Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Alpinism: Fear and Elation

"Everything is fucking MOVING!" my brain shouts at itself. This is the bit of alpinism I don't like, the feelings of vulnerability and nakedness. The deep unease of being somewhere really dangerous with no way to escape other than to carefully move through it. Myself and my climbing partner Dom are trying to climb the Table du Roc Ridge on the Aguille du Tour and have gone off route a bit, the couloir in which we find ourselves appears to be constructed of rock with the natural consistency of Wheatabix. 

Piles of shatters granite lie everywhere, boulders the size of cars to fine sands waiting for something to dislodge them, a settling, a minute thawing of the snow and ice as the sun rises over the horizon and its rays strike the upper sections of the couloir. Already I have heard a stone whistle past my head like a bullet. Looking up all I see is more of the same, any minute something could fall down and kill us.

Objective danger (factors which you can't really control) has always put me off alpinism. The fact that however good you are or how carefully you plan your days something outside your control can kill you. To die because at that point a serac decided to collapse, or a stone fly down the mountain seams so arbitrary, so pointless, and to me disturbing, it overshadows the great joys I get from being in the mountains.

The Table du Roc just below the apparent right (south) summit of the Tour. the true south summit is about 400m further along the ridge.

Generally routes with high objective danger are well known and quite obvious; you can minimize the risks by climbing them at the right time when the risk of stone fall is lessened by cold. Of course the best way is just avoid the routes altogether. The Gervasuti Couloir on the Tacul looks a fantastic route but I have no intention of spending hours with those seracs perched over my head. Ok so you can never eliminate objective danger but you can reduce it to a level where it is no longer a concern (I don't for example worry that when I walk in the woods a tree is going to fall on me but it could and does happen occasionally).

Mountains are dynamic entities alive with change. The spires and runnels which catch the eye and draw the foot are the result of wind and rain, ice and thaw shattering and sculpting the rock. You can't have the beauty without the detritus.

The Aguille du Chardonet cloked in evening cloud from above the Albert Premier Hut

I've digressed however; the start had been almost civilized a late-ish rise at 4.30 from the warmth and comfort of the Albert Premier refuge. The cloud which had clung to the peaks the previous evening had evaporated during the night leaving the mountains stark against a black sky. Across the Tour Glacier the magnificent shape of the Aiguille du Chardonet dominated the view. High on its ridges tiny pinpricks of light move in the dark, signs of life in this barren world from a party of four who had left at 2.00 to climb the Forbes Arete.

Our objective is more modest, the Aiguille du Tour it's spiky twin summits more austere and brutal looking than the glamorous Chardonet. Staring up you can just see the giant table of rock that gives our chosen route it's name. A breakfast bar for giants on the roof of the Alps.

A quick scramble over the moraines puts us down onto the quickly shrinking glacier now seemingly in full retreat in our warming world, freeing more and more rock from it's ices prison of millennia. All the glaciers in the range are much smaller than one hundred years ago and Dom has noticed changes in the past few years.

On the Glacier approaching the start of the route

In alpinism you do a lot of walking! It's a slow trudge up the frozen river of ice, crevasses stand out black and stark against the white. Thin slivers of nothingness over which I step unable to resist the urge to look down and peer in to the fathomless depths, voids like some terrestrial black hole.

We think we get to the start of the route, the guidebook had been singularly unhelpful on this point saying something like: "start at a couloir, climb to the ridge and then to the table". Moving together Dom leads the way up into the couloir I follow about 20m behind, joined by the rope but each in our own little world of concentration. Alpinism the ultimate team sport for individualists!

The climbing is easy but quite loose, and the anxiety begins to build. After about 150m the gully broadens into a small amphitheater and this is where I think we went wrong. I spot an easy looking gully out right Dom a slightly harder one left which leads to a bigger couloir above. We go left.

Une celebration du choss!

This is about where you came in. The next hour was deeply unpleasant as we picked our way through what can only be described a festival of choss, a celebration of shattered rock and creaky boulders. Dom climbs excellently knowing anything he knocks off is going to come straight down and hit me. I'm less successful, a badly place foot and the rock shifts then falls, there is silence for a second then two rocks are falling, then three. Within seconds  we can see a cascade of stone crashing down the route we've just taken. Dom and I watch silent until the sounds of the fall fade away "Shit I hope nobody is following us; actually, thank fuck there is nobody above us"

Not a happy place

It's with relief we reach the ridge, solid rock, sturdy and secure, the climbing and my mood changes as the views open up and the sun warms my body and lifts the nervous tension of the last few hours. Above is perched the table a massive slab of granite supported on a small pillar of rock, getting onto it is supposedly the crux of the route. A few minutes later following a bit of yarding up on in situ gear and a climbing move best described as the "fish out of water belly flop" I lie exhausted on top of the table.

Stood on the Table with the Chardonet in the back ground.

From now on it's a romp. Working our way along the ridge the climbing is superb, weaving in and out of the spikes and flakes of rock looping the rope this way and that way for protection. The moves are never hard and the rock is good; this is what I love best about alpinism the joy of movement through spectacular and beautiful terrain. I try to dawdle stopping to admire the contrast in colors white snow, brown rock and blue sky.

Far below is the green trench of the Chamonix valley it's floor hidden from view, beyond it the Aiguille Rouge mountains which tower over our campsite look small from out vantage point. 

A climber on the final section of the summit ridge 
with the green Chamonix valley far below to the left.

The south top of the Tour is a couple of small slabs of granite, Dom and I sit for a while  surrounded on all sides with spectacular views. This is the first time I've ever topped out in the Alps and seen the ground fall away on all sides. The experience of finishing on a proper summit just feels like a much more complete experience than the routes I've done before which finished at ill defined points with true summits towering above them.

From so high the other mountains take on a different appearance, across the glacier the Chardonet which still out-tops us by about 300m is no longer the towering peak it was from the hut. From here I can trace the ridge line that marks the watershed of the range snow falling one side destined to flow west the other side east entombed in a river of ice. I've always climbed for the views, the space, and the landscape rather than the gymnastic and technical difficulty. It's for minutes like this that I return again and again to the hills.

Sitting on the summit with the Aiguille du Argentier behind

Aiguille's Chardonet (centre) and the Argentier (left) above the Tour Glacier the long ridge descending left from the Chardonet is the classic Forbes Arete.

We drop off the back of the Tour, a short scramble down to the glacier perhaps one of the most frequented routes in the Alps. The snow is now soft and slushy in the sun; T-shirt weather at 3000m. The vast Plateau du Trident stretches out before us as parties of little black dots clustered at neat intervals apart move slowly over it's surface like ants, roped parties of climbers returning from today's objectives.

Were now in Switzerland, standing on the Trident a glacier that flows north east opposed to the west flowing Tour Glacier where we started this morning. We cross back into France by the Col Sup du Tour a short rocky step crossing the watershead of the range and the border between France and Switzerland. A well beaten trail through the snow leads down from the col and back to the moraine with the mountains towering above us once more. It's been a good day.

Descending down towards the Col sup du Tour for the crossing of the watershed

 Looking towards the Tete Blanche the snow slope on its north face is a great introduction to steepish neve.

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