The grin on my face is reflected in Waldo’s as he makes the last moves onto the belay. We have been climbing for 5 hours with a few more to go but the rock is simply stunning and neither of us want it to end. We didn’t know each other 48 hours ago but a strong partnership has formed on the route and we are very much in flow.
Our combination of skills and strengths balance each other out and we are cruising the 800m of impeccable granite that make up the Cassin Route on Piz Badile, one of Gaston Rebuffat’s 6 Great North Faces.
The unique dynamic of training for and climbing in the mountains
There is something incredibly unique about climbing that I have never been able to put my finger on. People talk about the brotherhood of the rope and the bond that forms between climbing partners but it is more than just that. It is more than just a friendship and trust.
Talking to friend Steve Wakeford about this, his eyes lit up. He is just putting the finishing touches to his epic documentary film, Magnetic Mountains, a film exploring what draws us into the mountains and what pulls us back into them even after accidents, near misses, and generally sketchy moments.
As a part of the film, Steve has been interviewing some of the biggest names in climbing and it was a line from uber-alpinist Steve House that resonated with what I was trying to express.
“Climbing doesn’t have opponents like in other sports. In traditional sports you are working to beat somebody, training every day so that on competition day you are faster or better than them. Climbing is all about the same effort but so that you can join up with someone and do something that you would otherwise be incapable of.
That is incredibly empowering and the harder it is, the better the connection.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the atmosphere, the community, and the sense of achievement that comes from competition and, of course, many people race for themselves, not to compete but I need the balance with what climbing offers and Steve perfectly sums it up.
With climbing, two or sometimes more people come together to combine their strengths, support each other’s weaknesses, and achieve something that would otherwise be impossible. True teamwork with no opponent other than what lies inside our minds, hearts, and souls.
A new climbing partnership
I climbed my first great north face with Tim back in 2015 when we climbed Tre Cime di Lavaredo. When he messaged about attempting the Piz Badile I was instantly in but there was one difference, he wanted to climb with another friend and so I would be climbing with his friend Waldo.
I hadn’t met Waldo and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was nervous about stepping onto a big and committing route with someone I didn’t know and hadn’t climbed with before. Tim detected my reticence and did his best to put my mind at ease. Waldo is a professional tree climber (yep, I didn’t know that was a thing but it is fricking awesome!) who has been on some major climbing expeditions on big walls with UK climbing legend Leo Houlding.
His role had been as the professional rigger and safety guy and, though he has only been climbing a short time, Tim assured me he was strong and competent. With a touch of nerves I committed and next thing I know we were in the car en route to Switzerland to see what is what.
Nerves and the familiar journey of psyching myself out
The Cassin is rated as the easiest of the 6 great north faces. At 800m it is 27 pitches of mostly 5a to 5c climbing with a pitch of 6a at half way. The real difficulty is the length of the route and the complicated and tricky descent.
The weather this summer has been typically temperamental but there was a small window that we wanted to pounce on. The forecasts had been systematically wrong and so, as we were walking into the base of the route for our bivouac, an on and off again drizzle was zapping my motivation.
Everyone was suffering and we started to talk about a plan b and what would be enough to make us bail. My mind jumped on this and I quickly started to think of excuses and reasons that I might be able to use to get out of this situation. Rain on the route will make us climb to slowly to be safe; climbing at 3,000m into a storm is naive and a bad idea; my hands are cold and my frostnip from years ago is still affecting me, it is dangerous for me to continue; maybe finally I will experience altitude sickness and that is a reason to go back?
The excuses continued to mount but I knew they were all in my head.
I didn’t want to let my friends down, true, but almost worse was I knew that, if I used an excuse, I wouldn’t be able to lie to some people back home about it and would have to ‘fess up to just being scared and running away.
As we made it up to the base of the route we set about making a comfortable bivy spot and quickly had dinner before all of us sank into our sacks and tried to sleep. I fell asleep immediately but woke at 1am to a howling wind. It was honestly pretty terrifying and I started to fantasise about the wind not dying down and that being the out I was looking for.
Broken sleep proceeded for the next 2 hours before all of a sudden the wind died down and there was silence. I poked my head out of my bag and looked up to a sea of stars, more than I have ever seen before. It was beautiful.
There was not a cloud in the sky and the wind had vanished. As I lay there looking up I started to think about the day ahead and visualise the climb. Over the next two hours something changed. The wind, I knew, would have dried the face perfectly; the climbing is on a type of rock I love and well within my grade; and, I thrive on long days, often fairing better when committed than on single pitch climbing.
The scene was perfect. The conditions, the team, me, everything. This was the right time to go for the the route and I was here, ready to go.
My psyche was back.
As alarms went off and we got ready for the day ahead I was just buzzing. I didn’t want to be anywhere else nor doing anything different. This is where I belong, bring it on!
Climbing the Cassin on Piz Badile
Tying onto the rope for the first time with someone I met two day before, it took us just one pitch each to realise we were in for a great day. Something implicit in the way Waldo managed his climbing and the way we communicated instantly gave me confidence in what we had to work together to achieve today. Though new to some aspects of climbing his ropework and safety were immaculate and we quickly settled into a rhythm, moving at a steady pace and just enjoying the climbing, move by move.
One pitch flowed into another and we quested up this great north (well, north-east) face buzzing with excitement.
We moved smoothly over pitch after pitch of perfect quality granite and after 8 hours we topped out onto the North Ridge, the end of the route, and the start of our descent. At the back of my mind the descent worried me more than the climb. A climb in itself, it is not too tricky but too steep to downclimb efficiently. We were about to embark on over 20 abseils down rope-snagging hell.
However, it was here that Waldo’s experience with ropes really shone through. I learned more on this one descent than any other day climbing in my life. I was given a masterclass in coiling ropes, tossing them and generally managing complicated descents and what could have been an epic fell away in just 4 hours before we touched back down to our bivy spot.
13.5 hours after we had departed we were back on safe ground.
Teamwork makes the dream work
As the achievement has been sinking in over the last week, I have been trying to analyse not just what enabled it to work out so perfectly but also what nearly made it fail, before we had even begun.
Prior to the weather clearing, in my own head and on my own I knew I wasn’t strong enough. I have no grand free-soloing plans like Alex Honnold or Hansjörg Auer, but even just framing my capabilities around myself in a climbing partnership I very much have my limits. What changed was when I opened up to trusting someone to support me, for me to support them, and, together, to combine ourselves into something far stronger than our individual parts.
As humans we are incredibly resilient with depths of strength we never knew we had but it is when we team up that truly amazing things can happen. It is when we trust someone else, combining your strengths and weaknesses that we are led into situations and on adventures that we would never be able to explore on our own.
Here’s to partnerships, to friendships, and to trust, and where they can lead us!
Thank you Tim, Nick and especially Waldo for an amazing day on the hill.