Andy Kirkpatrick blog #1: ‘Piteraq’
Welcome to my new monthly blog, appearing exclusively in ‘Trek & Mountain’ magazine and here at www.trekandmountain.com…
I climbed with a remarkable Norwegian last winter called Aleks Gamme, probably best know as the gnarly bloke from the film ‘Crossing the Ice’, in which he raced to be the first person to ski to and from the South Pole without support or kites (he sort of won). Aleks was not a man to turn down a challenge – his South Pole trip was solo, meaning he was out on the ice for two months alone, covering 2000km – which no doubt has served him well on many adventures. It was only on day ten of our 14-day winter ascent of the Troll Wall, having just lead a pitch, that he admitted he had never actually climbed outside before (well he had climbed Everest, but I don’t count that as climbing). Perhaps it’s not Aleks who’s remarkable, but me for being remarkably lax in checking my partners’ qualifications beforehand.
Aleks has a lot of stories, but one that really chimed with me, told as we sat side by side on the Troll shivering one day, was one about being caught in a storm in Greenland a few years ago. Aleks was guiding a big team across the ice cap when they were hit by a ‘piteraq’, a deadly katabatic wind which blows down from the centre of the ice cap (the name means “that which attacks” in the native language).
I was caught in one of these pole-bending horrors myself in 2006 and know how terrifying they can be, and how they provide the primary danger of any travel on the ice, having destroyed many camps and proved deadly (Philip Goodeve-Docker was killed by one last May). Being in a storm with a strong team is one thing, where you can feel some security from past adventures and mountain terrors overcome, but with a disparate group of clients, even Aleks said he became aware how exposed they where as they saw the storm approaching over the ice.
Instead of panicking – or worse still, showing some sign of fear, causing everyone else to panic – Aleks got them all together in a huddle and shouted: “This is what we have been waiting for. This is the moment you will remember for the rest of your lives. The best moment. We are going to start digging, and make the biggest snow wall EVER! And we will be OK!” And with that they all started digging, built a big wall against the wind, stuck up their tents and survived the storm.
And you know what chimes with me most about Alek’s story? It’s that he was right – it IS the hard times that always stay with you, those moments when you doubt yourself the most, and feel that things are beyond you. Invariably they are not, and together – or sometimes alone – you face up and come through. So next time you find yourself faced with something tough, scary and you want to just run – don’t. Stick it out and flip the situation from someone terrible to something wonderful and ever-lasting. And if that isn’t working, just pretend you’re Norwegian.
Andy Kirkpatrick is one of Britain’s leading climbers, with sidelines as an award-winning writer, speaker and stand-up comedian. Read more at www.andy-kirkpatrick.com