The towering south face of the Pouce glows grey in the moonlight against the night sky, the only thing I’ve seen for the last six hours as I drift in and out of consciousness. I can even see it when I close my eyes; its scars and cracks, the dark shadows of its roofs, have burned their image onto my retinas. Dan’s alarm sounds – we can stop pretending to be asleep, but the slightest movement puffs the warm air from our down jackets. We continue to lie perfectly still for a few more minutes, delaying the inevitable. Eventually, Dan, closest to the stove, puts the water on to boil for our first cup of tea, setting up the pizza box windbreak to quiet the hungry spluttering of the gas flame in the surprisingly-cold dawn breeze.
We quietly gulp down our steaming tea, contemplating our immediate future. With nearly four hundred metres of trad ahead of us, this will be the longest climb either of us have ever attempted, and we know we are in for a long day. Yet I feel confident, and not just because Dan and I have been climbing well and feeling fit so far this summer… I’m not one for omens and superstitions, but as we arrived at our bivvy palace the evening before, my friend the bearded vulture appeared from the Vallon de la Diosaz to our west, circled once on a thermal directly in front of the Pouce, then soared onwards towards the Aiguille de la Glière. Just as when the choucas, the spirits of fallen mountaineers, pop by every now and then to see how their human friends are doing (and perform for crumbs of croissant), I take great joy in the presence of this magnificent bird. I could never feel alone when I know they’re around.
That said, if you want to feel alone in the Aiguilles Rouges, the Pouce is a great place to do it. Tucked away behind the more familiar faces of the Floria and the cluster of peaks forming the Glière, you are in for a bit of a trek whichever way you get there. The most common approach is to go straight up the steep Floria snowfield from the top of the chairlift, over a breche near the Doigt de Glière, and down a series of narrow gulleys to the Pouce Combe, a route that takes about an hour and a half and requires, unless you are particularly lucky or brave, boots, crampons and axe. Dan and I balked at the thought of climbing 6a trad with so much extra weight on our backs, and with our relaxed climbing style we prefer the luxury of spare time, so we decided to take the alternative path – shod in approach shoes and armed with lightweight bivvy kit, we walked around to the south under the Index, towards the Col de la Glière and then back north past the Lacs Noirs, to a bivouac just a short down-climb away from the start of the route. We would rise at dawn, summit by lunch, follow the ridge back to the Glière, glissade the dying glacier on its south-western flank down to our stashed gear, jog back to the top of the chairlift and be swimming in a jug of beer at the Rhododendrons in the late afternoon sun. But oh, the best laid plans.
We have chewed on a pain au chocolat and desultorily stuffed all of our excess kit into our rucksacks, moving slowly in the cold morning air. At last, whimpering quietly, we strip off our down jackets and pull on our harnesses, helmets, and our natty little Quechua lightweight running packs, filled with drinking water, cereal bars, rap tat, and the very most basic of first aid kits. We finish our hot drinks, stash our rucksacks in a hole, and set off down the hill. Some delicate footwork on patches of refrozen névé leads to some easy but interesting down-climbing to the left of the formidable buttress marked point 2617 on the map, and then Dan kicks steps with his trainers to traverse one more steep patch of névé. We gingerly pick our way across the scree below the shrinking Pouce glacier, and rope up beneath the final patch of névé that lies at the foot of our route, covering completely the first pitch of grade 3 climbing, giving us a slightly spicier 5a warm-up instead. Dan racks all the gear on his harness and makes his way up the icy slope, slotting his toes into the shallow pockets made by shards of fallen rock, baked into the surface of the snow by day after day of hot sun. He hops the bergschrund, landing on rock in his wet-soled approach shoes, and places his first cam. It has begun.
We can clearly see some bright-yellow tat on an anchor at the top of a left-leaning ramp, after some steeper blocky ground, right where the topo said it would be. Dan quickly makes his way up to it, slotting gear in easily and clipping the occasional historic peg, then pulls up the last few metres of rope. I follow up the snow using the same pebble pock-marks as holds, grateful for the rope above me, and I too hop onto the rock in wet shoes. After a few sudden stretchy moves, spreading my legs wider than I think appropriate for this early in the morning, and an all-fours crawl up the ramp, I’m at the anchor, changing into my soft, shapeless, multi-pitch slippers whilst Dan clips the gear to my harness. The topo, a single photocopied page of the Piola book in a ziplock sandwich bag, says we can go either left or right of the blunt spine we are anchored below, so indecisively I set off straight up the middle. After placing a few early pieces of protection, the fairly-stiff-for-grade-4 climbing mellows out a bit, and I don’t mind leaving a bit of space between gear. I soon reach the second anchor atop an ample grassy ledge and put Dan on autoblock, then finally, I have a good look around. From our bivvy spot no more than 500m away, the face seemed almost entirely vertical and, to be honest, quite terrifying, but now that we are clinging to the side of it I am struck by how much friendlier our surroundings feel. The sea of slabs to our right, still in the shade, look like a great place to hang out. I might come here again, I think to myself.
I am soon joined by Dan, and after taking all the jewellery he sets off again for another short pitch of grade 4, our last cakewalk of the day, below a short roof cut through with a few tricky-looking chimneys. We narrowly avoid heading up one of them, lured by the promise of an imminent chimney on the sacred topo, but Dan finally spots the anchor off to the right, and another peg just beyond it, beneath a much easier route around the roof. I shove a Snickers into my face as Dan pulls up the rope, and, making my way up to him, I try to focus my thoughts: after this anchor, we’ve got nearly two-hundred metres of 5c to 6a climbing ahead of us before the (hopefully) easier pitches before the summit, and our options for bailing start to grow more complicated. With a deep breath, I crawl past Dan, and after finding a good cam placement for the left rope and that peg for the right, we are away. A few gloriously-exposed moves of 5c on some slightly-wobbly rocks ease off to a broad crack up a grassy slab, and I easily spot a huge tapered chimney ahead of me, leaning off to the right. Before I know it, I’ve got my left hand jammed deep in the cold, damp crack at the back of the chimney, my arse wedged up against the wall behind me, and garbled whoops and laughter leaking from a toothy grin. This climb just got fun. The crack swallows all the gear I throw at it, not that it’s needed, and I’m soon hauling myself up onto a jammed block at the top of the chimney. After following the line above the chimney for a few metres and getting a vaguely lost feeling, I look around and spy a depression off to the left, exactly the kind of spot where you’d expect to find an anchor. Sure enough, after a tiny downclimb and a short but airy traverse, four pegs of varied vintage and one solid bolt beckon to me.
Quite inexplicably, Dan doesn’t enjoy this pitch as much as me. “I couldn’t hear you properly, were those cries of terror or joy?” he asks me as he pops out the top of the chimney. Probably a little bit of both, I admit. Dan and I certainly have our individual strengths and weaknesses: whilst Dan is a much more technically competent climber than me, with a monkey’s reach and good core endurance for steeper terrain, he isn’t as big a fan of things like run-out slabs, thuggish chimneys, or anywhere that a bit of bold or naive stupidity comes in handy. On long climbs, we’ve both come to appreciate the worth of exploiting our own merits whilst trying to take the lead on the bits that the other might not enjoy. This technique would come in handy in about fifty metres time.
It is only after I have equalised my big sling to two pegs and one of the most beautiful bolts in the world, two very long pitches later, that I realise how much fun I had getting there. Dan had set off along the most obvious line from my post-chimney anchor, finding a sudden change in the style of climbing, crimpy slabs with pretty delicate footwork. After a couple of decent cams, some questionable nuts, and clipping the occasional peg, he built an anchor out of two shaky pitons, a slightly-better piton two metres away, and some gear of his own. “It’ll do,” he called down to me, “But try not to fall…”
I joined Dan and cast my eyes upwards: this bit looks fucking horrible. There is a seething mass of vegetation seeping from the crevices to the left of a blank slab, the only feature that I’ll have to use, a genuine jungle that we instantly christen “The Animal Crack” – god only knows what’s living in there. With just a little bit of Elvis-leg I set off, finding thick clumps of grass everywhere I want to slot some protection. After about five metres, with nothing placed yet, I have to stop and do some gardening, and I drape a big nut into an earthy notch, knowing full well that it’ll pop out if I take a tumble. A shit piece above a questionable anchor… I’ll just have to try really hard not to fall, I think, as I spot a rusty eye staring down at me from the forest, five metres further on. The wall kicks back a degree or two, and I find myself contorted into shapes I’d be barely happy making at a roadside crag above shiny 12mm bolts – left leg drop-kneed on the edge of the raised lip above the Animal Crack, right foot smeared against a rounded ledge out in the middle of nowhere, my fingers plugged deep in a sodden compost heap but somehow I’m still stuck to the wall, crawling upwards, breathing deep like I’m going into labour. I’m absolutely fucking terrified, but I can reach the peg, and through gritted teeth I’ve got the green rope clipped. I hear a scream of relief from somewhere, and I tap the peg: it wobbles a bit. The joyous scream turns into an incongruous giggle.
I can see a bolt up and right, days away, out in the middle of the ocean of slab – what the bollocks is it doing there? – and another one, closer to the crack, another week’s voyage past it. The battle continues, and with moves I don’t know how to make I struggle upwards, then grasping a rounded spine with both sweaty hands I swing out right onto the slab and up to the bolt on tiny sloping ledges, clipping the red rope for the first time. “Take us there on red!” I yelp, defeated, as I look up – we still have some way to go.
I toy with the idea of living on this bolt for the rest of my life, but the impracticalities of that solution are numerous and decisive. “Climbing!” I call down to Dan, as I venture back into the jungle. There is more of the same – moss and grass, no gear, terrifying moves, enthusiastic vocalisation of my emotions – but somehow I make it to the next bolt, to find it dressed with a short loop of rap tat, a scary-small keyring-sized maillon, and a bigger, healthier maillon. I immediately recognise what this means, but I’ve come this far, and I simply can’t comprehend how anything can be harder than what I’ve been through to get here. “It’s not over yet mate!” I cry, optimistically, but after another three sweaty, grunty metres of up I have reached my limit, and I reverse the last few moves back to the bolt. This left-hand variant pitch won’t go, but marked out by a sea of pitons gleaming like cat’s eyes in the newly-arrived sun, is the right-hand option. Dan lowers me back to the last bolt, where I unclip the red and swing across the slab on the green rope, to clean rock, huge holds, and peg after peg of reassuringly-easy climbing. We are out of the woods.
A very short while and one rope swing later, Dan joins me at my anchor mansion. I stuff another Snickers into my mouth, the sugars quickly soothing my frazzled nerves. It might not have been the cleanest display of climbing, but I am exhilarated – we were handed a problem, and we solved it to the best of our abilities. We quickly discuss strategy while Dan takes all the gear, and we stare up at the monumental roof that hangs ominously over the next peg-studded pitch. Undaunted, he sets off up what turns out to be the best climbing of the day, the incredible corner crack followed by a breath-takingly exposed traverse on decent crimps. As I climb up to join him, taking note of the rotten wooden stake hammered into the crack and wondering why Dan didn’t clip it, the world suddenly seems right – we are two hundred and fifty metres up on one of the most aesthetic faces in the Aiguilles Rouges, there are chirping Alpine accentors fluttering around my feet, and there is no fucking grass sprouting out from my holds.
I grab all the jangles and climb past Dan up a cluster of wide block-strewn cracks. This unmemorable pitch is short, which I am grateful for, and I am soon at two solid bolts below a constriction between two roofs. Dan zips up to join me, asking if I’ve anything left in my platypus – his is dry, and mine nearly so, but I ask him to drain it for me. The sun on my back brings to mind the thought that time might be getting on, and we are shocked to find that it is nearly half-one: beers in the sun at the Rhododendron are still a long way off.
Dan presses on, immediately moving out of sight past the roof. Minutes pass, and as the middle markers pass through my Reverso, I call out “Thirty metres! Thirty!” I watch the two ropes crawling out of the device, paying out slack for each one as Dan finds gear. Dan shouts something down to me, I can barely hear him. “Ten metres! TEN!” I reply, listening to my own voice bouncing off the buttress on the other of the combe, far below us. Still the ropes creep forward. “TWO METRES! TWO!!”
Nothing happens for a brief moment, and then slowly the two loops of slack in front of me start growing – Dan is down-climbing, and I pray silently to myself that he isn’t enduring some kind of mini-epic like I did a hundred metres ago. I gently pull in the ropes, careful not to take them tight, until they stop moving. There is what I assume to be an anchor-building pause, and then, thankfully, a bellow of “ON BELAY!”, barely audible over the rustling wind. I dismantle my anchor, and clamber up through the gap in the roof, to find myself on a leaning ramp, a wide slab with a 300 metre drop hurtling down to the right – exactly the kind of thing Dan hates. As he comes into view, I start to notice how heavy my harness is – I’ve cleaned nearly every piece of gear. Between lengthy run-outs, I find a peg with a prussik lark-footed to it, and further on the rope is directly connected to another peg with a screwgate: I don’t envy him this pitch one bit.
“And just what was wrong with the final 30cm of rope?” I ask him.
“Well I had a quick look around the corner but I couldn’t see an anchor, so I had to come back here. I assume it’s around there somewhere!”
According to the much-consulted topo, there is a second chimney just ahead of us. I am starting to feel pretty damn tired, but I can only assume Dan is as well, and we both know that chimneys are quite definitely my albatross to wear. Dan switches his belay device and I press on immediately – there is no gear to swap, Dan built his anchor with his last three cams. Sure enough, around the corner there is a dank cave with a dusty, leaning groove sprouting out the top of it. This is nothing like the stunning chimney far below us: I feel cheated. I grunt and swear my way up and out of the chimney, finding the occasional horn of rock to throw a sling over and a single peg, the last one we will see today, before rope drag becomes unbearable, and I build an anchor on a huge flake and two good cams. Dan joins me. He hated that bit. The stunning climbing that brought us here has vanished, and we are now on loose blocks, broken rock, gravel, dust. We are both tired, and slightly irritable – I try to keep my singing and my annoying jokes to the bare minimum.
That’s the story until the summit – we pitch this crap until drag stops us, we build an uninspiring anchor, we feel thirsty. Just as we are getting unspeakably bored of it all, Dan, on his turn to explore this choss, calls down “I think we might be there mate!”
The elation upon reaching the summit is incredible, and we marvel, spent but happy, at the encompassing panorama. But of course, getting up is only half the battle: this isn’t Brevent, and we have no viewing platform full of Japanese tourists to applaud us onto the cablecar. We glance at the time: four-fifteen. Beers in the sun are now not at all likely, and unless we choose the one correct route through the maze of ibex paths criss-crossing the shady side of the Glière’s north-west ridge, following the right cairns and ignoring the ones built by lost wanderers, we are in for a very long walk home.
This part of the story is frustrating, dull, tedious. I’m groaning with boredom just trying to recall what happened – the only clear thing I remember, sweating and thirsty, is that I had the refrain from a Kelis song stuck in my head, a choir of handsome men chanting “She needs ice cold water,” again and again and again. It doesn’t help.
All I will say is this: if you find yourself at the summit of the Pouce, stay low on the left of the ridge until you reach the col before the north summit of the Glière, passing only the final gendarme on the right, and then ascend to the south-east, towards the Doigt de la Glière. Drop over the col if heading back to the lift, or carry on south if you need to go back to the bivvy spot, like us. I hope you have more fun than we did.
After some more scrambling on shitty rock, traversing a few snow slopes, and finally a blissfully sunny glissade back to our bags, we have filled every bottle we own from the ice-cold, crystal-clear source near the bivouac, and drunk so much that we nearly vomit. We set some water on to boil for a brew (tea for Dan and coffee for me), wolf down half a fougasse each, and stuff the gear into our rucksacks, before sitting down and doing absolutely nothing for a few short minutes, wallowing contentedly in inactivity.
But it can’t last, so we heft our alarmingly-heavy bags onto our backs and set off at a determined pace towards the Col de la Glière, ignoring our complaining feet – it’s only going to get worse. We haltingly trudge along the path from the col and veer off-road to the right down the Combe Lachenal, often stumbling on the scree and loose rocks, until we reach the Flegere home-run piste. Below the treeline, the thick air gives us a boost and we manage to yomp down the 4×4 track until it gets too dark to see, our feet constantly screaming in protest as the night rises around us. At last, after seventeen hours and a 1900m descent, we find ourselves sitting at the side of the road in Les Praz, waiting for the lift home.