Hotel CaliforniaHotel California
The terrain between the Aiguille de Rochefort and Pointe Walker was unknown to me, even though its profile is familiar from below, in both France and Italy, whose borders it defines. The light plays tricks with distance, only if you have powerful optical assistance or you can see an aircraft or helicopter pass below the ridge line can you elicit a sense of scale. The traverse, from Geant to Rochefort is a sought after experience for mountaineers and has been given the title, “ Dream Ridge.”
Filling the gaps of experience is one way of translating idea into action. This particular gap applied to both JB and I. His sixtieth year seemed a good time to be doing it. A month was allocated for the celebrations out there, based in the Val Veni at Peutery near the base of the East ridge of the Aiguille Noire. The weather, indifferent to such an auspicious event had me drawing and painting clouds, both dark and low with dirty looking glaciers below. The share price of the Nastro Azzurro brewery rose exponentially with the pile of empties. All was well with our alpine world.
Actually setting off on the route caused quite a stir. A hint of high pressure galvanized us. I squeezed three days gear into the size of sac you might take to Stanage for the day. Matteo, whose family owned the campsite and had become a friend, lent us a two way radio and its aerial poked embarrassingly out of the top. This was pre mobile phone era and the base camp team wanted a daily report.
The usual, sleep late, set off in the afternoon method of alpinism was deployed. This way you experience strange looks from others heading down and get to climb the slush that was perfect snow earlier. However, if you keep going it starts to freeze again at sunset and big scary drops disappear in the dark.
Facing the afternoon sun provided the slopes up to the Geant with top quality slush but the weather was good and it was wonderful to be up there, silent and peaceful, no one else around. At the Geant we had a brew before heading off on the switchback of cornices that constitute the Rochefort arête. Spectacular and photogenic, the ridge succumbs to steady crampon work. A rope would spoil such enjoyment. We topped the Aiguille of that name fairly quickly but the evening was progressing. This was the western edge of our experience gap. At 4000 metres now and some long bands of clouds appeared close by overhead, a strong cold wind arose. The sky went green and as the sun set it was like a searchlight picking us out. We put outer clothing on as the temperature plummeted. My fingers were too cold to change the film in my camera as the light made our surroundings more and more surreal but then the sun had gone and it was just cold and dark.
Still unroped, we progressed on snow to the beginning of the west ridge of the Dome de Rochefort. Here, we made our radio call. A few people had assembled outside the bar to listen to our crackly account of the trip so far. Midnight saw us over the summit of the Dome and no sign of a bivouac ledge. Descending NE towards the Calotte with an inky gulf either side brought no change to this situation. Some torchlight activity over where Point Young might be gave us a talking point but still no nights’ lodging. A rock tower at the end of an ice ridge settled the issue. It would be easier to find the way in daylight so JB was for staying on some tiny ledges. I started hacking a ledge out under the cornice on the Italian side, trying to preserve some of it as a windbreak. JB, becoming seriously cold, joined me. Eventually we had a long, thin ledge next to a huge drop, out of the north wind with ice axe belays in France through holes in the ice.
It was not an easy night and we waited for the sun to thaw our bones out. I got a rare photograph of JB waking up. A small aircraft flew below us through the window of the Col des Jorasses. We could just make out the tiny bivouac hut by the col. Slowly, we unstiffened during a light breakfast. There were a couple of steps in the ridge requiring abseils and interesting climbing before the Calottes’ summit. The morning was passing, cloud and wind increased as we set off down the steepening slope towards the Col. Three abseils took us to a snow slope at a more reasonable angle but the descent had not been obvious, necessitating leaving a piton in place. We didn’t see much evidence of passage after leaving the Aiguille de Rochefort, though I suppose it was dark for much of the way. Good title, Dream Ridge.
The col is a high, remote place. The wind roars through, ripping at the pinnacles above. The Canzio bivouac hut overlooks the Italian aspect, tucked under a rock ridge on the Jorasses side. We were not leaving its security in the face of a rising gale and big drop in temperature. Having food and gas for a few days clinched the decision to stay so we moved in. Too small for standing, it was a galvanized tin affair with room for about six. Driving cloud and flying snow arrived as tea was being prepared. Contact with the valley was made. It was a balmy evening down there from where all they could see were some wispy clouds near our position.
Through the din of the wind we heard another sound, like something scratching around outside. A Yeti or ghost on the Col des Jorasses? The door burst open and a smallish man covered in snow with bits of rope wrapped round him appeared. He couldn’t speak for quite a few minutes. The mind boggled as to what this was about. Where were his mates? He was obviously well gripped about something. After fifteen minutes or so he accepted a brew prepared by JB and began a disjointed account of what was quite a story as it unfolded over the next few days.
Firstly, he had no mates, at least not near here. He was alone. It was his light we had seen and he had seen ours too. From leaving Argentiere three days before he had taken in the North face of the Courtes, the Shroud, at the side of the Walker spur and then traversed the Jorasses summit ridge to Pointe Young. The way off there was not easily found and his special Kevlar rope had stuck twice on descent, requiring cutting. The deteriorating weather added to this to create a fairly desperate situation.
Alberto Sancini was pleased to see us at the refuge, especially with our spare food and gas. He had considerable stature as a mountaineer having guided a party on the Chinese side of K2 and attempted trips like this present adventure. John knew some of his circle of friends by reputation. Alberto also knew Matteo well and they had a long conversation on the radio. We enjoyed a good meal while outside snow and ice was building up on the rocks above, then falling off and hitting the refuge with a terrific noise. Despite this we slept well to awaken to the storm still raging. The door was blocked by a large snowdrift so we couldn’t get out and had to pee in various pots and pans leaving a couple for food. The day passed with conversation, sleep and brews until the water ran out.
We renamed the refuge, “ Hotel California.” Desperation finally drove me to force the planks off a small, boarded up window with my ice axe. After wriggling out into the blizzard to bare a soon frozen backside a suitable distance away I returned to liberate the other two by clearing the snowdrift and ice from the door. Later in the day the gale still howled through the col but the sky above was clearing. We would have to wait for the new snow to avalanche off the slopes before descending. None of us fancied the Italian side so tomorrow we would drop into France.
Early afternoon saw us carefully descending the long, hanging slopes to the side of the western end of the huge, formidable north face of the Jorasses. Pinnacles like Easter island statues defined the edge of this abyss. The slope became steeper and steeper and more awkward to downclimb. When the angle eased, near the crazy crenellations of the Periades ridge, the new snow was thigh deep. Breaking through this was hard work so we took turns. It seemed an age before we reached the Leschaux glacier where the going improved on the dry ice.
A friendly competition was developing as we picked up speed down the Mer de Glace, not wanting to miss the last train down from Montenvers to Chamonix. Alberto was certainly fit, and quite a bit younger than JB and I, putting on quite a performance. The two hundred lung bursting metres up the ladders from the Mer de Glace to the station was where John and I only just preserved national pride, drawing away on the last straight, just after the top. The race had us looking even more disheveled but a remarkable transformation took place on the train. In just a few minutes Alberto turned himself in a suave looking individual who might have been out for a short stroll in the park. Incredible! A clean, ironed looking shirt, hair immaculate and fashionable shades, JB and I were stunned.
Our descent into France, not being planned meant we had no francs and Alberto loaned us our train fare, bought us a ‘lake’ of beer each, a large sandwich and our bus tickets for Courmayeur. I stumbled off the pavement on the way to the bus, prompting some facetious comment from the driver about such clumsiness on the mountain being terminal.
Alberto came to see us a couple of times at the Val Veni campsite. We exchanged letters for a few years. I saw Matteo again this summer, ten years after these events and he told me that he had been killed in the mountains.