Welcome to "On Belay With..."! This is a series of short interviews with all sorts of folks involved in mountain medicine. Joining us at the belay for this post is Dr John Ellerton. John is a GP in the Lake District and member of the Patterdale Mountain Rescue team. He joined the International Commission for Alpine Rescue (ICAR) MedCom in 2002 and became their President in 2017.
What was the last mountain you climbed?
That would be Helvellyn in the Lakes 2 days ago. Saturday evening and the mountain rescue alert came through. It had been a miserable wet and cold November day spent largely indoors. '2 persons stuck on Helvellyn; full winter kit needed'. Harriet, aged 3 yrs, is just drifting off to sleep and I have enough brownie points to set off. There is nothing like the walk up into the snow and wind in weather that would suggest that no pleasure will be experienced (except going to help a fellow walker). Surprisingly the ground becomes frozen and summit plateau was coated in ice. My 3-season boots are just managing. Careful footwork on the edge; mental way marks ticked off, is this the 400th or 600th time up here over the last 46 years? Milestones are not important and memories of what has lain at the end of the path are just memories; the weather forces me to remain in the present. Three and a half hours later, we are in rescue base eating searingly hot pies with lively banter that washes away any tension in muscles and mind.
What does the perfect mountain day consist of?
A long day starting by torch light and ending with a descent by moonlight. Perfect or near perfect weather – I have had enough long days waiting for a weather window to tick off a route and double waterproof days on rescues to justify being a fair weather recreationist! There may be some tension early in the day as to whether the route will 'go'; there will be a comfortable climbing partner, good food and plenty of time to snatch a photo or two. Solitude - complete solitude if ice climbing so no shrapnel worries. It could be Piz Palü in the Bernina Alps, Tower ridge on the Ben, or a Lofoten or Yosemite peak. Mountain or route need not be famous as I often find the second string ice climb is the best. Hundreds flock to Cogne, Italy for ice climbs such as Patri de Gauche whereas a few hundred metres further along only a handful of climbers will trespass to L'Acheronte, to my mind a superior objective.
Cathedral Peak (3326m) is part of the Cathedral Range, situated in the south of Yosemite National Park. Away from El Capitan, Half Dome and the other peaks in the valley, Cathedral Peak sees a much smaller number of visitors. Those who do make the journey are rewarded with a fantastic rock route - South East Buttress (5.6) - one of the best in North America.
What's been your worst mountain mishap?
Being presented with our 10 day 'food bag' whilst 2 days from base camp in the north west of Iceland. The 'food bag' was a garbage bag! It was a hungry and demoralised pair of explorers that rolled into the mess tent 60 hours later. This mishap paled into insignificance a week later when we walked out to find the UK was at 'war' with Iceland over fishing rights. We were not received well in Ísafjörður, Iceland; dried fish seemed to be the only food available.
Bouldering in Iceland (1977)
What's been your best mountain day?
Many, but I'll pick on a winter classic in 2007. After the UK Diploma in Mountain Medicine's Scotland week a young Ben Warwick and I found our way taking on Point 5 Gully. The weather and conditions were perfect. 5.15 start from the North Face car park, good company - I had only climbed with Ben once before on the Anglesey cliffs. I think we had a cup of tea at a stance 2/3rds up and a civilised finish back at the car at 4.30pm. We had been aiming for Zero Gully but I think it was its 50th anniversary and there were 3 or 4 teams at the bottom. We went round the corner and there was Point 5 with no-one in view. I think one party followed us 3-4 pitches below. Great day.
What mountain changed your life?
That has to be Helvellyn. I must have been 14 years old. It was a school trip, a one-off excursion. The weather was poor yet we still set off with teacher A at the front and teacher B at the back. There were 14 pupils. Most had never been on a mountain, the lucky ones had an impermeable cagoule but all of us were pretty miserable and cold. I was slightly better off in a Barbour oiled jacket – dad was a keen fisherman. The day deteriorated, it started getting dark and we were lost probably on Whiteside. Teacher A said to me, 'go down as fast you can and tell the bus driver we will be late'. So off I went with no idea where I was. Once out of the cloud I found Glenridding and the bus. I passed on the message and then promptly feel asleep! Some time later the rest of the party arrived and we got back to Middlesbrough at midnight. The excitement and challenge spurred me on to spending as much time walking on the North Yorkshire Moors with longer and longer expeditions until a double Lyke Wake walk (84 miles) over 48 hours was a regular event. On my 16th birthday, my parents brought me over to Martindale, Ullswater. I decided then that I would live in the Lakes; general practice was a good way to achieve that. (My idol was Tom Patey - One Man's Mountains was published when I was 12 years old.*)
On the way to Brown Cove, Helvellyn
What's been your best bit of mountain kit?
Ice screws that work and can hold 250 kg (sometimes)!
Ice screws in Cogne, Italy
What makes a great climbing partner? Has anyone come close?
I don't think of partners, whether life, work or climbing, in terms of great! It's more about enjoying their company, achieving things together and neither me or the partner being put on a pedestal. Having said that Iztok Tomazin, a GP from Slovenia and possibly the most prolific ski descender of 8000m peaks, ensures a memorable day wherever you are in the world!
Iztok Tomazin in Spitzbergen
What is your "dream" mountain objective?
In the 1980s I sat under the Eiger for 6 days waiting for a weather window. Every time I fly to Switzerland I look at the mountain and ... dream. I go to ICAR meetings twice a year and hardly leave the airport. I always promise that one day I'll add a few days onto the trip and finally enjoy the Mittellegi ridge. I worry about my air miles as I see glaciers disappear; I try to put my tourism into a necessary ICAR venture so that I feel that the flights are 'killing two birds with one stone'. (A bad phrase as we ignore climate change!) The ISMM World Congress is at Interlaken in 2020 and adds another opportunity! These biennial meetings are great, as scientists meet the climbers and rescuers. This makes for a dream conference and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the BMMS. You come away with so many ideas, and maybe even a mountain ascent!
What's been your biggest mountain disappointment?
'The big, bad ___.' That long slog up to a beautiful ridge, forget about the rock fall that might have ended the party, the ridge was wonderful. 200 metres of altitude and distance left when one of the party started vomiting and, oh yes, a terrible headache and ataxia. We were high enough to be in HACE territory. We turned back and descended. The disappointment lasted decades but I had no wish to return.
Give us a mountain "tip"!
Explore, trust your judgement and stay alive. In modern terms, maintain situational awareness and a childish curiosity!
Solo climbing in Cogne, Italy
Thanks John for taking part!
What do Karen Greene, Stuart Allan, Edi Albert, Abigail Forsyth, Jon Morgan, Tom Yeoman, David Hildebrandt and Marika Blackman all have in common? They have all taken part in "On Belay With...". If you would like to join them please get in touch!
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