Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Swiss Route, Les Courtes

An Alpine retrospective.

There are times when you realise that some things just aren't for you. So it was with big Himalayan trips. In 1986 eight of us went to Gasherbrum IV to attempt the second ascent (Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri made the first ascent in 1958). The west face "The Shining Wall" had been climbed in one a fantastic ascent by Robert Schauer and Woyteck Kurtyka though they were so far out on a limb that they didn't traverse the 200m or so of the summit ridge to the true summit, preferring instead to turn left and head to safety. This is probably the pre-eminent super-alpine climb of the 1980s.

The Himalaya are a big step up from the Alps, even the big stuff like the Eiger or the Jorasses, and the amount of climbing done ended up being very little in comparison to the time spent doing everything else. Of course the fact that we didn't summit meant that we were downhearted - Greg Child and Tim McArtney-Snape made the second ascent of GIV that season by the ridge that Kurtyka and Schauer used as descent - but even so, it didn't feel like an aspect of the sport I wished to continue.

I'm sitting on the Mer de Glace crying and screaming with pain. I've been skiing down from the Vallee Blanche after climbing one of the couloirs on Mt Blanc du Tacul and just hit a pressure ridge in the glacier, done a backwards somersault and landed on my thumb. For the second time. Over the next few days my hand swells ominously but isn't too painful.

I'm looking for an objective to solo, it needs to be big but not too big. My first thoughts are to the Nant Blanc face of Le Verte but Phil Thornhill reckons that the face is almost never in good condition for its entire length - there'll always be one section that is very tenuous - and suggests the Swiss Route on the north face of Les Courtes as an alternative. Sounds good to me.

A couple of days later I'm at the Grands Montets telepherique ready for the first cabin of the day. There's a good forecast for the next three days. My plan is to take an easy day getting over to the Argentiere hut, spend the night there; climb the route the following day and down to the Couvercle hut then down to the valley the following morning. So food for a couple of days and a minimal set of kit to abseil with - 60 metres of 6mm cord and a few old wires. If you are obviously a climber then the telepherique staff take no notice of you but skiers tend to get shepherded around "for their own safety" so no-one says anything as I head out of the top station and drop down in to the back country.

The snow on the glacier is firm and I'm making good time so I change plans and head directly to the route. There are a couple of teams considering setting off on the route so rather than get stuck behind them I head to the rimaye (bergschrund) and get going. Getting established on the face proves to be trickier than expected and requires plunging my axes and arms deep in to the soft overhanging snow of the far side of the gap, quite exciting with a large dark bergschrund gaping beneath you.

Whether I'd destroyed the placements on getting on to the face or the other teams decided on something else, I don't know, but I didn't see anyone again whilst I was on the face. The route was in excellent condition with near perfect neve ice for much of the route. The crux was a narrowing of the ice and slightly steeper but not too hard and soon I was on the upper ice field. The ice on this began to change: getting harder and more brittle. By the time I reached the final 100m arete leading to the summit ridge it was bullet hard winter ice taking several swings of the axe to get a placement. I get to the summit after just 5 hours.

I've never been here before and the summit ridge is a bit confusing so rather than drop down to the south face I decide to descend the NE slope. This is slightly risky in that it's known to be avalanche prone but it's also been skied! The deciding factors are the encroaching darkness and the turning weather. The slope is quite deep snow so I keep to the side rocks in case it all begins to slide. As I get lower I get braver and take bigger and bigger strides, by the foot of the face I'm almost running and simply leap over the bergschrund to land in soft snow. It's now dark; I'm near the head of a snow covered, crevassed glacier and I'm on my own. Oops!

I've no real option but to begin to head back down so after a brew and something to eat I set off. The next three hours are highly worrying but eventually I come across the upper edge of the Grand Montets ski runs that drop down this side and I can relax. Another hour of plodding down the slopes and I re-enter the apartment just 13 hours after leaving that morning. The following day a storm hits the range.

When I get home an X-ray shows that I've broken the thumb on my left hand, the consultant reckons my tendons were stronger than the bone and pulled it apart! "You're lucky" he says "You don't want to tear soft tissue. This will be right in a month not six".

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