Oh Shit Award #5

Last year I did a set of illustrations for Charles Sherwood’s book, Seven Climbs: Finding the finest climb on each continent. I’d climbed El Cap twice with Charles (Nose and Zodiac), as well as Moonlight Buttress and Space Shot in Zion, so it was a fun project, sketching up the classic mountains of the world, domains of ice and snow, while sat in Omani coffee shops, the outside temperature 50 degrees C.

Charles is from the Mick Fowler school of British understatement, and so Seven climbs is not a book of dark soul searching and near-death epics, but rather a simple story – the climbing of an alternative list of world-class climbs on seven continents - well told.

And yet, within Seven Climbs there is one story that I believe deserves its place in the hallowed hall of climbing’s “Oh Shit” moments, a simple mistake most winter climbers make at least once in their lives… well male climbers anyway.

The story, taken from Seven Climbs begins on an attempted Winter Ascent of the North Face of the Eiger.


….  Meanwhile, a long traverse to our left proved much more testing than we had anticipated. Not only was fresh snow falling, but the stuff that had fallen above was pouring down the Face in great flurries – in effect, mini avalanches. Mark now had to climb into this, flailing with his axes at the unconsolidated snow and often doing no more than raking it back down on top of him. Eventually though he established himself in a stance on the cliffs above me, and I was able to follow.

I arrived about 20 minutes later in what felt like a blizzard: snow apparently coming from every direction, whipped up by a strong wind. We were on steep ground and, with me slightly below Mark, my head was roughly level with his waist. That meant quite a shock when I turned to look at him, because right in front of my eyes was an exposed set of male genitalia! The simple explanation was that Mark had arrived at the top of the pitch and secured his belay. Desperate for a pee he had embarked on the task, only to be caught mid-process by a massive spin-drift avalanche that had filled his jacket and trousers with snow and spun him upside down, leaving him winded and disorientated. He had managed to right himself, but, in the excitement, had overlooked the all-important action of restoring the tackle to its proper place.

This information came later. At that moment all I could think of was how to alert Mark to the situation. Englishmen are characteristically awkward about discussing genitalia and related subjects and tend to revert to more or less obscure euphemisms. This, combined with the howling gale around us led to a somewhat surreal exchange, bellowed at full volume along the following lines:

Author: “Mark, you’re all exposed.”

Mark: “I know we’re exposed. It’s a blizzard …!”

Author: “But, Mark, you’re hanging out!”

Mark: “Of course I’m hanging on. What else do you expect …?”

Author: “You’re undone!”

Mark: “Yes, we’re done. We’ve got to get out of here.”

In the end there was nothing for it but to point directly at the object(s) in question, now a worryingly frosty white. Realising what had happened, a look of horror transformed Mark’s face. The frozen appendage was hastily tucked away, but not without much apprehension as to how much damage had already been done.

We had now reached the beginning of a traverse famous, or perhaps more accurately infamous, among climbers. In 1936 Anderl Hinterstoisser lead the second-ever attempt on the Face. At this point he succeeded in crossing the bare limestone, polished smooth by rock fall. His three partners followed. Then, fatally, they took back in the rope after them, cutting off their retreat. A storm blew up, Hinterstoisser himself fell, and each of his comrades died in turn, leaving only the desperate young guide, Toni Kurz, fighting for survival. His final words, “I’m finished”, uttered almost within reach of rescue, have resounded ever since through the annals of mountaineering history.

For us there was good news and bad news. The good news was that there was a fixed rope in place across the traverse. The bad news was that the traverse was not dry rock, but sheet ice. However, we had a strong motivation. We knew that if we could only get to the other side, we would find a ledge, small but overhung and therefore beautifully protected: The Swallow’s Nest Bivouac.  The traverse proved no easy task, took many hours and involved a worrying leader fall, but eventually we did get across. For now, at least, we were safe.

The morning though presented two distinct problems. The first was the state of our little hill. There was uncompacted snow everywhere, with much of it pouring down the Face in a relentless ‘waterfall’. Even my rampant optimism couldn’t brush this one off. The Face would be unclimbable for many days. There was no prospect of continuing upwards. That left the obvious alternative of retreat. But this too looked dangerous. And then there was the little matter of the frozen piece of anatomy. Mark looked at me sheepishly and said he needed a second opinion. Dutifully I clambered over to him on all fours and peered at his groin. The things one does for one’s Bergführer! It was not a pretty sight. When soft tissue of this kind is even lightly damaged, it tends to swell up to monstrous proportions and turn an angry scarlet. This was no exception. There was definitely evidence of frostbite, or at least frost nip. My optimistic “I think it’ll be fine” fell rather flat in the face of such visible distortions. Mark, understandably enough, was keen to have his appendage properly cared for. He picked up his mobile phone and called for the helicopter. His conversation with the rescue dispatcher, explaining the nature of his injury, must go down as, to use his own words, “the most bizarre request for rescue in the whole history of the North Face of the Eiger”. But, in other respects, the phone call was rather mundane, as though one was calling for a local taxi.

Having said that, this taxi ride was more memorable than most. The helicopter hovered in front of us for a reconnaissance, returned to base for some extended planning and then joined us once more opposite our bivouac. The overhung nature of the Swallow’s Nest now created an additional obstacle. The rescue guide had to be lowered on a long line and swung into us. A delicate operation, but one that the Swiss team executed flawlessly. The guide grabbed me on an incoming swing and secured me to himself with a harness. I released myself from my anchors and together we swung out into the void, enjoying what must rate as one of the finest possible views of the North Face. 

This particular taxi ride didn’t actually involve getting into the taxi. Instead, the helicopter simply lowered me on the line onto the pastures of Alpiglen. There waiting was the rescue manager, his team, and of course a paramedic. And what a paramedic! She was perhaps mid-20s and undeniably attractive. Was my partner hurt, she asked. “Well yes”, I said, “mild frostbite”, barely disguising a schoolboy smirk. Mark arrived shortly and the paramedic offered him two options. Either he could go directly by helicopter to the hospital in Interlaken or, if he preferred, she could first undertake a preliminary examination. Mark was very clear in his choice: Interlaken! I collected Mark from the hospital just a few hours later. Happily, everything was in working order.

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Mark and Charles went back and knocked off the North Face in 2007, the story was nicely written up here by Mark. You can buy Seven Climbs: Finding the finest climb on each continent direct from Vertebrate Publishing, or from indie book shops, or the dastardly Amazon.