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MAN AND MOUNTAIN: ATHOL WHIMP, 1961-2012

Published in Rock, March 2012

Athol Whimp at Gasherbrum IV base camp during attempts on the mountain, May 2003.

On the 23rd February 2012, my dear friend Athol Thomas Whimp died when he fell off the Homer Ridge in the Darran Mountains of his homeland New Zealand. No one would have predicted this event, despite Athol’s years of constant exposure on the peaks and cliffs of the world. An inherent mastery of the mountains and all their complexities underpinned Athol’s ease on them; he was always both aware of risk and unfazed by it. As a man he held the mountains in his hands with love and reverence, and around this devotion he organized his life.

Born in Christchurch in 1961 to parents who immediately bestowed upon him a strong sense of self-reliance, Athol was, from an early age, steeped in the lessons of mountain wilderness – a swirling, ever-changing mixture of violence and beauty. As a 16 year old he would walk up the Broad Valley near the family’s hut at Arthur’s Pass, hunting for deer. Once, after several days in the wild, he was he spotted hitchhiking back to Christchurch with his rifle, a large deer carcass and an even larger grin.

The remote, lonely ridges on New Zealand’s South Island rise from the West Coast toward the country’s highest peaks with a breathtaking audacity, and it is here that Athol spent weeks at a time with his brother Bernard trapping possums in the early 1980s, walking “the trap lines” during the day, often cold and hungry, and sleeping around a neatly kept fire on the gusty ridge tops during the frigid nights.

On one occasion Athol tried to walk through the dense bush to organize a helicopter resupply of food. He left early with his rifle and a small backpack of overnight gear, but as the last beams of evening light pushed their way through the forest Athol arrived back in the camp, exhausted and in tears. He’d been lost all day, roving around the gullies and ridgelines, probing for a way out. The next day he tried again. A few days later Bernard heard the warm, mechanical sound of a Hughes 500 helicopter flaring into the riverbed near their camp with Athol and a re-supply on board.

Following an intense journey through the New Zealand military, Athol became a Captain in the elite Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. Seeking to further this journey of fortitude and adventure, he departed the SAS and approached the Sultan’s Armed Forces in Oman. In 1984 he was selected by the Oman Reconnaissance Force, then in its formation. Athol’s colleagues in Oman describe his selection as the best decision they ever made. His affinity for the desert, his physical endurance and marksmanship, together with his sense of humor, as well as his defiance and disdain for pomp, appealed to his like-minded Jebali soldiers.  In the deserts of Oman he found a home, and spent weeks patrolling the borders with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, travelling through the high dunes of the Empty Quarter (Ar Rub-al-Khali), in much the same way the New Zealand component of the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa had done during the Second World War.

Athol on the left with his Oman Reconnaissance Force colleagues: Christopher Beese, Mikey Wilson, and Ray Johnston. Photo: Richard Essberger.

Years later as we would roll out our sleeping bags under the stars during our climbing adventures, Athol would recall stories from these days with great affection and detail; pursuing the opposition all day across the dunes, the modified V8 Land Rover engines screaming with effort and laden with equipment and ammunition, the weapons firing, the chaos of the chases, the deep friendships formed. The mountains of Oman took a hold on Athol, and it is here that he first took a cliff and its stone by his hand and began moving upward. But it wasn’t until Athol had left Oman at the end of the 1980s that he was able to begin climbing with the sort of frequency and intensity I know he would have needed.

So upon landing back in New Zealand, Athol teamed up with his cousin and highly accomplished alpinist Gavin Tweedie, and headed to Mt. Cook. Athol climbed (and I will simply list his most impressive adventures here – and for those of us that have ever embroiled ourselves in a serious route at Mt. Cook you will understand the magnitude of these ascents and link-ups, written here in just a few lines): a solo ascent of Zurbriggen’s Ridge on Mt. Cook, then immediately and without rest walking back out the Tasman Glacier and, after joining up with Gavin, walking up the Hooker Glacier and making a two hour ascent of Mt. Cook’s north ridge. As Gavin said to me, these back-to-back climbing days were an “early indication of Athol’s work ethic.”

Gavin Tweedie, Arthur's Pass area, 1999.

Other notable ascents with Gavin were: the Right Buttress of the North Face of Mt. Hicks, then traversing to Mt. Dampier, and onto the North Ridge of Mt. Cook, a grand traverse to Mt. Cooks’ low peak, and descent in two days; an early September ascent of Mt. Tasman’s Balfour Face in a 24 hour return push from Plateau Hut, and an ascent of the Sheila Face of Mt. Cook, with the late Jim LeGrice now also on board. On this particular climb Athol carried his paraglider rig with the plan of flying off the summit, but the right conditions never eventuated.

As Gavin said to me: “We arrived on top at dusk after a fight on hard ice up the summit ice cap. Athol was about 45 minutes behind.  Unbeknownst to Jim and myself, Ath had broken an axe shaft.  We spent the night on the summit wrapped in Ath's parachute.  The next morning I was last on the rope in the lower Linda when I fell 15 meters into a crevasse.  After carrying his ‘chute over Cook he was determined to fly so he eventually flew off Haast Ridge landing on the Tasman Glacier.” Around this period Athol also made a winter ascent of the Sheila Face of Mt. Cook with Matt Evrard.

Then, in 1990, after seeing a photo of Malcolm Matheson’s masterpiece route “Serpentine” on Taipan Wall in Victoria, Australia, Athol decided he’d climb this imposing, ethereal route, despite never having climbed anything of this difficulty before. It was around this period I met Athol, up under the shade of “Exodus II” at Mt. Arapiles, Victoria. We did the route together and in the evening climbed down the gullies to the campground where Athol lit a small fire and started to make some coffee while he talked at length to me about the adventures-in-waiting at Mt. Cook.

So soon enough there we were stepping into our crampons in the deep blue depths of the Grand Plateau under Mt. Tasman in winter, Athol’s mother Ava waving goodbye from the window of the Pilatus Porter as it lifted off, soon banking away, down and across the Hochstetter Icefall. After finally getting back to our tiny tent in the middle of the night after climbing a new route on Mt. Tasman’s Balfour Face, Athol immediately started pumping the cooker, snow crystals floating around in the beams from our head torches. As a huge smile worked its way across his face, Athol shouted out, “This is the shit, Andy!” There were so many times like this during the years since, times where we had gotten away with it all; times where we had given everything, and had gotten everything back.

In Patagonia, we celebrated New Years day of 1994 on the windless summit of Fitz Roy after making the first integral ascent of the Pedrini-Locher route on the North Pillar. “The view just goes on forever,” Athol said quietly as we contemplated getting organized to descend. A few days later we climbed the Maestri/SE Pillar route on Cerro Torre, and a few weeks after this Athol made the second solo ascent of Cerro Torre.

In between what were often hurried alpine missions to Mt. Cook from Melbourne, Australia (we would always seem to attempt a New Zealand land speed record driving from Christchurch to Mt. Cook in a performance car belonging to Athol’s brother Bernard), we were constantly doing rock routes at Mt. Arapiles and the Grampians, rolling out the miles on easier pitches and also stopping for a while to work on harder routes. Some of Athol’s favorites during this time were “Masada” at Mt. Arapiles, “Contra Arms Pump,” and “Rage” in the Grampians, and in Yosemite Valley, California, he loved our ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, the West Face of El Capitan, and our 15 hour ascent of “The Nose” on El Capitan, among other towering routes.

One time we were all very worried Athol wasn’t coming back. He was caught by a fast-moving, violent storm high on Mt. Cook, not long into his descent, after a solo climb of the Hooker Face. As his brother Tristram paced around Mt. Cook Village waiting, Athol was trapped in the center of the storm’s broiling theater. He was holed up in a snow cave, or as he later said to me, “a snow coffin,” until he finally had no choice but to move through the blizzard, sodden and hypothermic, toward the refuge of “Mother Empress,” his favorite hut. I can still hear his certain voice on the hut radio, calling in for the evening schedule during our trips up to that special place, “This is Five Empress, over.”

Around this time Athol also had a big, single push solo voyage: starting up the MacInnes Ridge of Nazomi, continuing up the immense South Ridge of Mt. Cook (now called the Hillary Ridge), finishing with a grand traverse to the main summit of Mt. Cook and a descent to the Grand Plateau. He then soloed the Balfour Face and Hidden Balfour Face, and around the same time made the second ascent of the “Denz Direct” on the South Face of Mt. Cook.

In 1997 we were on top of Thalay Sagar in the Indian Himalaya after making the first ascent of its north face. It was only because of Athol’s deep-seated well of stamina during the incessant storms that I was able to find more of my own; it was a hard-won summit. After finally descending to the plateau beneath the face in the dark of night we slumped to our knees and screamed in relief. It was only several years later that I understood that the microcosm of this shared experience had been woven into the fibers of my very being, and that at the core of this was Athol, and all that he had within and about him.

Groupe de Haute Montagne, France’s alpine organization, awarded us the 1998 Piolet d’Or for this ascent, something we never expected or coveted. After a rowdy, fun award ceremony in a Chamonix bar, we stood out in a dark snowy street with the quietly spoken Ginette Harrison (Ginette was sadly killed in an avalanche on Dhaulagiri in 1999) talking about the next day’s skiing. Athol was bubbling away, joking about how we had to ski with consummate style now that we were in the sort of place James Bond would have skied (“What are we going to wear?! Hmmmm, Andy, we need to discuss this…” he said), also joking that we would absolutely be chased by several dangerous women who could of course handle their Beretta pistols without fuss.

Athol with American alpinist and surfer Greg Crouch, Venica, CA, 1999. Greg released an updated profile he wrote on Athol and me for Climbing magazine in 2003. It is a moving memorial to Athol, and is available as an e-book on amazon.com.

On the North Face direct of Jannu in 2000 we nearly died together when our portaledge was torn apart by rock fall. A few weeks later, as we by turns danced and crawled along Jannu’s spectacular and corniced east summit ridge, we encountered all manner of trouble. As we sat a freezing night out with no gear at 7,600m on our way to the summit, and melted what ice we could with the last of our fuel, our minds wandered and drifted with the ebb and flow of the crackling, gusting high altitude wind and the unknown of what it was bringing to us. “I wouldn’t be here with anyone else mate,” he said, his lips tinged blue from a lack of oxygen, his eyes bloodshot and face swelling from the terrible stress of it all.

In 2003 we rendezvoused in Islamabad, Pakistan and began a three-month journey into and on a perfect mountain: Gasherbrum IV. After a grueling attempt on the west face, we had retreated to the succor of base camp before launching up the northwest ridge, images from Tim Macartney-Snape, Greg Child and Tom Hall-Hargis’ 1986 ascent moving through our brains like a slideshow. We were into about our fourth day waiting out a storm in our tiny tent high on the ridge, and were starting to talk about how long we could realistically survive up there, or at least have a decent chance of getting off the mountain in tact.

We could hear avalanches breaking away just off the ridge below us, and the wind tore around the tent. We had about a day of gas left if we rationed it carefully. The next morning we fought our way down the ridge in a suffocating blizzard, down climbing un-roped, avalanches ripping away beside us. At times we would look into each other’s eyes staring out from our down suits, and it felt like our very beings were evaporating.

In more recent years Athol had tempered his harder climbing in the mountains. I think he had become more aware of his own mortality, and the mortality of those close to him. When my wife Jen and I had a son, Aki, in 2006, Athol said to me, “I’m glad Aki is here because he saved us from going back to the big mountains Andy.” Athol grew particularly fond of Aki, taking much time and care selecting him birthday presents, and spending endless hours playing spontaneous games with him.

Only this past January – January! – Athol seemed happiest teaching Aki how to track kangaroos in the bush of the Grampians, waiting on the edge of the waterhole for them and the emus to arrive for their evening drink. And there in the video is Athol holding Aki back from the edge on top of Hollow Mountain, everyone laughing under the hot summer sun, happy to have nothing else above us as we stared across the flat and dry Australian land. In Athol, Aki saw a hero: a mountain climber, a soldier, someone who could build model airplanes with poetic ease, and a friend who could ignore the usual bedtime stories and instead have long, wandering conversations. It was in this bond that I witnessed Athol’s true nature, his completely open, relaxed and inner-self at ease with my son who gave him his unconditional love.

During the last couple of years, Athol was really beginning to return to form on the rock in the Grampians, and was constantly heading into the ancient stone of Taipan and Muline Walls in particular. He would phone me in America and excitedly explain his latest trip to the Grampians, never tiring of the drive, looking forward to leading out and up the orange and grey walls yet again. During my annual trips back to Australia we would sit on the ledges next to the walls between attempts on routes like “Eye of the Tiger,” and discuss the immensity of time and space that the rock had bore witness to (among other things – Athol also enjoyed talking about the new women at his local café in Melbourne…); that by comparison we were just “dust in the wind.”  

It is also from this appreciation of Nature and its impenetrable ramparts of stone that Athol designed and constructed several buildings in Melbourne, austere expressions of concrete and light.  Self-taught in the Tadao Ando school of concrete architecture, Athol applied the same deep level of detail, discipline and devotion to his work that he lived by in the mountains.

Tim Macartney-Snape and Athol Whimp in the Grampians, Australia, December 2004.

Our good friends Tim Macartney-Snape and Stacy Rodger met us in the Grampians in late December last year and we talked into the night about the eternity of nature, this stretching universe before us, and how the Aboriginal people and their predecessors had lived there, right where we sat with a cold beer in our hands, for more than 20,000 years. It is with this understanding Athol also enjoyed tending to the health of a few small, struggling trees around the base of Taipan Wall; he empathized with their determined effort to find a life source in the rocky ground.

So now I sit empty-handed, the world spinning around as it will for all time, its silence pushing me over with grief. I loved you Athol, and will always love you – you the warrior, you the one who kept going to the precipice and back again, your eyes always gleaming at dawn. You saved my life one time, then another. You held the mountains – the World itself – in your hands with purpose and care. You were an engine of clarity, a force of life, unbreakable. Your story and actions will survive through the deep volumes of time now hurtling toward us, the ones still living, and in the legends told by your brethren around the world in moments hence.

Athol with his brother Tristram at Broad Saddle, Arthur's Pass area, New Zealand, 1980.

A few days  before Athol died, he and his brother Tristram, and Tristram’s girlfriend Frosini, set out and up the Broad Valley, the scene of Athol’s beginning, the sounds of their footfall on the river rocks hidden by the running waters beside them. Athol and Tristram carried a new rifle each, fresh from their boxes and especially ordered with sequential numbers, connected together. They walked all day, through the Beech tree stands and crumbling, eroded river edges, bluffs of loose rock and earth rising above them.

Near to the end of the day Tristram noticed Athol hadn’t yet fired a shot, and he mentioned to Athol he should do so, to feel the rifle's mechanism and hear its report. A few minutes later Athol chambered a round, shouldered his rifle and sighted something. He held the rifle there for some time, straight, true and still in the evening, before lowering it and ejecting the round.

A few long moments later, Tristram asked why he didn’t squeeze the trigger. “I didn’t want to disturb the peace,” Athol softly replied, and then there in the wilderness they turned and began gently walking back downstream to where the river broke out of the Broad Valley and ran free, leading Athol onward and into the distance, unbridled, boundless and eternal.

 Athol at the Cobaw Range, Victoria. Photo: Charlie Creese.

Athol at the Cobaw Range, Victoria. Photo: Charlie Creese.