I posted a photo on Instagram the other week about our last trip to the high mountains. It was captioned “The mountains might be pretty but they were not on our side. #terribledecisions.” There was some concern and several people wanted to read a blog on it. I promised it would contain “epic tales of nearly dying, getting back down at midnight and desperately melting water to stave off severe dehydration.” This makes it sound all very dramatic. And sure enough, I could write that blog: the Indiana Jones style, macho tale about me conquering the mountains against all odds. Being hardcore. But that would be misleading. I didn’t feel ‘epic’, I felt like an inexperienced idiot making slightly stupid decisions that could have been very dangerous. Nothing actually happened, but I feel like a prat.
That’s why I’ve been very reluctant to sit down and write this. I don’t want this post to be another whinge about being scared, or to glorify a trip that was actually very unpleasant. I hoped time and distance would help to think of something productive to say about the whole episode, but I’m not sure it has.
So, here is what happened.
I found out that morning that I would be off work from 11 am for a day and a half. It was short notice, but that’s not unusual.
The weather was forecast to be cloudless and sunny. I found Fraser. We decided to aim to climb a route we had had our eye on: Petit Charmoz, between Montenvers and the Plan de l’Aiguille. We realized the most sensible way to access it in good time the next day was to camp below the snowline so we could start with the light, rather than waiting for the first lift. This should have meant we had time to play at ice-climbing on the Mer de Glace between finishing a route with a guidebook time of 4 hours and the last train down. We got various buses to various parts of the valley to pack things, charge phones and go to the supermarket. It was a lucky chance that we managed to get the last lift up to the Plan de l’Aiguille (mid station of the Midi) at 4 pm and set off from there. Because we were in such a rush, there was no chance to refill one of the water bottles, either at the top of the lift, the Buvette, or the Refuge and there were no water sources on the path at all, even down to Chamonix the next evening. So we had only one litre. We had been counting on at least one of those options…
The sunset was fantastic. Aside from rationing our water, it was a smooth and spectacular wild camping trip.
“Hooray for poorly planned adventures.”
The next morning we got up at sunrise, packed up and headed up towards the glacier. We didn’t expect the walk in to be anything much- there was a path marked most of the way up, even though it was a different way from the guidebook.
“Oh the interminable moraines”
It was super loose. It was quite exposed from debris from the glacier. We could have made better route decisions. We should have moved faster despite the shifting scree. It took us a long time. We didn’t have enough water. It wasn’t until we reached the bottom of the route at 11 am that we found snow to melt. We headed up the route at 12 pm- we expected it to take us 4 hours. We discussed going back, to avoid increased rockfall risk in the afternoon, but decided against it. I was not feeling great. Fraser led the first few chimneys; awkward, especially with a pack but not too hard. All in all, it took a long time.
It was from the Col where the infamous Instagram photo was taken. I had ripped up the skin on my hands and gaffa tapped them back together. We considered turning back, but retreat from that point would have been difficult and would have involved setting up our own abseil tat which we were not keen to do if it was not necessary- there were belays set up on the established descent.
“Everything has gone wrong so far. Hopefully, it will get better from here.”
I took a few leads. I went the wrong way several times. It is not a popular route and we were not used to route finding with no wear to follow. I took at trad lead fall on what we believed to be the 4c crux pitch. I knew if it was 4c I should have been able to climb it fairly easily. When Fraser tried it, we realised it was definitely not the right pitch. We ate all the rest of our food.
At this point, we were very nervous about the time but still decided that going on would be quicker and safer than going back. Fraser was not climbing well. I was running through mountain rescue scenarios in my head. Our tired, nervous climbing was very well protected, but very slow. I wasn’t thinking straight and reverted back to ‘textbook’ trad climbing. It is not possible to climb an alpine route like this, it is too slow. This grade of alpine climbing comes down to cutting corners- and knowing which corners to cut. Most of it isn’t really ‘climbing’ and bombproof protection is unnecessary.
“I don’t like this. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
Once we reached the descent it was relatively smooth- our luckiest stroke of the day was to see a cairn after our first abseil that led to the top of the couloir where there was something that could almost be called a path back down to some ladders back down to the moraines.
By this time we had spent 7 hours on the route.
It was beginning to get dark- the next hour was us almost running through loose scree to reach stable ground (and the path) before we needed to turn on the one headtorch we had brought with us on the climb. We didn’t quite make it. The final 300m section was dangerous- in any other situation I don’t think I would have gone down it because the rock was so loose. We dislodged a ton of rock. But we had no choice.
We were hungry. We hadn’t brought enough food even for the time we were intended to be on the mountain. That’s what comes of poorly planned adventures. And we had been getting slowly more dehydrated since the evening before. It was dark. We were on a climbers access path and only had one torch between us.
For the second time this summer, I used my iPhone to get me down a mountain.
We had to go the long way round to find the gully where we had stashed the rest of our kit. In the dark, there was no way we could work out where we had cut through on the way up. We found it though. Then it was just a case of walking down.
We got down to Chamonix just before midnight. 17 hours after we started that morning. We drank water, eventually found some food and I fell asleep fully dressed. I got up at 6.20 to go to work.
I know where all of my mistakes were (to be honest, I knew most of them at the time). Writing this I feel like such an idiot and I’ve tried not to dwell too much. I’m sure even those of you who know very little about alpine climbing can pick up most of them.
I’ve tried not to make it sound too epic. It wasn’t ‘hardcore’. It was stupid, entirely self-inflicted and, frankly, dangerous. I’m come to realise that most of the articles I read about the mountains do fall into that category- glorifying something that almost certainly wasn’t glorious.
As with all almost all of my trips to the high mountains, the chance of killing myself- or Fraser, was highlighted to me. It can be f****** dangerous up there. But I know full well it’s dangerous, so why do I go? That’s not a question I’ve managed to answer, even all these weeks later. Not, I should add, because my attitude has changed. I’m just not sure what it is that makes me want to go, despite often hating large parts of it.
I read an article once, somewhere, though I can’t remember where, about three stages of awareness in the mountains. First, naive beginners who climb things, but fail to understand what could go wrong and where the risks really are. Then, there is the stage where it appears that everything on the mountain is trying to kill you. To reach the third stage requires enough experience to be able to judge which risks at that time are genuinely serious and when things could go wrong but are unlikely to. I’m in the second stage, 100%. I’m sure anyone who has read any of my blog posts will realise that- I think they all contain words to the effect of “mountains scare me.”
After that brutal assessment of my time in the mountains, there are two things I think I should point out.
First, this is not going to stop me, I’m merely learning how not to be an idiot. Nothing actually went wrong, but we shouldn’t really have been in that situation at all. Next time, we will be less cocky. And better prepared.
And secondly; I didn’t actually know I could walk and climb for 17 hours with as little food and water as I had. I didn’t know that when I wasn’t thinking straight I climbed slowly but safely. If I’d have had a choice I would have stopped and said ‘I can’t do any more’. But I didn’t have a choice, so I walked down. This isn’t a crazy feat. It doesn’t make heads turn. People do harder all the time. I read an article last week about two women climbing in Patagonia who carried on for four days without food or enough water. But, that’s beside point- it was an unpleasant experience but despite feeling terrible about the decisions I made, I did achieve something.