, our intention was just to have a recce and get our bearings on the Eiger. That day we hung about on the first few 7c and 8a pitches and I tried to give myself as big a workout as possible. I achieved that goal with ease.

I wasn’t sure about going back up. Perhaps it would be better to do a few easier routes first? I couldn’t think of a good way to even suggest that to Calum, who is already an accomplished alpinist, just a couple of years younger than me at 19. So we went back up, taking the photographer Alexandre Buisse with us for the first day. After soloing back up the 38 route in the afternoon we bagged the first few 7c pitches before dark and settled into our bivi, ready to go for the 8a in the morning. The morning however, was mostly spent melting snow to fuel some serious tea drinking on our ledge. Once we got started, we both dispatched the brilliant 8a pitch with much enjoyment. What an amazing pitch in spectacular surroundings.

Calum on the rather thin first 7c pitch

Our clear objective was for both of us to free the entire route with no falls, whether leading or seconding. All of the many 7b and 7c pitches were very hard to onsight, as we already knew from reading David Lama’s account. So we decided to give ourselves three full days to climb to the top since we would need the extra time for both of us to succeed on each of the 23 pitches. When we reached the second bivi below the Czech Pillar, we spent the following day both climbing the hard pitches that followed, before descending for one more night on the ledge. Both of us were tired that day, and I almost fell right at the end of a 7c+ pitch, where I knew Lama had also fallen. I knew I didn’t have the energy for another go within the hour, so I just held on like my life depended on it when a foothold broke 4 moves from the belay ledge. While Calum worked on the pitch, a helicopter appeared, hovering close by. The door opened and a long lens popped out and took some pictures of us. I thought to myself, that doesn’t happen in Scotland.

8a, or more tea?

We rose at 6am the next morning both feeling rather better than anticipated. Just as well, since the first task was to jung and haul the bag back to our highpoint before commencing the final 8 pitches, including one more of those nasty 7cs right near the top. We both climbed strongly on that pitch and we carried on that momentum all the way to the end, pulling into sunshine at 6pm on the top. The crux was yet to come for me however. I’d had blisters on my toes from wearing boots that didn’t fit my feet on the recce day. Nearly 4 days in my rockshoes had made them considerably worse. The walk back down to Grindelwald was a teeth gritter. Of course, now I’m sitting in a cafe the next day, everything feels better.

I learned a lot some new beta on big walling tactics from Calum, and was certainly inspired by his confidence, backed up with skill and problem solving ability. He took the route very much in his stride, as I’m sure he will many more harder routes. Thanks to Ueli Steck and Stefan Siegrist for opening the route. It must’ve taken a lot of effort.

So, where’s my boulder mat...