Five-Minute Memoir: Anne O'Brien remembers a cliffhanger of a holiday


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The Independent Culture

I used to be seriously into mountain walking (an enjoyable experience on the whole), even climbing (a greater challenge, plus rock walls, chimneys and abseiling), the result of which was an expedition, mooted by my husband, to tackle the Andean volcanoes of Ecuador.

"We need some snow and ice experience first," he said.

"Do we?" I had not considered snow, didn't much like the idea.

"We're going to conquer Cotopaxi."

"I thought it was hot there."

His eyebrows arced into disbelief. "Cotopaxi has glaciers. Think you can manage a glacier, after a few strolls on the Mendips? We're going to Scotland for a week. In February."

And so I got to grips with a week of intensive tuition in the winter conditions of Tomintoul in the Cairngorms, where I was introduced to the rigours of snow and ice. Adopted as "one of the guys", I learnt the niceties of crampons and ice axes and hefty coils of rope. I ploughed obligingly through thigh-deep drifts, throwing myself off ledges in impossible angles and postures to practice ice-axe arrests, before trudging up slopes with ropes encircling my shoulders as if primed for Tyburn. Returning every night, cold, wet, with every muscle aching, to beer and pie and chips, was I exhilarated? Not really. It was not my scene.

I received my certificate of competence with suitable grace.

Then Ecuador, the stunningly beautiful slopes of Cotopaxi, icily-coated and slippery as hell. We would climb at night when the glacier's surface was solid, offering the optimum grip. Shepherded by local guides, we set one careful foot in front of the other.

I recall little of the ascent, except for pain and a frightening shortage of breath. It was all too strenuous for me in the thin air at nearly 6,000 feet. Finally, with no great reluctance, I called it a day and plodded down again with a husband who was equally not averse to failure. Enough was enough. Roped up in a friendly foursome with a guide to front and rear, I almost settled into a quality of enjoyment. Lungs no longer screaming, muscles relaxing, the light of approaching dawn revealed the awesome majesty of the scenery. We admired the delicate refraction of light on the icy ridges. We marvelled at the perspective which advanced, minute by minute. We coveted the lung power of the condors circling lazily, high above us, oblivious to altitude.

We did not notice the warmth of the rising sun. We did not detect the icy surface beginning to glisten with a slick of melt water.

Until, suddenly, my new Tomintoul skills were found wanting, despite being roped up and kitted out with the whole mountaineer's arsenal. And whereas the ascent had been made with fixed ropes to hand, on the descent our guides had decided we would cope without.

A slide. A stagger. A fast recovery but on crampons that did not grip at the precipitate angle when urged to move faster than was comfortable. A shriek (me), and the worst scenario: the leading guide slid. Continued to slide. And then we all slid into a nightmare of slithering, slipping, uncontrolled descent, with the prospect of hurtling off the end of the glacier. It was all too vivid when we shuddered to a halt, my husband's uselessly-cramponed feet already dangling over the void.

What did I do, as panic laid its hand on me? I will never know what prompted me to achieve a perfect ice-axe arrest, burying the metal head into a deep but narrow crevice that appeared under my nose as I hurtled past on my belly. And then I hung on, despite the double-drag on the rope around my waist, the guide in one direction, my husband in the other. Would my strength hold out? I did not think so.

I make no claim to heroism in being alive to tell the tale. No bravery, no expertise, no superwoman feats of strength or mental agility. It was the guide at the rear who, seeing what was happening, got his act together and with some rapid rope fixing, steadied us. All I could do was cling to my ice axe, eyes clamped shut, refusing to think about what would happen if I let go.

"Just sheer bloody-mindedness," my husband remarked in belated gratitude as he eventually prised my fingers off my axe. I was forced to agree.

And the result of this little sojourn in the glory of the Andes? A good dose of fright. A change in direction when holidaying, to the gently cultural and historic. A visceral memory that still twists my guts at unexpected moments.

I sold my crampons and ice axe.

Anne O'Brien's book, 'The Forbidden Queen', is published by Mira