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Life Stories

Duncan Tunstall - Ice climbing

"In 2009 Francoise Call called me an asked me if I fancied doing some ice climbing in the Lofoten islands in Norway. Knowing nothing I said yes and off we went. As in all winter climbing luck with the weather is critical and we had great luck. Clear days, the sun shining, the temperature well below zero and many known routes and more importantly potential routes in perfect condition. The result was twenty keen climbers from many countries rising early and were climbing great ice routes at all grades. On the Wednesday evening Francoise got all excited, her friend, superstar Marko Prezelj wanted to hire a speed boat to cross the channel to get to some of the biggest unclimbed winter lines in Lofoten and needed some fellow enthusiasts to share the cost.

I tried to calm the good lady down with a bit of reality. Monsieur Prezelj is one of the best climbers in the World, as is his Norwegian rope mate, Bjorn Eivind. Whereas myself and Francoise are, shall we say, keen but not highly talented climbers. Also in case she had forgotten I had a minor problem of a Low Grade Glioma, which is best described as a slow growing brain tumour. The consequence is I am hardly an 'athlete' and generally chose to climb on accessible cliffs. Francoise has many strengths, one of the most important is that she sees great ideas clearly and once on the track it takes a lot to stop her. So the following morning at first light we were on a boat with Marko and Bjorn, the Norwegian superstar, and a top Czech team. As in all great stories all went well, with the superstars making a couple of great first ascents and only having to wait an hour or so for us bumblies to return from our own excellent, in our terms, first ascent of the easier and shorter cliff on the left of the ridge.

It took a couple of years but a follow up was made, once again due to the vision of Madame Call. This time Marko was our host, in Slovenia. We came with 20 enthusiasts from the Alpine Club, a talented Romanian, Cosmin Andron and Bjorn.

The World is a strange place. Scotland is often used as an example of the modern form of winter climbing where the routes do not feature pure ice but iced up rock buttresses with the full range of cracks and frozen turf. I had never put much thought to the wide variety of highland rock types which seem to support winter climbing. What we talk about is the ice. Slovenia is the Eastern start of the Alps and the rock type is Limestone. Rock climbers love limestone. Steep, good holds and if no gear, bolts make it fun but safe. However, in Slovenia, the cliffs are not bolted the rock has minimal turf and cracks are not that common. The result, as Mr Fowler would say, is most challenging.

Sometimes we are lucky with the weather and sometimes not. The introductory speech by Marko warned us of this. Conditions he told us, with a smile, had been great but a dramatic thaw had melted the ice and would make venue choice very important. Here we were lucky, because our hosts Marko and Zdenka Mihelic, from the Slovenian Alpine Club, had enthused a dozen or so young Slovenian climbers to act as 'guides' to us guests, and these guides ensured we were on the cliffs with the best conditions and more importantly we could learn how to deal with this style of climbing, possibly unique to Slovenia.

For me my guide came in the form of the young but talented climber Matic Kosir. For a twenty three year old he was totally unphased when I explained to him about my health. In Scotland the majority of men keep very quiet about any ill health. We keep a stiff upper lip and hope nobody notices. I fully support this approach, in fact when I first started getting minor fits I never thought they merited a trip to the Doctors. However, climbing is a dangerous sport and something told me it is not fair on a new climbing partner to discover that I was having a fit when already half way up a cliff, no matter how small that cliff was. For reasons that are pretty obvious I choose to climb in as safe a way as possible, so I always tell new climbing partners about my tumour, and warn them what might happen, but almost certainly wont, and today still never has.

It also reduces some of the jokes at my expense. After all it is always helpful to have an excuse for not remembering names, of friends or routes. I am very lucky in that I have now had my Tumour for 10 years. Ten years in which I have climbed once or twice a week for most weeks. Thus, although it has grown, the symptoms have not changed. I can climb as well and as safely as I have ever done, because I am constantly doing it. I know I am very lucky in that my tumour is not in a place that affects my rational thoughts. I can still see when a slope is at risk of avalanching, I can tell if a runner will hold and setting up safe belays is routine. Perhaps of most importance is that most climbers are open people who are happy not to get angry because I cant remember their names or have to check three times that everything is packed.

Events like this Slovenia trip are exciting but present added challenges. We are meeting and climbing with many new people, and I for one want everything to run smoothly and safely. It was clear to me that 23 year old Matic was the boss. And so it was for my companions on day one, fifty year old Doctor Steve and young student Sam who were on a rope with Matic and myself climbing with youngster Boris following on behind. The climb Matic led us up was an excellent seven pitch route. The climbing was great. The start of the first pitch was tricky, and was followed by classic pitch. The next pitch was easier but unprotected, typical Slovenian climbing. Obviously talented youth lead the hard sections and the grey haired experienced man took over for the bold stuff. All was going well. We would have to call this climb 'Scorpion' because it has a real sting in the tail. A sting that slowed us down and saw four very happy guests return to the car by moonlight

After a day of rest we were more than happy to get a message from Matic that he could get off work on Tuesday and was keen to go back to the same cliff to try another climb. Now with a bit more understanding that ice and gear would be in short supply I quickly approved of Mattics suggestion that he leads, I carry the sack and Steve takes the pictures. The route we did consisted of three sustained tricky long pitches, with a wide variety of types of climbing. The highlights of which was a very steep hard first pitch, an ice tunnel on pitch two and the customary narrow chimney to exit. The good news was we were learning and were back in time for a pleasant walk down and traditional post climb beer with our hosts with the sun still shining.

Matic had to work the rest of the week, so once again we were in Markos hands. He suggested we drive across Slovenia, to a beautiful but rarely visited mountain where the A team would do some new routes while the visitors could climb the local classic. This time I was lucky to be teamed with Bill Church, a sprightly 63 year old Aberdonian Doctor and a tired but very fit Cosmin, our Rumanian hotshot. The classic was indeed a classic. The weather was not great and we were happy to let the young local hotshots drive a path through deep snow with constant humourous encouragement from Marko. We had to trust him when he said we were at the cliff as we could not see more than twenty feet above us. We followed our noses and a full variety of Slovenian climbing followed. The rock was good, the gear non existent and in places there was good ice. On the summit the wind was blowing and the snow was deep so we were all happy to meet up with the others who were just completing their final pitches.

Once again we were back at the car in the light and the drive back to the hotel had three very content guests, with probably me the most content. Not only had I been lucky enough to have a great holiday with great people. I have had my eyes opened, not just to learning to overcome a new challenge in climbing, but a reinforcement of the idea that there is always a way, no matter who you are or what your situation is. Perhaps most importantly I have learnt that not just smiling, but laughing and enjoying difficulty makes dealing with that difficulty easier. For that I owe the biggest thank you."

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