A cold, cold night - Part I, the ascent
17 January 2012
This is the first of a two parts story on our ill fated climb of the Swiss route on Les Courtes.
It was supposed to be a warmup climb, but there was nothing warm about it. I had met skier extraordinaire Oli Lyon through a common friend, and we had agreed to go climb something big and icy, since the conditions were at last favorable for winter climbing. Though we initially eyed the Fil à Plomb, a popular route on the north face of Rognon du Plan, logistics were a bit complicated, especially with Aiguille du Midi shut down for two days for maintenance. We switched our sights to one of the easiest routes on the mighty north faces of the Argentière basin: the Swiss on Les Courtes (very inaccurately, this translates to "the Short Ones"), 800 vertical meters of snow and ice up to 75º and a significant summit. A perfect objective.
We skied down from Grands Montets onto the Argentière glacier, heavily laden with all our climbing equipment, food and sleeping bags. A quick skin up the glacier led to the spacious Argentière hut, where I had stayed with David two weeks earlier (then intending to do Petit Viking or Aiguille d'Argentière via the Glacier du Milieu, both of which turning out to be in bad conditions). Despite a pretty good weather forecast, we had the hut to ourselves. A fire was soon going, and after a generous dinner, we went to bed in the early evening, intent on an early start.
Initially, we were right on schedule: alarm at 3:30, leave the hut at 4:30, a short ski down to the glacier, skins on, cross it and start heading up to the bergschrund, about 300m higher. At this early hour, the snow was very hard and the angle steeper than I realized, which made the skin up quite interesting, at the very edge of the friction that could hold on to the slope. We reached the bergschrund and racked up, Oli getting the first pitch. Crossing the shrund turned out to be quite hard, despite the existence of solid-ish looking snow bridges. He finally committed to one and found himself climbing a vertical to slightly overhanging wall of unconsolidated snow. My turn soon followed, a somewhat scary experience with the dark crevasse below waiting to gobble the climber who made a mistake.
For speed, we mostly simulclimbed, both of us moving at the same time with some protection in between. By the time I reached the base of the ice, Oli had disappeared in the darkness above, climbing a weird and steep tunnel between rock and ice. As the rope came taut, I followed, initially without much confidence. The climbing was harder than expected, skis on my back were getting caught on rocks or catching my tools, and the ice wasn't of the greatest quality, often shattering in huge dinner plates. The tunnel ended and we got established on a low angle slab of thin ice. Keep the weight on the feet. Swing. Move up. Swing. Move up. Swing. Swing. Move up.
Soon, it was my turn to lead. The ice had turned to neve, perfect hard snow which would hold tools and crampons on first swing, with no effort. Only downside: it offered no protection, no gear to catch us in case of a fall. I used all of our meager rock rack on the small outcrops and kept going until all the gear had been exhausted. Oli joined me and with his pitch, took us to the base of the crux pitch, a 75º narrow gully, full of ice. I cowardly tried to give him the pitch, but it would have made a mess of the ropes. Time to sack up.
The pitch was beautiful, first on neve then thinner and thinner ice. I placed screws regularly but they never looked very good. Conscious that a fall could mean ripping all the gear to the belay, I carefully climbed upward, using only bomber tool placements and being very careful to keep the weight entirely on my feet. As I started to despair of finding any gear for a belay before the full 50m of the rope would be used up, I finally spotted a couple of fixed pitons on the right side. With a sigh of relief, I belayed Oli up.
As he followed the pitch, I looked at my watch. 11:30. Not good. Not good at all. We had hoped to climb the route in 5 or 6 hours, topping out around noon, but it had taken us all that time just to reach the end of the crux, only a third up the route. Abseiling off would be very time consuming, and I feared we might get totally committed if we climbed any higher. When Oli arrived, I shared my concerns with him. Though he was surprised at the already late hour, he thought things would be ok - he believed we were higher than a third up, and with only easy ground above us, things should go quickly. He negotiated climbing the next pitch to take a look at what lay above and I relented. As always in this kind of situation, when it becomes tempting to bail, it's difficult to assess whether the reasons to go down are genuine, or if it's simply your mind playing tricks on you, out of fear or cold. Deciding to keep going was the turning point of the climb, and the only major mistake we made. But it was enough.
Oli quickly led the next pitch and got us out of the steep gully. Above us, an easy snow and ice slope, maybe 55º on average, going on for a couple hundred meters. It was hard to see above it, and we hoped it might be the summit itself. I started up and led a long pitch of simulclimbing, unfortunately taking a long time to find any worthwhile gear to keep two or three pieces between us. I am now convinced we should have unroped for this section, simply to save time on the easy ground. Oli took over for a short pitch, then more simulclimbing. We reached the top of the slope, only to see another identical one above us. And then another one. It just kept going on and on.
Somehow, the afternoon had been spent. We had less than an hour of daylight left, thought we were close to the summit but still hadn't seen it. For a couple of hours now, the wind had picked up and was now blowing hard. Stopping to belay meant cooling down alarmingly fast, near instant hot aches and intense shivering. I examined our options, and they weren't good: it would take all night to abseil off (if we could find anchors in the dark). Any descent, either on skis or downclimbing, would have to happen in the dark, and we didn't know where the NE face was. Our last option, a bivy without any gear, would be at best extremely uncomfortable, at worst deadly with such winds. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, I tried to call the PGHM for a helicopter rescue. My cell had had no reception down on the glacier, but I was hoping that higher on the face, things would get better. It showed a couple of bars of network and "Emergency calls only", but none of my calls managed to get through.
I joined Oli at the next belay for a quick pow-wow. He thought bivying was the best option, but I couldn't even see where to do it, as the snow was way too hard to dig a snow shelter. Thinking we were right next to the summit, we decided to traverse left in an attempt to join up with the top of the NE face. Night fell quickly, gear became even harder to find and the cold nearly unbearable if we weren't moving. Finally, after a couple of pitches and a snow ridge, Oli called up. He had found a bit of shelter under a giant boulder. At this stage, the prospect of stopping and perhaps even gaining a bit of warmth was all I wanted, and exhausted, I agreed right away to bivy.
You can now read Part II.