Publications - Troll Wall - Alpine Club Review
THE ALPINE JOURNAL 2012
Troll Wall, Tony Howard
Vertebrate Publishing, pp 208, £17.99
The term ‘big wall’ can be applied to many faces, having no minimum requirement in height, verticality or difficulty; no European norm with which to categorise a route as being more than simply a “climb”. It is perhaps only those who attempt the ascent that can really judge those special, defining qualities. For me a big wall is a route that weights down on the climber, its difficulty beyond gymnastics, its sheer height and history enough to intimidate all but the bravest, or most ignorant.
Of the many walls I’ve tried (I’d like to say climbed, but then that’s the nature of big walls) the one that I believe stands out as offering the true definition of big wall is the Troll in Norway. It has a status much like that of the Eiger in the 1930s: probably unjustifiably dangerous to try, being loose (looser that the Eiger), wet (imagine a kilometre-high wall in autumnal North Wales) and hard (every hard Lakes mountain route one on the top of the other). The Troll is no place to climb, and nothing is in the climber’s favour; and therein lies its appeal - well, to a certain type of climber.
Knowing what I know about the Troll Wall added an extra element to reading Tony Howard’s excellent book. a simple story well told, a classic Boy’s Own adventure; only not one by Oxbridge graduated penning romantic prose about easy holidays summits but Northern lads taking on what I’d rate as the hardest unclimbed objective in Europe at the time - and climbing the bugger! Being a Northerner it’s no surprise that it’s taken Tony Howard nearly half a century to get round to sharing the story with the rest of us; one of the most important British ascents of the last century; up there with the Fréney Pillar, Annapurna south face and the Trango Tower, but I for one am glad he eventually did.
Having been on the Troll Wall three times with all the best gear on the planet it’s hard to imagine how any climber without such modern gear as belay devices, jumars, portaledges, haul bags, cams or even harnesses would find the courage to attempt to be the first to climb such a thing, let alone by a line up the middle of the steepest piece of rock you could imagine. As I said, the Troll is no ordinary wall, not a gnarly alpine face like the Jorasses or Dru (which are just slabs really), oh no. If it was a crag scaled up, it would be one that Gary Gibson wouldn’t touch; covered in grass, its cracks full of mud, loose and dangerous ‘stuff’ hanging everywhere; and if it was to be compared to an alpine face, just take the Eiger and turn it upside down, making every slab a leaning overhanging wall, every ledge a roof (just make sure all the loose stuff that falls off is collected and piled back on any ledges you do find in order to retain the ambiance). Add to the weather that would make a Welshmen weep, a vertical height four times higher than Canary Wharf and you should get the picture, an objective that is pretty much a climber’s worst nightmare.
One of the most fascinating things about the Troll Wall is that it documents the cusp of a new age, the dawn of American climbing technology with jumars, pulleys and steel pegs, that would revolutionise all such climbs in the future. Unfortunately for Tony and his team, they were just a few months or even weeks too early to reap the benefits of this advance, unlike the Norwegian team on the wall at the same time who had the latest gear from the USA. Instead they had to carry 240 soft steel pegs, a range of home-made nuts and slings not to mention homemade leather harnesses and bivvi gear, all carried - often on lead - in 50lb sacks. The difficulty and sheer hard work and grit it took to climb the wall ‘old school’ style only serves to make the ascent even more incredible.
I expect if this book had come out after the ascent in 1965 it would now rank as a classic alongside The White Spider; indeed Tony’s tale reads very much like the first ascent of the Eiger 1938 route, full of hazard, friendship and vertigo as well as the simplicity and drive of the rope. The book is a real page-turner as bit by Howard, John Amatt and Bill Tweedale push and push and push for the top, forever driven, forever barred by some new obstacle, the story always moving, devoid of any ego or bullshit. It’s a story told by a man aware that he will judged by his peers, so it’s one not of heroes but of mates. Tony’s reluctance to showboat is the root of it. Tony is a pioneer of the ‘Gone Climbing’ lifestyle, leaving the manuscript to languish in his loft since the first ascent. The upside is that it is not one written by an older man looking back at his young self, but his young self telling it how it was half a lifetime ago, giving the account a freshness that brings the climb back to life.
What I enjoyed most of all, was reading Tony’s life either side of the Troll Wall; tales of working on whaling boats, ‘out there’ expeditions to the far North, and journeys to the warmer climbs of the desert. I got the impression of a man who was unafraid of life, as bold in living as in climbing. Reading the short chapters that book end the ascent of the Troll, I wanted to know more and entertained the hope that age might slow Tony enough for him to sit still and bang out a few more such memoirs. However at 70 he is still climbing (and looking) like a man half his age, so I guess Troll Wall will probably be our lot.