published in "Rock and Ice" magazine issue
140 - January 2005
The Depths Or, How Not To Tackle Crevasses
high summer. The sun beats down on the Col du Midi,
the vast glacial basin at the foot of Mont Blanc du
Tacul, the "easiest 4000-meter mountain in Europe".
Whoever wrote that on peakware.com has obviously never
attempted the Breithorn in Switzerland, a two-hour stroll
from the top of a cable car. It's true that Tacul (13,937
feet) is not technically difficult, but it's still perfectly
possible to screw up here.
I'm climbing with my sister and longtime climbing partner,
Siân, and her boyfriend, Nick. We're aiming for
a relatively easy day on Tacul's Northwest Face, the
normal route to the summit, one of more than 40 recorded
routes on this peak. The Northwest Face is only rated
peu difficile: slightly difficult. Quickly accessed
from Chamonix, its a popular target for many mountaineers.
modest goal is the result of (over-) celebrating Nick's
30th birthday the previous night; we're a little dehydrated
today. Chamonix isn't just one of the finest outdoor
playgrounds in the world, it's also packed with a suspiciously
large number of good bars. I have hazy recollections
of visiting several of them, sampling the local beer
and losing innumerable games of pool.
take the cable car to the summit of the Aiguille du
Midi (12,605 feet), a stunning granite spire rising
directly above Chamonix. Count de Bouille, who financed
the first ascent of the Midi, in 1856, heroically concluded
"I doubt if there will ever be a second ascent".
Now, a cable car brings tens of thousands of tourists,
skiers and climbers to the summit each year, recalling
IBM Chairman's Thomas Watson's 1943 pronouncement that
"I think there is a world market for maybe five
atop the Aiguille, a short descent down a thin, exposed
ridge leads to the Col du Midi, which we follow to the
base of Tacul. Sweat pours off our foreheads and down
our sunglasses, making it difficult to see, but the
blinding reflection of the sun off the snow forces us
to keep our shades on. There are few clouds in the sky,
but we have spent enough time in the Mont Blanc massif
to know that the weather can change in mere minutes.
the bergschrund at the base of the mountain, we tie
into Siân's new 8mm rope, joking about whether
or not the thin cord could hold a fall, and begin the
long, slow ascent of the 60-degree Northwest Face. We
zig-zag up the steep, snow-covered slope, an interminable
process that regularly requires us to leave the main
path to overtake slower climbers. The soft snow is thigh
deep in places. We're all suffering but, for a man who
counts base jumping amongst his many outdoor hobbies,
Nick, the birthday honoree, is moving particularly delicately.
large crevasses slash across the 2,300-foot face - one
about halfway up, the second after about 1,600 feet.
A snow bridge takes us across the first one, and we
glance down into its icy-blue depths. The morning sun,
however, is already melting the snow bridge at the second
crevasse is only about four feet wide - we can leap
across it if necessary. We pause for breath, taking
in the views and a few mouthfuls of water, and watch
with curiosity as a short, middle-aged Frenchman, wearing
an old-fashioned external-frame backpack nearly as large
as he is, retreats from the edge of the maw. He is climbing
solo, and asks in a mixture of French and English if
he can tie into our rope, just to give him enough confidence
to leap the crevasse, of course. It seems an odd request,
given that he will probably want to descend this way
later and will have to clear the same crevasse when
its even larger. He's a curious sight, wearing a woolen
bobble hat and an old-fashioned wool jersey, looking
as if he has stepped out of a photo from Herzog's Annapurna.
His clothes are a striking contrast to the shiny Gore-tex
worn by everyone else on the mountain.
I would be unhappy about having a stranger tie into
my rope. A certain level of trust in your ropemates
is essential in the mountains, given the consequences
of one false step. There is almost a sanctity to the
relationship of people on the same rope, tied as they
are to the abilities of their colleagues. I rationalize,
however, that this isn't a difficult jump, and the French
gentleman will be tied to us only for a few seconds.
In any event, shouldn't one always offer assistance
to a fellow mountaineer in need?
look to Siân and Nick, who nod their assent. I
pass our nouvel ami the end of our rope, tying myself
in again farther down with an alpine butterfly. He thanks
us, ties in, and heads back to the edge of the crevasse,
obviously scared. He moves uncertainly, fixating on
the gaping hole in the snow. I can't take my eyes off
him. Slowly, he prepares himself with deep breaths,
holding his ice axe in both hands and crouching slightly,
focusing on the far side. He mutters "un, deux,
trios" - then leaps.
into the crevasse.
swear his axe doesn't even touch the other side.
rope uncoils as lazily as a trained snake at a Moroccan
bazaar while our ami plummets into the darkness. I fall
to the ground, aiming to bury my ice axe as deeply as
possible into the snow. I feel sluggish, as if I'm moving
through water. Out of the corner of my eye, however,
I see a suddenly energized Nick move at light speed.
By the time I've hit the ground, he has already wrapped
the rope around his axe and successfully arrested the
falling Frenchman who, with his backpack, must weigh
rope stops with a jerk.
Nick's catch doesn't rank with the most famous ice-axe
arrest ever, in which Pete Schoening held his six falling
ropemates at 24,500 feet on K2 in 1953, I'm impressed.
As the nameless Frenchman sways in the abyss, we thank
the mountain gods that the slender 8mm rope has, of
an odd thing. When disaster strikes in the mountains,
otherwise selfish climbers will invariably come to the
aid of the injured. When disaster is averted, however,
climbers easily lapse into the working assumption that
those involved are perfectly capable of sorting themselves
out, and climb on. As the three of us stare into the
crevasse, trying to catch sight of the woolen bobble
hat, it strikes me that a little assistance wouldn't
go amiss right now.
party of two French climbers comes up behind us and
walks easily over the snow bridge. One of them looks
into the crevasse, and, rather unhelpfully, suggests
that if we lower another axe to the Frenchman, he should
be able to climb out. My French is not good enough to
explain that he's not really a member of our party,
and that we would prefer not to trust him with one of
our precious axes. Instead, I launch into a tirade about
our bon ami's intelligence and parentage in pidgin French.
He, on the other hand, seems perfectly content, swinging
merrily below from our solid, two-axe anchor. It is
clear that the hangover gods have not finished punishing
us yet, though: now we have to extract him.
Nick and I weigh up our options. The Frenchman, weighed
down as he is, can't climb out, and doesn't appear to
have any prusik loops or ascenders. The rope is too
thin to for us to haul him out, and Siân wants
to keep her rope in one piece. My suggestion to cut
it, Touching the Void--style, only elicits the raise
of a single eyebrow. Then, with perfect timing, two
mountain-rescue instructors come running (yes, to them,
Mont Blanc du Tacul is literally a training run) down
the face. They have exactly what we need: pulleys.
only when one has to rig a pulley system in a real emergency
that one appreciates years of tedious rescue practice.
Finally, the Frenchman emerges over the lip of the crevasse.
There is a Yeti-like quality to him - snow is plastered
to his woollen hat and jersey, and almost totally covers
him. His eyes are visible, however, and they glow with
excitement and something we hope is gratitude. We dust
him off and send him back down the mountain.
much later, the weather begins to deteriorate and we
take the hint. In Chamonix, the birthplace of alpinism,
more than one person dies, on average, per day. In fact,
over 1,000 people have died on Mont Blanc, more than
on any other mountain in the world. We all subscribe
to the Ed Viesturs school of thought: Getting to the
top is optional; getting back down is mandatory. We
turn around and begin a slow descent.
have a strong appreciation for what the noted adventurer
Mike Stroud called being a fly on the face of a giant.
The Mont-Blanc massif boasts many giants and, unfortunately,
many of us flies. Death is a constant here, as is the
whirring of rescue choppers headed into the heart of
remember: If a solitary Frenchman asks to tie into your
rope, just say non.
Rhys Williams 2004