Months slid by, and (some) training was duly done. In February we went up to North Wales to the Pen-y-Gwryd hotel, refuge for generations of mountaineers. We sat under the signatures of Mallory, Odell, Hunt and Hillary which decorate the ceiling of one of the bars and I hoped as usual that some atoms of their ability might drift down upon my head.
Next day the weather was no more dismal than it generally is up there (I speak as a local), so we tackled the Crib Goch ridge, a short grade III scramble to the summit of Snowdon. We were led by my old friend John Whittle, who as well as writing and making films now works as a guide out of Llanberis. None of us fell off although sadly someone from another party did. We saw the RAF Sea King helicopter rescue as we plodded back down the Miners Track towards the Everest Bar.
In May, we were in Chamonix for some snow and ice practice. Again the weather didn’t exactly favour us, but we loaded up with tents and food and ski-mountaineering kit and headed from our base in Servoz through the tunnel to Courmayeur. At the very top of the lift system we stepped out into a white wall of blizzard. Skis on, and my knees were buckling even before the first turn under the combined weight of peer group anxiety and my unwieldy rucksack. No one seemed to fare much better, and after a short descent Stephen called a halt and we dug in a camp in the shelter of a rock wall. We were all soaked by the heavy wet snowfall.
The night’s ‘rest’ at least provided a useful check list of what I didn’t have, and will definitely need to make camp life endurable on South Georgia. A warm, dry, fleecy hat to sleep in. (I noticed that Stephen slumbered comfortably wearing his). A pair of bed socks, cashmere for preference. An inflatable neck pillow. A synthetic sleeping bag, in place of the down one I usually use which will quickly get sodden. An insulated mug. Something more female-friendly than a narrow-necked bottle to pee in. An iPod loaded with New Yorker short story podcasts, to get me through the long nights. Or a serious supply of temazepam. Probably both.
In the morning it was still snowing clods. Yawning and stiff, we packed away the tents and roped up to trudge back up what now seemed an unfeasibly steep slope. Wet gloves had frozen overnight into unyielding blocks. Knots were bungled, skins peeled off skis. It was not an edifying spectacle, and we were all happy to reach the lift station. In the debriefing Stephen mildly remarked that as a group we may have a little ground to make up in terms of ski-mountaineering technique.
The next day was sunny and, down in the valley, hot. We spent a cheery morning in the chalet garden, tying Alpine butterfly knots and practising crevasse self-rescue using newfangled ti-blocs and old-school prusiks, followed by an idyllic afternoon’s climbing down at Servoz crag. There’s even an enticing café right across the road from the rock face.
After all this, team dinner at l’Atmosphere in Cham felt like a slightly-deserved reward.
I had to include this one because it combines rope, crag, climbers, globally renowned mountaineer and the present writer. An approximate analogy might be the third violin in the school orchestra stepping up on to the platform with Yehudi Menuhin.