Once upon a time two young, sun seeking, rock climbers were offered the chance to start a true mountaineering apprenticeship. A week in Les Alps, being led up gnarly ice climbs by Dr Tony Walker was their opportunity to become ‘ard core. This is the story of that trip.
On the 16th of February my Punto crawled into Cromford, the luggage was thrown into the much more spacious and comfortable Focus estate. All aboard (Big Rachel, Little Rachel, Tony, Stuart and I) we headed for Hull. The crossing from Hull to Zeebrugge is much more comfortable and relaxing than the Dover-Calais route. Less driving and more sleep allows the driver to mission it through France on the other side. Tony and Big Rachel did a sterling job and we pulled up outside Gite Belvedere in Argentiere, Chamonix just before dinner time. We rewarded ourselves for sitting down all day with some delicious pizza and went to bed feeling excited about the unknown challenges of ice climbing.
The set breakfast at the gite enforced a leisurely alpine start, which I wasn’t complaining about. Tony, Rachel and I set off at 8:30am on the short drive to the Col du Montets. The walk in looked short and the icefall looked enticingly close. Wading through waist deep powder was lung stretching, the large piles of avalanche debris to either side of made traversing a bit more exciting. Fully warmed up we swam up to the belay and dug out a ‘gearing up ledge’. No one had climbed the route in a while and the first low angled ice pitch was covered in a foot of soft snow. Tony set off and magicked his way up the snow making it look easy. I was thankful for the top rope as all four points of contact began to simultaneously slide before I had even reached Tony’s first piece of gear. As Rachel’s second time wielding spikey things she too found the steep snow perplexing but managed to laugh herself up to the belay. The view from the belay was awesome; blue skies, sun, snow and ski tracks. Tony set off on the amazing second pitch a steep ice pillar. Without any previous traffic the ice was hard and fresh pick placements had to be made. In hindsight, Colone de Montets (WI4+) was probably one of the hardest routes we did on the whole trip! Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Rachel and I both arrived at the top exhausted with jelly like forearms and numb fingers. One of the nice things about climbing in the Alps was the equipped abseil descents which sped things up a lot.
We ate lunch in the sun before bum sliding back down to the car. We drove down to Argentiere and slogged up the ski tracks to La Cremerie; the perfect area for beginners according to the guidebook. Tony again led us up an easy angled icefall about WI 3. Then we played about on a small icefall to practice placing screws and to test each other’s ice tools. The wind blew down from the Argentiere glacier, rapidly cooling us down, so we packed up and glissaded down the hard packed ski tracks into town.
The following day we packed up and headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel towards Congne and Lillaz, Italy. Rachel and I travelled with Frank, Tony’s mate from Glasgow, a gnarly mountain man who spends his winters in Chamonix showing the young upstarts how to be proper ‘ard. Tales of casually solo climbing and skiing Mont Blanc were mighty impressive. We arrived at Residence Les Nigritelles at midday and set off for a mass ascent of Lillaz Cascade. A classic 6 pitch WI 3+ 15 minutes walk from the hotel. It was sweltering in the sun with most people electing to de-layer and even leave behind hats. The first pitch looked pretty daunting, I had never seen so much ice and was pretty confused, failing to see the easiest way up it. To me it looked like a long sustained pitch with some steep sections and some sections of wafer thin ice above running water. With a more experienced eye Frank led our ropes up a line on the left hand side, short steps and big ledges by passed the thin ice and steep walls. Tony with strong arms and skill led up the steep thick ice to the right. The race was on between the two parties of 3.
A short walk along the frozen river brought us to pitch 2. A short step of thick ice in a dramatic position, which Rachel elected to take on as her first ice lead. The placements left by previous parties and sun-softened ice eased her progress and she cruised it. Another walk up the riverbed to the third pitch – my turn.
The ice here was thick but very soft, almost mushy which concerned me. Soft ice can be very good, it makes placements easier and boosts confidence, but this was almost slushy and the thought of my axes pulling through the mush was worrying. I set off up with lots of pre kicked steps helping me along. I was three quarters of the way up when I heard a loud boom and wondered where the avalanche was, a few seconds later I was clinging on to my axes, panicking and shaking as a large volume of water and ice poured over the top of my pitch and straight onto my head. I couldn’t work out if it was ice, snow or water that was hitting me and I didn’t want to look up to find out. The noise was crazy and although Rachel and Frank were only a few metres away I felt quite alone in my claustrophobic cylinder of freezing slush. I had read that there was a sluice gate at the top of the climb, which occasionally opens, dumping water on unsuspecting climbers. I thought that this had happened to me and I wasn’t sure how long it would last. I also worried that the water would melt the ice that my picks and ice screws were in resulting in my departure from the wall. Having had enough I quickly down climbed, with some weight on the rope, back to the belay where Rachel took this embarrassing video. (My hood is full of water and ice).
I got lowered down back into the sun where I met Tony, Big Rachel and Stuart. It took a while to decided what to do; amazingly the pile insulation of my Montane Extreme Smock was dry, despite my base layer being soaked! I removed the base layer and carried on up the remaining 4 pitches. I was very sad when the sun disappeared and my hands were very cold for the last 2 pitches, not surprising, as my gloves had become solid blocks of ice.
The next day Rachel, Tony, Frank and I set off to do Stella Artice WI 5. I was very excited to try out a pair of very fancy green! ice axes that I had acquired from the hotel. Apparently the hotel was sponsored by; Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Arc’teryx and Sterling Rope and it was possible to ‘test’ (read borrow) equipment for free! Tony and Rachel made quick work of the long easy first pitch and belayed behind the impressive freestanding pillar. Just before Frank set off 3 Italians started to abseil down. Frank and I waited for them to reach the bottom before Frank led up. Just as I began to second, a foreign climber started leading up next to me, he overtook and began climbing right above my head. I looked up at 24 sharpened spikes attached to 80kg of dumbass that was swinging around and knocking ice on my head. I hate that guy. Tony started up the amazing second pitch as I climbed the last few metres up to the belay. This was the highest graded climb so far but Tony raced up it, the bottom part of it was very wet but Tony made it through this quickly. Rachel seconded dragging two ropes behind her; this was so that Frank could second the pitch as well. Rachel sped up the pillar and gave Frank and I hope that it was easy. I was next, a balancey step around onto the exposed pillar took me through a curtain of drips, but nothing could be as bad as yesterday. Although steeper and longer than the WI 4+ on the first day the pillar was made up of many individual icicles that had joined to create one piece of ice, there were many places where two icicles had not joined fully, these provided perfect holes in which to hook an axe. The previous traffic had created small steps and with some searching, previous axe placements could be hooked. This saved a lot of energy as swinging and kicking was minimized. Obviously this formation with lots of holes and loops makes the task of finding good solid ice for ice screws a bit harder…………..luckily I wasn’t leading, so happy days! I reached the belay and shouted to Frank to start climbing, the rope to him was tight and didn’t move so we shouted some more. After a pause we got a very loud, very northern and very agitated reply of ‘take in this fucking rope’ a look of confusion and urgency spread across our faces. We assumed the rope must be stuck, Frank had started climbing and there must be a loop of rope below him making a, normally safe, top rope less safe and a lot more scary. Frank repeated himself over and over again as we hurried around wondering what had happened and how to fix it. Tony abseiled down a little bit to take a closer look, while I prepared to lower another rope down to Frank. Tony stood on the edge and gave a massive tug on Franks rope and suddenly it was free and we hastily took-in. The problem transpired to be that Frank’s old rope had got wet and then frozen to the ice in multiple places. Frank had climbed quite a way up the pitch, without us being able to take in, creating a sizable loop of rope below his feet. Quite an exciting experience, even to watch, it definitely highlighted to me the benefits of dry treated rope!
Day 3 of the ice adventure and another mass ascent was planned. This time of the classic and very obvious Lillaz Gully a grade 4 climb with a tricky mixed pitch towards the top. Stuart was bribed to get him up early enough, the route is popular and we didn’t want to be stuck behind another group, the gully would act as a funnel directing any dislodged ice onto parties bellow. Despite our best efforts we were tailed by a French guide from Chamonix who had sneakily off loaded the gear to his clients so he could race ahead and bagsie a good spot in the queue. Frank showed us the cardio vascular fitness required to get onto the Scottish fell running team and beasted up the long, steep snow field to the base of the route. The guide and his mechanical legs managed to overtake Tony and big Rachel relegating them to third in the queue. The pitches of the route fell very conveniently; following a trend of technical ice – easy snowfield – technical ice etc. which allowed Frank to lead the ice and Rachel and I to carry on through and drag the ropes up to the next belay. The saved a considerable amount of time and a lot less rope faff. The route was about 6 pitches long, many of which required a little bit of mixed climbing where exposed rock has to be climbed using the axes and crampons, turns out Frank was pretty good at the too. The penultimate pitch is usually the crux according to the guide (who we chatted to on the belays) with a few metres of steep and challenging mixed climbing. For some reason, this year there was more ice than usual making this pitch much easier. The route was amazing; being hemmed in by the gully walls was a noticeable contrast to the exposed open icefalls we had climbed on previously. Much more like a Scottish winter route, but without the white out, 50 mph winds, long walk in and cold damp misery. At the top we chatted to the guide and his rich clients before making our way back to the apartment for wine, cheese and sun bathing. A cracking day!
The following morning we packed up and drove through some nasty conditions down to Turin and back across the border to La Grave. We passed through many more ski resorts and although I wasn’t that fussed about a ski-less winter there were some twangs of jealousy seeing the big mountains covered in deep fresh snow under a blue bird sky. We passed through Serre Chevalier and over the Col du Lautaret before dropping down into Villar d’Arene a few km uphill from La Grave. After a quick unpacking at Gite La Breche Tony, Rachel and I drove down the valley to have a look at the ice. We were shown all the classics and then given the option of ice bouldering on the outside of a tunnel or to try and get a space on the classic fall of Le Pylone (WI 4). We took our chances with the queue and set off to try and bag another classic. It was the coldest area we had been to and the warmth gained from the short and steep approach soon vanished. As Tony set off up the right hand side of the impressive icefall the effect of the colder temperature on the ice became apparent. The ice had refrozen, filling in old placements and the extra cold temperatures made the ice hard and brittle, so despite the easy angle the climbing was difficult and tenuous with unstable, shallow placements. With only a few ice screws (we expected it to be easy) Tony decided to belay at half height, which involved traversing across to a bolted stance on the left hand side. This made seconding a little more exciting than usual but the ‘buzz’ was welcomed. Avoiding the suspicious brown stains next to the belay Tony lead us up the softer and easier second pitch to the top. With frozen gloves and numb fingers the abseil descent was a little nervey, we were lucky that our 60m ropes were very stretchy and allowed us to abseil the 70m to the ground in one go.
Back at Gite la Breche we made up for a skipped lunch with an outrageous amount of delicious traditional French cooking. We looked forward to this evening feast on all three nights that we stayed there. This gite had a very communal feel with all the guests helping out with the cooking, cleaning and serving of dinner. It was nice to be in such a friendly atmosphere and to get a taste of actual French culture, which is desperately vacant from catalogue holidays and generic holiday apartments. For example I now know that the French prefer to place the glass above the spoon but in the centre of the place setting at the dinner table – crazy.
La Grave day 2 and Tony was keen for skiing with Rachel and Stuart, and Frank was off up La Meije. This meant Rachel and I had to have our own un guided adventure – exciting. We spent the previous evening browsing the guidebook and internet looking for the perfect route, nothing; too hard, or long and with low potential for falling ice from above. We finally decided upon La Nuit Serra Fraiche (The night is cool) (WI 3+) two pitches of moderate ice split by a diagonal snow slope, perfect for catching falling ice from above. In the morning Tony dropped us off in the car park and we made our way along the valley floor. Just as we turned off the main path to head up to the route a party of four French climbers appeared. The race was on! The two ropes and quickdraws in my bag were not helping and it soon became clear that they were winning. Luckily the guide (there’s always a guide!) explained that he was setting up top ropes for his clients on the first pitch and there would be room for us to climb the middle of the fall. More climbers were making their way up the bank, which hurried me into racking up and sorting the ropes, this also reduced the time in which to get scared!
The pitch looked good, short 4-7m sections of vertical ice split by large comfortable ledges adding up to a 35m pitch. I remembered Tony’s advice “Place screws when its easy and go fast through the steep bit” and replayed it in my head as I climbed. I did OK until the first actually tricky bit where I tried to place a screw in the MIDDLE of the hard bit and got quite pumped, the screw then pulled straight out, I cursed, clipped it back on to my harness and finished that step. The trickiest bit was the final step, I had learnt my lesson and ran up the amazingly good placements, and I topped out with a glorious feeling of achievement and the deep glowing feeling that only come from climbing. I couldn’t stop grinning as I belayed Rachel up. She then set off up the snow slope towards the next ice section, which was to be her lead. She belayed on a tree underneath the icefall and as I made my way up to the stance she didn’t seem psyched. The third pitch looked more sustained with smaller ledges that were further apart and no signs of previous traffic or natural hooks that helped me on my pitch. She asked if I wanted a go, still buzzing from my lead I was psyched and felt almost invincible. I made it up to the base of the steep ice and agreed that it did look quite hard. The ice was devoid of previous placements and worse still the columned features of the ice didn’t look like they would make good ice screw placements. I placed a screw and tested it and it slid straight back out with no resistance, my cloak of confidence quickly vanished. This was not good so I decided to quit while I was ahead and down climbed. We were both happy with our decision to not push the boat out too far, while we were on our own, with limited experience.
The difference between leading an ice climb and seconding one is much larger than on a rock climb. A combination of the difficulty of placing the ice screws (a physical difficulty) plus the long run outs, general untrustworthiness of the screws and the inconsistency of the ice quality (a mental burden) really takes its toll. On many traditional rock routes the gear is good and will hold a fall, it is also relatively easy to asses the quality of the placement so a fear of falling is sometimes unjustified, which even while scared on lead, allows the physical climbing limits to be approached. On ice this is not true, the gear quality is hard to assess and is more likely to be inadequate this requires a much more careful and considered approach to leading climbs of increasing difficulty.
For our Final day of climbing Tony was super psyched to do Diabolobite Direct a rarely formed WI 5+. The guidebook says that the direct start had not formed since 1996 (or maybe 1994) so this would be a valuable tick and also our hardest grade of the trip. There was quite a lot of confusion in the morning resulting in a late start from the car park. Despite it being a Sunday the bad weather forecast had deterred many climbers and we saw no competitors on the long steep walk in. We were all pretty cold due to the car park dilly-dallying and despite the steep approach we were still pretty chilly at the base of the route. To keep warm Rachel decided to lead the first pitch of the adjacent route, the classic Colere du Ciel WI 3+, while Tony tackled the main challenge. Rachel made light work of the low angle and soft ice, which allowed me to watch Tony take on the thin freestanding pillar and capping ice curtain. Contrary to Rachel’s pitch this was going to be the steepest ice we had climbed. It was also the first time I had seen Tony look nervous.
Rachel and I managed to abseil back to the base in time for Frank to drag our ropes up. Rachel went before me and made some impressive moves with some wild bridging as she pulled around the roof. I was the last one up and the only one who could spoil the team’s ascent….. The first section had huge natural hooks and massive feet but felt steeper than I expected and jump-started the pump. A good rest before the main pillar, even on second the pillar was scary, creaking and groaning under my weight, swinging the axes felt like a suicide mission so careful hooking and gentle tapping was required. At the top of the pillar it was possible to get a sit down rest before negotiating a roof. With an axe hooked around the back of an icicle I leaned out and fished around in the ice curtain above and behind me for a good placement, no sinker jugs but a decent flat notch was found. Then a knee bar against an icicle allowed me to match the placement without cutting loose, some scrabbly footwork and I was established on the final head wall. Kicking feet into the free hanging curtain didn’t feel good, resulting in a few hard pulls to gain the easier angled top out. Super pumped and elated I joined Rachel at the belay. Frank had already set off up the snow gully and Tony was following. Two pitches of easy snow took us to the main icefall of Diabolobite. Another impressive pillar, but not as tall as the first and also much thicker. Tony made easy work of the climbing but the formation of the ice made placing screws difficult, which slowed his progress slightly. Again I was the last man up, the climbing was a still tricky as there were less natural placements – more swinging was required. I pulled onto the belay with freezing hands and excited to be going down……
Tony and Rachel were also excited to be heading down, however Frank was keen for the final ‘easy’ pitch; he wanted to tick the entire route. I was pressured and bribed (with Tony’s super warm belay mitts) into completing the climb with Frank while Tony and Rachel headed down. Another snow plod took me to a bunch of loose rock spikes where I belayed beneath the final ice step. Frank came up and went into Scottish mode heading up some vertical snow on a deranged quest to reach some manky tat he’d spotted to the side of the ice. On arrival at the tat he decided that it would be impossible to get back across to the ice so climbed/slid/fell back down the step to the base of the ice. We were now higher up the valley side where the ice was more affected by the sun, resulting in some of the softest ice I’ve ever encountered. Try placing a freshly filled ice cube tray in the freezer for 1 hour and you will see the consistency of the ice. Frank struggled on showing his highly developed Scottish skills, it was definitely one of the sketchiest belays I’ve done but I trusted Frank and his gnarly abilities. Gasping through; adrenaline, fear and effort he managed to place a screw and gave a relieved grin. The next section was probably worse ice but simpler climbing and he ran up to the top. On top rope I had an interesting time, at one point I stood up on my foot only for the ice (2ft of it) to crush down into mush until I was stood back on the ledge I had just moved off! A looong series of abseils with tired bodies and minds took us to the bags and a head torch descent through the trees brought us back to the car. What an awesome last day climbing! I even made it back to the gite in time for dinner – get in!