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.
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.