Thursday, 20 June 2013

A Long Way for a Picnic!

I have been eyeing up routes on the North Face of the Midi for quite sometime over the spring; the face has easy access and an even easier descent so perfect for a first 1000m high north face. With the temperatures sky rocketing this week we realised that this would be our last chance to get on the snow routes this year. Coming down from Cosmiques Arete on Sunday I saw a veritable motorway up the final slopes of the Eugster. It seeemed rude not to swap my work shifts and go for it the next day!

Walking in on Monday morning, the snow had clearly not refrozen by any stretch of the imagination. We managed to go a super sketchy way through the morraine bank by the Plan d'Aiguille (as well as being slower walkers) so the other two parties fired off ahead. It was good to have four people in front of us firming the track up! I decided that if we got into the shade and it was still slushy, we should turn back. I guess our psyche for the route made us more hopeful. "It's definitely getting firmer," I kept telling Joel as we were going up the snow cone.
Beyond the snow cone and fully committed!
At the top of the cone was a small, very thin ice step about 10 metres high. It looked manageable but also clearly had a lot of water running beneath it. My instincts were yelling at me to turn around. An ice fall that's that fluid at 3000m is a little bit too Scottish for my taste! We also knew that with only a 30m rope between us, we wouldn't be able to turn back after the ice step without being helicoptered. I must admit, watching our friends fire up the step ahead of us with no hesitation, not even pausing to belay each other, did make it significantly harder not to turn around. Once I was up and over, with retreat no longer an option, I became a great deal more focused and psyched for the route!

As we were quite a way behind the others, (I was much happier leading the four tricky steps with a belay rather than moving together) there was a LOT of water running behind all the ice falls and a lot of holes appearing, when we got to them. So after the first one, I managed to traverse around the others via tricky but protectable mixed steps. Though the traverses were always super sketchy - trailbreaking through slush and grauple - it was worth it to be attached to rock gear for a while.

Rock steps were good for gear but not good for trailbreaking. 

By the time we were at the crux of the actual Diagonal section, we were in the full sun. I was very scared. The bottom part of the route was pretty terrifying and I thought the top section would be even worse in the midday sun. However the stepped track was so deep that the footsteps seem to be perma sheltered from the sun in their own shadows. We flew up this section, ending up at the traverse just over an hour after leaving the crux.

The bottom half of the climb feels remote and far from mankind. The top half doesn't!
 Being so close to the lift station, it would have been easy to relax at this point. The traverse back to the Midi arete is by far the most dangerous part of the day. Traversing on steep slushy snow with no gear and crevasses to add to the spice, I had to keep telling myself to stay focused. Reminding myself of friends who died on this slope was a morbid way of doing this, but I was running out of concentration! It took us a slow careful hour to get across but we made it. PHEW!

Surviving the traverse
After 1000m of leading on sketchy snow and collapsing, hollow ice; I was emotionally exhausted. I just wanted to run up the final section of the arete and get it over with. Joel was suffering a more physical battle though (his third route using 2 axes!) and I kept nearly pulling him off balance. Seven hours after leaving the mid station, we were so happy to reach the ice cave at last!

On Tuesday, Alex and I went climb something I wasn't in constant fear on; a solid route with gear and even bolted belays! The Contamine on Point Lachenal was the perfect solution, with sunkissed granite thrown in. Although the weather did deteriorate really fast, we climbed up to the last pitch before abseiling off. Being the first multi-pitch rock climb of the year I was feeling pretty rusty but the climbing was amazing. I also somehow managed to hang on when a party above dropped a rope on my face just as I was leading through the crux moves.....

Alex on the first crack.

'That' picture.
Normally, I'm good at listening to my instincts and listen to my gut feeling on the hill. On Monday I made a conscious decision to completely ignore my instincts and continue a climb that clearly wasn't in good condition. I justified this with the idea that in Kyrgyzstan, I may end up in a situation where I have to keep climbing a route that isn't safe and is equally terrifying. In Kyrgyzstan there won't be the option of helicopter rescue. So although continuing up the Eugster Diagonal was pretty stupid, we got away with it and it was super good mental training for me.

Unscathed on the Euster, rope burnt face on the Contamine!

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