Yesterday I climbed one of the best ice climbs in the world. It's called Kjorlifossen in Rasdalen, Laerdal, Norway and it is 400m of climbing at grade V (Norwegian) and WI5/5+. It's not just me saying that it is one of the best in the world, but Guy Lacelle. Guy was certainly one of the best ice climbers in the world and he travelled and climbed extensively. Before he died in 2009 he compiled a list of what he considered the best ice climbs in the world, and this list contains Kjorlifossen. Clearly the list is one person's thoughts and incorrect since there are no climbs in Scotland in the top 135 climbs in the world. But it is a very good list of world class ice climbs. And I have now climbed one of them.
This all sounds a bit boastful but I really don't mean it that way. It's hardly newsworthy that a middle age man goes and climbs some ice in Norway, even if it is a notable climb to those in the know. After all, I have nothing to show for it apart from tired arms and a smile.
Inwardly though, it means the world to me. The best bit is that I spent a wonderful day with three friends, sharing a fantastic adventure in a beautiful part of the world. Donald, Dave, Guy and I were all buzzing with excitement at the scale of the climb, its grandeur, the unknowns of the route, the formations of the ice and its quality. Drawing deeply on our combined experience and technique we unravelled the pitches one by one, carefully considering each step, each swing of the axe. At every stage the excitement grew, the view got more expansive, the climbing bigger, better and more outrageous.
As with any adventure, it had its uncertainties and challenging moments. Like when the base cone of the initial pillar cracked in a stress fracture as Donald and I climbed it, creating a crack about 20mm across that wrapped much of the way around the whole thing. It was like a shot being fired from a gun right in front of us with a sensation of movement in the ice we were climbing on and hoping was solid and stable. I was committed anyway so I continued and Donald did the same. We carried on with minds focused on the climbing, trying to ignore the thoughts of "what if" and trying not to hold on too tight.
We worked well as a team, each one of us knowing what we needed to do and getting on with all the little jobs, keeping each other right, looking out for each other. We climbed up in two pairs, one on the left, one on the right so that we didn't knock ice debris on each other. We came closer together as the top of the climb narrowed to the exit and we were careful to wait for each other to be well out of the way before climbing.
We had one rope in each climbing pair so we came together to abseil on two ropes as a team of four. This had the potential to be pretty awkward and slow going, but we managed it smoothly and quickly despite some hanging belays on the way down. There is a real satisfaction in being able to manage the ropes competently and efficiently.
Inwardly for me, this climb meant a lot. For whatever arbitrary reason, I decided that this was the standard and scale of climb that I aspire to. It was the right challenge for me, hard enough, long enough and requiring a big effort mentally and physically. Other climbers have done far harder climbs, longer climbs and many more of them, but I am not comparing myself to them. I am comparing myself to the standard that I wanted to achieve, and I have met my own standard. So, what I am sharing is not so much about this particular climb and its standard, but that I have achieved one of my goals and I'm delighted. I am totally made up, super happy, still smiling and very satisfied.
This is what I hope we can all feel. One major part of climbing is about challenge, trying hard physically and mentally to achieve something. The goal isn't so much about the climb, the grade, the standard or the status of the climb. The goal is, or should be, one that you set for yourself that is the right goal for you. Don't measure yourself up with other people, measure yourself up with the goals you want to achieve.
So, thank you to Donald King, Dave Rudkin and Guy Buckingham for making this possible for me. It was emotional.
Sitting here in Fort William, looking out of my window at rain falling on the summit of Ben Nevis in the middle of February makes me very sad. When I moved to Fort William 27 years ago we had some very snowy winters and some very poor winters for climbing and skiing. But even the poor winters back then were nothing like we have been experiencing in the last few years. Climate change is certainly making a very clear impact on the volume of snow we get as well as the depth and duration of the thaw periods.
For the entire time I have lived here I have enjoyed very regular days out in the mountains that surround Fort William, and especially Ben Nevis. When I first moved here I did not intend to stay here for good. It was a means to an end, a place that I needed to live to get the winter climbing experience that I needed to gain the British Mountain Guide qualification. I was close to moving to the Alps, to France or Switzerland, or even to Canada. However, having lived here for a few years and thinking about where I wanted to raise my family, Louise and I decided that we should stay. We had already developed a real connection with the community and the landscape here, and we did not want to lose this.
Over the years since, my connection with the landscape of Lochaber has strengthened to such an extent that I care very deeply about it. I cherish my time in the mountains and wild places of Lochaber, I have a relationship with them and I am learning how the natural systems work. I also notice the changing seasons every year, and the changes between the years. There is no doubt that change is happening.
It is very difficult for each of us to recognise long term changes when the weather and ground conditions have always been so variable and changeable. For many years I said that it is impossible for us to see any long term climate changes because our memories are short. This is still true but the changes are now so obvious that it is hard to miss them. In addition we have very good weather data from stations on Aonach Mor (within Nevis Range ski area) which show the same conclusions. We get occasional updates through the SAIS Lochaber Blog including this one from a couple of week ago - https://lochaberblog.sais.gov.uk/2023/01/a-wet-thaw/
Of course we also have just about every climate scientist on the planet telling us that climate change is happening at an alarming rate and that we must do everything we can to slow it down. Last year 2.1m people in Pakistan were left homeless because of floods that covered 10% to 12% of the land area of Pakistan. The floods affected 33m people. Imagine half the population of the UK being affected by floods all at the same time and you will get an idea of the scale of the crisis they faced due to heavier than usual monsoons and greater glacier melting due to climate change.
Here in the UK (and in the rest of Europe and North Africa) we experienced a record breaking heatwave with the highest temperature record of 40.3°C being measured on 19th July. It was declared a National Emergency after a red warning was put in place by the Met Office.
Just a few days ago, Shell reported record annual profits after energy prices surged last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Profits hit $39.9bn (£32.2bn) in 2022, double the previous year's total and the highest in its 115-year history. All of the oil companies plan to spend millions of dollars every single day from 2021 to 2030 on new oil and gas projects which will release 646 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
The global carbon budget for having a 50% chance of keeping under 1.5°C rise is 500 billion tonnes.
Norwegian oil giant @Equinor just announced record profits of £62,000,000,000. That’s more than double what they made last year and the highest EVER in Equinor’s entire history. Despite Equinor’s green rhetoric, this very same company wants to develop an oil field that will create as much emissions as the 28 poorest countries do in a year. If Rosebank is approved, Equinor and partners are set to receive more than £500 million in tax breaks from the UK government to develop the field.
So, if the oil companies continue with their plans, we will far exceed the CO2 emissions we need to keep under to maintain some kind of limit on climate change just by themselves. This does not include all the other emissions of CO2 we produce in other ways.
So, what can we do?
The first thing to do is to learn the facts about the problem. Recently, I did a Carbon Literacy Course delivered by Protect Our Winters and I highly recommend it. Carbon Literacy Training is designed to give anyone an awareness of the carbon dioxide costs and impacts of everyday activities, and the ability and motivation to reduce emissions on an individual, community and organisational basis. From a position of knowledge we can act and discuss the issue far better. I now understand what my personal emissions are, where they come from and how I can reduce them.
Next up, think about your banking, savings and investments. While we are out climbing and skiing, our savings and investments (in our banks and pension funds) are possibly going towards oil and gas projects. You need to check if your money is being used for projects that you are happy with. Have a look at Bank On Our Future to find out more. Changing bank is easy and free, and using a different bank will have little impact on your life but it could have a great impact on our future.
Then think about checking whether your local council has its pensions invested in the right place. Despite 75% of local UK councils declaring a climate crisis, they collectively hold investments of nearly £10 billion in fossil fuel funds. The money that’s meant to be securing our future, is destroying it. But you can change that by writing to your council and asking them to change this. Have a look at the Protect Our Winters Divest The Dirt Campaign.
“Is this safe?” was the question asked of me as we descended Mont Blanc. At that moment the person I was with needed reassurance, not an assessment of the hazards, their associated risks and management. So, I said “Yes, totally safe”. This was a lie of course, descending Mont Blanc is never totally safe, mountaineering is dangerous and there are inherent risks. We got down to the Aiguille du Midi and took the telepherique down to Chamonix, an experience that was, to my client, more terrifying and seemingly less safe than climbing Mont Blanc!
All this got me thinking about what is safe, how safe is safe and how safe should we try to make climbing?
It seems to me that the goal is not to make climbing as safe as possible. The goal is to make it safe enough.
There are risks in everything that we do, and there are certainly risks involved with mountaineering and climbing. It’s good to try our best to reduce the risks through training and equipment, techniques and good planning, but there will always be some risk and accidents will happen. In the event of an accident, we should not necessarily change things and put safer systems in place so that kind of accident can never happen again. If we do this, we will eventually change the activity so much that it will not be climbing anymore as we know it.
We do need to learn from our mistakes, self-reflection and peer-reflection are very important, and many accidents are made through mistakes that could have been avoided. However, there is an end point at which we need to accept that certain accidents are inherent in the activity, and need to be accepted (or we don’t take part in the activity).
There is a very good analogy between climbing and driving on the road. There are many rules and ways of driving that make it safer, but it is certainly not as safe as possible. If the speed limit was 20mph everywhere, or if we had dual carriageways everywhere, there would be far fewer accidents. However, we have decided that driving is safe enough and we have accepted that a certain number and type of accidents are inevitable with the current system that makes travelling by road feasible.
The gold standard we are trying to achieve is to know that what we are doing is safe enough, as safe as it can be while still allowing us to go climbing. This is actually quite hard to do because the feedback we get is not always very helpful. When we go and do something, it might work out nicely, but we might be unaware that we were very close to having something go wrong. I have seen many climbers operating with pretty sloppy ropework but they have never had a problem and have always received positive feedback from their techniques, in the form of not having an accident and going home in one piece.
This is especially the case in avalanche terrain. It is possible to walk or ski across a snow slope and think that we made a very good decision about the stability of the snow based on the fact that we did not cause an avalanche. However, we might have been very close to triggering the slope to avalanche. The feedback is either trigger an avalanche or don’t trigger one. We can get positive feedback (no avalanche) when we should have got negative feedback (we were very close to triggering an avalanche). What would be useful is feedback that is not binary (did or did not avalanche) but graduated (we were 95% of the way to triggering an avalanche). Unfortunately, this kind of feedback is not available.
Feedback on an individual level can be quite unreliable. However, feedback on the level of the entire climbing community is better. If there is a significant number of accidents associated with a particular technique or piece of equipment, we should notice this, investigate the problem and do something about it. In avalanche education, we have gone through this process. We realised that people getting hurt in avalanches were often doing so not because of a lack of understanding of avalanches, but because of human factors in their decision making. As a result, we now have excellent resources and training that is aimed at helping us understand human factors in decision making and how to avoid letting them influence our decisions negatively.
All of this was very much on my mind yesterday as Doug and I climbed NE Buttress on Ben Nevis. It felt very serious, but always safe enough. Doug and I both understood the task and the risks, the systems that we were using and how to use them properly, and we discussed and agreed on our strategy at every step. I didn't take many photos because I was working hard, observing, calculating, judging, trying to work out the balance of risk all the time.
The wind was very strong in the morning but forecast to drop off later in the day; there might be windslab on the approach; actually the approach traverse was boiler-plate icy snow, sideways on grade I gradients, with anchors every 30m or so; we moved together quite a bit, increasing speed but decreasing security; we pitched the hard bits, four pitches in total; the snow was really solid so falling would have been difficult with ice axes in the snow; the consequence of a fall would have been disastrous; the wind did drop off as expected; the cracks in The Mantrap were clear of ice and the Forty Foot Corner had some nice bits of snow-ice; it was pretty white on top, we had to concentrate to find the summit and the way down.
NE Buttress is one of the finest winter mountaineering expeditions in the country and it was awesome yesterday!
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.