Love lifts us up to where we belong - a couple's guide to mountaineering

Independent on Sunday February 8, 2004

Some women might not have appreciated Mark Smyth’s choice of honeymoon destination. Smyth, a major in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, felt that the best way of celebrating his marriage to Bridget was not to languish in the lap of luxury on a Caribbean island, or embark on a genteel cultural tour of Tuscany, but instead to go and climb a mountain. “He’s so romantic,” sighs Bridget. Fortunately for her husband, Bridget was only too happy to join him as the pair summitted 16,355ft Point Lenana, Mount Kenya’s third highest peak, in December 1998.

Come Valentine’s Day next weekend, the chances are that the Smyths will be saying it with a new pair of crampons rather than flowers. The pair have completed three of the seven summits (the seven highest mountains in each continent), and have high hopes of bagging each one. They have climbed throughout the Alps, in Africa, Scotland, South America and Russia, and from day one Bridget had a good idea of the strains that serious mountaineering could put on their relationship.

“We met in January 1997, when we both stationed in Germany,” says Bridget, also a major in the army. “Within a few months Mark had taken me on my first alpine mountaineering trip, climbing the Blei Spitze in Tirol, Austria. It was quite late in the season and there were two snowboarders on the summit. They’d waited for us and had assumed we were snowboarders, because they couldn’t understand how anyone would try and climb back down in what was deep, unstable snow.” The boarders set off, and so too did the Smyths, not before Mark had reassured Bridget that all would be well.

Bridget, a healthy-looking, no-nonsense blonde, laughs as she recalls the incident. “Mark had spent a bit of time showing me how to do an ice-axe arrest. He thought we could bumslide down the mountain, using our axes to control and stop the slides. Next thing I knew he had shot off over a convex slope.” What Mark unwittingly did was set off an avalanche, in which he got caught. “I could see clearly what had happened,” says Bridget. “He’d been hit twice, had lost his glasses, his hat, a crampon and some other gear.” Didn’t this produce anger, resentment even that she had been left, a relative novice, to descend alone? “No, my first thought was for Mark and his safety.”

Negotiating their way down the Blei Spitze post-avalanche proved to be a testing-ground in which far from falling out, the pair bonded. Mark, an army-qualified mountain expedition leader, quickly assessed the situation when he emerged from a mound of dense snow. “Luckily, the snow on the hill had solidified very quickly,” he recalls. “I could look up and see where there might be hollow ridges and shouted to Bridget, guiding her down. We ended up working together as a team, which is what you have to do in any high-altitude or dangerous environment.”

Perhaps the Smyths’ being in the army gives them an edge when it comes to a readiness to share the trials and tribulations of an extreme activity such as mountaineering. After all, they didn’t sign up because they were shrinking violets. As Bridget confirms, “Both of us love the outdoors, and army life has given us an opportunity to avoid being desk-bound.” But by the same token, being in the services imposes a different kind of strain – that of separation. Bridget saw service in Iraq between January and June 2003, while Mark was safely ensconced at the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham, completing an MSC in Defence Logistic Management. The couple were apart for six months. Previously, Mark has been posted to Kosovo, while Bridget has been in Germany. Both agree that they miss each other, that separation via military orders may be a fact of life but is still hard. “One time, we were posted separately to Oman. We could rendez-vous somewhere for an hour in the desert, to have a cup of tea. That was it. It was surreal, really,” says Bridget.

One of the attractions of mountaineering is that it gives the couple a chance to be alone together. “We love the freedom of the mountains,” says Bridget, “the chance to climb high where other people don’t go.” But sharing the experience is crucial. “I’ve climbed a lot on my own,” says Mark, “but when you get back down and talk about it in the pub, no one’s really interested. Climbing with a close climbing partner who is also your wife doubles the pleasure.”

Pleasure, of course, is not always a word readily associated with mountaineering. For every moment of beauty, for all the exhilaration of being high in the wilderness, treading virgin snow, there is the slog and pain and ever-present risk that it might all go horribly wrong. On Aconcagua – at 6960m, South America’s highest mountain, and one often climbed for pre-Everest acclimatisation – Mark was so badly stricken with altitude sickness that the summit attempt had to be abandoned. For a while, anyway: “Bridget got me back down to Camp Two and fed me loads of food and liquid. I got some sleep for five hours and felt better. Next day we made it to the top in six hours. We’d worked as a team and it has to be the best moment of my mountaineering life.”

Sporting couples have not always fared so well. Rower (and mountaineer) Debra Veal became famous not so much for completing a transatlantic rowing competition alone but because her husband Andrew had to abandon her after eight days at sea. A 6ft 5in international oarsman, Andrew unaccountably developed a terror of the sea. The pair had planned their joint bid to row the ocean for four years, in the course of which it had been regularly observed that he might be better off rowing with a man, but cometh the hour, cometh the fairer sex. Stricken by anxiety and panic, it was clear that Andrew could not go on. The couple discussed what to do and agreed that Andrew should leave the boat. Debra spent another 111 days at sea, enduring the storms, sharks and loneliness alone, before reaching land to a tumultuous welcome – not least from her husband. Both avow that their relationship is all the stronger for the incident.

Long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe also knows that in a relationship where sport at a high level is a common passion, you have to take the rough with the smooth. A public falling out with husband, coach and former elite 1,500m runner Gary Lough, who was critical of her tactics, accompanied her defeat in the 10,000m in the 2001 World Championships. Radcliffe went on to ditch her tag as ‘the nearly girl’ of British athletics, winning a succession of gold medals - which now appear to be incomplete without a trackside hug from Gary.

But as Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void shows, in mountaineering the stakes can be desperately high. Simpson’s book, now an acclaimed docu-drama, recounts how he fell to what was almost certain death after climbing partner Simon Yates cut the rope between them, by which, after an earlier fall, Simpson was clinging on to life. Simpson managed to survive, miraculously escaping a deep crevasse and crawling with his shattered body over a glacier and moraine back to base camp. What, though, would Mark or Bridget do if, heaven forbid, one of them was dangling at the end of a rope, and the other had to cut it or else risk death as well?

Mark, one of those very capable men that one finds in the army, scrunches his face up and, for a moment, his dimples make him look anything but the soldier. “I would cut the rope,” he says. “Better one casualty than two.” Bridget agrees. “I’d cut it, and I’d pray that he survived, and that I could get down and help him.” Ever the realist, then? “Mind you, if I was dangling on the end of it, I’d be swearing blue murder up at him.”