Chamonix / Alpine Hazards / With Bernd on the Bonatti / Walker Spur
"In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments - there are consequences."
The esthetics of a route; the size, shape, and structure of the mountain, the purity of the line, often attracts me more than the difficulty of the climbing. I want to emerse myself in the atmosphere of a wild and beautiful place - to feel its various moods: rock and ice, sun and storm, day and night. I want to watch the play of light and shadow as I climb higher, seeing new and intimate details only a mountaineer can know.
The north face of the Plan, in the center of the Chamonix Aguilles, has long held such an allure. Collomb's guide calls it "one of the great classic ice routes of the Mt. Blanc range." The slender flow of its hanging glacier, broken by massive blue seracs, and flanked by the soaring granite walls of the Blatiere and Peign, forms a striking line that varies in difficulty (D-TD) depending on the condition of the glacier. The greatest technical difficulty is normally the initial ice cliff capping the 500 meter rock ridge.
When I'd arrived in Chamonix, clear weather, and reported good ice conditions had me eager to get out. One of the Brits I met in Snell's Field, a young Welchman named John, was packing up to solo the north face of the Courtes. From casual conversation, I'd heard him mention some hard Scottish ice climbs, and middle E grade rock, so figured he must be solid. When I proposed we team up for the Plan, he was receptive; but cautioned me that recent studying had cut into his training, so he might slow me down. I assured him I wasn't in a hurry, a more relaxed pace would allow me to work more on photography.
We disembarked from the Plan de Aguille tram station around noon. After searching in vain for some water, we finally set off with my bottle half full and John's empty; a portent of things to come.
The snow on the glacier was firm, but the steep gully leading up between the first and second gendarmes was wet mush, tiring and insecure, even driving my full 60 cm axe shaft in. I soon took to the rock and scrambled to the notch to wait. John was a long time coming, having taken a different, apparently more difficult way. He'd given himself quite a scare when he slipped, scraping his bare knee and thigh. He understandably wanted to start belaying. On the next pitch I'd hoped he would run up the trench I plowed in a snow gully, but he came up slowly, disconcerted without secure pick placements. Again we took to more difficult rock, climbing directly up the ridge crest to avoid the deep snow covering what would have been easy scrambling if dry.
Just before turning the second gendarme, we stopped to pull on pants. It was then that I first noticed John wasn't wearing gaiters, or carrying a sleeping pad. When I mentioned the gaiters, he said, "Oh, I couldn't be bothered." His offhand reply about the pad, "I'll lay on the rope," sounded like an old vet accustomed to such hardship; so I just thought "to each his own way," and carried on.
A difficult move (crux for us) at the top of a short chimney forced me to grab a friend. Then we had to rappel down a short snow-covered slab to reach the easy traverse over to and around the third gendarme. It was all much more complicated and time consuming than anticipated. John didn't help things when he took almost an hour to lead an easy (though wet and insecure as usual) snow pitch. He hadn't gotten his mitts out when we'd put on pants, and had to stop in mid-pitch, hanging off a nut for a long time warming his hands.
At this point, I began stressing the need for speed, but apparently wasn't emphatic enough. Perhaps I should have insisted on leading, but the situation wasn't dire enough to offend John in this manner. As he led his next long snow pitch, I had to hold my tongue to an occasional, "light's going fast," and "take high steps," as exhaustion and insecurity slowed him to a crawl with long rests. I followed at a run, grabbed the rack, and set off up the grade IV chimney above, in a frenzy to finish the pitch before total darkness.
The ridge crest was a disappointment - covered with a steep merange of soft snow. We still had three long pitches to reach the glacier. Bringing John up, I planned the bivy. He didn't understand where I could kick out a place, so I told him to work on backing up the belay while I went to work on the narrow ridge crest. Half an hour later I had a platform barely wide enough for my Bibler gortex bivy tent.
Our precarious perch (we slept tied in) safely out on the ridge between two overhanging ice cliffs, was just the aesthetic situation I sought. My only regret was that we'd arrived after dark, and would leave before there was enough light to photograph.
My sense of contentment, snug inside the tent, soon turned to exasperation when the stove refused to light. The jet was clogged and an hour's fiddling didn't produce any results, so we went to bed hungry and thirsty. Because of the distant belay, John couldn't lay on the rope, so had to share my pad. Luckily, I'd brought a fairly wide, full length pad, so by lying on our sides like sardines, with heads at opposite ends, we could both fit. John didn't sleep much in any event. His feet had gotten soaked without gaiters. Neither of us had any extra socks, so he pulled my pile mitts over his feet, and wore my relatively dry inner boots. He had not brought a sleeping bag, so I also gave him my Gortex pants (another item I assumed was in his pack), but they didn't help much. Whenever I woke up, I felt him shivering and heard his miserable cursing. In the morning, he told me that it was his first high mountain bivouac, and that he'd badly misjudged the cold and his clothing system.
I'd slept with my water bottle filled with snow inside my sleeping bag, so we had enough water to wash down a few cookies and some chocolate before setting off. It was a good thing we hadn't gone any further the night before. The next three pitches were long and unprotected steep snow crests, interspersed with delicate rock moves. A smooth slab forced me to crank up on my hammer pick hung in a tiny crack in order to reach the only fixed pin we found on the route.
Exhaustion and dehydration were taking their toll on John. He climbed even slower than the day before. He acknowledged that I should lead all the soft snow, but hoped he could swing leads on the glacier so he would feel he'd really climbed the route.
The sun was just hitting us as I made the last few rock moves. I'd slid my axe into the compression straps on the waistband of my pack, and clipped my northwall hammer into a sling around my shoulder. While making a high step, the pick of the hammer somehow hooked on the axe and levered it out. I looked down to see my new tool hanging over the void. When I desperately grabbed at the hammer to unhook it, the movement was just enough to flip the axe out, sending it tumbling hundreds of feet to the glacier. Even if we descended, I'd never risk searching for it below the ice cliff.
With all our mishaps in mind, we were filled with apprehension as we approached the ice cliff. I led a steep traverse, setting a screw belay below the shortest breach, a twenty foot vertical wall, followed by a steep groove. When given the choice, John took the lead, but decided to leave his pack and haul it up.
John climbed well, but made a mistake in placing a poor screw near the top of the groove. It hooked the pack when he tried to haul. We couldn't hear each other, his belay being too far back from the edge. It took an hour before we finally worked out that I would tie into the middle of the rope, leave his pack balanced on the belay stance, tied to the end, then pull it up after I finished the pitch.
We were quite thirsty after all this mess, and sucked the last moisture from the snow in our water bottles. The day was clear and calm, the sun on the glacier enervating. The increasing altitude and heat aggravated our dehydration as we plowed up low angle snow slopes and climbed through another short vertical ice wall. John was taking more, and longer rests. It became obvious we'd never make the top before dark. I didn't want to chop out a sitting bivy in the hard ice beside the seracs, so we stopped at the last reasonable spot to pitch a tent. It was midafternoon, so there was time to put the sun to work melting water. I filled everything available with snow and laid it out. We finished off the bread and cheese, now that we could rinse it down, and lay resting in the tent out of the sun.
John had another hard night, so he was glad to get moving early. He seemed quite alert and said he felt ok about third classing the steep snow up to the second bergschrund, so I went ahead and waited a long while for him to catch up. He was looking shaky, so I threw the rope down and belayed him up the last bit.
The next few pitches were quite nice 50-600 water ice, safely to the side of the seracs. It should have been enjoyable, but I was getting dehydrated, and John was pretty much out of gas. I would lead out a full rope length, put in a solid belay, let one tool slide down the rope to John, then bring him up. He was now functioning in slow motion; the altitude playing an increasing role in his already wasted condition. It took him half an hour just to remove a two screw belay, then he dropped one of the screws.
Our relief at finally exiting the face onto the sunlit ridge turned to dismay once we saw the rock section of the traverse to the Midi. Two Englishmen, who had passed us in the morning, were having trouble with the deep wet snow, so we opted for a quick glissade down to the Requin hut. There was two feet of surface slush ready to avalanche, so I sat and started a couple of small slides up, then stood and let them wash away, watching them gather momentum, clearing a safe path down the slope.
It was John's first full on sitting glissade. His initial apprehension turned to exuberance as we quickly lost altitude. We roped up on the glacier, and were coming out of the last heavily crevassed section when I heard an axe clattering. I turned to see John scooting past me on his butt, down a short bit of low angle, bare glacier ice. We had removed crampons so I was carefully stepping across some snow patches and thought he was deliberately glissading. I called to him to slow down, but his arrest on the ice was useless. There was soft snow just below, which would have safely stopped him, so I didn't worry, until his legs disappeared into a tiny crevasse about three feet wide and five deep. The problem was that his body kept going. From the bellow of pain and the grimace on his face when I got to him, I thought he'd broken both legs. After I pulled him out, we determined that he'd badly damaged ligaments and tendons in his left knee.
I lowered him with the rope as far as he could slide, then helped him hobble to a flat spot where I pitched the tent, and left him to go for help.
It was only a fifteen minute run down to the Requin hut. Twenty minutes later a chopper dropped off two rescuers, then came to park at the hut while they took down the tent and got John ready. When the pilots came in for a cup of coffee, I asked if there was room for a hitchhiker. Half an hour later I was having a beer at a bar in town while John was at the hospital. Once they got his knee wrapped, I picked him up and we got a shower and some dinner.
The ordeal was finally over; for me at least. John still had a good deal of pain and inconvenience to deal with. What I'd long dreamed of as an esthetic classic, an "easy" route to be savored and enjoyed, had turned into an extended trial of thirst, exhaustion and patience. Just about everything that could go wrong, short of total disaster, did. We'd both learned the hard way (John for the first time; myself for the umteenth) not to take even a "casual" alpine climb too lightly.