Death by Fan Club

Posted on: July 1, 2005


On the first morning of the Scottish International Winter Meet, the sounds of frenzied excitement reverberated among the hosts. Last-minute pick-sharpening mingled with arguments about the best sandbag to introduce visitors "properly" to the Scottish winter game. Some of the world's most talented mountaineers had traveled here to taste our version of mixed climbing, and it was our job to show them a good time. The local wannabes vied for the opportunity to burn off the world's hotshots on their latest scratchy testpiece; seasoned veterans joined forces with other global campaigners for a gentle romp up the frosted classics before hurrying back to the warmth of the bar. The canniest few, meanwhile, avoided the hills altogether, offering guided tours of the local distilleries instead.

I've never quite worked out the complex formula used to pair off hosts and visitors, but I figure a good quota of single malt is involved in the calculations. How else did I find myself, an alpinist with a solitary Himalayan trip to my name, paired on that fateful day with the Slovenian legend Andrej Stremfelj? Yes, the Andrej Stremfelj, with more epic ascents than the combined expedition experience of the other seventy participants gathered here in Scotland.

I had a job to do: guide Andrej up one of our little mountains while offering insight into the grand history of our game and providing him with a robust technical workout to boot. I felt far from qualified. What if I chose the wrong climb? Too easy and I'd confirm all preconceptions of our "little practice routes," but what if I got overly ambitious and couldn't get up the thing? I'd never live down the shame.

"Don't panic," I fretted to myself as the minibus bounced through the early morning dark on the way to the hills. "Andrej is probably tired from his flight. He won't mind ambling up some moderate classic."

"We're heading to Lochnagar, Andrej," I said out loud to him. "It has many historically important climbs." I wagered that we'd do something from the step-cutting era, something that I couldn't fall off. Andrej smiled; he could see right through me. "Yes, something not too hard to start, eh?" Oh, my God: What did he mean by that? Was it a double bluff to get me to warm up on a desperate grade VII? Obviously grade IV and V step-cutting routes were out. Maybe I could skip mentioning the grade and sneak onto a VI; heaven help me, they're hard enough, and maybe Andrej wouldn't get too bored.

Sweeping the spindrift from our faces, we stared up at Pinnacle Buttress. It was steeper than I'd hoped for, but promising patches of ice clung to the hoar-flecked rock. I'd done well. Over the last hour and a half, I'd kept within ten yards of the striding Himalayan giant. Luckily conversation had been kept to a minimum; I'd probably hid my hyperventilation.

"Do you want the first lead?" I asked. A masterstroke, Parnell, I thought. Even the very best take a while to come to grips with the puzzle of "torquing through full conditions," our version of the winter game. "Ok, no problem. I go first," Andrej said.

Indeed, it wasn't a problem; in fact, not only was there no hesitation, Andrej ran up the thing as though he were jogging to the starting line. I was still faffing with leashes, crampons and layers when the rope came tight.

I did my best not to let the side down, climbing as fast as I've ever done, but still the rope won, tugging at my waist. Then I stalled at a fifteen-foot overhanging step. Above me the ice thinned to an inch-thick veneer; couple that with no pro whatsoever and I was facing a 101 in the winter art.

A deep breath and I began to tap and teeter. Ten feet up, I was beginning to feel good about myself: I could match the real stars. Well, ok, I was on the blunt end... but still.

With five feet to go, my left axe pulled. The weight came fully onto my frontpoints, ripping them from the ice. Without warning I plummeted down. The rope stretched and stretched before I bounced to a stop, dangling back at the start of the frozen step. My face flushed with adrenaline and embarrassment; it's meant to be the visitors, not the hosts, who lob off.

I looked left. A neat series of footprints dotted up the snow, side-stepping the crux bulge. Lesson 1: you don't survive three decades in the Himalaya without using the most powerful alpine weapon, the mind.

I scurried up Andrej's smart detour, preparing my apologies. As I pulled around to face him, the blood drained from my face. Andrej nodded at his anchor. There, still quivering from the impact, were his two ice axes, the blades a mere inch into a clod of barely frozen Scottish grass. "It's ok," he said, laughing. "I have belay!"

I fought back the need to vomit. This minuscule clump of Scotland was all that had kept me from pulling him 150 feet to the corie floor. Andrej had dodged avalanches and the Himalayan jet stream for several decades only to come within inches of being snuffed by a British Numpty.

—Ian Parnell, Sheffield, England

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