Chapter 2

The Vertical Mile

Excerpted from Straight to the Top and Beyond:
Nine Keys for Meeting the Challenge of Changing Times


Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which nobody could have dreamt would have come their way. I have learned a deep respect for Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.    Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

— W.H. Murray

We arrived in the Romsdal Valley, four hundred miles north of Oslo, on July 1, 1965. As we set up our camp, the entire valley was filled with cloud, the surrounding peaks invisible to our curious gaze. Finally, after four days of rain and fog, the mist began to clear and we caught glimpses of jagged rock pinnacles disappearing straight up into the sky. These were the Trolls, the mythical Norwegian giants, which defended the upper reaches of the face and which gave the mountain its name.

The next day, the weather began to clear and we could, for the first time, see the full extent of what we had come to climb. It was not only vertical, but overhanging almost from top to bottom. As it neared the summit, the cliff flared out for over 100 feet, like the prow of a huge Viking ship.

In retrospect, I realize now that the hardest part of this climb, after all our planning and preparation and dreaming, was actually getting started. The night before, we had lain in our camp, trying to sleep, gazing up at that great black precipice and knowing that the next day we would be coming face to face with the unknown. We had established our advance camp on the scree at the base of the cliff. As we tried to sleep, avalanches thundered from the summit gullies above and huge boulders crashed down through the mist.

A mixture of great apprehension and tremendous excitement infused the night. Turning restlessly in our sleeping bags, we wondered what it was going to be like up there on the wall; yet at the same time, we worried about everything that could go wrong. We knew that unless we got started first thing the next day, we would never discover if we were up to the challenge. That is the time when you are most tempted to turn around and go home. But you know if you do, you will never find out what you might have accomplished. Your pride says you’ve got to try, and so you do.

Looking back today, I realize that our attempt to make the first ascent of the Troll Wall was a huge leap of faith for us all. We probably did not fully appreciate the risks we were taking. At that time in Norway, there were no mountain rescue teams. If we had become stuck halfway up the face, there was absolutely nobody around who could have reached us. It was a real adventure, an exploration. It was going where nobody had gone before.

My father had asked me before we went to Norway how I could possibly think of climbing something which the experts said was impossible. My answer was, "Well, if we can climb 150 feet the first day and another 150 feet the second day, then we'll have gone 300 feet. Another 300 on top of that and we'll have done 600 feet. If we just keep doing that, we'll eventually climb a mile." By taking it one step at a time, the impossible could become possible.

And so we forced the fear to the back of our minds and began to inch our way up the cliff. By nightfall we had reached a small cave 100 feet up the wall, with just enough room for the four of us to squat in our down jackets and sleeping bags. Tying ourselves to metal pegs driven into the rock, we settled down with our backs hard against the cliff, our heels dangling over the drop.

The next day, we climbed for sixteen hours straight, inching our way up through the maze of overhangs and grooves. Often the surface was too smooth to allow purchase and we had to drive metal pegs into the rock. At one point it took us over an hour to gain only three feet. But by late that night, we had reached a tiny snow ledge, where we rested below a foreboding sweep of smooth granite we dubbed the Great Wall.

When we awoke next morning, the sky was clear, but the wind had changed direction, driving storm clouds towards us from the sea. As the black clouds boiled out of the valley, the temperature dropped and the winds picked up. A light rain began to fall.

Despite the weather, we pressed on up the smooth face of The Great Wall, listening to the rocks whistling by behind us as they fell through the clouds from the overhangs above our heads.

Again the climbing was painfully slow. As lead climber, I would inch my way up, standing in foot loops, anchored to the rock by metal pegs. Balancing with my foot in one of the loops, I would drive a peg into the rock above my head and then attach the other foot loop to the higher anchor. Stepping up, I would then repeat the process and could thus laboriously cover long stretches of smooth terrain.

By midnight in the twilight of the northern sky, we had gained just 250 feet as Tony climbed up to join me on a tiny foothold right on the edge of a thousand foot sheer drop. We were only eighty feet from the top of The Great Wall, but a blank section blocked our progress.

By now the weather had closed in on us completely. The wind was gusting and driving torrents of freezing rain at the rock face. After twenty-three hours of climbing we were exhausted. We could not possibly spend the night exposed to the storm in this position. Dejectedly, we realized there was only one thing to do — retreat to the snow ledge that we had passed hours before at the beginning of this difficult section.

It took all my courage to descend. Earlier in the day, I had been standing on a spike of rock when it suddenly broke off and I found myself hanging on the rope some fifteen feet below. With that memory still fresh in my mind, my body trembled as I fought to conquer my fear, my nose pressed to the cliff face, my hands gripping the anchor driven into the crack above my head.

Beside me, Tony Howard, the most experienced of the group, took control of the situation. Before I realized what was happening, he had disappeared into the void, calling for me to follow. I took hold of the rope, sucked in a deep breath and slipped over the edge. One hundred feet down the wall, exhaustion overcame me and I fell asleep, hanging by my climbing harness from a peg driven into the rock. Tony shook me awake and urged us all on as he struggled to bring us back to shelter. Four hours later, our bodies shivering violently, we crawled onto the snow ledge and safety. Within minutes the full force of the storm struck.

As the storm grew in intensity, the four of us lay sandwiched in our nylon bivouac tents above the void. Inside, we snuggled together in our wet clothes, drawing warmth from our companionship. No one spoke. Each was occupied with his own thoughts and fears. In the gloomy world of mist and dripping rock outside, the rain turned to sleet and it drifted down, forming wet heaps in the hollows of our sacks. Before long we were lying in cold, wet puddles which quickly froze into solid ice.

Occasionally, we managed to scrape snow from the ground outside and melt it over the stove for a warm drink. Then we closed the flaps of our bags and lay inside, listening to the sleet splashing over our heads. I lay dozing in my sack with only the smallest of openings for air. Inside, the condensation of my breath trickled into my down jacket. Soon I was soaked to the skin and my outer clothing became as stiff as armor as it began to freeze. We each suffered silently in our frozen cocoons, shivering violently through the two days and nights that the storm raged around us.

As dawn broke on the third day, the morning light barely penetrated the thick gloom of the mist. The wind was still raging and the sleet had turned to snow. Suffering from exposure and exhaustion, we lay there, too lethargic to move.

By now we were starting to get hypothermic. Because of the wet and cold, our bodies were losing heat rapidly. We knew that death could occur as our body temperatures dropped. And in extreme conditions, the entire process can take as little as three hours. If we were to get down alive, we knew we had to leave now, while we still had the strength.

With great effort of will, we crawled out into the driving snow. Huddled against the wind, we forced our frozen fingers to sort gear and anchor the rope. Then, one by one, we lowered ourselves into the gloom, swinging down through the plumes of cascading water falling from the wall above. For twelve desperate hours, we descended sheer rock shimmering with newly formed ice.

As we progressed, the ropes became completely soaked and picked up grit off the rock. Sliding down them caused the gritty rope to cut into our soft, wet skin and, before long, our hands were raw and bleeding. When we finally reached the foot of the wall, we staggered to our tent and collapsed into our sleeping bags in utter exhaustion.

It was the nearest we came to giving up...

We should never allow ourselves to be completely satisfied  with our achievements in life.  Because once we become satisfied, complacency will set in, and we will start to repeat things we have done before.

— John Amatt








































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