Sweating, distracted, my thoughts wandering, I’m suddenly brought back into the here-and-now by the forceful impact of a few small-but-dense chunks of snow on my right thigh in mid-step, and an instant before glancing upwards to see if there’s anything else coming down, a distant voice from the back of my head screams at me “Don’t look up, duck!”, which I do, as a block of snow a little bit bigger than a Gideons’ Bible collides with the top of my helmet, breaking cleanly in two as it crushes the air from my lungs with a cartoonish “Oof!”
My mind’s eye plays a flashback to six weeks ago, and I watch in horror as my friend cartwheels down almost the entire length of the descent from the Col des Cristeaux, only a few towering ridgelines away from where I stand now, shedding skis, poles, and the contents of his rucksack as he goes, the zip torn open by the rocks that launch him clean into the air once, then again, then out of sight. Through gritted teeth there comes a constant torrent of profanity lasting as long as each exhaled breath, and I ski down towards him as fast as I dare whilst staying safe myself until, still a few hundred metres below me, I can see him sitting up, shaking his head. Miraculously, he has suffered no more than a bloodied nose and a lost contact lens. He was lucky that day. Many aren’t.
Back to the present. Today, although long and steep, the climb up the north-east face of the Courtes is easy, on a well-trodden bootpack, and I had allowed myself to become just a little blasé about the whole thing, plodding rhythmically uphill and using my axe only for balance, and not support. But as I lean into the slope to catch the breath knocked from me, gripping tightly the head of my axe and watching through the gap between my legs the careening pieces of snow on their slapdash journey downwards, I am forced to consider a handful of alternative realities: if the first impact from above had been with my left leg instead of my right, my only point of contact with terra firma; or if I had looked up instead of down and the second impact had connected not with my helmet but with the bridge of my nose, then I might easily have been thrown off balance, and I could quite well have joined the various nuggets of snow on their race to the bergschrund, nearly half a kilometre below us. Yes, the climbing is relatively easy, but the consequences of cocking-up are real. I focus on the task, and give the remainder of the ascent the attention it deserves.
It’s now two days after fresh snow, two days before the Grands Montets lifts close for the season, and the last day of good weather before yet another storm in a spring with so many of them. Predictably, the queue for the top bin starts early and grows quickly, and we know today is going to be busy. When Grant and I step over the bergschrund at the bottom of the bootpack we are in positions thirteen and fourteen, and we are keen to minimise the amount of sluff that could be dropped on us, so despite the raging heat and thin air we manage to gradually close the distance between us and the dozen in front. But happily, although our efforts weren’t exactly wasted, neither were they necessary, as when we reach the narrow col that separates the north-east face of the Courtes and the Couloir Angelique to the south-west, the various teams and soloists in front of us obviously have their eyes on one of the other magnificent descents on offer, as they have carried on across the bony, shark-infested ground that leads to the summit, leaving us first in line to ski the north-east face. As we get ready to ski, we are joined by a few teams of two and a couple of singles, and the limited space below the tiny col quickly becomes crowded, so we sidestep down a short distance to make room, and we wait for ten minutes whilst another four below us make their way up through a rocky bottleneck.
Our manoeuvring to get near the bottleneck has inevitably knocked loose a little snow into the bootpack, and as the people above us at the col move around and get ready to ski, they too send the occasional chunk down the slope, but with a fair distance between us and the next group below us, we decide to set off. Grant, whose legs are longer than mine and got to the top before me, gets the honour of skiing first, and once past the slight bottleneck he traverses out right through a patch of rocks towards the east side of the wide couloir, not just because the untracked snow here has been better-sheltered and doesn’t have the slight layer of sun crust that the heavily-tracked western side suffers from, but also to minimise the amount of sluff he might drop onto the people still climbing up, a group of four and, behind them, a single guy.
Once Grant is tucked in at the side above the line we want to ski, I start to make my own way down towards him, but the single guy has put on a burst of speed in the meantime and is now only about forty metres below me. I switch to side stepping carefully down through the tracked-but-soft snow, trying my hardest not to dislodge too much onto the bootpack, and I’m about to start my traverse through the rocks to Grant when the guy on his own flags me down.
“You need to wait!” he calls to me in French, quietly, but forcefully.
“I’m sorry for the snow,” I reply in my broken French. “But we can’t wait for everyone…”
“You have to! It is dangerous to ski with so many people below. You need to wait.”
I glance down the slope. There is the team of four about twenty metres below us, and another four have just come into view from behind an island of rock in the centre of the face about sixty metres past them. Beyond that, I can see a few pairs, a trio, some singles, another team of four just making their way over the bergschrund, and yet more people still skinning up the slope below that. There are going to be people climbing this slope for hours yet, and as we stare at each other here in the middle of the face, the occasional chunk of snow tumbles down past us from the people getting ready to ski up at the col. I can feel their eyes on me, and I know that the two of us standing here with our thumbs up our arses isn’t making the day any quicker, easier, or safer, for anyone.
“Look, we’ve all had to deal with snow from above on the climb up. But we simply cannot wait for everyone below to finish the climb. It isn’t possible…” I plead, reluctant to leave the conversation on a sour note.
“On a line like this, you need to wait for everyone to be out of the way. There can be no-one below you, on the whole length of the route.”
I turn my eyes down the slope once again, and I wonder if he can actually see the same scene as me. I’m sorry buddy, but that isn’t going to happen. Do you think we are going to wait another two hours for everyone already on the line to come up and join us? Where the hell are we going to put everyone up on that narrow col, are we going to sit on each other’s laps? How about that hungover Australian on his own who has only just arrived at the bergschrund, who isn’t even going to start climbing for another hour (we chatted to him on our way past, on the ski down), are we waiting for him as well? All thirty of us, cuddling together in a big squirming pile on a tiny col, for the next three hours? When you reach the top, are you going to wait for everyone to come and join you?
You arrived at the line after us, it’s up to you to make the call whether or not you can get out of the way of the people in front of you in time, and if you can’t, then you shouldn’t start climbing up after us. If you are at the bergschrund and there’s already a score of people in front of you, some of them already nearing the summit, maybe you should change your plans for the day and try harder to be on the first lift next time. Like we did.
But I’m not hanging around on this mountainside to debate proper alpine etiquette with a stranger, and whilst I desperately wish to say “I’m sorry, but my French isn’t good enough to share the above internal monologue so that I might convince you of my position, and we should just agree to disagree on this point,” I have to make do with a simple “I’m sorry, but my French isn’t good enough.” We wish each other a good day and a pleasant ski, and we go our separate ways. Grant and I make our traverse to the east, and the skiing is incredible.
I recognise one of the people climbing up the lower third of the face as we ski past him, and I send a cheery whoop his way. Shortly after we’d gone by, he looked up again and counted the legs still to ski, then he switched crampons for skis and made his way down. A difficult decision to make, but the correct one.
Later that day, about an hour after we’ve made it back to the pistes of the Grands Montets, one of the other thirty or forty people on the north-east face of the Courtes that day makes a mistake, and bounces down the entire length of the slope, before landing in the bergschrund. A helicopter takes him to the hospital in Annecy, where he dies from his injuries a few days later.