This particular summer in the Alps was a rather odd period in my life. Before setting off on holiday, I'd been reading too much Herman
Hesse, especially 'Steppenwolf' and had adopted the Doors 'People are
strange, when you're a stranger' as my theme tune. Coupled with a long
period of abstinence, I had convinced myself that I, too, was a solitary steppe wolf, doomed to live as an outsider to society.
This sense of 'anomie', although not great for personal development, was good for obtaining the slight detachment regarding personal safety that is very handy for progress on the climbing front. I'd had a reasonable winter in the Pyrenees, had bought some shiny new ice axes, and was really up for a summer of hard stuff before going to a proper job in London, far from the nearest mountain, unless you count Primrose Hill...
The plan was three weeks climbing with the English mates as a warm up for three weeks with the stronger French. Climbing with the English started awkwardly. We picked the easiest mountaineering route in Chamonix: La Petite Aiguille Verte1, for the baptism of one lad who fancied having a go but was paranoid about hurting himself now he was married. Not a success – blue sky and hot sun, three of us had a good time but the pyschological clouds never really left Jon who, despite being a big and fit lad, proved once again that climbing is essentially done in the mind. He got down all right, but was a bit embarassed and decided to leave it at that.
Reduced in numbers, we picked something a bit harder, a mountain called Le Cardinal – labelled as a classic in the guidebook, we were a bit surprised to see how remote the mountain hut was and slightly concerned when the lady keeper of the refuge told us that no-one had been up our chosen route for a while. When we asked why, she replied with a shrug that it wasn't trendy. Well we weren't bothered if that was the problem – my mates weren't trendy and I was a Steppenwolf so above all that.
Next day was a perfect illustration of how one bad decision can truly ruin the entire route. We left early – good decision. We got to the top of the rather icy gully, past some mixed stuff in reasonable time. Good result. We had a look at the final rock pitches required to get to the top, realised that there was far too much snow for it to be enjoyable, and gave it up as a bad job. Good decision. It was 10:00 am and we had plenty of time to get down, get across the glacier and catch the last train from Montenvers down to Chamonix.
This was where we made our first bad decision. Rather than retrace our steps we thought it might be easier to go down the southern face. Our first attempt was to traverse around to find the easy descent. Two hours wasted in horrendously soft snow and one emotional outburst later, we are nearly back where we started. So we were left with abseiling down the very steep rock face below. Five nightmare abseils followed, each one more precarious than the last. The sight of the rope above me looped over the tiniest bulge in the rock, knowing that if it failed I was going 30 plus metres down the face is something that will never leave me. Possibly even worse than that was the moment when one of the group had to 'relieve himself' about two metres from the rest of us, after a week in which his diet had mainly consisted of spicy sausage...2
To cut a long story short, we eventually got down and had a very long walk out. Not only were we knackered, but navigating on the glacier in the dark amongst the crevasses was not good, and the long walk down to the valley on the forest paths was a certain recipe for knee knack at an early age. We got to the campsite about 1 am, 23 hours after first starting, and that put a dampener on any more serious mountaineering for the duration of that holiday. As usual in Chamonix, it rained towards the end, and I was quite glad to get out of there and go south on the train to meet the French.
Which was a slightly different experience. They had been there for four weeks already and had no money. They were living off polenta twice a day and nasty tins of ratatouille. Cash was always found for red wine of course, but that was about it. We did some nice climbs with the group, but the one that sticks in my mind was the Dôme des Ecrins by a medium hard route. We set off, and set up camp in a cave that, to paraphase Monty Python, smelt not of elderberries but of urine. We wake up at 1am – rain, try to go back to sleep, wake up at 8 am, blue sky and sun so we put it off till the next day. Someone needs to go down and get food, I volunteer, as the recently formed couple I am climbing with are spending the whole time kissing each other and it's doing my head in. I bring pasta, which we somehow make a mess of - all the starch comes out and it's inedible. Back in our cave with emptyish stomachs, we get some more cramped sleep till 1am comes round again.
The fun starts about seven hours later when we get to the Coulour du Barre Noir. The strongest of the three of us is a teacher from Marseille, mad as a badger after having spent a year amongst the flat beet fields of Arras3 and firmly decided to advance whatever the cost. Then me, a bit more cautious by nature and a small if tough French lass with hopeless equipment. We're tied together, so on the ice at the top of the gully, it's basically one off all off stuff, as our gallant leader refuses to put even a token ice screw in. Of course as we all make it up OK, he considered that his decision was therefore justified.
We abandon the idea of including the Barre des Ecrins in the route as it's in bad condition, so we traverse carefully underneath, watching out for stone fall, and then mosey up the gentle snow path that leads to the top of the Dôme des Ecrins. It was my first 4,000m summit but I was a bit tired to appreciate it. On the way down I distinctly remember
thinking that I could see dancing penguins. This seems unlikely – it was far too hot for penguins, even on the glacier, but a certain mind
numbness was beginning to take over.
Looking at what I've just written, I am aware that from the outside this may seem like a miserable way to spend a summer, but there were moments of magic amongst the stress and fatigue. It's a love/hate sport
mountaineering – when you're up for it mentally, there's nothing like it, but it's totally committing – things go pear shaped so quickly.