Our “On the hill with…” series of interviews with members of the Rucksack Club continues with Parminder Chaggar who is now based in the far South West.
How did you get into walking and climbing?
Having grown up in a ghetto in inner city Birmingham, the great outdoors was a completely different world and one that was not easy to engage with. I remember climbing Crib Goch on a school trip when I was a young teenager and being completely out of my depth, even on the easier terrain, resulting in a teacher having to hold my hand most of the way. I think Snowdon may have been first ever ‘big hill’.
My introduction into the outdoors in earnest was via pure serendipity as a young adult when I moved to Sheffield to go to medical school. Like most city kids, I was into drinking and clubbing, but by chance my housemate started dating a lad that climbed; we got on so he took me out to Stanage one day and I was hooked. From there I was lucky to get in with a circle of friends that climbed regularly, informally known as the CGCC (the Crookes Gentlemans Cycling Club; residency in Crookes not mandatory and women welcome). There was still a lot of drinking and clubbing but they took me under their wing and taught me to climb, belay, strip gear and lead. I underwent a gradual apprenticeship, slowly learning the skills to take me from initially single-pitching and indoor climbing in Sheffield, to multi-pitching in the Lakes and North Wales, then winter mountaineering and ice climbing in Scotland before taking on big rock, ice and mountaineering routes in the Alps.
I now love the outdoors so much that the single biggest factor in choosing my Consultant post was ensuring easy access to the outdoors. I’m really very lucky to live in a small village on the north Cornwall coast, near to the coast path, great surfing beaches and miles of wild Cornish granite cliffs. A long way from my ghetto childhood…
Who has had the most influence on your mountain experiences?
Without doubt that’s my longstanding climbing partner, Rich James. He was part of my first group of climbing friends and he taught me to climb. We have since developed together into competent mountaineers in both the winter UK hills and Alps but without his initial tuition and guidance, I would never have discovered this world or learnt how to access it safely. These are now skills I hope to pass on to my children.
How did you come to join the RC?
I initially heard of the RC, and stayed at Beudy Mawr and Craigallan, through some friends (the Huyton family) in the CGCC who were also members of the RC. However, I didn’t entertain membership until I met Andy Tomlinson on the Diploma in Mountain Medicine. As I became older, the prospect of sleeping in car parks in Scotland in winter became less appealing and membership of the RC meant a dry bed, whatever the weather.
What does the perfect ‘hill’ day consist of?
The perfect hill day requires a big hill, with a beautiful line, interesting terrain, not necessarily technically at my limit but hard enough to keep interesting and not so hard that I can’t keep a good rhythm – something like the north ridge of the Weissmies. And of course, it requires good company and I’m now very fortunate that I have a good collection of friends who are very easy company to spend days with, who are competent and that I trust implicitly.
What have been your most memorable days out?
Crikey, where do I start? Despite coming into climbing and mountaineering relatively late in life, I’m lucky to have many. These would include:
Climbing at Millstone with Dave James (the first person I ever climbed with) on the day after I graduated from Medical School – a beautiful blue sky summers day where we ticked off countless VS-HVS cracks, the enjoyment of which weren’t even dampened by the monster hangover!
Great North Road with Rich James – this was a route that I spent a long time looking at and being incredibly intimidated by the soaring corner which, by Peak standards, is big. When I finally summoned the courage to step on to the route I was delighted to find such joyful positive climbing that wasn’t really all that hard (although I did have to give myself a talking to on the ledge just at the start of the main layback!).
Flying Buttress Direct with Clare Gardner – this was another route that I found intimidating for a long time before venturing on to it. Even though I had managed to top rope it, I was still daunted by the prospect of placing the cam just after the roof whilst hanging from the lip one handed and so it was some time before I took the lead but managed it clean and it has become a favourite test piece.
Orion Direct with Ken Applegate – this was a truly superb day out. I was working in Essex at the time and had a weekend in Scotland pencilled in for months when my partner bailed a few days before. I couldn’t find another partner and conditions were going to be amazing so I was feeling really disappointed to be missing out. My wife realised I was going to be a nightmare to live with that weekend so refused to allow me to stay home! My only choice was to drive to Scotland alone and hire a Mountaineering Instructor for the day. Being ‘guided’ up routes where I have little input into the decision making is not my thing and this is the only time I’ve paid someone to be able to get into the hills. However, I had an agreement with Ken that we would swing leads so it felt more like a normal climbing day and much less like I had a guide. Ken was great company for the day and the route was in superb nick. It’s such a varied route with almost every type of ice climbing on it. I think it’s the best route I’ve ever climbed and it’s a really magical experience to climb across the obvious snow basin halfway up when you’ve been looking at it from miles away on the walk in and you have the overlaps of Astral Highway disappearing above you.
The South Ridge of the Dent Blanche with Rich James marked a major milestone in my Alpine ‘career’. It was our first ever big AD route but conditions were good, we moved well and were under guidebook time. It was only slightly marred by the monster walk out but the ability to forget makes for a good mountaineer!
Mont Blanc from the Cosmiques with Rich James – the arrival of Rich’s twins a few years ago meant he stepped back from climbing trips away but he had always been keen to tick MB, mainly because it’s the only Alp his elderly grandmother knew of. So, for his 40th birthday, we set off for a 2-week trip and although conditions were tricky we got some good acclimatisation on the Rochefort and Tacul. I don’t acclimatise as well and so would have liked a bit more height in me before setting of for MB but we were coming towards the end of the trip and had a possible short window. Conditions on summit day really were not great and it looked and felt more like a stormy Scottish winter day. We decided to set off a couple of hours after the rest of the crowds at Cosmiques and were surprised at the rate at which we caught up and overtook group after group. Some even willingly got out of the way so they didn’t have to break trail. Visibility was poor and we navigated from Tacul to Maudit on compass. By the time we summited MB it was -20degC in the wind and a whiteout. Our outer layers and beards were well rimed but after years of climbing together, including experience in dicey Scottish winter conditions, we felt good, not out of our depths and were warm and dry. We came off uneventfully and by the time we got back to the Tacul the sky was blue and we were stripped to our base layers. This was one of those days where years of experience all came together.
West ridge of Dent D’Tsalion and Aiguille de la Tsa with Andy Tomlinson – this route came at the end of another fickle Alps trip where it was too warm and everything appeared to be disintegrating around us. I’d had my eye on this link up for 10 years and made a few trips to Arolla but never quite got on the route. We had hoped things wouldn’t be too busy but when we arrived at the Tsa Hut there were about 20 teenagers on a school mountaineering trip. Thankfully most of them went for different routes and there were only a couple of ropes on the ridge. Conditions were good, we had got out in front and we made good progress with a nice flow. The rock was lovely and the ridge soaring above us made for a great setting. On summiting we nipped around the glacier to the pin sharp rock pinnacle of the Aiguille de la Tsa and a couple of easy pitches saw us standing on the small summit. It was a long descent past the Bertol Hut and back to the car where we were greeted by teams that we had seen on the hill who were impressed that we had got two routes done in the time they managed just one! [See RCJ 2015]
Have you had any mishaps in the ‘hills’ and, if so, what’s been the worst?
I’m really lucky to have had a long and steady apprenticeship in the mountains with no need ever to pay for a formal training or mountaineering course. However, this has meant I have had to make my own mistakes and be sure to learn from them. The biggest one was made on my first real Scottish winter trip to the Ben. It was an Easter weekend with beautiful blue-sky weather and my partner and I had soloed Ledge Route on our first day in great conditions. In fact, we found it too easy and so half way up, traversed across to a gully off to the right (which I think was South Castle Gully) and then roped up to climb a couple of nice grade III pitches. The next day we set off to do The White Line, a 300m grade III on the side of Tower Ridge but we were lulled into a false sense of security as we set off late and I left my headtorch behind to save weight. I also hadn’t fully appreciated the physical demands of a big Scottish winter day so was not carrying enough fitness for back-to-back days. Being only our second time on the Ben, we made a major error in reading the terrain and mistook the North East Buttress for Tower Ridge, setting off into completely the wrong corrie. We saw a big white gully with climbers on which we convinced ourselves was The White Line and we were so fixated that we actively ignored huge features that weren’t supposed to be near our route; like a ridge to our right, which we now know to be Observatory Ridge and even though we questioned what it was, we carried on. The route was foreshortened and didn’t look as steep as it was until we were on it where it felt really very hard for grade III (not that we had a large frame of reference), particularly as we only had four ice screws. The presence of abandoned ropes appearing and disappearing out of the ice indicated someone had had a major epic and added to the intimidating surrounds we found ourselves in. At least the ropes gave something to clip. We slowly made our way up the route and as night fell, my failure to bring a head torch was forgiven by a clear sky and full moon. It was eerie climbing the exit slopes in the dark but many hours after we started, we summited at midnight into a bitter easterly wind and had to gain some refuge in the storm shelter before heading off down the hill and back to the valley at 3am. This episode taught me a lot about preparation for a route, navigation/reading terrain and respecting the mountains.
What is your dream ‘hill’ objective?
My dream hill objective is a close call between the North East Face of the Lenzspitze and the traverse of the Grandes Jorasses. The Lenzspitze is probably the biggest ice face in Europe with a pristine 500m triangle but accessing the base has become more problematic in recent years due to climate change. Ideally I would like to do it in early summer when there should be enough neve on the face but the rock dry enough to allow climbing part of the Nadelgrat to descend. Otherwise, it’s going to have to be in spring with skis to access. The GJ probably needs no explanation other than to say it’s a long, challenging, chain of rock with a series of 4000m tops and a bivvy half way. I feel both are within my capability but I need the weather and conditions to be right when I have my annual leave booked!
Perhaps more ‘dreamy’ hills that are far less achievable in reality for me would be Cerro Torre in Patagonia and Laila Peak in the Karakoram…
What makes a great ‘hill’ partner? Has anyone come close?
They need to be able, level headed and sensible but with a spirit to push themselves and me. Having someone who is of similar ability also ensures some equality and shared responsibility in the team. I’m very lucky that I have more than one great hill partner and both Rich James and Andy Tomlinson definitely fit those criteria.
With a busy professional and family life, how do you manage to keep active in the hills?
The short answer is not very well! I’m a Consultant Cardiologist in Cornwall and for some of the things I’m trained to do, I’m the only person for several hundred miles that can do it. It means I have a busy clinical job with very little professional back up. Meanwhile, at home, we have a 4-year-old daughter, Amelie, and a 5-month-old son, Luca. I’m very lucky that my wife, Caroline, understands that mountaineering is more than just a hobby and is an integral part of my life. Caroline has always known that about me and over the years, climbing has become a crucial way in which I keep my mental health in check. I’m much happier in all aspects of life when I’ve been climbing and therefore Caroline provides the support to allow me to disappear a few times a year for climbing trips and ‘re-set’.
What future ‘hill’ plans do you have?
I have a long weekend in April to get some more ice climbing in this winter. Now being based in Cornwall, it’s as easy for me to get to the Alps for a weekend as it is to get to Scotland. If conditions are good, we’ll go to Scotland but if not, we may go to the Torino to do some high level ice as a warm up for the north face of the Grand Paradiso. I’m also hoping to get a couple of weeks in the Alps in September and may have a go at the Grandes Jorasses. In the meantime, I have a 3-week family trip to the Alps in our new campervan and hope to get Amelie top roping outdoors. [Ed…this was written before Covid-19 appeared, so I guess these plans will be on hold until next year].
What have been the benefits of RC membership?
Without doubt it is meeting a lot of liked-minded folk. Since I moved to Cornwall I don’t get to meet up with many RC members but there was a time when I was working in Manchester so got to meet and climb with a number of stalwarts. The huts are also a huge plus although again, struggle to get to them regularly now.