An ice-climbing trip to Scotland—land of rain, sleet, and mad outdoorsmen—brings new respect for the sport's big-hearted pioneers
Halfway up Ben Nevis, splayed against hollow ice like a cat clinging to a curtain blown out the window of a skyscraper, I realize that falling is out of the question. It's always good to get that worry out of the way. The mountain hurls down another waterfall of spindrift and I duck my head. Wet and heavy as a stream of concrete, the cascade pours over my helmet and shoulders as I hunch in against the face. It has been raining ceaselessly since the day we arrived in Scotland. The rain is rapidly deteriorating the ice, causing it to randomly collapse. The snow passes around me, slides over a bulge of ice below my feet, and disappears into the clouds.
I resume climbing, sinking my axes in above my head. When I pull up, both picks begin to shear through the ice. It's unnerving. I step up with alacrity, kicking my crampons in with too much force. My boots plunge through the veneer of ice into sugary, bottomless snow. I'm barely attached to the wall. Above me is nothing but plates of gray ice pretending they are affixed to the rock when I know damn well they're merely suspended on vertical pillows of powder. Down between my feet, the ropes drop into swirling, sepulchral oblivion. I lift out one ax, twirl it, slam in the adze, and gingerly test it. It appears to hold and I continue upward. One of the absurd little secrets to reaching the top of something is simply to get yourself so far out that retreat is more horrifying than carrying on.
I remind myself that I can never be off-balance. The sick, glorious sport of ice climbing depends on physical equipoise, which depends on mental tranquility, which in turn depends on a smooth blend of faith and self-confidence. I must slow down. I must direct one limb at a time as if I were a dancer deliberately prolonging each movement. If an ax or foothold fails, I will still be tenuously fastened to the ice at three other points.
I place useless screws in the honeycombed ice as I ascend, recalling with nauseating terror that this route was originally climbed with just one ice ax and no protection. My droop-picked, shark-toothed tools hook into the ice like claws, but the sole ice ax of the first ascensionist had a straight, 90-degree pick with tiny teeth. You couldn't wang it into steep ice and hang on for dear life—the pick would pop right out. Instead, the climber used the wood-shafted ice ax as precisely that—an ax, hacking out a handhold above his head with the adze, grasping the hold and pulling up on it with one woolly-mittened hand, chopping another pigeonhole, swapping the leashless ax to the opposite hand, and doing another pull-up. Handholds became footholds, although the deeper and more sound you made them, the more exhausted you became. Hence early masters cut tiny, ephemeral steps. It seems insane, bold beyond believability. And yet I know that this route, The Chute, is just one of dozens put up in Scotland in the 1950s and '60s by a genius named Jimmy Marshall.
I climb until the ropes go taut, bury both tools, and begin brushing the snow off the walls of rock around me. I'm praying for a crack in which to place protection—knife blade, stopper, chock, cam, anything. But the stone is monolithic. I twist two screws into a smear of ice, sling them, sling my ice tools, equal-tension it all together with one knot, and scream out a big fat lie: "On belay!"
Dave Getchell and Geoff Heath, my American partners, will simul-climb, one on each rope. Getch is a squirt of a man, far stronger than his ribby physique would suggest. An unregenerate Mainer, he learned to climb New England glace with his father a quarter-century ago, and he can flawlessly duplicate the Scotsman's brogue. Geoff is a stolid, solid Montana engineer who has been an ice climber ever since the sport became popular in the United States in the seventies.
I suck up the rope, stare out into the vertiginous maelstrom, and keep my ears peeled for signals. I'm still grappling with the thought of climbing this face with one ice ax. The perilousness. The naked insecurity. An uncanny sense of dread begins to well up inside me. Suddenly I catch the wisp of a distant scream. Assuming one of my compadres has slipped, I brace for the fall, a routine reflex; however, because I do not believe my anchors will hold, my heart plugs my throat and I wait to be plucked into eternity.
But no weight yanks on the ropes. I don't understand. When Getch and Geoff reach the belay I ask if either of them screamed. They shake their heads.
I begin to question myself. Perhaps my ticklish perch and black thoughts inspired fear to fabricate the howl, just as a young child left alone in the dark will hear evil voices.
It's Geoff's lead. He examines my belay and says offhandedly, "Guess I won't fall."
"Welcome to Scotland, laddie," growls Getch in his best through-the-beard burr.
Geoff disappears up into sleet, leading with speed, precision, and no ascertainable doubt. When he brings us up we discover he has placed only three screws in 200 feet, but his belay is reassuringly good, a long sling around a big boulder. Getch takes the gear and leads on while I get out the monocular and scan the couloir, Coire Na Ciste, a thousand feet below. In the interstices between spinning updrafts and curling mist, I spot something. Perhaps just a tiny ridge of rock high in the snow-choked cwm. I study it until I'm sure.
We are standing side by side on the two-inch ledge of ice. I hold the monocular against his eye so he won't have to stop belaying. He tilts his head, peers through the spyglass for a full minute, then nods, turns away, and refocuses on Getch climbing silently high above us.
The rock outcrop is the body of a man, lying facedown on the steep cirque, arms folded under his head as if he were napping.
"Remember," says Hamish MacInnes, 70, reminiscing about the 1950s, "at this time the ice ax was still considered a cutting implement, not a tool for direct adhesion. One had to be completely ambidextrous. Hang on by one hand and cut with the other. You got into the habit of being much further out than climbers are today."
MacInnes leans forward, the great blade of his nose protruding from a sallow, stern face. "It was strenuous and bloody dangerous."
Getch and I have cornered MacInnes in the pub of the Ballachulish Hotel in the bleak feudal valley of Glencoe, Scotland. It is still pouring outside, great swaths of black liquid. The relentlessness of the rain seems almost malevolent. Already I am beginning to believe that every Scot with any sense left this soggy land the minute Australia was discovered. There is good reason why those who stayed drink.
But Hamish MacInnes, with a thin white beard yet still big-shouldered, reminding you of the force he once was, has ordered orange juice. MacInnes is a climbing legend, one of the few who put up new routes over several decades and somehow survived the bad gear and worse weather. He estimates he has lost 40 friends to the mountains. He, along with Graeme Nicol and the lyric mountain churl Tom Patey (who died in 1970 falling off a sea stack called The Maiden), did the first ascent of Ben Nevis's Zero Gully, then one of the hardest ice climbs in the world, in 1957.
"I climbed a lot with Patey," MacInnes says. "He was always rather amusing. One day he came down to see me with a couple of those hand cultivators that the ladies use in the garden. He figured you could strap these claws to your hands." MacInnes allows himself a thin-lipped grin.
"Unfortunately these claws needed some means of forcing them into the ice. Patey wasn't much of an engineer."
But MacInnes was. He had been designing mountaineering equipment since the late 1940s. His own homemade incline-picked ice hammer had been nicknamed The Message by fellow mountaineers. The mythic Message, like the sword in the stone, had an all-metal shaft, an innovation MacInnes believes was his greatest contribution to climbing.
"It was quite common to find broken axes in rescues," he continues. "Three people died while attempting Zero Gully because of wood-shafted axes. They were using the axes in a traditional boot-ax belay, and when one of them fell, the rope snapped the ax heads right off. We found the wood stumps still stuck in the snow."
MacInnes designed his all-metal ice ax in 1948, began mass production in 1960, and by the mid-1970s had perfected his notorious, prehistoric-looking "Terrordactyl" ice hammer.
"The inclined pick and the metal shaft, those are what really started the ice-climbing revolution," MacInnes says.
I try to get him to talk more about the glory days, but he is disinclined to do so.
"You know who you should talk to? That Yank. Yvon Chouinard."
When we step from the Ballachulish, it's still raining. Big black pellets. "Ach, this bloody rain," MacInnes groans. "You never really get used to it."
Yvon Chouinard went to the Alps in the summer of 1966 to test ice axes. When the 28-year-old gear-maker-cum-climbing-bum returned to California, he stepped back up to his anvil and started experimenting.
"I would take my own ax and reforge it," he says. "Different pick angles, different tooth configurations, different adzes."
We're sitting at the kitchen table in Ron Kauk's cabin in El Portal, California, a stone's throw from Yosemite, Chouinard's spiritual homeland.
"I've never been an inventor. I would start from existing ideas or existing products." Chouinard's speech is as compact and powerful as his small body. It was through working as a blacksmith that he forged his ideas. His 1978 book, Climbing Ice, is the literary foundation of modern ice climbing.
"It took me eight years to write that damn book. I had to travel all over the world and study the different ice-climbing techniques."
Mountaineering was the mother of ice climbing. A century ago, mountains were climbed in hobnailed boots with stafflike ice axes, footsteps laboriously cut all the way to the top. Snow was preferred, ice fastidiously avoided. Then came crampons, largely eliminating the need for chopping steps. Climbing mountains became faster, and more difficult routes soon went up. By the end of the 1940s, most of the great steep faces of the Alps, from the Eiger to the Matterhorn, had been climbed. Yet throughout the fifties and sixties, climbing pure ice, without a mountain, was the obscure passion of the mad Scots and a handful of Continental climbers. This changed forever when, in 1970, Chouinard and climbing buddy Doug Tompkins (who had co-founded The North Face four years earlier) showed up in Scotland with radical hand-forged tools. They had curved picks that mimicked the arc of the swing of a carpenter's hammer—or perhaps the arc of the swing of a blacksmith's hammer. They also had deep teeth that crocodiled all the way up the beak of the pick. Such picks stuck easily in Scottish ice, and in a single evolutionary swing, changed the nascent sport of ice climbing forever: no more chopping handholds.
As Rob Collister once wrote in Mountain magazine, "The development of the curved pick for axes and hammers was an event in ice climbing history comparable to the introduction of crampons in the 1890s, or the use of front-points and ice pitons in the thirties. It could prove more revolutionary than either, since it makes for both greater speed and greater security."
Chouinard put this quote in his book, but true to his crusty, contrarian nature, the founder of Patagonia seems dismayed, even disappointed, at the monster he created.
"Front-pointing with two modern tools just has no elegance," he argues. "It completely eliminates the need for technique. Those tools made ice climbing democratic." He snorts with disgust. "Now anybody can climb vertical ice. I don't care if I ever climb vertical ice again. For me it's so boring. Your grandmother could climb vertical ice on her first day out, the tools are so efficient."
I can't say I agree. That would have to be one wild, kick-ass grandmother.
Chouinard claims he is a Luddite, but this is not possible. Luddites are not designers of revolutionary tools, whether they be silicon chips or ice axes; Luddites embrace the technological past, or at best the status quo. Chouinard has made a life of fighting the status quo. Antithetically, Chouinard devoted a substantial portion of his book to one-tool climbing.
"Climbing with one tool," he says, "you always have to end up in balance, because if you're not, you're fucked. I really love that whole idea of finding ways to balance yourself. You have to be a real genius to pull it off. You know who was the all-time master of that stuff? Jimmy Marshall."
It's raining in Edinburgh, the city's Gothic spire to Robert Louis Stevenson shrouded in clouds. Getch and I search along slippery cobblestone streets, find Jimmy Marshall's home on a small lane, and knock.
"Come in, come in!"
We are escorted up narrow stairs to a spacious, book-lined living room. Our host offers tea. Marshall, 71, is a spry, slender man with the gayest of eyes. He radiates an ineluctable lightness of being. He has been an architect his whole life. Getch and I pepper him with questions about all the famous routes he put up, but he is loath to dwell on his accomplishments. Instead he relates anecdotes of the "tremendous ice climbers" of Scotland who came before him.
Norman Collie, who in 1894 made the first winter ascent of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis.
John MacKenzie, Collie's partner for 50 years, who would strip off his boots and climb in his woolen socks to gain more friction—a technique Marshall admits to having resorted to himself.
Harold Raeburn, who did the first ascent of Green Gully on Ben Nevis in 1909, a feat that would not be repeated for 31 years.
Bill Murray, who wrote the first draft of his classic history, Mountaineering in Scotland, on toilet paper as a prisoner of war in Bavaria during the Second World War, only to have it discovered and confiscated by the Gestapo. And then wrote the whole thing again, from memory, in a prison camp in Czechoslovakia.
"Murray inspired a lot of young people to take up ice climbing," Marshall tells us, his eyes gleaming. "I was walking the Highlands a lot in the forties. We were climbing in snow and ice just as a natural sort of thing. That's what you did. It's so damned attractive in the hills in winter, you know. Winter's a classic time. It's absolutely wonderful.
"It's really all about linking with nature. Coming close to rocks and hills and exposing yourself to wilderness and wild weather and all the rest of it. It gives you a tremendous sense of belonging, of being part of it. The poetry of it." Marshall pauses and looks out the window longingly, as if he could see the Highlands. "It's quite overwhelming."
Getch tells Marshall of our trembling ascent of The Chute and how weevily and variable the ice seemed to be.
"That's the great joy of winter climbing, isn't it?" he says. "I mean, there's really no such thing as a first ascent!"
We ask about the climbing techniques Marshall employed to climb bad ice with one bad tool.
"We had this terrible labor of hacking away at the ice," Marshall replies with a rueful snicker. "A hell of a job it was. And then the knack of going over a final end of a pitch, you were just walking in wee scrapes in the thinner surfaces. It was quite hairy."
Marshall suddenly springs from his chair as if he were half a century younger, disappears from the room for a moment, and returns with his wood-shafted ice ax—a beautiful antique with the tiny teeth on the straight pick almost worn away and the edges of the adze completely rounded off from chopping hundreds of thousands of holds.
He stands in the living room and gives us a demonstration, nimbly dancing up an invisible wall of ice. Raising the ax above his head to chop handholds, two precise blows for each one, spreading his legs, leaning delicately from one side to the other, stepping up, throwing the ice ax to his other hand, and chopping another set of tiny holds.
"The real skill was being able to balance and cut steps. Can you imagine it!"
His movements are so graceful, Getch and I are speechless.
"With the stick-and-pick techniques of modern tools, you're not actually in balance. You don't need to be because you're just always supported by your tools and your crampons."
"It seems desperate," I say.
"We didn't think it was particularly risky," Marshall responds, still deftly scaling his imaginary wall.
"Did you ever fall?" I ask.
He stops, lowers his ax, and drops his lively eyes to the two boys on his couch.
"I have never fallen. That really was virtually death."
We were coming down from The Chute when the apocalyptic, death-collecting wump-wump-wump of a military helicopter stormed up the Allt a' Mhuilinn valley. While the chopper hovered above Coire Na Ciste, bouncing violently in the downdrafts, we looked on as the body was hooked to a cable by rescuers and reeled up into the aircraft.
We got the story in the Ben Nevis pub that night while the rain ran in veins down the smoky window panes. Apparently the poor kid was only 18 years old. He had the guidebook and could name off all the routes. And he had shiny new high-tech ice gear. What he did not have was experience—years spent in the mountains learning about himself and his connection to rock and snow and ice.
He decided to solo Green Gully and did fine until the last few feet of the climb. Coming over the cornice at the very top, he inexplicably put his knees onto the ice and slipped off backward. Just lost his balance.