“Ok we’ve come onto the east face, let’s get back onto the ridge”,
“Hang on it will be easier to go down that gully and onto the steep snow slope rather than all that loose rock and sugary snow”
“I suppose it’ll be quicker but what about the avalanche risk”
“Naw, it’s like the rest of the mountain, just orrible sugar snow but without the rubble”
We had just been rebuffed from a winter ascent of the Hornli ridge on the Matterhorn at around 4000 meters due to hideous snow conditions which were rather reminiscent of granular sugar piled on to loose rubbely rock. How does that mountain manage to retain the steep angular profile!
The wind had whipped around the ridge all day, blinding us with frequent snow squalls that gummed the eye lids and covered the eyebrows and lashes with a crust of white ice. The condensation from our breath had, along with the snow, formed an icy mask on the face and jacket hood especially my beard. Icicles hung from my moustache and made it painful to wipe my face from the build up of snow.
All morning I had trailed Anton up the ridge, his massive strides making it seem as if I was a young pup struggling to get into each of his next footsteps and I was fit! Boots slipped even with the crampons, as the loose snow and rock slid from beneath each footstep and the clatter of stones plummeted into the depths of oblivion.
The weather was worsening and we had still along way to go, the expectation was to climb the Hornli ridge in a day and maybe take shelter in the higher hut if we were caught out. No chance, it was going to be a two day assault and the thought of sitting out the night without sleeping bags was really not a pleasant option. A night of the long daggers, cold driving its steely blade deep into the flesh, no we would come back better prepared.
So it was, an orderly retreat, discretion the better part of valour with the wispy veil of high clouds scuttling across the deep blue sky we turned tail and started to descend.
At first we descended down the ridge but the passage was easier on the right and down the east face, although easier and faster the snow lay deep and many contorted routes weaved through the rock cliffs and bulges, occasionally a slip or slid would catch you unawares, immediately leading to a twist of the upper torso, no thought about it just an immediate reaction in a split second so that the ice pick could be planted firmly into the snow and ice to steady the fall. An up welling empty feeling in the stomach accompanied these slips and slides something like when you ask your first girl friend out and are frightened to death of the answer as it may dash all your hopes and you would rather have said nothing and clung onto the dream.
Eventually after picking our way through the maze of rock and snow, down climbing the most tricky and difficult sections we came to our nemesis, a rocky vertical step which dropped off into a snowy couloirs, one 50 meter abseil and the end was in sight. A long open snow slope which we could descend and regain the ridge before descending back to the Hornli hut.
One treaded tape through the rock gave the an ideal anchor, ropes were cast into open air, they momentarily hung in the space before gathering momentum and whistled their way down to the coulior then snaked across the snow. Nothing new about abseiling, check the anchor, check the descender and ropes, slip over the edge and gentle descend. None of this hero stuff head first at speed or bouncing down in huge leaps, for mere fools wishing to ripe the anchor. No, we gave the mountain all the respect it deserved. Safely at the bottom it would have been relatively easy to track to the left and gain the ridge but the way forward was even easier, a 45 degree snow slope, so inviting so easy. We were going to pay for our laziness.
It’s so easy, a leap into the air followed by a long free fall descent into the deep soft snow, another leap and another. How quick one can descend in a matter of minutes and what fun, all that hard work gaining height to then lose it so easily on our descent.
Anton had been coiling the last rope up when I left him, now I was 50m down the slope and he had just started the descent.
In blissful ignorance I kept leaping in giant bounds, then that soft crack and sigh, what was it, I do remember, yes that’s it now I remember it’s the sound of a snow slope settling.
From behind there was a yell, nothing I could make out, but just enough to catch my attention, looking back and up towards the point of the sound all I could see was Anton caught in the middle of a moving snow slope, he disappeared in a maelstrom. Instantly as I became aware of my predicament a sensation of forward movement but actually not taking any steps became apparent, ‘Oh bugger’ went through my mind I knew what is was, you always read of these things but never want to be in one, an avalanche and we were in the middle of it and it was massive. I looked to the side both left and right, no exit, no chance of escape. ‘F***’ nothing else just this simple thought was branded into my mind and enough to describe what I felt, the words mumbled out as Bugger long and slow with utter resignation to my fate.
As the sensation of moving down hill gathered momentum so the snow slope buckled, slabs that seemed as big as football pitches popped up behind, in front and to the sides. It was a moment, an instant, as once this had happened the process was quickening exponetionally, I fell back saw the sky then slipped beneath the surface absolutely helpless and into a new world.
How quick life can turn, in a few seconds a tranquil environment then a raging white monster clawing and gnashing pulling and tearing away at the human body. Disorientated I span and somersaulted like a rag doll thrown down a precipitous drop bouncing from one ledge to another, arms and legs flailing uselessly in absolute chaos.
Thoughts race through the mind, ‘what’s my dad going to say’ his last words to me before I went out winter climbing in the alps was to take care and heed the avalanche warnings, deep snow, seracs, and most definitely wind slab. Funny thing what comes to mind, if I was to die why it should matter what he would say, I’d be gone and wouldn’t hear a thing or maybe I just would!
Then I recounted the Avalanche safety book which I had poured over, reading and digesting the text but most of all soaking in those images of monster avalanches that so adorning the text.
Time seemed to defy reality, stretched beyond the limits of our ordinary minds and clocks as the mountain rushed me frantically toward oblivion thrashing my body against this and that and everything else within its path, one second one minute, one minute one hour. I remembered in the chaos of time that the advice was to jettison the rucksack and axes, so easy to read, so easy to think that it would be so easy to do. Tumbling, turning and flailing I knew the impossible, then just like that I was free, falling falling so nice it seemed forever then abruptly my head was shoved at full force into an unforgiving barrier, my neck went back and the crunching bones and jaw reverberated around my skull. Christ I’ve broken my neck then the rest of my body followed ramming my head further into the snow and compounding the agony.
Blackness descended and when I came too and I could feel the pain in my leg. Pinned to the ground I could feel a huge weight on my back like an invisible hand slowly driving me further into my grave. Little did I know that at the time that I had fallen over a small rock face and remained pinned on a ledge, the avalanche pouring onto and over me with the power of a waterfall in its head long frantic rush to pass the finishing line. With my face sideways on to the ground being forced into the snow I dribbled, apparently should you be buried at least one would know to which direction it would have been advisable to dig. Opposite to the downward motion of the dribble.
It must of only been a few seconds but the pounding on my back lasted an eternity then without warning I was scooped up and thrown down the mountainside again, tumbling flailing erratically in the maelstrom of suffocating powder snow. The sensation of a blurred black and white light intermixed my vision while my body continued to be thrashed and pummelled in the frantic frenzy of the avalanches descent.
One last option came to mind, that book that so easily explained the most obvious but seemingly impossible retold of such situations where if you did swim, then come to the top you must. Alas, yet again I was thwarted, merely making the motions of my limbs more panic-stricken and out of control. Giving up and resigning myself to the ultimate fate I let myself go, so easy this was and no terror, just a numbness in the mind, the willingness to survive extinguished no hope.
Yet within seconds I sat on the snow as if the rag doll had landed on its backside, arms hanging limply to the side and head drooped, legs out spread. In that split second I glanced at the receding anger of that avalanche just hoping I could get a glace of Anton’s body before it was buried. Nothing, nothing at all, the white wave finally settled many, many hundreds of meters below me. What could I do, where was he, how on earth could I find him over such a huge area, lost, lost what could be done.
That feeling, empty and dreadful, I never have felt that before. The horror of losing someone, nothing is so like, it yet it happens all over the world and every minute of the day, terrible.
Yet just in the throws of utter despair, a voice. Only there was no one, the air went silent and nothing but the hum of tintinitus could I hear. Again the muffled voice, I turned around and there not ten yards away was Anton, dumped as me, like a rag doll dispensed with and covered in snow, every orifice rammed solid with white powder.
Still slumped on the slope I surveyed the destruction then set about releasing myself from the burdens of excess, helmet seemingly bulging from my head full of snow. The rucksack now twice as heavy.
I stood up and slumped back to the ground in painful agony, my knee joint buckling. It had been severely twisted but not broken. Now as we surveyed our near demise it dawned on us how far we had travelled, near on a thousand yards. Dam, it was going to be a climb back to the Hornli hut over the same snow slope but threw new snow yet to be triggered.
With each new slope came the a gut renching fear, a mine field but slowly we made progress picking our way through the softer wind slab till eventually arriving at The Hornli hut. What a relief and what a night in Zermatt no holds bared.
Later we went back to Chamonix and I ended up soloing the north face of the Courtes, but thats another story.