The Magic Heights

What are the magic heights of mountains? In the UK the prime one is generally accepted to be 3000 feet (my first was Helvelyn by Striding Edge). In the Alps 4000m peaks are aspirational, and in the Himalaya 8000m mountains demand passion. But what about intermediate heights? Using stepping stones of 1000m gives an easy to visualise and beguiling to attain goal.

But height is not the only issue; there is the question of what constitutes a peak and what style of ascent is acceptable. But to try and keep you engaged this nit-picking detail is consigned to the appendix.

So if we stick with metric measures at 1000m intervals, how did I reach those magic heights. You may notice the sequence does not fit into a strictly chronological order.

1000m – Am Bodach, Mamores, 1034m – May 1989
Glen Nevis 1
Looking up Glen Nevis (later in the day)

The day started wet, very wet, the way Scotland can. The cloud lay so low you could believe there were no hills. And the prospect of the inevitable drenching dampened my desire to expose myself to it. But on the off chance that it would ever stop raining, and I could go for a walk, I drove up Glen Nevis, after picking up a newspaper in Fort William. I sat in the car as the rain pelted down and read the paper. After a while the force of the rain lessened and then stopped altogether. Although the cloud was still lying thick and low, almost within touching distance, I decided I would walk up by the Allt Coire a Mhusgain to see how things looked. The path rose gently up the valley and for a while I was lost in my thoughts. Then I noticed something peculiar, the cloud base was still just above my head, but as I was climbing gradually I should have been immersed in it by now. I carried on, now paying attention to the grey blanket above me. As I climbed it climbed too, at the same rate, always swirling just above my head. Eventually I reached the col between Stob Ban and Sgurr an Iobhar, with the cloud still rising above me. The view down the slopes on the other side of the col was clear.

No point stopping now so I turned east towards the peak of Sgurr an Iobhar, briefly a Munroe, now no more. Still the cloud rose ahead of me and when I reached its summit the cloud base had cleared the hills – a remarkable stroke of luck. Now the Mamores lay open before me and not a soul in sight. From here it was natural that I should continue on the Ring of Steall to Am Bodach. I was in a different Scotland from that glowering, rain swept world of a couple of hours ago, a magic Scotland. I tramped happily on to reach the summit. The view south expanded as the cloud continued to rise. I picked out the Aonach Eagach, which I had traversed the day before, and the waves of hills behind. Beyond the summit my route carried me along north-east then turned north along the narrow ridge to An Gharbhanach. The end of this spur stands proud like a throne above the Glen, one in a range of curvaceous summits set against the masculine hump of the Ben.

I found the track zig-zagging steeply down into the Glen, leading past the Steall waterfall (which years later in an extreme frost would become my first Scottish winter climb) to the pastoral meadows below. The route led through the narrow confines of the gorge which were another surprise in a day of surprises. Eventually I made it back to the car. It had been a fabulous day out made better by the dismal prospects with which it began.

2000m – Torre Stabeler, Dolomites, 2805m – July 2000
Vajolet Towers 1
The Vajolet Towers

I had seen the extraordinary Vajolet Towers the previous year and, on discovering they could be climbed at a reasonable grade it was clear that they were worth coming back for. We were camping in Campitello, Charles, Sheila, Jonski and I, beneath the gothic towers of the Sassolungo. To get an early start on the Vajolet Towers we decided we would overnight beneath them in the Alberto hut, a bus ride and hike away from our campsite. From the roadhead the route goes north up a wide valley then turns left up a steep, U-shaped gully, the scree shoot of the Gartl, to where the Vajolet Towers hide from view. It is not until near the hut that they can be fully appreciated, three monstrous spires of rock outrageously piercing the sky, in an amphitheatre resembling a romantic ruined abbey.

There weren’t many people staying in the hut so we could spread out and relax. In the morning I stuck my head out of the window to look at the conditions. The limestone shone so white I reported that it had snowed in the night, although the others rightly did not believe me. Our aim was to climb all three towers in a day so we breakfasted and set off to be first on the hill. I was climbing with Jonski, with Charles and Sheila behind. The first tower, Torre Delago, is the narrowest and most dramatic, and after a scramble the ropes came out. We were attempting the South-West Ridge, a mostly straightforward climb except for one outrageous sequence. At a shoulder the route steps around a corner and the face drops dramatically away with views hundreds of meters down into the valley. At this point of greatest exposure comes the crux, delicate moves on small edges with the protection below you.

Even though it was a Sunday and we were climbing heavenwards we did not expect a choir but that’s what materialized. An ant like procession had appeared as if from nowhere, maybe fifty, maybe more, I did not count them, little dots, little people who stopped in an arc near the hut and started singing. The canyon and towers, like in the nave of a cathedral, resounded to the music creating an angelic atmosphere. Had they come to save our souls or celebrate their own.

From below you think the summit will be as sharp as a church steeple, but it is broad and blocky like battlements and perched on it you don’t see the vertiginous drops, but from the pit of your stomach you can sense their presence, and they become excitingly real as you begin the descent. The abseils took us between the two towers, the cleft narrowing and steepening into a free abseil where it felt the towers were closing above us like some enormous pincers trapping us in their grip. This was an intimidating and scary abseil, but the in-situ belay stations made it relatively safe.

We had a break for lunch beneath our next objective the middle tower, Torre Stabeler. Charles and Sheila led off first this time, but Jonski and I overtook them when they lost the route mistaking the description for a harder variation. No heavenly choirs accompanied us this time but the journey to the highest of the three towers gave us some personal moments of inspiration.

Back at its base we realised if we wanted to avoid a long walk out we would have to forego an ascent of the third tower and hurry down to the roadhead to catch the last bus. Even so we only just made it with Charles running on ahead to hold up the bus.

3000m – Mont Pelvoux, Ecrins, 3946m – July 1995
Mont Pelvoux 1
Mont Pelvoux from the Glacier Blanc

In the summer of 1995 a group of us drove to Ailefroide in the Ecrins; it was to be my second alpine season. Mount Pelvoux is one of the most striking peaks of the Alps, of any height. For our attempt, I teamed up with Tim, and foregoing the use of cable cars because there are none in the national park, we plodded up to the Pelvoux hut. Having settled into the hut I wandered outside to take in the view. Turning a corner I came upon a woman in the midst of changing. Her arms, crossed in front of her face, were pulling her top up over her head. Beneath she was braless and her breasts were challenging the peaks for my attention. I turned quickly away knowing where that would lead and praying I had not seen too much already - I wanted to get up this mountain. What haunted me was a failure from a few days before. We were attempting the west peak of the Ailefroide as a warm up, and were staying in the Sele hut. During the evening I went down to the washroom and there I came upon a blond scandinavian standing in front of the washbasin completely naked. In a typically scandinavian way she showed no embarassment but in a typically english way I mumbled an apology and left hurriedly, even though it was a mixed washroom and she showed no objection. The following day I felt completely drained of energy and failed to reach the top of the mountain, which I attributed to the sights I had seen. Now I was faced with more flesh on the Pelvoux, but I wanted to get up this mountain so I turned away.

Alpine starts are never nice. Your body demands that you stay in bed – after all it’s dark and cold – but with your will you push back. For the first half hour or so, invariably up scree, you feel sick and leaden. Then a rhythm of sorts takes over. And then the sun starts to rise. Suddenly it feels amazing to be somewhere like that, above the clouds, when most everyone else is still tucked up in bed.

Our route up the Coolidge coulour was straightforward apart from one short icy section which we safeguarded oursleves with the use of ropes. Eventually we made it to the summit plateau. The others were already ahead of us and continuing with the traverse of the Pelvoux. I was running out of energy, those breasts must have sapped some of my strength, and I was happy to reach the highest point. We retraced our steps descending the way we had come.

4000m – Dom de Mischabel, Switzerland, 4545m – August 1994
Dom 1
The Dom - The Festigrat is the right skyline

In 1994 I felt it was time for my alpine career to begin. I had friends who went as a self-sufficient group on alpine climbing trips in the summer, but I did not want to be an inexperienced burden on them. So I looked around for guided trips that included a measure of adventure. For better or worse, I chose a guided trip, plucked almost at random from the pages of the magazines, to climb some of the alpine 4000m peaks. I thought my intentions were levelheaded, but they didn't turn out that way. This is a decision and its consequences I barely want to acknowledge myself.

Anyway the die was cast and I turned up at Randa to meet my guide, Simon his name was. The client to guide ratio was advertised as 3:1 but it turned out that one client had pulled out at the last minute, and the other had broken his leg the week before. So it was one to one. A good deal you might think, but almost from the minute I met Simon I recognised there was going to be a major personality clash. I knew immediately that if we were going to survive this time together I was going to have to keep my opinions to myself and keep my mouth shut. Not a trait people who know me would recognise.

The next day we checked through the gear. I had bought new Asolo Supersoft plastic boots, and I had stomped through the Chiltern Hills in them for a few hours to check them out, but they were otherwise untested. Simon was going to provide ice axe and crampons, but one of the crampons Simon supplied was not quite right, however a bit of cobbling made it fit.

Simon then decided that an ascent of Dom should be our first target, even though he hadn’t done it before and I wasn’t acclimatised, but he assured me it would be alright. One thing to know about the Dom, apart from its height is that there are no cable cars to whizz you up to the hut and every metre of it has to be earned. The next day we walked up to the Dom hut, the weather was foul, it was absolutely tipping it down but Simon said this was a good sign as the following day would be fine. To his credit this was one thing he got right.

Sickenly early the hut warden woke us and the rest of the crowd. We donned our gear. I asked Simon if I could leave the top of my boot loose to give my ankles a bit of flexibility but he said I should tie all the hooks up tight so I did. We set off up scree, then onto a glacier following a well worn trail. A rocky section separated two glaciers. At this point Simon decided to take the NW ridge (Festigrat) as it was more direct and would not give any route finding difficulties. It also avoided having to pass under the towering seracs, but we did have to cross a steep slope above yawning crevasses that concentrated the mind. But I kept plodding on and made it to the top with no major signs of altitude sickness.

Simon decided that we should descend the same route, and I was hardly in a position to argue. When we reached the steep slope above the crevasses, me leading so Simon could guard me with a rope above, my cobbled together crampon came off my boot, luckily it was prevented from disappearing down the crevasse by the strapping. I sunk down in the snow, ice axe buried in the slope, while Simon strapped it back together with some extra webbing. Eventually we made it back to the hut, 1600m up and down. But it was not over yet, Simon wanted to get back to Randa that day, another 1500m of descent. How could I refuse? So we started down. My tightly laced boots were already digging into my shins and the rocky path only made things worse. Towards the bottom Simon went on ahead so he could prepare some food. By now fatigue and the pain in my shins made every step an endurance. It was virtually dark when I made it back. Taking off my boots and socks exposed each shin at the top of the boot to be a bloody puss-ridden mess. With perseverance I had made it but every metre had been hard earned. In many respects, physical and mental, a huge effort to put into a peak, and my first alpine one at that. My little Everest. The scars took a while to heal.

5000m – Ganae Gang, Bhutan, ~5200m – November 1998
Ganae Gang 3
Ganae Gang is the peak on the left

I had three consecutive alpine summer trips with my friends between 1995 and 1997 but for personal reasons I chose not to return to the Alps in 1998, plus I had a yearning to see the Himalaya. On a whim I decided to avoid Nepal as I considered it too popular; I wanted an experience a little bit different, within my circle of acquaintances at least. So I chose to go to Bhutan. At that time the only way to explore the country was on an organised trip and I found a trek with KE which was to include an ascent or two of some minor (by Himalayan standards) peaks.

The flight from Delhi to Bhutan passes the whole length of the Nepalese Himalaya, but on the journey out it was disappointingly in cloud. In Paro I met up with our Bhutanese guide Sherub and the two other clients, both American, Brian and Tim. Tim only wanted to trek, not climb the peaks, while Brian was a bit of a fitness fanatic who usually went on cycling tours but had chosen to do something a bit different. We transfered to the capital Thimpu where we met up with our English guide Pete and one of the directors of KE who was passing through. The latter explained that they would not normally have run the trek with only three clients but they had obtained the only climbing permit in Bhutan and did not want to risk losing it for subsequent years.

The following day we met up with our mule train and started the trek northwards from Thimpu, along the river valley. At times we were high above the ravine in forest, the trees draped with moss and vines, at other times dropping down to where the valley broadened. This trail was essentially a drovers track whereby farmers could bring their yaks to market. Occasionally there were glimpses of snow peaked mountains to the west. For three days we followed the trail always heading upstream, until we came into the Basingthang valley.

We placed our camp at the head of the valley beneath those snowy peaks we had spied before. We weren’t quite alone; a farmstead occupied the mouth of the valley and high up on the hillside smoke from the fire of a hermit could be seen. After a rest and acclimatisation day we made our attempt on Ganae Gang. The approach up a steep hillside brought us to the moraine. There was no trail to follow so we picked a route through the boulders as best we could. Brian was monitoring his heart rate and was concerned that it was exceptionally high, and because of this he decided to turn back. So it was left to Sherub, Pete and I to continue. We reached the glacier and kitted up with ice axe and crampons. The surface snow was a pristine white, and crisp enough to make the going good. We went steeply up at first then flattened out onto a level section of glacier. Weaving between the crevasses we reached a steep snow ridge angling up at about 40 degrees, which we attacked with relish. Then a horizontal ridge of snow and ice took us to the final rocky section which succumbed to easy scrambling. Pete was one of the old school and lit up a hand-rolled cigarette on reaching the summit. I had felt fairly strong all the way up but I must have used the last of my reserves as all energy drained from me.

But in recompense the views were superb. To the west and north we were hemmed in by closer, higher peaks, but to the east most of Bhutan lay before us including the virgin peak of Gangkhar Puensum – the highest unclimbed peak in the world. A long way below were the tiny dots of our tents. Days from anywhere it felt as remote as could be. And only the third or fourth ascent of our peak.

I had to summon up the energy to make the descent and arrived back at base spent. But I had been privileged. I don’t believe that particular trek ran again, and with the ban on climbing in Bhutan I may have been among the last persons to climb a mountain there.

6000m – Huayna Potosi, Bolivia, 6080m – July 2004
Huayna Potosi 1
Huayna Potosi from Tuni

For my first visit to South America I teamed up with Charles, Sheila and John, and rather than settle for the more popular choice of Peru and we chose Bolivia. Our plans were open - fly to La Paz, check into a hotel and make it up from there.

La Paz is a great city, not pretty but full of character, and at great altitude so even while sitting in a bar drinking beer you are acclimatising. It seems many streets serve a single purpose, street of the tailors, street of the hairdressers, street of the shrunken heads and so on. Although we were going to climb unguided we needed to arrange transport to our base camps, and after a rapid tour we selected one of the agencies on Sagarnaga, the street of the mountaineering agencies.

The first few days we ticked off tourist things to help our acclimatisation, the impressive pre-Inca ruins at Tiwinaku, Lake Titicaca and Copacabana on a Sunday where they bless their cars outside the cathedral with beer and fire crackers. The way most Bolivians drive you had to hope that any car you were in had been blessed.

The weather in July is supposed to be settled with clear blue skies, but we had cloud, wind and rain. Our first venture into the mountains took us to Condoriri where we acclimatised on 5000m peaks. The weather still brought afternoon cloud on the peaks until the day we walked out which was the first day of azure skies. Our next target, Huayna Potosi, dominates that stretch of the Cordilla standing proud, as it does, above the altiplano. Even from an altitude of 4000m it looks massive with its west side carved out by steep rocky walls.

It turned out that the agency we were using for transport ran the hostel at the Zongo Pass, and they also owned the only (at that time) hut on Huayna Potosi. We decided to use these to save us having to carry our own tents. After preparing ourselves we were driven to the hostel one afternoon. We stayed there overnight and the next day climbed the moraine to where the mountain hut was perched on the last rocky outcrop before the snow. The term hut was a bit of an exaggeration, it was an octagonal metal dome painted red and seam sealed with bitumen, about 4m across. We laid out our carry mats and sleeping bags on the floor and readied our gear. We cooked a meal outside while it was still light. However we were not the only party using the hut; a guide and an English client turned up and we had to jiggle the sleeping arrangements to fit them in. At sundown we turned in. The guide set his alarm for midnight. We didn’t want to be on the top before dawn but we expected to make slow progress so agreed to get up at the same time.

The midnight alarm woke us and the guide started a brew. We could leave our sleeping stuff in the hut as we were returning the same way. We ate some food, had a drink and set off about 1am. We had 1000m still to go. The crampons were put on straight away as we stepped from our rocky outcrop onto the glacier. In the dark we started following the trail of those who had been before us. We went at a very slow but steady pace up the initial steep glacier, not wanting to burn ourselves out. We reached a flat section of the glacier where, in those days, tents were normally pitched. A camp and associated activity showed a guided group still getting ready – Germans it turned out. Above us a steep ice wall blocked access to the upper slopes. There was no bergshrund to cross but the slope steepened to an icy groove about 50m high. We pitched this with John storming up front.

Below us the yellow lights of La Paz came into view while above the stars were out. Ahead of us more plodding led us to the foot of the final pyramid. According to the guide book the frontal assault is a 50 degree snow slope for 200m while an easier route goes round to the right. The Germans had overtaken us and we could see the lights of their two parties on the steep slope. It was still dark with no sign of dawn. We had made much better time than we expected.

Above us the two guided parties appeared to stop about half way up the slope. Their lights hadn’t moved for a while and there was the noise of shouting but I couldn’t make out what was said. It worried me that these guided parties had met difficulties and it was too dark to see what the problems might be.

I wondered if we should try the easier line round the side. We had a team talk and decided it was best to wait until daylight to show us what the problems might be, so we retreated to a flat area where we could refuel and rest. Daylight came and we could weigh up the options. We scouted for the easier route to the side but there were no sign of tracks and the route wasn’t blindingly obvious.

So we looked again at the direct route. It appeared to be a continuously steep slope with no sign why the guides should have come to a halt. So we decided to give it a try. We crossed the bergshrund and reached the steeper ground. It felt steep enough for us to want to leap-frog pitch it with Charles and John swapping leads from each end of the rope with me and Sheila in between. We belayed with snow stakes with an occasional ice screw placement excavated from beneath the surface neve. I had been going well up to here but this final section was tough and I had to rest every few steps. But we made the summit eventually. The German clients having jummared up their fixed line made for quite a large summit party.

The face dropped vertiginously the other side and then I realized that the comfy groove everyone was sitting in was in all likelihood the cornice crack. I pointed this out to the others and moved hastily downhill to park myself uncomfortably on the slope with a snow stake dug in. The others seemed happy to take their chances. I could look down east way past the Zongo pass, all the way, thousands of meters, to a cloud layer masking the Amazon basin. That really did make it feel like 6000m.

We retreated the way we came taking care on the steep sections. At the hut we rested for a while and packed up, but it was soon time to set off again because our transport would be waiting for us at the pass. The moraine was as tiresome as any moraine anywhere but we made it back. In our own little way it had been a great adventure and a fantastically rewarding trip.

Jomolhari 1
Jomolhari at dawn from base camp

After our climb of Ganae Gang in Bhutan we continued trekking north and west to Jomolhari base camp. From the base camp at 4000m the mountain towers over you, more than 3000m higher, seemingly above the sky. The effect of the height awed me in a way I have not felt with any other mountain.


The return flight from Bhutan to Delhi was a cloudless, breathtaking journey along the length of the Nepalese Himalaya. We flew just south of Everest at the same altitude as the summit. From the comfort of my aeroplane seat the normal route up the southeast ridge looked a stroll. However I could not record the scene on my camera because by then I had run out of film, and the only record of it is in my head, but some things are better left as only memories.

Appendix - Prominence and style:

Peaks are identified by some type of prominence - a standing out from the surrounding terrain - either by some visual criteria or a more formal measure of height. In the UK the most comprehensive list of prominence peaks are the Marilyn's which have a prominence of at least 150m. So what is prominence?

Imagine you are on the summit of Glyder Fawr in North Wales, the highest point on the Glyder ridge, and imagine that the world is flooded so that the summit of Glyder Fawr just pokes above the water. To the south you can see an island surrounding the higher summit of Snowdon, and to the north another island surrounding Carnedd Llewelyn. Now imagine the water level drops by 150m. You will see that the island surrounding Glyder Fawr does not connect to one of these other land masses, therefore Glyder Fawr is a Marilyn because its prominence exceeds 150m. If the water is lowered further until there is a connecting land bridge (first appearing at Pen-y-Pass) you will find that the water has dropped by 642m in total, therefore the prominence of Glyder Fawr is 642m.

To confuse the issue still further the currently accepted definition of a mountain in the British Isles is a mountain at least 600m high with a prominence of a least 30m. In Scotland the Munroes have a height limit (3000 feet), but no prominence limit, instead relying on some aesthetic definition of what is a mountain.

Now what about style. Reaching the summit on foot is considered de rigueur, but where do you start from. Only the most puritanical would insist you have to start from sea level for every ascent. Therefore some sort of mechanical assistance comes into the equation. Cars and roads are usually acceptable. Cable cars in the Alps for 4000m peaks are usually deemed ok, but what about on lower peaks where they go close to the summit. Unlike prominence peaks there seems to be no accepted standard. So it comes down to a matter of conscience and this may change with time. It is after all only a game, so play along.

For example 2000m is a bit of a peculiar height for me. I had reached 5000m before I was satisfied with a claim to a peak between 2000 and 2999m in adequate style. I had made an ascent of Guajara on Tenerife in 198? – a good effort to climb 500m, but starting from the crater floor (already above 2000m) it did not feel significant enough somehow. Other inadequately prominent 2000m peaks were attained with similar discontent. Not until an ascent of the Vajolet Towers did my conscience allow me to claim a 2000m summit.

© Nick 2010