“This is not a good idea,” he shouts over to us. “Keep your skis on, the snow is too soft for crampons.”
The two Spaniards in front of us have just spent a worryingly long time swimming over the bergschrund at the base of the final couloir on the south-west side of the Col du Tacul, and are now in the process of swapping from crampons back to their skis. Both Nick and I scan the slopes above us quickly for other options: we spot some mixed ground on the shadier right-hand side that would take us out of the couloir, it’ll almost certainly be easier than wading through the deep snow we are about to step into. But if we can just cross the well-covered bergschrund and get a few metres higher on our skis before switching to crampons and rock, we can be at the col and out of the sun just that little bit quicker…
I take one of my axes from my rucksack in my right hand and start climbing out left, up towards the tiny bergschrund. Just as my right leg steps over the barely-visible crack, Nick shouts a warning: I forget the words, but I look up. We both watch as the avalanche first knocks the man on the far side of the couloir off his feet, followed by his friend, higher up but closer to our side. Nick, still safely under some rocks but tied onto me, braces his legs against the soft snow as I lean into the slope, trying to squeeze into the mouth of the bergschrund, and I plunge the shaft of my axe down as far as I can, gripping the head with both hands. “That won’t hold anything,” I say to myself, and as I am wrenched downhill by an alarming weight of snow, the axe is torn from my grasp.
“Stop!” I cry, King Cnut, in a voice that probably sounds far more masculine in my head. Nothing happens, I am still moving, my rucksack has pulled me over onto my back, and my left leg is below the churning snow. I notice how free and easily my right leg is flapping around: I’ve lost a ski. “Stop!” I shout again, and a few seconds later I do, the snow still falling away beneath me. I look up – the rope between me and Nick is taut, I’ve only slid about 15 metres. The world stands still, and the two Spaniards who were taken first are ten and fifteen metres below me, with various belongings of theirs scattered above and between us. I glance downhill: there is a ski poking out of the debris pile a hundred metres below us, the wrong colour to be mine. I notice the pink snow at my feet; there is blood dripping from a tiny hole in my right middle finger – a farewell gift from my axe.
I enjoy a few expletives, probing the ground around me with a pole – amazingly, they have both landed next to me. No sign of my right ski or axe, so I explete a little more. We don’t have the luxury of time to be digging through the debris, another slide could come down at any second. I crawl uphill to reach a few bits of Spanish flotsam, just hats and sunglasses, which I throw down to their owners, then I clip my heel into my binding and hobble across the slope, away from the debris. I dig in as Nick traverses into the slide path to check if my axe is still embedded in the snow by the bergschrund, but it isn’t. He throws down two ski poles to the Spaniards, then all four of us traverse back to the east as another, much smaller avalanche rolls down the couloir – it wouldn’t have touched us, but it hastens our movement.
“There is another ski down here!” a voice calls from the second Spanish team of two below us, waving a bright-green plank in the air. I breathe a sigh of relief – at least getting home isn’t going to be so much of a problem after all.
We had big, bold objectives for this weekend – I’ve finished work for the winter, Nick had three days off in a row, and we wanted to make the most of a perfectly-timed weather window. We were going to skin up to the Col du Tacul and ski the Capucin Couloir, nine hundred metres of steep, shaded skiing down to the Leschaux Glacier. We would spend the night at the Leschaux Refuge, leaving at 2AM the next day and skinning to the base of the Grandes Jorasses to climb the Petit Macintyre, one of the shortest routes on a terrifyingly huge mountain, but still seven hundred metres of quite involved climbing. A second night at the refuge would be followed by an early start to climb the south west couloir of the Aiguille d’Eboulement, and another thousand metres of 40°-50° skiing. With two axes, 60m ropes, a mixed climbing rack and provisions for two days, we had heavy bags but high spirits.
Leaving behind the blue-sky crowds at the top of the Midi on Sunday morning, we tear down smooth chalk with a thin layer of fresh dust towards the deserted Italian side, step cautiously over two-day-old avalanche and serac debris from the Glacier de la Noire, and on to the base of the Glacier des Périades, where we start our ascent. The gaping holes surrounding us on this late-spring day encourage us to rope up, but we are keen to shed a kilo of weight from our shoulders anyway. Just before we set off, the first pair of the four Spanish guys appear by our side. We chat briefly about our plans, then start our slow plod uphill. After just a few hundred metres, weighed down by our heavy bags, they catch us up and begin breaking trail up to the col, taking one short but interesting detour as they overtake us.
The col comes into view as we turn to the north after around 400m vertical of skinning. As we survey the slopes ahead of us, a discord roar reaches us from across the Glacier du Tacul – the snowfields on the south side of the Aiguille du Blaitiere are sluffing their excess under the hot sun. As long as we stay to our right, under the shadow cast by the Pointe des Periades, we should be safe enough from the small south-facing slopes under the Aiguille du Tacul. If we move quickly, soon we’ll be nestled deep in the cold north-facing Capucin Couloir. Another rumble and boom arrives from the other side of the valley, and we speed up a notch, trying to ignore our complaining shoulders.
But after another hour of skinning, then sliding, then sitting dejectedly on a pile of debris, and, finally, accepting gratefully the consolation that things could have been an awful lot worse, we are skiing back down under the Chandelle du Tacul on dreamy-creamy, perfectly sun-softened spring snow. We’ve discussed our options, and despite being one axe short, we’ll still go to the hut and see what we can make of the next two days; but we instantly ditch the plan for the south west couloir of the Aiguille d’Eboulement – it’s probably slid today already so we’d be skiing on debris, and if not, we’d most likely be the straw that breaks its back. But for now, instead of being dropped almost at the front door of the refuge by the Capucin Couloir, we have to ski back down and around the Aiguille du Tacul and skin up the Leschaux Glacier. Our day just got a bit longer.
Dripping with sweat, we stash our skis and poles at the base of the cliffs before teetering our way up the ladders leading to the refuge, relieved to find running water just outside the front door. We use the last of our energy to dig out the snow-covered path, then we relax in the shade with a whiskey-laced coffee and some Bombay mix. As the sun sets, we pack our bags ready for tomorrow, then we settle in for a home-made pasta ready meal and a cup of camomile tea. I put the porridge oats in to soak so they’ll cook quicker in the morning, and we turn in for a few short hours of kip. I drift intermittently between sleep and listening to the mouse scurrying around on the floor, and I have lucid dreams of waking up to find the poor thing drowned and frozen-solid in our porridge pot.
The alarm goes off at a quarter past one, and I turn on my head torch. I crawl out from under the blankets and pull on every jacket I own, then slip my feet into my yellow North Face slippers – worth every bit of their 400 grams of carried weight – before stumbling over to the stove to put the water on for coffee. We are alone in the refuge, and with no-one else to disturb, Nick puts on some Pink Floyd. The Great Gig in the Sky lulls us gently into the early morning. We bumble around in the darkness, pulling on harnesses and ski boots, sucking our coffee down whilst waiting for the porridge to boil. A little after 2AM, we are out the door and making our way to the ladders, where we rappel down to our skis. We are all alone except for the glow from one or two head torches in the distance to the north, climbing up the Aiguille Verte. We put skins on skis, strip off our down jackets, then rope up, and we quickly settle into a rhythm as we climb up towards the Glacier du Mont Mallet in the moonless pitch dark. Having keenly studied the path to the base of the route the previous evening with binoculars, trying to memorise the location of the worst of the crevasses, I was quite confident in leading the way, despite not being able to see a thing. Even so, I was desperately grateful when the first weak glimmer of dawn began to seep into the skies above us, giving the glacier a dull glow and illuminating the way. As we climbed higher, the firm snow underfoot turned variously from a thick crust into a few inches of soft powder, with the occasional small patch of slab. Running on a single cup of coffee, I was starting to tire, but I knew we would need Nick’s strength for leading most of the ice, so I pressed on. I broke trail to the point where we would leave our skis and switch to crampons, and then kicked steps up to the base of the bergschrund, where through a beastly, multi-layered maze, we found the narrowest section to cross. I sat down with my back against the uphill wall and dug my heels in, belaying Nick as he led up and over the rimaye, across forty metres of solid neve, and to a good anchor on a sling and a nut. Seconding with a tight rope, I struggled up over the lip of the bergschrund with my single axe, climbing through a hail of pebbles and chips of ice, whizzing past my head and bouncing off my helmet. When I reached the anchor, we dropped the rest of our coils, and, taking the gear and Nick’s second axe, I carried on up in search of a safer belay, away from the constantly-droning barrage of rock and ice being released from the north-east facing cliffs above us by the first direct rays of the rising sun. Every fifteen metres or so I would dig around in the snow at the base of the cliff towering over our right shoulders, looking for somewhere, anywhere, to slot a nut, but with no luck. After about fifty metres, I plunged the biggest screw into the neve. It wouldn’t hold in a fall, but it did wonders for my head. At last, ten metres away from me, I saw an old peg and a rusty nut with fresh-looking tat hanging off them. Just five metres from the anchor, the pick-friendly neve gave way to crumbling sugar, eliciting a quiet yelp of terror, but after a short swim I was clipped into the anchor, with mere inches to spare on the ropes.
If we had four axes between us, we could simul climb this stuff no problem. As it is, we have to sit here in the cold, pitching, taking our turns to wait as we belay each other, thirsty but in dire need of a piss. I join Nick on his second anchor, and warn him that I’m only good for following now, my thoughts a little fried by the fact that – and I don’t want to sound like a stuck record here – I only have one axe. But at least, with Nick block leading instead of us swinging leads, we both spend less time sat around in a single stretch, so we warm up nicely. As I pull on my dry spare gloves, the thoughts of putting my down jacket on are pushed to the back of my mind, and my spirits lift with the help of a few Snickers bars. The yellow helicopter swings by every now and then, hovering high above us for a few seconds. When I can, I wave a single arm high over my head until it drifts away. We slowly make our way up the face, finding an interesting range of protection as we climb higher – Nick has great fun snuffling around for hidden things to add to his ingenious anchors on lead, and I don’t take too long to hobble up after him. But at the end of the sixth pitch, having seen what we’ve got to use as rappel anchors on the way up and keen to fix them up a little, my thoughts turn to how long it’ll take us to get back to the skis and down across the glacier, which has been basking in the warm sun behind us all day. Nick builds himself an abolokov in clear glacier ice and raps back down to me, and we start our descent, finding the rope work clean and easy with the open slope below us, and we are soon over the bergschrund and back at our skis.
As we organise our gear for the ski home, I look across at the Aiguille d’Eboulement, two kilometres away, the deep scars from half-a-dozen of yesterday’s avalanches carve through it’s entire south face; and another slide, the first of today, rumbles down just below it’s south west couloir as we watch. We will not be skiing it this year.
The slightly steeper slopes directly under the Grandes Jorasses provide us with beautiful skiing in much-appreciated cold powder, before turning into ankle-snapping soup as soon as we hit the shallow-angled rollers at the top of the Glacier de Leschaux, as suddenly as someone flicking a switch.
We surf back to the ladders and tie our skis up at the bottom; just fifteen minutes have passed since we last had the ropes out. We haul ourselves up to the refuge and are glad when we can finally pull our ski boots off, and relax with a cup of coffee and some sugared nuts.
“We’re not touring up to the Breche Puiseux tomorrow, are we?” I ask, sat on a woolen blanket, my legs dangling off the edge of the balcony.
“I’m so glad you said that,” Nick replies.
We sit and discuss the last two days – what went right or wrong, what we learned, and what we’ll do differently next time. We might not have been able to tick off any of the three objectives we had for this miniature expedition, but we gathered a lot of useful experience and a very real appreciation of what the Grandes Jorasses demands of you as a climber. We will definitely be back; probably with a tent to camp on the final plateau of the glacier before the north face begins in earnest.
We eat our dinner by the light of the setting sun and we take to our beds with a cup of camomile tea, then we sleep in until mid-morning has started warming our little hut. We pack, slide down the ladders, and pole along under a thickening grey sky until the snow runs out. We walk half a kilometre to the stairs, and we curse each step up to the gondola. Exhausted, we find ourselves at Elevation, surrounded by beer, chips, and some of the first people we’ve seen for forty hours.
Some of the pretty pictures above are from Nick, the others are mine.