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Games on a dangerous stage
The ice was thin and loosely attached to the rock. I could see water streaming beneath the opaque layer undermining its strength. I glanced down to the left and saw Ian 'Tat' Tattersall hunched over, stamping his feet at the foot of the ice wall. He was cold and I was taking far too long. I could sense his impatience. This first pitch of Alea Jacta Est, a 500-foot grade V ice climb looming above the valley of La Grave in the Hautes Alpes, France, should have been relatively straightforward. It had felt desperately difficult and precarious.
I looked down at where I had placed my last ice screw in a boss of water ice protruding from a fractured and melting ice wall 35 feet below me. If I fell now I would drop 80 feet and I knew the ice screw would not hold me. The ice boss would shatter and it would be instantly ripped out. It had quickly become apparent that the route was in poor condition. Lower down I had found myself moving from solid ice onto a strange skim of water ice overlaying soft, sugary snow. It was just strong enough to hold my axe picks and crampon points but it would never hold an ice screw. Hoping for an improvement I had climbed higher and moved diagonally towards the right side of the wall. Then the ice began to resemble something more commonly found furring up the icebox in my fridge. I moved tentatively over rotten honeycombed water ice and onto frightening near-vertical slabs of rime ice - a feathery concoction of hoarfrost and loosely bonded powder snow. It was now impossible to down-climb safely and I tried to quell a rising tide of panic as I had headed gingerly towards the ice boss that was gleaming with a wet blue sheen near where a rock buttress bordered a rising curtain of ice.
As I twisted the ice screw into the boss, I watched in dismay as a filigree pattern of cracks spread through water ice. I saw water seeping out from beneath the fractures and stopped winding the screw. Clipping the rope to the screw I tried to ignore the fact that it was my first point of protection and that it wouldn't hold my weight let alone a fall. If I fell, I knew that I would hit the ground from over 100 feet. I glanced back at Tat but he wasn't looking at me. It was surprising how very lonely you can suddenly feel.
I moved up slowly, gently hooking my axe picks in melt holes in the ice, careful to pull down and not out. Myright foot slipped away as wet ice sheared from the rock and I shuddered down, then stopped. I breathed deeply and stepped up again, forcing the single front-point of my crampons into a shallow crack in the rock and balancing on it as I reached higher and planted my axe into a marginally thicker layer of ice. There was a cracking noise as the ice flexed free of the underlying rock, then silence as it held my weight. I held my breath and pulled steadily on the axe shaft.
The route description mentioned a near-vertical wall of ice trending rightwards. I remembered the old adage about ice climbing which stated that 75-degree ice feels vertical and vertical ice seems overhanging. I felt physically strong but mentally my resolve had begun to crumble. It had been a slow, insidious leeching away of my confidence directly proportional to the height I gained. Above me a rock wall reared up and the ice curved into a short corner. I spotted a small piece of red tape poking out from beneath a fringe of wet snow. The belay, I thought with relief, protection, safety at last.
My spirits rose at the welcome sight and I made delicate moves up the ice wall until I was perched cautiously on the tips of my crampon points digging into a moustache of frozen moss and turf. I was alarmed to notice that the turf was not part of a rocky ledge but simply a tuft of vegetation glued to the rock wall. I reached up with my axe and carefully pushed the pick through the small loop of red tape. An experimental tug indicated that it was a solid anchor and I relaxed as the tension ebbed away.
'I've found the belay,' I shouted over my shoulder. There was no answer from below. I swept the dusting of snow from around the tape, hoping to reveal a couple of strong bolts. My heart sank as I saw two knife-blade pitons that had been driven half their length into a hairline crack in the rock. The tape had been tied off around the blades to reduce the outward leverage that would have been exerted if the eyes of the pitons had been clipped. I looked quickly around for some other protection to back up this worryingly feeble belay. There was nothing. No cracks for wires or pitons and the nearest ice was too thin and weak to take an ice screw.
I looked down past my boots. A rocky buttress plunged away beneath my crampon points. There was now a fall of over 150 feet if the two blade pegs ripped out. I began to feel nervous. A shout from below was muffled by the sound of a passing truck on the nearby road.
'What?' I yelled.
'Are you safe?' Tat yelled. I glanced at the two pegs and my stomach tightened. This isn't good, I told myself sternly. We're on holiday. This is supposed to be fun!
'I'm not sure,' I muttered to myself, then leaned out and shouted. 'OK, Tat. Be careful. The ice is crap and the belay isn't much better.'
Great. He can't hear me.
'Climb!' I yelled, trusting that Tat was too good a climber to fall off the pitch. When he reached the last ice screw and was in earshot I told him about the belay.
'Is it in the right place?' he asked.
'Well, I think so, but having said that I was expecting bolts, so maybe not.'
'Why didn't you carry on?' Tat asked. His tone was critical.
'I was a long way above a bad runner, the ice was bad and I saw what I thought was the belay,' I said, sharply angered that my efforts on the first pitch hadn't been appreciated. I knew that to follow it with the security of a rope from above would have presented few problems to a climber of Tat's skill but surely he must have noticed the poor ice and lack of protection?
'I thought it was pretty hairy down there,' I added, with a note of petulance in my voice. It had unnerved me and I felt embarrassed to have displayed such weakness. Tat remained unconvinced. 'And I didn't like the look of that,' I added nodding at the vertical 20-foot rock corner draped on its left side with mushy, crumbling ice. In truth, I was scared. The pitch below had seemed insecure and although I had climbed it competently I had constantly been aware that it was much harder than it should have been. The conditions were deteriorating and the short corner looked horribly risky.
'I don't think this is in good nick,' I said, as Tat climbed up to stand level with my feet.
'No,' Tat said as he examined the corner.
'You'll have to get a runner in before you try that,' I cautioned. 'Otherwise you will be falling directly onto the belay.' I leaned to the side so Tat could see the knife blades.
'Two pegs. What's wrong with that?'
'They're tied off. I don't even like putting my weight on them.' I glanced at the drop to the foot of the climb. 'They won't hold a fall.'
Tat shrugged. He didn't seem as concerned as I was. Maybe I'm being a wimp? Perhaps it's not so bad? I reasoned to myself but the bluff didn't work. I knew it was bad. I was climbing well, feeling strong, but doubts were crowding in on me. Trust your judgement. It's your life.
I passed a bandolier with ice screws down to Tat. He swung it around his neck and moved to the left, making a long stride out with his boot to get his crampons onto the ice. A large plate of ice cracked off and tumbled down and over the buttress. I watched it, mesmerised, as it wheeled out into the sucking, empty space beneath my feet.
I tensed and grabbed Tat's shoulder to steady him. He tried the stride again and I watched intently as he made precise, soft placements with his axes, weighted them, and shifted to the left until he could stand directly over his left foot. He made a perfunctory examination of the ice then reached up with his axe. Clearly there was no chance of placing an ice screw.
I shifted uneasily. Tat was tall and probably weighed 175 pounds. There was no way I could hold him without putting heavy force on the belay.
'Gear, Tat,' I said tensely.
'I'll look under that roof,' he said and nodded towards where a small overhang of rock jutted from the rock corner. 'There may be a crack underneath it.'
He lifted himself smoothly up on his right axe and braced the front-points of his right boot against the back of the rock corner. There was a cracking sound and Tat dropped down as the ice disintegrated and his left foot detached again. I gasped with shock and instantly braced for the fall. He stopped moving and calmly replaced the boot slightly higher.
'Jesus, Tat, get some gear in.'
He said nothing.
I felt sick with anxiety. Tat was absorbed in the technical difficulty of climbing while I could only watch and worry and try not to think about the pitons. Any fall would kill us. An edgy hysteria was beginning to flood through me. This is bad. This is really bad. Yet I did nothing. I stared, transfixed by Tat's movements, scarcely daring to breathe, trying to will his axes and crampon points to hold firm.
After what seemed an age I found myself looking directly upwards at the red plastic soles of Tat's Footfang crampons. If he fell he might hit me. The impact would knock me off my frail stance. If he slid past me he would fall 20 feet straight onto my harness and then the belay. It would rip out. The frozen turf would not take the strain and the moment it collapsed I would lunge down onto the tied-off knife blades. Then we would be airborne.
I had immense respect for Tat's ability as an ice climber. Indeed I deferred to him, happy to acknowledge his superior experience, although I would never admit this to him. I felt that I was more powerful and probably fitter than Tat but he had the cunning of vast experience and that was worth a great deal. We were climbing at the same standard and I was confident that I could accurately assess what we could and could not do. This now put me in an awkward position. I urgently wanted to tell him that he should back off, that the climb was in a very dangerous state, that it was too hard for him. But he was the leader. This was his pitch, his choice, and I would have to hope he would come to the same conclusion. I didn't want to force the issue.
Another part of me wanted to scream at him to stop. What is this crap? This isn't just about losing face. This is a bad call he's making and you care more about your precious ego than you do about your life. We're friends, for God's sake. This isn't some hero trip. Tell him. He won't hold it against you. I kept silent. I was unsure whether the suggestion might antagonise him into continuing; the last thing I wanted.
'Can you get anything in?' I suggested anxiously. Tat was now level with the roof. His left arm was stretched above it, gripping his hammer. I could see that the pick was gripping a few millimetres of filmy ice glued to the left wall. He craned his head to the right and tried to peer under the roof. He let his ice axe dangle from his wrist leash and unclipping a bunch of wires from his harness he tried to fiddle a small metal chock into a crack that he had spotted beneath the roof. The strain on his left arm was making him breathe hard. I stared fixedly at crampon points, trying to anticipate them shooting into space. I doubted his pick placement was doing anything other that keeping him balanced. It would not hold his weight if his feet sheared off. The wired chock jammed and Tat tugged down hard to seat it into the thin crack. On his second pull it flew out and the sudden jerk nearly toppled him from his perch. I swore and jerked my left arm out as if somehow I thought I might be able to catch him.
'It's no good,' Tat gasped. 'The crack's shallow.'
'Will it take a peg?'
'Doubt it,' Tat muttered and I heard a hint of irritation in his voice. I knew that he wanted to go for the corner and make the four or five moves needed to reach where the ice was thicker. One good axe placement in that thick ice would be enough for him to haul himself to safety. I knew what he was thinking but I thought it too risky. I watched as he turned to face the wall rising left of the corner. He flipped his axe shaft into his right hand and lodged the pick on a tiny rock edge on the wall. He hauled gently at first and tried weighting the tool. The pick shot off and Tat jerked backwards. I flinched.
Anger began to flush away my fear. I wasn't being given a choice. This is stupid. We could die on this. Just one slip and we're gone.
'Tat.' He paid no attention. 'Tat,' I repeated sharply. 'That's it. I'm not giving you any more rope until you get a good piece in. '
He said nothing but I could sense from his head movement that he didn't like the ultimatum. He turned again to the roof and again attempted to place the wire. It ripped free when he jerked on it. As I watched him struggle to stay in balance a shower of ice crystals pattered onto his shoulder. I looked up to see the air above us filled with a fine rain of ice particles. I knew that it meant that the sun had reached the top of the climb and that there would now be a steady fall of this granular ice. It posed no threat but it meant that conditions would only get worse as the sun heated the already melting ice.
'I can do it,' Tat said. 'It's only two moves . . .'
'The ice is terrible, Tat. It's pouring with water for God's sake!' He glanced over his shoulder at me. 'Fuck it,' I snapped, angry now. 'If you fall we're dead. Simple as that.'
'I won't fall, kid.'
'I don't want to die.'
'I won't fall.'
'Maybe . . . maybe not,' I shrugged. 'I'm sorry. I'm not taking that risk. OK? I don't want to do this. I don't need this.'
Tat turned and looked speculatively up the corner and I felt even angrier that he might still be risking my life. What can you do if he insists? I mean, you can't pull him off. That would kill us. If he insists, then you'll have to un-rope. Jesus! Tell him that.
'Tat?' I said quietly, hearing the fear in my voice.
'OK, OK . . .' He carefully made a move down, lowering himself gently from his left axe. I breathed a sigh of release as he edged towards me. Within a few minutes he was back at the stance beneath where I stood.
'Look, I'm sorry Tat,' I said.
'I thought it would go.'
'Yeah, and I thought we would go.' I glanced at the wash of ice particles showering my arms. 'It's way too late for this route anyway. It's too hot. The top gully line would be falling apart.'
'Can we abseil off those pegs?' Tat ignored my explanation. I could see that he was disappointed but I could also detect an underlying anger. I was surprised, even though I knew how competitive Tat could be as a climber. I looked at the pegs and bent my legs until most of my body weight came onto them. They flexed.
'Pretty flaky,' I said. 'But if we move slowly and smoothly they might hold.'
'Can you back them up?'
'No.' I looked directly at him. 'And unless you want to stand there untied you'll come with me if they pull out.'
'Right,' Tat glanced at the small edge of crusty ice that he was standing on. 'Well, I don't trust this stuff. Here,' he passed me a karabiner on a sling, 'clip me in.'
'Anyway,' I said as I clipped the sling into the two knife-blade pegs, 'I've never had an abseil fail yet.' I grinned encouragingly at Tat who stared bleakly back at me.
'I have,' he said. 'Twice.'
We sorted the ropes out in silence, knotting them together after threading them through the loop of red tape, untying from our harnesses, checking which colour rope to pull down, double-checking the pitons. It was a routine we had gone through countless times. We were methodical, efficiently calm. I was nervous about the pitons but said nothing. We had climbed ourselves into this position, now we had to get out of it.
'Pull on green,' I said as I lowered myself slowly onto the abseil rope, keeping it locked off on my belay plate. I stared intently at the pitons as they flexed and then stilled. I exhaled slowly. Tat grinned at my expression.
'OK, pull on green,' Tat echoed. 'Careful, kid,' he added in a gentle voice and I looked at him anxiously.
'You too,' I said as I slid down past him, concentrating on releasing the ropes smoothly. No jerks, no sudden stops to stress the weak anchors. I watched as the distance to the ground gradually lessened. When I was 80 feet above the snow slopes at the foot of the rocks I began to relax. It was survivable. A few minutes later my feet touched down and I unclipped from the ropes. A short tug on the green rope proved that it would pull down smoothly.
'OK,' I yelled, and watched Tat reach out for the ropes and clip his belay plate in place. I hurriedly moved away from the base of the rocks, feeling guilty as if I were betraying Tat by getting out of the way of his fall line. He'd kill you from that height, I reminded myself.
We trudged down the avalanche slopes, following our tracks to the road. As we packed the hardware, ropes and harnesses into the boot of the car and flung in our axes and crampons I was painfully aware of the silence between us.
I had let Tat down. I had ruined the climb for him by insisting that we retreat. Now that we were safely on the ground I began to question my decision. Maybe those pegs were OK? I mean they held the abseil. No. They would never have held a fall. I glanced at Tat as he drove up towards the village of La Grave.
'Do you think the pegs would have held a fall?' I asked.
'No,' Tat said bluntly.
Yet you were still prepared to carry on, to push it to the limit? I thought. Why not me? The simple answer was because I was too scared. I didn't have such blind faith in Tat's ability.
'I wouldn't have fallen,' Tat added, as if reading my thoughts. I said nothing.
A game of chess and several large beers on the sunny terrace of a cafe´ relaxed us sufficiently to begin talking about what had happened. Tat still seemed strangely reluctant to admit that it had been such a perilous enterprise - so much so that I began to have my own doubts. I wondered whether the frightening ice conditions on the first pitch had so unnerved me that by the time I found myself hanging on the knife blades I was psychologically defeated. Ice climbing is very much a head game and there is a fine balance between confident boldness and being in a blue funk.
Yet when I thought of my reasoning at the time it seemed irrefutable. I felt that I had made a sound mountaineering decision. I knew that one of the hardest things to learn is when to back off, when to retreat ready to fight another day. It was not a matter of injured pride, or cowardice.
I tried to explain this to Tat but he dismissed me with a smile. 'I know all that,' he said. 'I was just disappointed . . . oh, and Check Mate!'
He happily knocked my King over with the base of his Queen. 'Three - one in the La Grave Open,' he added with a triumphantly raised forefinger.
'Bugger,' I muttered disconsolately.
'And by the way, I've been thinking.'
'Oh?' I replied, apprehensive of whatever climbing adventure he was about to suggest. I knew our failure on the climb that morning would only have spurred him on to try better things. Tat couldn't be put off that easily. 'Let me guess.' I said. 'The Valley of the Devils?'
'Oh no,' Tat looked genuinely surprised. 'I was thinking about this morning, about Alea Jacta Est.'
'Really?' I said warily.
'Well, you were right about the conditions. We started too late and it was obviously deteriorating. Once the sun hit the top we were in trouble. Now if we get up really early, say five o'clock . . . five-thirty . . .'
'Five-thirty?' I was aghast. 'This is a holiday, Tat . . .'
'Well, OK, six then. We'll grab a quick coffee for breakfast and we should be on the first pitch by seven . . .'
'You want to try it again?' I asked, taken aback.
'It'll be freezing hard at that time.'
'That's as may be but the ice conditions on the first pitch won't change. It will still be cruddy sugar ice and the screws will be non-existent.'
'One,' Tat said. 'You had one on the first pitch.'
'That wouldn't have held a falling fruit fly and you damn well know it.'
He grinned and nodded agreement. 'Well, yes, that's true, but you could lead that pitch again. You climbed it well, I thought. A bit slow, mind . . .'
'A bit slow?' I protested. 'Of course I was bloody slow. It was falling apart.'
'Yeah, but you never looked like falling did you? You were solid.'
'Maybe not,' I conceded, flattered by his praise.
'You could do it again, no problem.'
'But it's a virtual solo without those screws,' I complained. 'And there's no way it's grade V. We've done stacks of climbs that hard, even harder, and that thing today was desperate. Grade VI more like and bloody serious, crap gear, crap ice . . .'
'Yeah, but what a line,' Tat enthused and pointed at the open guide-book. 'Look at that couloir cutting through the top rock wall. It looks brilliant, doesn't it?'
'Yeah, it does actually,' I agreed. 'Rather like a Scottish line, isn't it? And I'll bet we can get good protection in those rock walls.'
'Exactly, so it's only that short bit that's stopping us. We can do it.' His enthusiasm was infectious and I could feel myself becoming intrigued and excited. Tat was an excellent persuader and he was right. It had been a disappointment to have retreated. We had a score to settle.
'You've been on it now,' Tat continued, sensing that I was weakening. 'You know the score. You'll be ready for it.'
'Yeah, and I've been on those bloody tied-off knife blades.'
'That's what I've been thinking about,' Tat leaned forward conspiratorially. 'You see, I was above the roof and trying to put gear in underneath it. I was off balance and I couldn't really see what I was doing. Tomorrow I'll put the gear in before I commit myself to the corner, then it's just a few moves and we'll be up.'
'Or off,' I murmured. 'I'm not sure, Tat. I really didn't like it today.'
'At seven o'clock it will be freezing hard. Totally different ball game. Come on, what do you think?'
'OK, but on one condition,' I said reluctantly. 'If you can't get good protection, and I mean good fall-proof gear, then we back off. No questions asked?'
'All right, if you insist.'
I smiled and nodded assent.
Tat looked delighted and leaned over to give me one of his trademark hugs. He stood up looking excited and energised. There was no trace of the depressed, silent figure which had trudged gloomily down to the car. 'Six o'clock start, then?' he asked, just to check I wasn't going to back out.
'Yeah,' I said glumly.
'Don't worry, I'll wake you up.'
'I thought you might.'
It was cold and the route was silent. There was no meltwater running under the ice. Tat had been right about the first pitch and although I climbed cautiously I dispatched the rope length in about half the time. I quickly climbed over the snow-ice sections, not wanting to waste time looking for protection. I began to feel confident that maybe Tat's plan for an early start was all that we had needed to succeed.
As I neared the belay on the two knife-blade pitons, how-ever, my new-found enthusiasm waned. I clipped into the pitons, arranged my feet on the cramped, frozen turf and stared gloomily at the corner. It looked desperate. Even in the freezing conditions the shattered sections of thin water 12.Games on a dangerous stage ice looked fragile. I glanced at the pitons again, hoping they might not look as bad as they had the day before. If anything, they were worse.
As I took in the ropes and Tat climbed rapidly towards me I tried to work out how on earth I had managed to convince myself that this would be any different from the day before, less than fifteen hours earlier. I had walked away from the climb glad to be alive and now I was back here in exactly the same position. You must be bloody mad! Nothing has changed. You're belayed to the same two wobbly pitons again, the ice is still crap, and now Tat is working himself into a veritable lather of excitement. What on earth were you thinking?
'Not bad, is it?' Tat said cheerfully as he reached the belay. 'Told you it would be right.' I gaped at him in amazement. 'Right, let's get on while it's still cold,' he added quickly.
'Listen, Tat.' I was going to tell him that I wanted to go down.
'Here, hand me those screws.'
I passed the bandolier to him. 'I was thinking . . .'
'Have you got the pegs?'
I searched on my harness, unclipped the pegs and passed them to him.
'This belay still won't hold anything,' I said. 'You know that?'
'Yes, yes, I'll get something in, don't worry.'
'I am bloody worried!'
'Right, watch me, kid,' Tat said and he bridged across the corner before I could protest further. My heart sank. My stomach felt empty and ached. That's because it is bloody empty. We didn't have any breakfast because this idiot wants to kill us again, I thought as I watched Tat fiddling with wires and pitons under the roof. Don't let him move if he can't find good gear, not an inch.
It took forty-five long minutes of experimentation before Tat managed to lodge a tiny wired metal wedge, little more than a match-head thick, into the crack below the roof.
'OK, watch me.'
'Is that any good?' I asked, hurriedly.
'Sort of,' Tat said, as he carefully placed his left axe pick against a tiny edge of rock. There was a slick patina of ice shining on the surface of the smooth compact limestone.
'Will it hold?' I said anxiously, as he lifted himself up level with the roof.
'Maybe,' he grunted, and that was it. I could do nothing. It was clear that he was committed to the corner. His crampons scratched against the rock as he sought to place them on tiny irregularities. His right arm reached up high and he tapped the axe gently against the ice. I heard the distinct sound of metal on stone. He tried again, swinging blind.
'Further right,' I said. 'There's a weep of thicker ice a foot to the right.' He grunted acknowledgement and swung again. The pick held. His right crampons clawed up the corner seeking purchase. One front-point lodged in a nick cutting into the rock. He weighted the point and I stared at it intently, willing it to hold.
There was a clicking metallic sound and I watched in frozen dread as the tiny wired metal wedge detached from the crack and slid down the rope on its karabiner to fetch up against my hand. Horrified, I stared at it and then at Tat spread-eagled across the corner. I knew he couldn't reverse the moves and I knew he didn't know that his only piece of protection had just fallen out. I kept silent and braced myself nervously against the pressure of the ropes holding me to the insecure grip of two tied-off knife blades.
Tat raised himself with steady care until both his arms were locked at the elbows, hands gripping the axe handles as they pressed against his chest. I watched as he bridged his left boot out to the side, searching for thicker ice. He kicked gently and the points bit into half an inch of brittle water ice glued to the wall. For a long contemplative moment he hung there, sensing his points of contact, trying to assess whether they would hold and then he un-weighted the left axe from its tenuous purchase with the rocky edge. I held my breath as he slowly raised the axe to his full arm length. I could see that it was almost in reach of a smear of thicker, stronger-looking water ice. Come on, Tat, get it, get it, I urged, as he strained to reach a little higher.
As he swung the pick against the ice and I saw it bite solidly, there was a harsh scraping sound and the clattering rush of falling ice as his left foot shot into space. I winced, tensing as he swung away from the wall like an opening door. He teetered off balance, hanging grimly onto the left axe that he had just placed. Then, very carefully, he began to haul up on his left arm. His left boot swung back, scratched against the rock, found purchase with another sheet of loosely bonded ice and held.
I was scarcely breathing, weak with the shock of seeing Tat almost fall. I felt sick as the realisation that I was about to be ripped off the stance flashed through my mind. I wondered whether I could survive such a fall. Would the snow cone at the foot of the wall cushion the impact? I almost laughed at my desperation. Tasting the bile in my throat I wondered whether I would vomit and felt relieved to have missed out on breakfast.
Tat was breathing hard with the effort of trying to remain balanced and maintain a constant, even pressure on his ice picks. There was nothing I could do to help and I felt too paralysed with anxiety even to think of saying something encouraging. All I could think to say was 'Don't fall off', an inanity that I guessed Tat could do without.
I watched as he detached the right axe and lifted it up to a point just above the placement of his left pick. As he was about to swing I spoke as calmly as I could.
'It's too close to your left axe, Tat,' I said. 'It'll shatter the ice. You'll be off instantly.'
He hesitated then replaced the pick carefully into its original position. I watched as he glanced at the front-points on his right boot. One inside point remained on a tiny edge of ice. He lifted his foot and with careful precision placed the same point in a thin crack one foot higher up the corner. He twisted his boot heel out to the left, increasing the torque so that the point bit securely into the crack. I heard the rock crunching under the pressure of the steel point. Straightening his right leg gave him enough height to stretch his right axe well above his left axe placement and he chopped it with firm confidence. The pick buried itself in solid water ice.
'Yes!' he said triumphantly. His feet scrabbled for purchase as he pulled up and planted the left axe high and to the left in even thicker ice. The danger was over. The route was in the bag. I was going to live a little longer.
I exhaled and shook my head. Unclipping the wire chock from the ropes with unsteady hands I felt a tremor of anger. I had just made the most stupid judgement call of my life. Nothing had been different from the day before but I had still let it happen. No runners, no belay and bad ice. Why? The answer was obvious. I hadn't wanted to back down a second time in front of Tat. Not wanting to appear weak or frightened, I had risked everything to save face. That was not how decisions should be made and I knew I was a fool.
I was torn between anger and joy. I felt happy for Tat. He had got what he wanted and I admired all the skill and nerve and poise he had just displayed under immense pressure. Now that he had succeeded, he could reasonably argue that it was a good decision.
It wasn't and I was angry with myself for saying nothing. It had put me in an invidious position and I had had to stand there and watch while the rest of my life was determined by the shaky adhesion of a few millimetres of frail, melting ice and the dubious friction of a tiny point of metal scratching against a flake of rock. In the past I might have felt that this was what it was all about. This was where you defined yourself, balanced tenuously between life and death. As I stood shakily on a fragile ledge of frozen vegetation all my justifications for climbing seemed suddenly meaningless.
It had been nothing more than a gamble. And for what? The right to say we had climbed a grade V ice route in a dangerously unstable condition. We could justifiably claim that it was grade VI, even grade VII. Technically we had both climbed harder routes but never at such risk. Accidents happen because we are all fallible. We make mistakes, we misjudge conditions, we overreach ourselves, but after all the years of accidents and deaths and mountains climbed, we should at least have learned when to back off. It wasn't as if the situation suddenly engulfed us and we had no choice but to deal with it. We knew everything was wrong and yet we came back, ignored our intuition, and did it anyway.
It wasn't worth our lives. The whole notion of 'Deep Play' - the gambling theory of extreme risk-taking when the gambler stands to lose far more than he could ever possibly win - may well be an apt description of some levels of climbing, but playing the game in reality now seemed a conceited and ridiculous enterprise.
However, when I reached Tat's stance it was difficult not to be infected by his bubbling enthusiasm and pleasure.
'Hiya, kid,' Tat smiled and gave me a vigorous one-armed hug that nearly knocked me off the stance. I grabbed at the belay slings to steady myself.
'Good lead, bloody good lead,' I said.
'It was thin.'
'The wire fell out,' I said bluntly.
'Thought it might,' Tat nodded cheerfully.
'I thought you were off, you know?'
'It was close,' he agreed. 'But the placements felt good. You climbed it pretty fast.'
'Two pints of adrenalin helps,' I retorted. 'As does having a rope above you. I don't think we should have done that. We nearly died.' I looked hard at Tat and he was suddenly serious.
'Maybe.' He seemed defensive, as if recognising that we had gone too far.
'I thought you were tired of risks. You said dying wasn't worth it.'
'Never has been.' Then he shrugged and couldn't suppress the grin. 'But we're not dead and we have done it, so what's the problem, eh? Come on, let's do the rest of it.' He handed me the wires, pitons and ice screws, impatient to get on. 'Up and to the left and then it curves round into that narrow rocky gully.' He pointed across a short ice flow leading into an obvious rocky gash.
Forty-five minutes later I was abseiling from a tied-off ice screw back down to where Tat was belayed. A shower of ice particles was sweeping the gully. The sun had hit the top of the face.
'Sorry, Tat,' I said feeling ashamed of my second retreat in two days. 'The ice ran out. It was good at first then became wet and thin. After that there was nothing - just a 15-foot-high, smooth rock gully. No cracks, no wires. I couldn't climb it.'
'Right,' Tat smiled at me, still buzzing from his success. 'Better get out of here.'
'Eh?' I was taken aback. 'But don't you want to try it?'
'No.' He began sorting the tangle of ropes into two separate coils. 'If you couldn't do it, I probably couldn't. Come on, let's go.'
We abseiled swiftly back down to the safety of the snow cone. As we trudged down to the car I marvelled at Tat's equanimity. I had expected a repeat performance of yesterday's moody disappointment. At very least I had expected some criticism about letting him down again. As we bundled the gear into the boot, Tat stopped to look up at the route.
'We'll do it next year,' he announced.
'If it's in condition,' I qualified warily.
I knew there was no 'of course' about it. Knowing Tat as I did, we would be back the next year and we would do it.
'Do you know what Alea Jacta Est means?' Tat asked as he drank deeply from a cold pint of beer.
'No,' I said, thinking about the name of the climb. 'It's Latin, isn't it?'
'Yeah, that's why I asked,' Tat said. 'You were taught Latin, weren't you?'
'I was so bad at Latin I spent most of the classes standing in the corner for failing to know the past pluperfect conjugation of some obscure verb. Never even understood what past pluperfect meant, let alone gerundives. And those damn stupid sentences you had to translate, "Labienus, having sacked Gaul, returned to Rome." Who the hell was Labienus? That's what I wanted to know but nobody knew. He was just this guy with a vaguely embarrassing name who kept sacking things and then going home. It used to drive me mad . . .'
'But you're not bad at languages,' Tat interrupted my rant. 'You speak French and Spanish.'
'I understand more Spanish than I can speak and I used to be able to speak French, but not Latin,' I replied. I finished my beer. 'So what do you think it means?'
'I'm not sure. My Latin is a bit rusty, just what I learned as a medical student, but I think it means, "Only yourself to blame." Good, eh?'
'It's about right,' I laughed. 'Except I would have been blaming you,' I added.
'Only for as long as it took for us to hit the ground.'
The following winter Tat and I returned to find Alea Jacta Est in much better condition. We climbed the route without problems and Tat was proved right. It was a superb climb. It was also the last ice climb we were to do together.
I later learned from Margaret Colwell that the name Alea Jacta Est actually meant The die is cast. Margaret said it was a loose translation but she was sure the word jacta was the Latin verb, 'to throw' and Alea meant 'dice', hence a gamble, a wager. A literal translation would be, the die is thrown, or cast. In good conditions the route name did not seem especially apt but in the dangerous state that we had first attempted the climb it was all too true. In effect, it was something that I felt it had always been - an unacceptable gamble, a last throw of the dice, a wintry version of Russian Roulette.
'Alea jacta est' had seemed a naggingly familiar phrase, reminding me vaguely of my miserable Latin lessons. Later I was to learn that the reason it was familiar was that it was what Julius Caesar famously uttered as he crossed the Rubicon, a river that no Roman general was ever allowed to cross as it was tantamount to a revolt against the Republic. Once he'd thrown the dice by crossing the river he had no choice but to press on, overthrow the Republic and set up his Imperium. He was then assassinated in Rome for precisely this act.
It was a huge gamble that Caesar took, knowing the implica-tions of his decision and knowing also that there was no turning back. I wish I could have claimed to have been so decisive.