‘Jon! Just look at that!’
A huge ice avalanche was plunging down the Brenva face of Mont Blanc - in a great boiling white cloud.
It had originated way up high - and was now plunging down over the smooth ice of the middle section of the face.
My companion looked up and uttered a terse expletive.
Eerily, the spectacle unfolded in complete silence - until the avalanche was well over half way to the bottom – and then a muted thunder reached our ears. Watching the advance of the avalanche was like watching greatly speeded up film footage of a developing storm cloud: it had now plunged and swirled its way down to the very foot of the face – where there was an immense gaping crevasse, ready to swallow it up…
But the avalanche swept across with barely a hold up - and it advanced several hundred meters across the glacier before finally slowing and stopping. The cloud then hung in the air like a diffuse white mist before slowly settling.
When the mist cleared there was just another pile of debris scattered across the surface of the glacier – but the immense crevasse was almost bridged by the volume of material which had gone inside as opposed to over the top.
My previously taciturn companion abruptly became loquacious. Excitedly we both compared impressions, but tried not to speculate too much about the fact that next day’s route passed close to the scarred slopes which had been scoured by the avalanche, as it plunged down the face…
Jon and I were stood outside one of the highest mountain huts in the Italian Alps, right up by the French Italian border. The Trident Hut stood at nearly 12,000 feet – perched rather improbably on a narrow snow crest, half a day’s glacier trudge from the nearest cable car station. And the glacier in question was the famous Valley Blanche, the vast cataract of snow and ice which I had skied down during the previous winter – all the way down to the French town of Chamonix.
Back then, before I had snapped on my skis and launched off, I had turned and looked up - way up - and I had taken in the spectacle of the massive east face of Mont Blanc, glowing in the early morning light.
I had vowed to come back and climb that mighty face.
And less than six months later I was back, battered by the intervening months of slavery as a junior hospital doctor, but nonetheless ready to tackle the hardest climb I had attempted in the Alps thus far - and to realise a dream to stand on the highest point in all of western Europe, somewhat unimaginatively named Mont Blanc - or White Mountain.
Our route would follow a spur which rose up precipitously at the right hand side; nearly two thousand feet of rock, another two thousand feet of church roof steep ice – and finally a barrier made up of serried ramparts of ice cliffs. This was the 500 feet high serac barrier - and the crux of the climb…
…as well as being the source of the avalanche we had just witnessed.
As we continued chattering about what we had just seen, we gradually became aware that the avalanche had stirred up activity inside the hut.
The young hut warden emerged, talking forcefully into a radio hand-set – and stepping back and forth outside and inside the hut as he tried to get the best reception. The atmosphere became tense. Off the radio now, he and others spoke in rapid fire Italian. Someone was apparently studying the bottom of the face through a pair of binoculars.
Nobody tried to explain to us what was going on. Long minutes passed.
The radio crackled back into life a couple of times, precipitating further bursts of incomprehensible Italian. Further long minutes passed…
Suddenly a Helicopter came clattering and whining up out of the distant Courmayeur valley. It swept up within a few hundred meters of the hut and the warden, ear glued again to his radio, was obviously talking to it. The helicopter abruptly wheeled away and plunged down and across the vast shining amphitheatre - to the base of the face, to where the avalanche debris scarred the glacier surface. It hovered for a very long time directly over the huge crevasse.
Eventually the commotion died and the Helicopter sped away, back to the green depths of the valley. And finally, the hut warden explained things to us: in halting English he explained that two climbers had been caught in the avalanche…
They had been climbing a route on the face, just to the left of the one we planned to do. They had been right in the path of all that plunging snow and ice – and they would have stood no chance at all. They would have been swept off – and then buried in that gaping crevasse, down at the bottom of the face.
There was little else to be said. Numbness crept over us.
We had already vowed to climb the face very early, leaving the hut at midnight, and then getting as high as possible - before the sun softened those precarious ramparts of ice, way up at the top of the face.
Sometime later, we both tried to snatch a few hours sleep. We even succeeded for a few hours – until suddenly, at around six in the evening, several parties of people simultaneously arrived and filled the hut to bursting. But of all the new arrivals, just two other pairs were bound for the Brenva…
A midnight start.We emerged from the hut as we had planned, just after midnight. It was icy cold - and starlight illuminated our surroundings dimly, such that it was just possible to see the outline of the face. Of the foreground and our route down to the glacier, we could see next to nothing – so we proceeded carefully, by the light of head-torches. We scrambled down steep snow and odd bits of shale until we emerged on level snow surface 1000 feet below the hut. Mindful of hidden crevasses, we roped up - and then plodded across the wide glacial cwm, above which the face towered.
We angled our crossing towards where the great spur came down off the face, to where it intersected with a small rocky island in the glacier. At this intersection was a low pass known as Col Moore – and this was our first objective, at the very start of the climb.
As we crunched and squeaked our crampon footed way across the expanse of level snow, we noticed that one of the two other pairs destined for the face, was keeping pace with us. We saw them as two moving pools of torch light – and heard them chatter to each other in French. Of the other pair, there was no sign – and we presumed they were behind us somewhere.
An hour out from the hut we cramponed up 100 feet or so above the glacier and stood on the tiny level area of Col Moore. Above us, in the darkness, towered over 4,500 feet of Brenva face...
The very first problem was the rocky section of spur about 2000 feet high. Just by itself this buttress would have proved a worthy day’s sport in daylight on say, the North Face of Ben Nevis. But here we were faced with climbing it in the dark - by head-torch light, encumbered by heavy rucksack and double boots - and with a starting height more than double that of Ben Nevis. Having surmounted this appreciable obstacle, we would still be less than half way up the face – and with the worst yet to come…
Confidence was at a low point. We eyed the black shape of the lower spur fearfully as we removed and stowed our crampons and checked that the rock climbing hardware was clipped to our harnesses. As far as I could see by dim head-torch light, the route went straight up the middle of the buttress. There appeared to be faint scratch marks on the rocks indicating others had gone that way. Jon preferred climbing ice to rock and asked if I felt up to leading.
Just at that moment our concentration was disturbed by the arrival of the two Frenchmen. They chattered excitedly and appeared to be trying to tell us something…
And after some moments of incomprehension, we gathered that they were trying to say that the route went left of the formidable buttress – onto precipitous slopes of what appeared to my limited probing, to be highly unstable and loose rock. Even though not as steep as the buttress, Jon and I agreed between us that it didn’t look safe.
Nevertheless, because we were venturing on to a route of this difficulty for the first time, there was a temptation to assume that anyone else on the route must automatically know more than we did. We were assailed with waves of indecision and uncertainty – but finally we stuck to our convictions.
‘Non! – la route n’est pas la bas!’ said in my best school boy French, ‘C’est ici!’
No! - The route is not over there! - It is here!
But the two Frenchmen would have none of it. They crossed the little col and began to round the base of the buttress. Their two pools of torch light disappeared out of sight, but we could soon hear the clattering of loose rocks…
The Accident.Trying to have the courage of our convictions Jon and I attacked the spur. I led off first and climbed a full ropes length, about 100 feet, before tying on and bringing Jon up. We climbed up a series of rocky slabs and cracks without too much difficulty.
But it got steeper.
I found myself swearing and cursing, standing on tiny footholds above a black void below – which was getting progressively bigger. Light from my head-torch was dim but it threw up surreal shadows, which made it difficult to see where to find hand-holds. Good technique went out the window and I found myself lunging into the shadows, grasping whatever I could – and then heaving and scrabbling like a beginner, to gain height. Occasionally I banged in a piton or jammed a little metal ‘nut’ into a crack – and clipped the rope through so that if I slipped, Jon could hold my fall.
We continued climbing one at a time, pitch after pitch. Very occasionally a slightly easier section enabled us to move together – which saved precious time. But this was not often. As the hours slid past we mostly climbed one after another – protecting each other with the rope. At one point I found myself getting a little panicky – on one steep slab holds became progressively sparser - and I found myself balanced precariously over what was now a substantial drop.
I feared that we had gone off route and cursed my head-torch, which was now dimmer than ever. I needed to change the batteries – but the middle of a hold-less slab was not a good place. Then suddenly, near the edge of my fading pool of dull yellow light, I spied on old piton - and I shouted my relief down to an anxious Jon, paying out the rope and lost in the darkness below. With a lunge I got a finger through the ring of the piton and pulled up on it.
The dim luminescence of the glacier seemed to be sinking into the expanding void beneath us. The going was difficult - but bit by bit we were nonetheless, making progress.
I was not sure if the same could be said for the two Frenchmen. Occasional snatched glimpses of their head-torches revealed them to still be well to the left of the buttress. More often, we heard shouts of warning and the crashing of falling rocks as they battled with what was obviously appallingly loose terrain. But we were preoccupied with our own difficulties - and we did not spare them much thought as we struggled our way higher up the buttress.
Time passed in the darkness…
Then all of a sudden I began to feel we were winning. The angle started to ease slightly. And runnels of frozen snow started to appear between the rocks. We broke out the crampons and started to climb the snow in preference to the rock. But all too often we were forced back onto the rock and had to struggle up, with crampons screeching and rasping for purchase. I cursed at the likelihood that our crampons would be blunt before we reached the ice fields above…
The rock, although easier angled, started to become loose and treacherous – probably not dissimilar to the shaley rock shoots the Frenchmen were struggling up. I was aware that they were now quite a long way below us, judging from the distant shouts and crashes.
I led up a particularly steep and loose section, stopped when the rope ran out and tied myself on - to bring Jon up. I felt triumphant: for the first time that long night, I was able to spy a dull gleam of snow not fifteen meters above my head, which looked like the famous ‘horizontal snow ridge’. This landmark was the gateway to the upper half of the face . It was still pitch dark, so we were well up in our schedule. With a bit of luck we could be up most of the ice before the sun really got to work on those bloody seracs – still far above us.
But then disaster struck…
I took in the rope, belaying Jon, who was now climbing up from the void below and out of sight. Yet again I heard the distant crashing of rocks, punctuated by shouts and yells. Having heard these same sounds on and off throughout the night thus far, I thought nothing of it.
But a few minutes later, Jon appeared – his black outline silhouetted against the dull luminescence of the glacier 2000 feet below. He told me he thought there had been an accident below, involving the two French climbers.
It was now deathly silent up at our precarious eerie, near the top of the buttress. The air was cold and above, myriad stars twinkled in the heavens. I had been looking forward to triumphantly informing Jon we had reached the horizontal snow ridge. It took a moment and a clashing of mental gears to process what he had just said…
Then came the terrified screams - up from the hidden depths below. I had never heard a grown man scream in total panic before – and it was chilling like a cold shower. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck bristle.
With Jon holding the rope I scrambled off the ledge and down onto the precipitous black rocks below. Very carefully I climbed down a couple of moves – until I could see.
In the dim light I could see the side of the spur dropping dizzyingly away for about 300 feet – and then it met a precipitous shoot of boulders and snow - plunging with church roof steepness to the bottom of the face. Within a shallow gulley I could make out two pin points of light. One was moving around – in an agitated fashion. The other was motionless – pointing straight out from the face. It looked as if one of them was dangling at the ropes end – held by the other, who was frantically scrabbling to get a more secure belay.
I shouted down: ‘I can see you. What is happening?’
Speaking English now, a French accented voice rose up out of the void: ‘I am secure… mais Dominique I do not know! I theenk p’raps he eez dead!’
Just then, I saw the motionless torch move.
‘No!’ I shouted down ‘He is not dead! I just saw him move!’
But it was the purposeless side to side movement of someone severely concussed - and in the twilight zone of partial awareness.
‘Stay there – I’m going to try and come down to you!’
To Jon I shouted up: ‘Jon – keep paying out rope – I’m going to try and reach them!’
I wasn’t thinking clearly – they were about 300 feet below and the rope only 100 feet long. There was also vertical rock between me and them. I couldn’t possibly climb down it. The only possible way to reach them would be to climb back down the buttress and then come up to them from below. I was uncertain in my abilities to climb back down the buttress… and there was nothing secure enough to anchor the rope for a safe abseil.
But just then the matter was resolved for me once and for all.
Rocks collapsed under my scrabbling boots – and plunged into the abyss below...
To my immense relief the rocks passed well to the side of the stricken climbers below. But they had resolved the dilemma for me: I could not try and climb down.
I shouted down: ‘Sorry – I cannot climb down to you. It is too dangerous. We will fetch help.’
‘Please ‘urry!’ came the reply from below.
I climbed very carefully back up to Jon. I explained what I had found.
We both had whistles as well as our head torches and decided to use them to signal the hut - using the international distress frequency. We felt that someone would be bound to hear eventually. So we both took our packs off and secured them on the tiny ledge. I then took the whistle I habitually carried hung round my neck on the same string I hung my compass. I had never blown it before.
The sound of it was quite deafening right in front of my face – but it just vanished into the darkness of the immense void before and below us. There was no echo whatsoever. This surprised me: I had been sure the sound would at least have produced an echo off the low horizontal ridge the hut stood on, a mile in front – and below us now. I strained my eyes into the darkness: I could just about make out the ridge and could guess at the approximate position of the hut – but there was no light and nothing visible to mark the exact position. I thought of the hut warden and the numbers of people who would still be in the hut. It was about four thirty in the morning. Surely someone would be up – getting ready to set off on a climb. And if not, then surely the strident shriek of the whistle would still be loud enough, even at that distance, to disturb a light sleeper.
Jon joined me with his whistle – but somehow the combined sound seemed just as puny, faced with the immensity of the vast open space in front of us. There was still no returning echo from anywhere – not even from one of the buttresses and spurs either side of us on the face.
As well as blowing our whistles, we flashed our head-torches – shining the pitiful beams in the direction of the hut. We aimed for the international distress frequency of six whistle-blasts/torch flashes per minute – followed by a minute’s pause, to listen/look for a reply. During the pauses we listened intently – and stared hopefully in the direction of the hut. But there was utter silence and no lights became visible.
The minutes dragged by. The only change was that there was now a dim luminescence in the sky far in front of us. It was behind the phallic projection of the Dent du Geant. Otherwise, it was still dark and – apart from during the whistle blasts – utterly silent. The cycle of torch flashes and whistle blasts went on, over and over.
Occasionally we exchanged a few terse remarks during pauses. I noticed Jon appeared to be slurring his speech – and a sharper look revealed he was shivering. Dawn was just beginning to break now and the temperature was at its lowest. Distracted, he was not taking any notice of the fact that he was getting cold - and he was heading for hypothermia. Through luck rather than design, I already had a warm jacket on.
‘Jon. JON! Get your duvet on – NOW!’ He stirred reluctantly – but eventually reached for his pack and hauled his jacket out. There was only a brief interruption to the continued cycle of whistle blasts…
Dawn eventually came exploding silently and spectacularly above the distant horizon. We noted it absently. Now it was possible to see the hut, a tiny insignificant silver dot on the ridge, on the far side of the void.
Within a short while brilliant sun light came flooding into the vast arena in front of the face. When I peered over the edge I could now see the ant like figures of the two stricken climbers below. Despite the steadily increasing light it was still remarkably difficult to make them out against the rocks.
Suddenly there were different shouts from below.
Two new figures appeared below and across from the scene of the accident. It seemed likely to be the remaining pair climbing the Brenva – and who had left the hut later than ourselves and the unfortunate French pair.
The two newcomers were climbing swiftly up the buttress - and in due course they angled off and towards the lower of the two stricken Frenchmen… the one who I had presumed was the injured man.
This figure still appeared to be dangling in the shallow gully between two spurs of shattered rock. The two new-comers, moving carefully, appeared to reach him - and then the little huddle moved sideways onto the spur.
Snatches of words drifted up…
The new-comers appeared to be speaking English to the French leader, but I picked up hints of Italian accents…Then, quite clearly, I heard the French leader say again ‘I theenk he eez dead!’
‘No he eeza nota dead!’ emphatically from one of the new-comers, who clearly were Italian.
There was a further incomprehensible exchange… before words became recognisable again… and then one of the Italians appeared to be trying to cajole the frightened and demoralised French leader, encouraging him to abseil down from his higher position, to join them on the spur…
‘C’mon man – rappelle! You musta RAPELLE!’
Meanwhile, Jon and I maintained our vigil above - and continued with the whistle blasts.
With the sunrise now illuminating the vast cwm, our feeble torch flashes were now pointless and we had put our head torches away. The whistle blasts still seemed puny in all that now visible space – but we continued nonetheless.
We continued looking hopefully across to the distant hut – but could still see no signs of movement. I had thought we would by now have been able to see tiny specs of people standing outside on the snow – trying to see where the distant whistle blasts were coming from.
But somebody had heard…
‘Wait – what’s that?’ We paused in the latest series of whistle blasts.
There was a distant noise… a thrumming - which at intervals shifted into a familiar woppa-woppa-woppa sound…
The sound of a helicopter!
For a long time the sound came and went maddeningly. Frustratingly the source of the sound remained invisible to us.
But suddenly: ‘It’s there – look! Down there - by the left bank of the Glacier’
The helicopter looked disconcertingly miniscule, but was now visible as a mosquito like spec, moving up from the depths of the Courmayeur valley – far away towards where the big glacier below dropped out of sight.
Slowly but steadily, the helicopter inched its way up. It came level with the hut but did not alter course. I could imagine the hut warden moving around with his radio – trying to get the best reception, just as he had done the day before, after the avalanche.
Abruptly, the helicopter wheeled away from the ridge and began to curve up towards the Brenva face. It looked to be heading straight for us. Gradually it continued to gain height until, adopting now a tadpole like shape, it was almost level with our eerie on the buttress. But it suddenly veered off. It started to search the huge and now shining wall, way off to our right.
They didn’t know where we were.
Maybe the hut warden had only just heard the whistle blasts and had not seen our torch flashes, so had not known where to direct the helicopter, other than towards the face in general… which was after all nearly a mile high as well as two miles wide. As the helicopter wheeled off and away we all, including those down below, instinctively started shouting and waving.
Not that shouting could achieve anything.
Laboriously the helicopter slanted down and across the face away from us. The noise diminished to a far off thrumming again. But it finally wheeled round - and the distant speck started coming back. Once again, the sound gradually became louder – and the distant speck, tadpole like again.
We started waving frantically. On impulse I picked up my heavy rucksack and, staggering precariously on the tiny ledge, tried to wave that.
This time they saw us. The helicopter abruptly gave a kind of twitch, as if stung, but then altered course – straight for the buttress. The noise became loud – and the tadpole shape became a bright red pod with visible shimmering disc of whirling rota blades.
It slowed as it approached - and then eased in towards the spur at a snail’s pace, moving sideways as well as forwards.
The rota blades seemed to be almost touching the rocks…
And just then two figures emerged, climbed to the tip of one of the skids and jumped off onto the spur. Snow dust sprayed around and loose rocks went plunging into the void. In a heart stopping moment I saw a much larger object start plunging down - looking like a body…
But it was just a rucksack, bounding end over end down the face.
As the two figures dropped onto the spur, the helicopter abruptly wheeled away again and started to hover a safe distance away. The two new arrivals wasted no time and soon had the injured man on a stretcher. The helicopter eased back in, but this time hovered directly overhead. Briskly a cable was lowered and without ceremony, one of the two rescuers together with the stretcher was winched aboard. Again the helicopter wheeled away, presumably this time, whilst the injured man was secured inside. It eased back in again – and this time collected the other rescuer, who had meantime roped to himself the second of the two stricken climbers.
The helicopter wheeled away for the last time. And this time it continued into a headlong plunge towards the distant green of the valley far away and far below. In mere seconds the sound diminished to nothing and the already distant spec winked into nothingness…
The dramatic and abrupt end to the event was quite shocking in its suddenness.
We had been on the tiny ledge, totally preoccupied with the tableau 300 feet below, for nearly three hours. The beautiful high alpine dawn had passed, scarcely noticed. The sun was already well above the horizon - and the light of the new day already dazzling. Looking down there was no sign at all of the drama which had just taken place.
Feeling dazed, we turned our attention to climbing the face once again.
The Ice-field.A short scramble led up to the horizontal snow ridge, which provides access to the upper half of the spur. We traversed this easy section swiftly and all too quickly were faced with the next obstacle. An ice field swept up in front of us, like a great shining curtain. Only the first few steps were at an easy angle and then it rapidly reached church roof steepness – and then it went up, apparently forever…
But then, miles above and gleaming in the sun, were the blockish shapes of the ice towers and walls of the serac barrier - from whence had come the avalanche, which yesterday had killed two people.
I kicked my crampon front points into the slope and started to climb.
In no time the angle of the slope was rearing back in my face, such that I needed to whack the picks of ice-axes in both hands into the ice to pull up on. Soon I was balanced precariously, stuck fly-like to the shining wall, my only points of contact being six slender points of metal: two on each foot and one in each hand. The points barely penetrated the rock hard ice and seemed barely substantial enough to hold my weight.
There was a layer of brilliant white snow ice – which can be great stuff to climb on – but it was of insignificant help here since it was barely a centimetre thick. The ice was immediately underneath. It had a greenish tint – and it was hard and brittle, like glass. As often as not a hard whack with an ice pick, or kick with front points, would merely shatter the surface into splinters - which would then tinkle playfully into the void, just leaving behind a shallow depression in the ice.
As we teetered our way up the lower end of that endless slope I felt naked and exposed. The steep slope swept up for ever - in front, off to the sides – and into the appalling void down below. I felt that at any moment a crampon point would skid on the treacherous surface – and I would start a slide which within a second would be way beyond my means to stop. And it would be way beyond Jon’s means to stop me, joined as we were by the short length of climbing rope.
And I knew I would not be able to stop Jon, if he started to slide.
I balanced precariously on my crampons and with vicious smashes of the pick of an axe, chipped a tiny ledge – big enough to stick one boot on. This enabled me to rest slightly – and I turned to look across at Jon. He was happier than I was on this awful stuff and was climbing along side. Like me he had a few loose coils of rope in one hand – to give ‘reaction time’ to slam an ice-pick in, in the event of one of us slipping…
‘Jon – I’m not happy with this! If one of us slips we don’t stand a chance... Let’s pitch-it and belay off ice-screws.’
‘OK, if you insist – but we’ll be a lot slower!’ He looked meaningfully up at the seracs, shining far above us.
I selected a tubular ice screw.
Using the hammer head of one of my ice-axes I hammered the tip of the screw into the glassy surface, then changing to using the pick, hooked the eye on the piton – and started to screw the piece of hardware into the glassy slope.
The ice kept shattering but finally, after ten minutes hard exertion, I had it embedded deeply enough to hold a fall. I clipped a karabiner through the eye of the piton - and then clipped in the length of rope leading to Jon, who was busy freeing up secured coils so that we had the full 100 foot rope length to work with.
Jon now led off up the shining curtain. He was in his element on the awful stuff and moved like a machine – kick, kick, smash, smash – kick, kick, smash, smash – over and over again. Fractured splinters of ice sparkled in the now brilliant sun-light and tinkled past me into the void. Jon’s spidery figure receded slowly and became diminutive, 100 feet away at the ropes end. I heard the tchink, tchink, tchink as he started to fix another ice-screw.
Odd curses drifted down as the ice shattered.
‘OK! I’m on belay!’
I laboriously unscrewed my ice-piton and then, having removed it from the slope, tapped it sharply to dislodge ice from its tubular core.
‘Climbing!’ I shouted up to Jon, who responded with a terse ‘OK!’
I started to climb up towards Jon – like him kick, kick, smash, smash over and over again. Except that being less confident on the naked glassy slope I sometimes made two or three kicks or swings of the ice-axe before I trusted the placement as secure.
I reached abreast of Jon, panting in the thinning air and with calf muscles burning.
‘God, this is killing!’
Jon’s only response was a glance up at the seracs – and a terse ‘You better keep going!’
I tried to force myself to emulate Jon as I led through – to try to trust each first kick or whack with the ice-axe. Finally I reached the ropes end – and I cursed for another exhausting ten minutes driving in another ice piton. I took stock of our position: the horizontal snow ridge was now over 300 feet below – with the back drop of the glacier over 2000 feet below that. Up above, the blue-white shapes of the serac barrier looked as remote as ever. Forty minutes of hard work appeared to have brought them no nearer. I took a photo of the scene below, the last I took for some time.
The sun continued to blaze out of a cloudless royal blue sky.
Just then I noticed the two Italians who had assisted at the accident.
Moving swiftly and un-roped, they were rapidly catching us up. As Jon reached me, they caught us up and paused to speak to us. They were a couple of tough 35 year olds, at the peak of their climbing abilities. Their mahogany sun-tans, obvious fitness and confidence, as well as smart red climbing suits, meant they had mountain guide stamped all over them.
From behind mirror shades - and nonchalantly balanced on the precipitous slope, one of them spoke to us, in a thick Italian accent: ‘Thatta guy – heeza helmet wasa smashed! Quita bad – but I theenka maybe he OK in-a ze ‘ospital.’
Further explanation revealed that he had a gory head wound – as head wounds so often are – but the Italians didn’t think his skull was fractured and it sounded like he was at least partially responsive to what was happening to him.
Hopefully he would recover after a few days in hospital.
But the spokesman of the two Italians turned his attention to us. He looked pointedly at our rope - and ice-piton belay. Then he looked long and meaningfully up at the serac barrier, shining in the hot rays of the rising sun, way above our heads.
Finally he then looked back at us, as he remarked casually: ‘But you guys – you don’ wanta hang around here too long eh?’
With a brief ‘Ciao!’ the two guides moved on – and swarmed off up the slope. Jon spoke bluntly. ‘They are right you know – we’ve got to get a move on. We have got to forget belaying! We’re gonna have to move together.’
Looking up at the sun I had no choice but to agree.
I extracted the latest ice-screw. We shortened the rope. It would be too complicated un-roping so we decided to climb together and hope that neither of us would slip…
Kick, kick, smash, smash – we inched our way up the shining curtain again.
I felt a constant oppressive awareness of the thousands of tons of ice hanging precariously above our heads, as well as of the expanding void beneath our feet. The climbing was strenuous and I gasped in the thinning air. My calves were on fire from the constant leverage of weight bearing on points, inches out in front of my toes.
Every so often I would call up to Jon: ‘Jon! Wait – hang on a minute! I’ve got to have a rest.’
I would then smash out a tiny ledge on the ice and balance precariously on it until the worst of the fire in my calves receded.
Jon didn’t bother to cut any resting ledges. The steep and intimidating ice did not seem to tire him as much as it did me. But his repeated anxious glances up at seracs - and at his wrist watch - told of his barely concealed impatience at my weakness.
The ice ridge and the glacier beyond it were definitely receding below us.
I did not know how high we were, but suspected by now, over 13,000 feet. The continuing frustration was that the top of that naked slope still looked no closer. At one point I pounced delightedly on a section of about 100 feet, where the snow ice layer was thicker, and the Italians had left a convenient ladder of boot-holes. For that one glorious section I did not suffer the calf burning pain of front-pointing up hard ice. But all too soon it came to an end – and it was back to clattering and scraping on the glassy under-layer again…
The sun blazed down out of a blue sky of noticeably darker hue than at sea level. Overhead, it was still cloudless – but now little cotton wool puffs of cloud had begun to bubble up – down beneath us.
The serac barrier above still looked a long way off - but at long last the depressing sight was beginning to change: we rounded a very slight convexity in the slope - and for the first time we could now see the beginnings of some sort of gangway between some of the walls of ice.
We angled our upward course towards it.
Occasional scratches on the ice showed that the two Italian guides had done the same. And every so often we caught glimpses of them – now a long way out in front. Occasionally chips of ice dislodged by them came dancing down the slope – before tinkling past. The guides headed between the walls of the gangway and then were lost to sight.
Minutes continued to crawl slowly by.
I did not know how long we had been naked and exposed on the interminable slope. It was perhaps a couple of hours – yet felt like forever. But suddenly, the end was appreciably close – a mere150 feet above. I gritted my teeth for the umpteenth time, put my head down and… Kick, kick, smash, smash – pause - Kick, kick, smash, smash… over and over; and then the gangway was just 50 feet away. I could see the blued icy walls had a pebbled texture – like the skin of an orange. Panting noisily in the thin air I put my head down again and dredged up more reserves of energy.
A few minutes later Jon and I were in the gangway, climbing ice, fractionally less steep between the walls. It was no better place to fall from than any other place on the 2000 feet of bald slope below – but somehow it felt safer.
The blued walls gave an illusion of security, shutting off some of the infinity. I felt some of my tension begin to abate and I took a photo looking across at Jon – first since the bottom of the ice field. We climbed perhaps 100 feet up the gangway when it ended abruptly in a tiny ledge.
We both clambered eagerly onto the first piece of level terrain in over 2000 feet.
It was a joy to collapse wearily, having shrugged off our heavy packs, and to just lie quietly in the sun. We drank thirstily from our water bottles. I took stock of our situation again: we had surely reached about 14,000 feet now. There would be about another 500 feet to the top of the face – and then about another 1,300 feet to the top of the White Mountain.
The Serac Barrier.The view from our eerie was staggering. We were now level with the tops of the highest peaks around – and well above most other peaks. The cotton wool cloud puffs were more numerous and larger – but were still well below our lofty perch. Closer to home our ledge abutted against a towering vertical precipice of ice – and then angled up across the ice cliff to our right, before disappearing round the corner. Having rested briefly and slaked our thirsts, we set off along this obvious route. It was good to be off the terrible slope below, but we were now in the most dangerous part of the face, which spawned great avalanches of ice – like the one we had seen the day before. The towering ice cliffs around us shone in the sun and looked beautiful – but cracks and fissures were ready evidence of the instability of the place. A big collapse could happen at any moment…
This line of thought did not bear staying with.
We rounded the corner at the bottom of the ice cliff. The ledge soon petered out – but the route was still fairly obvious, slanting up and across a pitch of 70 degree ice. Jon, more confident than me on the endless stamina sapping slopes below, was now apprehensive. So I led out across the steep pitch. I placed an ice-piton half way across - to give me a little more protection in the event of a fall. But Jon grumbled as he removed it – feeling it delayed him whilst under a particularly unstable looking piece of serac, which overhung the pitch. We weaved our way up through the jumble, snatching 50 feet here, 100 feet there – until finally we were at the final obstacle: a solid wall of vertical ice confronted us.
How the hell did we get past this? The wall was continuous all the way along the top of the face and varied between 50 and 100 feet high.
We were now at 14,500 feet - and nearly a mile of face now dropped away behind us. Being stopped at the final hurdle and having to turn round and climb all the way back down the face had been one of the night-mare scenarios we had agonised over the previous day – as we laid in the sun at the hut, way down below – and shaken by the horror of the avalanche.
But the two Italian guides must have found their way out. We were still able to see scratch marks from their crampons on the ice and, in odd patches of snow softening in the sun, the occasional boot-print.
To the right the level of the ice barrier gradually descended for quarter of a mile – before ascending again, up to the spire of Mont Maudit. There was a breech over in that direction, but it would mean a descending traverse of over a quarter mile of steeply sloping ice to reach it - and climbing in the opposite direction to Mont Blanc. Looking at the marks on the ice, the Italians had headed in a rising traverse under the ice cliff, leftwards – and towards Mont Blanc. We started to scramble our way along in this direction, although we could not see where it led, owing to a slight bend in the line of the barrier. But a few moments later, panting in the thin air, we rounded the bend…
Fifty meters in front of us, a tongue of snow swept up towards the top of the cliff - and reached to within 15 feet of the top.
But the Brenva had a sting in its tail: that final few feet was over-hanging.
Jon, so confident on the bald glassy horror of the ice slope below, was not so confident here: ‘You feel up to leading this Mark?’
It looked hard, but the setting didn’t feel anything like as exposed as the naked slopes far behind us – and I was up for it. The fear and tension which had been with me, all the way up so far, drained away. Suddenly I knew we were going to get up Mont Blanc. All we had to do was crack this absurdly short pitch. Bloody hell – we could tunnel through it if we had to…
Jon set up a boot-axe belay.
With an axe in each hand I started climbing up the tongue of snow. In the now blazing sunlight of close to midday, the snow was soft and I could easily kick steps in it as well as plunging the shaft of each axe in – up to the hilt. The snow got progressively steeper as I climbed, until after about 40 feet it blended into the top of the ice cliff and became vertical.
I was then back to using the picks of both ice-axes – whacking them through the soft snow into the underlying ice. A couple more steps up and I climbed on bare ice again – and it was angling back into my face - past the vertical. My calves were burning - and so now were my arms, as progressively more weight came onto them. Wrist loops prevented my gloved hands slipping down the shafts of my axes as I hung on tight. I went for the final few feet in a rush and a flurry of swinging axe blows. Ice splinters sparkled and fell into my face, some melting on my sun-glasses and obscuring my vision…
But it didn’t matter.
I got my nose level with the very top of the wall - and could see enough to confirm that in front was level snow. With a great lunge I swung an ice-axe up, changed my grip – and plunged the shaft into the softer surface. With a further lunge I repeated the exercise with the other axe. Pulling on both axes now, I hauled myself out of the Brenva Face – and onto a vast horizontal platform.
I scrambled away from the edge, trailing rope – and revelling in the fact that for the first time in a vertical mile of climbing, I now no longer had to cling to anything. I was on a level area about the size of a football pitch, high up on the shoulder of Mont Blanc. A short distance away the surface rose up into a ridge - which ascended the final summit pyramid. There was about 1300 feet of ascent left – and it was just a walk.
Muffled shouts from behind reminded me that Jon was still on the face – and waiting to climb.
‘OK Jon – I’m up!’ I shouted back.
I plunged the shaft of an ice axe into the snow, tied on and called Jon, telling him to start climbing. The rope came in steadily but then the smooth progression became jerkier. I started to hear distant thuds and panting – and suddenly, in a final rush, Jon was over the top and lying in the snow near my feet. For the first time so far that day Jon’s face split in a wide grin of relief – the trauma of the accident and tension of the subsequent hours temporarily forgotten.
To the Roof of The Alps.
We sat together in the sun, in companionable silence, drinking from our dwindling water supply.
But time was marching on and the snow was getting distinctly soft. Being above the serac barrier, the snow and ice softening was no longer likely to kill us. The only problem now was that the softer the snow got, the more exhausting it was to walk in, as boots sank through the surface. Another curse was the tendency for soft snow to ‘ball up’ under our crampons – adding to the weight of each boot and increasing the likelihood of irritating slips as crampon points failed to grip. We both had 1980’s Grivel ‘pastry cutter’ crampons and anti-balling plates were long in the future. One solution to this problem could have been to stick a plastic bag over each boot beneath the crampons. But we did as we were used to, which was to stand on one leg every few steps, whilst whacking the other boot with an axe – to dislodge the unwelcome snowy appendage.
We got organised, stowing non essential climbing hard-ware in our packs, before setting off in the direction of the summit ridge. Our altitude was over 14,500 feet now – and we had been on the go for over 12 hours – so what with the softening snow, it was hard going. But I knew I could keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, until we reached the top. There was no question now - we were going to climb Mont Blanc. Sometime within the next hour or two, I was going to know what it felt like to stand on the very top of Europe.
Despite my growing fatigue I felt happy.
Unusually, Jon seemed to be struggling. He was a long distance runner – with normally endless reserves of stamina. He had found the going far easier than I on the endurance test of the interminable ice slope behind us. But now, as we inched our way up the summit cone, he was cursing and gasping for breath in the thin air. I realised that it was nothing to do with fitness: it was simply that I had a head start on him in terms of acclimatisation to altitude, having had a solo foray into the mountains above Zermatt before he had arrived in the Alps.
The summit cone was just a cramponed walk – steepish in places, but nothing like our experiences on the face. As we reached the upper part of the cone, at something over 15,000 feet, we began to reach false summit after false summit.
I retreated into a dull mental state, rhythmically putting one foot in front of the other and panting in time with my foot placements. I tried not to let the false summits get to me. We would get there when we got there…
Jon found the false summits increasingly exasperating. Each time we surmounted another ‘final’ bump on the ridge and found another waiting on the other side, he would curse and rant about ‘yet another bloody bump’ or irritably snap ‘can’t you see the top yet?’
I was a few paces ahead and for a long time the answer was a terse ‘No!’
Finally, I surmounted yet another hump, and there before me was another one - but this one had a four foot aluminium pole sticking out of it…
The higher peaks in Switzerland all have ornate crosses mounted on the summits. Perhaps disappointingly, the highest point in France – and all of Western Europe – had to make do with a battered and slightly bent metal pole.
Jon couldn’t see it yet and barked again ‘can you see the top?’ But this time I was able to please him – ‘Do you think you can manage another 50 yards?’
Jon’s grin was answer enough. His hunched form seemed to straighten and he picked up speed in a final burst of un-tapped energy.
We strolled up onto the summit together.
At 15,780 feet, the summit of Mont Blanc is everything that a summit should be: it is a small snowy platform at the meeting point of 3 ridges – one from Italy and two from France. None of the surrounding peaks are anything like as high so it really feels the highest point in Europe. The only peaks anywhere near as high are those around Zermatt – but they are about 50 miles away. The view that day was tremendous – the cotton wool cloud puffs were more numerous but way, way below our lofty elevation now. Wild looking peaks – all far lower than we were – stretched to the distant horizon. The sky over head was a deep rich blue, in contrast with the dazzling snow around us.
Having just traversed the long humpy ridge, we could no longer see anything of the precipitous sweep of the Brenva, nor even the Brenva Glacier and the Trident Hut. All we could see looking in that direction was the phallic up-thrusts of the Dent du Geant and Grande Jorasses, whose summits were both way below our lofty perch up in the sky. Finally, I turned in the direction of Chamonix, recalling the number of times I had stood in the streets, gazing up…up here.
And looking down, the edge of the little snowy platform dropped away into an 1800 foot headwall of smooth shining white… but then endless humps, hollows and crevasses of yet another mighty glacier, plunging down for literally miles – until finally there was a last dip, beyond which nothing was visible, until the distant map-like spread of the town, fully 12,600 feet below and buried in the deep green trench - which was all that we could see of the Chamonix valley.
The only thing which marred the otherwise perfect summit view was that some unspeakable person had thoughtfully left a now frozen turd, right on the very top, next to the aluminium pole.
Jon and I shook hands.
We stood gazing at all points of the compass and then sat down in the snow. There was no wind and in direct sunlight it was warm enough to be comfortable in shirt sleeves – in contrast to my subsequent experiences of the summit.
All we had to celebrate our achievement with was a final dribble of water. The chocolate was finished. The only sustenance we would get between then and getting back down to Chamonix, was a single sachet of freeze dried soup. The euphoria of the moment finally passed - and then we both thought about the distant events of the early morning…
‘I wonder what has happened to that bloke.’ Jon voiced his thoughts.
‘I know,’ I said ‘but here’s hoping it’s just a bit of concussion…’
I thought of the avalanche we had witnessed the day before… centuries ago. The two climbers caught in that were buried in the bottom of an immense crevasse. We didn’t talk about it, but I expect Jon thought about it as well. I still had difficulty believing what we had witnessed…
Descent.Dragging attention to the present we turned to the need to descend. We now had to return to Chamonix - and it was a long, long way down. Despite having been on the go over fourteen hours, we thought we still felt fine - and had optimistic thoughts of being in the Bar Nash by about nine o’clock that night.
We set off down the ridge into France, which after a couple of hundred meters narrowed into a spectacularly narrow crest. Soon after that it steepened. This was the famous Bosses Ridge, a humped and steep sided section of crest, the crux as well as the finest section, of the Gouter route. It was not difficult, but it required some effort – and care, since either side of that narrow crest the snow dropped away precipitously: to the right about 1800 feet down onto a French glacier, to the left several thousand feet down onto an Italian one.
Suddenly we found that we had run out of juice. Our thigh muscles quivered and burned. Neither of us had power nor coordination in our legs – and we were stumbling and tripping our way down the ridge. We managed to lose about 500 feet in height. Only 12,000 feet to go…
Shocked at our sudden decline we hastily revised our plans. Just over a thousand feet below was a tiny aluminium shelter – The Vallot Refuge. This had been my high point when I had made my solo attempt on Mont Blanc a few years before. Staggering like a pair of drunks we headed for the shelter and on our last reserves of energy clattered on cramponed boots up the short metal ladder which led inside.
Night at 4300m.The Vallot Refuge is not designed with aesthetics in mind.
It is simply a small aluminium box, plonked on a little prominence on one of the shoulders of Mont Blanc. It is there to save lives – and undoubtedly it has saved a good few. But inside it is dark and squalid. One small scratched and opaque window lets in a small amount of daylight.
But it was heaven.
Jon and I crawled into the dingy interior - and found ourselves a corner in amongst numerous slumped bodies we found residing inside.
We set about the laborious business of getting some liquid into ourselves. We had a gas stove and a small billy-can, which was barely more than a cup. Somehow one of us staggered back outside to scrape some snow into a plastic bag – which we then melted handful by handful. This took the worst off our raging thirsts – and then we diligently filled up one water bottle.
Next we turned our attention to the evening banquet – which was the solitary sachet of freeze dried soup. I dumped this without ceremony into the latest batch of melt water, in the bottom of the tiny pan. A thought sluggishly surfaced: need something to stir it with…
Thinking seemed to be becoming progressively harder.
We both pondered this complicated issue for a while and then wordlessly, Jon handed me a piton. Apparently I had been elected to stir the soup. Jon settled himself back on the bare aluminium floor whilst I sat on the bench languidly sloshing the lumpy liquid around…
An unknown interval of time later I was rudely awakened by a sharp yell from Jon. I had fallen asleep sitting up, in mid stir - and the soup had boiled over. Erupting like a mini volcano, bubbling soup dropped onto Jon’s leg – and the sharp shock had woke him up.
The soup was beyond salvage.
Cross eyed with fatigue we gave up on it - and with an absolutely last flicker of energy, removed our crampons and went to bed - Jon crawling into his sleeping bag and staying where he was on the floor. I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag - so tried to fluff up an uncompromising length of wooden bench a bit - and collapsed on that…
The night passed in a series of fitful dozes.
Outside the temperature plunged below zero as the sun set. Inside it was not much warmer - even with all the tightly packed bodies. Jon, lying on bare aluminium, felt he was too cold underneath and too hot on top. With nothing more than a light duvet jacket between me and the frigid air I felt cold all over.
By the time dawn broke and the first rays of golden light were filtering in through the small perspex port-hole, we had both had enough. The final straw was the arrival of the first few headed for the summit, clattering into the already packed hut for a breather, out of the worst of the cold. Some were obviously suffering from the altitude and proceeded to throw up into plastic bags. Enough was enough. As the sharp stench of vomit mingled with the already unsavoury scents of the hut interior, we wrestled our crampons on to our boots and jostled our way out.
Return to civilisation.For the third morning in a row, we greeted the dawn standing in the snow, in the height of summer and on our summer holidays... But this particular incongruity was lost on us – as was the beauty of the golden light of the sunrise. We had a hell of a long way to go – and we were still appreciably tired.
Ahead of us the snow slopes dropped away 500 feet to a glacial plateau, before rising again up to the rounded mound of the Dome de Gouter whose summit was level with us. On the other side of that I knew the slope dropped away 1800 feet – down to the Aiguille de Gouter - and the hut which I had visited three years before.
But our route now would stop short of the weary trudge up onto the Dome. We intended to take a more direct route back to Chamonix, peeling off to the right and then down the thousands of feet of glacier in the direction of the Grande Mullets Hut. This was an alternative and slightly easier voie normale to the Gouter route. Glowing in the golden light, the glacier plunged down out of sight. But far, far beyond it was the dusky cleft of the Chamonix valley – dusky since it was not yet in the sun. Right in the very bottom of the valley the town itself was hidden under a hazy layer of mist.
We roped up again, since the glacier ahead was known to be heavily crevassed – and many of the crevasses would be obscured by thin snow-bridges: hidden traps waiting to be sprung. We put on sunglasses, since within a minute or two we would be back to the dazzling glare of full day light. Finally we set off… on legs which were not much better than the previous afternoon. But we were at least no longer falling over – and so we pushed ourselves as much as we could, cramponing down the crisp snow of the upper slopes.
A few thousand feet lower down we were in a dazzling maze of gaping crevasses. Fortunately a highway sized trail wound its way through and round all the obstacles. In the upper reaches we had passed numerous plodding figures, wending their way up. But now we were on our own. Looking back, the summit cone of Mont Blanc was still in view: it towered over us – and we could see the Bosses Ridge dotted with the scores of minute specs, of people en route for the summit.
The sun blazed down on us again, from out of another cloudless sky. But down at much lower elevations, with light reflected up from the glacial snow all around us, it was far hotter than at the higher altitudes. We felt our lips and noses burning despite applications of sun cream. We had long since drained our single full water bottle. In this veritable desert of frozen water, we were dying of thirst.
Staggering on rubbery legs, clumsily tripping over our crampons, we ploughed stubbornly onwards and downwards. Hours seemed to pass – and nothing changed around us, other than that we could no longer see the summit cone now; as humps of interminable glacier intervened. Fatigue was our constant companion and it became increasingly irritating having to concentrate and manage the rope.
Finally, the Grande Mullets Hut hove into view. We had decided we would pool our remaining few coins and try and purchase some water. But depressingly, the hut was on top of a 150 foot rocky pinnacle – an island of rock in the sea of ice. There was no alternative other than to climb up to it. Then having got up there by the skin of our teeth, we found a sour tempered hut warden, who took all our school boy French and powers of persuasion, to give us one miserable cupful of water.
Jon summed the situation up: ‘Do you realise what that Bastard just charged us for this pathetic dribble? Must be the only hut in France where water is more expensive than whisky!’
Disgruntled, we clambered back down off the Grande Mullets rock pinnacle – and back onto the interminable glacier. We started plodding grimly onwards, but soon noticed that the unchanging world of dazzling white was in fact now changing…
For a start, it was no longer dazzling white. The snow around us was more of a dirty yellow – and it was speckled with glacial grit. Stones and boulders started to appear, strewn all around us. Soon the snow was no more - and we were walking over rough gritty grey ice – which became progressively less visible as the surface of the glacier became concealed by ever increasing quantities of the stones and boulders.
We took our crampons off and stowed the rope. It was then a matter of plodding on through increasingly loose terrain, which was becoming more like the surface of the moon and less like that of a glacier at every step. We had moved from interminable dazzling white into interminable black and grey. Only the sky over head was unchanged, with the sun still blazing out of a flawless royal blue heaven.
We had now emerged on a large area of plateau before the final 4500 foot drop off down to Chamonix. Level with us now and round to our right was the middle station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. We had no money left to buy cable car tickets, but we still needed to head in that direction to find the path down to Chamonix. Depressingly, the buildings of the cable car station were still a couple of miles distant – across mounds and mounds of this interminable glacial shale. We were utterly weary. The few uncomfortable hours doze in the Vallot Refuge had been nowhere near enough to recover from the exertions of the previous twenty four hours.
As we slowly tottered over the glacial rubble mounds we found ourselves back in the world of people. But they were not like us: exhausted, foot-sore, sun-burnt and dirty - and irritated by the unending slag hillocks. They were lively, sun-tanned and fragrant - and running around delightedly over the mounds of rubble, which clearly they had come up on the cable car to see.
By and by, one of them came and joined us. It was a young man of around our age, attired in clean T-shirt and shorts – and carrying a light knap-sack. Having established that we were English he was intrigued at what we had been doing.
‘Far out!’ He said admiringly, ‘You started over in Italy – and came right up and over Mont Blanc! That is fantastic! I would love to be able to do something like that…’
He chattered away enthusiastically. Despite our exhaustion, we didn’t mind the chatter since he took our minds off our discomfort – and also it was not unpleasant having a companion who was so impressed by us.
But he was also observant: ‘But you are knackered aren’t you? Bet you’ll be glad to get on that cable car…’
Well, we would – but err, we ran out of money…
‘That is a bugger! But look… you guys can hardly walk! I could lend you some money if you want…’
We were saved.
Less than half an hour later we were back down in Chamonix. Ten minutes after that we were re-united with a credit card - and treating our benefactor to a slap up meal before finding a bank and repaying him the cost of the two cable car tickets.