Rockclimbing and mountaineering

Stories from Climbing Glass by Lyle Closs

Copies of Climbing Glass may be purchased direct from the author:

Climbing Glass

Lyle Closs grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, and started rockclimbing in 1968 at the age of fifteen. There were few climbers then and no indoor climbing walls, and every cliff offered unclimbed challenges.

Lyle and his friends Bryan Kennedy and Ian Lewis pioneered many new cliffs and some of Tasmania's classic climbs of that time before he married and moved to Sydney in 1978. There Lyle continued to explore and climb new routes with Blue Mountains climber Tom Williams, especially at the Uncle Toms and Cosmic County cliffs in the western Blue Mountains.

Lyle and mountaineer Greg Mortimer organised the Australian Bicentennial Antarctic Expedition which sailed to Antarctica in 1988 and made the first ascent of Mt Minto, the highest peak in the cold continent's North Victoria Land. Lyle then joined the 1990 US/Australian K2 expedition which saw Mortimer and Greg Child reach the summit with US climber Steve Swenson, the first Australian ascent of the world's second-highest mountain. Lyle and his family moved to London in 1991 from where, combined with a successful career in public relations management, he has made first ascents of summits and cliffs in Greenland, and climbed in the European Alps, Norway and Scotland, as well as on the many smaller cliffs of England.

Lyle has written short stories and articles throughout his climbing career, and has been published in magazines such as Rock, Crux and the long-gone Thrutch. Climbing Glass is the first published collection of his climbing writing.

Chalk—a reappraisal

It's a typical Lindfield morning, on a typical Lindfield day in 1978. Giggling schoolgirls easily impressed by tight T-shirted sports-masters showing them the ropes. Young schoolboys imagining they are making an impression by swearing while standing at the very edge of the seven metre drop. The hermit in the cave down the hill lights a fire. Some guys are falling off the juggy overhang on to a brand new 11 mm kernmantel rope, their shiny new boots uselessly scrabbling to shreds on the rock. An old guy at the bottom of Abseil Wall is directing someone move by move up the Turkey Route. A girl reads by the separate slab, oblivious to the carry-on. A 15-year-old, over and over again, attempts a climb on the slab. I stumble down the steps with my pack and a wooden box with food, booze, book, sun cream, billy, jaffle iron, tape recorder, and a selection of tapes. I settle in near the base of Abseil Wall and from then on am continually asked if I am staying for the weekend. 'Yes I am. I will, in exactly ten minutes, erect my portable car tent with built-in sleeping-bag and plastic dunny for your elucidation and our mutual entertainment.' They blink and walk away.

I settle into a calm regime of red wine, Mauriac, camembert and Jatz. The sun beats peacefully on the hat I recreated from a pair of boots.

'One end is as good as the other where you're concerned.' (Anon, 1979)

I cross my legs deliciously. A trite murmur ripples along the cliff-top. Aware but unperturbed I prepare myself, in my own way, for a personal assault on the best little practice cliff in Sydney.

After some 15 minutes of this relaxing of the social muscles, I rise and retire to the bush to relax the physical muscles with a little breathing. Necks crack audibly as they turn to watch my retiring, and the vapidity of their whispered comments follows me into the accepting trees. Oh, this world!

Eased from palm to arch after my yogic exercises, I breathe deeply and concentrate on the One Force. I have loosened the world-weary tendons that might otherwise have snapped with the tension of a thousand expectant eyes watching my every move, those fluid messages spelling out, hold by witless hold, the way to get up the climb, any climb.

'You couldn't climb a pygmy's shithouse.' (Boris Ellis, Frenchman's Cap, February 1971)

I approach the unsuspecting mob. I turn on George Thorogood and the Destroyers, very loud. Disappointed clucks can be just heard through the ripping slide guitar. Some people have no sensitivity, I think to myself, and ah, at last, I find the psychological muscles relaxed. I just need to feel rejected. 

'I don't really feel like that. I just think people should have strong feelings about things.' (Mike Law, May 1979.)

So I swagger, with some exaggerated abandon, to the rock and impact up a few hopeless routes. Hopeless, because most of the awe-struck simpletons don't have a hope of getting up them. Most of the braying herd are then satisfied and drift away to their mindless pursuits.

'The world is full of mindless climbers.' (Ian Lewis, 1972)

But pride comes before a retreat. Climb number XJ765?variant c4 minus the finger-lock evades my rugged independent persistence. I have the right toe-tip, the left heel-hook, the right finger-tip Lady Jane hold, but my left fingers don't seem to desire even a  momentary affiliation with the sweat-crazed surface of the minuscule nodule necessary for the power assisted dyno with the right to the nail-cutter finger jug further out. To be embarrassingly succinct—I can't get up it. Caught between appearing not to be in control and the possibility of falling, I retreat with glum precision.

It's hard to be cool under such conditions. I can't stop myself from kicking the tape recorder, causing George to miss a chord. But I calm myself, and a sip of red eases the ache.

Unfortunately, the 15- year-old comes over from the slab and eases his pubescent simpering non-entiticular torso up the climb to the same position before also climbing back down to consider the move. But...he used chalk!

No one with an ounce of pride uses chalk. It's an admission that you can't do the climb. You might as well bang pitons in.

'Chalk is just a state of mind.' (Myself, once.)

I head over to punch the drivelling little twerp in the face with the aim of asserting my threatened masculinity but, having escaped my zone of calm, I trip on my food box. Thrusting my hands before me I fall onto the juvenile, and my hands land in the offending bag of crushed white crutch. I revert to the vertical with abnormal haste. I cannot wipe the cruel clay from my previously unsullied fingers. I decide, dastardly fate, to try the climb again to clear the air of the critical thoughts seeping awkwardly from my fast dwindling public, and to cleanse my sullied skin.

I make the final move with ease! Curse my fatal, far-reaching abilities.

Audience reassured, 15-year-old in his necessarily diminutive place, I toss off the last of the reasonable but over-fruity 1974 Cabernet Shiraz.

'There's nothing like drinking so pleasant this side of the grave.' (Charles Dibdin, 1745-1814)

Ah, but the world has changed. A fearsome admittance sweeps me and shames me. It must be penned. Chalk makes a difference! I can no longer tread the screes of this forsaken continent without embarrassing white stains ruffling the rigid creases of my Mr John climbing trousers. I use the God-damned ethereal ointment, and I have come to care nothing of it. Why? Because my shameful and glorious ego overrules my world-nurturing tendencies every time. The cliffs are stained white. Curse the future, and blame the present. Blame me if you care!

I snigger behind your backs. I posture before your very eyes. I can achieve more with chalk. Without it, you cannot. Whose ego is in the best shape?

The use of chalk was unknown in Australian climbing before the mid-1970s.


I am wallowing in stone. Tom Williams has led the first pitch, and I've floundered up, still not acknowledging that I have no desire for the struggle. The life I am leading does not point me with any compulsion towards steeper walls, smaller holds.

I am still breathing hard on the belay holds. I lean back on my harness, letting the bolt take the weight. Tom is slowly grinding upwards above me, grunting now and then. I'm seeing a day ahead of me with few highlights. A long belay, then being hauled up this long, hard pitch. Boiling a billy of tea later though, that will be good. I resist the urge to pick my nails. I look down the at the jagged boulder field 20 metres below, unusual under a Blue Mountains crag. I drop a gob of spit. It lands three metres out from the base of the wall.

A couple of hours later I tie a figure-of-eight knot in the end of the old pink 11 mm rope and throw it off the sandstone cliff-top. Hold on to the rope to lean out and look down, check there are no snags. The rope flips and sways in the warm Blue Mountains air. Free of the cliff all the way. The end is maybe three metres out from the wall near the belay. Should be easy enough to swing into the belay bolts and from there abseil to the deck. I clip in the figure-of-eight descender, shift the rucksack on my shoulders. 'We'll do an easier one next,' Tom grins. His fingers are dry, white from chalk. 'I need to live next to a gym,' I grunt. 'And I hate abseiling.'

Step over the edge, careful to put the rope into the small depression on the cliff edge so it hangs in the right place.
I shuffle the rope up into the descender for a few feet until it starts to slide more easily. Look up and see Tom peering over the edge. Let the rope slide through my right hand, pulling it behind my thigh to slow the descent as the weight of the rope below me becomes less. My left fingers rest gently against the taut rope above me as I glide down, spinning slowly. I can see the footholds and handholds of the belay now and I slide more slowly, watching for the best time to stop and swing into the belay. As I glance down at the boulders on the ground, the knot at the end of the rope nudges up against my right fist.

I am swinging in space, too far out from the cliff. Holding the knot at the end of the rope against my thigh, swinging back and forth, trying to get in to the rock and grab the hand holds at the belay. Twisting round in space, finding it hard, with no purchase on anything but air, to swing the right way. There isn't enough rope left to twist round my leg to free up both hands. My left hand flails aimlessly. My weight drags the descender down the rope, trying to slide on to the knot. That's what the knot is there for, I think. So let the knot jam and hold me while I swing!

I lower myself the last inches and the knot squirms up against the figure-of-eight. Jammed as solid as rock. Now it’s easier to swing, and I start to get a useful motion nto my dead weight. My right hand leads the swing, the left rests easy on the rope, just there for balance…then the knot pops through the descender…

I am plodding up a 55 degree ice slope 2000 metres above the glacier on K2's North Ridge in a place with no mercy. I had let the expedition cook, Fidar, get away with an extra hour in bed. 'Can't let the tail wag the dog,' Steve Swenson would say later. Yeah.

I have to get the load from Base Camp at 5500 m to Camp 2 at 7500 m, and the sun is warming the steep white fields. I should be slogging upwards on firm nevé with a steady three breaths for each upward plod. But it's later in the day than it should be. The surface is collapsing in slush under my crampons. I am wallowing in hoarse gasps between the icy mush and a blinding sun. Totally dependent on the fixed ropes. Driving my body to something incomprehensible.

'You go to summit?' the Sherpas from the Japanese expedition had asked. 'No,' I said. They looked confused. A white guy—he should at least want to go to the summit. I touched my chest and said 'Australian Sherpa.' They fell about laughing.

Peter Kuestler and I had left Advance Base Camp in the first light of day. When we unpacked at the start of the climbing, Peter realised he had left his descender behind, and raced off alone back through the crevasse field to the camp to pick it up. I haven't seen him for a long time. The first 1000 m to Camp 1 was relatively easy. Steps already there, plugged by Steve, Greg Child, Greg Mortimer and Phil Ershler the day before as they headed up to set up Camp 3. My load is needed to restock Camp 2 for their future summit attempt.

At high altitude it's often useful to have a second brain nearby. A couple of weeks earlier I had raced down the fixed ropes from Camp 2 to Camp 1 as the day closed down. It was getting darker and darker, and harder and harder to safely change over from rope to rope at each of the ice-screw belays on the face. Four abseils from Camp 1, without a torch, and worried I might screw up a changeover in the dark, I had brushed my face and realised I still had my dark glasses on.

My water bottle is now empty. I am wishing Camp 2 was closer. I am a little light-headed, but the only thing to do is to plug on. The pack feels monstrous, and occasionally, when I lose my footing, pulls me backwards. I reach another ice-screw point. The screw has disappeared into the face as the thaw of each day and freeze of each night has built up the layers of ice. I jerk the ropes out of the ice as much as they'll come and ram the Jumar up as far as it will go. Unclip my belay sling from the rope, reach up and jerk the next rope from the snow, then clip the belay sling into that rope. That way I am always clipped on somewhere. I unclip the Jumar from the lower rope, clip it into the top rope, then begin again to step and Jumar.

I ram the crampons into the face to get the deepest purchase, hoping the damned surface will hold. Steps collapse under me time and time again, usually just as I have begun to establish a rhythm. It's so draining. My feet are sore from being wrenched inside the hard plastic boots. I feel like an old fighter slugging out a bad fight, desperate for the final bell. I slug up to the next ice screw. The pack's uncomfortable. I shrug it to get a better fit. Unclip the top belay sling.

A footstep feels awkward, so I shuffle on the footholds. Forget to clip the sling back on above the ice screw. I only have the Jumar connected now, but that hasn't registered. Kick the crampon in hard. Shift the foot to get the heel taking weight better. I unclip the Jumar, shift my weight…the pack flops back, tugging me off I tip back I  remember that I forgot to clip the belay loop, that I am 2000 metres above the ground…

The knot bursts out of the descender and I fall off the end of the rope…

Instinctively the muscles of my left hand clamp tight as I fall. The knot slams into my left fist, the rope stretches…and I stop…

I swing, dangling below the end of the rope, holding only by the strength of my left hand. Two metres out from the face. Twenty metres above the boulders. Tom watches helplessly, wide eyed with distant fear. I swing myself towards the rock once, twice, and finally grasp a small hold with my right fingers. My feet flap for a second, then gratefully rest on good footholds, but the wall is steep and totally without protection. Between me and the belay bolts, two metres above, are two serious moves I needed to be hauled up a few hours back. I cannot move from these holds. The rope, at full stretch, is now pulling me up and out, away from the holds. I let it go. It springs upwards into the air, far beyond reach. Now the weight of the pack and the steepness of the wall combine to keep me just off balance. Without a moment’s concern, I take off the pack and drop it and the gear it contains to the ground. I hear the nasty thump as it smashes into the rocks.

Now I am very alone.

Fifty metres above, Tom races to join our ropes and soon abseils down to close above me, swinging into the bolts. The ends of the ropes are tied directly to his harness.

'Fuckin' hell, Lyle!' he yells.

'Fuckin' hell,' I can only agree.

I tip backwards off K2's ice wall. Instinctively, my right hand flies out. The tips of my fingers catch the drooping rope and for a moment I pause there, the fingers closing like a slow vice. I pull myself back to the vertical. With my left hand, I grab the karabiner on my belay loop and clip it to the rope. Then I start shivering violently. I grab the Jumar and shakily clip that in too, then lean carefully back and let the rope take my weight. I shut my eyes and breathe a few quiet breaths. Then look down the face, at the huge avalanche debris fan that destroyed the Japanese Advance Base. At the minute dots that are the camp's remains. Down to my left, the ropes lead back down and across to the point of rock, then drop straight down to Camp 1, hidden behind bulges in the face.  Peter Kuestler is back there somewhere. What is it like to see a companion fall so far, tumbling and smashing, to his death? But this is no place for reflection.

Instinctively, I push the Jumar up the rope and pitch a crampon into the face, step upwards, and again, and again, and again.

My good friends Don Holmes and Peter Reynolds died, respectively of cancer and a 20 m ground-fall. Karl Prinz, the indestructible two metre tall, 100 kilogram German with whom I made the first ascents of Carlyle and the Wild West Route on Federation Peak died in a taxi accident in Perth, Western Australia. Richard Schmidt, whose home-made beer and popcorn Ian Lewis, Bob McMahon and I had enjoyed one drunken night in Launceston, died in an avalanche on Annapurna III.

The distance between this hard, warm flesh and the end of all time is but a moment's instinct, something as tangible as a glimpse through curtains of an emotion walking by. I am alive today and not rotten and soughing off my bones into a dank, black earth.

The phantasms of our dreams,  the masks of tragedy and comedy, sit round the camp fire with us and wait their moment, then curse and cackle when they realise they have missed their moment by the thickness of a shadow on a wall, of an instinctive muscular spasm within the inordinate fractions of time.


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