Nov 17, 2020
The Next Horizon
The Next Horizon tells the tale of Sir Chris Bonington’s adventures as a mountaineer, photographer, journalist and expedition leader. The following excerpt documents his journey to Chile to climb the Central Tower of Paine in 1962, along with Don Whillans.
Before you read, remember this: Independent editorial isn't free. If you enjoy this article, please consider our message at the end of this article and support our journalism so we can keep going.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and we’d barely have time to reach the hut before dusk. The weather seemed to be clearing, with patches of blue being torn in the high flying cloud; and then the clouds themselves began to disintegrate into broken gossamer that merged pearly grey with the brilliant blue of the sky. The covering of snow that had made the going so difficult two days before had now been blasted away by the wind to fill the dip between the moraine ridge and the slope leading up to the Towers. Following the crest of the ridge we were able to reach the site of our former Camp II quite easily, but in a matter of minutes the weather changed yet again. As we collected a few extra tins of food from the dump we had left in the cave, there was a roar of wind. It raced down the slopes of the Paine, its front defined by a swirling powder snow, and hit us with a solid force, hurling us to the ground. All I could do was cling to a rock, fearful lest I should be blown away—load and all. Our progress was little more than a crawl between gusts, as wave upon wave of wind rolled down and engulfed us in its demonic fury. I was tempted to turn back, but kept going on two scores: partly out of anxiety for the state of the hut, wondering whether anything might have worked loose in the wind, but more, I suspect, from a fear of appearing to be weak in the eyes of the others.
The hut was still standing, a solid haven against the fury of the wind. It was about seven feet long, five feet broad and four feet high; squat, ugly, yet completely functional—the only habitation that we could have carried up from the valley and which would stand up to the winds.
We spent three nights in the hut and each day tried to make progress on the Tower. I was convinced that we had to climb in the bad weather and high winds, even if it only meant making token progress, so that the moment the weather did improve we should be poised to make a bid for the summit. It was easy to formulate such a plan in the comfort of Base Camp, but the reality of wind-battered rock and ice vanquished resolution. It was all we could do the first day to struggle up to the foot of the Tower and improve the line of ropes we had left on our previous visit. The following day it had started to snow, but hoping that this might be accompanied by a drop in the strength of the wind, I persuaded Barrie to come out once again. The rocks were covered by a white blanket; what had been a walk the previous day was turned into a precarious climb; ropes were concealed and, once discovered, were coated in ice. It was as bad as climbing the North Wall of the Eiger in a winter’s blizzard. We reached the Notch, to find the rocks ice-plastered and ropes frozen in wire-like tangles. My resolve faltered, faced by the sheer immensity of discomfort and cold, and the snow that plastered the rocks, penetrated clothing, froze hands. So often, climbing becomes a battle between resolution and self-indulgence. How far can one force one’s body on in face of such discomfort? My emotions said “fight on” but common sense counselled retreat. After all, we could only climb a few feet beyond the high point on a day like this, and with a good 2,000 feet to go, it became pointless when balanced with the risk and suffering we would undergo for so tiny a gain. We turned back, and as we went down the clouds began to scatter, the wind dropped and the sun began to warm us. Should we turn back and have another go at making progress? I looked at Barrie, wondered if I dared suggest it, but then abandoned the idea, The best part of the day was gone and we were established in retreat.
Don Whillans and Ian Clough were waiting for us at the hut. It was their turn to stand sentry, and it looked as if the weather might at last show us some favour. We pressed on down to Base Camp for a rest— I, torn between the pleasure of seeing Wendy and the longing to be back on the mountain, obsessed by the fear that Don and Ian might snatch a couple of days’ fine weather to climb it while I was resting.
They did have one fine day—enough to make the first real progress after six weeks on the Tower. This was the first sunny, windless day we had experienced since the first few days after our arrival. The snow vanished in a matter of hours; the rock was warm to the touch and it was as pleasant as climbing in the Llanberis Pass on a hot summer’s day. They quickly scaled the wire ladder that John and I had left just before and then reached the top of the pedestal which leaned against the main mass of the Tower. Their way was now barred by a region of smooth, steep slabs, leading into the centre of the face where a great, open corner swept up into its upper reaches. This seemed to be the only obvious line.
Don spent the entire day working his way across the smooth, blank slabs. There were few holds for hands or feet; hardly any cracks to hammer in a piton for running belays. A slip could very easily have been fatal. He reached the foot of the great corner just as dusk was falling. He was tempted to spend the night there and carry on next day, but they had barely adequate bivouac kit, and a line of high-flying clouds was building up over the ice cap—a sure sign that the weather was reverting to normal. Next morning the wind was hammering once again on the walls of the Whillans Box.
The Italians had used the one fine day to carry a tent up to a ledge a few hundred feet above our Box, close under the base of the Tower. But they soon learnt, the hard way, that no tent can stand up to the fury of a Patagonian gale. It was blown down during the night, and the following morning, discomfited, they retreated to the woods.
A few days went by. John Streetley and I had another sojourn at the hut, tried to force a route beyond Don Whillans’ high point, but were beaten by the cold and wind. You could only climb rock as steep and hard as this in perfect conditions. We too retreated to the woods, pursued by the fury of the wind, which, even in the shelter of the tree trunks, threatened to destroy our tents. We were now running short of food, but no one was keen to go down to Base to collect more, for fear that the weather might improve while he was away, and the tower be climbed in his absence.
“How about tossing for who should go down?” I suggested.
“I don’t know. If two go down, every bugger might as well go down,” said Don. “This weather isn’t going to improve for a few days.”
Eventually Derek and Ian decided to continue the siege at the hut, hoping for a further good day, but the rest of us abandoned the camp in the woods, and headed back for the flesh-pots of the Estancia. That night we had a hard drinking session. Don and I happened to go out for a pee at the same time. We stood looking up at high cloud, cuddling across the moonlit sky. We looked at each other.
“I don’t think we’ve miscalculated,” he said.
“You know, Don, we’ve avoided each other up to now—I think we’d best get together.”
“Aye, I’ve been thinking on the same lines. We’d better do the next spell on the hill together.”
I had a tremendous feeling of relief after this conversation. During the expedition Don and I had sensed a definite strain in our relationship. This had stemmed, in large part, from the previous summer, which we had spent together with our wives in the Alps. The main objective had been the North WalI of the Eiger. We had made one attempt together, had become involved in the rescue of another British climbing after his companion had been killed at the top of the Second lce Field, and then gone off to Austria.
We had pitched our tents next door to each other at the campsite in Innsbruck, and then led almost completely separate existences, except when we came together to climb. Once on the mountain, we climbed superbly well together, but in the valley we had too little in common, and were too different in temperament. I respected him, couldn’t help liking him, but our backgrounds and attitudes to life were too different for us to achieve any kind of intimacy. Don is shrewd, very calculating, makes up his mind after careful thought and then sticks to his decision to the point of stubbornness. On the other hand, I tend to be impulsive, very often plunge into a commitment on an emotional impulse, and then feel forced to change my mind after more mature reflection.
At the end of the summer the weather had, at last, shown signs of improvement, but Don had agreed to give a lecture in England at the beginning of September. In his position I should probably have cancelled the lecture, but Don had settled in his own mind that the climbing holiday was over, and that, as far as he was concerned, was that! The girls were to hitch-hike back, while Don and I took his motorbike, planning to complete one last climb, the North WalI of the Badile. We then drove back to Chamonix; the weather was still perfect and I, therefore, decided on impulse to stay on, and snatch another climb. Ian Clough was also without a partner, and so we went up to climb the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses, realised how well we were going together and dashed off to the North Wall of the Eiger. We completed it in near-perfect conditions. It represented a superb climax to a long summer, both in terms of climbing experience—for I don’t think I have ever been so much in tune with the mountains, moving so well, or being so very fit—and also as the means of launching out into a new career. The successful ascent had brought a commission to write a book, lectures and newspaper articles. It had also shown the risks involved in selling a story to the popular Press, when one’s own words can be taken out of context, and sensationalised.
Don had written me a very bitter letter, accusing me, with some justice, of having cheapened the entire climb by what I had said afterwards. Inevitably, I think there was some bitterness as well. Don had always, at that time, seemed to have missed the boat. In his partnership with Joe Brown he had been overshadowed, and it had been Joe, not he, who had been invited to go to Kanchenjunga. He had been on two Himalayan expeditions at a later stage, but these had lacked the aura of romance and importance that surrounded the third-highest summit of the world. Through no fault of his own, the first expedition, to Masherbrum, had failed. On the second, to Trivor, he had worked so hard in the early stages he fell sick at the time of the summit assault, and therefore had to stand down.
I think my opportunism and material success inevitably acted as a bard to a relationship that was fragile anyway. At last, under the stress of circumstances, and the sheer scale of the problem that the Paine presented, our differences seemed unimportant. Climbing together on the Central Tower of Paine we should undoubtedly be faster and more effective than if we split up and climbed with any other member of the team.
And so, that night, on the 13th January, we agreed to climb together. All we needed now was a fine day.
We returned to the camp in the woods the following day, as Derek and Ian came down from the hut after spending two more days sitting out the bad weather. The wind was still gusting hard, but after another two days had dragged by it showed signs of dropping.
“We might as well move up to the hut,” said Don. “No point hanging around here.”
“If you and Chris climb together, John and I can come up in support” said Barrie.
And so it was settled. We walked up that afternoon. For the first time in weeks there was hardly a breath of wind. The clouds had vanished and the sun blazed down as we sweated our way up the long moraino slope leading to the hut. As we pitched a second tent beside the hut, we heard a rattle of stones from below us. Two Italians were also coming up. They passed without saying anything, and plodded up to the site of their camp, about 5oo feet above us.
“We’ll have to be bloody careful they don’t get out in front of us,” I suggested, always suspicious of the intentions of others. “Let’s make a really early start in the morning.”
“I don’t think we’ve got too much to worry about,” said Barrie. “They can’t know just how far we have got up the Tower.”
“All the same, I’d rather be on the safe side. I’ll try to wake up at about four o’clock.”
It was a perfect night. The contrast to what we had experienced in the last six weeks was so great that it was difficult to believe that these were the same mountains. It was still and silent, and the sky was a clear blue that slowly darkened to the deepest of violets. To the west, high above the snow-clustered cone of the Paine Grande, was a band of cloud that slowly changed colour from grey to a rich yellow-brown, merged into orange and, as the blue sky deepened, turned to crimson, cut by the massive black silhouette of the Fortress. It had a feel of peace and beauty that belittled our own internal rivalries and our race with the Italians. None of us said much that night; our sense of unity was cemented by the sheer grandeur of our surroundings. As the cloud slowly lost its fluorescence to merge with the dark of the sky, we climbed into sleeping bags and settled down to the tense wait that came before the big climb.
The sense of exaltation, though, gave way to a mixture of excited anticipation and some fear at the thought of the morrow’s venture. What will happen if the weather breaks while we are on the upper reaches of the Tower? Can we possibly get back in high winds? Will I, personally, be up to the difficult climbing we shall undoubtedly have to face?
I poke my head out of the tent; the stars flitter, cold, silent, windless. I look at my watch, 2.50; wait patiently for what seems an hour, and I look again at 3.00; John Streetley tosses at my side.
“Are you awake, John?”
“I reckon we should start cooking.”
“I don’t know. It’s bloody early yet.”
“Okay, we’ll give it half an hour.”
The time drags slowly past, and on the dot of 3.30 I crawl out of the tent to wake the others. Big Ned, dark and solid against the sky, stands patiently waiting. In the months of skirmishing at his feet we have given him a live personality. “Big Ned’s won again. He’s in a bloody awful mood today.”
The others wake quickly, a hurried breakfast and we’re off, plodding through the quiet half-light of the dawn. Tiptoe past the Italians—we don’t want to wake them—then up the fixed ropes in the gully, hand over hand, feeling the weight of the packs on our backs. The Italians have been to the Notch; no sign of any progress on the Tower, but a great pile of gear that looks newer and better than ours.
“Shall we chuck it down the other side?” I suggested jokingly.
“No need. We’ll beat them by fair means,” said Don. “They can’t get in front of us now.”
And up the fixed ropes. Compared to today’s climbing techniques we were in the dark ages. Our fixed rope was made from ordinary hemp; we had no jump clamps or other aids to climb the rope but had to pull up hand over hand. There were no modern hard steel pitons, harnesses or expansion bolts. As a result, our adventure was, perhaps, the richer.
Don went first, and I followed. We climbed the ropes one at a time, belaying each other with our climbing rope. It was just as well. As Don pulled up the blank slab just below our high point, the rope parted in his hands. It had had a tremendous battering from the wind, and the fibres of hemp must have simply disintegrated. That he stayed in contact with the rock was a miracle. Most people would have heeled back from sheer shock, but he somehow kept his balance on the steep slab, managed to remain standing on a couple of sloping rugosities, didn’t drop his end of the rope, and then calmly joined the two ends in a knot. He was about eighty feet above me and I, not expecting a crisis, had been happily dreaming of the climb ahead. If he had fallen, he would have gone down 16o feet before I felt the impact, and I doubt if I could have held him. It was a remarkable escape-an indication of Don’s uncanny power of survival.
I followed up the rope, more shaken I think than he was, and looked up at the new ground ahead. An open groove led up to a square-cut roof overhang. Above this the groove soared out of sight round the corner. But there were crack lines for our pitons. It might be hard, but it was possible.
This was the climax to weeks of frustration. The rock was warm and dry to the touch, rough-textured, solid, satisfying. I climbed the crack leading up to the square-cut overhang with the aid of pitons. I could hear vague shouts below, but ignored them. All that mattered was the rock a few inches in front of my nose.
But at the foot of the Tower, events were dramatic. Derek Walker and Vic Bray had spent the night at the camp in the woods and had left before dawn with the aim of getting a grandstand seat. They passed the Italian Camp at about seven in the morning, a time when we were already near the top of the fixed ropes on the Tower. The two Italians, Nusdeo and Aste, were just emerging from their tent. They obviously had no sense of urgency and at this stage, I suspect they had no idea that we had made so much progress on the tower. Derek called out to them, and pointed upwards. He could just see us, two tiny dots on the sunlit rock of the Tower, below the big groove.
“Look, there they are” he called out.
They looked, were obviously appalled by what they saw, and started to pack their rucksacks. At that moment the rest of the Italian party arrived, and immediately went into a huddle. There was obvious disagreement about the best course of action, but after a few minutes of fierce discussion they grabbed a load of gear and set out up the hill in pursuit of us. In the heat of the moment, they had forgotten their claims that they wanted a purely Italian route, and immediately started climbing our fixed ropes.
The climb was developing into a bizarre race, with Don and me in the lead. There was always a risk, however, that if we took a wrong line, and were forced to retreat, they could profit from the mistake and get ahead of us on the right line. We had intended to leave a line of fixed ropes behind us to safeguard our retreat, in the event of bad weather and high winds, but in the face of this threat of competition, Barrie Page and John Streetley pulled up the ropes behind them.
Meanwhile, out in front, I was climbing, happily oblivious of the drama down below. A couple of pitons hammered into the roof of the overhang above me, and I reached over the top. I have always preferred free climbing to artificial climbing; this, and the traditional British aversion to an excessive use of pitons, has always made me use as few as possible. At this point I overplayed my purism, trying to reach up over the overhand and pull up on a rounded ledge; my feet, but jammed at an against the rock to give me a little more height, suddenly swung free, and the next instant I found myself hanging upside down, fifteen feet below the overhang.
I wasn’t hurt—just angry at having made a mistake. I was so tied up with the climbing that I don’t think I was even shocked by the fall. I swung back on the rock, put in an extra piton, and pulled up. I spent over two hours on this 150 foot pitch; it was the best piece of climbing I have ever done: steep, sustained, on magnificently firm rock. On either side, the granite dropped away, smooth and sheer, and we seemed to be on the only possible line up this part of the Tower.
A shout from below. Barrie and John had realised that they would only show us up if they tried to follow in our steps, and therefore, very unselfishly, they elected to go back down. Meanwhile, the Italians were just coming into sight on the slab leading up to the long groove. But somehow their presence seemed to matter no longer. It was insignificant, compared to the scale of the rock around us—the immensity of the Patagonian Ice Cap stretching out to the west. We could hear the cries far below, but they were thin and reedy, lost in the clear sky above.
And we were a close-knit pair, united just for a few hours by our mutual efficiency and common drive to reach the top. We said hardly anything to each other; there was no need for words; each knew what the other had to do. Our differences in background, personality and outlook on life were temporarily submerged by the scale and gripping absorption of the problem in hand.
I had reached the end of the pitch, tired, nerves extended, yet elated. Don followed up. Gave me the accolade:
“That was ‘ard.”
He carried on up the next pitch, a square-cut corner as steep and high as the famous Cenotaph Corner in North Wales. He bridged up it with beautiful confidence, legs straddled on the walls in continuous, deliberate movement. Above, the angle dropped back and we began to climb more swiftly. Pitch followed pitch, and we were on the shoulder that was a major landmark from below.
“It doesn’t look too bad from here,” said Don.
“Yes, but what about the time? We can’t have more than a couple of hours of daylight, and it looks a hell of a way to the top. I think I have to do a lot of traversing.”
“We’ll just have to go a bit faster. We should be able to get back here by dark. We’ll leave our bivvy gear and travel light.”
We were in a race, not against each other but against the fast-falling dusk: the sense of euphoria and single-minded concentration that grips the long-distance runner at the end of a race must be very similar to what we now felt.
We dumped the gear and set off over broken rocks towards the crest of the ridge. The angle was now much easier, but there were other problems. Every crack was gummed with ice, and there was snow on all the ledges. Don led a particularly frightening pitch, balancing up iced rocks. He used no pitons for protection and climbed with amazing speed. When I followed, he was out of sight and the rope was at an awkward angle. Had I slipped, I should have spun across the slab to come crashing into a rocky corner at its side.
I crawled fearfully up the iced cracks, full of wonder at how Don had managed to lead them in such fast style. Our way was now barred by a smooth rock tower; an abseil down the side, a scramble over a snow slope, and we were back on the ridge, with yet another tower in front. The light was beginning to fade. Don even dumped his camera to give him greater freedom of movement. It was steep, awkward climbing, but we were now barely aware of it, our sense of urgency was so great. We were in a race, not against each other but against the fast-falling dusk: the sense of euphoria and single-minded concentration that grips the long-distance runner at the end of a race must be very similar to what we now felt.
Another rock tower barred our way. Surely it must be the top. I pulled over the crest but there before me was yet another. Don went into the lead, balanced across a short, steep wall, stepped up round the corner and let out a shout. He was on the top.
I followed, and found him sitting on a block-like summit, the size of a small table. The sun, a red orb, was dropping into the snow-white mantle of the Patagonian Ice Cap; a huge glacier like a grey speckled puff-adder curled down from the Cap to an ice-dotted lake, now fast holding in lengthening shadows. At last we could see all round us, the ephemeral reward for weeks of struggle: the Cuernos’ sharp beaks down to the left, the Fortress and Shield, solid, seemingly impregnable, to the right, and in front, across another glacier, the Paine Grande, an ice-encrusted pyramid.
It was difficult to believe that the winds that had held us at bay for seven weeks could ever have existed, the feel of silent peace was so great and yet our own memories were not so short. In the moment of elation there was still the worry of how we were to get down, the threat of what could happen to us, should the weather break.
“I’ve got a can of sardines and two Mars Bars,” I said.
“Fat lot of good that is. I can’t find my matches. I’m dying for a bloody smoke.”
We hammered into the summit block a Cassin Piton, just to show the Italians that we had been there, and then, I’m not sure whose idea it was, shouted in unison, “Big Ned is Dead!”
As we shouted I knew a second of superstitious dread. Were we tempting the fates in decreeing the death of the personality we had built these last few weeks? But there was no time for delay; the light was fast fading and we had a long way to get back to our bivouac gear on the shoulder. We left the summit, having spent a mere ten minutes on it, scrambled and abseiled back down towards the shoulder, reaching it in the gathering dusk.
We had been on the go for fifteen hours, without anything to eat or drink. It was now that we realised that when Barrie and John had ruined back, they had all the food and the gas stove with them. They had even called up to ask if we wanted anything passed up to us, but at that point, all we could think of was the summit, and we shouted “No.”
We were parched with thirst; there was plenty of snow, but without a stove it was useless. We went through our sacs.
“I’ve got a can of sardines and two Mars Bars,” I said.
“Fat lot of good that is. I can’t find my matches. I’m dying for a bloody smoke.”
Don made another search and found them. He was content for the night, thirst and all. It was a perfect, cloudless night, the sky clear and black, glittering with stars. Thirst and hunger seemed unimportant, to be savoured as a prelude to the food and drink we should have at our victory feast.
Images: Chris Bonington Library