On Friday 13th March, Dan Fitzgerald and I went on an exhausting day out in the Aiguilles Rouges – up the Gliere, down the Combe du Pouce, up to the Keyhole, down the Berard valley, beer in Buet. We battled a cruel sun, terrible snow, angry dragons, howling winds, tired legs, amorous sailors, empty lungs, and a whole host of other complications and inadequacies, both real and imaginary. Skinny Legs has a smashing write-up of most of the adventure here:
Dan also made a rather brilliant film that cunningly manages to hide just how little fun we had through the magic of image stabilisation and high-definition technicolour video.
Despite more than 1300m of uncomfortably-sweaty ascent, and some perfectly horrendous skiing for 96% of the descent, this was a wonderful day out covering a lot of distance in the Aiguilles Rouges, and definitely one to be repeated, but ideally with some slightly better snow.
Dan covers most of the more interesting bits of our day out, and I have little to add to the saga, but I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about someone else’s adventure that we happened to observe and become involved in, though hopefully insignificantly. Towards the end of our second climb of the day, on the way up to the Breche de Berard (or the Keyhole, as it’s known), we looked back over our right shoulders at what could have been our escape from the Combe du Pouce – instead of skiing all the way down to the Vallon de la Diosaz through a narrow but not-too-steep couloir carved out by the Torrent de la Floria, as we did, it is possible to cut a traverse out to the right towards the end of the Combe du Pouce, up and over the west shoulder of the Tete du Bechat, and descend via a diagonal shelf down to the Combe de la Balme, from where you have a much shorter climb up to the Col de Berard. This diagonal shelf, however, is surrounded on all sides by cliff bands of various sizes, and unless you know exactly where to point your skis, you run a pretty serious risk of getting cliffed-out.
The eight people in the picture above, which to our distant eyes looked like two groups of four, had taken their traverse far too high, instead of dropping down skier’s left for the path through to the combe below. One skier from the party in front had descended worryingly close to the edge of the cliff, but had thankfully realised his mistake and was climbing back up to the other three above him, and they slowly – distressingly so – made their way back towards where the other party of four were waiting. We can only hazard a guess as to why they were moving so slowly, but the obvious assumption to jump to would be a lack of couteaux or crampons on an unpleasantly-icy track.
Every now and then we heard shouting as if to draw attention, so we tried to reply using a few whistle blasts, but with no response. When the wind happened to blow in just the right direction, we could hear snippets of discussion at almost-conversational levels wafting across the valley, despite the thousand metres of distance between us, so we tried to tell ourselves that they weren’t in any great distress. But we remembered that when we were back in the Combe du Pouce we had no phone signal, and were worried that the group across the valley from us now wouldn’t have it either, so we called mountain rescue. In my embarrassingly-broken French I tried to explain ours and their location, that there were eight people dangerously close to the top of some cliffs, and I honestly didn’t know if there was a problem, but that they were clearly somewhere that they didn’t intend to be and were moving very slowly indeed. Maybe if there a helicopter nearby that had a few litres of fuel spare, they could swing by and just have a look? The guy on the other end of the line thanked me for the call, he’d look into it, and replied when I offered that, no, he didn’t want us to wait around and watch them, there was no point in having another two people out later than they planned.
By the time we reached the Keyhole and the drama across the valley had dropped from view behind the hills, the lower group of four were still inching their way up along the top of the cliffs, and the higher party had started skinning back to the Combe du Pouce, and from there, either back up to one of the cols to the south of the Aiguille de la Gliere, or down the same narrow couloir that we had enjoyed hours earlier, and then a long climb up to the Col or Breche de Berard – either way, a long way home. Their day wasn’t even slightly over yet, and it would start to get dark in just a few short hours.
There are a few obvious lessons to take home from this – the first, of course, is to never go outside, just stay indoors where it’s safe and warm and there are no cliffs to fall off of. But if we choose to ignore this pretty indisputable bit of wisdom, we should at the very least do every bit of research we can on an intended route (or be appropriately equipped for the unknown), and never follow someone else’s tracks blindly. Dan and I had specifically chosen the lower, longer route today so that we could get a few decent photomaps of the higher traverse that we’ve never skied before, so that we might be more prepared for it next time.
Well, that’s it. There’s been nothing in the news and I’ve heard nothing through the grape vine, so I hope the eight people behind us got home safely that evening without too-much of a shitty escape. And maybe, just maybe, a couple of coloured lines on the picture above might help someone else find the right path in life.