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Field Journal

On The Wall

From The Field
On The Wall

On July 22nd at 4.20am, Leo Houlding and a team of four others completed the first ascent of the 1,200m north-west face of the Mirror Wall in remote Greenland. The team free climbed 23 of the 25 pitches and spent 12 nights on the wall. In Autumn 2016, Coldhouse Collective will be releasing a free-to-view feature film and an accompanying series that documents the ascent. Here, Waldo Etherington reflects on vertically hauling 400kg of gear up to the team’s first ‘wall camp’ using only manpower.

The radio crackled to life as Leo informed us that the haul load was secure and ready to go. I peered down and could just make out Leo waist-deep in snow, 400m of vertical rock below me, making his way up to the base of the wall. I switched my attention back to our complex setup and gave the system a once-over as Matt Pickles, Matt Pycroft and Joe Mohle assumed their positions as ballast below me. The 400kg load consisted of five haul bags strapped together and attached to a single rope.

Having spent a large part of my life on rainforest tree-climbing expeditions in the tropics, these blank big walls, jagged snow-capped mountains and cold glaciers always intimidate me. I still don’t fully comprehend how Leo sniffs out these lines and decides it’s a good idea to try to climb them, let alone how he convinces us to follow him up the hardest and boldest routes on the planet. But his enthusiasm and confidence do the job well, and as we started our first haul, I found myself indulging in the thought that we might actually be able to get to the top. Jesus, too much time hanging out with rock climbers – crazy bastards!

As the awkward and bulky slug of bags began to crush and scrape its way out of the snow and on to the bare rock face, the first knot in our haul line moved up and into the system. ‘Five metres, two metres, one metre, stop!’ were my instructions. The ballast de-weighted the main rope as intended, and with systematic accuracy I suspended the load on a Prusik and easily lowered it with my thumb and forefinger on the radium release hitch. On The Wall On The Wall
Photos by Matt Pycroft

Despite our heavy loads and the challenge of a big-wall first ascent and film trip combined, Leo’s minimalist approach to climbing and climbing ethics meant we only had one haul-specific belay device due to ‘the unnecessary weight of having two’. So we needed a little more skill and thought employed in our systems to compensate for any kit we didn’t have. Not a problem here. Within a couple of minutes the device was re-engaged, tensioned into position with a 4mm 27:1 and reset for the next 100m.

Rigging isn’t just about tying knots and keeping angles manageable, but about keeping it clean, rope management, knot dressing and appropriate usage: lots to think about when you’re on a big wall. We did sets of 20 synchronised hauls with three of us on a 1:1 – hauling in its most elemental form. We were placing in excess of half a ton (5kN) on to our anchors so we had to ensure they were fit for such force. To make it safe we agreed on five bolts for our camp, three of which took the main brunt of the haul and two dedicated to portaledge suspension and access. If you know what a hand-drill bolt kit looks like, you might be familiar with the effort required to place five bolts in granite. It takes about thirty minutes to drill a hole 8mm wide and 50mm deep. Each turn of the drill is done with the wrist between solid knocks with the hammer dealt to the back of the drill. Tap tap, scrape scrape, tap tap, scrape scrape. When you first place the drill bit against the unforgiving rock and hit the drill with your hammer it is beyond a joke. It’s like trying to cut down an oak tree with a spoon, but little by little, as the wrist tires and the rock dust builds up on your face and shoulders, you get there.

Written by Waldo Etherington
Twitter: @ontreething

Photography by Matt Pycroft
Twitter: @coldhouse_ // @MattPycroft
Instagram: @coldhouse_ // @mattpycroft