End of the Ende

“I’ve been to jail a couple of times, and it’s not great fun, but it’s not the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world.”

Bill McKibben

I’m not sure how the news gets to us, but at some point we learn the mine has been completely shut down. A cheer echoes up from the pit. We’ve done it. We’ve just put a halt to one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions. The machines which normally carve brown coal from the earth 24 hours a day have gone silent and RWE, the EU’s most carbon intensive energy conglomerate, is loosing phenomenal amounts of money. For a brief moment in history, there is peace in the enormous hole of Garzweiler.

The rush of victory fades into the passing hours of the day and as we pop up umbrellas against the sun, we realise it’s going to be a long one. Nearly 1,000 of us have made it into the mine and one finger has managed to occupy a digger, so now it’s just a question of how long it will take the police to remove this many kettled, non-cooperative people. That we’ve become a total logistical nightmare is a very cheering thought, but there are some difficult decisions we now need to make.

Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/


Before the action there had been much debate about whether we would to identify ourselves when arrested. If we do, we will likely be set free and face court and a several thousand Euro fine. If we withhold our identity, though, the police can fingerprint and photograph us, then detain us for up to 12 hours while they try and work out who we are.

We are in effect faced with a form of prisoners’ dilemma: if the majority identify, staying anonymous becomes risky. But if the police are faced with 1,000 people recalcitrant people… well, there’s a good chance they will release us without identification, and without charge.

Making decisions on this scale isn’t easy, and what I see in the mine is eye opening. It’s something like the lost dream of democracy. In our kettle, a central council is convened of representatives from each of the small ‘affinity groups’ that have comprised the finger. The issue of identification is discussed in council, then the spokespeople take the discussion back to their affinity group for consideration. Then, once every voice is heard, council is reconvened to decide on the collective action. It’s effective and democratic and goes back and forth as many times is needed, but what surprises me most is the dynamic of conversation. No-one interrupts, everyone listens, and everyone’s opinion is respected.

Through council I learn that most of the people in our kettle are planning to remain anonymous, but my affinity group and I have all brought passports into the mine and are planning to identify. Although this reduces the efficacy of the anonymous collective, I detect no ill will or adverse judgement. Repeatedly, it’s made clear that everyone has come into this mine on their own terms, and everyone’s decision is respected. I feel infinitely humbled.

My reasons for identifying are myriad, but there are two main ones. The first is startling in its banality, but I’m looking after my daughter on Tuesday and I can’t afford time in custody. “Sorry darling, but Daddy’s not here because he’s in prison” is not something I want to try explain to my three year old. But it’s the second reason that I’ve really struggled with.

Last night, sleepless in my tent beneath the stars, I spent a long time wondering what I was doing at Ende Gelände. What was the point? Was it rash and foolish, putting my family time and coffers on the line? What did I hope to achieve? The answer, seen through the odd acuity that can sometimes attend hyper-exhaustion, was that I was curious about how far I was prepared to act from my conscience. As a concerned but ultimately selfish product of my society, how much could I break free of my comfortable western mould?

It turns out that the answer is: this far, and further. Far enough to be sporting one helluva truncheon bruise, and further, on to court. Because I believe that barging into a lignite mine to raise awareness about climate change is an entirely worthwhile way to spend a weekend, and I want to own my part in that. And if there’s any chance that the prosecution of a normally normal chap will help take the story further, then that’s worth taking a punt on too.

Photo: Tim Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As the hours pass and the sun reignites our pepper burns, the police bring a photographer to the pit and begin to process us. Those willing to identify get seen first and are transferred to a separate, smaller kettle some way off. I watch my affinity group head over, one by one, and feel desperately torn. I’ve already planned to identify, but now I stand here with the anonymous and feel a deep pull towards the consensus. I want to be a part of this protest for as long as I can.

Stood there deliberating, I talk with a German guy who has brought his ID into the mine and who, like me, is now considering trying to stay anonymous. “Either way,” he says, “I don’t think it will be a problem if we identify. I don’t think RWE will press charges because they’ve had so much bad press in Germany recently and their share price is plummeting partly because people are divesting from coal. They would be mindful of the bad publicity if they took us to court.”

Shortly after, the police confirm they will release the identified protesters and suggest again that we should cooperate. When no-one comes forward, they take someone else for processing, then another. My German friend is taken and I watch as they search his bag for the ID I know he’s carrying. And then a policeman asks our kettle again: “Any more with their passport? Does anyone have their passport?” And I’m standing there as he approaches and looks at me: “You. Do you have your passport?” and I say yes, because I do. All of a sudden the deliberation is over. My decision is made.

I’m led away from my kettled companions just as the rest of my affinity group is led out of the mine to their freedom. At least I’ll be out of here soon, I reason. But inside, I’m all torn up. My indecision has first separated me from my affinity group, and now I walk away from the protective companionship of my anonymous friends. Alone and under arrest, I can feel quite how crucial the collective is.

The identification unit has been set up in the back of an RWE pickup and I’m made to stand alongside it for photographing. A policewoman takes my passport and fills in a form with its details. Meanwhile, I’m trying to connect with the human being in the black uniform who’s searching my bag. “What’s that smell?” he asks, pulling out a sweaty plastic bag and holding it at arms length. “Last night’s dinner,” I say. I’d brought some leftovers along which, after a day in the sun, stink. “You’re welcome to it, if you’re hungry.” I say. “You guys haven’t eaten all day.” He looks at me and laughs and says something uncomplimentary about dogs before putting the dinner on the pickup. “Any weapons? Anything dangerous in here?” It’s my turn to laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding. This is a non-violent protest.” “What’s this then?” he says, holding out my penknife.

What the hell is that doing there? Suddenly I realise that in an exhausted haze I changed bags this morning to carry extra water, and I completely missed the penknife in the lid pocket. Such a stupid, idiotic mistake. An absurd image comes to mind – me, stood before a line of riot police, waving my not-very-fearsome two inch blade – but I doubt German courts are known for their humour. They’ll see that I took a weapon to a direct action, and I doubt they’ll believe it was a mistake.

The policeman doesn’t make too big a deal of it though, so I’m quickly processed, my arms are cuffed behind my back with thick, industrial clip ties and I’m made to sit on my own in the sand. I have a single, severe looking police woman guarding me. My first thought is that the cuffs aren’t too bad, but after a few minutes of trying to get comfortable in the dirt, I realise how quickly they become painful. And most people here have had them on for hours.

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

Eventually, lying prostrate with this stern woman standing over me, I make an effort at connection and ask her if she’s local. Negative. She answers formally and then turns her gaze away. The silence of the pit takes over. A police helicopter clatters above. I see a small fly in the sand – the only sign of life here except for us. Time passes. The cuffs cut into my wrists. The sun comes out again. But since nothing is normal about today, and since I’ve nothing to loose by talking, I try again: “What do you think about what we’re doing here?” I ask, because I’m curious. She looks down and sees my question is genuine. And then, perhaps because the day is long and because she too is feeling the weight of so much idle time and coal and sand and the sheer, lonely lifelessness of this place, she begins to talk.

“I know what you are doing here, but it’s pointless and wrong. It’s not going to make any difference. You know that tomorrow the mine will be working as normal?” I tell her I do. “Then what is the point? Why did you have to come into the mine like this? Do you know how expensive it is, all these police and helicopters? You have cost the government lots of money that could be spent on better things. For what? To make a point?” She shifts her feet in the sand and looks at me directly. “It is wrong.”

I explain that I feel powerless in the face of business as usual and climate change. I tell her how I feel watching round after round of high level negotiations that do nothing but pay lip service to change. “What should I do?” I ask her. “I feel like I’m one of millions who aren’t being listened to. I don’t know what I have to do these days to get myself heard.”

“You should do what is allowed within the law. You live in a democracy and you could write to your MP, or you could join a political party that represents your views. I pay more for my electricity so that it comes from renewables – that is one way. Or you could have joined the legal protest.

“I love nature too, you know. I love mountains and going walking in the forests with my family. Nature is very important. It is… how do you say in English… we rely on it, we are part of it. We need the environment to be healthy, and the air clean. But you do not protect nature by breaking the law. It is not the right way.”

I tell her that most of the time I am a regular, law abiding citizen. I do all the conventional things – I sign petitions, I write to my MP, I buy green electricity. But it doesn’t feel like enough any more. It doesn’t feel commensurate with the size of the problem.

“I have friends in Asia who are subsistence farmers,” I tell her. “They and go hungry when their crops fail, and that’s happening more regularly with extreme weather. I have a very dear friend in the Himalayas who keeps asking me why the glaciers are melting? I know people who have lost their entire families to flash floods, their children to landslides. I see climate change killing people and displacing populations and I guess I feel that in the face of that, shutting down a lignite mine for a day is nothing. What would you do if you saw your friends were suffering?”

She looks at me severely, but at least she’s taking me seriously. “Even if you are right, you are still breaking the law, and when you live in society it is very important to respect the law. A society creates rules and we must obey the rules, even if we don’t agree with them, because the rules keep everything working. If we don’t obey the rules society breaks down. There’s a social contract and you have broken that and that is wrong.”

“Even when that contract is distorted by pressure groups and lobbyists?”

“Even then. You can work to change the law, but you have to keep the social contract. What you are all doing here is not acceptable.”

Here in the otherworldly landscape of the mine we stand opposed on the scales of justice, but it’s clear that we’re united in our respect for life. The conversation is over, but we’re thinking now, both engaged in the uncomfortable process of growth that comes from incorporating another’s view.

But in our conversation I see the reflection of something far wider, and it raises a question I think history will judge us on, which is this: As the planet toasted and species after species went extinct, did we bring together vast numbers of people to act effectively from a deeper level of agreement? Or did we splinter with our surface differences into ineffective, niche concerns?

And this is why what she says disturbs me, because in her I see an example of how direct action can be divisive. Radical action, particularly if it’s illegal, risks marginalising the cause. For that risk to be worth taking there has to be the chance of sparking a wider conversation, a creative conversation that is sensitive and respectful and seeks the common ground from which great numbers can act. Because while there’s no question that shutting down a mine is an extreme act, it’s hardly the only response to climate change. There are millions of concerned people out there, and a million different ways to act for change. Everyone is invited. We do need something more ambitious than a mass switch to green electricity, but change has to start somewhere… and then progress.

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

Eventually, as more anonymous people are processed into a new kettle, I am relieved of my solitude and re-join the new group. It turns out that because of the knife, I’m going to be detained and processed with the others.

The police woman has kindly removed my cuffs and I am again able to help when it begins to rain, putting coats on those still bound, rolling cigarettes, passing food around. The hours roll on, the rain comes and goes and to counter the growing sense of boredom, people look for diversion. There’s great creativity here. Someone juggles rocks, someone starts hands-bound-behind-back yoga, some read, others invent revolutionary quizzes. But best is when a ball appears and a game of volleyball starts between us and another kettle with a line of police as the net. Predictably, they’re not impressed and soon confiscate the ball, but a game of charades breaks out. Made funnier for most people having their hands bound, the police are faced with a contorting, gesticulating mass acting out obscure books and radical plays to the cheering crowd standing behind them. The atmosphere is peacefully resistant, and brilliant. I feel surrounded by amazing, inspiring people.

News begins to trickle in from the outside world, too. We receive updates on the other fingers who have been processed and released, but there’s no clear pattern offering clues as to our own likely fate. And then we find the action making mainstream German news, on the internet and in the papers. There’s a five minute piece on Germany’s major TV news channel with dramatic footage of the yellow finger being blasted by helicopter down-draft. We see people sat on a digger. The sudden injection of context into our restricted world is heady and liberating, and it’s looking like the answer to the big question I still dare not think about – is this worth it? – might be positive after all.

Eventually, a series of prison vans make their way through the sand and begin to move us in small groups of five or ten. The police just aren’t equipped for such a mass arrest, which explains why it’s taken all day to get around to shifting us from the pit. Collectively, we’ve been an incredible headache for the police today.

I’d never expected to feel such a sense of relief on being locked up in a prison van, but to finally be on our way to jail feels great. It’s the change from stationary incarceration, and we peer through the meatwagon’s tiny, reinforced glass windows at the awesome size of the diggers and the mine. And then we are on tarmac again, curling up out of the earth, back into a world of power stations and wind turbines, back into the land of the living with trees and bushes and birds. And there, parked at the conventional entrance to the mine, is a line of municipal buses full of other fingers. We are transferred to join the hundreds locked up in public transport, chatting, sharing stories, inspiration, motivations, our collective exhaustion cut through with moments of connection that will stay with many of us for life. It’s an incredibly bonding experience, mass arrest.

Eventually, after a an interminable hour or more, we pull away and become a motorway cavalcade of red buses and blue flashing lights. It’s started raining and dusk has descended, and we haven’t a clue where we’re being taken.

Our destination turns out to be a large police station 50 kilometres away in the city of Aachen. We pull in, the engine’s switched off and we are once again set to waiting without knowing. Most of us are shattered and I see the first sense of antagonism from our side of the entire protest, mainly because we’ve now been kept more than the legal 12 hour limit and our rights to toilets, food and water haven’t been met. We point out the police are now breaking the law only to be told that our arrest happened later than it actually did. According to them, our 12 hours aren’t yet up. That we have tweets to prove it is entirely inconsequential. It’s been a long day, the police are bored and pissed off with us,  and this is our punishment.

The buses are processed slowly, one by one. The hours drag endlessly into the night and although we all have our moments of frustration, I’m still staggered by how patient people are, how committed we are to the spirit of non-violence. But then all of a sudden the engines start and the bus lurches forward and the news comes that we’re being taken to the train station and set free. The police have finally had enough. They’re not even going to try and identify us. The bus erupts in ecstatic jubilation, cheering and singing; the exhaustion and fear and apprehension is banished as in a dream and replaced with heady, giddy victory. It’s hard to believe.

When the doors open we pour out onto the streets of an unsuspecting Aachen like a giant, dizzy beast. I’ve never felt anything like it: football crowds have nothing on this. We’re all whooping like mad, leaping spontaneously, punching the air, drunk on potent freedom. No-one can quite comprehend our success. We’ve won. We’ve completely, comprehensively won. We’ve succeeded in one of the biggest environmental direct actions in European history, and now here we are, all completely free.

On the platform we meet other released fingers and there are endless hugs and thrilled reunions as we jump on trains back towards the camp. Everywhere we are met with incredulous looks and people step up to ask what this is, this great rag-tag party of exhausted, exhilarated, celebrating people? And when we explain Ende Gelände, we’re greeted over and again with handshakes and congratulations.

And for me, this is what really seals it: this meeting with approval from normal passers by. For the past 24 hours I have been a vagrant from my regular life, experimenting with a role both unfamiliar and terrifying, never quite knowing if what I was doing was worthwhile, or some stupid, reckless stunt. But now, on the streets of Aachen and across the papers, TV and the internet, Ende Gelände is being met with approval and respect.

The value is not so much the personal vindication, but what the response represents: thousands of normal, everyday people who share our concerns for the planet. If every one of those people feels inspired to do something, to get active and get involved in even some small way, then I would rush back into the pepper spray and batons ten thousands times over. It would be worth it. Because what I’ve learned in this hellish hole in the earth is that amazing things are possible when we come together. And so I sit there on the midnight train surrounded by revelry, sharing a beer and an intense philosophical conversation with someone I’ve never met before, and wildly, madly, foolishly, I get to thinking that perhaps there’s some hope for this crazy species of ours yet.

Photo: Tim Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Photo: Paul Wagner, 350.org, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
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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.

The Capricious God of Windguru.

Our lives here are ruled by a new entity – a website called Windguru. Every morning we bow down before the Mac in worship, hoping – no, praying – for retribution. We log on, we click the refresh button and, if the almighty is pleased with us and the internet connection is not too sclerotic, the page loads. Windguru, oh how I worship you.

It’s hard not to begin to loose perspective in El Chalten. The town is full of hundreds of climbers and alpinists, all logging on to various forecasts each morning, all hoping for a lull in the hurricane force winds that whip the mountains perhaps 95% of the year. And all of us have been doing it religiously for weeks. There’s nothing else important in the world. Polar vortexes, UK storms, the end of the world… we care about nothing more than the moment of grace that will allow us to go climbing.

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But this year has been bad. The crap season coincides with perhaps record numbers of climbers too, since the past three seasons have been spectacular and lulled everyone into a false sense of climatic security. Some had even begun to speculate that climate change is changing the climate here for the better, which is clearly wishful thinking. Patagonia has a reputation for fierce weather, and it’s not about to relinquish it.

So far, Ally and I have managed two trips in nearly three weeks; Dave and Calum, one. We have a bit of video recorded, a few pictures of the mountains and very little actual climbing material. It’s far less than ideal. We also have two probable new routes in the bag, but there’s some debate over what constitutes a new route in these parts – the mountains are still in that stage of their climbing development where, unlike the Alps, a new route might not be considered a ‘route’ unless it reaches the summit. But as the big lines are claimed and the smaller, technical eliminates begin to be explored, this will change as it has in every climbing range across the world.

Most significant of all, though, is that our chances of a free ascent of the Compressor Route look about as remote as Richard Dawkins worshipping Windguru. As far as successful climbing trips go, this is not one of them.

And yet, and yet… All week we have been performing our morning worship and watching the prospect of a weather window this weekend. The Windguru page has been showing a lull in the wind, which is nothing less than a sacred event in these parts. It’s been showing three days of weather calm enough to go climbing. Only, it’s not been quite that simple. Sunday, the forecast was for a long and stellar weather window, and it led to all sorts of rampant, deluded speculation. We were going to try and free one of the biggest, hardest routes on the biggest mountain here – Royal Flush on Fitzroy. It would be one hell of an achievement, creating one of the hardest free climbs in Patagonia. By Monday, though, the weather window was cracked down the middle by a band of torrential rain, meaning anything as big as Fitzroy was out. By Tuesday the rain had gone but the window had shortened, so we set our sights on Poincenot, the second highest spire in the Fitzroy massif, where we hoped to free either Patonicos Desperados or Whisky Time. These stunning 500m lines have a few pitches of aid climbing which, we hope, might be free climbable at a high grade, again to create one of the hardest routes in Patagonia. Yet by Wednesday, the capricious Windguru had changed again. The rain had gone, the winds had increased a little, but the freezing level had dropped. But by then, we were packed.

And now, as I write this early Thursday morning, we are ready for three days in the mountains. This morning’s forecast is not exactly great for hard free-climbing. We need a near mythical combination of several elements:  a) low enough wind to actually be able to climb, b) no rain, and c) for it not too to be too cold to touch the rock. Today we have a) and c), but it’s raining, which is clearly no good. Tomorrow we have a) and b), but it’s going to be below freezing on the wall and therefore, purgatory for the fingers. On Saturday we currently have b) and c) forecast, but we can only hope the forecast’s wrong or that our east facing wall will be sufficiently out of the wind. Then on Sunday the wind returns and it’ll be bloody cold, so that’s when we hope to walk out. The near miss of elements, the interplay of this being perfect while that is suboptimal, is incredibly frustrating. We’re in a range where climbing is possible only by the slimmest of margins, and it plays havoc with your nerves.

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But basically, later today we’re going to try and go climbing. It’s looking like it’ll be hard and pretty uncomfortable, but we’re bored of easy and nice. We’ve been hanging out in El Chalten long enough to have itchy feet. And besides, when the Windguru throws you the crumbs of such a forecast, you can only be grateful. Onwards and upwards to the great spires in the sky… we hope.