With the release of Nick Bullock’s much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed first book Echoes, we’re publishing two extracts from Tides: a climber’s voyage here on the Mountain Equipment blog. This week’s extract details Nick Bullock’s and Andy Houseman’s first British ascent and rare repeat of Slovak Direct up the South Face of Denali, Alaska.
Words by Nick Bullock
Denali, Alaska, USA
‘It’s really windy up high,’ Andy said, looking up.
Setting out at 3 a.m., we traversed the ice slope and followed thinly iced gutters. Like entering an underpass in the city, the half light ignited my imagination: will we reach the steps that lead to the daylight on the other side of the road or will the mountain mug us? Tower blocks twisted. The sky between these monoliths was streaked with red. Plumes of spindrift ripped from the summit slopes and flushed the gutters between the skyscrapers.
Houseman led us deeper still, until he was beneath a huge corner with continuous dribbles and overhanging blossoms of ice.
Seventy metres below, I couldn’t see into the corner.
‘What’s it look like?’
Houseman’s answer was succinct. ‘Scary.’
One hundred metres up the corner, I took the lead – forty metres remained.
The wall to my left, a sheet of the most perfect granite, blushed and covered me in a vale of spindrift as if embarrassed by my floundering human effort. I pulled around an ice bulge, pushing a front point into a small imperfection on the left wall, and felt like a blot on the most beautiful feature I had had the fortune to taint.
As I sat in the wind and the sun having escaped the corner, Houseman was still below being pounded by snow, still sucking skinny, robbed-of oxygen air. The powder clouds exploded all around him. We were getting somewhere, but behind me, a porcelain arête pointed the way to the most technical pitch of the route.
I’ve never really understood rock, paper, scissors, and stood next to Houseman, beneath the crux wall, it was obvious he didn’t either. Like gunslingers, three times we had drawn gloved hands and three times we had pointed smoking scissors. I didn’t know how a stone or a piece of paper was expressed, so on the fourth draw, I pulled scissors again, and Houseman pulled a clenched fist, a rock, and we both concluded I had won.
It wasn’t until I was about to set off we realised that a rock blunts scissors. Oh well … Rumour had it that this A2 pitch would go free at about M8. I stepped from the snow without wearing my pack.
Sketching, breathing deep, picks twisted in flared cracks, crampon points sparking, I was still climbing without resting or a fall; biceps began to cramp, drained of energy from the corner below. Nearly at the top of the wall, a few metres of hard climbing remained, but looking up, I saw there were going to be several more difficult moves with very few footholds. I was out of cams to protect the climbing to come. My mind screamed, Do it! Do it, get on with it!
And then in a flash, another voice shouted, What the fuck are you trying to prove?
I had spent too long on this pitch already. I had pushed, run it out, I had already risked breaking an ankle or worse, and we were now at the point where getting off the climb would turn into an epic – especially if injured. I reversed to my last piece of gear.
Almost immediately I felt like a let-down – not good enough. The mindset to be able to push in good style a million miles from anywhere is what makes the difference, and on this occasion I had found myself lacking. But in another moment, I felt good about not pushing on: it didn’t matter, we were still there, still climbing … maybe not only Houseman had grown over the years?
Houseman lowered me and took over using whatever style he could to get us back on track, and in an hour or so we were both above the crux, heading into a deeper wilderness, heading into the grey of what would have been night, if night was something that happened there. More than at any other time on the climb, I accepted that we had now reached the point where it would be better to go up and over than to reverse. Over the top. Over the top. Twists and turns.
Houseman, battling, was out front. Spindrift clouds wrapped around and blinded. Having tried so hard to climb the crux pitch, my energy levels were low. I cursed my stupidity. Huddling beneath a boulder, fighting sleep and cramp and cold, I belayed. Houseman fought avalanches pouring down the final technical pitch. We had been on the go for about twenty-two hours; there were still thousands of feet to climb. And for the first time in nearly twenty years, the thought that something could go seriously wrong haunted me.
At 6 a.m., twenty-seven hours in, and on day two, my feet were blocks of ice; I had had enough. I needed to stop and warm them. Having reached the avalanche-threatened slopes of the Cassin Ridge, we found a flat spot behind a large boulder and crawled into the bag that should have been a tent, had the wind not made it impossible to thread the poles. Six hours later, in what was now thigh-deep snow, we set out again. Three thousand feet remained. Up and over the top in one final push, that’s what we wanted, but we were shut down at 1,800 by gales. With me holding the tent, Houseman threaded the poles – it flapped like a kite. I envisaged it lifting and taking me with it and flying over Denali’s summit to join the streams of snow arcing from its highest ridge.
Sixteen hours passed, and in those sixteen hours, neither Houseman nor I talked about being pinned down until weakness had taken over. I lay in the little single-skinned tent – it buckled.
I thought of Al Rouse who died of exhaustion on K2 and Iñaki Ochoa de Olza who died high on Annapurna. This isn’t a game we play, it isn’t sport. Mountaineering for me will never be about beating the clock or breaking records; my climbing is about personal experience, it is the reason I get out of bed in the morning; it is not an updated status.
Twight, House and Backes’ single push of the Slovak was such a leap, even though it was not the first time single-push tactics had been brought to a major climb. It was about commitment and style and personal challenge; it was not about setting records for speed or making headlines. The experience on a testing, committing climb, the self-questioning, the ability to survive on the brink with no guarantees, this is what it is about for me, and when I begin to race the clock or attempt to break records, that will be the time to give up.
I pulled my head from the frozen sleeping bag. The wind had dropped. It was now or maybe never.
Thigh-deep, avalanche-prone snow made the ‘easy’ part of this climb anything but easy, but there we were, six days after leaving Camp 14,000, slowly balancing on Denali’s summit ridge. Cloud filled the valleys. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, reflected from snow scallops. Denali floated on an untamed sea of cloud. Later, we found out the weather had been so poor that no one had attempted to reach the summit for two days.
As I stepped on to the highest point in North America, I thought of something Ian Parnell once said to me: ‘We both know that the crux of any route in the mountains is the final step on to the summit.’
Stepping on to that summit I knew he was right, and it is often the ‘easy and normal’ things in life that are the most challenging.
WIN A SIGNED LIMITED-EDITION COPY OF TIDES: a climber’s voyage
Nick Bullock is a climber who lives in a small green van, flitting between Llanberis, Wales, and Chamonix in the French Alps. Tides, Nick’s second book, is the much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut Echoes.
Now retired from the strain of work as a prison officer, Nick is free to climb. A lot. Tides is a treasury of his antics and adventures with some of the world’s leading climbers, including Steve House, Kenton Cool, Nico Favresse, Andy Houseman and James McHaffie. Follow Nick and his partners as they push the limits on some of the world’s most serious routes: The Bells! The Bells! on Gogarth’s North Stack Wall; the Slovak Direct on Denali; Guerdon Grooves on Buachaille Etive Mor; and the north faces of Chang Himal and Mount Alberta, among countless others.
Nick’s life can be equated to the rhythm of the sea. At high tide, he climbs, he loves it, he is good at it; he laughs and jokes, scares himself, falls, gets back up and climbs some more. Then the tide goes out and he finds himself alone, exposed, all questions and no answers. Self-doubt, grieving for friends or family, fearful, sometimes opinionated, occasionally angry – his writing more honest and exposed than in any account of a climb. Only when the tide turns is he able to forget once more.
Tides is a gripping memoir that captures the very essence of what it means to dedicate one’s life to climbing.
To be in with a chance to win one of five signed, limited-edition copies of Tides: A climber’s voyage, just follow the link below and enter your details.
Competition closes at midnight on Thursday, 17th May, GMT.