MOUNTAINEER’S VIEW OF THE FALKLANDS
David “Heavy” Whalley, MBE
I was privileged to spend two tours in the Falklands when I was in the RAF. It is a wonderful place for wildlife and mountains. Most of the popular peaks are less than 1000 feet and were the scene of bloody battles during the 1982 conflict. They are still littered with the military remains of this awful war. Minefields, too many to clear, abound, giving a new meaning to the phrase “objective dangers.” However, they tend to be well marked and fenced off.
The war was incredible. I knew a few who fought here. It was a feat to fight it, a “close run thing.” When you visit the graves of the Argentine’s forces you find a particularly sombre place. There is always a breeze. With rosaries blowing in the wind, it’s chilling.
After the war the British military built a road from the camp at Mount Pleasant Airfield, where a garrison of two thousand personnel are based. The road is thirty-four miles to the capital at Port Stanley. This is the only road, which for some reason has a monsoon ditch four to five feet deep and three feet wide on either side. The engineers got the rainfall figures completely wrong; hence the ditch regularly has crashed and overturned Land Rovers in it. This makes it an interesting drive to Stanley and back in winter. The road is often closed for military vehicles due to high winds and can regularly resemble driving up a frozen glacier in a blizzard. The winds can come from nowhere and blow a wagon off the road with ease.
The Falklands have a distinctive weather system and can experience all four seasons in one day. One must expect the unexpected, especially when walking or climbing alone. The weather, which is dictated by the polar regions to the south, can give exceptional climbing conditions very quickly. A climbing partner may be difficult to find. When winter comes few ventureout of the military complex in search of excitement. Most of thecomplex is built like a space station, with corridors linking all the domestic accommodation. This is due to the regular high wind, when all but essential personnel are confined to base. Some people detached there may not leave the complex during their 4-month tour. In addition, the military mind does not accept the concept of solo mountaineering. But that’s not new.
Mount Harriet, which overlooks the Stanley road, has a slab with the only previously climbed winter route, Grotto, a three star Grade 4. This is an excellent, sustained and demanding route (for the grade) requiring torquing and hooking. The only problem was that the only kit we had were my ice tools, crampons and winter boots. My partner, Graham Stamp (Stampy) had come to the Falklands planning to rock climb, buthad got the seasons wrong (the southern hemisphere abstraction!) and we had an epic “swapping boots and kit in the middle of a blizzard.” I failed on the crux. Stampy, after donning my kit, sailed up the route. He had previously lost a crampon on the North Face of the Eiger and completed that route with little problem. A “useful” troop. The weather that day was straight out of Patagonia, and one of the coldest days I have ever been on the hill. It was nearly as bad as the Cairngorms. Eventually I scraped my way up the route and we made our way off the crag. The walk down is only 20 minutes to the road, where we were met by the local Police, who were very interested in what we were up to. But a dram from my rucksack ensured we were not in any trouble. All was kept quiet because didn’t have permission to climb.
After our wee epic, Stampy was posted back to the UK, and I had no other partner. I asked several friends to come out but very few were interested in winter climbing. During a tour in the Falklands you only get one day off a week and it was essential for my sanity, to get out of camp and on the hills.
Nevertheless, despite such difficulties, I managed to get access to an old military vehicle, complete with snow chains,and set off before first light for some fun. I had no climbing partner but one of my friends on one of the satellite radar sites had volunteered to be my safety cover. If the worst occurred, I had friends from mountain rescue days on the 78 Squadron Sea King Helicopter Flight, who had promised to come and look for me if I did not return by next morning!
It was an epic drive, which took over 2 hours, some of it done with no lights as the road was officially closed (a wee bribe to the police checkpoint and they let me go). I was more nervous of crashing the boss’s Land Rover than the intended climb.
I had spotted some good lines on a mountain called Two Sisters; a 5 km walk-in over rough ground. I had even had a short break from the rescue teams, the first for 27 years, as I needed to sort my head out and reappraise my reasons for mountaineering.
The long cliff is over 200 feet high 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, with the mountains rising from the sea. I was missing Scotland. Conditions were thin but the crack line had lots of vegetation and was frozen solid; perfect placements, a good Grade 2/3. This had been my first winter lead since I had lost two friends in a Lochnagar ice–climbing accident.
Days like this are very rare; you have to grasp the opportunities when they arise. Every placement was perfect, and I soon climbed the route and was 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 for reflection. I had a quick break as it was only midday and I had plenty of time left, so I moved on to Mount 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 and even the hidden ones are visible to a mountaineer’s eye.
During the 1982 conflict there was to be no British retreat from Mount Tumbledown. I had read at great length various accounts of the war and had a deep understanding of what had happened on this small hill. The Scots Guards fought a long and bloody battle for Mount Tumbledown and one could not fail to experience evocative thoughts by actually being there. The ground underfoot was awful, broken by gullies, cliffs, and peat hags. It would have been difficult enough to search for the enemy. I tried to imagine how it would have been to have to fight for every few more feet of barren rock and slough. By this time light snow was falling again and drifting around the rocks but the weather was holding well enough and I felt that there was some time left to fit in another climb.
With little time to dawdle, I followed another excellent line on the North Face. It was another short route Grade 2/3, around 150 feet long. As I climbed again to the summit, the winter sun had dropped and I could see Stanley in the distance. The sunset was amazing. As a mark of respect and as a thank you, I made time to clean the memorial plate on the summit cross. This waserected to commemorate those who had fallen. It was very hard to move away from this place and I spent a considerable time here.
I kept my crampons on for the descent, but there was no need for a head-torch, as the moon was sparkling. As the ground levelled, I came across the remains of a Argentinean field kitchen with lots of equipment left from the war. It was hard to imagine how the troops had lived and died in this place and how the British soldiers felt as they waited in the waterfilled scrapes for the Argentinean 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 2-hour walk out across the moor; time to think on what had been an eventful day on these marvellous little mountains. Safely back at my wagon I was pleased that it started first time. Then the usual epic drive back to base and to the “real world.”
Thirty years after the war, I found this wee article that I had written in 2000. It brings back many memories of the Falklands and thoughts of the futility of war. During my two tours in the Falklands, I managed to climb or walk every weekend. Both tours were during the Falkland’s winter and I climbed twelve winter routes. I introduced other members of the detachment to the joys of hillwalking and scrambling. There is now a guidebook with over 300 rock routes, but for some reason the winter climbs are not mentioned. The Falkland Islands are an amazing place. The wildlife is incredible and the land away from the battlefields unspoiled. The locals are very friendly if you spend time away from the camp. I recommend it.