Tuesday 25 October 2011

How thick is the skin of my teeth?

True adventure has to include some form of suffering. Of course it’s impressive to climb something hard but unless it pushed you close to the edge, the memory will never be as strong as the trip that did. You have to accept that escaping by the skin of your teeth (or maybe not as the case may be) is always going to stand head and shoulders above all the other climbing stories. Just look at the history. Mallory, Tony Kurtz, Doug Scot on the Ogre, Touching the Void and Everest in 1996. Although for some they were one way tickets, the level of suffering elevates these experiences beyond the sphere of climbing and into a wider human consciousness. Of course, I don’t want to die, but I do want more from my climbing than an enjoyable, technical day out. The problem is when your talk like this, people think you’re slightly crazy, or you have some kind of death wish. The idea, that it’s a thirst for an intense life experience that drives you into the realm of suffering and fear is completely incomprehensible to most.

This October’s alpine adventure started in Chamonix as usual, but with unseasonably high temperatures it was feeling more like August, so we headed over to Point Lachenal to acclimatise and soak up the sun, while enjoying the superb crack climbing on the Contamine route. The big plan this year was to warm up on something in Chamonix then head over to the Eiger for the 38 route, so next we needed a challenging objective. Something that took advantage of the good rock climbing conditions and was inspiring enough to be our main prize if the weather took a change for the worse later in the trip. We set our sights on the Tournier Spur Direct. 500m of rock to a bivi, then a further 600m of mixed rock and ice to the summit of the Droites. Tasty.
We started the walk in from Argentiere and were going well until we made the mistake of trying to climb the glacier icefall direct, losing well over an hour, so it was 2pm by the time we reached the spur. Loose rock led up rightwards to ledges where rock shoes replaced mountain boots and the climbing started. The route headed back left along a vague ramp line and through an overhang to join the ridge proper. It was this section that made us realise conditions weren’t exactly perfect for a fast ascent, as the shady north side of the ridge had a fair covering of old snow and verglass. At 6pm with about 300m climbed we made a bivi. The weather forecast was good so one extra day on the route didn’t matter too much.
The next morning we started climbing at 7.30 but hit a problem when the route description said 'move rightwards along ledges for 20m to the obvious chimney'. We’d already moved 30m rightwards and could see no sign of an obvious chimney but after some indecisive forays back and forth, I continued rightwards for a further 20m round a corner, to find the line, where a quick change into rock boots saw us making good progress again. The climbing was fantastic and we both commented on what a great route it would be to drytool in winter, definitely one to come back for. 
It was 4pm by the time we had climbed the last mixed pitches to reach the breche and the weather had completely changed. It was snowing lightly and spindrift was already pouring down the face above.
It was time to make a decision. Up or down? Dave was leaving the choice up to me. This is ok, but I’m the one with egg on face if the weather was great tomorrow and we’d bailed. Still, this weather definitely wasn’t forecast and there was no saying it wasn’t going to carry on all day tomorrow. Equipment wise I was on the light side as well, with no belay parka, a very lightweight Yeti down sleeping bag that was already wet, just softshell with no thermals on the legs and a lightweight salomon running jacket to protect me from the wind. This would have been on the light side for a night out in Wales, midsummer, never mind an autumn storm in the Alps!
With Chamonix calling, we set up the first rap and started down. 
The first few went well. Yeah we were getting pummelled by the constant spindrift avalanches and were soon soaked to the skin as the snow melted on us, but we were finding the anchors and making progress. It wasn’t to last. Somewhere along the way the anchors disappeared and darkness descended.  These two small changes compounded by the lack of any obvious rap points in the compact rock started to slow us down. One point was particularly memorable. After digging out a parallel sided crack, I managed to hammer in a rock 2. I gingerly lowered off keeping as much weight as possible on my axes, trying to down climb rather than weight the rope, but when the ground turned vertical there was no option and I just accepted my fate. There comes a point in a situation like this where you can see the look in your partner’s eyes that says “yeah, this is getting a bit close to the edge”. We were both starting to become hypothermic as the wind bit through our wet clothes, but it had to end eventually and after about ten abs we were off the face.
So, just a crevassed slope then a 5 hour walk and we’d be sleeping in Chamonix. Little did we know, a monster crevasse was spread across the whole slope below, and in the dark there was no way we were getting across it. After traversing back and forth for about an hour we admitted defeat and settled in for the night under the base of a small serac. It was 11.30. Initially getting out of the wind and in to my bivi bag felt great, but it wasn’t to last and I knew it.
Seven hours of suffering, before daylight would allow us to get the hell outa there.
At what point does the body succumb to the cold?
Is survival just a case of willpower?
The stories of past pioneers go through your mind. The ones that broke free of their frozen night to continue and others that slowly froze to the bone to become a part of the mountain.
The idea that I may not wake was enough to kill any thought of sleep and any movement caused me to hyperventilate until I put my mouth to the air hole in my bag. The other problem was the spindrift. We were slowly getting buried. I was sitting, and when the snow reached half way up my upper arm, I would stand up, to allow the soft snow to fill the hole my body had left, and then sit down again before repeating the whole process over again.
Finally after much watching, the clock hit seven and it was time to move. This was the moment we’d been dreading. The thought of getting out of the bag, into the maelstrom and putting on boots was only slightly more attractive than doing nothing, which didn’t seem like a viable solution long term! So we moved, raked through four feet of new snow to find our buried kit and headed down to the serac.
As usual daylight changes your view of things and after moving leftwards towards the rock, I found a point where one 60m rap could get us past all the difficulties and on to easy ground below. At this point we were cold, the rope was a frozen mess and we didn’t want to hang around making V threads so I placed a screw and we rapped. Five minutes later Dave joined me on the easy ground, just as the distinctive roaring sound of falling ice filled the air. We turned and watched as the line of our descent was obliterated. Close one. The value of the ice screw seemed insignificant after that, compared to the extra time a V thread would have taken.

Back in Chamonix our future climbing plans were looking uncertain. With 40cm of new snow in the mountains it would be days before conditions improved and just hanging around hadn’t been part of our plans. The forecast for Grindelwald was looking better and the walk in to the Eiger would be easy, even with fresh snow, so we headed over, arriving that evening as the cloud cleared the face, to reveal the mountains history before our eyes.
The sound of heavy rain woke us in the night and it wasn’t letting up. If anything by the morning it was even heavier. Waterfalls were pouring from the clouds and the river running down the valley was black and swollen, even the locals seemed to be watching it with interest!

With four days left, the temptation to just get in the van, call it a day and head home was at the front of my mind, but more on autopilot than anything else we drove back to Chamonix for one last attempt to get up something. With the depressing advice from the guides office that we were basically wasting our time, we agreed on a plan. We would head across to the La Fourche hut with everything we needed to climb the Cecchinel Nomine on the Grand Pillar D’Angle, but if conditions were too slow getting to the hut, we’d dump the kit, climb something on the Triangle Du Tacul then go home.
Heading down onto the Valley Blanche I was pessimistic, but it was misplaced. In my wildest dreams I didn’t imagine conditions would be this good; it was like walking on solid concrete! Getting to the hut was going to be a doddle. My pessimism was replaced with optimism; nothing was going to stop us now!
The La Fourche hut is a fantastic spot, giving a grandstand view of the Brenva seracs that hang above the ‘bowling alley’ approach we’d be taking in the morning. Dave was keen to take Jon Griffiths advice and head over to Col Moore to check out the raps onto the glacier but I was feeling rather lethargic and not in the mood for exercise so he headed off while I concentrated on relaxing in the sun!
2 am saw us waking, well I say waking but for me it was more like just standing up rather than lying down as I hadn’t actually slept! Just after 3 we started the raps down to the glacier and quickly reached Col Moore. Four more raps that went quite slowly in the dark, led to the final part of the approach, under one of the reasons I’d not slept. The hanging serac’s of the Pear and Route Major. Here we took Jon’s advice and moved across low down to reach the buttress and out of the fall line. Next a pitch of Scottish 5 saw us over the giant shrund and up to the face proper. Some uncertainty over where the route started caused us to lose time and it was 7.15 by the time we were climbing.
Dave led the first block up to the aid pitch which I led on the insitu pegs. Then more icy gulleys through spectacular rock scenery, led to a rightward ramp and a further ice field to below the final big exit pitch to the summit slopes. For us the exit pitch proved to be the crux with vertical icy grooves that had to be crossed diagonally before a further 10m of 80 degree ice led to an easy ramp and belay on the summit slopes.

Cecchinel Nomine Route
We reached the top of the buttress at 4pm and cut out a couple of ledges for the night. With us both feeling the altitude and high winds blowing across the top of Mont Blanc De Courmayeur, food, a nights sleep and the warmth from the morning sun seemed like a good idea before tackling the last 600m to the top.
The next morning with the winds slightly lighter and a belly full of porridge we made the long plod up to Mont Blanc. This was the first time for Dave, who was pleased to have achieved his aim of climbing it from the Italian side. We’d decided to descend via the Gouter hut down to Les Houches which turned out to be a tough old slog, but it did guarantee we’d be in Chamonix for beer and food that night which made it worth it! Particularly pleasing was the old gent in Les Houches that gave us a lift back to the van. Thanks mate!
So the perseverance paid off in the end, turning what would have been a true adventure into a truly successful adventure!

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