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In October of 1982, a twenty-seven-year-old British alpinist named Alex MacIntyre was killed by rock fall during a descent of the south face of Annapurna. Another British climber named John Porter was at base camp, watching the descent through his camera. MacIntyre and French alpinist Rene Ghilini were retreating after a failed attempt on the summit. "They were down climbing," Porter describes, "crossing a gully on a face that was the better part of ten thousand feet high. I lowered the camera to clean a speck of dust off the lens, and when I looked up again, Rene was alone on the face." MacIntyre had been struck and killed instantly by a single falling stone; his body tumbled to a ledge 500 feet below.
Nearly seventeen years later, Porter drives through the darkness north of Glasgow, Scotland. It is the middle of March, and we're headed into the Scottish highlands for four days of ice and alpine climbing. Porter is preparing to write a biography of MacIntyre, and the events of 1982 have been much on his mind.
Porter was one of the finest mountaineers of his generation; MacIntyre, eight years younger, had been his protégé. Classmates at Leeds University, they were also good friends. Porter, MacIntyre, and other British climbers of the so-called "Leeds scene" led a renaissance of British alpinism beginning in the late 1970s. Before expeditions, MacIntyre's mother told Porter, "Take care of my boy." Eventually, Porter says, MacIntyre outstripped his tutor. In MacIntyre's obituary, Porter wrote, without envy but with a certain fraternal sadness, of the moment he realized that he had nothing more to offer; that his pupil had grown up and surpassed him. Around 1980, Reinhold Messner, arguably the greatest mountaineer of all time, lauded MacIntyre as the purest proponent of Himalayan superalpinism then at work. Messner was referring to a stylistic school of mountaineering that favors fast, light climbs by small teams or soloists--a style, born in the Alps, that Messner introduced to the Himalayas with spectacular results. Superalpinism is considerably more dangerous, and in part for that reason more aesthetic, than expedition-style mountaineering, which involves porters, Sherpas, fixed lines, high camps, and prolonged sieges of similar routes. Near the end of MacIntyre's life, enflamed by such praise and his own promise, the young climber made a number of extraordinary climbs. He also began, as Porter says, "to believe in his own legend. He began to break his own rules."
Porter was ill and unable to climb on the fatal day. In the days before his death, MacIntyre had expressed a specific fear of rock fall, for which the huge south face of Annapurna is notorious. After the accident, a blizzard prevented Porter and Ghilini from recovering the body. "It was an awful decision to make," says Porter, "to leave your friend lying there in the snow, but it was the only thing to do; it was something Alex would have understood." Soon after, Porter says, "We raced back to Katmandu to face the world."
"They didn't blame me, but I blamed myself," he continues. "I thought, 'How come I'm here? Did I crap out on him? Did I let him down? Was I a coward?' " Objectively, there was nothing more that Porter could have done.
Since his first climb in the New Hampshire hills at thirteen, Porter, now fifty-two, has avoided the limelight in a career spanning five continents and nearly forty years. As part of a British expedition, he attempted Everest's west ridge in the winter of 1980. Among others, he helped establish major new routes on high-altitude peaks, including Bandaka, Chong Kun Dan, and Changabang.
As planned, Porter and I meet two other climbers--Brian Hall and Tim Rhodes--at Mary Ferguson's Bed and Breakfast in the town of Aviemore, north of Scotland's Cairngorm Mountains. Both men met Porter at Leeds in the early 1970s. Like Porter, Hall went on to become one of the most respected high-altitude climbers of his time, with first ascents on Nuptse and Cerro Stanhardt, among others. Hall now runs an international mountain guiding company called Mountain Experience, based in Chinley, England. He also works as an equipment design consultant and photographer and will shoot photographs of the trip.
In the mid '70s, often with MacIntyre, Rhodes participated in a number of important first ascents in the Alps, including new routes on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses and Mont Blanc de Tacul. Later, he shifted his concentration to rock climbing and competitive running. A father of two, Rhodes now runs the Bridge End Bed and Breakfast with his wife in Hayfield, England.
The following morning I find the climbers around Mary Ferguson's breakfast table. Under a clearing grey sky to the south, the broadpeaked Cairngorms are snowclad and ominous despite their modest elevation. Their highest point, the summit of Ben Macdui, lies a mere 1,309 meters (some 4,295 feet) above sea level. And yet the rocky hills of Scotland, cleft by gullies as much as 2,000 feet in height, have formed the crucible of modern ice climbing. In the 1950s and '60s, says Porter, "the Scots used to say they went climbing in the Alps to train for winter climbing in Scotland. The technical difficulty of these small mountains, together with the severe conditions, made them an ideal testing ground for aspiring alpinists. Most of Britain's finest high-altitude climbers trace their successes to winters spent in the Scottish hills."
We leave a car in the crowded parking lot of the Cairngorm Ski Area before 9 a.m., hike past the chair lifts, and join a broken file of climbers meandering up a bare, rocky incline toward the peaks. While the terrain is bare of trees, a coarse, wind-combed heather clings to the frozen mud. This soon vanishes beneath the snow as we ascend. Studded here and there by rocks sheathed in hoarfrost, the surface of the snow glitters with a crust of ice.
An hour's hike from the car lies Coire an t-Sneachda, a popular ravine, or "corrie." Reminiscent of Tuckerman's Ravine on the lower slopes of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the corrie is shaped like a three-sided bowl, enclosed by massive, rocky buttresses and steep snow slopes prone to avalanche. Rim to rim, the corrie is some two and a half miles in diameter; its floor lies nearly 1,000 feet beneath its crest. In heavy gusts, a cold wind scours the floor of the ravine with spindrift, a dry, granular snow that lashes exposed skin and gathers like fine sand in an opened pack. We halt at the base of a crag identified in the climbers' guidebook as Aladdin's Buttress and sort our gear. Nearby, other groups of climbers do likewise. On a shallow rise near the base of the buttress stands a weathered plastic first-aid kit the size of a steamer trunk.
Despite the corrie's low altitude, the winter conditions make for alpine climbing--a mix of rock, ice, and snow climbing first developed in the Alps. For the cold, over layers of synthetic underwear, we wear waterproof jackets and pants, lined gloves, alpine climbing boots, and hats, or balaclavas. Harnesses follow, then crampons--metal frames, equipped with filed teeth for traction on ice, strapped to the soles of our boots. Each climber carries at least two shortshafted ice tools (or modified ice axes), and most have a third in reserve. The threat of rock and ice fall in alpine climbing requires a helmet.
We ascend the steep snowfield at the foot of Aladdin's Buttress and find two parties waiting at the base of our intended route: Aladdin's direct, a short, near-vertical wall of hard water ice that tops out into a gully. The climbers decide on a more difficult alternative: Patey's Route, a classic gully climb first led by local climbing legend Tom Patey in February of 1959. Until his rock-climbing death in 1970, Patey was the archetypal Scottish winter climber, assailing the most challenging lines of the day, often in terrible weather, with little more in the way of equipment than a pair of battered ice tools and crampons. Photographs of Patey usually show a man dressed for a trip to the woodpile, with a bare head, torn sweater, and wool mittens that resemble snowballs. It's enough to make you wonder if he's wearing socks. More often than not in such photographs, the grinning Patey is 1,000 feet up a howling gully, climbing at the edge of the grade. A country doctor by profession, Patey also wrote some of the liveliest prose on climbing to be found. While the technical difficulty of his route on Aladdin's Buttress has retreated before forty years of advances in technique and technology, the gully remains a solid intermediate climb at Grade 5. As we prepare our ropes, another party rappels off the route, defeated, they report, by "thin" ice conditions.
Unlike pure ice climbing, popularized by photographs of climbers on frozen waterfalls, much of the winter climbing in Scotland is "mixed," a hybrid of ice, snow, exposed rock, and occasionally frozen turf. On such a route, a climber will alternate between ice- and rock-climbing techniques, often in close sequence. On rock, this commonly entails "dry tooling," hooking or wedging ice tools and crampon points on small ledges and in cracks.
With the previous party safely out of the gully, Hall ties one end of a rope to his harness and starts up, belayed by Rhodes. The two climbers are soon at the next ledge, and Porter starts up the gully while I belay. As he climbs, Porter seeks horns or cracks in the rock or patches of hard ice where he may place pieces of protection, small devices designed to arrest a climber's fall.
Porter has soon joined the others and calls for me to follow.
The route starts up a deep, V-shaped chimney, or notch, the rock covered with snow. As I climb, I clear the dry snow off the rocks with my tools and forearms, revealing the holds beneath. I peck with the picks in the glazed cracks, seeking the deepest ice before planting the tools with solid strokes. Farther up the chimney lie small patches of frozen turf, tucked between the rocks under the snow. Picks and frontpoints seat readily in this granular cement of grass and mud, which is less prone than ice to shatter or shear. The wind gusts erratically up and down the chimney, driving the powder before it. The spindrift is often inescapable; when I bow my head to avoid a long, dense blast from above, a gust snaps up between my boots and dashes my face with snow. In the heaviest gusts, one has little choice but to lean into the chimney and seal the hood entirely with a gloved hand. In such moments, in the damp darkness, warmed by your breath, you can feel the buffeting wind and the spindrift pouring down from above as if through an hourglass, hissing like a downpour of the finest rain.
Two pitches later, we top out of the gully at four o'clock. Here at the corrie's rim, on the edge of the Cairngorm plateau, the wind gusts up to fifty miles per hour. Studded with rocks, the plateau rolls away into the grey distance. The plateau is far more dangerous, says Hall, than the gullies behind us. In Scotland, more climbers die from exposure than by any other means. Hikers are at equal risk; some years ago, a schoolteacher and nine children were fatally caught in a whiteout on this plateau, within sight of our position on the corrie's rim.
We rise earlier the following morning and drive in two cars to another site, Creag Meagaidh, an hour to the west. It drizzles intermittently en route, and as Porter pulls into the lot and parks beside Hall, it is raining steadily. The avalanche danger will be too great on Creag Meagaidh, Hall says, given the rain. On the drive over, Hall and Rhodes heard news on the radio of a death yesterday on Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles at 1,343 meters, or 4,406 feet. We intend to climb the Ben at some point in the next three days. A man and woman, high on a route called Point Five Gully, were hit by a heavy spindrift avalanche and swept nearly 2,000 feet to the gully's base. Miraculously, in one of the longest survived falls on the Ben, the woman lived with a broken neck and other injuries. Her partner was killed. Porter later tells me that ten or twenty climbers are killed every winter in Scotland--as many as thirty or forty in a bad year (by comparison, some thirty climbers die year round, on average, in all of North America). At the moment, sitting in a car in the rain, this seems like a great number of lives, year after year, to be lost for a day on the hill.
The climbers decide to return to Coire an t-Sneachda. In the highlands, the weather tends to improve toward the east, away from the Atlantic. We may get rained out there as well, but it's our only chance at a day. On the drive back, this theory seems to hold true. The rain steadily diminishes, until we arrive at the Cairngorm Ski Area under a broken blue and grey sky. Bad weather is a simple fact of Scottish climbing. If it rains or snows two out of three days in the east, says Porter, in the west it is three out of four. Climbers in Scotland for a week will feel lucky to get three clear days. Historically, the boldest native climbers have rarely been discouraged by heavy snowfall and have often climbed through blizzards. There are still some climbers who will tolerate the greatly increased risk of avalanche to savor the pleasures of climbing in such "full conditions," when spindrift streams incessantly down the frozen gullies, wind drowns out the shouts of other climbers, and little can be seen for the whiteout.
We arrive at the base of the corrie at ten forty-five and climb the snow slope past the foot of Patey's Route to the base of Aladdin's Mirror direct. Twenty-five meters in height, the Grade 4 route is described in the guide as "a popular ice problem, sometimes underestimated." Porter makes short, easy work of the ice wall, placing two ice screws for protection as he climbs. He belays from the foot of the snow gully above, and I follow, removing the screws as I pass them. While climbing, the follower, or "second," removes any gear placed by the leader and returns them at the next belay. If the climbers switch leads, the second (now the leader) may keep the gear and use it to protect the next pitch. In this fashion, I climb past Porter and up the gully to the next belay. From there we descend to the right, down the gentler snow gully of Aladdin's Mirror. We pass a party of three climbers, ascending the gully unroped. The last of them is clearly uncomfortable, and the party eventually backs off, passing us as we coil our ropes.