An exclusive extract from The Bond: two epic climbs in Alaska and a lifetime's connection between climbers by Simon McCartney, winner of the 2016 Boardman Tasker award for mountain literature
We promise ourselves that tomorrow night we will be more comfortable. I think to myself that we will need to be; it is too early on such a big climb to be undergoing this sort of hardship and we will weaken quickly if we cannot look after ourselves. Jack says he is so tired he is beginning to hallucinate and his honesty allows me to confess that I feel a little the same. I think the altitude is affecting us both.
We have climbed about 1,600 feet today. Not bad, not great. If we can keep that pace we will spend only three days in the rock band. My worry is that we won’t keep the pace because the photo tells me that it will get steeper as the air gets thinner.
Jack wrote in his journal every day, seen here inside our super igloo under the south-west face of Denali.
Jack’s Journal, June 8th
We had a fitful bivouac; I eventually put on my parka, down leggings and got into my vapour barrier liner. I managed to remain in a dream state until 4 a.m. We were up and going when it got warm at about 7 a.m. The weather is still looking brilliant, blues skies bordered with white cirrus clouds.
We’re really getting some gobsmacking views of Mount Hunter, Foraker and most of Alaska.
The first two pitches were the most desperate.
There is snow in the back of a bent crack that overhangs two ways. Simon leads and almost falls off. I jumar; it must have been a scary lead since the protection is shitty at best. We alternate leads from there on, snow and rock pitches, really sustained hard rock climbing.
We traverse around and go up left diagonally again, hard desperate work at 14,000 feet. I am feeling weak; my feet are warm but they are killing me. They hurt worse than my back, which hurts worse than my left shoulder, which hurts worse than my brain. The heels of my feet are bleeding, blisters torn from my flesh; it is hard to front point that is for certain. I wish I had a better head for this mixed stuff but I don’t seem to be able to concentrate. Fortunately Simon has his head on.
My mind wanders continually back to Daisy. I don’t know why I miss her now; just at this very moment it is hard to believe she is dead.
Then I think about Richard dying on his cycle. I suppose it is because I am terrified of this face and what could happen to us should a big storm hit that I am so obsessed with the dead. Man, I am scared shitless, I don’t want to die, not here, somewhere else. Simon feels it too and somehow sharing this fear with each other makes it easier to bear.
Perhaps it is the mind’s way of distracting me from what is really happening, because if I sat down and calmly thought about what we are doing, the size of the face, bad weather potential etc., I would freak out and not do it.
"Now we are in an area that should be easy, but somehow the dragon turns its arse in our direction and farts"
Jack and I spend our first bivouac in the open, so far so good to cope with the potential seriousness of actually freaking out badly, the mind creates distractions.
I am glad Simon is here with me; since Huntington there is no one else I could go this far out on a limb with.
Now we are in an area that should be easy, but somehow the dragon turns its arse in our direction and farts.
The next and last full pitch of the day is Simon’s and really discouraging: mixed rock, ice and snow around the corner to the base of a snow-choked chimney, which overhangs at the top. I watch him make truly frightening gains, screaming in wildly controlled desperation mixed with the agile body of a gymnast and the look of a crazed wildman on this 5.9 overhanging nightmare in his double boots, crampons and his pack.
It was beautiful to behold him climbing but terrible to follow.
The jumars are frozen up and slip with me attached to them, but the cord from one of them jams in a crack, stopping my plummet into the frozen depths below. It leaves me suspended in frozen animation some ten feet off the deck, hanging from my Swami belt which is slowly but surely cutting off my circulation.
Swinging into a small ledge enables me to get my weight off the rope and to restore some semblance of normal breathing. Then, after a rest, I get Simon to lower me down to regain the ropes and tie in normally. After much trashing, grunting, pulling and heaving myself up the crack I do get up and collapse on the belay.
Simon goes another eighty feet and sees a ledge and up I come. We can see glimpses of our ice-filled dihedral from here and it is much steeper than we had thought.
Tonight will be another open-air bivvy but this time at least there is a ledge and it is dry. We cannot pitch the tent but this time we can use it as a bivouac bag at least so we can get into our sleeping bags and be warm.
We have an evening meal and I am settled into the pit. We decide to call the pitch ‘the Fissure McCartney’ before we say goodnight.
In retrospect our campsite selection could have been sharper – the avalanche came to a stop, touching the tent.
"I nearly fell twice today. This is insanity. We cannot get down. And if we cannot climb the rock band we are dead men"
My hand is beginning to freeze, so tightly do I have it jammed in the crack. I am losing sensation and fear I will let go accidentally. My hand is also bleeding from the abrasion of the sharp granite and my blood is acting as a lubricant; unless I solve this next move very soon I will fall and be smashed on the rocks below. I am too far from my last protection now. I must not fall.
The points of my crampons grind and move on the small footholds and my pack pushes me out of the chimney, which is now overhanging. I scream, scream from adrenaline, scream in fear, and scream at the mountain: ‘Let me pass!’
There is a ledge above me. It’s my only hope but I cannot reach it. In desperation I pull my ice axe from the holster on my waist and toss it so I can let go of the head and catch it again at the base of the shaft. With the axe my arm is two feet longer and I reach up with one hooked steel finger towards the ledge.
With a metallic sound I hook the pick over the lip and test the grip. The axe wobbles on its point but does not slip when I pull gently. Time to move. All my options will be over in seconds if I do not.
I pull hard. The crampon on my right foot twists and loses purchase and skates off the rock. Almost all of my weight is hanging off the tenuous grip I have on the shaft of my axe.
I scream. And then nothing.
Am I dead?
Something is holding me tightly, squeezing me with a powerful grip. I open my eyes searching for my captor.
‘Easy man, you’re OK, it’s OK’
I seem to know the voice and slowly the veil of confusion subsides as I recognise that it is Jack who grips my arms. My chest is heaving; my pulse is racing. I have awoken from a nightmare but I am not back in Kansas. I have exchanged one bad dream for the same in reality. There is a bloody bandage around my right hand, evidence of my journey.
I sleep fitfully and wake often with a bad headache. It feels like a terrible hangover and I am a little nauseous too. It is the feeling that I had once when I climbed Mont Blanc unacclimatised, so I guess my ailment is altitude-related. I hope I get over it: we have a long way to go and we have still not reached the halfway point of the technical section, or the crux where the big boulder is.
That overhanging chimney could have been the end of me. I nearly fell twice today. This is insanity. I never allow myself to get out of control like that, but what choice do we have? It is too late now: we cannot get down and if we cannot climb the rock band we are dead men.
Simon McCartney was a cocky young British alpinist climbing many of the hardest routes in the Alps during the late seventies, but it was a chance meeting in Chamonix in 1977 with Californian ‘Stonemaster’ Jack Roberts that would dramatically change both their lives – and almost end Simon’s.
Inspired by a Bradford Washburn photograph published in Mountain magazine, their first objective was the 5,500-foot north face of Mount Huntington, one of the most dangerous walls in the Alaska Range. The result was a route so hard and serious that for decades nobody believed they had climbed it – it is still unrepeated to this day. Then, raising the bar even higher, they made the first ascent of the south-west face of Denali, a climb that would prove almost fatal for Simon, and one which would break the bond between him and climbing, separating the two young climbers for over three decades. But the bond between Simon and Jack couldn’t remain dormant forever. A lifetime later, a chance reconnection with Jack gave Simon the chance to bury the ghosts of what happened high on Denali, when he had faced almost certain death.