A more-or-less proper job has kept me away from the Alps over the last couple of winters, so I have to live on past glories for the time being. I think winter alpinism is the epitome of the mountain experience, not just for the superb combination of ice and mixed climbing, but also for the hours of battle with waist-deep powder, the shortness of the days and length of the nights, the hard-won successes and the hard-fought failures, the overpowering raw beauty of this inhospitable environment at this time of year, and the bitter cold somehow accentuating the experience: truly magnificent.
Chamonix is the obvious choice - relative ease of access and a plethora of stunning lines providing the draw. Unlike the summer circus, the peaks are silent and empty away from the ski routes. The route described below is one of the best experiences of my life.
You wouldn’t think it possible to sleep in under the circumstances but I guess the natural tendency to resist early mornings can prevail even on an Alpine north face in January.
Normally it wouldn’t matter that much. But we were a bit handicapped by a packing glitch that meant we only had one headtorch between us (and I would just like to point out that it was mine that we had between us). So we brewed up quickly and got out of bed slowly. This wasn’t laziness, it’s just that a simple job like putting your boots on takes ten times longer when you’re teetering about on a small ledge made of ice trying reeeeeally hard not to drop them. So by the time Owen set off up the first pitch of the day it was not so long to lunch time and there weren’t as many hours of daylight left as we might have liked. But then again I was actually having a great time, the previous day’s climbing had been superb and the couloir ahead looked brilliant too, the forecast was beau temps forever, so what was there to worry about? This is one of the good things about climbing with Owen – after a while you learn not to worry so much. After all, the last time we had a head torch incident (and I have to put my hand up to that one) it turned out alright – pretty much.
The Lagarde-Segogne couloir on the Caiman lies on a funny diagonal across the face and you can’t see it from Chamonix. The direct start on the other hand is a massively obvious and seductive line blasting straight up to the central snow-field. Arriving to blue skies with an enormous anti-cyclone parked over the Alps we just had to get straight on a route. The Lagarde-Segogne direct was a perfect choice – terrific climbing, nothing harder than about Scottish V, perhaps a couple of days, easy approach, not too high. So we went to try the Croz Spur instead. After we’d got past this burst of misdirected optimism, dried out sleeping bags, and spent a day eating, we caught the last ‘frique up to the Aiguille du Plan, found a nice bivi spot on a big boulder, ate all the pies we had carried up, and discovered the shortage in the headtorch department. Owen gave himself a suitably hard time over this and then tried to blag one from some French lads coming down off the Rouse-Carrington. He’s a right lucky chancer normally but couldn’t produce the goods on this occasion so we made the only sensible decision under the circumstances and Owen set his alarm for six. Normally I’d have set mine too but it hadn’t been working since driving over it in the car park at Swanage just before Christmas.
We slept in. (In Owen’s defence sleeping bags do really muffle sound.) In a way this was an advantage because by the time we set off we could both see. The disadvantage was that what we could both see was the huge serac on the Plan north face, hanging over the approach. Ever tried wading uphill through knee deep snow at top speed? Well, it’s exactly like wading uphill through knee deep snow very slowly, but much harder work. However, the serac gods smiled upon us again and after a bit we reached the start of the route. Now, for some reason Owen thinks I’m an awesome ice climber (possibly because I keep telling him I am), so the plan was for me to lead the direct start and then he would lead the mixed ground and the upper couloir. It didn’t quite work out like that but I started on message and did the first three pitches – magnificent ice plastered into a stunning corner. The next pitch was even better. Right crampon on Glencoe, the left and my axe on the Ben, with the hammer in my right hand torqueing hard in a thin Cairngorm crack: just magic. Owen seemed a bit worried about the temporary nature of the bit of Glencoe I was about to stand on, particularly since my only gear was behind it, but it looked well frozen-in to me. As I rocked up on the thin ice to my left there was a loud crack and a scream from below. My first thought was that my judgement had let me down and I’d killed Owen by kicking the flake onto his head but I was precariously balanced on a couple of millimetres of ice so it seemed sensible to finish the move off anyway. Above was a good ribbon of ice in the corner so I got onto that before reassuring myself that there were still two members of the team in working order – just a small chunk of ice, but carefully aimed. I climbed another ten metres or so up the corner until the ice ran out. The next bit looked hard so I let Owen have the lead. He dropped down from the belay and took a traverse line out left to a steep finger crack that he started to aid. Fortunately he’d already got four wires in the crack before he dropped the rest.
Owen said later that he was impressed that I took it so calmly, but I figured that none of the pitches below had used more than four wires, and since he was due the mixed pitches into the upper couloir it wasn’t going to be my problem. In the end it wasn’t his problem either – the mixed bit was only hard for a couple of moves and was perfectly protected by a peg and a rock 2 (which we still had). Well, when I say perfectly protected, the gear was actually the belay as well so although Owen would have only gone a metre, it would have been the metre that included my head. I like to think that the scar above my eyebrow from the last time Owen kicked me in the head just adds interest to my face – and perhaps a touch of mystery that girls find hard to resist. But I didn’t think any further mutilation would be helpful, so I kept my head down and paid close attention to the ropes for once. I needn’t have worried though as Owen dispatched the moves with his usual grace and disappeared up a thrutchy groove. Somewhere above this was a small bivi ledge, being slept in on, at the start of this story, and there isn’t much more to tell. We didn’t drop anything else, the weather stayed good, the climbing in the upper couloir was really nice, the traverse across to the Plan was not nice but was easy and didn’t avalanche on us, and although the descent was a bit worrying it was over fairly quickly and nothing bad happened. If we had got up a bit earlier in the morning we would have avoided the last night out, on a small ledge dug into hard snow just below the summit; but while I can remember the views of the sun setting over the mountains and the lights in the valley, I cannot recall the discomfort at all, and why would a mountaineer wish to be out of the mountains too soon?