The Definition of Adventure and the Worst Day Climbing!

To start this entry I am going to try and paraphrase a definition I learnt at University, it was a definition of adventure, something along the lines of ‘Taking part in an activity or journey with an unknown outcome’, this next entry has this in a vast quantity. Everything that we set out for was somewhat different to our perceived expectations.

We had just packed all our equipment, crampons fitted on boots and everything was in our bags for glacier travel, climbing and camping. Five minutes later and a final check of the weather and… change of plans, rain, thunder and lightning on the mountains. This aggravated me somewhat, but I need to learn to be more flexible and understand that plans need to change and adapt to the conditions.

Our eyes turned once again to the other side of the valley and the Aiguille Rouges, they were lower and therefore seemed as though they escaped the worse of the bad weather on the forecast, and so we repacked all our kit again. We planned a simulation trip, as if we were climbing on the other side of the range with a three hour approach, climb, bivi, early start, shorter approach, climb and return. All this would help our acclimatization and fitness goals in readiness for the mountains.

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On the approach walk

We set off early to avoid being baked in the sun. The walk in as usual took longer than planned, and we made our way to the Lac Blanc Refuge in about three and a half hours. On the way we were lucky to spot more chamois and a couple of marmots just kicking around doing their business. As well as this we were lucky to cross the path of those on the 80km Mont Blanc Marathon, who were working their way up a trail. At the hut we stopped for a Coke and we got out our guidebook, the approach to the planned climb was steeped in scree, so we decided, now we could see it, to give it a miss. We moved further along the trail towards the Index lift.

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Curious chamois!

Once there we decided that we were pretty tired and would climb a simple route, and set out for the Aiguille de la Gliere and the route Modern Times. This was a fully bolted route and easily within our grade, so should be a good climb. It also gave me a chance to try out my newly resoled climbing shoes. We made it to the base in good time and the climbing was actually easier than first thought, and we raced through the first few pitches, it was good to be flowing across the rock and making good time.

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Jess approaching the belay

The final pitch was the best by far, and it started with a traverse from one belay to the next, over knife ridge terrain, which gave short but welcome exposure, then onto a ledge. The next pitch was graded 5a and was by far the best on the route, with good holds and movement throughout. Once at the top we took a couple of photos of climber’s summiting at the top of the Index and abseiling off. Our decent route was at the rear of the climb and was a case of scrambling down loose ground, mixed with rock sections. This required a large amount of concentration not to slip, although it almost inevitably happens. Once at the bottom, we had a short rest where I was drinking in the view and resting my feet before moving off to find our bivi for the night.

That evening I found a bivi spot up the hill and away from the lift and the path, it was also en route to the climb planned for tomorrow. It also gave us a great view of the surrounding hills. We were on a brewing and cooking mission; one cup of super noodles with added sausage was followed by another and so on, until we had to glissade down a snow slope to get to the stream at the bottom, to top up the water for the next round. Once this was completed we set up for bed, and although we had set up a shelter, we took this down in the night as it was not raining and was catching the high winds charging across our camp. The weather looked good as we fell asleep under the clear night sky, with stars to be seen all around!

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Jess enjoying another ‘brew with a view!’

During the night I woke as often as I was sleeping, as one stone lodged in my back or the wind buffeted my face. Each time this happened I had a look out and saw that one by one the stars were disappearing behind a blanket of cloud. At one stage I looked across to Mont Blanc and could clearly see a line of head torches waving in the dark, heading up the mountain. Once morning broke, cloud was still present, but it seemed we had avoided a wet bivi. However, as the wind was high and it was mightily cold, getting up took quite a while.

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Clearly I’m not a morning person!

I was happy to spend all day in my sleeping bag, I was tired from the day before and had slept badly, added to this I could feel some unreasonable murmuring in my stomach that I tried to ignore. I just did not feel right, I asked Jess for an ultimatum on what to do and she wanted to climb, so I carried on with the day and the plan.

The approach to the climb was a tough one, as the snow was hard and we were in boots without axes, also a slip and fall would have landed you in the scree and boulder field, which was some distance below. So the going was nervously slow. Once at the foot of the route, we could not find the start. Even after an hours searching, we could not locate the starting bolts? At this point I had been sliding up and down loose scree for over an hour and I was loosing my patience slightly. A crow then landed right next to me, closer than I thought it would be comfortable; he was literally in my personal space. I had a feeling of bad luck in the presence of the bird, this just added to the negativity that had been plaguing me throughout the morning.

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Approaching the climb in the morning!

Eventually we started up the climb, as we could see a high bolt and therefore thought we would trad climb to that, and carry on up the route as normal. As Jess was en-route to the bolt, a guide asked us what we were climbing, I told her Voie Ravanel, and she informed us we were at the wrong start point, which we knew, and so informed her that we were just going to head to the bolt that we could see and carry on up the route. She then walked to the correct start. However on route, she confronted Jess for using the bolts and that if we were climbing a different route at the start, that we should not be on the Voie Ravanel route. This continued up the climb, and when I followed, she proceeded to off load on me, being typically British I was not confrontational and tried to explain. Somehow, even though we told her we were going on this route, but couldn’t find the start and therefore, joined the route 3 bolts up from a different angle, we had no right to be there, even though we were first on the rock, and the bolts and ahead of the guide and client. If the shoe were on the other foot, then I would have waited for the climbers above to climb their first pitch and then follow after, something I have done on multiple occasions.

This bickering from the guide and her jumped up client continued in a rude manner until we just sat at a belay and allowed them to climb ahead and so we could climb in peace. This whole event had a detrimental affect on both Jess’s and my mindsets, to be reprimanded time and again, for something that we were not at fault for. They were fully aware of our intentions from the start, as they spoke to us. This just aggravated me and riled me up, which is not good for climbing, as you need a clear head. All this was adding to what had already been a negative emotional state from the start of the day.

I was next to lead on a 5c pitch that was slightly overhanging and looked a little thin. With the bad mind set and the tickle of Dehli Belly lingering in the background, I was not feeling on form for a hard climb. That said, as I started to climb, weirdly, as soon as I started, I felt good and positive. Taking my time and finding all the right holds and moves to worm my way up the route. This was a good and interesting pitch that once I was at the top of I felt glad to have lead it, but not so glad to be with the client again. I waited for Jess who would have to follow with the bag.

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Jess following up the crux with the bag!

It took some time for her to arrive, as the pitch was hard and sustained at the grade, it was also no pushover without a heavy bag, so I understood the delay. After a short rest she took the next lead up a slab. However, half way up she was not feeling it, and it was from that point we were both singing from the same sheet and decided to give up on the climb, descend a few pitches and head for home. Some days you just are not on form, we took ages to get going in the morning, ages to get to the route; ages find the start of the route, add waiting for the guide and client to pass, it was just not turning out like we had hoped. Better to come back another day with a better outlook. So we set up the abseil and descended to the previous belay.

Once we were both at the belay, we pulled on the rope, it snagged a couple of times and we pulled the opposite rope to try and release the snag. However, we just could not free the ropes, so I needed to climb back up the crux pitch of the climb and find out what was wrong and retrieve the ropes. I honestly could have broken down there and then, however I had the will to overcome my own problems without assistance, which would be a last resort. I was already feeling emotionally drained, and a feeling of worry and apprehension began to arouse my body as I began to ascend the ropes.

I have not been in this situation before, so I tried to make good on my knowledge. Both ropes were still down so I had the knowledge that I was ascending to a fixed position rather than a loose rope without a known or valid anchor point. I used a lower and higher prussic combination on the ropes with my belay device in between, whilst each time I passed some protection, I tied off the ropes below the pussiks, that way if the rope did come apart, the prussiks should hold and I would fall a bolt distance on the loose rope and then need a change of pants. As it happened this did not occur, and I made my way over the overhanging moves to the original anchor we were abbing off. I pulled the knot out from where it was jammed, and after triple checking my gear, I began the abseil in the hope that this time it would come down cleanly.

This day had seemed to have a foreboding sense of misadventure about it since the off, and the above event seriously kicked me out of my comfort zone, although when we did pull the ropes down, it came freely enough, and in a sense, although the retreat was not complete, a small panging of avoiding a potential disaster in the mountains began to dissipate, although we were not out of the woods yet.

The rest of the abseils were not ideal and each time the rope snagged and got caught I felt anxiety well up, as the thought of re-ascending teetered in the imagination. One good thing about all this was that my stomach had calmed a little as other things more prominent were taking over bodily functions.

Once at the bottom, we started to take a direct line down the scree slopes, this took a while and reminded me of some of the climbing I had done elsewhere in the Alps and also in North Wales. Once we were on the tourist track we stopped for a much deserved lunch break, and although there was still a 4 hour walk home to consider, a large concentration of trepidation and worry began to lift.

I’m not one to be superstitious, however my meeting with the crow at the foot of the climb had added to my already negative emotional state. At the end of the day, although all was ok, I could not help but look back at the bird and wonder if it was a sign to just go home and save the bother of the day to come.

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On the way back down, watching my footing!

The descent to the van was a long one, and although there was still an amazing panorama to look at, it got less and less attention as my joints were starting to seek rest, and my mind and body was starting to feel stretched and exhausted. Once at the van, we immediately removed our boots and clothing, and allowed our natural odours to ferment the surrounding area. We chucked a pizza in the oven and washed it down with beer, water and tea.

In the end all was well, and we have had a definitive adventure. We set out with an idea and itinerary of what the next couple of days would bring, and returned later with a completely different outcome and experience to the one visualized in my mind eye. Although I would class this as one of my worst days out climbing/mountaineering it has brought on a wealth of experience and also (as soon as I get internet) given me something to research, on how to retrieve a stuck abseil rope when both are out of reach, and compare the solution to mine. As they say, everyday is a school day!

Footnote:

As I have now been online to post this article and I can say that what I did to retrieve the abseil rope was not too far off what the book says. I should have built the prussic system as described in the article, however I should have had a clove hitch tied in the rope to a screwgate karabiner, which was attached where I had my belay device. Also I could have had my partner have the belay on the bottom of the ropes, and placed gear as if lead climbing normally, that way if I fell it would be like a normal fall on a lead climb. This was the advice I found for this really useful article on UKC https://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=8985

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