Adopting the Will of Whillans

Whillans450x370Brad Rassler’s regular post, continued…

After re-reading my last post I became so depressed I had to go out and have a breakthrough week. So I did.

I’ve been on the mountain bike more than the road bike these days, reasoning the extra oomph required to pedal through dirt would translate well into the fall whoop-de-doo, which rather than a circum-Tahoe adventure, will be some sort of endurance High Sierra backcountry climb. I mean, after a summer of working at Alpinist Magazine, why shouldn’t it be so? I miss my beloved Sierra.

To climb a peak I’ll have to approach it, so I substituted road bike riding with roller skiing, double poling the flats and skating the uphills. That’s me in the photo appearing somewhat surprised to have returned to weight-bearing exercise. What looks like a beard is actually a grimace.

Feeling no pain from my gammy heel after skating, I ventured out with trekking poles to stroll a few thousand feet up a local ski hill (I promised to turn tail at the slightest pull of the Achilles). Three hours later I was back home, pain free. I think I’ve turned a corner on that damnable injury. I’ll not run until 2015, though – and that’s a promise.

Meanwhile, I psyched myself up by thinking about Don Whillans, the late plumber from Lancashire, and one of Great Britain’s best gritstone climbers. Whillans was a brute of a man, all 5’4”, of him, stout as a fire hydrant. He climbed hard and partied harder; he lived much of his life well into his cups, and had the beer belly and scarred knuckles to prove it.

Whillans was a staple of Sir Chris Bonington’s high altitude expedition teams; few were as strong and tenacious. But he’d arrive in Kathmandu prior to an expedition several stone too thick and wheezy from too much tobacco, droll humor flying and flaying the unfortunates in its path.

By the time Whillans had trekked to the mountain’s base camp, however – say, Annapurna or Everest – he had whittled himself down to near fighting trim. On the actual climb, few could match his pace and tenacity.

He was filmed by a BBC crew as he returned to Camp I after making the first ascent of Annapurna’s treacherous South Face. A reporter asked about the thin provender on which he and his partner Dougal Haston had subsisted during the final push to the summit. With beer in hand, cigarette jutting from his lower lip, and nose grown too big for his broad face due to the weight he had dropped on the climb, he intoned in his nasal Lanky tenor, “I had two days on cigars and snow water.”

Whillans had freakish strength and a redoubtable vim, and I’m no Whillans. But I figured I have enough left in me to pull a Whillans-like maneuver, showing up on the assigned day in less than optimal form, but gaining strength as I move up the mountain.

This Saturday I light out from Vermont and begin the long drive home. The next post will likely be from Nevada.