The First Ascent

Posted on: November 27, 2006

We'd reached the end of the world: the dirt road had taken us across the pampas into a valley where wind-bent trees and wind-burnt grasses scattered around a cluster of corrugated, iron-roofed houses. Menacing lenticular clouds rode high and fast through the vast arch of the sky. Behind a rampart of brown foothills, the three Towers of Paine rose up, tall, slim and forbidding. The highest one, the Central Tower, was a perfect spire: uncompromising on all sides.

The first ascent: Don Whillans on the summit of the Central Tower in 1963. Whillans, who, with protege Chris Bonington, was instrumental in the establishment of the line, was one of the best climbers of his day, though he was perhaps equally known for his fierce temper, wit and colorful personality. [Photo] Sir Chris Bonington

Two years before, on a scientific expedition, Barry Page, Derek Walker and Vick Bray had been captivated by the Central Tower's steepness and beauty. Now they'd returned to climb it with Don Whillans, one of Britain's strongest mountaineers; John Streetley, Ian Clough and myself. As we gazed through our binoculars, the rich brown granite seemed almost featureless, though Barry assured us it looked easier from the back.

The Tower wasn't the only challenge: the summer before the expedition, Don and I had had a falling out. Don was a plumber from Salford, a gritty northern industrial town, and I was a graduate from Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point—but we'd always gotten along well in the mountains. I'd made the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar and the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney with him. While we'd intended to climb the Eiger north face together as well, a rescue had halted our initial attempt, and after Don left, I'd made the ascent with Ian instead. Don never said anything to me, but I guessed he felt betrayed.

Since Ian and I were the first Britons to climb the north face, a huge amount of publicity ensued. I began making a living out of climbing, and I could afford to take my bride, Wendy, with us to Patagonia. Although Barry, the expedition leader, had also brought his wife and small son (on the mistaken understanding that they'd be able to stay at a neighboring estancia) the others, particularly Don, didn't want to be encumbered with two women and a child.

At base camp the unaccompanied lads slept, ate and played darts in a big communal tent, to which the girls were definitely not welcome. On the climb Don and I avoided roping up together.

The weather at least was clement at first. But in November the winds came, destroying a camp we'd pitched below the Col and forcing us back, first to advanced base camp and then all the way to base camp, where we spent Christmas and New Year's in a state of lethargy that lasted until an Italian group appeared. Suddenly roused by the competition, Don came up with a plan: build a prefabricated hut and reassemble it as an all-weather base at the foot of the Tower, where we'd be ready to grab the odd fine day. It worked perfectly. To our great satisfaction, the wind ripped to bits the Italian camp just above our hut.

At last we had a clear, starlit night. For once, the lads had invited us all in for a meal: a tender barbecued lamb washed down with quantities of wine. Don and I happened to go out for a pee at the same time.

"You know," I said, "if we don't start climbing together I don't think we'll ever get up this barstard."

"Aye, I was thinking along those lines," he grunted.

And so on the morning of January 16, we set out from the hut. As Don prusiked up our fixed rope, the wind-hammered, seven-mil sisal cord came apart just above his hands. I braced myself to hold a long fall, but catlike, he managed to retain his balance on the almost featureless rock, coolly held on to the broken end in his hand and retied it to the rope above. And on we went.

I started up a corner feeling for holds, straddling out with my legs on miniscule granite encrustations. It was the kind of climbing I love—a game of vertical chess. Below a square-cut roof, Don a good fifty feet below me, I found nothing to pull on. I hammered a peg into a crack, clipped in my etrier and gingerly stepped onto the bottom rung. It swung crazily, but I managed to brace my foot against the wall. Holding on to the carabiner clipped into the peg, I moved onto the second rung and found a rounded hold at the crest of the roof. I abandoned the security of the carabiner and reached up again for another insubstantial hold. As I stepped onto the top rung, the etrier shifted and my hands swiveled off. I hurtled down headfirst to find myself dangling in space fifteen feet below, panting from fear and shock.

Don grinned up at me. "Ee, that was a good one. Maybe you won't be in such a hurry next time." It took me over two hours to climb the 150-foot pitch.

The Italians poked their heads out of their tent when the sun hit it, to see us climbing far above them. They flung together their gear and raced up our fixed ropes.

Oblivious, Don led up a steep groove with tiny holds, using the odd peg for aid, but mostly employing the jamming techniques he'd honed so well on British gritstone. The angle now eased and we swung leads, finding once again that spontaneous, tacit understanding we'd had in the past.

On the summit we quickly took photos of each other and I shouted out into the darkening sky, "Big Ned [the nickname we'd given the peak] is dead!" I immediately felt a jab of superstitious fear. That night we bivied just below the top. We had no food or bivy gear, and it was bitterly cold, but we felt at peace with the mountains and with each other.

Shared risk and euphoria can be all too ephemeral. By the time we'd reached Buenos Aires, Don and I were eating at separate tables again; everyday life had reminded us of the differences in our temperaments. And yet, I still treasure the days I spent climbing with Don. They were some of the best I've ever had.

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