MEMORIES OF WINTER MOUNTAINEERING IN THE FALKLAND ISLANDS
As a member of the RAF you occasionally get detached to out of the way places. The Falklands Islands are one of these. It is a wonderful place and though the mountains are small, the highest just under 2500 feet they do have a fantastic appeal to the climber. All the outcrops are of quartzite; almost everywhere the bedding is steeply inclined so almost all the outcrops in the Stanley area are slabby, Tumbledown being the exception. The first climbs done were in 1946 by members of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, who were waiting at Stanley on their journey South. The Royal Marines based at Moody Brook until 1982 did a lot of exploration and since the conflict many service climbers have enjoyed the Falkland experience. This involves a unique experience of climbing almost virgin rock.
As many routes have been left unrecorded, individuals have enjoyed exploring crags, discovering routes and in seeing that a route is climbable. Prievous to my visit, only 2 routes were known to been have climbed in winter. One of these was by Stephen Venables en – route to South Georgia in 1989 and little is known about it.
Most of the popular peaks all under 1000 feet were the scene of bloody battles during the 1982 conflict and are still littered with the remnants of these awful days. Minefields abound, too many to clear, giving a new meaning to the word, objective dangers! However they are well marked and fenced off. The military have built a road from the camp to the capital Stanley. This is the only road, which for some reason has a deep monsoon ditch on both sides, and this makes it an interesting drive in winter. The road is often closed for the military due too high winds and can regularly resemble driving up a frozen glacier in a blizzard.
The Falklands has a unique weather system. It can contain all four seasons in one day and one must expect the unexpected, especially when walking or climbing alone. The weather, which is originates in the Polar Regions can give exceptional climbing conditions very quickly. A partner to climb with can be fairly difficult to find as when winter comes few venture out of the Military complex in search of excitement.
When I was first detached to the Falklands in late March 1996, the Adastral winter” was just starting, my second winter that year. Most of my friends who had been out before were very vague about the possibilities of the “winter experience” and they were of the general opinion that conditions never come in and any attempt at winter climbing was a complete waste of time. Therefore I took minimum kit and was prepared for the “mother of all winters” with high winds, tons of snow and no ice. I should have known better.
I arrived and went down the gymnasium, asking the usual questions about the hills and the potential of the climbing on the Island and asking if I could borrow some kit. Unfortunately there was none available as there was no need for such specialised equipment and there was never any ice or snow worthy of climbing. Though in typical mountaineering tradition I went out “for a look” after all “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” Just outside the camp is Pleasant Peak which although only 700 feet high gave an excellent but short scramble. The vegetated quartzite, full of cracks would be ideal for winter climbing, even for me! As luck would have it on the next aircraft came my good friend Graham Stamp His climbing CV was incredibly impressive; The North Face of the Eiger, 8000 meters on the West Ridge of Everest and the Troll Wall in Norway. Unfortunately he was a very keen rock man who needed “to develop” his winter skills. All we needed was some kit and one month later it arrived courtesy of the RAF Priority airfreight marked “rescue equipment”
The boys and I had been round the usual hills and the potential was incredible. Mount Harriet, which overlooks the Stanley road, is a magic wee hill. It has everything including a scramble up to the Memorial cairn on the summit. It was named after a sailing clipper in the 18 century. One line stood out on Mount Harriet a slab with a crack running down it, full of vegetation. It also had a big sponge like plants “Balsam Bog” they grow very well on the steep cliffs and when frozen give magnificent placements to the ice climber. This crack though only 120 feet high it would give excellent sport. By June winter was with us and I convinced Stampy and a new recruit, an Army Physical Training Instructor to have a look. Stampy was not convinced that it would not be worth the 20-minute walk in and the one-hour drive to Mount Harriet. Our main problem was that we only had one pair of crampons between us, one set of ice tools and my pair of size 9 plastic boots. It was really cold and the temperature was very low –15. As they were my boots it was my lead! Our friendly army chap was shown how to belay and Stampy laughed! The turf and Balsam Bog, growing in the crack was brilliant and “bomb proof” a steep corner led after 30 feet to the main crack and a steep wall. I tried to get up the wall for over an hour but as usual it was well beyond me. Back on the ledge I was frozen and exhausted but saw a thin crack, which would just take axes, and I tried again, a failure, I had enough and was lowered back to the belay. Trying to change over boots and crampons in a blizzard and a gale is not easy; eventually we swapped kit and the great man Stampy set off. He was soon at the high point and blasted up the steep wall torquing on his axes and a few more delicate moves and scrabbling about he was up at the top crack. The weather had broken, it was wild, Stampy was laughing in the face of the gale and the final chimney and wee chockstone was dealt with easily, he was up! The usual comments “dead easy wee man, nothing like the Eiger” all with a big grin that said it all. The boots were lowered down along with the crampons and I was off up. The gear was taken out and on my usual tight rope, the route was superb. Stampy was belaying with no boots on and his feet were frozen solid, old frostbite injuries were acting up and we bailed out. Tony our belayer was frozen solid as he had been belaying now for nearly 3 hours and never got to try any ice climbing. By now the gale was in full force and blowing from Patagonia, we ran back to our landrover for a nightmare drive back to camp on glacier ice that is called a road. The road had been closed all day and we had some explaining to do and got the usual looks from everyone. What a great day loads of fun and my feet still suffer from the swapping of boots.
A few days later I got hold of a new guidebook, which listed five winter routes including our line on Harriet. The guidebook stated Grotto 120 foot grade 4 *** an excellent, sustained and technically demanding route with magnificent hooking and torquing. Graded Very Severe in summer it is a superb line. I returned again and completed the climb and managed to get a few photos on a brilliant day out. I was detached again to the Falklands in winter 2000 and had my eye on a few climbs.
As usual transport was very difficulty to obtain; nevertheless, I managed to get an old military vehicle, borrowed some snow chains and set off at first light for some fun. I had no partner but one of my friends on one of the satellite radar sites had promised to be my safety cover. If the worst occurred, 78 Sqn Seakings were friendly due to my mountain rescue background and promised they would come and look for me if I did not return by next morning.
After an epic drive, which took over 2 hours, some of it done with no lights, as the road was officially closed! By the way of a wee bribe I managed to convince the police checkpoint that all was well. Anyway I was more scared of crashing the Bosses landrover than the intended climb.
I had spotted some good lines on a mountain called Two sisters; it was a long 5km walk in over rough ground. The cliff is over 200 feet high, which is long for the Falklands, and set in splendid isolation. By now it was daylight and the views in the unpolluted air were magnificent, similar to the West Coast of Scotland, the mountains and the sea a superb combination. Conditions were thin but the crack line had lots of vegetation and was frozen solid, perfect placements a good grade 3. This had been my first winter route since I had lost two great friends on Lochnagar ice -climbing. I had even had a short break from the rescue team, the first for 27 years as I sorted out my head and my feelings on mountaineering. Days like this are very rare; you have to grasp the opportunities that arise. Every placement was perfect and I soon climbed the route and onto the ridge to the summit. Each summit in the Falklands has a memorial to those who died in the war a reminder to all and a time to reflect. I had a quick break; it was only midday I had plenty of time left so I moved on to Tumbledown. It meant a longer day but the weather was so special, I had to make the most of it.
All these small mountains where the battles were fought are so impressive. As I walked along the main ridge, it was hard to believe what had happened here, in such a peaceful and tranquil place. Many of the intricate bunkers and Sangars were built into the rocks and are still clearly evident yet, especially to a mountaineer’s eye. There was to be no retreat from Tumbledown. I had read at great length various accounts of the battled and had a deep understanding of what had happened on this small hill. Having been a mountain rescue team leader at Lockerbie and numerous other horrific incidents, death and carnage are all too familiar to me. The Scots Guards had fought a long and bloody battle for Tumbledown and one could not fail to experience evocative thoughts in a situation such as this. The ground I was walking on was awful, broken by gullies, cliffs and peat hags. It would have been difficult enough to search for someone but to fight for each few feet; it is impossible to appreciate. The snow was falling again and drifting around the rocks but the weather was holding and I felt that there was some time left to fit in a climb.
I climbed another excellent line on the North Face. It was again, another small route grade 2/3, 150 feet long. As I climbed to the summit the winter sun had dropped and I could see Stanley in the distance. The sunset was amazing and as a mark of respect and a thank you, I made time to clean the memorial plate to those who had fallen on the cross on the summit. It was very hard to move away from this place and I spent considerable time here. I kept my crampons on for the descent; there was no need for a headtorch as the moon was sparkling. As the ground levelled I came across the remains of a field kitchen and lots of equipment left from the war. It was hard to imagine how the troops had lived and died in this place and how they felt as they waited in the waterfilled scrapes for a counter attack that never came. There was also a little cave built up into a shelter where the troops had eaten, again still strewn with kit. Feeling very alone on that cold winter night, I thought of those that had fought and died for this place and the futility of war. I had a long 2-hour walk across the moor; time to think on what had been an eventful day in those marvellous little mountains. Safely back at my wagon I was pleased that it started first time, the usual epic drive back to base and to the real world. The Falklands in winter is a special place.