On the 20th June, we drove out of Finsbury Square towards the Blackwall Tunnel with a car full of ropes, hardware, a posh tent, an ultra-light cooker and in my case absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for.
It was my first climbing trip to the Alps, and while I had done some basic work on the techniques required, it didn’t in any way prepare me for the reality of large expanses of steep snow, 12 pitches of exposed rock, or four hours hiking over scree to mountain huts. The last time I went to any part of the Alps was in 1995. I was 17, and a collection of friends whose main pastime was very recreational cycling drove from Southwest Germany to a campsite in Graubünden. We mainly spent the time playing poker in the tent while we waited for the rain to stop, and went on one beautiful days’ hiking to about 1800 metres. In other words, it in no way prepared me for any aspect of alpine mountaineering.
The itinerary of this trip worked out as follows:
20th June: Drive London – Reims after work, stay in motel off the motorway
21st June: Drive Reims – La Bérarde, about 50 kms southeast of Grenoble. Camp at 1750 metres.
22nd June: Walk to Pilatte Hut (2500 metres), 3 hours
23rd June: Summit Mont Gioberney 5am – 11 am, back to campsite
24th June: Hanging out at campsite La Bérarde. Buy new crampons. Eat and relax.
25th June: Walk to a random spot at the edge of some snow. Sleep outside (aka bivouac, aka really bloody cold, windy and frightening).
26th June: Climb Pic Nord des Cavales. Walk back to La Bérarde. For hours and hours. Get back to campsite, get a bit upset.
27th June: Climb locally
28th June: Walk to Sellier hut
29th June: Climb La Dibona
30th June: Drive three hours, stay in Beaune, buy wine
1st July: Drive two hours, lunch in Reims, buy champagne, four hours back to London
I had always thought that alpine “mountaineering” was just a slightly harder bit of walking, with the slight possibility of falling into a crevasse thrown in. It seemed like the sort of description for a nice walk with crampons, followed by some cake in the conveniently located cafe, that people apply because it makes them sound cooler. I didn’t necessarily think the general idea was a steep uphill four-hour walk/scramble at 2000 metres, followed by 2 hours’ sleep in a mountain hut, another four hours to get across a glacier, or a few snow gullies, up and down a summit ridge or several pitches, followed by four more hours to get back to the campsite, with a bit of abseiling thrown in.
Still, it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. I could only have done it either with a guide, or with someone who knows so much about it they should be (my other half). I might know how to tie into my harness, how to use an ice axe, how to put crampons on and how to coil the rope around myself, but I had never done any multipitch climbing before, and unfortunately it showed. Even though I knew Richard was in complete control of the rope, and wouldn’t have taken unnecessary risks, it is by nature unpredictable, and at times a little too frightening for me. I’m still vaguely trying to figure out whether that makes me normal, or very pathetic.
The first route up Mont Gioberney was relatively straightforward, although hampered by my crampons constantly coming off on the glacier, which was unsettling. We left the hut at about 4.30 am, and initially it wasn’t too bad. I was afraid of walking across the snow in the dark, which is rather silly since I spent every Christmas in Germany standing around at the top of a snow slope at midnight while slightly drunk, randomly hopping on the back of a friend’s sledge. One of the psychological side effects of using any safety gear – like crampons, rope or an ice axe – is that you are automatically in a “serious” frame of mind. If the activity requires precautions of some sort, it must be dangerous, so I “should” be scared. As soon as the crampons go on, walking across the snow suddenly changes from a bit of fun to a whole plethora of different worst case scenarios, where I fall over backwards, catch my crampons in my femoral artery and bleed to death within three minutes. That was a real favourite in my head, along with equally wildly unlikely scenarios like falling over backwards and stabbing myself with my ice axe although given how many times I managed to hit my shins with it, it didn’t seem that far-fetched by the end of the week.
By the time we reached the summit ridge, I was very frustrated at the slow pace we had been forced to adopt as a result of constantly stopping to try and fix the crampons. I also felt very stupid; having set off quite quickly we ended up being the last group to make it to the top. I underestimated how much thought is required in ensuring you always have the right equipment in my hands, although I know how important (and very frustrating) it is not to stop. So I wasted time finding things in my pack, fiddling with gloves , finding water etc., and Richard tried not to look slightly irritated.
We got to the top at about 8.30 am, took some pictures, and ate quite a lot of chocolate. Once we got back to the hut, we spent an idyllic two hours sitting in the sunshine, in pleasant silence, and I thought mainly about how much all this meant to me, being out in the open air, with someone who seemed willing to tolerate my eccentricities, and just staring at the mountains thinking nothing in particular. It’s perhaps strange to really love thinking nothing, but the combination of the pristine beauty of the landscape and the significant physical effort required to get there seems to elicit this pleasurable blankness. There is no emotional “high” to any part of the activity, just a sort of ambient contentedness that is surprisingly hard to achieve in everyday life. In London, I’m usually late for something, or feeling guilty about sleeping in/eating too much/not phoning my friends. Once you’re halfway up a mountain, there is only you, your climbing party, and a landscape that isn’t terribly keen on keeping you alive.
We wandered back down to the campsite, ate ice cream, and looked around the little church at the memorials to a few dozen dead climbers, stretching as far back as the late 1800s. They mostly seemed to have died in avalanches. I was particularly dispirited by one family who had lost one son in the mountains in 1914, and the other at the Somme in 1916. After a much needed shower and brush-up, we had raclette in the local restaurant, which was probably the only thing on the entire trip that I knew more about than Richard – although in Germany I don’t remember having it with shallots.
The next day was spent relaxing in the valley. We ate the most ludicrous amount of food I’ve ever seen at a local restaurant, and en route Richard got a phone call from his brother announcing his engagement, which was very exciting, even though I’ve never even met his brother. I’ve now got a really clear and no doubt entirely erroneous view of him based on hearing the other end of a phone call.
As we were not going to be staying at a hut for the next goal, we did not need to set off particularly early. I was informed that we did not want to reach the bivvy spot too early, as we’d otherwise just be sitting around getting cold and waiting for the sun to set. It was supposed to take 3 or 4 hours to walk to the area that was most likely to have suitable bivvy spots, so we only set off at 2 pm.
We needn’t have worried about having too much time, as I was rather slow at the last section on scree (the fear again), and it took a long time to find a flat enough platform. If at this point you’re wondering what exactly this bivvy business is about – as indeed I was – it is short for bivouac, presumably a French word, and it basically means that instead of sleeping in a tent, you just plonk your sleeping bag on the ground and hope for the best. In order to avoid getting too cold and wet, you can buy so-called “bivvy bags”, which are basically large Gore Tex bags that you slot your sleeping bag into.
This is exactly what we did when we eventually found a location at the edge of the snowline. The reason for picking the edge of the snowline was of course that we had to melt snow to drink. I remember reading that particular passage in Touching the Void, and thinking, “what kind of crazy-ass fanatic would faff around melting snow just to do a bit of climbing”. It was exactly what I still thought the next morning, after we had spent the entire night awake in a gale that was so strong it moved my legs as I lay there. Inevitably, I had that familiar feeling of foreboding, looking at the clouds rolling in as the sun set, and thinking that nature did not want us there. We were surrounded on three sides by vertical rock faces, and all night we could hear the rocks falling in the wind, often huge slews so loud I sat up a few times to check we weren’t about to be buried – not that I could have done anything about it. We looked out over a beautiful view of the valley and the hut below, but given all the uncertainty I had about the situation, I preferred to keep looking at Richard, checking he hadn’t been blown away. He peered out from somewhere in the middle of his red sleeping bag, trying to smile encouragingly. It was his disconcerted smile, when he’s either not sure himself, or is skating over some awkwardness. I was encouraged and happy anyway, because I realised that we were sharing a rather similar perception of the situation – and for many other reasons that are not the subject of this blog.
After a lot of slightly frantic faffing trying to light the cooker in the wind and melt the snow for our water bottles, we slowly wandered up the gully to the breche, and over the other side to where the pitched climbing starts. I was really not giving a good impression of someone soldiering on in the face of adversity. It would be better described as indulging my own fears, wallowing in self-pity about the fact I wasn’t fit enough and didn’t have the wherewithal to handle the scree. I grabbed onto the fixed cable as if it would somehow solve all my problems in general, and paid absolutely no attention to Richard’s warnings about metal splinters and sharp edges. I didn’t even find it remotely disconcerting that that cable was all tangled up in a rusty abseil stake, and just carried on clipping into it like a tourist.
We got to the foot of the climb at about 9 am, climbed the eight pitches to the top with relative ease. After a few photos, it took several hours to abseil back down, as the ropes kept getting tangled. I was worse than useless at scrambling down (more of the fear and a bit of very petulant shouting about how I didn’t want to die), so we abseiled sections that were not steep enough. On the way, we bumped into a student who was being taken on his first day of climbing outside. For some reason, his friends had decided that alpine multipitch would be the right introduction to the sport. I suppose it’s a bit like throwing your kids in at the deep end to teach them to swim, but it obviously wasn’t working out for him. He was sitting at the belay of the second pitch, which was also my first hanging belay. I had quite an enjoyable time chatting to him; he clearly thought the whole enterprise entirely insane, and asked me several times how I could possibly trust a bit of nylon with my life. It took me some time, but I suppose philosophically I don’t see the difference between trusting the gear and trusting that cars will stop if you step into the road – which almost everyone in London does every day. He was a medical student from some other part of France, and his main way of passing the time on the belay was chain-smoking and talking at me nervously. He was about to tell me all about his holiday in Cornwall when I had to set off. We also met a slightly crazy old man who was just wandering around in the snow with a tiny rucksack and some hiking boots, and told us that he had spent the night on the other side of the breche, where the wind was calmer. He was also seemingly going to bivvy for days on end. The walk back to the campsite was almost interminably long, and by the time we finally got back at about 7 pm, neither of us was really making any sense. We passed the rather dull walk back down by somewhat obsessively discussing the different colours of flowers, and whether we had seen them before. I was rather vague on this point, as I appeared to be losing the ability to distinguish objects, or colours. Everything faded into a kind of background mushroom colour, and Richard’s voice kept moving further away from me, even though he was walking right behind me.
One would think that a shower and clean clothes would have fixed everything, but I appeared to be suffering some sort of paranoia when we got back to the tent. I had built up quite a collection of guilt about all the ways in which I was ill equipped to partner someone with so much more experience than me; on his own, I reasoned, he would have gone up and down with no trouble at all. He would not be hanging around waiting, or fixing an encouraging smile on his face when I was scared of my own shadow. I therefore convinced myself that when he popped into the tent and asked how i was doing, what he was really saying was that I was once again not ready, and was preventing him from getting dinner. The response could have gone into the final scene of Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, and attracted some attention from our fellow campers.
The last destination on our itinerary was La Dibona, and immensely impressive shard of granite that can be climbed in 14 pitches to the top. It was hugely predictable that I would get too frightened of it, but I was so disappointed when we retreated off the 4th pitch. It felt as if I had given in at the first possible opportunity. I’m trying not to over-think such a complete lack of tenacity, but it’s quite hard not to draw parallels. I suddenly feel like I’m the type of person who gets off the treadmill, doesn’t finish work to the best standard, doesn’t remember things that are important to friends, doesn’t phone back (ok, fine, I never have), just doesn’t care.
Still, I’ve been thinking that the answer is just to try a bit harder, with everything. Run a bit faster, and a bit more often, cycle more, climb stuff that scares the life out of you at the wall (in my case, any traverse at The Castle will do it), and believe that you can finish things no matter how long it takes. I just want to feel more alive.
- European Alps: a deceptively dangerous playground for climbers (guardian.co.uk)
- Climbing death toll sparks debate (bbc.co.uk)
- What I brought back from Switzerland: Collection of Alpine Flowers (raxacollective.wordpress.com)