A courting we will goThe telephreque to the Grand Montet overflowed with bodies, skis and poles became offensive weapons poking and prodding all and sundry, the thick scent of sun tan cream and perfume became nauseating and overpowering, the shoving and pushing began to fray my already tethered nerves. By the time we had reached the top station I’d become a seething mass of a very unfashionable alpinist in what seemed to me to be a fashion show in a sardine can, The torn and soiled salopets and gortex jacket, leather boots almost the size of ski boots but twice as heavy, a purple bulging rucksack patched and stitched, a coil of rope hanging from the top, ice axes strapped to the sides and of course the helmet, red and tough as nails, no fashion model was I that day.
I secretly smiled in amusement as the horde made its dash for freedom in a frenzied jostle through the small opening called a door, people nearly toppled over each other as they squeezed through. Waiting at the back was a much more English style except all the English had left!
Once out in the open I had become a free soul, happy to be wondering off down the snow slope to the Argentiere cirque, it didn’t last long. Plugging the steps with Duncan behind, I began to curse my own stupidity for not obtaining mountaineering skis, life would have been so much easier, instead we had to watch that fashionable horde glide effortlessly by, (well nearly all of them) flying through the powder snow gracefully throwing up beautiful plumes of glittering snow and ice, I began to envy them, oh how I wished I had some skis too. We in turn sank deeper into the soft powder, occasionally floundering like fish out of water, flopping about gasping for breath.
By now we had gone along way from the normally piste were the skiers were, the air was silent, crisp and cold our trail was easy to follow as it lay deep across this frozen landscape with occasional detours to avoid the deep crevasses that lay like deadly traps almost hidden under the carpet of fresh snowfall. Stopping to rest and catch our breath we could admire the white shrouded mountains in their full winter splendour.
Our arrival at the Argentiere hut which is positioned in the most wonderful setting was a relief, time to rest and flump down, brew up and have a chat with the few other mountaineers and skiers that had ventured further a field. It wasn’t long before it became obvious that we were not going to be the only ones attempting the Aig. De Courtes via the Swiss route, during the evening Duncan decided to give the route amiss but would come along with me in the early morning to the bergshrund for the interest. I on my part failing in Switzerland became pig headed and was not going to be thwarted from gaining a mountain that winter.
It always seems that you get a very restless sleep before a climb and this had been no exception, the idea of soloing the NE face was quite daunting and had played in my head that night, all manner of disasters flickered through my imagination. I awoke bleary eyed, stumbled for a moment around in the dark frozen hut, as cold as dead, quiet as the grave and every breath hanging like mist in the air, frozen in time and only moved as I brushed past it then hung again, lifeless.
Breakfast was a small affair, some tea and porridge, while eating the porridge I could just see out of the frozen glass window etched with ice a few lamps travelling erratically like fireflies towards the NE face of the Courtes . Our turn had come, we stretched and loosened our bodies from the sleep and gathered the equipment, and most would stay no need for ropes or the iron mongery as I was going to climb it on my own Duncan was not for changing his mind. We both stepped out into the crisp cold alpine air and it was exhilarating as we ventured forth across the dark silent glacier, our breath much greater with the effort, condensing into an icy mist, lighting up in a ghostly fashion as our torch rays erratically bobbed about. The snow sparkled in the beam of light and the deep feathery snow muffled our heavy footsteps as we trudged across to the north face of the Courtes.
Slowly we gained the initial slope where the snow lay even deeper, wading through this we eventually came to the bergshrund a deep, dark and dreadful frozen cleft between the mountain rock and glacier. High above amongst the immense frozen face was the twinkling head lamps from the earlier climbers, I borrowed a third ice axe from Duncan as insurance just in case I dropped one or the pick broke as it had happened to me before. With the first upward physical effort to scale the soft over hanging bergshrund it came away in a large lump throwing me right back to the starting point in a noiseless thud and like a sack of potatoes. Duncan’s smile said everything but not out done I requested his help, put my cramponed boot onto his two hands (carefully) and he gave me that extra few inches that allowed the ice axe shafts to bury themselves deeply into good hard snow, a heave and grunt got me over the first obstacle, Duncan wished me luck a slowly retreated into the darkness of the silent void.
I started climbing, the snow was excellent and the picks went in superbly, each tool in their turn would sink deeply into the firm but yielding surface of the neve snow offering a very secure hold, even the crampons bit in beautifully so it wasn’t long until the French pair came within talking distance. I chatted for awhile to the belayer who was feeding out the rope for his leader while he climbed an awkward section then I too slipped away upwards into the solitude of the darkness preferring a slightly different way.
Enveloped in a capsule of light unable to perceive much of the dark precipitous drop below or the sheer ice face that loomed forebodingly above, I carried on my labour, thrashing each tool individually into the snow then moving the feet up giving little thought for the dangers. In this capsule of light it seemed to me as though I was protected from harm, the darkness hid all the perils of climbing for what I couldn’t see I didn’t care about (well nearly). I was so engrossed with the climbing that when arriving at the steep narrow section of rock and ice I hardly noticed it. Only when making careful swings at the sparse ice I noticed the very steep angle then quite unexpectedly a large sluff came pouring down out of the still night nearly sweeping me from the face, my crampons had slipped sending the heart racing and pounding into my mouth. The cascade of snow and ice kept pouring down engulfing me totally, I struggled to regain four points of contact then having achieved this and settling my nerves I waited for the down pour to subside, eventually only a minimal amount came streaming by, moving quickly but carefully the steep section relented giving way to the easier angled slope above, relief at last. Hard brittle ice lay in front of me and dawn had arrived reds and oranges flooded the eastern sky but this opened up the horrendous drop below, the shielding darkness no longer protected me from observing this precipice. The iron hard ice called for extra care, more power and an awful lot more concentration, each axe had to be driven hard, with each and every blow large dinner plates of ice fractured await from the face to skip and dance merrily down, tinkling as they went. Sometimes it required three or more powerful blows to attain a reasonable placement, believe you me I wasn’t going to rely on a dodgy one. The front points of the crampons barely marked the ice, only a few millimetres sank in affording little in the way of a secure feeling.
A mixed section barred the way to the final upper ice field, positively dreading this I clambered upwards balancing on the protruding rocks and placing picks in any descent patch of ice, then much to my horror Duncan’s axe bounced back off the frozen face, slightly worried I quickly inspected the offending item and much to my shock the pick had bent ninety degrees out of true, bloody useless. Nowhere to stop safely there was no choice but to carry on until some good clean and deep ice was available, Across the ice and rock soon lead to the safer thicker ice. Thick ice allowed the only ice piton I had to be smashed in to then act as an anchor while I took a break. Changing ice axes then breaking into a bar of chocolate which was frozen hard and nearly broke my teeth I leaned back to take the strain off my stinging calf muscles, the pressure was off, no concentration required here so looking around at the frozen early dawn landscape mind wondering lazily around, the golden sun rays lit the mountains that I had scaled the previous summer. They looked majestic in their golden shroud and the Matterhorn stood clearly visible in the morning’s sunrise. My gazed then travelled downwards, gosh what a drop and the butterflies came back into my stomach, what a drop.
It took a little time before I finally overcame the desire to stay put with the safety of the ice piton but move I had for nobody was going to come to my rescue and wisk me away. The mental effort of removing the ice piton was immense, that dreaded feeling of insecurity returned, one wrong move and death would surely follow. Slowly I started my upward progress, clumsily at first then with each and every step the fluidity of movement returned, clunk, clunk of ices axes then boots stabbing the ice in turn ripping shards of ice from the face which glittered and sparked as they fell to earth in a shower. Looking down into the oblivion below my heels I could not help thinking that one mistake would send me hurtling down the 3000 foot face like an express train. Blow after blow moving slowly up the final ice field proved long and arduous, a thin ribbon of opaque ice broke right, the axes bit deeper and surer here and I felt more secure. Following this easier line led me to a shallow couloir running down from the right hand ridge, it looked like excellent neve snow but turned out to be unconsolidated muck and as I fought my way through the small cornice moral went to its lowest ebb for in front of me lay a completely bare slope of beautiful blue green ice, hard as steel. Progress up this final ridge was painfully sluggish, nerve wracking and exhausting. The effort expended in anchoring the picks into the shattering ice I finally staggered onto the summit mental exhausted. It was a tremendous relief to settle down on the top bathed in sunlight, the relief from the physical and mental exposure over the last four hours was pure joy.
Sitting on the summit I ate the remaining crumbs of food, the scenery stretched miles and miles in front of me, behind and everywhere, mountains shrouded in a white wintry veil. Time had slipped by and it had been an hour before I realised how much time had actually passed. The descent was down the normal north east slope, here the snow lay very deep and when disturbed it slid down the slope gathering momentum and debris, extreme caution was required. With the recent episode on the Matterhorn and the avalanche I was extremely glad to finally leap down off the main bergschrund, thirty more paces and I was safely ambling towards Duncan who sat waiting for me. He gladly described the wholesome breakfast that he had made and ate while I was making my bid for the top, there was not a crumb left unfortunately.