It’s a long walk up the Mer de Glace, and then left up the Leschaux glacier. Too far in cheap plastic boots, so I strapped them to my rucsack, tightly so they wouldn’t swing and annoy me. I wore a pair of trainers up to the bergschrund and then swopped when crampons were required. It was August 1988 and I was nearly 40. Having just spent a week in the Pyrenees and another in the Picos de Europa I was fit, after putting a lot of mountain miles in, mostly on my own in the late afternoon and evening, running back to camp from wherever our day out took us. After this I said goodbye to my family half way up the west coast of France and hitch-hiked over to Chamonix to catch up with the others.
The lifts had been good and I was near Geneva that evening. Unable to progress further as night fell I spent a comfortable night in a nearby copse and got an early start. The day was lovely but I was still there at noon. Eventually I walked to a railway station in the heat of the day and caught a train as far as my few francs would take me, which I think was St Gervais. I reached Chamonix that evening, (all day to cover about 80 miles) and it being Friday and me being penniless (until the banks opened on Monday) went to find the boys near Les Praz. They were not to be found,neither did I recognise their tents. No messages left at the Nationale. Maurice Simond would have lent me some cash but I went to Pierre d’ Orthaz camping to call in some favours with the Poles and Czechs. They were amused at the role reversal as we usually shared our wealth with them as they were let out with only a pittance to come abroad with. After some food, another comfortable bivouac, another day.
When eventually I found the others they had retuned from camping at the foot of the Midi south face and been either sunbathing or climbing on the Grand Capucin in the daytime and indulging in various bizarre activities at night.
The weather became unsettled so I went drawing, and made plans to traverse the massif, from west to east, on my own initially, and then with Jane, Gunnar Liebecks‘ partner. There was talk of a foray to the south for some sunny limestone climbing. We would do something serious when they returned.
A grand beau temps forecast for a few days changed our plans. Alan, Les and I would go and climb the Walker spur. Jane graciously withdrew. We had the fitness, ability, experience and desire. The boys would lead the hard rock pitches, dad would lead the ice and mixed pitches. He would also make decisions. It remained to sort some food and gear and set off.
I favoured an afternoon walk up the Mer de Glace and a bivouac low down, preferably under an overhang as some pretty good alpinists had been killed by stonefall at the base of the route.
The Walker is intimidating, elegant, serious, high, long, dangerous, challenging. It is also out of sight of the civilised world and feels remote. Four thousand feet of intense effort, and then a long, long way down into Italy. You cannot ignore it. It won’t go away, even when you’re at home in Yorkshire, there every time you look up, like Emley Moor mast, but a thousand miles away. I suppose it’s one of those things in life that just has to be done, an albatross for a good few and the making of a good few more. It fermented inside me for years, then, when finally bottled, has provided me with the finest elixir and I often take a draught.
This is well away from the real business of getting up the thing. Talking, rather than doing. When you pack your bag for such a trip it is wise to remember that bullshit weighs heavy.
Back on the Mer de Glace, we were navigating our way slowly up the six miles to our goal, trying to keep my feet dry amongst the torrents, large and small, initiated by the heat of an August sun beating from a flawless sky. I had a good feeling about this trip. We had John Barkers’ seal of approval. He was my usual partner in such antics but he had climbed this as his first alpine route and then, with another climbing friend of ours, Ian Blakely, done the Croz spur as well. Al and Les had been pupils at the Leeds school where Ian taught and we became close friends through climbing. Les was now a shepherd on the Wiltshire plain, Al a printer in Leeds. Both were in their twenties. Cartilage operations on both knees had interrupted the progression of my alpine career but my drawing skills had improved. John had pursued a remarkable series of solo ascents on the Brenva face of Mt Blanc taking in the Sentinel Rouge, Route Major and the Pear. It was good to be here, heading for this route, with the other two, knowing all this.
The Jorrasses were utterly silent and huge as we drew near. Conditions looked good, no one else was around at this time. The sun was beginning to illuminate the western flank of the spur. Would it loosen ice bound stones high up there - - ? Below the bergschrund I changed my trainers for boots and crampons and then still unroped, we picked our way up the steep ice slope taking us to the base of the spur. Still nothing fell. Higher, shattered and pulped rock ledges told of plenty of action at other times in this vicinity. We were so careful in our choice of bedroom having lots of time and even an hour of sunshine to end the day. The glacier below groaned occasionally, the only sound to punctuate the absolute silence of the place.
The period before sleep is inhabited by the products of a fertile imagination. Fears, logical and illogical are played with and then, usually unresolved, go to sleep with the rest of me. I seem to dream vividly when out on a limb and did so on this occasion, the night before the most significant mountaineering event I had yet participated in.
Before dawn we woke to observe a steady stream of flickering lights stretching across the glacier from the refuge almost to our perch. By the time we were ready to climb the sun was slanting across the steep icefield on the left known as The Shroud. Now behind another party we were looking for the first hard 30 metre corner. When we found it Al changed into rock shoes and swarmed up still carrying his sac. I followed, clumsily at first in big boots and then Les came up. It was steep, and with the altitude and rucsac pulling me back I confess to pulling on a sling. This rude awakening brought us to the bands of ice, to be traversed, L to R. I recall a well tilted photo of this place in Rebuffat’s book, Starlight and Storm. It looks horrendous on that but a little work with my axe made it possible for the others to follow in rock shoes. So much for a desperate ice pitch! Two or three more traversing rope lengths took us across to the right hand side of the spur to the base of the superb 75 metre diedre. This had some ice in the corner but gave well protected grade 5 climbing with a couple of harder sections through overhangs. The party in front, being a pair had gone on faster than we three. Where everyone else was remains a mystery. We never saw another soul until we reached the summit.
Three is an unusual number to be climbing together on such a hard route. Slower than two, belay and bivouac ledges are rarely commodious enough for three and rope management needs to be perfect. The leader, when belayed, brings the other two up together, about six metres apart unless the going is so hard that a fall might occur. However, three is more democratic, humorous and entails carrying less climbing hardware.
At this side of the spur we were overlooking the steep and icy central couloirs bounded on the other side by the Croz spur. Behind the dark, forbidding profile of that, the crazy, crenellated Periades ridge in the sunshine and then behind that at the back, the Midi-Plan ridge. We were approaching the Grey Tower (regarded as the hardest climbing) where some thin climbing takes you back to the crest of the spur. It was a struggle in plastic boots and would be more so if conditions were less than perfect. Being compact and on tiny holds it would be hard to aid if icy or dripping wet. Once back on the crest these difficulties ease into pleasant, reasonably angled pitches as you head for a couple of small snowfields. The day had all but gone, some scrappy ledges announced themselves as accomodation but not extensive enough for three in a row. Separated by a few metres we began the pleasurable task of cooking, brewing and transforming rocks into a comfortable bed. Such alchemy is necessary as a good nights’ sleep can make a big difference to the following days’ performance.
Al and Les were in good form and we were happy with progress. Some cloud surrounded us and a few snowflakes fell but it didn’t feel stormy. Being warm and comfortable I was soon asleep, lulled by the gentle noise of snow landing on my bivvy bag. I awoke a few times, being concerned about the weather, eventually spying the cornice over by Point Whymper, glowing in the moonlight through a gap in the clouds. This cloud evaporated shortly after sunrise, some large thunderheads remained in the distant north. Over breakfast we worked out that about 1200ft were left. The Red Tower of 800ft and then 400ft of summit grooves. The Red Tower is steep and awkward, iced cracks and grooves full of faded, abandoned gear, silent witness to some savage battles with the weather. You’re too far up to contemplate descent. The only way out is up.
Les led these pitches in fine style up to a vertical part of the pillar which is turned by an improbable looking, but easy traverse right over a smooth, compact step in the tower. An ice encrusted overhang was my contribution. This was the key to the easier icy grooves topped by the summit cornice over which we clambered at midday. High ice clouds had formed and the cumulonimbus to the north remained. The weather was deteriorating, but slowly. Only the long descent on poor snow remained. Some photos, food, water and then off, down an ever steepening snow slope. One of my crampons came adrift part way down a near vertical section. Descending like this to easier ground was physically and mentally draining. The very ingredients of disaster. Those climbers whisked away by helicopter from the top of a route are not playing the same game. The youngsters seemed fresh and loped off down to the next serac barrier where the route cuts across the rocky spur leading down from Pointe Whymper and on to another hanging glacier. It was hard work but we were in control. Youth, smelling the beer in Courmayeur had grown wings, or had I just become a slow, over cautious old git?
The ordinary route, though not technically difficult is quite complex and long. Coupled with the warmth of the long afternoon and some of the tension of the last few days evaporating I began to feel quite weary and dare not stop for long in case sleep took over. The trainers, carefully carried up and down the mountain again proved invaluable once off the slush the lower glacier had become. My feet were so pleased to be out of plastic boots. We passed below the refuge, I looked longingly at food and rest but on we went. It’s still along way down to the Val Ferret and the sun was well down. Dusk saw me well behind the others, approaching a zone of gorges just above the tree line. The waters were swollen and deafening, after a close call falling in the stream and losing my helmet I decided to find a sheltering rock and bivouac as thunder was echoing around.
The storm didn’t amount to much and I awoke much refreshed and breakfasted on bilberries before resuming the descent. Eventually the road was reached, then a bus stop near some isolated chalets. It was still early and a young woman appeared. She told me the time and kindly lent me the bus fare as I had no lira until we got to the town. A couple of miles down the road I persuaded the driver to stop and pick up Les and Al. We were reunited and had made it.