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Inspirations, Part III: Gervasutti's Climbs
Simon Richardson climbing in the Alps. [Photo] Simon Richardson
But it wasn't just the prize of the East Face of the Jorasses that influenced me. Gervasutti's thoughtful and introspective writing conveyed the entire climbing experience, and he described emotions that I'd struggled to understand. For example, on reaching the summit of the Jorasses after his climb on the East Face, he wrote about that curious empty feeling after doing a long-strived-for climb. "We felt no shiver of joy, no ecstasy in victory. We had reached our objective, and it already lay behind us. A dream had become a reality—and I felt something close to bitterness. How much finer it would be, I couldn't help thinking, to long for something all one's life, to fight for it without respite, and never to achieve it!"
Three years after climbing Gervasutti's masterpiece, I moved to Scotland. I had already developed a passion for Scottish winter climbing, and I threw myself into this aspect of the sport with total enthusiasm. My alpine experience stood me in good stead, and I approached climbing in Scottish winter more like mini-alpinism rather than an extension of rock climbing. This tactic worked, and after a couple of seasons I started to climb new routes. Like Gervasutti, I was determined to plow my own furrow, and together with Roger Everett we started to explore cliffs and corries that previously had been untouched. Rather than follow the trend of climbing summer rock climbs in winter, we sought out winter-only lines that followed features that were often wet, vegetated and repulsive in summer, but when frozen with a smattering of ice, resulted in outstanding winter outings.
The north face of the Grandes Jorasses after a storm. Gervasutti made the second ascent of this face two days after Peters and Mieir, after climbing the Croz Spur (the central peak). [Photo] Simon Richardson
I continued this trend with Chris Cartwright, and chanced on the mixed climbing potential of Ben Nevis that previously had been ignored. Similar to Gervasutti, our climbs went largely unnoticed—there was far more kudos in climbing a summer rated route in winter, rather than climbing an unheard-of feature that nobody could relate to—but that didn't matter because, for us, the unclimbed lines were simply too compelling to ignore. Eventually our routes started to appear in guidebooks, and as they were repeated the logic of the lines became apparent.
Scottish winter climbing is a complex tactical game of precisely matching the ever-changing conditions to your objective, and sometimes it can take many years of patient waiting to line up all the variables to make an ascent. The euphoria of pulling off a long-sought-after climb can be dampened by the empty feeling that Gervasutti described after his ascent of the East Face of the Jorasses.
I'm older and wiser now, and when those rare successes come along, I take care to ensure that I enjoy them to the fullest. Not in a brash way of press releases and Internet posts, but in a more quiet and contemplative manner, where my climbing partner and I can quietly reflect on a job well done. Somehow, I think that Gervasutti would have done the same.
A typical scene on the infamous Snell's Field near Chamonix in the early 1980s. Impecunious British climbers used to camp on the Gendarmerie's (the local police) football pitch in cramped and squalid conditions, but it was free. This where Richardson met Nick Kekus and planned their climb of Gervasutti's route on the Jorasses. [Photo] Simon Richardson