Frendo-Ravanel, Part 2

Picking up from the first instalment of soloing the Frendo-Ravanel

My right foot popped off without warning, transferring all my weight to my left axe as I pivoted, pencil-on-end-like, above the points of my left crampon. The axe ripped. I was off!

The air left my lungs involuntarily, sounding the alarm as it passed my vocal chords, its pitch raised. The sound of total, all-embracing, fear. In all my years of climbing, I’ve never really found myself in mortal danger. I’ve been scared, of course, but I’d always had options. Now I had none. I was falling to what would presumably be a painful bouncing journey to the glacier three hundred metres below, the snowfield too steep to stop me even if I survived the initial drop. A switch flicked in my brain, my senses going into overdrive, my mind processing all available information in an instant as it tried to keep me alive. But this wasn’t a mental challenge that could be overcome with heightened awareness, this was basic physics. Gravity would pull my heavy torso backwards over my left foot, and accelerate me downwards.


Unless my axe found a new purchase to regain some momentary equilibrium. Eyes wide, I watched it move down, the point of its pick and my only salvation hidden beneath the snow covered ice. Six inches down, it stopped. I was still on. My left arm locked into its new-found position, as my right brought my other axe up and swung it into the placement my eyes had already selected and focussed on. It was good. I froze in my new position, conscious thought slowly re-entering my head, checking that I was indeed still there, still on, still alive. I swore out loud to no one. It seemed appropriate. I kicked my right foot back in, adjusting my left for better balance, and quickly processed the few remaining moves.

Easy ground. I moved up and traversed across a bit, not wanting to get hit by any more spindrift, even though it didn’t really matter anymore. I shook out the hood of my jacket, and swept the back of my neck clear as best I could. I chomped on an Alpen bar, and washed it down with some jelly beans. Looking across to the other side of the valley, I could see the Chardonnet and Aiguille d’Argentiere. Somehow they seemed bigger, even though it looked like I was now level with the col between them. Looking to the head of the valley, Mont Dolent stood with its pyramidal summit proud, bathed in sunlight. I wanted some sun now. I wanted to be back on the glacier, packing up in the warm sun prior to an easy ski down. But I wasn’t allowed yet. I’d put myself in this position for reasons I couldn’t explain. Now I had to find my way down. I figured that the worst was over, that there was no way I could come as close as I just had, but knew that I had to stay focussed. I could see the rocky buttress of Pointe Farrar above, and the col between it and the Aiguille Carrée to its left. That indicated my way off. Another couple of hundred metres of what looked like an enjoyable snowfield and I would find my descent route. I should have felt good. Relieved. Maybe even pleased I’d held it together to get through the hard climbing. I didn’t. I just felt stupid for making a bad decision in the first place and pushing it too far.

As I made my way up, I became acutely aware of the condition of the snowpack. The warmer temperatures of the last couple of days had not reached this high up the face, allowing much needed consolidation. With each step I kicked into the sugary meringue, I could feel the vibrations radiate around me. It didn’t sound any better than it felt. I changed tactics, and resorted to scraping out footholds rather than kicking, not wanting to load the slope anymore than I had to. Each foot carefully scraped and compacted the snow beneath it until I thought it would accept me standing up on it. I plunged the shafts of my axes ahead of me, trying to spread my weight, but there was little purchase, and my feet slipped down with each step.

Didn’t I know it would be like this? Hadn’t I seen the wind blowing snow across the face the day before, and registered the pockets of windslab as I’d walked up the glacier and started up the route? Why had I made [so many] bad decisions? Not by mistake, but knowingly? Why had I continued at all of those points of retreat? I felt ashamed. The fear I had experienced, that I was continuing to experience, told me I didn’t want to die. But it wasn’t about me. How would my friends, my family, feel if I had fallen off, if I fell off now? What would they think of me? There were too many questions for now. All I wanted now was to be off this route and back on the glacier.

I thought of recent news reports of climbers killed in avalanches in Scotland. I remembered how coldly I had thought about these “tragedies”. Avalanches don’t just happen. People get themselves into positions that trigger them. It was their own fault. Now I had done the same through poor judgement and a desire to prove something to someone that I didn’t understand. I felt sick. Sick of my self-inflicted predicament, and sick of my judging of others.

I was losing it. The near miss at the crux had come and gone, but the fear it injected still coursed through me, not dissipating enough to allow clear thought. I was panicked, but couldn’t run. I wanted to be descending the couloir over to my left, but knew I had to ascend to reach it safely. Another bad decision. I moved left early, wanting to see over a vague ridgeline, perhaps needing to see my way out of this to believe it was possible. But the snow was worse, and now reduced in depth until my feet were trying to compact hidden granite slabs rather than snow. I thought I had done enough. I wanted to believe I deserved an easy way out. But I knew I didn’t, the mountain not taking kindly to my lack of respect.

Steep snow slope approach to the Frendo-RavanelYou can just make out our skis waiting for our return way below...
Steep snow slope approach to the Frendo-Ravanel
You can just make out our skis waiting for our return way below…

Ascending the ridgeline, hands and feet clutching at islands of granite safety, I entered the final snowfield and saw the ribbon of white leading left and down. The col was perhaps a hundred metres above me now, marking the end of the route proper, but I wasn’t interested. I began the laborious crawl down and left, reminding myself that caution was the priority over speed. With each step down, I counted, the numbers sometimes tumbling into random order until I realised and started again. With each look down, the couloir ran on, reinventing itself with each section descended. A reverse treadmill. I was so thirsty, but my desire to be back on the glacier, to know I was safe, took precedence. Switching off to the monotony, the ground below me steepened and turned to ice, whilst the couloir continued to my left. I was angry with myself. Another mistake. Now resigned to my short-comings, the argument was brief. More unnecessary risk, a delicate mixed traverse, and I’d regained my treadmill.

Frendo-Ravanel, Part 1

Back in 2011 Laetitia and I climbed the Frendo-Ravanel on Aiguille Carrée. This season Jon’s been to have a look. However, he didn’t take a camera so I’ve inserted a few shots from our ascent. Oh, and it’s a great tale, so I’ve serialised it, watch out for part 2 soon…

Pete [Ed.]

My alarm chirped into life, sounding every bit as pleased with itself as it usually did. It was 4am. I shuffled in my sleeping bag to free an arm to silence it and fumbled for my head torch. Priming the stove to start melting snow, I traced out the lines of crystals in the ceiling of my snow hole, pristine yesterday, now blackened by the soot from the petrol stove. Breakfast would be a slow affair, waiting for the three cups of tea I had decided I was allowed and the litre of water I would take for the day. Flapjack was forced down, the knowledge that it was less faff than cooking porridge not making it any more palatable. It was fuel, nothing more. What was I doing here?

I’d been in the Alps for a week now, having achieved nothing of note. It had been cold, even for the Alps in winter. I’d only spent one other night in the mountains so far, and had been worried about frostbite. Fingers were easy to manage, but if you put boots on that are minus twenty-something, they suck the warmth out of your feet with alarming efficiency. I’d got away with a little frostnip, even though all I was doing was bailing back to the valley. I‘d not even made it to the Argentière glacier proper, having taken too much kit, and therefore having too much weight. The kiddie sledge and plastic plumbing pipe I had fashioned into a pulk before coming out here had worked well, as I skinned up the pistes towing most of my kit behind me, but it didn’t make it lighter on anything other than flat terrain, and I hadn’t come across any of that yet. My genius idea of a solo winter Alps trip without using any cable cars wasn’t feeling quite so clever now. Reality had joined the party.

Having spent a couple of days kicking about in the van, and checking my big toe wasn’t going black, I’d come up with what I thought would be a sensible and achievable second attempt. The weather was set fair, and it had even warmed up a bit, but that was relative. Flicking through the guidebook, I’d found a couple of route options that didn’t require dragging the kit too much further than I had previously. One was a straightforward snowslope, getting me to around 3600m via a five hundred metre couloir. This seemed achievable from the 2600m location I planned to snow hole at, if a little dull. Next to this route, was another line, made up of steep icy gully systems. The guidebook description made it sound hard, and the grade given seemed to confirm this, but it looked so Scottish. It looked easy. With the adjacent route to descend, I could leave the rope and gear behind, easing the slog back up from the valley. The plan was formed. Now I was drinking tea before setting out into the early morning darkness.

The Frendo-Ravanel, route is reasonably easy to start.
The Frendo-Ravanel, route is reasonably easy to start.

The Frendo-Ravanel was only ever an option. One route next to another. As I made my way up the Glacier des Rognons to the base of the routes, my feet were once again worryingly cold. The thin crust I was walking on was teasing me. It would pretend to take my weight, before collapsing my feet into the super-cold powder snow it was insulating. The approach was steep, the snow conditions hard work, and I felt tired already. I wanted to turn back. Back to the snow hole to wait for the sun to come around, then hightail it back to the valley warmth. But I didn’t. I bailed last time, so I couldn’t bail again. Each time I wanted to stop, I fooled myself into carrying on. I told myself I would just go as far as the top of the glacier, and then I could go down. At the top of the glacier, I would just go across to the base of the routes, for a quick look. Then I would just have a look at the bergschrund. Each small target was met, and simply replaced with another. I wonder why I kept falling for it?

I stood at the bergschrund, shaking my feet and wiggling my toes to try to get some warm blood moving through them. It didn’t feel like it was helping, but it was all I could do, so I carried on. The sun was up now, creeping slowly skyward behind Mont Dolent, but a thin veil of high cloud removed all warmth, allowing only light to penetrate. I reached into my rucksack and pulled out my belay jacket. This was supposed to be an extra layer for if things went wrong. Now I was wearing it to start. Swinging my arms as if a member of some extreme sun-worshipping cult, I felt the warmth inside me slowly find its way to my extremites. I stamped about a bit to try to get my toes to join the new religion, but they were too cold to care about some new-wave fad, and resisted the idea with half-hearted numbness. At least I knew they were still there.

I could see a reasonable way across the bergschrund, avoiding the biggest drops. A slight narrowing gave the possibility of an exposed step across without having to rely too heavily on the sugary snow, it’s strength unknown. I gathered my axes, and shuffled across. Was I still just having a look, or did the energy I had expended to get to this point mean I wanted some payback, a completed route? I had told too many people about this trip, and struggled to justify to them why I wanted to go alone and do things the hard way. What would they think if I didn’t get anything done? I knew it shouldn’t matter, but somehow it did. I hadn’t made a conscious decision on the route yet, but I didn’t need to. The choice was already made.

I moved up the snow slope above the bergschrund, stopping occasionally for another fruitless toe-wiggling session. At least my hands were warm. Gaining the base of a chimney, I stopped and considered the way ahead. It looked straightforward to gain the snowfield below the crux pitches, the ice in the chimney looking dense and secure, and at a moderate angle. I climbed smoothly and methodically, enjoying the feeling of climbing movement in place of uphill slogging. The angle steepened, but this was my sort of thing, and, absorbed, the route sucked me upwards. The top of the chimney steepened further, and I became aware of the need for balance. I had forgotten where I was and what I was doing. I was climbing on automatic, thinking only of the next few moves.

Above the chimney, I recalled the guidebook description in my head. The way was obvious, but I thought of the next three sections starkly described as seventy-five , eighty-five and ninety degrees. Ninety degrees. That’s properly steep for ice. Way too steep to solo. I knew this now, just as I did back in the valley. And yet here I was. At least it didn’t look that steep, I thought, knowing that ice never looks as steep as it is. And it was only for a few metres.

Tackling the first steep step, a thin ice-covered wall, my pace slowed. The fluidity of movement I had felt in the chimney began to make way for considered precision, as careless axe swings were bounced back by the underlying granite. This was getting technical, and I was enjoying it. The angle required care, but the ice was sound and I felt confident in my ability. Foot placements were selected and gained with assurance, each pick placement chosen to maximise balance. The top of the wall steepened. It was getting harder to see my feet, without leaning out further than I felt comfortable. The security of my crampon placements began to suffer, as I relied more heavily on my axes, each point no more than an inch or two in the ice. I reached another in-situ belay, rigged in preparation for a quick abseil descent by the local guides. It was of no use to me, serving only to ask again why I didn’t have a rope with me.

There was one simple rule I’d set myself prior to coming out to Chamonix. I wouldn’t climb past anything I didn’t think I could down-climb. I’d just broken that rule. If I had to, maybe I could, but that was a scary idea, and just made the ground above look easier. I may have been fooling myself, like I had on the approach, breaking up the route into small sections just to keep myself moving forward, but this wasn’t an approach anymore. Now there were consequences. Consequences greater than turning back and feeling… Feeling what? Lazy? That I’d let myself down? Rubbish about myself that I always take the easy way out? None of that made sense on the approach, and it made even less sense now. Now I was committed, and the consequences had ramped up accordingly.

The crux was above me now. Fifteen metres of eighty-five degree ice, a few feet wide and hemmed in by smooth granite walls. A brief sanctuary above this led to the final vertical seam, the ice narrowing to only a few inches wide at the top. Beyond this, uncertainty, the ground now hidden by the steepness. What if there was no more ice? What if the “relatively barren” exit described in the guidebook meant there was nothing? I had no way of knowing, and no choice but to find out. I told myself it didn’t look too bad, but then there was nothing to be gained by thinking otherwise. I set off.

Time slowed to an irrelevance. The ice immediately in front of me my only focus, as it was scrutinised for any slight depression that might offer a good pick placement without fracturing the thin, brittle ice. My feet were blind, making do with whatever they could find as I concentrated on maintaining at least one sound axe. The satisfying burly swings of the lower sections now replaced by gentle taps and precise hooks, I fought to stay in balance, each placement carefully loaded to gain trust, before removing its counterpart. Maybe it was quite steep after all? I looked down at the snowfield thirty metres below me, disappearing down the icy chimney to the glacier beyond. I wondered if it would catch me.

The wind had started playing with the upper snowfield, sending occasional dumps of spindrift down the route. On the more open sections lower down, this had been only a minor irritation. Now it was a major hazard. It was pouring down the cuffs of my jacket, and down the back of my neck. I lent my head back to stem the flow, but it filled up my front instead. My face stung with the cold. I needed to move, but was blind. A sideways escape out of the main flow might at least help, but in the confines of the top of the gully, there was only one place I could be, and that was the focal point.

It starts to get a fair bit thinner, steeper, and harder!  Every pitch is tougher than the last in fact.  This shot is on the first crux pitch.  The next pitch was desperate - virtually no ice, and super thin rock moves!
It starts to get a fair bit thinner, steeper, and harder! Every pitch is tougher than the last in fact. This shot is on the first crux pitch. The next pitch was desperate – virtually no ice, and super thin rock moves!

Below the final few metres, I scrutinised a thin line of snow-ice between the granite wall and the narrow pillar of ice. This would be softer, allowing some height to be gained on relatively deep placements, before having to commit to the swing around on to the pillar itself. I was scared now, but in a good way. Alert. All thought calmly concentrated on the task at hand. Although sometimes disappointingly small, the placements so far had all been reassuringly solid. The last few would be too. There was even a small edge on the right wall that might come in useful. I crept up the side of the pillar. Moving my hands up each axe to maximise my reach, and maintain the security of the known placement for as long as possible, I aimed for a good looking hook, prior to committing to the pillar itself.

My right foot popped off without warning, transferring all my weight to my left axe as I pivoted, pencil-on-end-like, above the points of my left crampon. The axe ripped. I was off!

Watch out for the next instalment…