Monday, 9 December 2013

Winter alpine soloing at night is scary and rewarding in equal measures. Music helps it to be a bit less scary.

                                          Fear and Loathing in the Argentière basin

Sweat dripped off my brow as I slumped into my seat on the overheated train, I fiddled my earphones back in and pressed my forehead against the window.  Letting the vibrations chatter through my head I stared out at the trees as they rushed by in the gathering darkness. Music I hadn’t listened to in about 5 years played from my headphones and it felt like I was 17 again, back in Glasgow and sitting on the train home from work, idly staring out the window in a bored daze. In reality I was on the train to Argentière and my body was buzzing with nervous energy.

The Swiss route on Les Courtes had been on my mind for a few weeks by this point. It’s not a particularly hard route, but it’s a perfect line up the centre of an austere face and in my eyes it embodies everything that is so inspiring about classic alpine face climbing.  Technically easy enough that I would be comfortable soloing the crux sections but long, committing, and sure to provide a psychological challenge.

 A week prior to this I had skinned up to the Argentière hut planning to climb the route the following day, however as I discovered, spending an entire night on your own in the Argentière basin with the great ice encrusted faces of Les Courtes and les Droites bearing down on you is somewhat psychologically draining. I had spent hours peering out the window of the hut, my mind stuck on repeat, dwelling too long on ‘what ifs’. To the right stood the North East spur of Les Droites. A monstrous, contorted appendage clawing its way down from the summit a thousand meters above. On my left, almost directly in front of me, the north face of Les Courtes. It looked deceptively steep, the moon revealing hard, brittle, black ice on the summit ice field. The elongate jagged maw of the bergschrund stood guard at the foot of the face and it all just looked too big and too scary to deal with on my own.  I had gone to bed that night feeling decidedly uneasy. Upon waking the next morning I hurriedly stuffed down a meagre portion of freeze dried mush and a plastic cups worth of lukewarm tea and stepped out of the hut into early morning moonlight. It only took one glance at the face for me to immediately baulk at the thought of going any further.

What a fucking long way to walk for a lie in.

 Back in Chamonix sat in yet another overpriced, trendy bar, surrounded by the comforting din of excited conversation in a multitude of languages, the other night’s bout of fear now all seemed a bit ridiculous. I glanced around briefly at the bar; well-heeled American tourists looking slightly out of place and huddled together in a corner, shifting uncomfortably in their chinos as yet another frenchie barged past them to reach the bar before happy hour finished. Ski seasonaires still in their ski clothes and the occasional climbing bum trying to talk his way into another free drink or cigarette. Free from the oppressive presence of the mountains, warm, and surrounded by friends, the rational side of my brain was telling me that I shouldn’t have backed out.

I think the rationalisation of fear is part of what I find so fascinating about soloing (and climbing in general). Identifying the difference between irrational and rational fear and learning to tread the line between the two. I knew that soloing the Courtes would actually be safer than much of the climbing I do roped to a friend (not including the glacier travel) But knowing this doesn’t make an alpine north face in winter, in the middle of the night any less intimidating when you are actually faced with it! Although the most genuinely fun parts of climbing; like warm, safe days out in summer with good friends are no doubt brilliant. I find the most intriguing aspects to be those that have a greater psychological side to them. Stepping outside your comfort zone and seeing how you respond to stress and fear always produces a memorable experience. Being able to deal with physical challenges, say for instance running a marathon, is all about being able to switch your mind off and ignore the pain. With something like climbing which can involve a lot of risk you have to be fully switched on and in tune with what’s going on, never really able to just flat out ignore the fear. There’s no off button, no one to give you a pat on the back when you make it to the summit and no one to hold your hand if you push it too hard.

After my previous experience of attempting the route from the hut, I decided to just single push it from town, the less time I had to sit and think, the less opportunity there would be for me to back out. Unfortunately, to allow me to descend in daylight I would need to be in Argentière for before 6am, which wasn’t going to happen with the current train timetable. I would be relatively happy climbing in the dark, but wasn’t sure of the descent down the North East face so I decided to climb through the night and hopefully summit in the day light and be able to find my way down. I also allowed myself the luxury of music, but only having limited space on my phone I had to be a bit selective. I always find it amazing how directly music can affect my mood and how closely it can become entwined with certain periods and events from life. I quite liked the idea of having a bit of music that I would always associate with a pretty ‘out there’ few hours of my life. I ended up deciding to bring 3 albums; Firstly, the live version of Frightened Rabbits ‘midnight organ fight’.  I first started listening to Frabbit just before my first year at University and their first album always brings me straight back to a very fond memory of driving across a snowy Rannoch moor in a packed out minibus, on our way to spend New Year at the foot of Ben Nevis. The second album was ‘Tarot sport’ by fuck buttons- which got me through my final year exams, atmospheric, monotonous and with no lyrics, perfect for setting a good pace to skin at. I also brought a live mix by Optimo, a bit of a legendary DJ duo from Glasgow, fun and eclectic music which formed the basis for a great many nights out in Glasgow with good friends.

30 meters of rope ( cheers Graham), some tat, 2 screws
 and a V threader. Hopefully enough to get me down
800m If i decided to bail near the top!
It was about 10pm by the time I had navigated my way through the crevassed lower section of the glacier and had reached the little rocky island of safety beside the Rongon. In front of me the twinkling expanse of the Argentière basin spread out into the moonlight. I stopped briefly to melt some snow and slowly chew on half of my sandwich.  Optimo had kept me company up the tedious ascent of the ski resort, however once I’d dropped onto the Glacier I had felt vulnerable with my ear phones in, with them out I could listen to the occasional groans and creaks of the glacier. Realistically it probably didn’t make me safer but none the less, I felt better for it. I refilled my water bottle and checked my food; half a sandwich, 2 snickers and a handful of energy gels. The basin was less crevassed so I put my headphones back in and let frightened rabbit’s melodic self-deprecation flood over me. It was about this time that the meteor shower started, I stopped occasionally to steal a few fleeting glimpses of those bright pins as they momentarily pierced the ink back sky.

My skis brought me to the avalanche debris at the foot of approach slope, at this point they refused to grip on the icy surface so I changed to crampons, slung my skis over my back and took out my headphones to allow me to listen for any rock or ice fall.  From a distance the faces were relatively well illuminated by the faint crescent moon, but up close I couldn’t make out definite features and was lost amongst the scale. Feeling alone without the comfort of music I began to make my way towards where I thought the smallest section of the bergschrund was. Suddenly a set of foot prints bounced into the beam of my head torch. I couldn’t believe my luck, I had been sure no one had climbed the face this winter but If I could follow these tracks the entire way it would make the experience a whole lot less stressful. It’s amazing how even just a set of foot prints can make you feel so much less lonely. About 10 meters later the prints doubled back on themselves into a crazy figure of 8 jig; powder snow on one side and sheet ice on the other. I stood staring at them for a minute confused as to what had happened. They weren’t foot prints! I had just been following patterns in the snow created from the wind, my subconscious had tricked me into thinking they were foot prints. I had been doing this all evening,  small boulders caught in my peripheral vision  had been men crouching in the trees, bushes had been dogs staring across the pistes at me and small trees were non existent sign posts. Slightly perturbed I continued on upwards, I crossed a deep crevasse and peered down into its depths as I stepped over. My head torch beam illuminating its grey-blue walls until it was swallowed up by the darkness. Thankfully crossing the bergschrund was uneventful, a few timid steps across the giant blocks of ice bridging the gap and an awkward mantel onto the steep slope above and I was established on the face. The most dangerous part of the route was behind me now I was off the glacier and I could enjoy that quiet, empty consciousness of the soloist.

Navigating through the bergshrund
The lower portion of the route was in good condition and I made quick progress up the face, stopping occasionally to check the photo of the mountain I had with me, attempting to work out my position. I reached the crux at roughly 1/3 height quicker than I expected. The ice above me narrowed into a runnel, hemmed in on each side by smooth slabs of granite. Enjoying feeling my body weight being held by my arms rather than just my cramped and tired legs I tapped my way up the ice until I reached an old collection of pegs at the top. I clipped into these and finished the last of my water, cursing myself for not being more conservative with it, I briefly considered stopping here to melt more snow, but decided I should just hold off till the summit. It was after this section that my progress slowed; Good snow-ice gave way to old, black ice, occasionally shrouded by slabs of wind-blown cruddy snow. Worried that one of these slabs might detach itself from the face under my body weight I decided it would be safer to stick to the runnels of difficult black ice.

Time dragged on and I hacked my way up the dry upper ice fields, my head torch occasionally illuminated crumbling shark fins of granite that pierced the sea of black ice above me. Eventually, a small spur of good snow-ice loomed out of the darkness to my left. Making my way over to it I kicked out a small ledge, secured myself to an ice screw and knelt down on my tiny island of safety. I pressed my face against the ice, I felt warm and flushed despite the bitterly cold temperatures. Checking the photo again I realised I must be just below the summit Ice field, It was now 4am and I was beginning to feel pretty bad. My calf’s were cramping up and my bad ankle ached, I was dehydrated and as I hadn’t been up high for a few weeks I was beginning to struggle with the altitude. After what seemed an age I forced myself to continue onwards up the horrendously brittle summit ice field. Just as I was reaching my wits end and considering creating another belay, the ice above me disappeared and was replaced by the night sky, I was on the summit ridge! To my left a knife edge arête lead a short distance to the summit. A proper, sharp, pointy summit that looked barely big enough to stand on. It was like a child’s drawing of what a mountain top should look like, not the ugly hulking mass of plateau that so many summits actually are. I pulled over onto the lee side of the ridge, hurriedly dug myself a bucket seat and threw on my down jacket. It was just after 5am.

Getting cold waiting for the sunrise.
For the next two hours I sat on my little perch, the faint blue light from my stove illuminated my feet as the snow hissed away in the pot and Frightened rabbit played in my headphones. The Milky Way was still visible overhead and the last few meteors shot bright pin pricks across the dark sky in the west. The eastern horizon was beginning to glow a deep orange with the suns arrival and, despite the cold, I couldn’t stop grinning. Hundreds of meters below me, on the south side of the mountain I could see a faint head torch snaking its way up the mountain side. Their day must only have been starting.

Sunrise from my perch

8am and ready for bed but a long way to go yet!

I lingered in my seat until the sun was above the horizon, finished my now frozen sandwich and then stiffly made my way to the summit. Still cold from my few hours waiting for the sun, I kept my down-jacket on as I abseiled into the North West face. Towards the end of winter this becomes a classic steep ski descent but in its current state it’s a very steep, powdery entry with loose rock followed by wind affected snow. My 30 meters of rope wouldn’t allow me to descend very far so I put in 3 abseils before continuing to down climb. 
In my sleep deprived state I was discovering that there was a pretty big discrepancy between what I was telling my limbs to do and what they were actually doing. An hour or so later near the bottom of the face I was beginning to feel relaxed in the relative warmth of the sun, until a sharp blow on my shoulder from a falling rock reminded me of my situation and I continued to descend with a renewed sense of urgency.
A few hours later saw me careering wildly down the ski piste in my mountaineering boots and tiny approach skis, my tired body causing me sway like a drunkard. I arrived back in Chamonix 18 hours after I set off and 29 hours since I’d last slept.

Still grinning like an idiot.

Most of the time alpine climbing is cold, miserable, and you don't get anything done, but just occasionally everything falls into place and you get to experience those rare moments of perfection. Those two hours sat on the summit of Les Courtes are probably two of the most surreal and beautiful hours I've had the good fortune to experience.

Cheers to Graham for lending me his rope and to Local CHX for giving me some time off to go do cool stuff!

Conditions on the Courtes are OK at the moment, however they look far from ideal on the Droites. The back wall of the Basin might yield some ice routes in good nick if you're lucky!

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