first there were clouds...
Jon's very first climb in Chamonix as well as nearly his first ever crack climb and I figure, "baptism by fire." Up we go on the 6:10 AM cablecar for a quick easy climb in the sunshine. The classic "Rebuffat" route on the Aiguille du Midi South Face. A few hard pitches that I've done before followed by a bunch of easy stuff he can lead too. Bring our packs up and finish for afternoon tea at the summit cafe. Brilliant.
Clouds, hmm, those weren't in the forecast. Well give it a go, we're already up here. Massive crowds on the arete such that I get flashbacks to winter, but 20 minutes later and we're down at the base and gearing up. Two backpacks are on the belay ledge, but no climbers in sight, we have it all to ourselves. Gear up, ropes on, "on belay", off I go.
then there was sun...
I've tried to finish this @#$%ing climb twice previously, and this time everything is going like magic. We don't
get lost getting to the base (helped to foil attempt #1), we don't
do the tough 6a (6b?) varient start (helped to foil attempt #2), and I even skip the roof belay station so that Jon won't have trouble seeing or hearing me on the 6a crux pitch to come. "Safe / Off belay / etcetc" and the rope slowly feeds through as Jon follows me up the first pitch. Barely 30 minutes have passed and the rack is back on my harness and I'm heading up on the second pitch. Pure magic.
followed by serious fun...
This was my third time on the thin "S" finger crack and I was loving it. First time around I found it very tough - I led it but pulled on every single piece of pro and placed half my rack of nuts. Second time I followed it and discovered so many missing face holds... this time around Jon could barely feed out rope quick enough, and I think I placed about three nuts - everytime I moved there seemed to be a piton in place. Like sport climbing. Amazing how working a route can really make a difference!
Clip in, up comes the rope, "on belay!" and Jon starts grunting and yanking his way up, claiming to be hating life but I know deep down he's LOVING it. Two more teams catch up with us and we meet a French duo led by a fireman from Sallanches named Guy. They are a friendly pair and we chat away at belays, no stress about passing and so forth, just enjoying fun in the sun. But what I considered last time the "crux" pitch is coming up and I'm scared...
with some sweat and pain...
I swallow hard, clip the bolt, and tell Jon to watch me like crazy, I'm going for it. The 6a crack is strenuous, but the 5+ pitch above it, on the first attempt, I found to be the real crux. It's easy except for a couple meters in the middle where there's a strange chimmney/layback that I ended up aiding through in the first attempt due to deteriorating weather and err umm, lack of ability. My partner at the time had attempted it and fallen rather dramatically, and as I was aiding up after him I had fallen on a nut with equivelent drama.
All this is in the forefront of my mind as I flail wildly for anything resembling a grip. Finally I find something marginal, reach down and plug in a microcam. Pull in the rope ohh so carefully, ohh crap my arm is getting tired and ohh crap "Jon ahh @#$% man it's the one with the locking biner attached! AHHH!" rope goes down, now seriously wondering if I can hold, unscrew the damn carabiner. Pull up again and the rope gets catch REPEATEDLY on the lock. The words "@#$$% @#$ @#$ @#$ @#$ @#$!" echo off the nearby cliffs. Birds fly from their perches. Finally the rope is in and I relax a little, shake out.
I reach up 2cm and find a fantastic locking hand jam, lean back and hang off it for fun, consider doing pull ups on it for effect. Meditate momentarily on important skill of patience with hold-finding. Unclip the pro so hard won completely, reclip it more solid a few inches higher. Another tough move and I'm at a piton, some easier crack climbing with a #2 cam and I'm at a ledge so big we could haul up a Weber grill and one of those Coleman caravan tents. Clip on, yell down, nearly pass out from the sudden energy rush, up comes Jon.
It's 11 AM and we're positively running up this thing. Ohh yeah we can have a late breaky at the Midi. Croissant and coffee at noon. Sweetness.
and then, the disorientation...
"This is SO not 4+" I shout down to Jon, my hand jammed into a not-so-tough but NOT in any way shape or form "four plus" crack. I whack in a big cam, it's really just a couple moves and then 5.easy again but hasn't this Rebuffat guy ever heard of grading a climb based on its hardest move
The hardcore French team that passed us is just unclipping from the belay as I arrive. As I belay Jon up, I notice for the first time the clouds building rapidly on the Italian border. They look evil. "Is that the sound of distant thunder?" I think, and the happy "I just flashed the two crux pitches" smile fades slightly. Ohh well we're so near the top we're so fine.
Lead off and gee, this isn't exactly 4+ either. But not too hard, and eventually I reach... well hmm not a belay exactly. Is that an old piton backed up by a nut? Ohh well it looks solid enough but... the French dudes are again just unclipping from belay and sail off to the left, where a bolt is clearly visable. "Gee that slab looks tricky," I think, and the "I just flashed the two crux pitches" glow is really fading now. Jon comes up just as we hear what is definitely thunder on the horizon, and moving fast by the looks of it.
next comes the storm...
So next we find our hero staring at a bolt, just a couple meters away, having tried five different ways to get to it and fails. "What in the world are we going to do?" I ask Jon. There's no WAY that move is four plus - we've talking at least 6a with a big pendulum fall. Guy and his partner shout up and they think we're still on route. The piton belay, well we had maybe just veared too far up, but this is clearly it.
Finally the cahones grow slightly and I manage to clip the bolt. Just one move and now back on 5.easy. "But you grade climbs on THEIR HARDEST MOVE!!!" I'm cursing to Rebuffat and his guidebook partner in mischief, Piola.
What follows is a very easy, but nearly horizontal traverse with craploads of rope drag. The rope gets stuck once, I have to downclimb to get it. I reach a couloir tugging on the rope with nearly all my might and, well there is indeed a bolted belay but it's two moves up a fairly stiff-looking crack, with a handy ledge to fall on and kill myself should I mess it up. "Where in the @#%^ are we!?" I shout to the descending French hardcore duo. The clouds are, at this point, on top of us. You can SMELL rain. You could SMELL the fear. Ahead looks TOUGH. We need to get the hell out of here. Am I freaking out? You bet! "Don't worry," they assure me "you just have one more long pitch, it's super easy. Veer there, you see? off to the left, and then you're finished. Just a quick rappel, onto the balcany of the cablecar station." Fine. I think. No choice, quickest way to get out of the impending storm is obviously to finish the climb. I clip into the anchor, ignoring the red sirons whirling in my head, and try to belay Jon up....
and the chaos...
...and the rope is SO not moving. And it continues NOT to move for a long time. "JOOOOON!!!" I shout "WHAT THE #$%^%ING 23$@#$ IS GOING ON!?!?!?" No response - he's obviously out of earshot. A full 30 minutes later and many close thunderclaps later, the rope slowly starts to move. Guy comes around the corner and tries to explain what's going on - something about a stuck rope - a full 20 minutes later and I'm back in total freak out mode but Jon is finally there. Something about letting the other team use our rope as a fixed line, stuck ropes, lost cams. "Tell me later," I say. "We've GOT to get off this mountain." I feel the first drops of rain.
I explain what the French guys said about it being easy and near the top. We can see the obvious finish of the climb - the cliff apruptly ends about forty meters above our heads. "OK I agree let's go for it," Jon says. "This is getting serious, we've gotta move."
A quick re-rack and some very easy terrain later and I hit another bolted belay. I belay John up and look ahead - there's one tough-looking slab move onto a big jug and it looks smooth sailing from there.
On belay again and I try to make the move... and FAIL. And FAIL AGAIN. And AGAIN. The grip is just barely out of my reach! The rope is nearly horizontal and I can't use it for aid. The cliff is blank - I'm standing on little quartz cristal crimpers and can't aid on pro. Explicatives fly liberaly from my mouth and the red sirons in my head start to form a blinding light. I try some sketchy positions in desperation and finally come back to the belay. "I don't know what to do," I tell Jon. "This move is really hard and I don't think I can do it."
We look over and Guy and his partner have seen our troubles and decided to climb further right, where an easy terrace system leads up. We shout over and they say it's easy so we rap down a pitch intending to follow them up.
I put on my Gore-Tex as Jon raps down and gathers the rope. It's now cold, complete white out, and I can't believe it hasn't started dumping yet. We are lucky... but how long will our luck last?
the lucky make it off...
Clipped onto the anchor, I look up and Guy has gotten himself into a world of shit. He's belaying his partner up but above him appears, from down here, to be a nearly blank and very steep wall. It only takes a few seconds of mental algebra to decide what to do. "We need to rap down," I say to Jon. "What do you mean, we're right at the top!" he says. I look up and he's right - escape from the storm is just one pitch above us... but it's a pitch I am getting more and more sure that we will not be able to climb today. "No, it's time to rap all the way down. It's the quickest and surest way off." I say. "OK," he agrees.
As I clip into rappel, Jon is convinced it will slice on the sharp rock and he's going to fall at any moment. "Dude you've GOT to get some pro in," he pleads.
"What are you doing?!" shouts down Guy. "The rappel will take too much time! The only way off is to summit, otherwise we'll be caught in the storm!" No, I explain, we've made our decision - we're headed down.
The horizontal rap was the most stressful for me. We had to tug both of us with all our might on the rope it was so snagged up and I was sure it would mean a climb back up to free it. Somehow, thank you god, or Bob, or whatever, the rop magically came to us. Now at a bolt and straight down all the way to the glaciar, I felt an inch better but not out of the woods yet.
This is not the normal way off this mountain and the rappels make proof of that. I pass by a great bolted station on completely vertical rock, but it's too far to swing out too I discover, after several pendulum attempts. I look down and the prospects aren't great... I pass another single, old bolt that somebody has rapped off but see some gear lower down, just near the ends of the rope and decide to take my chances.
At this point it feels as if somebody breaks a plate glass window above my head. Over and over.
And now comes the point that still sticks in Jon's head as "scariest moment of my life." Down comes Jon and he's exhausted. The rain is getting heavier and the rope is slippery, the rock is completely vertical, and he's not rapping with a prussik. "Dude you've got to clip me into something, I just feel like I'm going to fall at any moment!" he says, and so I clip him in haphazardly to the so-called anchor, which is not pretty. Worse, he's on a long sling, hanging without any hand of foot holds and can't see what's going on at the anchor. "What am I in on?" he says. He's in on two seperate cords and I think they're OK - I put in one of them - but it is not ideal to say the least. Cord #1 is of questionable origin and the anchorage is of design. Cord #2 is a long 8mm cordette I brought up and slinged around a giant pinnicle. But the pinnicle is sharp. As I clip into rappel, Jon is convinced it will slice on the sharp rock and he's going to fall at any moment. "Dude you've GOT to get some pro in," he pleads. I clip a bolt five meters down - that's our backup. We are running out of options. Down I go.
A very stressed Jon arrives 10 minutes later at what is fortunetely a bomber three bolt anchor with a shiny new rap ring and cords to tie it all together. We thread the ropes and I can see them hitting the glaciar. "See you at the bottom" I say.
At this point it feels as if somebody breaks a plate glass window above my head. Over and over. I look down, dumbfounded, and my lap is covered in an inch of hail that falls in the five seconds it takes to figure out that the skies have just exploded in their long-anticipated bought of fury.
Finally I'm down at the glaciar and it dumping hail harder than I've ever seen in my life. Within the time it takes me to put on a sock, my mountaineering boot has filled to the hilt
with hail. Lightning strikes again, VERY nearby. "Run as fast as you can!" I shout to Jon through the biting wind and fury. We stuff things into the bags haphazardly, and start jogging across the open glaciar, painfully aware of all the metal things we are carrying, as lightning strikes and rocks explode off the ridgeline.
the unlucky do not...
In the morning, we find the glaciar covered in 20cm of wet congealed hail, so much that the trail is barely visible.
Twenty minutes later we are in the safety of the Cosmiques Refuge, our gear soaked through and through, shivering with mild hypothermia. "Ohh man, is that a red jacket up there?" says Jon. "Ohh NO," I reply. And there they are - poor Guy and his partner haven't moved from where we left them.
In the morning, we find the glaciar covered in 20cm of wet congealed hail, so much that the trail is barely visible. But the sun is starting to break through, fortunately, so we tramp and squish with our wet gear the twenty minutes back up to the Midi. At the top we learn that our unfortunate French friends suffered three and a half hours on the cliff before they were finally rescued by a team rappeling from the summit. The helicopter being unable to pluck them off, due to the precarious position. We hear they had tried eventually to rap off and their ropes got stuck. Regardless, we are happy to be the "lucky" ones for the evening...