Plunging the Depths

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First published in "Rock and Ice" magazine issue 140 - January 2005

Plunging The Depths Or, How Not To Tackle Crevasses

Chamonix, 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.

Our 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.

We 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 computers".

From 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.

At 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.

Two 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.

This 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.

Normally, 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?

I 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.

Straight into the crevasse.

I swear his axe doesn't even touch the other side.

Time stands still.

Siân's 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 200 pounds.

The rope stops with a jerk.

While 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 course, held.

It's 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.

A 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.

Siân, 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.

It's 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.

Not 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.

Mountaineers 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 the range.

So remember: If a solitary Frenchman asks to tie into your rope, just say non.

© Rhys Williams 2004

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