Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Freezing cold, soaked through and scared out of your tree...

A.K.A when light, fast and high goes wrong...


Chamonix is hot. Crazy hot. Everything appears to be falling down. A couple of days previously Matt and I enjoyed a quick morning dash up the Contamine Vaucher on the Peigne. We raced up the route, in shorts and tee shirts, in a little over three hours, over taking the all other parties, including an indignant French man wearing a site hat, on the way. 

Matt had the weekend off. What should we do next? Something big of course. The Walker Spur? A very, very long held ambition of mine. Apparently it was bone dry at the moment, so we could race up it rock shoes. Easy. A quick chat with my friend Will brought us back to earth. The snow on the top of the Grandes Jorasses was melting, throwing rocks down the spur. A couple of days previously five Brits had been helicoptered off the Jorasses. One with a broken leg. The rock fall sounded suicidal. We had a rethink. The American Direct? The Aiguille Traverse? 

Eventually, after we woke to rain on Saturday morning, we settled for the South Ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. A bit easier than we had liked but a good tick and a nice short Sunday day out. After all Matt had to be in work on Monday morning. We drove through the tunnel and after obligatory Courmayeur pizza walked into the hut. There was no snow on the mountain so we ditched our lightweight boots in favour of running shoes and left our super lightweight ski touring axe in the valley. In a last minute ditch to save weight I chucked out my Buffalo Mitts that weigh all of 75 grams! As success was guaranteed we took only a single 60m rope rather than a pair.

Alarm bells should have started ringing when we got to the hut and saw that the route had taken two aspirant guides we knew of fourteen hours hut to hut. Instead we just thoughts that they'd been a bit slow. Guidebook time for this route is twelve to fourteen hours up and five down.

The next morning started uneventfully. We moved well up the ridge making good progress. I wasn't firing on all cylinders for some reason, I'm not sure why. I wasn't struggling with the climbing I just wasn't moving that fast. Nevertheless we were making good progress up the route. At around two in the afternoon we reached the top of Point Ottoz. There was only one more tower to overcome before easy scrambling to reach the summit. At this point it started to rain lightly. We took stock in my bothy bag and weighed up the options. Rap off - not really possible with only a single rope, five wires and five cams. Descend the way we came - also not really an option and would probably take at least as long as it did in ascent. Get rescued - No real reason too, plus our only phone was out of battery. We decided our best option was to continue climbing up and over. We kept climbing in the drizzle. Slower now due to mixture of wet rock and fatigue. 

At four pm the rain got heavier, making the climbing harder. We decided to call it a day and made a thirty metre rap down the east side of the ridge, luckily finding a small ledge we could both sit on. Wearing all our clothes (Not a lot: a thermal tee, fleece hoody, thin synthetic hoody, waterproof jacket, buff, thin gloves, thin trousers and no over trousers) we laid the rope out on the ledge and got inside the bothy bag. The rain intensified. Inside our orange world it was humid but at least we were able to stay warm. I pulled on my thin gloves and cursed myself for leaving the Buffalo Mitts - they weigh nothing. My hands were warm enough in the gloves but the gloves were already soggy. I knew in the Buffalos they'd have been warm and dry. I wrapped my arms around Matt and tried to steal his warmth. Every so often we forlornly tried to revive the phone to no avail. 

We presumed that in the valley my wife, having seen the bad weather come in, would have arranged rescue. We half expect a helicopter to arrive that evening. Darkness came and nothing. Inside our bag time ticked away slowly. I held Matt tighter, thinking weak thoughts. What would we do if dawn came and the weather didn't clear? How long could we sit out a storm on this ledge before succumbing to hypothermia? Why wasn't I in the valley with Nikki enjoying our two weeks off? The rain continued to hammer down. Our legs were both cramping up really badly. To relieve this we got out of the bag to stretch. Freezing cold quickly engulfed us and we began to shiver uncontrollably. It was at this point I realized the seriousness of our position. Without the bothy bag we'd be dead. Quickly we got back in and tried our hardest to get warm again. The clock ticked slowly on.

At some point before dawn the weather seemed to calm. I stood up again to stretch out my cramping legs once more. The cloud had lifted and we could see the lights of Courmayeur below us. It looked like we'd got away with it. Shivering uncontrollably again we got back in the bag. No matter the helicopter will come and pluck us off in a few hours. 

Dawn came. It was still cold so we stayed in the bag, ears pricked. We heard the slightest whir of a chopper and I leapt out arms in the Y shape. The rain that had been falling all night was actually two inches of snow. The helicopter was far away in the distance and didn't appear to be coming closer. We got back in the bag and shivered some more. Eventually the sun came round and started warm us. By this point we'd figured that no chopper was coming and we'd have to sort our own mess. The rock had started to dry and wasn't too cold. We carried on upwards, kicking the occasional step in the frozen snow with our rock boots and doing our best to avoid verglas. At eleven thirty we reached the summit of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. The descent was long and tedious with lots of down climbing and short abseils. It took us seven hours and cost us all of tat and most of our slings, not that we cared. We got back to the valley to find my very relieved wife at eight that evening. I was pleased that we'd been able to get ourselves down, safely and hadn't resorted to needlessly calling a helicopter. Self reliance is an essential part of mountaineering. 

Matt looking relaxed outside the hut the night before. At this point we still thought it was going to be easy.

South Ridge of the Noire.

Matt low down on the ridge. All going to plan.

Higher up. It's still going to plan. 
The rain has started. Less than ideal.

Our home for the night. Cold.

The snow has stopped. The lights of Courmayeur below. 

Not a happy Burdekin. 
Soldiering on the next morning. 

Smiles on the summit.

Post route gear splurge. The bothy bag is the orange thing, this size of a chalk bag, in the centre. It saved our bacon and I won't be going into the hills again without one.