High Barre - an Alpine AdventureHigh Barre - an alpine adventure
By Gerry Galligan
Darach and I found ourselves back at the Mountaineering Council of Ireland Alpine Meet last July, which was held in Ailefroide, a village deep in the French Dauphine Alps. Unfortunately this year’s Meet clashed with the last games of the World Cup soccer tournament, none of which could be missed, especially when I had my money on Italy. So when the last whistle finally blew and a jubilant Italian side lifted the trophy, Darach brought me back down to earth with a gentle reminder as to why we were there. Of course … I had forgotten … there was a lot of climbing to be done. We had come with many plans, and our the biggest plan was up next – a route next to the region’s most prominent peak, the Barre des Ecrins.
Celebrations over, the following afternoon we slogged up the Glacier Blanc, with a yak-load of food, water, climbing and bivvy gear weighing on our backs. The main objective was a 350m AD grade ice climb up the Barre Noire Couloir, a long strip of ice on a buttress of the north face off the Barre des Ecrins. Our other supporting objective was to avoid using the Ecrin hut that night, instead bivouacking on the glacier next to our climb, thus freeing us from a one and a half hour walk in before dawn. It was a clever idea. Not just to save time in the morning, but to save ourselves from the turmoil of the hut. Two years earlier I stayed at this hut. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like it now. It has to be the busiest in the Alps. Every man and his dog with plans for the Barre or its sister peak the Dome de Neige, seems to converge on it. It is crammed, dark, and noisy, either too hot or too cold. And the food is so bad that whenever leftovers are tossed out, no raven in a ten mile radius would contemplate touching them. Picture the dungeons of Rome’s colossium in its heyday and you get the idea. Not that I’m biased. The place might improve, and maybe surprise me by winning a Michelin star some day. But I doubt that’ll be soon. I’d say give it a century. Or better still, a millennium.
Anyway for us, a night on the glacier seemed a better prospect.
We made camp and surveyed our quarry as night slowly crept in. Behind us was the great white ice blanket of the Barre des Ecrins, and to it’s Northeast, our couloir: 350 metres long, ten metres wide, flanked by rock and angled 45-50 degrees. Its summit is capped by an open ice breche, while an ominous bergschund bisects its base. Overall, the thing looked steep. According to the local guides the quality of ice was good. But we weren’t so sure. A grey patina above the bergschund meant the ice was either hard as marble or had a flakey, unstable crust. Other unsettling thoughts occurred to us – like the amount of boulders at its base – discharged from on high by combination of weathering and thawing. Would a fresh one of those hit us as we made our way up? And what about the bergschund? How wide was it, and had fate chosen it to swallow us up? We’d find out soon enough. Darach settled into his bivvy, and I lingered a few minutes more looking up at the route. But before I retired I noticed a rock the size of a small television set tumble down the couloir, gathering speed and leaving dents in the ice as it bounced its way down. Powerful, like a cannonball. I looked over towards Darach. He hadn’t seen it. Say nothing, I thought.
Sleep was impossible. The night was clear, cold and beautiful up to a point. Although there was little wind and no rain, a storm was raging 30 kilometres to the northeast over Briancon. Regular arcs of lightning flashed across the sky. But no sooner was I used to this and I’d entered a gentle slumber, when we were both awakened by a deafening crack and thunderous noise behind us. Seracs were breaking off the Barre. A whole series of them, crumbling down the north face and launching a tide of rockfalls and avalanches in their wake. All of it collapsing in a heap on the glacier, some 200 metres behind us. The clamour felt more like the planned demolition of several tower blocks than any unpredictable mountain phenomena. It lasted several minutes, though it seemed to go on for hours, and was followed by several smaller occurrences that kept us awake well into the night. We could do nothing. I lay on my back, watched the lightning and listened to the mayhem. Midnight came and went. It was the twelfth of July - my birthday. But something wasn’t right. Forty today, I mused … what kind of a middle-aged nutcase chooses to sleep on a glacier miles from anywhere, with the Battle of Tannenberg raging around him and a cunning plan to climb 350 metres of questionable ice over a gaping crevasse in the morning? For the life of me I couldn’t answer this question, but I knew our predicament was all my fault. Poor Darach. He wasn’t any more comfortable than me. This climb was all my idea and I’d roped him into it. He deserved better. In future I’ll remind him never to be influenced by the delusions of any middle-aged masochist again.
We managed an hour’s sleep. 4am we emerged shivering out of our bags. By 4.30 we were marching up to the base area of the couloir which, in the early light looked like Baghdad after an air blitz. Large chunks of ice and tons of fresh neve from the night’s rumble strewn about the foot of the Barre’s face. A gentle slope led up to the bergschrund. We moved to its right-hand-side where it joined with the rock. The only potential spot to cross it was in that direction – irregular-shaped ice either side of the chasm leading onto an apron of grey ice about 30 metres high. All of it looked soft and uninviting. Darach led the first pitch. Gingerly over the gap and up to a short wall. He dug his axes and front points in. True enough, the flecked grey ice was slushy everywhere and gave away underfoot. Meanwhile I belayed the other side of the bergschund. Once more, things weren’t right. My insides were complaining to me. Toilet beckoned.
‘Eh Darach,’ I said, ‘you’re not going to like this, but I’m afraid I have to go, Chief. Nature calls.’
‘Can you not keep it in?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘I’ll only be a sec. Just make sure you’re dug in.’
Darach shook his head. I had to admit, my timing for personal relief on a difficult section of an alpine climb couldn’t have been worse. I loosened my harness, pulled down my salopettes, squatted into the bergschrund and let nature do the rest. It was a funny situation, with me half naked in the crevasse and Darach above me, moving precariously on dodgy, vertical ice. Naturally the rope still linked us. A flurry of activity two minutes later saw me back at my station, ready. Afterwards we both laughed. Our alpine skills had reached new heights - I’d managed to both defecate and belay Darach over a nasty bergschund at the same time.
Once the starting difficulties were over we moved quickly up the apron, climbing simultaneously. We traversed left over a river channel and onto the main couloir. Rough grey ice gave way to white. The sun was rising now and the day would be fine. From here on the climb was straightforward. Operational. The full length of rope was paid out and a minimum of one ice screw placed between us at any given time. The couloir’s lower sections presented sheets of crusty ice which shattered away easily under axe or crampon. But as we ascended the crusts diminished and the ice improved – not too hard to make heavy work with the tools, not too soft as to be unstable – but firm, like cold butter. Up we went, smoothly front-pointing, to a steady rhythm of thuds as our axes made purchase. The slope remained a consistent, easy fifty degrees. We alternated leads at belay points once all the screws had been used. These changeovers provided a few moments to take the odd photograph and admire the views over our shoulders: over the vast whiteness we could make out small groups of ant-like figures inching their way up the soft slopes of the Barre des Ecrins a mile away. Acres of ice fields led up to jagged grey ridges, and above them a blue sky with fading stars and a rising sun. All was quiet, dreamlike and beautiful.
The couloir’s upper slope tapered, and it was with a mixture of satisfaction and pity that the Breche had been reached and the ice climb was over. It had been a lovely little adventure. We were tired but happy, and it was still early, 8.30am. The Breche afforded us fine views across the neighbouring Glacier Noire and the prominent ridges of Mont Pelvoux and Ailefroide. Equally impressive was the view leading up the Barre’s Northeast ridge in front of us. We took it all in. A series of ice domes gave way to a rock band at 3800 metres, followed by three gendarmes up to the summit. The clear air and atmosphere of our high ground made it appear closer than it was and deceptively enticing. A push for the summit following our couloir climb had been a very high possibility in our minds over the previous days. We estimated a ridge ascent and summit traverse would take about four hours. Descending via the North face, another hour. All in good conditions. However on this day it was not to be. The forecast was for storms in the early afternoon, and if we were delayed we would be caught out. We debated the matter, but common sense won. It was best to descend. We organised our gear, roped up and traversed the Barre’s face to join the normal route down.
We weren’t finished with the mountain yet, though. Another attempt on the Northeast ridge via the Breche was made the next day. However a second cold sleepless night on the glacier and a bellyful of revolting hut food exacted a price. We made the rock band up to 3900 metres, before my head felt like splitting from aches as my stomach collapsed into repeated convulsions, thinking it had been poisoned – and it would have been correct. True, it had been a gradual deteriorating ascent, and continuing in a weakened state would only have put us both at risk. So again common sense prevailed and we retraced our route down. Nevertheless all was not totally lost. On our descent we were rewarded with a magnificient view towards the Mont Blanc Massif, framed by graceful clouds streaming around it.
And so our sojourn on the Barre ended. Granted a final summit wasn’t reached but as we all know, cliché that it is, that’s not what mountain climbing is all about. All told, Darach and I had a great time. And if tackling mountains could be compared to World Cup soccer then I think it’s fair to say our final score with the Barre was a one-all draw. A good result and not a bad note to turn forty on. Hopefully by the time I reach eighty I’ll have made a return trip or two. And as for staying in the Ecrin hut … well … I think I’ll take my chances on the glacier again.
Gerry Galligan Copyright © 2006
First Published in The Irish Mountain Log magazine, December 2006.
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