Tim Macartney-Snape embraces the terror and the joy of the Remarkables Ice and Mixed Climbing Festival
An anguished, urgent something like, ‘Arghh! Farrk*@#! Gnaoourrrr!’ cuts through the chilled air. A couple of seasoned climbers are trying a gnarly M7 on the steep face below me and in the last couple of metres of desperation, searching for holds and gear placements, I’ve knocked enough rime and snow off to fill a wheelbarrow, maybe I knocked a rock off as well!? I have my own struggles that threaten to produce anguished screams too.
Mixed climbing is even more absurd than rock climbing – find the steepest snow and ice encrusted bit of terrain, then try to climb it. Handholds are replaced by using your ice tool picks, hooking them on edges or more preferably behind flakes or chockstones or cammed into cracks. Footholds are made use of more precariously by precisely placing a crampon point on an edge where hopefully it won’t skate off and jolt your shoulders out of their sockets. Using metal appendages for gripping the rock takes some getting used to. At least with rubber and skin you can feel whether you’re about to slip or not. Metal placements skate off without warning.
Then I notice an ice filled seam. Chip, chip, chip with the pick on my right, both arms burning, try to place a micro cam, doesn’t fit, chip, chip, my calves are burning too. My right leg is starting to tremble, plug the cam in, clip both ropes, change hands on the one wobbly pick placement, shake out, change foot placements. Where to now? Out to the right it is less steep, looks more friendly, but it’s leading off route. No chalk marks to give the game away. This is just like a first ascent – who else would be foolish enough to venture up here? Yet the route has a name ‘State of the Nation’ a four pitch M4, but it feels harder today.
At the belay below, my two rope partners, Reg and Merry, are stamping their feet, the wind has risen, and we’re in shade. Through gaps in the cloud I can see directly out over the 1700m void above lake Wakatipu to the peaks of Fiordland. The exposure is impressive and despite the relatively easy access, the setting is definitely alpine! My slow and dithering progress adds to my stress and sense of guilt, I know they must be getting quite chilled as I’m barely staying warm. As a ‘guest’ of the Remarkables Ice and Mixed Climbing Festival, they’ve taken me under their wing today for this pre-festival warm up. Without me, they’d probably be cruising up a lot more comfortably but they generously offered me the best pitch to lead.
Above me where I presume the route must go, is a corner that should have ice in it but current conditions are quite ‘dry’ so once I’ve scraped the rime away, all that’s revealed is a fused corner. Higher up below a rooflet there’s possibly a chockstone, I stretch out and almost lose my footing. Out to my right I get a positive side-pull and that allows me to stretch further. Blindly I scrabble for something. If I tilt my head back I can get some opposition onto my helmet from a projecting arête behind me. But that pushes my helmet forwards, which in turn pushes my beanie down over my goggles. There’s nothing to see anyway, spindrift cascades down the corner obliterating any view upwards. The thought of climbing shirtless and in shorts, warm breeze caressing my skin, on a clear Blue Mountains summer day crosses my mind but I quickly shut it out. Scrabble, scrabble, then at an unexpected angle, my pick sticks. I can’t see what on – a chockstone or an insecure lump of ice but it feels solid. If I commit here there’s no turning back.
‘Give up you fool’, says my cautious half. ‘No, no, you’ve been here before, many times, commit and get in the zone!’ says the other. My cautious self capitulates, I lift my foot off its safe-ish foothold, place it insecurely on the off-angled wall behind and haul and push myself upwards. If I don’t get a good placement above this I’m finished. In mild desperation I select a number 2 camalot, optimistically push it up into a slot but the slot is wider than it looked, the cam tips out and gets stuck. More fumbling, desperately I smear my head and shoulders into the corner hoping to get some weight off my sketchy footholds, I wiggle and fumble with the cam until it eventually pops out nearly tipping me off balance. Cursing the cumbersome pudginess of my rimed up gloves I extract a number 3 from my now tangled gear sling. The cam is bomber and gives me the confidence to lunge upwards into what I hope is iced-up snow rather than the loose unconsolidated fluff I’ve encountered so far. The pick bites deep with a solid sounding thwack! I’m through the crux!
I was warned about the sketchiness of the next belay. The only possibility for placements is a shallow, flaring horizontal. I do my best to coax four cams into it, equalise them and decide it’s better to belay off my harness. All the time I’m belaying there’s a running dialogue in my head as to how best to soak up the impact should one of my seconds fall.
Every year, members of the club put in more fixed anchors to make the popular climbs such as this safer, friendlier and easier to retreat from. Hopefully this one is high up the list! After another pitch we top out on the ridge-line, the evening is clearing, the golden light of the setting sun paints snow, clouds and peaks with its magic. It’s one of those stunning alpine scenes that you dream of, rank upon rank of craggy snow covered mountains silhouetted against golden clouds.
Back at a house we’ve rented for the week, we hear about the source of the scream from below. It was Al falling from above his last runner. Remarkably, it was captured on video by photographer, Gavin Lang.
The fall takes Al outwards, backwards and down, tools flailing and legs akimbo in a full one hundred and eighty degree arc that finishes with him bouncing upside-down off the cliff some five metres below. As ‘screamer of the meet’ it will be hard to beat!
After, as with all other pre-festival nights, there’s an informal ‘instructor clinic’ to go over the entire range of safe practices in the mountains from technical to medical and psychological.
This is the sixth year of the festival and it’s shaping up to be the most successful one yet. The meet is the annual event of The Expedition Climbers Club whose mission is to foster and promote alpine and modern mixed climbing. The festival includes instruction for beginners and more advanced levels. It’s also a social event, a sharing of skills and climbing stories. It’s not a substitute for commercially run courses and guiding but, in my opinion a much needed and socially appealing adjunct to them and one which ultimately will lead to stronger participation in alpinism. The instructors – like Merry and Reg who form the core of the more experienced club members, volunteer their time and pay their own way. The participation fee for the four days of the festival ranges from $85 to $265 depending on what you sign up for and goes towards venue hire and running costs. Participants automatically become club members.
An auction is held to raise money from gear donated by sponsors (Sea to Summit, of which I’m a part owner is one of the sponsors) and the proceeds go into the Expedition Climbers Club Capital Fund. Any member can propose a club trip – to any climbing destination anywhere and any member can participate in these trips. After dinner on the second evening, the proposed trips are voted upon. The winner of the $5,000 grant is an expedition to the Indian Himalayan region of Kishtwar. The fact that anyone in the room is eligible to participate in that subsidised trip, giving them a chance for some potential first ascents, is remarkable and to me confirms that the club is living up to its purpose. The feeling is upbeat and filled with enthusiasm and there’s a focus on inspiring younger climbers.
The first section of Queens Drive features a number of routes that have been equipped with top-roping anchors and this is where most of the technical instruction takes place. By ten a.m. the place is thronging with climbers clad in the bright primary colours of current outdoor fashion contrasting against the pure white of the snow covered terrace. Despite the flurries of snow and swirling cloud, there’s almost a carnival atmosphere.
Today I’m again climbing with Lisa and Carsten, buddies from Sydney. They had cautiously signed up for the Snowcraft 1, the introduction to the basics of snow and ice climbing but as they’re strong and competent on rock, I’ve convinced them to let me guide them through a crash course in mixed climbing. As we’ve started later than most we have to traverse Queens Drive for quite a way to reach a suitable unoccupied route. It’s around several corners from everyone else and in the mist and swirling snow, it feels like we are in the middle of a remote alpine wilderness. The climb we end up on, The Fastest Indian (M5) is perhaps a little on the stiff side but heck they’ll be seconding and yesterday, as an introductory climb, they had little problem on an M4.
Fifteen metres up the wall deja-vu kicks in.
Spindrift cascades down in curtains, visibility is crap, and my arms and calves are burning. I feel like I’m constantly teetering on the edge of falling, my hand temperature oscillates between numbness and pain, and my two buddies below will for sure be shivering and cursing me. The rock is plastered with rime, no smudges of chalk or line of bolts to follow and with this much rime not even an obvious line. Every placement for tool or pro has to be uncovered and dug out. I’m beginning to realise that going light with a single rack of cams and a few nuts wasn’t such a great idea. My last piece is a nut at my feet and I can’t find any placement that will take any of my remaining gear. Scratch, scratch – whoops, the flake holding my right foot breaks and I’m off!
The nut and my belayer do their job, despite my spiky ironmongery. I’m physically unharmed but psychologically humbled. I use the opportunity to scavenge a couple of cams from below the nut and climb back up.
Day three dawns clear and sunny! The atmosphere up on Queens Drive is definitely carnival-y! Banter, laughter, shouts of encouragement and whoo-hoos of celebration fill the sunlit scene. Jackets come off, even t-shirts for some! Just your regular day’s social cragging, except there’s snow everywhere and mountains stretch from horizon to horizon.
Mixed climbing, what do I make of it now? I like it! The focus, the intensity and the scariness combine to drag you in. I’m hooked.
Next year’s festival dates 16–19 August 2018, click here for more details.
Tim is a total legend who is also a consultant to World Expeditions, helping to train their leaders in Responsible Tourism, Leadership and Wilderness First Aid whilst also leading exploratory treks and climbs in the Himalaya.