Just back from a week of icy mixed climbing action in Chamonix with the Beast…
Friday…2.30pm…leaving work sharpish…driving at pace through the night…Bradford-Dover-Brussels-Luxembourg…stopping…snoozing…not sleeping…
Off again…caffeine…driven by the psyche, the desire to escape. Into Switzerland. Driven by the routes we’d heard about, conditions we’d heard about or conditions we’d made up in our own desperate minds…driven by weather forecasts we wished to be better than they probably would be…
Into Switzerland…snow dumping down now, wet clag…not crisp sun-drenched settledness. The Eiger obsession looking limp like the leaves, sodden and snow-drenched. The car pulled in, heads turned, caffeined, nodded, decided…
Into France to Chamonix. Gleaming goulottes, gorgeous granite, perfect lines. Three days of decent weather from Monday the man said…
But what about Sunday? What about time? What about wasting time? I didn’t want to spend a day going brain dead. Snell Sports…some coffee, a bar, another shop, coffee, pastries, draining away our motivation with each slow step.
Saturday night we arrived. Some pizza, a beer and Belevedere Argentiere for bed. Sunday morning the bleep bleep of the Beast’s watch wakes me…normally I find it tricky to get up…but not this morning. Too psyched we step outside to a thick carpet of constantly falling snow. We defrost the car and drive. Not a sole appears to stir except us. And with good reason. The clocks had gone back!
Goulotte Profit-Perroux III 4 M5, 220m (plus the finish up the Cosmiques Arete) Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix
We did this on Sunday. Usual scene, arriving at the Midi station only to find out it wasn’t running. More info at 10am! We retired for coffee and pain of chocolate. Then returned.
11am it opened. We went for it. Nobody else did. Gear on in the lift. Time was short. The route short but maybe not short enough. Out at the top and round the barrier on the bridge, the temperature and thin air took away our breath. Fingers numbed. We abseiled down. Down, down into the Cunningham Couloir. No guidebook, just a vague notion of 5 abseils. The couloir was carpeted in thick fresh snow. We found the start and started. The Beast led off being beast-like. Easy does it, at the belay. I follow, fingers numb. I stop, nearly barfing with the barfies. I set off and motor on, fingers numb once more. I haul the rope through the plate, once again the barfies come…agony, I think I may cry.
Pitch 3 and things get a little trickier. A short goulotte, maybe 85 degrees. The Beast walks past it not noticing. I dry my tears and follow. Fingers numb again. Pitch 4, mixed about M5. Safe, positive, good hooks and great gear. I belay screaming…more barfies…not ideal. The Beast arrives, looks at me with disgust, and then leaves. We hit the ridge. Time to spare but not loads. We move together past the Cosmique’s crux…deep soft snow, slowing progress…lungs feeling the thinness of the air. Unacclimatized.
Three and half hours after starting we finish. The last bin made but not with time to spare. We ride down. Good day. Good route. Good warm up.
Feeling smug we reflected on cutting it fine and thought about tomorrow.
Beyond Good and Evil (CR finish), 500m North Face of the Pelerins, Chamonix
Monday morning and another not lie in. Breakfast French-stylie and a late Midi lift. 9am they decided to start today though. Off at the Midi Plan we started up the track. A line of footprints already in through the fresh snow. We weaved through the boulders, up to and past the Peigne. Stumbling at times, staggering upwards. The line came into view, glinting and gleaming, draped down the granite. Perfectly pristine. We geared up and swam over to the start. Leaving our sacks and taking a lightweight second’s pack.
The Beast led off up thinly iced slabs. 20 feet up he climbed down. False start but hopefully not false hope. Up he went again. Thin. Delicate. Potentially dangerous. Then he found the key. He dug out a crack. The game was on. Spindrift dumped down heavy threatening to knock him off. Delicately he soldiered on. I followed, finger ends numb from the previous day. We found our rhythm, steady, not mechanical, delicate. Pitch after pitch of sublime goulotte, ribbons of ice like frozen tears down the granite grains. Never desperate but never safe.
We hit the corner, crux of the lower part. It reared up, steep and thin. Twight aided this on the first ascent. Insufficient ice. It looked like we may have to too. An inch or two thick, a layer of ice, cruddy snow and steep. Hopefully not an impasse. Hopefully not emotional. We carried on in our trance.
After the junction we opted for the Carrington. Beyond Good but not quite Evil. We hit the top and started to rap. Down, downwards, descending to our packs. The rhythm of the up maintained. We packed and continued down, stopping only briefly to chat to a couple of French climbers, the route’s potential suitors tomorrow. A glint in their eyes, mirroring the glint in ours.
Tedious trotting and we arrive back in Chamonix, just shy of 10pm. Food and beer, but not in that order. Satisfied but dissatisfied. Good but not quite evil.
Pinocchio IV 6+, 450m, East Face of Mt Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix
After Monday, Tuesday allowed a brief lie in. We packed and headed high late afternoon. The Cosmiques winter room was a plan. The Midi gallery became the reality. A room with a view but not to be advertised (apparently).
The East face of Mt Blanc du Tacul is home to many a classic icy mixed line. Some hard and some not so hard. Stevie Haston is a legend. So is Robert Jasper. They’ve both contributed here. Scotch on the Rocks, Vol de Nuit…both hard classics. And Stevie’s other route, Pinocchio…a climb I’d wanted for a while.
Wednesday morning we got up early. A beautifully bruised sky, cold and still but far from settled. We hot footed it round and started. Steady snow and easy mixed for the first 2 pitches. I followed pitch 2.
We swapped and I set off. Pitch 3, my bag apparently. Techy mixed ground. About Scottish 7. Some useful ice and some not so useful crud. Progress was steady…but not startling. I edged upwards to a small roof split by an awkward crack on either side. An overhanging plug of snow threatened to push me out of balance, topple me from above. I cleared it, calmed myself and found some ok runners in the left-hand crack. A couple of false starts and I discovered the order necessary to breach the awkwardness. Feet clearing the roof, crampons on precarious granite edges, the crux. A couple of deep breaths, far out now. A crap runner and forge on. At the belay.
Beast seconds cold and goes for pitch 4. Innocuously it starts and weaves out of sight. He’s steady, the route kinks up left and he stops. Fiddling in the corner, finding some satisfactory safety. Another roof, this time breached by a thin smear of steep ice. Beast territory, he inches upwards. Calm, steady and solid. Although not the ice or the weather.
It snows hard now. Blue sky is gone. In fact it appears to be snowing upwards. Plastering the rock. The wind nips partially exposed skin and spindrift threatens to suffocate our safety as well as our sanity. I second up and lead through. More thin goulotte climbing, at times the spindrift threatens to knock us from our teetering perches but we inch onwards and upwards. Icy mixed ground to the top of the Pilier Martinetti. We rap the route. Downward momentum exacerbated by the thundering spindrift plumes. Stevie tuts mockingly. He’d probably ski shit steeper than this. And in worse weather.
We hit the schrund, sacks are buried, tracks are gone, wind is high, slopes are loading. We pack and stay roped up against the threat of the hell-holes. The wind rises, howls and nips. We post-hole back across the Vallee Blanche, a slog, even to the fit and acclimatized super heroes that are not us. We have time to spare…we think. The wind howls wilder. And finally we hit the Midi arete. Two figures stumble towards us from the Midi Plan ridge. Jon Bracey and his client, fresh from Fil a Plomb. Perhaps we should all know better we joke.
The Beast finally shows signs of weakness. His face starting to go white with wind chill. We stop and cover up then stagger on against the tempest. A voice in the distance, barely real, barely audible.”Allez, allez!” I hear it now, the lift station staff encourage us on. Five minutes to 4. Time to spare.
We hit the tunnel and are hurried along…high winds, lift closing early…time to not spare.
Back in Chamonix we drink more beer, eat more food and feel more satisfied. The weather window has closed but 5 days, 3 awesome routes and high psyche leave us howling mad for more. It is Halloween after all! The next morning we attempt one final early lift and the Vent du Dragon. But today they close, the wind too ferocious.
We head down the valley. Le Fayet, drytooling…winter training…minds already fixed firmly on objectives back home…