More from Steve Johnstone – this time Saas Fee.

Saas One, Saas Two, Saas Fee!


The view from our chalet

I get out of the car after an interesting drive through some snow and ice.  As I walk through the car park the fresh cold air finds itself nipping the back of my hands turning them cold quickly.  Memory’s came to my mind from previous years as I headed down to the bottom of the circular car park.  I feel anxious and nervous as I walk into the back entrance of the car park, as if I’m about to see where I’m going to have a illegal bare knuckle fight.  Like some weird Narnia version of Fight Club.  

I turn a corner to see my opponent.  Standing proud and looming high above me, I see my challenger, there’s history between us, and not all good.  I’m not the favorite to win this.  I wasn’t 5 years ago when I came here for the first time.  This is my third attempt and what do I want to get out of it?  Getting my ass kick is a given.  But going out swinging, that would be nice! 



Pete Holder getting ready for his climb at Saas Fee

I’ve never had much luck here at Saas Fee.  This year it’s the third event on the Ice Climbing World Cup circuit.  Previous years has seen me being spat off the wall at the first clip, or more embarrassingly before the first clip.  Why?  Well, I would normally say it was bad luck.  But I’m not too sure now.  Luck can help, but not me, not in this situation.  So what was it?  Well experience for a start, this isn’t a small comp in the back of the Highlands somewhere with a bunch of your mates.  This is the World Cup, one chance on the qualifying route.  Oh you fell off, too bad, go home.  And that’s it.  Not so bad if you have driven a couple of hours to compete.  But flying a couple of hours, then driving for a few more.  A couple of hundred pounds, not including accommodation, food, self loathing beer.  So it’s not cheap, and well, how hard are you going to try at something you know that has one outcome?  That’s the difference between someone that’s climbing at these comps, and someone that’s a competitor.  I’m a competitor.  I know that the likely hood of me sailing through qualifying and running around in the semi’s, or finals is more than slim.  But how much effort am I going to put into it? Everything.  


Andy Turner getting stuck into the start of the route.

Time to register.  Andy Turner, Andy Inglies, Harry Holmez, Katy Forrester, Matt Pritchard, and myself walk through Saas Fee trying to remember the way to the hotel.  Hotel found, we head to the basement, nothing but the best!  But to be fair, this is a very posh basement.  With table covered in white sheets, bottled water place in the center, and glasses to mark a seating position for each climber.  There’s a bar made up at one side of the room, and at the other side, there’s another table.  Instead of beer on it, its laptops and stressed looking people.  


Lucky number?

We get our numbers and take a seat.  I’m pointing people out to Andy Inglies, the strong people, the very strong people, and the mutants!  Soon enough, we’ve all been feed and watered/beered, and with a long day ahead of us, we leave in a convoy.  My numbers is low, low enough to suggest that I’ll be second out!  I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a good thing, with a rushed warm up and not sure what I should eat as I’ll climb about midday.  Yes I know lunch! haha, but do you really want to sit  down to a decent lunch knowing that you need to haul yourself a World Cup route?  No, you don’t.  A couple of Croissants and some fruit will do me.



Not the sort of place I felt like eating before a climb!

We get to isolation nice an early, so I can have a warm up before the route preview.  The warm up wall consists of a 30 degree wall with some odd wooden and rock holds screwed into it.  Be careful not to take a big fall however cause the old mattresses laying below don’t looked that thick!  I get slightly warm and then we are called for the preview.  All the climbers quickly get to there feet and grab a helmet, a little pushing and shoving to get down the stairs.  In any other situation you would let that person get in front of you and out your way.  But this isn’t Tesco’s, so you leave all queuing ethic’s back home and get yourself down there!  The closer you get to the wall, you can see that most people are holding them self’s back from running.  Soon enough you there, and your brain starts ticking.  For me it’s like my brain is talking photo’s on sport mode tick tick tick tick, side pull, stein pull, thin hold, jug, tick tick tick.  Then I slow everything down, and imagine the linking hold to hold with various ways of move’s and movements that could be possible.  Then I take a step back, and look at the route in its entirety.  

‘Route preview is over!’ and soon some UIAA official is literally walking with his arms out to push the climbers back.  We put up little resistant and understand that time is time.  

Walking back, some climbers are very chatty sharing information, and some have their thousand yard stare going on.  All the time you can see the cogs in their brain turning as they make up their plan of action.  Then the mood changes, as climbers names are read out and announced as its they’re turn.

Very soon, my name and number was called.  

‘You have 5 minutes, ok?’

‘Yeah, thanks.’

I make sure I have everything with me.  I’m met with a young Swiss girl who seemed to enjoy looking at the nervous and excited climbers faces, and soon I’m escorted down the stairs.  I’m walking fast, fast enough for the little Swiss girl to struggle keeping up.  Like a upset dad walking down the street with his daughter running to keep up.  I get to the waiting area, and start to put me boots on.  I knew the face of the other climber in the waiting area, but I forget his name.  He assures me that there isn’t a lot of time to top out this route, and that we wont see many topping out.  

‘Climb it like you know it.  That’s the key.’

‘That’s a good shout….’

I quickly finish doing up my boots as the little Swiss girl tell’s me that it’s time to go.  I step into the ring to see my opponent in his full fighting fit glory.  This time, this time I have to do better.  



Harry Holmez getting into then shortly out of the slippy stein pull.

Once tied in, I set my tools in the starting holds.  Making sure that they will be good enough to hold to the next hold without popping off, as this has happened to more people than you can imagine!  I set off with my game plan, while taking every hold with my tool with a huge amount of respect.  I try to feel the feed back through my ice axe from each hold, trying to find a ‘sweet spot’ and keep the angles tight and firm.  I get to and past the first clip, but I on not a brilliant hold.  I lock it down and stretch to a stein pull.  As I set my feet high, the tool slips.  I think it has slipped into a better position, but time is ticking and I’ve got to keep moving.  I lock off and stretch once more, and I’m miles away from the next hold, which is sitting at an off angle.  I need to get high, much higher.  I place my feet higher, and with the imagine of Markus Bendler (Swiss World Champion) in my head doing a huge move off a stein pull, I copy, and pull.  I up so high that I can use it as an under cling.  The next hold seem to be getting closer, and soon enough the pick of my tool bites into the little lip that it has to offer.  I quickly move my feet up, I start to relax and realize that I’ve only got a minute left!  I’ve got to run, but I get feel my hands.  At minus 10 wearing golf gloves, and squeezing the blood out of your hands leads to one thing.  Cold, numb hands.  Keep going, just keep moving!  I make a big dropped down move and start pulling the rope through for a clip. 

‘That’s time!’  is shouted up to me, and I let the rope take my weight.

I can see that I was about half way up the route.  Ok, I know that’s not amazing, but I was not wanting to win this.  Actually I lie, I want to win, of course I do.  But it’s not my time yet, when will it?  I don’t know, but I’m working on it.  But the main thing I wanted to do is to climb to a point that I can figure out the move, or get pumped out.  The bad news is, I got pumped out and my hands were frozen.  The good news is I didn’t fall, and I also knew how to climb the route.  So what does this mean?  Well, it mean’s that unlike other years of making early mistake that you can’t learn from, this time I can learn from my experience.  I know I need to get going a lot quicker, I need to relax a little more, and I need to see a doctor about my horrendous circulation!

Instead of being back to the drawing board with my stupid mistake, it’s onward and most defiantly up ward with my progress.  I’ve been back in Scotland for a couple of weeks now, and training for next year has started.  Plans and objectives are in place, I really want a semi finals next year.


Sorry about the lack of photo’s of myself.  I might be able to get a hold of some and put them on later.

Hope everyone is having fun being out and about, be safe and I’ll catch somewhere at some point.


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