Middle of the Ende

“Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”

Gandhi

Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo: Ruben Neugebauer, 350.org, cropped from original.  Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Time goes weird and space gets warped inside the mine, and into my hallucinatory world I only dimly recognise the distant RWE mine jeeps as a threat. I’m still holding onto my belief that the police have left us to the mine workers, but then as the jeeps pull closer and clamour to a halt in a cloud of orange dust, as the doors open and black figures jump out, it dawns on me slowly, thickly, stupidly, that the violence is about to start all over again.

The calls go out: “TIGHTEN UP! COME CLOSE! COME TOGETHER!” And we do, forming a dense crowd, holding arms together, still walking quickly towards the police who are putting on their helmets and drawing their batons and unholstering those burning cans of pepper spray. And as their faces disappear behind visors, they loose the last vestiges of their humanity. We are marching towards a squadron of machines.

“RUN! HEAD RIGHT! HEAD RIGHT!” We begin to run as a mass and the police begin to run too, running to intercept us as we seek the freedom of a diminishing gap between them and the wall of the mine. In moments we are split and all running all over again, all running at whatever direction looks safe at whatever speed we can manage. I am still packed within the mass and catch only flashes of uniform beyond the bodies that protect me, but then the protection dissolves and I see the dark figure with a baton that’s cracking into all the legs and arms and bodies it can find.

I don’t know what happens but somehow I am still running and the policeman is behind, and I’m running and my lungs are screaming and my legs are as heavy as lead. I don’t know how much more I can run. The ground beneath our feet is treacle sand, uneven and bumpy, and I see the policeman stumble and fall and then recover, lumbering with the weight of his armour.

And then we’re through. We’ve broken through the line and the police are behind us. We are closer to the digger. I feel a wild rush of optimism and hope, but then turn around and see the police jumping back into their jeeps. They will overtake us and beat us, again and again and again.

For me, this is the end. I cannot go on. I am so desperately tired, I haven’t slept in days, my legs are shredded by the terrain and the running and the heavy rucksack, and my mind is eviscerated by the endless convulsions of hope and fear. I am too exhausted to continue. But then, to my infinite surprise, I find myself running again.

As the jeeps bear down on us from behind, the call goes out: “MAKE A LINE! MAKE A LINE!” and something remarkable happens. Self organising and intuitive, our finger spreads across the length of the terrace, arm in arm and hand in hand, and suddenly it is the police who are trapped and impotent. They cannot break through. It’s an incredible moment, and the symbolism is not lost on us. We are, literally, a long white line in the sand. Together we stand against the vested interests and distorted economics of the coal mine; living testimony to the power of what’s possible when collection and conviction combine. And as the jeeps follow, disempowered, a crazy sense of optimism begins to flow. We are suddenly, unexpectedly, in control.

Click for video.

For me, this is a seminal moment. It is the first time I have seen so directly the power of connected action. They may have jeeps and batons and body armour and chemical weapons. They may have the law on their side. But against two hundred people marching from the conviction that their action is moral and their protest just, there is little at this moment they can do.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this conviction, because it’s the base from which we act. It binds us to each other and connects us with the millions of unseen supporters around the world. Born of the raw, scientific evidence now emerging around climate change, it’s a conviction we’re prepared to test by throwing our bodies in front of monstrous diggers and speeding jeeps. We are convinced that our right to life will guide the driver’s foot to the right pedal. And it does, over and over. As gaps open up and jeeps attempt to punch through, we hurl ourselves before the revving engines and spinning wheels and send police passengers lurching as the driver hammers his foot to the brake. Over and over, again and again, a last minute foot to the brake.

This is what we come here seeking: a foot to the brake.

Because today this mine has become a crucible, a place where every action is amplified, every moment symbolic. Here, state police travel in corporate pickups. Here, black uniforms beat white boilersuits. Here, songs and chants meet batons and pepper spray while diggers gouge the earth and turbines salute the sky. So a foot to the brake, please, if you will. Peacefully but persistently, we’re asking that you stop.

But for the police, for the mine workers and for RWE’s owners, our requests are not the point. That we are many and peaceful and dignified is secondary to the fact that we are breaking the law. We are obstructing a legal corporate entity from going about it’s business, and we have to be stopped. So when I see a crowd of RWE jeeps in the distance – now passing the digger, now hurtling towards us with venomous urgency – I know what’s coming next.

Photo: Tim Wagner
Photo: Tim Wagner, 350.org, cropped from original.  Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“COME TOGETHER! GET CLOSE! COME TOGETHER!” We break our line and we break our magic and we huddle once again into our amorphous, protective mass. The jeeps behind join the those in front and police swell like an incoming wave. They spread across the sand and, gathering momentum, break over us in a crazy, frantic, violent melee.

Everything goes mad and there are police everywhere. There’s nowhere to run, no gaps to exploit, and they’re pushing us again against the wall of the mine. I’m running and running and now I really am close to my end. The air is full of pepper spray and everything is burning, so when I see a dark figure before me, scything white figures like grass, I am part thankful, part fearful, part relieved that it will be over soon, that I will be hit and hurt and fall. I won’t have to run any more, won’t have to dodge any more, won’t have to bear this excoriating rollercoaster of adrenaline and hope and fear.

And them I’m over, face down in the sand. People run past and over me. There’s screaming and shouting. I don’t know what’s happened. Have I been hit? I look up and see wave after wave of people flow past, all trying to escape, all trying to go on, all trying to avoid stamping on me if they can. And I cannot get up.

As I realise this, I’m washed with the most enormous sense of relief. There is nothing more but to close my eyes and huddle into a shameless, foetal ball, hoping and praying I won’t be beaten and sprayed as others have by a vindictive passing officer.

My face is burning. I try to look up and cannot open my left eye. It is on fire. My hands are on fire. Everything is burning. Pepper spray hangs suspended in the air.

As soon as I’m able, I look up through my one good eye and see people nearby crying out in pain. The police are busy wrenching arms behind backs and strapping them tight with cable ties. The capsicum has diminished, but the air is full of fear and adrenaline and fury: “SIT DOWN!” ”STAY THERE!” “DON’T MOVE!”. And so I lie there and feel the burn growing as I wait for the situation to calm.

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Photo: Ruben Neugebauer, 350.org, cropped from original.  Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Unfathomable time passes, or it doesn’t – I can’t tell. But then I lift my head and catch the eye of the nearest officer through his visor. There is a guy between us writhing in agony. I ask permission to help but am ordered to stay down. More time – or not – and I try again. And now I see the face of a bearded, late middle aged man beneath the helmet. He’s looking at me and nodding. So I get up and move slowly and deliberately to the guy who’s face is red and eyes and nose are streaming. I pour water to flush away the searing chemical burn. He’s been sprayed directly, and from close up. He’s in agony. Everywhere people are in similar pain, and everywhere those of us who are aren’t too injured are moving slowly, cautiously, unthreateningly, doing whatever we can to help.

Remaining unbound is a powerful privilege, and I know how lucky I am. My pepper wounds are limited, and I’m uncuffed and mobile. But this is the lesser fortune. The greater is in being able to help, being able to tend to people and replace the relentless fear and terror of the past few hours with something oh-so much warmer and nourishing. The urge to reach out is powerful and instinctive and healing, and it’s animating all of us who are capable of helping.

We squeeze water into streaming eyes, wipe the capsicum burn from faces, give food and drink to those whose hands are locked behind their backs. All boundaries are down, all social conventions subsumed to the greater imperative of care. I blow a woman’s nose for her. I wipe sand from someone’s face. And as I gather a man’s hair in a topknot to prevent more blinding pepper in his eyes, the unexpected tenderness fractures something: the world begins to swirl and I well up and very nearly break down because when I look at my hands I’m setting my young daughter’s ponytail with an infinite, fatherly care. Injected into this crazy scene, injected into my over-stressed psyche, the thought of her is too sudden and too raw. But I realise then that one day, she might wind up some place like this. One day she might feel like the many brave young women who have come here; compelled to take her protest to a place where she is harmed.

Our finger has been broken into two groups and comprehensively stopped. The police have us kettled and stand around now like a perimeter fence. As we go about helping each other they remove their helmets, and one policeman hands me a bottle of water to help rinse someone’s eyes. They have become human again. I’m surprised by how many are women.

As the tension ebbs and the pepper burns fade, our identities change. We are no longer a defiant, running protest, and the police are no longer brutal enforcement machines. We are instead a mutually frazzled group of people in the bottom of a vast, multi-hued hole in the ground, our human scale dwarfed by the enormity of the mine. The binary symbolism that’s coloured much of the day fades a little and, as it goes, things begin to feel ever so faintly absurd.

At the end of the day, we have been beaten and stopped by people who are not so alien to our values. We discover this thanks to a calm, intelligent German guy who has taken to negotiating with the police. When we meet up to discuss our collective options, he points out that although they can’t say so, many of the men and women encircling us agree in principle with our protest. It’s a pretty odd thing to hear. Odd to realise that in spite of the brutal reality of the past hour, we are all just playing our parts in a much wider political game.

As the hours pass and the sun climbs, we begin to discuss what to do next. There are three other fingers in the mine, all trying to bring operations to a halt. But how can we help them, handcuffed and impotent in the sand? When someone points out that we are not legally obliged to assist the police with our removal from the mine, we realise we can passively resist. Going floppy, it is suggested, will make us very heavy, and very inconvenient. It will take four police to carry each and every one of us the long distance across the sand to the meat wagons, and we are still great in number.

It seems our protest isn’t over just yet…

Photo: Ende Geleande, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Photo: Ende Geleande, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

A word of explanation

If you’ve got this far, thank you. It’s nice to have you along. I’m aware this is a long blog and there is more to come, but now have to ask your patience while I spend some time with my family and recover from what has been an intense and emotional experience. I will post the next instalments as soon as I can would encourage you to follow this blog if you’d like to receive notification when they go up.

If you’d like more information and images, plus ideas for ways to become involved, I’d highly recommend http://www.350.org and http://www.ende-gelände.org

Thanks again for all your support and understanding. It’s priceless.

Ben

Beginning of the Ende

“I’m so glad to see people drawing a firm line in the coalfields, and stopping the planet’s largest coal-digging machines. We’re driven not by ideology but by physics: there’s simply no way to burn all this lignite and keep the climate intact. These protesters are lifeguards for an endangered planet.”

Bill McKibben,

Photo: Tobias Mandt
Photo: Tobias Mandt

I’m running and I’m running and I’m just one, just one amongst hundreds of people running to escape the batons and the pepper spray, running to break through the police line and run on and on across the field to the mine. But as we’re running and my legs are pumping and the adrenaline’s thumping I turn and see something that makes my blood turn cold and time stand still. I see a man made massive with body armour and a helmet and a baton, and I see him throw his shoulder back and form a fist and smash the full brutal weight of his aggression into the face of an oncoming woman. She crumples but I don’t even see her hit the floor because I’m running and oh fuck me am I running and I’m thinking that this isn’t what I signed up for and I don’t want to be here and christ I’m just so scared. Because I am not an activist. This isn’t what I do. I’m a relatively normal, middle aged chap who does clicktivism when he can find the time. Direct action is not my thing. I’m not cut out to be here, running with hundreds of people across the fields of the Rhineland to try and close for one day a sodding great lignite mine.

And yet, oddly, here I am.

I am running because I don’t know what else to do. I am running because I know too much to stand still. I am running because climate change has already begun and because I’m scared of heatwaves and droughts and mass extinctions and flooding. I’m running because I need to act – we all need to act – and we need to act right now.

And so I’m acting as fast as I can, running from the police, running from my disempowerment, running from my apathy and fatalism. I’m running and dodging batons and pepper spray and I’m more primevally, viscerally terrified than I have ever, ever been.

Photo: Ende Gelände
Photo: Ende Gelände

“REGROUP! REGROUP! REGROUP!” Through the chaos the call goes out and we begin to pull back together after breaking through the police line. People nursing baton injuries are helped by those who escaped the beatings, and those of us who can see lead those blinded by pepper spray. We keep walking, quickly re-coalescing back into the protective mass that two hundred determined people can be, but I’m feeling very, very shaken. This is so unlike anything I’ve experienced. The violence and brutality are horrible, and I wish I hadn’t come. I wonder how I could have been so naïve? I mean, what was I expecting when I signed up to gatecrash Europe’s biggest source of CO2 emissions? A welcoming beer and a hug?

And right now, walking through the fields with 200 other people all dressed, like me, in white paper boilersuits, I’m well out of my depth. This is not my scene. I’m a family man, too old for this kind of thing. Yes, climate change is important and there’s a role for me in the movement, but this isn’t it. I want out. I want to escape. I want to leave this stupid situation and go back to camp and help make tofu burgers, or something.

But then I realise that beyond the fearful chatter of my thinking, I’m committed. We all are. Others will be feeling all of this, but we’re here together and that means containing my fear and keeping on walking towards the mine. We have nothing but our resolve and our numbers and in honour of that I have a responsibility to keep my fear contained. I want no part in eroding what is our only strength.

And now, incredibly, it looks as if we might actually make it. The masts of the great pit diggers poke out of the earth just a field or two away and with no more police or opposition, we soon make it to the edge of the mine. The scale is barely comprehensible. It stretches a full 20km into the distance. It’s 12 long kilometres wide. And it’s so resonant with meaning: a great gaping hole in the earth from which billions of tons of coal have been dug, crushed and burned. It’s dramatic and terrifying testimony to what our species can do when it puts it’s mind to it, and a potent symbol for the challenge we face with climate change. And as I look out across the pit I find it hard to believe that we, as a collection of small, frail human beings, can really shut down a problem of this scale.

Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org
Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org

In truth, we don’t yet know if we can. We don’t know if we can descend into this beautiful hell and bring this beast to a halt. But we’re going to try. Eight hundred individuals from 45 countries are marching in four groups towards the mine; four fingers of resistance snaking across the Rhineland. We must look incredible from the air. The police helicopters must look down on these responsive white masses spreading and contracting in response to their colleagues’ attacks. But what they won’t see from those helicopters is one of the most significant aspects of this action: they won’t see how many of us are doing something like this for the first time.

One of the defining aspects of the action we call Ende Gelände (This far, and no further) is the number of newcomers to direct action. People like me who have never experienced police brutality or the terrifying experience of breaking through police lines. And why are there so many of us here? What is it that compels us normal, law abiding citizens to put our liberty and safety at risk? What brings us to leave our husbands and wives and children and engage in such radical and, frankly, out of character behaviour?

I think the answer lies in the urgency of the climate challenge and the feeling that action of some kind has become a moral imperative. We feel we are not acting simply for ourselves, but for our planet and our children. We feel a responsibility to those who are not yet born. And we feel the anger, sadness and incomprehension of those future generations who will look back at us with incredulity. “What a beautiful world”, they will think. “What kind of madness made our parents trash it?”

And if I have hope – which I do – then it is that we are entering a period which will be remembered as a time when normal people got together and did extraordinary things. Because when people begin to recognise the limitations of a system of individualism and self interest and begin, collectively, to seek change, remarkable things can happen.

Photo: Ruben Neugebauer, 350.org
Photo: Ruben Neugebauer, 350.org

Which, of course, is exactly what is happening here. I am just one in a finger of 200, in an action of 1,000… but we are in reality a movement of millions. And this action for me is proof of how inconceivably powerful we become when we begin to act from our collective self. Nothing today would have happened without the collaboration of countless individuals, from those who help finance organisations like 350.org and Ende Gelände, to those who organise logistics, cook, translate and provide free legal representation at the climate camp. But perhaps most numerous are those many who – like my friends – send precious messages of support that say we do not act alone.

So together we flow over the top of the mine and down towards the diggers. We are chanting and singing and buzzing with a mixture of disbelief and hope, and we spill down towards two men beside an RWE mine vehicle. We must be a terrifying sight, this tsunami of white boiler suits, but we are non-violent and unstoppable. We’re singing and celebrating, giddy with elation and adrenaline, mindful of the jeeps in the distance but thrilled for now with success. I begin thinking that perhaps the police are behind us, perhaps they’ll leave the action to the mine staff. And for the first time since breaking through the lines, the fear begins to recede.

And as it diminishes, so my attention widens to appreciate this incredible place. To our right an endless cliff winds around the rim, an artwork of sandy pigments gouged with the striations of digger teeth. To the left the mine drops down into to the distance in a series of terraces, each leading deeper into the earth that gets darker and darker, then turns to black. And across this pit roam the diggers, unimaginable beasts with bucket teeth and vast steel throats, gouging and disgorging the coal onto conveyor belts 16km long. The pit is beyond comprehension: a raw mix of extreme beauty, and utter devastation. And we must descend into it in our search for change.

Our white finger marches around the corner past a huge, stationary belt and the terrace opens out. Several miles away we see the closest digger cleaving sandy overburden from the rim. It’s not Bagger 288 as we’d hoped, but it’s still big beyond reason. The distant jeeps are getting closer, but we are thrilled that our target is in sight…

Photo: Ende Gelände
Photo: Ende Gelände

If you’d like more information and images, plus ideas for ways to become involved, I’d highly recommend http://www.350.org and http://www.ende-gelände.org

Thanks again for all your support and understanding. It’s priceless.

Ben

Pre-dawn in the coalfields

It’s 2.30 in the morning and I know there’s not going to be much sleep for me tonight. I’m lying in a field of stubbled wheat somewhere in the Rhineland. On my leg I’ve etched a number in permanent marker – the hotline to the legal team for when I get arrested. You get two phone calls in custody. The second will be to my wife and daughter.

We arrived here as the early evening sun made beauty of the Rhineland, bathing gold the power stations and wind turbines which stand side by side. The future standing against a present which needs to be past. But now it is long since dark. I look out from my tent and see the red lights of nearby cooling towers blink a repetitive warning. A police van cruises quietly by. Above, the night sky is dramatically clear, and stray meteors fall with abandon. I imagine there are many of us who have made wishes on them tonight.

It’s been a long evening of meetings to discuss tactics as we try to second guess what the army of police and security personnel are going to do. The broader picture of the action, none of our team know. We may be around 1,000 in number, but the mine has 800 private guards, and the police outnumber us two to one.

As you’d expect, there’s a degree of apprehension. I’m not even excited any more – just tired and raw. But my emotional landscape has simplified, probably due to my adrenal gland giving up with exhaustion. Yet still there’s no sleep. Just a long, ponderous night to lie through, waiting and waiting and waiting for dawn.

I’m Coming Out of the Closet

This week, I’m doing something I’ve never done before. I’m going to (quite possibly) get arrested for something I believe in. I’ve been arrested before, and I’ve believed in things before, but I’ve never been taken into custody as a result of my principles. 

I may not come to that, of course, and I hope that it doesn’t. But the prospect of some time in a German police cell is something I’m considering. Why? Because after too many years of a comfortable and very contemporary apathy, I’m finally stepping off the fence. I’m becoming a climate activist. On Saturday, along with thousands of other normally law-abiding citizens, I’m going to enter a great big hole in the earth and put a temporary halt to one of the largest machines on the planet.

 

  
Bagger 288 is a 13,500 ton strip mining monster, part testimony to human ingenuity and part symbol of our dysfunctional relationship to the earth. Every day it excavates 240,000 tonnes of lignite for the power stations of the Rhineland – enough to fill 2,400 train wagons. That’s a very, very long train. So long, it’s kind of hard to imagine.  

But if it’s hard to imagine the scale of the extractions taking place in northern Germany, it’s harder still to justify them in the face of climate change. Lignite, or brown coal, is the dirtiest and least efficient form of coal, an already notoriously dirty fuel. Because of it, the Rhineland coal fields are Europe’s largest single source of CO2 emissions.

But Bagger 288 is not really draws me to Germany. Putting a temporary halt to the excavations won’t make a dent in European emissions or the coal industry’s profits. It won’t usher in a new era of clean energy, make mining CEO’s suspend operations and reinvest in wind farms and hopeful fields of biodynamic spirulina. Realistically, in and of itself, it won’t change a thing. But for me, that’s not the point. The point is that this protest is part of something much larger.

 
If you’re alert, you might have noticed it in the wind and solar farms now common across the continents. You might have noticed it in movements like localism, organic farming and slow food. And although it’s absent in the vast majority of mainstream culture, you may find it in concepts like fair trade and the creative commons, or political movements like Podemos and Syriza. What’s it is, is change.

Inexorably, millions of people across the world are demanding a new conversation. They’re asking if we can’t evolve a more creative and compassionate system, a system which elevates the wellbeing of people and planet above profit as our collective organising principle. And because the conventional means of expression are too often muffled by the smog of vested interests, people are getting more creative in their bid to be heard. Our problems have gone global. Our response needs to go global too.

And that’s why I’m going to gatecrash the strip mines of the Rhineland. I’m joining with thousands of people across the world to voice my frustration at the disempowerment of materialism and the dangerous dogma of perpetual growth. We are a phenomenal species. Collectively, we can do better than this.

So for me, the Rhineland represents my desire to be part of something bigger, more hopeful, more interesting, more inspiring. Whether or not I go into the pit, chain myself to the top of Bagger 228 or spend time in German custody isn’t the question. The question – when my daughter is old enough to ask it – is at what point I stopped being a closet environmentalist, got off my arse and cared.

 

Shooting Blind

Can you really work in 80mph winds on Ben Nevis? In winter? With heavy snowfall and a high avalanche forecast? Well, it seems so. Sort of.

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It’s been one hell of a day. Hellish. Hard. Windy. We’ve actually come looking for foul weather – the sort Scotland is famous for – but it’s been a fine line between foul and feasible… or total shutdown. And today there was every danger that we were going to be completely shut down, unable to shoot very much at all.

Basically, a lot of snow has fallen on the Ben these past few days and the gullies are completely loaded. Approach slopes to most routes are similarly avalanche prone, and the wind has been ungodly, vicious and uncompromising. We’ve been knocked off our feet by 80mph gusts, and that’s only at 700m. A lot of the mountain has been completely off limits.

Thankfully, I’m here with a superb team. Ally Swinton, Nick Carter and Tamsin Gay are as strong, experienced and don’t seem to mind suffering. As a result of Nick’s many years experience guiding on the mountain, we were able to find something to film (a melting, slushy and precarious icefall called Cascade) and set about trying to make a dent in the video shot list.

Uniquely for a shoot, a large number of shots have been taken with my eyes closed. Many others, I’ve not been able to see the screen, let alone tell whether shots were in focus. In fact, I couldn’t see very much, such was the perpetual spindrift blowing across the mountain, into our eyes, into the camera. The moment the camera emerged from the bag the lens was covered in snow, necessitating a removal of gloves, an unzipping of jackets and pockets, the removal of a damp tissue, then a quick, futile wipe to turn the snow into water and smear it unattractively around the glass before the next gust covered it in snow again. It was intensely frustrating and meanwhile, everyone was hanging on and quietly freezing.

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By the time we walked off the hill, I had little idea of what was on the memory cards. I didn’t know whether my cameras were still working, or whether everyone had put in an awful lot of effort for nothing. It’s not often at work that I find myself in such a state of ignorance at the end of a shoot, and it’s not comfortable.

Thankfully, from the warm confines of the Grog and Gruel in Fort William, I now know that we’ve done quite well. For a shoot that was largely conducted blind – including the many shots taken with my eyes closed – we’ve come away with much of what we need. That’s the good news. The other good news is that there’s no real change to the forecast for the rest of the week, meaning at least I don’t need to worry about continuity. More high avalanche risk, more storm force winds, more heavy snow. Delightful.

The Chicken’s Fallen Over…

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There’s a joke here that when the wind stops blowing, Patagonian chickens fall over. And it might be true, if there were any chickens in Patagonia. As far as I can tell you’d need to either be a condor or a sparrow to survive in these parts – either big enough to ride the gale, or small enough to hide. A chicken would be large enough to catch air but not substantial enough to resist it. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t seen any. Perhaps they’ve been blown to the Falklands.

But the fact is, a few days ago, all the proverbial chickens fell over. The Windguru forecast was down to a 1, which is the lowest wind speed we’ve seen during an entire month in El Chalten. This was our last weather window in Patagonia, our final chance to return to the mountains and settle the unfinished business of Dave and Calum’s new line.

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Walking back into the hills was for me some form of groundhog day, heading back up the same old trails, through the same old forests, past the same old lakes and water meadows and streams. It’s weird how familiarity can render even a UNESCO wilderness mundane, but walking up hills when you’re not in the mood isn’t conducive to wonder. And I wasn’t in the mood.

We reached our gear stash at the top of the Lago de los Tres and repacked for the long haul up the glacier. This time around it was cold, so the walk across hard snow was much easier than the slush-wallow of before. We climbed and climbed, the effort of ascent now so achingly familiar, and rose once again from the lowlands. The granite towers and snowfields grew closer and we entered the rarified world of high mountains.

Sometimes, I love the simplicity of glacier life. Everything is reduced to the basics: melting snow for water, putting up a tent for shelter, wearing many layers to stay warm, resting from the walk in and recovering for tomorrow. With things this simple it’s easier to notice that you’re alive, (and when was the last time you remembered to notice?) Perhaps it’s just that the mountains invite a readier contrast between blood and sentience, and the impassive expanse of ice and rock. And perhaps that’s in part what I love about being up there: the special warmth in a cup of tea, the incomparable richness of a hot meal, or the gratitude to a sleeping bag which has gathered body heat only to reflect it back?

We camped up at Paso Superior, a small, sheltered col beneath the Fitzroy massif and truly, one of the great bivvi sites of the world. I sat there and watched the cloud billowing off the chimney-stack peaks, swirling in the wind that was blowing up there but absent from our little frozen idyll. And that night I left the others to make the most of the small tent space, and bivvied out again.

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I was woken at some point with a spray of spindrift in my face. The wind had picked up and it was snowing heavily when I poked my head out. Again, this was not forecast and again, I knew it was Patagonia testing our resolve. Tomorrow would be fine, I thought as I pulled the bag tight around my head. Tomorrow we would go climbing.

It turned out that the others either ignored the 4am alarm, or forgot to set it. Instead I woke at five with the sky looking bruised and moody and dawn faltering in the east. No alpenglow for us. No dramatic wakening of the mountains. And it was cold. How cold I don’t know, but everything was deep frozen and stiff and covered with an inch of fresh snow that had fallen. It was one of those mornings where optimism looked foolish and hope, its poor deluded cousin. But we had invested much time and effort and so pulled ourselves from the warmth of our bags and set out across the glacier to the base of Mermoz.

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It was clear that the weather was some way from perfect, even though there was no wind. Snow storms were floating around the massif like heavy, malevolent beasts, thumping into cliffs with fresh dumps of powder. It wasn’t until we reached the bottom of Mermoz that one floated overhead, obscuring the summit and clouding the air with thick flakes. Within moments spindrift avalanches were pouring down the gullies and runnels and piling on the slope above us. Ally set off into the increasing depth of powder, but Dave and Calum paused. They discussed. Then they called Ally back down with the decision to bail. Today was just not a day for climbing.

Turning back is always hard, but particularly so at the end of a trip like this. A month in Patagonia was ending, and this was our very last chance. I found it difficult to accept that we’d put in all this effort, climbed so far, come so close to the face and been turned around again. It was infuriating. This is what I profess to love – the lack of control in the mountains, the need for humility to accept the cards dealt – yet there I was, peering darkly into the deep gulf of disappointment. It couldn’t end like this. We couldn’t leave Patagonia with one paltry summit between us (Mojon Rojo, the diminutive peak Ally and I had climbed at the start). We couldn’t leave with just two new but small and largely insignificant lines.

To salvage what we could, Calum, Ally and I decided on an impromptu photoshoot while Dave headed back down. The steep, one pitch runnel of ice at the bottom of the 500 metre face wasn’t much, but at least it would give me some of the technical climbing shots I’ve been so desperately seeking this trip. And so as the others sorted ropes, I set off up the slope, ploughing back through Ally’s tracks, up to the bergschrund, across the gaping hole and up.

The slope got steeper and less stable and my feet slid away at each step. Every inch required two solid axe placements and a double kick for each foot. It was exhausting. And then the weather really closed in, the cloud came down and even the nearby ice runnel disappeared into the sensory mash-up that is a white-out. I couldn’t see the slope I was on any more, nor the others below. In the all encompassing white horror, my only reference point was a thin rope snaking uselessly down into the cloud. And still the snow came down.

I needed to find somewhere to attach myself to in order to bring the others safely over the bergschrund, but there was nothing except steep, unstable snow. I knew there were some bolts on the rock way over to the left, but I couldn’t see anything. Instead, I headed for a vague darkening in the otherwise white desert: a huge crevasse that I could straddle the edge of. And from there, I brought Ally and Calum up.

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We were back in familiar terrain: Ally and I looking at each other, knowing it was time to go down. Today, we’d not even get the climbing pictures I’d hoped for. But by then any disappointment had evaporated in the relief of turning around. This was unequivocal weather, the kind of weather that puts options of continuing beyond reasonable debate. It was snowing heavily, the slopes were shedding their loads beneath us and we just needed to get down.

As luck would have it, once we reached the safety of the rock and bolts and began to abseil off, the storm cleared. The snow stopped, the cloud lifted and we emerged into a wild, wild arena of enormous mountains. It was breathtaking beyond belief. Powder avalanches cascaded down the faces all around, harmless but beautiful: the mountains shaking snow like a dogs fresh from a river. Shredded clouds hung from the faces, gently uncurling into nothingness. And I took photos. It wasn’t the hard climbing I was after, but it was gnarly, epic and authentic. Really, I couldn’t have asked for more.

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By the time we were back on the glacier, the mountains were bathed in glorious sunshine… and I was asking for more. I still couldn’t accept we’d been kicked off just moments before – as it turned out – two days of rare and perfect weather. I felt cheated. I wanted summits. I wanted climbing. I wanted so much more of this place, but there was nothing on offer. Just defeat. Just three tiny figures on a glacier in an enormous mountain landscape, looking at lines they would probably never climb. We were leaving the great mountains for the final time, and it was hard.

We made our own ways back to El Chalten and at our own speed. Each of us carried a monstrous load down through throngs of tourists and trekkers, some of whom fired off surreptitious shots when they thought we weren’t looking. We were apparitions from the high mountains, refugees from some iconic, mythical land. We carried heavy loads, looked knackered and smelled bad. Whether we represented the heroic or the pitiful, I just couldn’t say.

Thankfully, the walk down brought about an eventual transition to equanimity. The disappointment slowly relinquished it’s hold on me, and into the space emerged a growing sense of relief. It was over, all the hard work and struggle, all the hills, all the excruciatingly packs and sore bodies and heavy, heavy loads. Our work here was done, and we were returning with no deeper scars than disappointment, nothing more broken than our dreams.

Regardless of the climbing, I also had a pretty comprehensive shoot in the bag. With over 5,000 images, my brief had been fulfilled. Rab, who had commissioned me and supported our crazy, hopeful, perhaps hopeless endeavour, would have all the images of Patagonia they’d need for some time.

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Not far from the Poincenot campsite and still a couple of hours from town, I sat down beside a stream. I dumped my heavy bag and took off my shoes and socks and lay down in the sun. I could hear the water murmuring, the small birds chirping. A gentle breeze played in the trees, but it was no chicken blower. I sat there looking at the mountains, the great towers of granite that had proven impossible to climb, and my gaze drifted down. Down across the glaciers and scree slopes, down over the cliffs, down to the forests, to the trees, to the stream, and, finally, to rest on a lone head of grass bobbing above the water, it’s seeds waiting to release. And as I lay there watching, breathing, feeling, I was overtaken with a sense of the deepest peace. After all that effort, all that seeking of adventure, success, pictures or whatever, I had finally arrived in the now.

The Rise and Fall of Frustration

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Every mountain range has it’s quirks that only familiarity can overcome. And today, we’re back down having become slightly more familiar with Patagonia, and slightly more frustrated. But it mean’s we’re better prepared for next time.

It was, as always, the weather that started it. Throughout the week we’d been watching the three day window shrink, our hopes and plans contracting until there we were, boots on and bags packed, just about to step out the door, when I brought up one final forecast. And the forecast had changed. It suggested we would be walking up in heavy rain and that everything would get soaked. It suggested we wait a day, and so we did.

It was an itchy, uncomfortable day sitting around. Waiting for the ‘best’ weather was something of a gamble, and the following morning, ready once again to leave, it looked like we’d lost our wager. The day outside was perfect, all blue sky and mountains, the wind high but not horrible. Conversely, the wind forecast for our climbing day had increased into the feared double digits. But there was nothing we could do. We were committed, then, to head up and hope to find a wall sheltered enough to climb on.

After two pleasant hours of high speed rambling, the idyll of the forests, lakes and water meadows came to an abrupt end. We hit the hill which climbed from the tranquil trek-lands towards the hardship of the high mountains and began to slog, sweating as we climbed in the unusually hot sun. It was the nicest weather we’d seen all trip. Frustratingly, when we got to Laguna de los Tres we could see the sun had turned the glacier to deep, soft snow that was avalanching miserable wet snow slides. We weren’t up for the effort and the risk and instead cut short our day to bivvi. We’d start very early the following morning instead.

Dave, Calum and Ally opted for the tent while I spent the night in the open. I love sleeping close to the stars. But by midnight, with the entire range was bathed in the eerie glow of a full moon, I realized I wasn’t going to get a lot of sleep. Anticipation and excitement wouldn’t let me rest. I was still up when the first climbers left camp, headtorches picking their way up the glacier in the milky half-light of the moon.

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At 3am, I jumped straight out of my dream and into the unconscious fug of an alpine start. Out of the bag, into a harness, a mug of cold oats for fuel. We set off yet I was neither asleep nor awake; neither dreaming nor within the realm of normal waking consciousness. Nothing sat quite right. The glacial landscape was dark, yet moonlit. The world was deep frozen, yet I was sweating with exertion. I was working hard, yet my body was still snoozy with melatonin. The whole thing was weird, contradictory, disorientating.

Unfortunately, one thing that didn’t stay asleep was my capacity to feel discomfort, and before long before I was back in that familiar world of the uphill struggle. It’s so familiar it’s almost boring – the repetitive inner litany of ‘I can’t go any further’ versus ‘yes you can’, the solitary worrying about fitness, about keeping up, about having a horrible time while the others are, invariably, storming along fine.

I didn’t know it then, but that morning was tough for everyone. We were all suffering with little sleep and a variety of discomforts, yet we were all bound to silence by the unspoken rules of alpinism. Climbing big mountains is always uncomfortable and hard, but in an environment where motivation is everything, stoicism becomes more than just a virtue – it’s a necessity. Without it, we’d have already have started moaning and turned around.

So we all struggled up the glacier in the moonlight, each in our own little worlds of private hardship, each dealing with our difficulties in our own silent ways. Hours passed. I was eventually lost in the hypnotic rhythm of crampons crunching snow, the labored breathing, the bobbing, mesmerizing pool of my headtorch and the battle against the growing pull of inertia. I hardly noticed our progress, the moonlit lake falling away below.

Eventually, we reached Paso Superior where we were supposed to have slept. And there before us – and I mean, right before us – were the mountains we had come for. The phenomenal pyramid of Fitzroy looked close enough to touch. Our goal, Poincenot, rose like ethereal spire from the glacier. And dawn was coming. The first glint of a new day was banding the skies to the east, promising light and an end to this terrible, beautiful, difficult night. We stood there and chewed frozen Clif Bars and energy gels. We drank cold water and stared at the peaks. And then we started shivering. It was freezing; far too cold to go rock climbing as planned.

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Within twenty minutes of our approach to Poincenot the decision was made that we’d have little chance of free climbing Whisky Time in these conditions. It was mixed climbing weather: time for ice runnels and snow. And so, turning away from Poincenot’s spire, we dropped down across the great glacial bowl and headed towards Mermoz for a new line that Dave had spied. And as we did so, something miraculous happened.

At first, it looked like an optical illusion: the pinkening of the mountains; a gentle blush to the snow. And then the cloud which spilled from the summit of Fitzroy turned a crazy orange. I looked up. The place had caught fire. Suddenly it was so obvious why early travellers to Patagonia thought Fitzroy was a volcano, it’s trailing cloud a flame. We all stopped, staggered, took photos. We were stunned to stillness, and it was totally silent. Contrary to the forecast, there wasn’t a breath of wind. There was nothing except for this wild hallucination of dawn, this crazy-painted moment that was passing for reality. And there and then all my silent morning commitments to give up this line of work, to give up mountains, to give up big hills for breakfast – they were blown away in a moment of acute and visceral beauty. This was why people come mountaineering. This was why we’d travelled the length of the globe and spent weeks waiting for the weather. This was what makes the rollercoaster ride that is Patagonia worthwhile.

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We pattered across the glacier, pacing easily down and across the frozen snow to Mermoz. I was happy at having finally bagged some decent alpine photos, but now I had a problem. Climbing Whisky Time would have allowed me to get above and shoot down on Dave and Calum as they worked the moves on the difficult pitches. It would have been easy to get good shots and footage. Now, with them once again trying a new line, I wouldn’t be able to get above. I was back to the dilemma of our last foray: should we go with them, hauling up their ropes in the hope of getting some good footage from below (bumshots, which are never particularly inspiring)? Should we sit on the glacier and shoot what we could with the not-very-long-lens I had brought (extremely limited)? Or should we try and climb an adjacent line to get above them and abseil in (risky – the line wasn’t easy and we’d have to locate them on a massive and complicated face)? In the end there wasn’t much of an option. We dropped down to try to climb Jardines Japoneses, the gully system that led up to the top of their line.

By the time we got to the bottom of our route, the snow had already begun to melt. The steep slope to the face was mush and the bergschrund – the large crevasse at its base – was impassible. We tried a couple of different approaches in a bid to get onto the rock, but no luck. Time was passing. The sun was getting higher and hotter and all the while, Dave and Calum would be making progress. It was increasingly frustrating.

In the end, Ally found a way across the bergschrund and got established on the face. It had taken us an hour just to get onto the route, yet within moments he had to clip in and change into rock boots – another time consuming chore. And as I stood and belayed, I had that horrible feeling that we’d just missed the boat. Twenty minutes earlier and the snow would have been solid, we would have been on the face quickly, and up. But now, peddling mush and having to climb tricky rock rather than easy ice, we were rapidly loosing time.

The second pitch led through a jumbled pile of steep, loose blocks vaguely cemented to the vertical by the thawing snow. I was glad Ally had led it, and glad I was tied to a new rope. Since I became a parent my attention to safety has increased massively, and so when I was looking into support for this trip, I surveyed the market and then approached Beal for one of their Unicore ropes. I thankfully haven’t had to test the technology, but the construction is unique in that it binds the core to the mantle and makes a rope that’s much, much harder to cut. Useful, I thought, as a TV sized block of granite clattered out from my feet and down to the glacier below.

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I reached Ally as a shower of ice rained down on us from above. It was mostly small and it was mostly rime, but the sun was hot and we were about to enter a gully that funneled all the melting debris from the face above. Ally and I took one look at each other. It was immediately clear that continuing wasn’t safe. We had to bail.

If there was disappointment in turning around, it was abated by the satisfaction of having trusted our instincts and made what felt like the right decision. We abseiled off and were soon back on the glacier from where we could see Calum and Dave making slow progress on their line. It was clearly hard. We sat and watched them climb for a while. Then we watched as a ballet of clouds spilled up and over Fitzroy, a mingling interplay of light and shade on the huge granite faces, on the endless snow. This was a place to sit and fantasize, to trace dream lines up runnels of ice, up soaring cracks and immaculate slabs; to imagine what it’d be like to be high on the wall with Patagonia stretching out below. But fantasize is all we could do. We had spent our one and only window of opportunity on getting established on the Jardin, and now the approach slopes to all other routes were too warm, soft and unstable. We simply couldn’t access anything anymore. I couldn’t dispel my frustration. So close, yet so far.

It seems success in Patagonia often happens by the thinnest of margins, requiring a near alchemical combination of weather, luck, skill and good judgement. It made me realize how fortunate we’d been to grab a new line last time we climbed while so many other parties had headed down. We eventually set off back to the tent, feeling sacrilegious for leaving the mountains in such beautiful weather, but there was nothing there for us any more. Just further sunburn, and the insides of my nostrils were already on fire.

The walk down was hard in a hot sun and knee deep slush, but then it was always going to be. We kept quiet and plodded on. Hot hours later we reached the tent and gorged on the fresh, glacial stream melt, pouring icy water into parched bodies. And then we took a kip before packing up, stashing most of our kit and heading back to town.

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The walk down was incredible. With small packs we felt fit and light enough to fly and celebrated by running the steep hill down from Lago de los Tres.

Apart from the short snooze at the lake, we’d been on the go for 18 hours, yet the walk was full of energy and joy. The crystal light of the evening and the sparkling, braided river and mountains all felt like something from another world, somewhere forged in a more perfect time for more perfect eyes than ours.

This was, for me, a moment of pure Patagonian ecstasy. My earlier disappointment had dissolved in the pristine air and I was lost in an ill-deserved jubiliation. Happiness, it seems, can just as readily follow failure. And as Ally and I sat down, exhausted, to a beer and a perfectly sizzled chunk of Argentinian cow, I wondered whether if it’s not the trying that counts after all.

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At 1am, Dave and Calum staggered into the apartment. I thought they were apparitions. After 20 odd hours on the go, they’d made it back before the winds returned to the mountains. Shattered, they’d been turned back from their route with just 60ft to go. Dave’s feet were swollen and Cal had come down with a cold. But the forecast is suggesting that in a few days, the weather will come good and we’ll head back up again.

Patagonia – you couldn’t make this place up.