I was digging through some old computer files today and found this piece I had written about an alpine ascent from 2003.
The route had a big effect on me at the time. It had felt remote and although the climbing had been technically “OK” the descent had been loose and very slow. It was the middle of winter, cold and with a storm due just a few hours after we should have finished. I remember being very nervous before the climb, and voicing my doubts to Stuart, who pretty much told me to toughen up and stop being a wimp. It was enough to annoy me, then clear my head and we then swung leads all the way to the summit.
I haven’t really written anything about individual routes since then, despite climbing harder and longer climbs in the Alps and abroad.
Looking back it was a turning point in my climbing evolution, and I was lucky to share it with a very competent climbing partner.
Despite reading some passages and cringing I’ve managed to refrain from editing anything, you’ll have to excuse the odd dodgy photo as well.
The Dufour Route, Aiguille Telefre. Chamionix.
Forty-seven, forty-eight, forty-nine, FIFTY. Damn, I’m only halfway. My calculation of fifty paces to the next rock has fallen short so according to the rules of my counting game I have to carry on. Fifty-one, fifty-two…
I can see Stuart as a small pool of light and movement up ahead on an otherwise deserted landscape. He is snowshoeing on the Telefre glacier, a huge amphitheatre of jagged granite peaks in the Chamonix Alps. This glacier basin, which swallows planes and spits them out five minutes later like tiny flies, contains the North face of the Aiguille du Talefre, which is our objective for this January morning.
It’s an excellent night for a climb, the sky is perfectly clear and a full moon helps us pick out a route on an unfamiliar glacier at this early hour. Although the sky is clear my mind on this approach is entirely the opposite. Full of confusion and conflicting emotions it is the hardest part of the entire climb for me. As I finally reach the rock (to which I have been counting) on my one hundred and eleventh pace, I allow myself a rest and think back over the last few days.
We left Chamonix to cut our teeth and blunt our tools on some “warm up” routes on our first winter trip to the alps, my second ever trip to Chamonix. The Lescheaux glacier below the grand Jorass contained many Couloir lines that’s were the very few in condition during this dry winter season. Stuart and I tried two routes based from the hut; we failed on both. Powder snow over rock slabs stopped us eighty meters short on the first, thin ice and bold mixed pitches slowed us down on the second forcing us to descend in dwindling daylight not far from the summit. This would explain why we were looking up at the remote and seldom climbed Dufour couloir feeling tired on our sixth day out from the valley.
So although we felt like we were climbing good and fast we were itching to top out on our third and final climb before heading back to Chamonix. Unfortunately my head wasn’t as strong as it should have been on this approach, my hate part of the standard love/hate relationship I have with alpine climbing. The self-doubting and the physical punishment that I put myself through on every alpine start is depressing me on this one. Worrying about our ability, reserves of energy, conditions and weather is distracting me from the task in hand and making me wonder if I really want to put myself through this at all.
It was in this frame of mind that I looked up at the Couloir dropping down from the summit, which was just out of sight. All I could see was a dirty, stone riddled streak of ice disappearing up into the darkness. I hate rock fall, the sound of the whistling on its way down and the pain and terror when the missiles hit. I suddenly become very aware of my old, battered helmet that needs replacing. Small stones and gravel make sharp noises on my skis confirming the objective danger from above, as I switch backed up the slope towards the bergshrund. I decide to voice my doubts to Stuart but received little sympathy. He is clearly very focused today and it is plainly and painfully obvious that he will be prepared to take on anything in his path.
After about fifteen minutes of mucking about I have abandoned my heavy skiing gear and exchanged it for climbing kit before breaking trail towards the bergshrund and the route itself. As soon as we surmount this first obstacle my mind gradually clears along with the day itself. The climbing very quickly takes over my consciousness to the point where all I am worried about is the need to lead safely, fast and to second even quicker. I have left all my fears and apprehensions with my skis at the base of the route and that’s where they must stay.
The first few pitches, although easy, are indeed a chute for the small stones and gravel funnelling down from higher up the mountain in these mild winter conditions. But soon enough, with momentum building we make out way out of the flying choss to a relatively sheltered gully line off to one side.
We gain altitude quickly getting off the scrappy pitches on onto the meat of the route, which presents itself in the form of several steep ice steps. The end of my block of pitches coincided with the first pitch of this section that took a couple of our shorter screws and some dodgy rock gear.
As I was belaying Stuart up to the belay I realise that we are getting very committed on the route. So far there has been very little in the form of natural belay anchors suitable for rappelling the route later on, but the thought of going back down the gulley getting hit by all the rocks and gravel, which would undoubtedly get worse through the day, was not one I entertain for long. As if reading my mind Stuart confirmed this when he reaches the belay “I’m not abseiling this crap!” He says. So we are committed to climb up and over the summit no matter what. It now feels liberating to have this mind set on the climb at last.
I laugh as I hand him the gear for what looked like the best pitch of the climb. A steep narrow rope length on good alpine ice leads up over a bulge obscuring our view of the upper couloir.
Stuart leads off leaving me to watch his progress and the rapidly expanding view. But this and the following few belays are badly positioned. We strive to place them out of the line of fire but it seems the second is not due for an easy ride. I try to cower under the rucksack but I still seem to get hit, in the hand, in the leg and on the helmet when I risk a peek. I dig into the rucksack and haul out my goggles so when my partner is leading they give me some comfort allowing me to watch his progress.
After three pitches it’s my turn to lead and Stuarts turn to get bruised. Leading the second pitch of the block will be the technical crux for me. As I set off I try and shut the cries of pain coming from the belayer below, the quicker I finish the pitch the less time he will spend getting bombarded. I make my quickly up the lower angled slope at the start of my pitch, scratching to find adequate protection before the steep ice starts. I have to make do with a badly bottomed out screw to at least slow me down if I come off, then it’s into the steeper stuff. The ice is very thin here; where the ice is clear I can see the rock only one or two centimetres below the surface. I keep going over the step forgetting about the lack of gear but thankfully I get a rest and a wire in the side of the gulley which is a relief because above is a section which looks thinner and longer than the one I just surmounted. I tip toe my way up, trying not to swing my axes too much for fear of knocking the climbable ice down. Placing my feet in my old axe placements I manage to get a dodgy screw into a thicker part of the ice formed in a corner. Breathing easier now I realise I have slowed down so I keep going making a traverse out of the gully and onto a mixed section for another twenty meters or so. After a full sixty meters I stretch up to a good spike for the belay, shout safe to Stuart and allow myself a small grin of anticipation as he starts climbing below. Above me the gully has lost all its ice and turned into a scramble for the ridge and summit. He quickly reaches me and starts off on the rock section while I finish the last of my food. I have had two muesli bars and some chocolate since leaving the hut almost twelve hours ago. We ran out of route food after our second route but managed to save a tiny amount for this climb, which is woefully inadequate, but I try not to think about it and concentrate on what stu is doing.
After one pitch we realise the summit is still a little distance from us, so we start to move together up easy but very loose rock watching the summit ridge getting gradually closer. A hundred meters later I emerge onto the top itself with Stuart giving me a quick waist belay, there’s not much else around anyway. We drink a little water, take the obligatory summit shots and shake hands as well. Looking over at the hut far away and then looking at all the peaks starting to catch the evening sun, I am glad we have are on top.
But I am tired and spent looking over at our ‘easy’ descent ridge stretching away into the distance. It is a nightmare of loose rock hanging over looming drops where you can’t see the bottom with powder snow obscuring the good handholds. The hardest part of the ridge is at our end and we hasten our departure from the summit to try and pass this before it gets too dark.
This is one aspect of mountaineering that I am practiced at physically and mentally, I do not dread the descent routes after a long climb as long as I am prepared for them. Stuart is tired after a long lead simul-climbing at the end so we take a few coils and I set off along the ridge.
Deep powder snow hinders me at the start but I soon get into a bit of mixed ground as we make our way up to the ridge proper. Then it’s just scrambling along in crampons and gloves trying to find the best route. The ridge though is a loose horror show, every time I come across a wobbly block threatening us or the ropes I send it off down one side of the ridge making huge booming noises and scaring Stuart when he his out of sight and can’t see what I’m doing.
The easiest route pushes us down along on side of the ridge and down a set of grooves and chimneys in the rapidly failing light. I strap my head torch on before leading round an unexpected, and tricky rock arête, which I am sure must be off route! A dodgy spike belay brings us both round and we are off again.
Three hours later Stuart punches through the lip of the snow ridge and brings me up on a classic Scottish “walking backwards” belay. We have finished the hardest part of the ridge but there is still a ways to go. We now have to continue along to the Pointe Superieure de Pierre Joseph and from there make our way down its North ridge. We are both stumbling along now, inadequate food and water intake is making me struggle but we battle on thinking of warm beds in the Courvecle hut and knowing there is no other option.
Thankfully this section of the ridge is a lot easier and much less exposed. We scramble on down the ridge facing out and then turning in for a few steeper sections. Soon enough we get ourselves onto a snow slope leading to the bottom of the face, I warn Stuart where the bergshrud is by falling in it before we walk away from the face and throw the rope and pack down onto the snow. It feels like the main danger has passed, we have escaped the lion’s den for the moment. No more loose blocks and exposure, just the long slog back to the skis at the base of the route and then back to the hut.
We scissor, paper, stones for who gets the rack and snowshoes. Stuart wins/loses so I follow his big footprints with a light rope on my back towards the start of the climb once again. We are in good spirits here and chat away telling tales before the hill catches up with us, then we are on our own willing the ski’s to be closer.
Later on by myself, with Stuart down in front of me somewhere, I take the skins off my skis and strap the planks to my feet. I can see all the crevasses off to either side of me so start some long gentle turns down the hill. The moon is out again lighting my way and I have fantastic fun skiing around in my climbing boots even though I tired from the climbing. I know where I am going and soon catch up and ski past Stuart and on to the hut. When he gets back I have done my job of getting dinner on and we celebrate the day with more brews than I can remember. “Its Twenty One hours after leaving the hut, I think we deserve a few beers in town tomorrow!” says Stuart. Already the fatigue, pain and mental strain is rapidly fading. “Yeah, then we better get on something hard I reckon.”