How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Rockfall: The Rout(e)

So we’d drifted off to prepare ourselves for the coming trial and prepared to sleep.

Except to be awoken again and again by the lovely sound of rocks moving and rockfall further off. I don’t think we slept much, just curled up in the sleeping bags and tried to ignore the prospect of the mountain gods dumping a metric shit tonne of geological marvels atop us. It was a long bloody night and we were quite cranky come 4am.

Being knackered, we dozed off again and I’m not sure what time it was exactly when we did get a move on but it was a grey dawn, the sun still not fully up. Stumbling over boulders and rocks, we forged our path onwards, striving to aim for our “shortcut” to the base of the route. It wasn’t.

 

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I think that’s meant to be ice we’re on…..

 

There was a reason the route description said come from the direction of the hut. It was so you don’t have to go through shitty icy slabs, lots of loose rock and terrible grey brittle ice that was more pebbly than solid. We scrambled a good bit and did three terrible pitches of ice climbing where I said probably three deckets of Hail Mary’s in an effort to stave off bad luck. That picture above does it justice. It was like going on rock. If I’d known Darragh was taking the photo while belaying me, I’d have been a bit more nervous! Being the gentlemen we were, we swapped leads and both exhausted our extensive vocabulary of swearing.

 

We probably spent 2-3 hours negotiating through this absolute….well….shite is the only word to describe it. Then we got onto the snow slope. And that just went up and up. Taking in coils, we headed on up. Zig to the zag to the zig zig zag. Christ it was long. Sun was beating down on us and I was panting like a near dead dog. Being an Alpine novice I’d gotten lovely and sunburnt on the roof of my mouth and inside my nostrils from my brief forays on the Valle Blanche. The morning was us just slogging up, treading across snow bridges and trying to ignore burning calves. Feeling it was unseasonably hot, we weren’t disappointed in our assumptions. We witnessed quite a bit of rockfall and got caught in it a few times, amen for helmets. Progress was anything but rapid. I still remember one lovely little rock giving me a nice dead arm. It made route-finding suddenly become a lot more important. And had us worry about the condition further up where the sun was already shining.

 

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The long way up.

 

That snow slope is deceptively gentle in that photograph. Viewed from across the valley it looks absolutely beatific. All I can recall is slogslogslog, gasping for air, forcing food down my gullet. It just got hotter and hotter, I was grateful I’d a lighter pack on my back (having dumped half our kit at the bivvi). Still it was rough. Nearing the top, we were reduced to stomping up some twenty steps, pausing, stomping up some twenty more. I think Darragh was in a bit worse shape than me. I’d been cramming in food so I was making it a bit. He seemed to be suffering. The frequent rockfall and soft snow had us both very frayed. But earlier on, I’d been the one down in the dumps while he’d powered through!

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Midway up on one of the plateaus. A pleasant lull.

 

Making it to the base of the climb, it was after midday. We’d spent six hours negotiating the slabs and snow slope. And now in the heat of the day, the climb was weeping. It was absolutely crap. We went to see about putting in protection, it was just going to come right out. No way were we going to go up that. Like wildlings on the Wall, we’d have plummeted down. We were knackered but more pissed off now that we’d come this far only to be halted at the last 100-150m because of a unearthly hot day. Worse was looking at the tramp down to camp.

 

From Route to Rout

 

 

The crevasses had opened up now and it was very uncomfortable for us treading our way through them, trying to avoid looking down. We glissaded a bit but getting wet arses and legs was dispiriting. As was panic strewn braking when we realized that might be a drop in front of us. It was nightmarish. We were dehydrated, neither of us had eaten much but with our main experience in days like this being in Ireland or Scotland, we just didn’t recognize the signs.

 

 

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The long way back down. Aiming for the bottom right corner.

 

It wasn’t fun. I just remember being so bollocksed at one point that even our reactions were dulled. Traversing the ridge in another zigzag (we saw what looked like a more gentle ramp down), I watched Darragh in front of me catch his crampon on a sling that had worked it’s way loose from his harness. He tumbled and started sliding down the slope while I just gawked as the rope fed out. About three seconds after this had started, sense kicked in and I flattened myself on the ice axe, bracing. I felt a tug and started sliding slowly but the momentum stopped as Darragh arrested as well. A big wake-up for both of us!

Now the choosing of our route came to kick us in the ass. Having bailed off we were retracing our steps and there was no way we could ab down to our bivvi site. We aimed left on the way down, hoping we’d come across a track but it just seemed to terminate in slabs. Since it was getting late and were both broken men at this stage, we negotiated a good few of them on our derrieres, the rock surprisingly grippy. I’d go first, working my way down to a suitable spot whereas Darragh would come past me in a sort of reverse climb. Eventually we were able to downclimb properly onto the scree though not before a bloody terrifying slip and slide on some of the wet slabs. The last made me ponder my life choices and how that had led me up to this moment. Why go climbing? Why?
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The fact Darragh snapped a shot of this meant it was probably one of the easier parts. And that he wasn’t fervently praying that I wouldn’t tumble to my doom. Terrible, terrible terrain.
It was just coming to 1800 when we made it back to the bivvi. We’d blundered around a while trying to get our bearings and while a little shell-shocked, were glad to get back to “home”. We sprawled out, drank water, took off our drenched boots, socks and trousers to dry them. Packing our bags, we enjoyed the sun and tried to brace ourselves for the next part. At 1900, we rolled out, both aware we weren’t fully right in the head. The extra weight in the bags had us both groaning like old women.
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Back at the bivvi, sundown on it’s way and us gearing up.
I was dopey as anything crossing the Glacier D’Argentiere. I’m not sure whether it was from dehydration or what but I just was following Darragh like he had me on a leash. My memory is very vague here, I just dumbly followed him. I was tired, wanting to just stop and lacking any motivation at all. Reassuring to have a mate who know’s what he’s doing! Getting off this glacier was much harder than last time since we’d both decided not to try and do the 1000m ascent to the Grand Montets and go for the lower down one that was midway up from Argentiere. Problem was that the rocks we’d skirted on our way down, now obstructed us. We spent a good half hour looking for ways off and trying to scramble onto the cliff face. So fucked (there really was no other word to describe it) were we that this was our conversation when scrambling.
Darragh: “Wheres the rack?”
Me: “Bottom of my bag”
Both: “Fuck it”
Still roped together, it was like some warped version of “If I go, you go with me”. We managed to spot a via ferrata maybe 4-5m atop us but we couldn’t get to it. You’d scramble up a few feet, then it was too steep so you’d traverse, downclimb, all to gain a little bit more on it. We were so tired that it was our one goal and we couldn’t abide time wasting. I think I kissed the metal when we made it. We ditched the rope and coiled it. Using our cowstails, we just followed along it for maybe half a klick till we found a ladder. This was a bloody long thing. I don’t know why but I felt more afraid on it than I had been downclimbing and scrambling across the slabs earlier. My arms shook on it and I was very grateful to get onto solid ground. We descended some 20m to the glacier again and found ourselves on a track. “Féarghal me lad” I thought “Ye’ve made it”.
It was getting dark now and we moved fairly fast. So fast that we somehow blundered off the track (classic us) and were wondering where the hell did we go now? Finding a pair of abandoned skis and a camera wasn’t too reassuring either. At first we thought we were grand till morbidity had us imagine this place as some sort of Purgatory for outdoorsmen, we felt like rats in a maze at the time. It seemed everytime we aimed for something, we’d find ourselves traversing left, right, up, down around it in order to get that little bit closer. Hoping the skier hadn’t taken a plunge, we continued on.
With night falling and us getting the headtorches out, we decided to take one last risk and scramble up these immense boulders blocking us on our left. To the right was the glacier and somewhere to our front was Argentiere, a few thousand feet lower. Darragh went first but the loose rock was unnerving, he came back off it and was all for bivving there. The rock just seemed to move as soon as you touched it. Me being stubborn, crazy or just downright ignorant decided I’d chance it. It was to be our last gamble, after this was headtorches and us bedding down. It was maybe 5-6m up but requiring care in choosing holds. I let out a whoop as I crested it and found a sign. I didn’t care what it was for, a sign meant a path and a path meant an easier way down. I belayed Darragh up and we savoured knowing we were below 3000m. Gritting our teeth, we pressed onto the track and began a painful descent, wet fully rigids never being fun.
Just as I’d hit my slump earlier crossing the glacier, Darragh hit his now. He wanted to bivvi on a flat patch but I was a bit sleep-deprived and grouchy now. I don’t sleep well at altitude and in my sleep-addled, dehydrated brain I’d figured that if we got to the line where we could see green things like grass and trees, I could sleep. We kept going though it was a mostly silent trudge. Up high to our left were lights and we argued over which station that was, Darragh being convinced it was the one were  aiming for and we should bed down again. I’d been like that earlier, just wanting to stop and worry about everything the next day. Darragh had bullied me through it and now it was my turn to make sure we got further down.
Being an absolute dickhead, I held onto the map and was fairly certain that the intersection we’d reached was just about 4km from the lower station. Naturally I didn’t tell Darragh this and lied that it was one and a half (friendship entails this sometimes!). We slogged in silence till we saw the lights whereupon we both perked up and resisted the urge to sprint for the station (a broken ankle was all we needed now).
I spent about ten futile minutes attempting to break into the station (fantasizing about such luxuries like a roof over my head, a bench to sleep on etc) but in the end we found a corner with walls on two sides under a boardwalk. Bedding down there, we cooked up the last of our miserable rations, just delighted to have made it. it was after 2300 and we’d been on the go since 0500/0600.
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The gourmet dining facilities the night before.
There was one little bit of drama left. While dozing off that night, it began to piss rain with the boardwalk above not really acting as a roof, it just channelled the dripping to several locations. I was already in my sleeping bag with the bivvi bag over it but the Chinese Water torture had me frayed. Tossing my jacket over my face, I dozed off again.
But I couldn’t sleep. I could hear the avalanches and rockfall going off but that didn’t worry me. What did was the constant flash of light. Convinced it was Darragh flashing his headtorch at me for arcane reasons, I was rising with the intent of strangling him when I saw the sheet lightning. The thunderstorm had broken all out over Chamonix and it was lashing rain. The lightning was flashing all over the valley with the variance in the thunder making me think it was just avalanches. Delighted not to be out on the glacier or via ferrata, I dozed off again.
We got woken at 0700 by the first cable car crew, their dog deciding our faces needed some attention. Grumbling and ignoring the comments in French (no doubt hilarious judging by their laughs) we packed our kit and stumbled for the entrance, feeling like we’d entered civilisation again.
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The sun helped everything dry off fast except the sleeping mats!
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A reminder of the ugly, ugly terrain.
The French wan got short shrift from us. We settled for slumping on the floor after a muttered “ca va”. Having lost our bus tickets we risked hopping on for free, figuring the way our luck was going, we’d probably get caught. We stumbled back to camp, chowed down on a baquette, throw our kit out to dry and I gratefully slept under a tree.
So to sum it up, what I learned was
1. Don’t try and take shortcuts in unfamiliar terrain. Half the time we made mistakes, it was us assuming we knew better than the guidebook or advice of others since we were clearly such hotshot climbers.
2. Drink and eat. Getting hunger pangs and dehydrated wasn’t fun. It was a new country, new conditions, we should have been guzzling down sustenance in liquid and solid format. Instead we tried playing the hard man and suffered for it, we were lucky to not get hit worse by it. Or make worse calls in our messed up state.
3. Be patient. Even with a mate like Darragh, I got riled up easy. Being hungry, tired, cold, frustrated, all that will do it to you. We both had our ups and downs but thankfully at different times.
4. Don’t take stupid risks. Writing this appalled me but it was good to see where I’d come from and whats changed since then. If I can learn from it, so can others. And bloody hell, does yours truly have a lot yet to learn!
I’ll be back on that route in the near future I hope and I’ll conquer it. You truly do learn more by failing on a route than completing it. It was an amazing experience and it helped knock some cockiness out of me. 5 years on, I’m improved but there’s a long way to go yet. Just goes to show, even on little disasters of trips, you can have a good time!
As Oscar Wilde said “Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes!”.
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At least the views were worth it.

 

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About Ropaire

Dia daoibh agus fáilte go dtí mo bhlag! My name's Fearghal and you can find my musings and ramblings split over www.ropaire.wordpress.com and www.ceitherne.wordpress.com. I hope you enjoy it.
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