published in "Rock and Ice" magazine issue 140 -
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
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
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.
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 200
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 course, held.
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
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 the range.
remember: If a solitary Frenchman asks to tie into your rope,
just say non.
Rhys Williams 2004