Kyle saw an orange light tumbling down the steep slope on the glacier and passing him.
I have got to do something, right now!
Throwing himself at the slope to thrust the pick of iceaxe into snow as deeply as possible.
Unfortunately, that was not enough.
The rope between him and falling Masa became taught.
He was dragged down and he too started to fall…
Grandes Jorasses and mountains under an afternoon clear sky. At that time the weather was perfect, as the forecast had predicted. Who would have known it would deteriorate abruptly later… [© Masa Sakano]
In the recent years the concept of Fun scale has gained the popularity among climbers (See here for an example definition). Basically,
- Type-1 fun is a fun and pleasure while having it, like sex or eating something nice,
- Type-2 fun is a retrospective fun, like competitive marathon, that is, you regard it as fun only after the event,
- Type-3 fun is not a fun even retrospectively, though it was originally planned to be, because other factors, such as sufferance, injuries and terror, end up exceeding the element of the fun.
I think many sports, particularly endurance sports, are type-2 fun for the players that are serious about it.
Climbing, particularly trad or even winter climbing, is not an exception, especially when a climber is pushing her/his limit, due to the added terror factor.
Alpine climbing is often worse, as the factors of endurance, remoteness and seriousness, are multiplied.
Max Cole has said
Alpine climbing is all about type-2 fun.
Yet, climbing is addictive despite all that, or perhaps all the more because of that, as Graeme Baxter has noted,
Type-2 fun is the best fun.
After years of experience of mountaineering, I knew all of that. And, I came back to Alps and attempted to climb Aiguille de Grépon – Mer de Glace with my type-2-fun-loving mate, Kyle.
Aiguille de Grépon is one of pointy peaks in the group of Aiguille du Midi and Plan. The route is a 850-metre long rock route at the grade of Difficile with the crux pitch of F5c+/6a, generally started from the hut Refuge de l'Envers in the south-side with the standard descent to the north side to Plan du Midi. We took a day of dry weather, sandwiched with the wet days, and expected the climbing to be a fun, if type 2, well within our capability. However, it turned out to be the worst epic I have ever experienced in mountains, being caught by the unexpected snow-storm…
It has been a nice day, mostly sunny. Apparently we have gone off-route, climbing considerably harder lines than the guidebook descriptions, and have wasted a lot of time. But we are sure we are now back on route at last. And after this crux pitch P20, we will reach the summit ridge, and then the summit will be within a stone's throw, 2-pitches or 50 metres. I set off leading the overhanging flake-crack (F5c+/F6a).
It turns out to be as hard and steep as it appeared. Worse, to my surprise, the quality of the rock is poor, and the overhanging flake is crumbing under my fingers. I am struggling in the overhanging strenuous position. Suddenly snow starts falling out of nowhere.
Kyle shouts at me,
Unfortunately I have already placed most of useful gear by that time.
At least the last cam is good.
I confirm it, looking at the cam again and again.
Then I commit myself to the crux move.
The rock crumbles again and I am off.
Hanging on the rope, I realise I have misread the guidebook… The true line, which is featured with a mild bulge, as opposed to the continuously overhanging flake I am on, is just 3 metres to the right. That explains the poor quality of the rock on this popular route, as well as its steepness!
It is snowing harder now, and I see the rock getting wet. I have to be quick. Placing two more gear, I manage the crux step-across and eventually top out to the wind-blowing summit ridge.
The blue sky has gone, completely. It should not! It is not forecast. Replacing it, it is snowing heavily now. I sense the temperature has dropped significantly, yet the snow is melting on my clothes. The temperature must be just above freezing. The worst conditions imaginable…
Eventually Kyle prusiked up the pitch, as the rocks got too wet to free-climb. His down-jacket too was soaked. Visibility is terrible and the sun is going down quickly.
At 50-metres below the summit, our summitting attempt is now replaced with the immediate descent, as quickly as safely possible. Our ordeal has begun.
Take 2 — Descent commences
The first part of the standard descent is scrambling down. However, in the condition of snow-covered wet rock, scrambling is too hard and risky. We abseil down along the descent route for 4 short pitches, leaving some gear, and even chopping an end of the rope that got stuck.
Now, the guidebook indicates to climb up a looming 3-metres high rock above the chockstone in the deep gully in front of us. I tried but was defeated and gave up in the end, as I judged a fall and injury were a real possibility, if my hands slip off the snow-covered small edges.
I am soaking wet and cold by now. The fact I haven't brought the waterproof trousers and that my shoes have no water-resistance did not help. There is no sign of easing of the wet snowstorm. An onset of hypothermia is certainly felt, and so is for Kyle. We have to act, quickly.
The idea of calling for mountain-rescue crosses our mind, seriously. However, we have to dismiss it — any rescue operation would not start before next morning at earliest, or may be even delayed if the weather does not improve. That means we would have to survive overnight at least, or longer, by ourselves anyway. We have no choice but to self-rescue.
Let's abseil down the deep gully below the chockstone. We have no idea where it leads to, but hope to negotiate to find the way to descend. I start to abseil to unknown.
After 10 or so metres, suddenly I heard the voice.
NO! Not that way! You will be in trouble, if you go that way!
It was a British team of Dave & Kevin we had overtaken some time ago, who have just caught us up.
I was first hesitant to abort and undo the attempt, whatever the attempt was, in this stressful and very cold situation. However I knew they were right, or at least my way was not right, as well as I sensed they knew the way. So, I reversed to climb up to the belay.
Unfortunately, Sod's law always works:
What can go wrong will.
And in general it happens at the most undesirable time. Like this time.
Our two ropes have got terribly tangled, as I climb up and pull up them to the hanging belay stance. The wind and snow blowing, I feel colder and colder, and Kyle must be even worse, as he has been staying still at the belay station for ages by now. But of course we need straight ropes, not a mess of chunks of nylon fiber. We have no choice but sort out our lifeline first.
By the time we finally untangle them, Dave & Kevin have overtaken us and managed to climb up the 3-metre wall, with a shriek as the leader pulled up hard. They very kindly left a sling for us that is hung from the top edge, secured with a cam in a rock feature. With the help of the sling, I managed to climb up this time, with a shriek.
Before, nothing has been seen apart from vertical walls in all directions. Now, I can see the way of the descent. The life seems sweeter finally, even though the weather is still terrible and I feel very cold and am shaking badly, and even though it is pitch dark.
Take 3 — Abseil incident
We kept abseiling for another few pitches, passing Dave & Kevin on the way, who had decided to bivouac at the first flat-ish ledge. We did not have a bivvy kit, and anyway both of us felt far too cold to stay still. Only the way to keep ourselves warm is to keep going through the night.
In one occasion, I took a lead in abseil. After my abseil, Kyle tugged the main anchor, a rock spike, just in case, and it just got detached and fell off…
Even though I did place a backup cam, if the rock weighing over 100-kg had come off while I was abseiling, who knows what could have happened. And worse, if Kyle had committed to abseil after taking out the backup cam, and if the anchor had blown while abseiling…
I was already feeling very cold at that time. But this incident made my heart and spine even colder, greatly…
Take 4 — Second fall
Eventually we reached the less steep and snowy terrain of Nantillon glacier and started walking down. The harsh weather has finally calmed down a little.
In this climbing I took an ultra-light approach, particularly shedding off the weight of snow/ice gear, that is, my iceaxe was the world-lightest ski-mountaineering one (CAMP Corsa), my crampons were the world-lightest hiking ones (Kahtoola KTS Aluminium) with just trainers, as I judged the main obstacle was rock pitches and that I would manage the easy snowy or icy part with less-than-ideal gear.
Nantillon glacier was quite snowy. Nevertheless there was an icy layer underneath. My crampons half came off several times, and I took a few short slips. Unknown to me at that time, a part of the front straps of both the crampons came undone some time during the descent and remained so, and that was most likely to be the reason why the crampons half came off from time to time.
Then I took a major slip. I thought instantaneously it was again one of those minor slips, but it wasn't. I didn't stop and failed to arrest the fall.
It happened so quickly I do not remember well. However, I passed Kyle in front of me and eventually dragged him too to fall. He tried to arrest the fall with no success. Kyle eventually flew over a crevasse due to the speed picked up by that time. Then, the pick of Kyle's iceaxe caught the icy part of the down-slope side of the crevasse, and our fall finally came to halt.
I must have fallen off for at least 60 metres, while Kyle fell for at least 20 metres. We were lucky to survive unhurt.
Take 5 — Third fall
Farther down the glacier, above a big drop on the glacier, Kyle lead to traverse the icy stream in the middle. Arriving at the exposed narrow ice section at roughly 30 degrees after Kyle, I realise I am in a little trouble, as my crampons do not have a front point. I start to swing the iceaxe to get a good purchase on the ice, after taking off the security sling to the iceaxe, as it was a bit too short. After several swings my hand slips, and my axe very quickly disappears below!
I shout at Kyle to ask for a belay, immediately.
I keep clinging on the icy surface with crampons and a walking pole, and wait for his shout of
On belay, knowing it would take a while for him to build a belay on the snowy glacier, which Kyle is on.
Then a few blocks of ice hurtle down from above to me. The icy stream I am on is a natural runnel for falling objects! Eventually, one of them hits me hard enough to knock me off. I fall off accelerated on the icy slope…
The trajectory of my fall turns to be a pendulum swing, and it is arrested after 20 metres, as Kyle has managed to quickly build an improvised belay just in time.
Well done, mate!!
Thank you, thank you…
After that, Kyle made a good kick-step for every single step for me, which I carefully followed without axe but only a walking pole.
Fortunately, only a couple of hundred metres of descent on the glacier at a fairly mild angle was all that was left, before hitting a rocky path.
By the time we arrived at the bottom of the last and crux pitch (to top out to the summit ridge), I knew we could never get the last cable-car back to Chamonix.
But in the end, we did!
We at last arrived at Plan du Midi station at 11:15 am the following morning, and took the cable-car. It was a continuous activity for a little over 30 hours without any break at all, with the descent taking roughly 17 hours, as opposed to the guidebook time of 3 to 4 hours.
Both of us suffer from mild cold injuries in our extremities. Three weeks have passed since then, but our extremities are not yet back to normal with numbness being still felt, though they will heal completely before long.
We were unlucky as we were caught by the unforecast bad weather. Then we were incompetent and poorly prepared for the situation we encountered. Yet we were just competent enough to manage to survive by the skin of our teeth, helped with some good lucks (or maybe I should say we were lucky enough, helped by some competence…).
Many lessons are learnt, such as,
- Light is not always right,
- Be a worst paranoia in abseiling,
- Practice makes perfect,
- Have the right climbing partner, which we did luckily.
I know none of them is new. But their importance and significance are learnt in our bones.
Tim Blackmore says:
Alpinism is 5% terror.
I agree. Certainty is a boredom. On the contrary, alpine climbing is full of uncertainties. Uncertainty is one of its attractions, but it is a source of terror at the same time. And things can go wrong, sometimes really badly, as we experienced.
Would I like to experience something similar again?
If it was some kind of fun, it was definitely a type-3 fun.
And I am determined to improve my skill and preparation so I would make the similar situation downgraded to be a type-2 fun event, requiring no good luck, in the future.