Fear, I think, is one of the more useful emotions we have at our disposal. Don’t get me wrong, happiness is great, it’s absolutely smashing, and it’s definitely the preferred state of mind to while away the hours with, but at times it runs a little counter-productive in the task of keeping us alive, as we seem to have evolved or adapted to enjoy all kinds of unhealthy and dangerous things, like sunbathing and sugar, or drinking fizzy wine until the small hours of the morning, or throwing ourselves out of planes or off of mountains or into the sea, you know, the good things in life. Sadness and anger, too, strike me as a case of faulty programming, as they don’t really provide any benefit to a body other than creating an interesting contrast between delight and despair, and they have an annoying habit of clouding one’s judgement, of further muddying the waters in an already confusing world. The decisions you make when upset are seldom the correct ones.
Fear, though, is essential for continued survival. Fear is your body’s way of telling you to wake the fuck up and pay attention, and the adrenalin shot you get from a sudden burst of terror is stronger than even the darkest of Italian espresso. It sharpens the senses, quickens the reflexes, it tenses your muscles in preparation for the whole fight-or-flight thing. It forces you to take a good, hard look at the problems you are facing, and to think them through. It makes you faster, stronger, and more intelligent.
A short while ago, as part of a rambling apology for the thick, snowy blanket of recent inactivity on this “web log”, I hastily scribbled down the idea that it wasn’t as easy to write about the experiences you have when you are simply happy and enjoying yourself, as it is to write about those when you are cold or exhausted or terrified. Well, here we are, there’s no two ways around the fact: if you happen to make any kind of reasonably-big mistake, you’ll die. That’s simply the nature of an E4 descent, and, standing as we are at the top of one, I am shitting myself.
Col du Plan north face, toponeige 5.3 E4, photo by Ben Briggs
As my gaze makes its way down the steep slope to the sudden, formidable, and most-certainly fatal drop of the hanging seracs crumbling away at the end of the glacier a few hundred metres below our feet, I am struck by an almost irresistible urge to pull the plug, to turn to Grant and demand that we ski a simple Grand Envers back down to the safety of Chamonix under a blazing sun, and I get a pretty strong feeling that Grant is thinking exactly the same thing.
But the quivering terror churning deep within my guts forces me to think logically: we have skied steeper slopes before, and in much worse snow. Having studied topos and reports from the route for hours on end in the years leading up to this moment, we’ve got more than a vague idea of where we are going. After spending most of yesterday sliding down the same mountain on a slightly-different aspect, we are reasonably certain that the snow we find is going to be safe and stable. We know our ropes and we’ve got enough of them; we’ve got tat and tiblocs and tea. Crucially, and, all modesty aside for just a few seconds, we are both quite good skiers, and we know this, despite the occasional and inevitable goggle-flinging yard sale on easy-angled meadow skipping that we all experience every now and then.
The cogs and gears deep within our brains grind away as they perform the mental gymnastics of weighing the pros and cons, the risks and rewards. Then it all becomes clear: we can do this.
But my, what a difference from the day before! We arrive early, expecting another scrum of skiers looking for something steep, but it seems most people’s coin toss took them to the north faces in the Argentiere basin today, and the Midi is almost deserted. There are only about forty people here but, regardless, the staff at the ticket windows are still giving out the plastic tokens reserved for the busiest of days. As is traditional, they begin with number 9, but the first bin isn’t even slightly full before they have to move on to the number 10 tokens, one of which Grant presses into my hand as he scuttles towards the turnstyle. I gather my scattered belongings together and trot after him.
“Look, there’s no-one here!” one exasperated guide, his two clients at his heel, splutters to the gatekeeper as we squeeze past him. “Can’t we just get on without the chit?” The liftie shakes his head and waves flamboyantly towards the caisse.
We feel rushed. I have no time to finish my coffee, to eat my pain au chocolat, to strap my skis and poles together. I bumble into the first bin, untightened harness flopping around my buttocks. In the confusion, I spill some coffee on an Italian man’s bag, but he doesn’t notice and I’m not brave enough to apologise unprompted, so I hide. At the midstation we are awarded a few minutes whilst waiting for the upper lift, and as I scan the face through my binoculars, spotting just three tracks left the day before, I notice the people by my side looking at the same bit of mountain: it’s a team of Chamonix celebrities, and I worry that our enthusiastic amateur attempt will result in dropping sluff on their, obviously, much quicker and slicker descent. But after a quick chat I’m relieved to find that they have their eyes on a much bigger prize, and with no other likely-looking candidates making their way on to the lift up to the summit of the Midi, it looks like we’ll have the descent all to ourselves.
The Midi-Plan ridge, photo by Adrian Earlyup
Once out of the ice tunnel and down the ridge to the almost deserted plateau, I take a moment to reflake a hastily-coiled rope and stash everything in the right pockets, then we skate down the Midi-Plan ridge towards the Col du Plan, stopping briefly to peer into the optional first entrance, by the Tournier spur. A poke with a ski pole suggests hard, wind-buffed snow, skiable but exposed, and a little too engaging for this early in the day. On to the col we go, and the lower, more predictable, slightly less-terrifying entrance to the route.
From glorious sunshine on the first pitch of the Grand Envers, we step through the narrow rocky breche and into the shade on the north side of the col, where we finally get a good look at the target. Just a few metres below us the snow looks good, no, the snow looks great, but the steepest section at the top has a hidden layer of ice just below the surface. There are people who would just drop straight in and ski it like champions, but we aren’t them, and I think it’s better to be thought of as a big girl’s blouse than to end up in a splintered heap at the bottom. So after finding a bomber anchor in the rocks to skier’s right of the col, Grant puts me on belay and pays out a few big loops of slack, and I enjoy some tethered turns down the first fifty metres of the slope, but after the first fifteen or so, my ski edges stop making contact with the icy layer underneath the fresh snow, and soon I have nothing but deep, cold snow under my feet. I call up to Grant, who adds his strand to the rope we already have out, and raps down to join me. We pull the ropes, coil them carefully, and then we are all alone on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, grinning like idiots.
A few hundred metres of steep, soft skiing takes us down to the spine that borders the right-hand side of the face, where Grant digs through the fresh snow around the rocks for the first of the two rappel anchors that will drop us into the lower couloir. As I ski down to join him, a growing sound of rushing wind fills the air. “Oh shit,” I think, assuming the worst for the noise and turning my head to look behind me. “Avalanche. We’re fucked,” but it’s only a speed rider. He slashes three huge arcs across the lower half of the face, banking hard under his tiny wing, then he looks up towards us with a scream of “Kiaii!” and throws into a barrel roll as he launches off the end of the serac below us. There are similar tracks peeling off of all the other hanging glaciers along the north face of the Midi, as a dozen speed riders make use of a bluebird day with fresh snow and no wind. Just another day in Chamonix.
The received wisdom from various sources for the 60m rappel in the middle of the descent is to do it as two separate raps of 30m, and it’s easy to see why, as a slight diagonal leftwards-lean through a network of flakes and chimneys could easily see a knot jamming halfway down when you pull your ropes. For this reason I think it’s definitely worth it to bring a pair of 60m ropes anyway, and just to put up with the extra weight. We must have brought 59m ropes today though, because our first rappel on a single rope doubled-over only saw us to the second anchor with a little bit of rope stretch and long arms, but the important thing is we got there. The second anchor is an intricate network of tat and nuts that might not look the neatest, but at least you are given an exciting range of options for which bits you want to clip, and then the second rappel drops you comfortably at a wide, shallow-angled ledge, where it’s fairly easy to stamp out a platform to get your planks back on your feet.
Grant leads the way down the couloir whilst I coil the rope carefully again, knowing that we’ll probably need it again in a short while, then when Grant tucks into the side out of the way, I make my way down past him. We still have deep, soft snow, but sluff-carved runnels and steep sides in the narrow couloir make the skiing down here a little more technical than it was up on the face, and tight little jump turns are the ticket all the way down to the top of the final crux of the day, a bulge of rock that squeezes the couloir into a narrow, icy gap. There are some pretty entertaining photos to be found of people just launching themselves over this when there is good snow, but we are not them, so I pick my way across to one of the anchors a few metres above the difficulties – there are two good anchors, one on either side of the couloir – and I get the rope out again, throwing the strands out into the middle of the couloir so that Grant can swing by and pick them up whilst I stay clipped to the anchor. We make our final rappel with skis on feet, stash the rope, and then the difficulties are over for the day.
After the crux, the couloir opens up considerably, the near-bottomless snow has been carved into playful troughs and airborne-inducing spines by gentle spindrift sluff, and we are treated to another few hundred metres of unbelievably-beautiful skiing. But all good things must come to an end, and once the north-facing couloir has emptied onto the west-facing slopes beneath the Aiguille du Plan, we are forced onto endless fields of the most unpleasant sun-crusted avalanche debris imaginable, the inevitable remnants of yesterday’s glorious blue skies.
We pick our way slowly back to the midstation under an endless blue sky and a blistering sun with speed riders soaring over our heads every now and then, and when we reach the buvette we scatter our gear around the nearest table before I head inside to order some drinks.
“Deux bières s’il vous plaît, madame,” I beam.
“Bien sûr, grand ou petit?” she asks.
“Oh, grand, pourquoi pas? Nous sommes en vacances!” I reply.
“Ah, d’où êtes-vous visiter?”
“De Chamonix, mais nous sommes en vacances sur l’Aiguille du Midi pour quelques heures…”
(Thanks to Grant for a phenomenal day out in the mountains and the fantastic photos, I’ll bring an actual camera one day instead of my grainy little camera phone; thanks also once again to Adrian Earlyup for the photo of the Midi waiting room and the Midi-Plan ridge)