The North face of the Taillan
Spring is arriving in the Pyrenees, there's still plenty of snow on the high mountains and it's time to go climbing for the weekend. What is more we're going with a trainee guide, a genuine mountain professional so for once we can relax and not worry about getting lost or making an error that will lead us all to a messy death.
Fred, our guide, doesn't look like your average mountain man. His fringe falls over his eyes and, for a guide, he seems remarkably uncoordinated. He demonstrates a sound approach to safety by asking me to hold the steering wheel from the passenger seat as we go up the winding mountain passes so that he can roll his cigarette.
Our objective for the weekend is a squat triangular north face, finishing at a little over 3,000m in altitude. It's graded 'difficult' in mountaineering terms, but it requires more perseverance and a certain acceptance of objective danger1 than brilliant technique and strength.
We get out of the car at the parking place, stretch our legs and start to look alarmed at the amount of gear that Fred is pulling out of the boot. Snow shovel, avalanche prod, funky transceiver things for finding people out of the snow, the lad's not messing about. Fred looks like he's got two kitchen sinks in his rucksack – it's bulging out all over the shop – so I add the rope on top of my also rather full sack and we set off on the path up to the hut.
An hour in and we get to a valley where there is rather clear evidence of recent avalanche activity; indeed it has somewhat swept the path away. For safety's sake, we leave 100m between us, Fred first, El second and me last. I wouldn't say I was 100% concentrated at this stage, being in the mode of getting the walk in done as quickly as possible, and getting my heavy sack off, and probably thinking about football and girls at the same time. About half way along the swept away section, the unbalanced rope on top of my rucksack causes me to have another little wobble and before I can correct my step, I lose my balance and slip over the edge of my path. Fortunately, it's not very steep, but it is very icy and the idiot in question has ski poles in his hands and his ice axes attached to his rucksack. I'm on my back, and my rucksack is preventing me standing up, like some kind of ungainly overweight tortoise. I try digging my heels and finger nails in, but it isn't slowing me down in any perceptible way. I do though manage to get my weight onto my rucksack, thus avoiding tearing myself a second orifice where there should only be one, and, as is the nature of things, I come to a stop at the bottom of the valley.
No harm done in the end although my companions were understandably alarmed to see me disappear from view, and show how concerned they are by taking the piss mightily. Another hour and we're at the bottom of the route. Fred presents us with a little surprise – it's another 90 minutes up hill to a mountain hut where we could spend the night, but we'll have to reverse that part of the route tomorrow morning. Alternatively, we can dig a snow hole and spend the night right here, saving us time on the Sunday. When he put it like that, it sounded quite attractive, and naively, I expect we thought a night in a snow hole might be quite fun, a bit of an experience. Normally I would suspect a guide of having planned this all along, but Fred threw his sleeping bag back into the car before we set off, so I suspect this time he kind of got caught between the two options.
So we start digging – the snow shovel is the good news and enables us to make reasonable progress. In two hours, it's done and my lower back is done in. The hole is T shaped, with a small entrance and then a larger bit to sleep in. I can get my 1m 85 fully stretched out, which is luxury really. Less luxurious is the fact that none of us have mats to isolate us from the snow, so we put the rope and everything else possible on the floor, all our clothes on and hope for the best. Amazingly, El manages to sleep for the best part of five hours of the seven hour night, despite the hard floor and bitter cold. I get about ninety minutes poor quality shut eye, and I suspect that Fred, without a sleeping bag, didn't sleep at all. In the morning, we're all very happy to leave our snowhell, and start the climb. The Spanish next to us didn't finish their hole, so I dread to think what their night must have been like.
The first few pitches are on reasonable quality snow and we make good progress. El has hired a pair of mountain boots that appear to have once been owned by Shaquille O'Neill – as she has little feet this means that they are slipping around inside, which doesn't give her optimum control of her crampons, but with the steps bodged in the snow it's not a big problem.
The difficult bits are where the snow has been blown off, exposing a mixture of rock and ice. We get past these carefully but OK, but see a couple of Spaniards who are really on the edge. The lad has made it up, and has set a wholly inadequate anchor2 to protect his second, who is struggling. She starts with her hands on the rock and ice, but we yell at her to use her ice axe. She gets past the section eventually but we give them a wide berth. They're tied together about ten metres apart, so if they come off, they could easily sweep the slope clean of the three or four groups below them...
A little bit later, and we're basking in the sun on a very satisfactory summit. El and Fred have a traditional summit cigarette, polluting the clear mountain air (it tastes better at altitude, apparently) and a tired but happy bunch of climbers make their way back down the descent route. No problems, and no further difficulties other than staying awake on the long drive back to Bordeaux.