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A cold, cold night – Part II, the Bivy and the Descent

This is the second of a two parts story on our ill fated climb of the Swiss route on Les Courtes. If you haven’t read it already, here is part I, the Ascent.

There is also a high-res photo of les courtes, with our ascent and descent routes marked.

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We took stock of our situation. There was a sloping shelf of ice, maybe 2m wide and 5m long, with a ceiling barely a meter above our heads, and a tiny, awkward cave in the back. Higher, another cave, more sheltered but also more icy and slanted. We weren’t quite out of the winds, which were still blowing hard, but the caves still offered a decent amount of shelter. We’d survive.

Taking the backpack and the damn skis off, for the first time in the day, was a relief. We built a solid anchor and explored our surroundings a bit, in no hurry to try and go to sleep, knowing the night would be terribly long. We had drunk almost nothing all day and were thoroughly dehydrated, but we found out our water bottles, as everything else, were frozen solid. I couldn’t even unscrew the top of mine. Hoping to thaw enough for a few drops, I put my bottle beneath several layers of down, close to my body. I forced myself to eat the only sandwich I had taken, frozen ham and frozen cheese in frozen bread. Yummy.

We emptied the backpacks and used all we could, ropes, gear and bags to try and insulate the freezing ground. Finally, there was nothing left to do but to crawl in and settle for the night. To say the cave was uncomfortable wouldn’t begin to describe it. There was barely enough room for one, let alone two. It was severely sloping, threatening to eject us if we didn’t push back with our feet on the icy slope. There were a couple of large rocks we hadn’t managed to dislodge, which stood in the way and buried themselves in our hips or ribs. Whoever was on the right side had to keep his head turned 90º to avoid a large boulder at the back. Finally, we couldn’t go very deep and only the upper part of the body was sheltered from the wind, with anything from the waist or the knees down (depending on the degree of sliding out) still out in the cold.

Sharing body heat was an absolute necessity, and a necessary byproduct of our contorted positions anyway. We slept surprisingly much, usually in micro-nap sequences, probably no more than 15 minutes at a time. One thing we were both very careful to do: never, ever look at the watch, as seeing how early it still was every time we woke up would have crushed our spirits. We swapped positions and spooning order often, trying desperately to find something which would be both warm and comfortable.

The night was long, painful and cold. Very, very cold. My feet especially were of much concern, though after a while, I stopped feeling the cold. I mistakenly took it to mean that I had regained some warmth, but now know it to be the onset of frostbite. My fingers, while not particularly cold, never warmed up over a certain threshold. After a while, the wind started dying a little bit, while at the same time air temperature dropped. We were both relieved to see no storm clouds moving in, as we probably couldn’t have survived being pinned down for another night.

Finally, around 5am, we couldn’t take it anymore and had to start moving. Getting up and out of the (very) relative warmth of the cave was an ordeal, but we didn’t have much choice – we had to get down. At this stage, we were quite unsure where exactly we stood, and where the normal descent was. We knew the last section before the cave was a snow slope of more or less the right angle to be the NE face. I was afraid it would be the Austrian route (it turned out to be), but Oli thought it was quite skiable. We decided to make an abseil down to a small ridge we had seen on the way up, and, hopefully with more light, we would decide whether to keep traversing or to head down.

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The first ab went fine, and the slope looked decent for a ski down, if quite icy. I belayed Oli for a pitch of downclimbing up to the ridge, which confirmed that traversing was not an option, and we awkwardly put the skis on.

Now, I’m no extreme skier by any stretch of the imagination. My entire experience of steep skiing is a single descent of the 42º couloir de l’ENSA, a week earlier, in perfect snow. As I looked down, suddenly, the slope seemed a lot steeper (later to be confirmed at about 55º). The snow was also awful, either windblown and full of sastrugi or giant sheets of ice. Oli, much more used to this sort of thing, went first, and traversed the whole slope, across big patches of ice, to reach an area of better snow, where he started carefully sliding down. He called that it was very steep but ok. Terrified, I started following. Halfway across the traverse, I felt my edges start to loose their grip. My bottom ski slid a few centimeters down. I stopped breathing. I had kept my ice axe, but I doubted I could arrest on this slope. The top ski held. I shifted my weight carefully and reached a section of deeper snow, starting to follow Oli. It was somewhat easier to control the descent, but still scary as shit. One thing was clear: mistakes would not be forgiven.

After barely a hundred meters, the section of good snow ended, and the slope steepened a bit. It was painfully clear we weren’t going to ski down anytime soon. I stopped a short way above Oli, threw a sling around a poor boulder and awkwardly converted back to climb mode: skis off (don’t drop them), poles off (don’t drop them), pack down (don’t drop it), tools out (don’t drop them), rack out (don’t drop it), crampons out (don’t drop them), skis on the pack, poles in the bag, rack around the shoulder, crampons on the feet. All the while not really daring to weigh my “anchor”, half suspecting the sling would slip right out if I tried.

I down soloed to Oli and we agreed our best option was to start abseiling down, and that the slope on our left (climber’s right) would offer more rocks and sling anchors. Oli had brought 15 meters of tat we could easily cut up for solid belays. We quickly had this to a science: Oli would abseil first, getting as low as he could, then find a solid anchor, I’d remove the backup on the top belay, try not to think too much I was abseiling on a single piece, then come down quickly while Oli pre-threaded the ropes. As soon as I would be down, it would just be a matter of pulling the ropes and repeating the procedure. Dropping our only knife early on didn’t help, but I became an expert at sawing off the 6mil cord with my ice tools. We ran out of tat about halfway up the face and started using slings and prusik loops, or in some rare cases, in situ anchors.

It quickly became obvious we were just abseiling to the side of our ascent route. We had seen a few fixed abseil stations on the way up, mostly on the lower third, but couldn’t find most of them again. The wind had mostly died, thankfully, and temperatures weren’t too cold, but our new problem was spindrift: the crux gully acted as a giant funnel and we would get snow showers almost constantly, sometimes lasting several minutes.

It took us almost the whole day to negotiate the 15 or so abseils up to where the rocks – and the anchors – ended. Miraculously, despite the low angle rocky terrain, we didn’t get a single stuck rope. The last anchor, a sling around a large boulder, was especially poor, and probably the scariest thing I’ve ever abseiled off. The bergschrund was visible, perhaps a hundred meters below us. Without a word, Oli unroped at the end of the abseil and started downclimbing. I quickly followed suit, trailing the ropes below me. The angle was easy enough, and the consistency mostly hard snow, with a few patches of ice. After a while, I looked down and saw Oli on the lower slopes, below the schrund. He had made it.

As I reached the top of the crevasse, however, I realized what he had done: he threw his pack over and downsoloed the bergschrund at a point where it was particularly large. Following Oli’s advice, I traversed back to our original ascent route, which included a long section of near vertical soft snow, just above a hole that looked quite bottomless. I buried my arms up to the elbow before carefully moving across. Finally, I only had one hard bit left: downclimbing the bergschrund. I committed to it, climbing a lot more gracefully than just 36 hours earlier, trusting poor axe placements and putting all my weight on my feet.

I was down. Fina-fuckingly. I let out a big whoop, and then near collapsed. My body, out of immediate danger, relaxed and all the terror and exhaustion of the past two days came rushing. It was like hitting a brick wall. To make things better, the ropes, which I was still trailing, had become stuck in the traverse and were tangled in the bergschrund. Pulling on them would be of no use, as they would just dig deeper through the soft snow. In the end, it took me almost an hour to get them out and coil them away. As I skied out, I realized that Oli wasn’t waiting around the corner as I believed, and had in fact left a long time ago, probably another sign I wasn’t quite thinking straight anymore. I skied down gratefully, even putting some turns in on the hard windswept snow.

By the time I reached the base of the hut, I was desperate – it would be another 20 or 30 minutes of skinning back up to get my stuff, and night was falling already. As I reluctantly stopped to put my skins on, Oli appeared, having skied down – he had had time to get up, gather all his kit and come back down while I was dealing with the ropes! Unfortunately, he couldn’t take my stuff as well, so I would have to come back the next day. Easy decision.

The night fell quickly, but I was familiar with the easy descent on good tracks, first across some crevasses on the glacier, then back to Lognan and down Pierre à Ric, the Grands Montets homerun.

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Of course, the story doesn’t end there. When I got back home and stepped into the shower, I had no feelings in the toes. Much to my dismay, they turned grey/black in the warm water. My fingers looked better but had similarly lost feeling. I visited the emergency room the next day, and frostbite was confirmed. One of the toes looked like it may have been damaged more than the others and was a bit worrying, but it revascularized the next day. There won’t be any long term damage, but it was quite a close call. Oli escaped with frostnip.

Oh, and my stuff is still in the Argentière hut, if somebody feels like taking a trip up there…

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A cold, cold night – Part I, the ascent

This is the first of a two parts story on our ill fated climb of the Swiss route on Les Courtes.

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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.

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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.

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