Structured chaos - The unusual life of a climber by Victor Saunders

Structured chaos - The unusual life of a climber by Victor Saunders

By Alice Peyredieu

What you are about to read is an exclusive extract from the book 'Structured Chaos' by Victor Saunders. To see more books we love and books that caught our eye, look at our book shelf.

You can purchase this book here on Vertebrate Publishing website.


Winter 1979. The ‘Winter of Discontent’, as newspapers now call it. I was sitting in The Globe, a gloomy Islington pub, which was then the midweek home of the North London Mountaineering Club. It smelt of cigarettes and spilt beer. With its old oak furniture and feeble lighting, you couldn’t see the floor well enough to judge what was making it so sticky – the beer, presumably. I had just returned from the Eiger. Stevie had left London for North Wales. Nick had immigrated to New Zealand. The cold, snowy winter continued, and I was looking for climbing partners.

Peering through the murk, I noticed a tousle-haired young man leaning on the bar. He appeared to be in his early twenties. The barmaid, Charlene, was leaning across the bar towards him.

‘What?’ she said.

‘Pint of cheapest bitter.’ The young man turned to me, smiling at his own humour. ‘Cheapest is always best, you know!’ Then he tapped the side of his nose.

Several people had warned me about climbing anything serious with Mick Fowler. They would say: ‘He only likes disgustingly loose rock. I wouldn’t go anywhere with him if I were you.’

Perhaps I was already a bit drunk. Maybe it was a moment of Reverse Tourette’s, when instead of blurting out inappropriate expletives.

That weekend we drove up in Mick’s battered minivan, sleeping in the back to get an early start. Somehow Mick had managed to book us into the CIC hut, a rare experience for Londoners. As things turned out, we had an excellent week but with a worrying start. It began in appalling weather so we took the opportunity to climb the relatively easy Tower Ridge in a storm. Predictably we got lost on the way down, navigating round the mountain at half height. But the snowstorm had encrusted the mountain’s mythical Orion Face, so next day we set out to climb Orion Direct, a winter version of The Long Climb. Except we had no idea where it went.

‘It’s just like the Alps; you go up there, and there ... it’s all the same, ’Mick said. It wasn’t and we didn’t and it wasn’t all the same at all. We ended upon something hard, Astral Highway, a more direct version of Orion. Soon I was starting up a steep pitch, which turned out to be the crux. It was a leaning right-angled corner, about twenty metres high. I didn’t think I could get up without falling out of it, so I lowered off a large hexagonal nut I’d wedged into an icy groove. I couldn’t find much of a belay below the nut. I banged in a quarter of a Lost Arrow piton, and the tip of a Snarg drive-in ice screw, knowing that the anchors wouldn’t hold the slightest fall.

The wind got up again and wisps of snow blew across the face, stinging my eyes. I was cold and felt intimidated by the steep icy corner above me.

Mick came up and led through. I watched anxiously. He bridged across the corner, crampons scraping on the rocks as he looked for lumps of ice to settle on. There was no protection for most of this section but somehow he exuded an air of calm competence. At the top of the corner was a ledge like a crow’s nest. Mick crawled on to the ledge and found a vertical crack where he could place two thin blades. The weather was now deteriorating badly and as the wind how led across the Orion Face it was triggering spindrift avalanches.

One of these waves of snow now flowed over Mick. He leant back to keep his face out of it. As he did so, the pegs popped out, one after the other. Looking up anxiously to see how things were going, I saw Mick falling towards me. I can still remember the noise. Above the hiss of spindrift was a jangling sound, the sound of ironware banging against the sidewalls of the corner and against itself: ice screws, rock pegs, nuts, axes and crampons. It seemed deafening. Mick’s body struck me on its way past. I knew the belay was too weak to hold his fall, not a long one like this. I was dead. I knew it.

And then came silence.

So. This is what death is like. Painless. Quiet.

The spindrift slowly began coating my face. Calm gave way to cold. I began to shiver. Then the calm quiet of my thoughts was rudely interrupted.

‘Vic? VIC!’

That’s odd. Sounds like Mick. Is he here too? Are we both ... ? ‘Vic ... are you okay?’

I looked up at my peg and ice screw. They were still there. The belay had not been loaded. The hex I had placed in the icy crack above had settled, shattering the ice around it and wedging itself firmly, saving both our lives. It was a small miracle. And yes, here we were together, but in this world, not the next. As if to confirm this, my left side suddenly felt bruised and sore.

‘Mick, are you okay?’

‘Yes ... but ... ’

I braced myself. Bad news often began with a ‘but’.

‘ ... but I can’t find my helmet and glasses.’

I looked down. Mick had apparently landed on a bed-sized patch of snow. Just above him was a deep hole.

Have you looked into the hole above you?’

Mick scrambled up and reached inside. There at the bottom was his helmet with glasses attached.

He had fallen forty metres, having been roughly twenty metres above me, and now being twenty below. We later reconstructed what had happened. Mick had seen the small snow patch below us and prepared himself to self-arrest on it with his axes. The main flaw in this plan was that Mick was falling upside down when he brushed past me. Instead he must have hit the end of the ropes at the same time as landing head first in the snow patch. He bounced out of the hole as the stretched rope recoiled, leaving his helmet at the bottom.

I was expecting to abseil down, but Mick had not the slightest inclination to give up now. He swarmed up the pitch again, and made sure this time that his belay pegs were hammered in up to the eye. I saw that this man was not short on determination. In time, I would resolve to become more like him. That was one of the fall’s two long-lasting effects. The other was a kind of climber’s superstition: from that pitch on Mick and I swapped pitches religiously. I sort of suspected that my cowardice, in handing over the lead of the crux pitch, had prompted fate to precipitate Mick’s fall.

The weather next day was better, the best day of the week. We set about Mick’s main project: Shield Direct. Because of the new Astral Highway Superstition, the first, third, fifth and seventh pitches were mine to lead. This superstition became a strict climbing rule for me. If at the end of one weekend Mick had led the last pitch, the first pitch the next day or next weekend would have to be mine. The superstition did not allow for excuses, hangovers or weekend weaknesses. And when we climbed in Russia and Pakistan on bigger mountains, like Ushba and Spantik, we kept to the same rule.

Mick Vic Stephen CIC Hut

Searsank Base Camp

Vic and Mick summit of Searsank

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