Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Courtes Mis-Adventure; Dancing About

The North faces of the Courtes, Droites and Aiguille Verte. Inspiring stuff!
This is not exactly an up-to-date conditions report of a blog post, but then when is my blog ever that?! I was going to write about this unfortunate day straight after it happened but I decided to leave off publishing this until news of our mishap trickled down the Chamonix grape vine. Though I'm not embarrassed about being helicoptered off a mountain (well, when it ISN'T my fault anyway...) other people can be, especially when it breaks their 100% no rescue record! As there were two other people on a rope with me that day, it didn't really feel like it was my place to tell the world about our rescue.
Starting the ski down on our bluebird climbing day! (J. Williams)
I enjoy first bin alpinism (though we were on the third bin for our Courtes day). For some reason all the big routes I've climbed or attempted involve cutting down on bivvy/hut nights. I do suffer from pretty bad pre-match nerves every time I approach a route the day before and sleep underneath it. This often results in me walking in at midnight and getting straight on the route without bivvy kit (the North Face of the Piz Badile and Peuterey Noire being the two prime examples...) The Swiss Route on the Courtes has been in my head a lot this season, more than in previous years. I've skied in to climb it before from first lift before but always turned around before the bergschrund. When I remembered this fact, that climbing the route from first lift when it's cold enough, is very much possible and that staying in the hut isn't always necessary, my levels of psyche became infectious. So infectious that Jonnie and Polly immediately decided that we should go for it the following day.
Jolie's amazing video of Saul, Harry and I dancing on the bar in Munster at midnight. Good training for something?!?
Unfortunately it was St Paddy's Day and we were already a couple of beers in when this decision was made. Whilst Polly and Jonnie were sensible, I proceeded to stay up way too late, drink a bit too much cider and dance on one too many bars... Still my bag was packed and I was in the zone so I dragged my sorry self to Grand Montets for breakfast the next morning. Admittedly not the best preparation for an 800m north face, but I knew the climbing wouldn't be difficult?!?
Polly's psyched at least! (J. Williams)
Glacial ice is never the best way to start your day...
Skinning up the glacier, I felt pretty ropey! Still even with a ski down in difficult conditions, we were at the bottom of the face and geared up an hour and a quarter after leaving top station. We left our skis on the far left hand side of the face and meandered up through scoured glacial ice steps and massive crevasses... Top tip - approach the route from the right hand side of the face.
Me faffing about as per usual... and saying farewell to the skis! For a while I thought this was the last time we would see them... (J. Williams)
Someone had dug this in as a belay before the schrund.... nailing on all the extra bits of wood shows true belay building dedication!!
By the time we reached the bergschrund I was feeling spooked, hungover and very much out of my depth. I could see the sun on our skis at the bottom of the face and just wanted to be back down there taking a nap... Still Jonnie and Polly convinced me that I was capable of climbing that day and suddenly I was on the end of the rope and crossing the large double crevasse at the bottom of the route. As soon as I had my Nomics in my hands and was actually climbing upwards, I knew it would be alright. I was firing on all cylinders again and the day was going to be cruisey, time to start dancing up the mountain.
Is this really a good idea?!?.....
....Yes it is! Me five minutes later LITERALLY dancing up the first pitch... (J. Williams)
Most of the rest of the day was fairly non-descript to be honest. The mountain was in stellar condition; amazing, cruisey, plastic névé covered everything. 'Thonka' solid axe placements made the near total lack of gear seem almost irrelevant - though we were death-roping we knew no one was going to fall off. We were storming up the face, climbing much faster than I had thought we would. By the time we reached the first crux pitch, we had already caught up with the next party in front of us. Jonnie led the true crux, with just about enough rope left for Polly and I to move together, then I got to lead the second steep section. I was obviously still in a solo headspace as I placed 2 ice screws in 45m... This season I've miraculously become a bold and confident ice climber!
Starting up the steep gearless but perfect névé slopes. (J. Williams)

Pretty special place to be... (J. Williams)
Perfect, bluebird, non windy/spindrifty weather woooot!
Jonnie getting stuck into the crux and about to attempt a sneaky overtake
We are just that efficient that we climb in time.... (J, Williams)
Polly did a pretty good job of leading the simul-soloing for the first section of the face so took over once again, with Jonnie in the middle and me on the end of the rope. After a couple of hundred metres of gearless snow plodding, Jonnie stops and starts swearing. He's blown a crampon. This happens to me quite often - having tiny feet apparently makes fitting crampons and keeping them on pretty difficult?! We wait for him to put it back on, but he can't. He yells to us that it's broken, Polly and I both think it's bodgeable; it's always bodgeable! After 10 minutes of fixing Jonnie's good to go. For all of 20 metres... Then the bodge fails. Cable ties apparently don't last very long on crampons! Polly builds a high belay and Jonnie stops by the last piece of gear. As two heads are better than one I solo up to him to see how bad it is.

The consensus is, it's pretty bad. The bolt holding the plastic front bail onto his Black Diamond Serac crampons has totally sheared off. Now these aren't old decrepid crampons, they are more or less brand new! You can see how sharp they are in the photo. It would seem that the bolt lines up with the dynafit insert perfectly and this has worn away the bolt... in just four hours! We conclude that there isn't a whole lot of bodging that we can do. As the plastic toe is needed to create tension to attach the crampon, we need to get creative. Luckily I had the powerstrap from my skis in my pocket, with that and some jiggery pokery we manage to at least attach the crampon onto his boot again.
Bodge o clock!! (J. Williams)
Group meeting at Polly's belay... We've gone from a happy singing team on a cruisey day out to being stressed and in a pretty serious position within about 20 metres. With the total lack of gear on the bottom 150m of the face we all make the decision that we couldn't abseil it. It was steep enough that I would have second thoughts about downclimbing it with two crampons let alone Jonnie with only one. Oh, and we dropped the abolokov threader on the first ptich of the route... No phone signal. Upwards is the only way!

Over the next two hours we manage to cover a few more ropelengths of easy terrain. Polly leads ahead trying vainly to find gear so there's at least one piece between us all to hold us onto the mountain. Jonnie is at the back making constant adjustments and checks to crampon, trying to get it to stay on for a bit longer all the time. Meanwhile I'm in the middle of the rope having a total meltdown. I know that if Jonnie's crampon blows suddenly causing him to fall whilst Polly is struggling to find gear, all three of us are going to fall the entire length of the face. Chances are that a single bit of gear would rip under the weight of three people anyway. There's absolutely nothing I can do about it or to stop the fall should it happen. Stressful!!
Questing about trying to find gear/belays AGH! (J. Williams)
We went slightly off route at this point as Polly was chasing and struggling to find rock belays. The last 60m of climbing that we climbed had absolutely no gear and was by far the steepest and thinnest ice pitch of the day. Much trickier than the normal crux much lower down! When Jonnie reached the final screw, 60 metres below Polly's high point, he refused to move until we could find a belay. Probably a good shout really but instigated a massive shouting/swearing argument at our respective 30m intervals on the rope. Basically, all three of us were very scared and battling our own personal meltdowns. Though I was in the middle and attached to two good friends, I don't think I've felt that alone in a very long time.

Pulled myself together though and put my sketchy-scottish-winter-climbing head on, I started digging around in the névé... With the very little gear I had on my harness I made us a mediocre belay from a good camalot and a terrible sling. Good enough though to bring Jonnie up and for Polly to climb back down to me.

With darkness approaching very quickly and the sudden realisation that we had climbed into signal, we debated whether to phone for a helicopter rescue. Whilst we could have kept slowly crawling up to the summit (risking the gearless névé and high potential that if Jonnie slipped unexpectedly we'd all die) we had no idea what condition the North East slope was in. Could Jonnie kick his ski boot in hard enough to down-climb it safely? We did briefly consider 'Joe Simpsoning' him - lowering him 120m past the knot on the ropes and then Polly and I could down climb to him. But this had epic written all over it. At this point in the belay meeting the crampon bodge failed AGAIN, Jonnie's brand new sharp edges just kept sawing through the cable-ties! So the vote was unanimous -  helicopter ride!
There's truly nothing like the noise of a distant helicopter engine when you're scared and near the top of a North Face!
The PGHM lads were amazing, as ever! My slightly suspect belay stood up to inspection, which is good as there were now 4 of us attached to it! Jonnie was winched first and then it was my go. We'd stuffed all of the ropes, gear and ice axes into one bag which was suddenly hanging off my old super skinny, light-weight ski touring harness. This made being swung out off the face bloody terrifying! We were actually much closer to the summit ridge than we had realised. Going from the ground to 1000m above the Argentiere glacier (in a matter of seconds) whilst suspended by a thin piece of webbing, is not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon.

Jonnie and I were deposited on the roof of the Argentiere hut with our winchman whilst the chopper went back for Polly and the other PGHM rescuer. From here we had an amazing view of all the other headtorches in the basin, most of whom I later found out I knew ha! EMBARASSING! Back down in the PGHM station in Le Bois, Jonnie got an admonishment from one of the captains in French (translated by yours truly...) for taking inappropriate equipment into the mountains. Every one seems to think that Serac crampons are aluminium, they actually made out of stainless steel but the 'Strap' version are apparently incompatable with dynafit touring boots! Otherwise we had a good old chinwag with the guys who rescued us, we were feeling somewhat sheepish about the whole thing but all the guys who actually attended our rescue seemed in good spirits. They declared that it was in fact 'a beautiful rescue'. We were even offered a lift back home, amazing service there! Sat in MBC later we were all slightly shellshocked but pretty happy that we had been extracted from a pretty scary situation without serious injury or even losing any gear! For me it was definitely a good lesson in why not to be complacent in the mountains.
CHOPPER IS COMING! You can almost feel my relief...
A massive thanks obviously goes to the PGHM who risk their lives on a daily basis to rescue punters like us, but also to Bella who rescued us from Le Bois that night and deposited us in MBC. Even more of a thanks to Matt and Hannah who went and somehow found our skis at the bottom of the face in a white out...

No comments:

Post a Comment