The rush of snow got stronger until it engulfed me and the bright daylight turned to a black nothingness. I grabbed wildly at the rock wall of the gully with my gloved hand as the great weight piled heavier on top of me, trying to pull me down the slope.
After two seconds that lasted an hour, the heaviness of the snow was making movement difficult and I couldn’t breathe. I sprang up and started wildly backstroking, instantly reaching the surface and sliding for around thirty metres on the avalanche debris.
I opened my snow-filled eyes and the sunlit afternoon greeted me, as did Bullock, both cheery and both snow-covered.
“Shall we go see if that other route is free?” chirped Bullock, his curly hair highlighted in to a comical white afro by the powder cloud that had followed the small avalanche that deposited him on the snow slope parallel to me.
I caught my breath and we went to check out the next ice line up the valley which was thankfully busy.
A few days later we were out climbing again.
The friendly Spanish mountain guide topped out on the ice pitch to where we were waiting impatiently to abseil in for our turn. He had been quite a long time and we were getting bored.
“Don’t go down.” he warned, “The ice is very, erm how do you say, it is making strange noises. That’s why I took my time.” He gesticulated with his hands and made a booming noise.
I glanced at Bullock who had been waiting in the snow for almost an hour and I knew we were climbing it regardless of what this guy had to say. Bullock looked disinterested and carried on sorting the rope.
“It was very… erm… extreme,” the guy said to us both, searching for the right phrases to describe what had obviously been a big lead. Again Bullock didn’t look up.
“Yes, extreme. I had to climb far on the right. On the left it is very thin. Very steep. Overhangs. You must stay on the right.”
Bullock’s eyes flashed. I sighed.
Bullock climbed the left side. It was very steep.
I followed the rope through an overhang of ice fangs, and struck hard for a placement with my left axe. A toaster-sized piece of ice came off under the impact of my pick. I turned my face away and caught the blow straight on my ear. It swelled up immediately.
The pain, the swelling of my ear, the heavy blow, it took me back twenty years. I’d felt it before. Same pain, same ear.
“Get the ball or I’ll snap your legs.” Paul Barrett was a big lad. He was rough too, even by Keighley standards. He was built like a brick shit house. I wasn’t. The legs that poked out from my school P.E. shorts must have looked pretty easy to snap.
“You kicked it.” I said. “So you get it.”
No warning, he punched me hard on the side of the head. The blow knocked me to the ground and my ear swelled up like a balloon.
I stood up, shitting my pants, and said again “You get it.” I would have happily got the ball that Paul had kicked off field, it would have taken two minutes but – in the complex hierarchy of school bullying – standing your ground was usually better in the long run. Usually.
The P.E. teacher came over and Barrett whispered to me as he left to fetch the ball “I’ve already got a scuffle after school today, but I’m going to fucking smack you tomorrow.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything.
My climbing has somewhat mirrored my school days. I don’t go out looking for trouble. The routes I’ve done have always been well calculated. Within my grasp. Very rarely have I been strung out, scared and thinking I have really over-cooked it. Wait for good conditions. Be confident in your ability and everything should go according to plan. That has always been my way. But sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’d had quite a few fights at school, almost everyone had. I didn’t start any of them, and I had always come out okay in the end. It wasn’t really a case of win or lose; more damage limitation, and these ‘scuffles’ weren’t like in films, they were pretty nasty and very undignified. They could last for a long time, with dirty tricks, kicks to the head, and rings of lads pushing you back in so you couldn’t get away, but by and large I had got away with limited fighting, and that was the way I liked it.
Barrett was big, really big. He had a nasty streak and I was scared. What had started off as just another football match had ignited instantly and without warning in to something very serious. I was in for a proper kicking.
Forewarned is forearmed and so, after school and with my ear still throbbing, I went to watch his fight.
The avalanche of snow had hit us after we had climbed and abseiled the ice couloir; caused by the sun hitting the large expanse of fresh snow poised above the gully we were climbing. Luckily for us we had climbed fast and were back down near the base of the couloir by the time the sun came round. If we had been higher up the route we would have been in a bad situation, especially as we climbed much of it unroped. We shouldn’t have been on that route the day after a snowfall. It was an error of judgement, a stupid mistake. But we got away with it, like so many do, and we laughed and brushed it off along with the snow down our jackets, and carried on with our day.
That same day a friend of mine had an accident on the Tour Rond. He was tragically killed.
We were in the 5th form, Barrett and I. We were 16 years old and both about to leave school with no qualifications and no desire to go on to 6th form. I wanted the freedom of the hills, I hated the confinement of school. Barrett was simply too stupid to do A Levels. Barrett’s fight was to be next to some lockers, under a stairway, and I found out he was to fight someone in the upper 6th form, two years our senior.
I watched from the small crowd; Barrett saw me there as he waited for his opponent. He looked at me, and I nodded at him. Then the 6th form lad appears with his mates in tow, quite big and up for a bit of a fight, but not a nasty bastard, you could tell. Barrett wastes no time and just head-butts the guy square in the face as hard as he can. The lad goes down, semi conscious and with a broken nose. Barrett grabs his hair, pulls him rag-doll upright and smashes his head three times in to the right-angled metal corner of the lockers and then drops him to the floor, like he was dropping a wet dish cloth. The lad doesn’t move. The fight’s over.
Barrett walks past me and says “You’re all right you Geldard.” I nod, and say nothing.
I can feel my ear pulsing under my fleece hat and climbing helmet and I swing my left axe again and this time the pick bites solidly in to the ice. I push my knee on the lip of the overhang to steady my body enough so I can swing my axe higher and then I bring my crampons up around the bulge. The angle relents a little and I take in the exposure. I use a cheeky heel hook, just for a bit of fun, and I swing right on to the final pillar of vertical ice.
Bullock’s on the belay, just a few metres above and to the side. He jokes about me deserving the swing I face if I fall off. I mutter something self deprecating about being quite likely to fall due to my incompetence on ice.
“You’re a good ice climber”, Bullock tells me and he means it, and it means a lot to me.
It’s funny, isn’t it, climbing, life. Sometimes you make a mistake and get away with it. Sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and sometimes, inexplicably, Paul Barrett says you’re all right.