Friday, 1 August 2014

Wintering Out

During the winter of 1975, which I spent in Chamonix, I grew a lot closer to the mountains and the Alps became my spiritual home. The high winds which had plagued the weather of the previous few weeks had subsided and I wanted like hell to climb. The rarely-climbed North Face of the Pelerins was conspicuous from the window of the apartment. One could just distinguish a thin line of ice tracing an improbable course between steep rock walls.

Tentative probes by French climbers in previous years had highlighted the difficulties we could expect to encounter: dribbles of ice smeared over smooth slabs, immobilized into a gloriously dingy ice chute. The summer route, pioneered by Terray and Rébuffat, provides a trés difficile rock climb, hindered by water and snow and spiced with occasional stonefall down the gully like features of the wall. Our recently acquired knowledge of winter climbing would be tested to the full by this extremely technical mixed climb.

Derelict eyeballs greeted the twilight of dawn as we hurriedly packed. Goodbyes and a confusion of unrelated thoughts blurred into slight apprehension as the télepherique lurched up to the Plan de l’Aiguille. Minutes later we were fumbling with snow shoes and shouldering the huge rucksacks that inevitably accompany a winter ascent. The initial stuttering of movement subsided into a steady plod as we passed from light to shade. Two hours later we shed our snow shoes as the slope steepened towards the start of the climb which lay tucked away near the North Face of the Plan. The seracs teetered ominously above our tracks lending a sense of urgency to our progress.

As always in winter the start of the climb was thick with lurking cold. Ready to pounce, it waits patiently until you are committed before making its attack. You cannot see it, or even feel it, but it’s there all the same. Noses, deliquescent with dewdrops, peered upwards speculating about nothing in particular. Not much for them in the next few days. Cardboard food and idle phrases provide a poor backdrop to such an inspiring environment.
We paused to don crampons and fiddle with slings, our feelings dominated by a growing awareness and enthusiasm. We raced up easy, snow slopes, doubts dispelled by the familiar feeling of crampons biting reassuringly into the ice below.

Rab paused to take a belay where the snow petered out and I led through up the steeper mixed terrain. Patch of ice provided secure places for hammer and axe which facilitated the occasional steep rocky steps. The next pitch provided a foretaste of things to come. Three or four off balance moves on nearly vertical ice led to delicate bridging; ice for one crampon and smooth unyielding granite for the other. Speed was dictated by the angle, yet careful precision was needed for security. 16ft. and no sign of a stance. The climb had started in earnest and we knew that from now on maximum effort would be needed to force a conclusion. Rab took a hanging belay and I scrabbled up behind. The next few rope lengths were very trying.

At one stage I had to negotiate a vertical arete with ice on each side, nasty and uncompromising, 50ft. above the last runner. My feet skated a little and my arms tensed with effort. Out of balance my sack was pulling me backwards as I struggled up some overhanging bulges. Eventually I passed the last stage of fear and switched onto a kind of automatic. It was if the subconscious had decided to kill the fear and devote everything to movement. Thoughts ceased and a determined precision carried me up to easier ground. My unthinking detached view was shattered and I lay on the ice, thoughts jostling for position. After a few minutes, when the strain on my calves became dominant, I set off to look for a secure belay.

The next pitch looked ridiculous and I was glad it was Rab’s turn to lead. How climbers like Bonatti and Desmaison continue to lead day after day never ceases to amaze me. I shifted uneasily from one foot to another trying to relax Rab tackled the ensuing groove.

Crampon points became the focal point of my attention as the true angle became apparent. A tunnel of ice two feet wide led up at an angle never less than 70° for at least 80ft. The guidebook description, intended for a summer ascent, mentioned a corner with nine pegs for aid. This was it. Rab led steadily up front-pointing. Runnerless he reached the overhangs blocking the groove so he traversed right and out of sight. A long time passed yet I never asked why. The steady crawl of the rope spoke clearly of the difficulties above. The sky was beginning to darken and I shivered a little at the thought of the inevitable bivouac. I untied from the belay to provide a few extra feet for Rab and eventually he signalled he had found a belay of sorts. I changed from Dachstein mitts to leather gloves and set off up the groove. Reminiscent of the harder sections of Minus Two Gully on Ben Nevis it provided magnificent climbing. The rope above enabled me to fully enjoy the steep heaves and the delicate footwork.

 I reached the overhangs where a narrow slab of rock slid right to an arete glistening with ice. Below the aréte lay an enormous roof festooned with icicles and dribbling with verglas. Above lay gloomy roofs and nightmare grooves leading nowhere. I was separated from the aréte by an inch thick layer of ice smeared across the smooth slabs. Six feet of teetering took me across the horizontal band of ice, hands by knees and crouched between the roofs. The bottomless aréte provided a superb pitch of the most exposed ice climbing I have ever encountered. With hammers on each side one could lean from side to side to get a new placement, feet perched precariously on the crest. My crampons worked like PA’s frictioning on the rock below the ice.

I climbed for 70ft. in the gathering gloom and took a perverse pleasure in the grey environment. Then disappointment-no trace of a bivouac ledge and not even a stance as the ice was too thin. My fingers were very cold and I was glad when Rab, interpreting my obvious look of dread each time I glanced upwards, volunteered to lead again. He carried on over ice never less than 70° and belayed. I followed pulling and scraping, carelessly placing hammers and cursing in the half light, technique gone to the winds. The prospect when I arrived was little better than before. We settled down, resigned to a bivouac in slings hanging from dubious nuts in a rotten crack.

6 p.m... and already the cold was intense. 6,000ft. below cars commuted up and down the valley unaware that we were watching with curiousity yet without envy. Rab produced a brew of mint tea whilst I searched in vain for forgotten cigarettes. Next we had alternate attempts at biting a salami until I ended up smashing it against the rock with my ice axe to break pieces off. We sucked the pieces and then pocketed them for a chew later. We dozed until the initial tiredness had worn off and I woke to find all feeling gone from my feet. The slings digging into my thighs had restricted circulation and my feet had become very cold. Fortunately a brew and a brief spell of restricted movement revitalised them.

 We had no idea of time as I had long since sold my watch to get funds for climbing. I spent the rest of the night sleeping fitfully and peering around the corner at tomorrow’s fare. I didn’t like the look of it. An icefall with fluted columns and icicles, it looked decidedly steep for a first lead in the morning.
 Fitting crampons and arranging equipment took an hour and a half as we shifted weight from one sling to another, manoeuvring carefully to avoid dropping any piece of vital equipment. I adjusted one strap at a time then returned my hands to the mitts for a few minutes. I was loathe to leave the relative security of our temporary home and only Rab’s determined look pushed me out onto the surrounding curtains of ice.

I dithered and wasted time looking for non-existent runners. Finally I warmed up a little and fought my way round the bulges to reach a small ice-field below an ominously steep corner. Rab followed and attempted the corner. After half an hour of shouting and muttering Rab had only gained 10ft. And retreat seemed to be our only escape. He came back to the stance and we weighed up the possibilities. Very steep holdless rock blocked any rightwards progress. Out to the left lay a thin streak of ice, mind-boggling in its exposure.

 Rab chose the ice and completed one of the most beautiful ice pitches we have ever had the fortune to climb. Inclined at 65-70° a completely smooth rock slab led up for  150ft. Down its centre ran a sheet of ice two or three inches thick. All in balance but no possibility of any protection. It would be easy a few feet above the ground yet situated here it called for a detachment of mind and a neat execution of carefully planned moves. Each move subtly different and a mistake unthinkable.

Rab’s slow and measured progress made me glad I was climbing with someone of such a high calibre and experience and not some front-pointing lunatic armed with a few back issues of Mountain magazine. In a game where no mistakes are tolerated there is no substitute for hard won experience and judgment. The pitch was finished and seconding it was a mere formality. Immediately above us, easy ground led to the ridge and we sauntered left and right to find the most pleasant way to the top.

Alan Rouse: Mountain 1976