'Uncoiling the Ropes, The Memoir of a Trailblazing Irish Climber'' a biography by Clare Sheridan

 

''In this compelling memoir, Clare recreates in vivid detail the fears, the triumphs and the losses of a lifetime of heart-stopping adventures. Highly engaging and disarmingly honest, Uncoiling the Ropes gives a rare insight into the experience of a woman who has beaten her own path through the male-dominated world of mountaineering. With its reflections on risk and courage, motherhood, self-belief and the joy of living fearlessly, this thought-provoking memoir is a powerful read for climbers and non-climbers alike.'' 

MweelreaPress, mweelreapress@gmail.com

 

The Book will be available from mid-August 2020 from the Mountaineering Ireland's online shop. Meanwhile, enjoy the extract below and read about Clare's epic climb on the Bonatti Pillar.

 

Clare Sheridan on the Bonatti Pillar

      Clare (top circle) high on the Bonatti Pillar, reaching the belay above the huge shifting flake 

The Bonatti Pillar

Chamonix 1996

On the morning I was setting off to climb the Bonatti Pillar, Calvin slept on. I was hoping he’d wake up and wish me luck. It was 7 a.m., and the grass outside the tent was heavy with dew. I checked my rucksack again – rock shoes, harness, rope, helmet, ice axe – all the obvious things I'd need were there. I was ready to leave, but just as I was about to swing my rucksack up onto my shoulders, I heard a child's voice. ‘Clare, I can’t remember what your face looks like.’ Clare

I stopped dead. The voice, from inside the tent, was Oscar’s. It came again, more insistent this time. ‘Clare, wait, I can’t—’

    ‘Shh, you’ll wake the others.’ I unzipped the tent as quietly as I could and then the flimsy inner door to where the boys were sleeping. Two bright accusing eyes looked up at me from the jumble of sleeping bags. Oscar, aged six, was wide awake. ‘Shh! Don’t wake the others! Look, here I am, and I’ll be back soon. Bye.’ He said nothing, and I left. I felt sick. This would definitely be the last. The last Grande Course, the last big alpine classic that I would be thrilled to have done but that I found harder and harder to commit to with every passing summer.

    

    The Grandes Courses were the great climbs that were forged by the alpine superheroes of the 1940s and 1950s. The actual climbing was easier now because modern climbers had better footwear and lighter equipment, but the objective dangers – the random risks that you had no control over – were as threatening as ever. Avalanches, storms, rockfall, this was where luck came in, whatever your experience or ability. And the climb I was heading for seemed to have more than its share of objective dangers.

    

     On the approach we’d be avoiding crevasses and collapsing ice walls as we crossed a high glacier. Then, to get to the base of the climb, we would do multiple abseils into a couloir that was battered by stonefall. The climb itself, almost 700 metres of steep rock, would be hard to retreat from if a storm broke. A summer storm would bring torrential rain, or snow, and thunder and lightning. Every climber’s dread is the sound of the metal climbing gear humming just before a lightning strike. I’d never been hit, but the tales I’d heard from those who had were terrifying.

    Was it worth it?

   

    When our boys were infants and toddlers I would head off to do big climbs without a backward glance, happy they were in safe hands and knowing I'd appreciate them even more when I got back, exhausted but fizzing with joy. Now that I was older, the great alpine challenges seemed less worth the candle. But there was one climb that I longed to do: the Bonatti Pillar.

 

     On my first visit to Chamonix in 1974, I had noticed a very striking picture in the window of a photographic shop. It was a magnificent black-and-white shot of the slender peak known as the Petit Dru. The tapering face of the mountain was lit by an ethereal light, and from the snow-dusted ledges at its base, the sharp-edged ridges rose and gleamed against a dark sky. This elegant spire dominated the skyline beyond Snell’s Field. After the rain it would sometimes emerge above the clouds, a sunlit sentinel shining over the dank murk of the valley. You couldn’t see it without wanting to climb it. On the right-hand flank of the mountain, the huge buttress of the Bonatti Pillar soared up from a shadowy couloir. It was one of the most famous and most beautiful alpine climbs in the world.

 

    That first alpine summer, I had stopped to look at the photograph every time I passed the shop, wondering each time if I should buy it. It was expensive, and my funds were very limited, but on the last day, I decided I couldn’t go home without it. It came in a thin white paper bag and I carried it in my hand all the way home rather than risk getting it squashed inside my rucksack. I slept on the floor of Le Bourget Airport en route and woke to find that the bag was gone. I spotted it just in time – sticking out of a bin with a cleaner about to empty a dustpan on top of it. When I got back to my parents’ house, I put it up on the wall in the room I still shared with Bairbre. It had been on the wall of every house I’d lived in for the twenty-two years since then.

 

     And now, in 1996, I had a chance to climb the Dru, by the Bonatti Pillar, and it was time to leave. I hoped Oscar had gone back to sleep. Malcolm, my half-English half-French climbing partner would be waiting for me at the Montenvers mountain railway station in Chamonix. He had just turned eighteen, and he’d have enough enthusiasm for both of us.

 

    The following morning, after a bivouac on the airy Flammes de Pierre ridge, we abseiled into the rocky depths of the Dru couloir and pulled our ropes down from the last anchor. Now we were committed. We were level with the start of our climb and only the steep funnel of the gully lay in between. It was 40 or 50 metres across, and its sloped surface was pitted from the impact of falling rocks. We’d heard the sudden whoosh of stones cutting the air and then the cracks and thuds of nearby hits. We listened.

 

    The previous year, Calvin and I had got to know a young American climber in the Argentière campsite. He had gone to climb the Bonatti Pillar but had died in this couloir in an abseiling accident. His camper van stayed parked below our tent for a week until the gendarmes came to tow it away.

 

    We listened again. Nothing. Malcolm belayed me, and I ran the gauntlet of the couloir to reach the ledge at the base of the pillar. There was still no sound, and he followed. Now that we were ready to start the climb, it began to feel right at last. We swung leads (taking turns to lead every second pitch), made good progress up cracks and onto ledges and went astray the odd time as dozens of others must have gone astray before us.

 

    It was my lead. I came to the foot of a big flake of rock that had a crack running all the way around it, detaching it from the main face. It was like a huge door that was slightly ajar. I stood on tiptoe to put some gear into the crack and, once clipped, began to layback up the side of it. Laybacking is both strenuous and delicate. It involves hanging from the side of a crack, in the shape of the letter C, your arms horizontal as you pull on the crack’s edge and your feet more or less horizontal too as you walk them up the rock towards your hands. As you move each hand and foot in turn you have to take care not to upset the balance between pulling and pushing – the tension that’s holding you suspended in place. Taking a hand off to put in gear is tricky, but I was well above my protection now and had to get something else in. I sized up the crack but just as I reached to unclip gear from my harness, the world jolted as the whole multi-ton slice of rock suddenly shifted. I squawked with fright. The granite door had opened further, and I was hanging from the side of it. I froze, waiting for it to detach from the face and plummet to the glacier hundreds of metres below.

 

   But it didn’t. It had jammed into its new position, for the moment. Would it stay put? I was more than halfway up it so it might be safer to go on. Would I be lighter if I held my breath? I couldn’t work that out. ‘I’ll have to go on,’ I shouted down to Malcolm, who was looking up in alarm. He was directly in the line of fire.

‘Be careful,’ he replied. Be careful? How the hell could I be careful? I couldn’t even put any gear in to clip to as wedging something into the widening crack might dislodge the flake completely. I climbed on up as smoothly as I could and anchored myself, shaking, to the solid rock face above.

 

    That night we slept on a ledge two-thirds of the way up the pillar, and when we woke at dawn we could see lightning flashing inside dark clouds in the distance. We packed up quickly and didn’t pause to light the stove to make tea. Getting off the lightning-attracting pillar was our priority now, not breakfast. We climbed the remaining pitches at top speed and began the descent. The sky had cleared by then, and we were able to relax a little though we didn’t let our concentration slip for even a moment – most accidents happen on the descent.

 

    Back at the bivy site on the Flammes de Pierre ridge, other climbers had arrived, hoping to do the route the following day. They had been watching our progress, and when we climbed down onto the big bivy ledge, one of them applauded and handed us mugs of strong sweet coffee. It was renowned alpinist Ivan Ghirardini. To him we must have looked like a mother and son: I was forty-four and Malcolm still a gangly teenager.

 

   Down in the valley Calvin had everything packed up ready for the drive home. The end of another alpine season. Got away with it again, I thought. But I wouldn’t push my luck. From then on I was more conservative in my choice of route, but there is no such thing as a worthwhile alpine climb that is free of objective dangers.

 

Clare Sheridan, Chamonix Aiguilles

 The Author among the Chamonix Aiguilles

 
 

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