Learning the alpine skills: another update about my book

It’s been a while since I updated you on where I am with the book I’ve been promising to write about my journey from simple hill walker to superstar Everest summiteer (well, Everest summiteer, anyway), so here’s some more news along with another teaser from the book in the hope you might buy it when it comes out.

To be a half-decent writer you have to be prepared to sit down and write whenever inspiration strikes, and that means with or without a chair (Photo: Peter Stamps)
To be a half-decent writer you have to be prepared to sit down and write whenever inspiration strikes, and that means with or without a chair (Photo: Peter Stamps)

When I last provided an update back in September I had just completed the first draft, which came to a mammoth 180,000 words, and was in the process of editing it down to something more manageable. Without too much difficulty I have succeeded in chopping out 50,000 words of waffle, shite, bad jokes and general drivel and got it down to a little under 130,000. I have now handed the manuscript over to a professional editor to help me knock it into shape even further. I’m planning to do two further drafts based on his revisions and feedback from beta readers later in the year.

I have engaged the services of Alex Roddie of Pinnacle Editorial to help me edit the manuscript, and for many reasons I think he will be particularly well-suited to this project. He is an established writer in the niche genre of historical mountain fiction, and I’ve been a fan of his books for a while now, which have a wonderful balance of rollicking storyline, humour and history, underpinned by a love of mountains – all characteristics I would like to emulate in my book. He is extremely well-read on mountaineering history, which puts him in good shape to understand the elements of what makes a great mountain travel book. I’m certain I will be able to produce a much better book with his help and guidance.

Alex is also very active on Twitter. Here’s what he tweeted last week on the day I sent him my manuscript for editing.

Hopefully in between all these ridiculously awesome projects he will also have time to look at my book.

Anyway, I promised you an extract, so here it is. But first some context. As I mentioned, the book is about my journey from hill walker to Everest summiteer, and documents the mountains I climbed and skills I learned along the way. After starting off as a trekker in Nepal and Peru, I worked my way up in altitude and took in some “walk-up” summits like Kilimanjaro. But before I could go any higher than that, I needed to make the transition from trekker to mountaineer, which meant learning some technical skills.

In the passage below I travelled to the Alps to learn some basic climbing skills, like using an ice axe and crampons, and travelling across a glacier as part of a rope team. Our plan to climb Mont Blanc at the end of the week was thwarted when conditions were considered too dangerous, but I learned some new tricks and we had the consolation of making an attempt on Gran Paradiso in northern Italy.

So without further ado, here’s the taster, which has survived as far as draft 2 and may or not make it into the final version. I hope very much you enjoy it and would welcome any feedback.

Extract: Learning the alpine skills

The following day we boarded the funicular railway up to the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in the Chamonix area, whose name translates variously as sea of ice or shit ice, depending on your ability to read spaces. Our training mostly involved ice climbing up a couple of prominent folds in the glacier, but before we did this we were made to get comfortable wearing our crampons by playing Follow My Leader with our guides as they walked up and down the glacier. We spent the next three days in a region of high glaciers on the France-Switzerland border, staying in mountain huts and practising the skills we had learned. We ascended the steel-blue ice of the Glacier du Tour between the slate-grey rock cathedrals of Chardonnet and Aiguille du Tour, descended an ice cliff into Switzerland and crossed the wide open spaces of the Plateau du Trient. The following day we scrambled up the rock peak of Aiguille du Tour and looked along the Chamonix Valley to the broad snow mass Mont Blanc, the mountain we would no longer be climbing.

Learning ice climbing skills on the Mer de Glace
Learning ice climbing skills on the Mer de Glace

Although the views were magnificent, and I loved being among the otherworldly scenery of the high Alps, I wasn’t a natural climber. The skills came slowly to me, and my poor head for heights was proving an impairment. Our crossing into Switzerland involved descending a vertical ice cliff onto a precipitously steep snow slope whose angle gradually lessened. We were lowered over the vertical section by means of a belay, but once I arrived on the snow slope I began to have problems. Released from the rope I now had to descend on my own without falling, and I was extremely nervous. I could manage to descend backwards by facing into the slope, securing myself with my ice axe in the wall above me and climbing down using the front points of my crampons, but my descent was painfully slow. One of our guides caught up with me and instructed me to speed up by facing out of the slope and walking down, but as soon as I turned around and saw the drop below me I panicked, fell, and slid the remaining 50m on my backside. This would have been a good moment to practise my ice axe arrest technique, but it was a skill I was yet to learn, and as I was enjoying my impromptu toboggan ride a lot more than my tentative down-climb, I allowed myself to slide all the way to the bottom. I was rewarded by learning some colourful words in French I had never heard before.

I had an even more unpleasant descent the following day, when the same guide started lowering me down another steep ice slope. I quickly realised my harness was badly positioned and my entire body weight was resting on my tenderest region. Hearing my anguished cries, he stopped lowering after five metres and shouted down the slope.

“Eet is trapped on your bollocks, oui?”

“Yes, thank you,” I grunted tearfully.

An important lesson for any novice climber descending on a rope is to ensure your harness isn't trapped on your nether regions
An important lesson for any novice climber descending on a rope is to ensure your harness isn’t trapped on your nether regions

He shrugged his shoulders and continued lowering. I held my breath and descended for 30m until I arrived on firmer ground, barely able to stand. If there’s a better method of contraception, then I’d like to hear it.

Squashed testicles is one of the more unusual mistakes for a novice climber to make, but between us we made plenty of the classics during those two days on the Glacier du Tour. A common mistake for beginners is to trip over their crampons by getting the points from one caught in the straps of the other. A similar error occurs if the rope between climbers isn’t kept tight while walking roped together. If the person walking behind you follows too closely then the rope beneath your feet can become looped, causing you to trip over it. It’s important to keep the rope taut to react quickly if someone on the rope falls into a crevasse. Most of us fell in at least once. We didn’t always see them, and sometimes snow on the lip of a crevasse can be firm for one person but give way for the next. But falling into a crevasse isn’t a problem if you’re roped together, because others on the rope can hold you in place while you climb out again. I expected our guides to be patient with us while we learned the techniques, but this wasn’t their way at all, and every time somebody made a mistake a Gallic ear-bashing was the usual reward. I remember thinking it was like being back at school. The last thing you want after suffering the humiliation of falling flat on your face is for some tanned Adonis to rub your nose in it with it mild bollocking.

But we had learned enough to attempt Gran Paradiso, and were more confident climbers when we set out from the Val Savarenche in the Graian Alps of Italy.

That’s all for now. Please let me know what you think, and whether there is anything you would like to see in a book like this. I hope to provide further updates and tasters as the project progresses.

[EXCITING UPDATE 2 SEPTEMBER 2015 – THE BOOK IS NOW AVAILABLE TO PRE-ORDER!]

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6 thoughts on “Learning the alpine skills: another update about my book

  • February 18, 2015 at 8:26 pm
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    It’s excellent! Keep at it and don’t stop until you reach the summit!

  • February 19, 2015 at 2:02 pm
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    I hate that instructor of yours already.

  • February 19, 2015 at 9:36 pm
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    Loved your writing style since randomly being recommended to read “In the footsteps of Mallory” by Amazon some time ago, really looking forward to reading the book. You manage to combine evocative yet no nonsense writing. Perfect for the armchair mountaineer, I know I’m probably not going to do it, I’m glad you do to report back! Don’t cut too much!

  • February 21, 2015 at 1:49 pm
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    it’s nice to see you making progress. keep it up. I love your travel blog and planning to read your book ““In the footsteps of Mallory” as well.I will let know how i feel about it when i am done reading it

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