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Alternative Alpine Hazards: A Cautionary Tale in Three Parts


 

by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally published in Mountain #128

And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished. There are no true victors, only survivors.
Barry Bishop

There are objective dangers in mountaineering one must accept. Storms, rockfall, and avalanches are all part of the game alpinists learn to deal with. Sometimes it's just a matter of luck that leaves one staring at the jumbled debris of a serac fall, or forever entombed beneath the ice. After 30 years at it, I've had my share of close calls, but I've always managed to emerge relatively unscathed. The summer of 1988, karma caught up.

It had been a long, cold winter in Germany, so I was raring to go in the spring. I trained harder than I had in years in preparation for what I hoped to be my most prolific alpine season. But . . . 'The best laid plans of mice and men oft gang awry' (Burns).

Fun in the Italian Sun

It had been storming for weeks when I arrived in Chamonix on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. The forecast was for more of the same, so most climbers were packing for rock climbing excursions to the sunny south. I drove into a soggy Snell's Field looking for my British friend, Neil McAdie. It was good to see him again, especially since the weather hadn't dampened his enthusiasm. Being reunited with his girlfriend, Alice (a Canadian working in a hut for the summer) had something to do with it, I'm sure.

Within an hour, we'd made our own plans for exodus. Kieran Loughran, a quiet Australian friend of Alice's, became the fourth member of our fun in the sun team.

Spirits soared the next day when we emerged from the Mt. Blanc tunnel into brilliant sunshine. A stop in Aosta to change money turned into an impromptu picnic when I unveiled American 'junk food' delicacies obtained on the Army base where I worked. Alice's eyes lit up at the sight of Tostitos and bean dip. We washed it down with Bavarian wheat beer, then continued on our merry way, blithely rolling into disaster.

A few kilometers from Aosta, cliffs began to appear on the green hillsides, becoming more dramatic as we continued. We agreed that it would be great if suitable cragging could be found close at hand. We would save driving time and money, be poised to get back in the mountains when conditions improved, and (supposedly) avoid the infamous criminal element in southern Italy.

About 30 kilometers from Aosta, we saw the first climbers. Taking the next exit, we drove back up the valley, spotting more colorful specks on some higher cliffs. A pleasant afternoon was spent on two pitch routes next to the road. The rock was solid, but provided little friction. It felt sweaty in the hot, humid conditions.

We camped in some trees below the crags that night, then headed up to a higher wall the next morning. Kieran and I did a pleasant five pitch 5+, while Neil and Alice cruised a similar slab to our right. A good wind kept the heat from becoming oppressive.

Kieran beat me down but wasn't looking very chipper when I found himn sitting at the base of the cliff where we'd stashed some gear. I wondered why, after such a nice climb with prospects of more to come. His succinct explanation quickly dispelled my euphoria. "Someone's nicked the pack." Sure enough, some bastard had hiked up, grabbed our pack, stuffed it with shoes, Neil's camera gear, a rack of Friends and Rocks, film, watches, etc. After a minute of stunned disbelief, a lightning bolt of dread pierced my skull, 'THE CAR!' If the sons of bitches were desperate enough to hike 15 minutes to steal our shoes, they'd think nothing of breaking into a fancy VW bus with American plates (they might even see it as a righteous political gesture!).

Before I knew what was happening, my body was sprinting down the trail. I called back to Kieran that I'd meet him at the car. My thudding heart choked my throat as I frantically scrambled down the first couple of hundred feet. After a few minutes, I managed to calm down, thinking, "No, your luck will hold. After all those trips to France and Italy, it won't happen now." I kept the visceral reaction under control, but my mind was racing, calculating the climbing and photo equipment, money, passports and tape deck.

On first sight, the van looked all right; but then I realized the passenger window was missing. They'd thrown a big rock through to gain entrance. When I pulled the sliding door open, things looked fine, other than the tiny pieces of broken glass scattered about. The loose gear in the back sleeping area was still there, the stereo was intact, and the cabinets were closed . . . but something was missing, of course. My eyes locked on the empty seat where I'd left my camera bag with five Ienses, 12 rolls of film, and other various items. Then I noticed my new Lowe pack with ski boots, goretex and pile clothing was also missing. Taking a moment from my own selfish damage appraisal, I realized that Neil and Kieran's packs with most of their clothing and gear had also disappeared. I'd stupidly left my passport and wallet in the glove box after changing money. It was all gone.

As the initial stupefying shock wore off, and I began to realize the magnitude of the disaster, a berserk fit of uncontrollable anger seized me. A painful five minutes of ranting and raving followed, the adrenaline coursing through my system demanding release. I literally pulled my hair as I stomped, kicked, pounded, swore, or chanted, NO! NO! NO! NO! NOOOO!' Two Frenchmen, who had just arrived back at their untouched (empty) car, came over to see what was wrong. Their initial outrage at the theft turned to pity as they watched my manic diatribe run its course. When the last outburst finally subsided, I had to concentrate on deep, slow breathing to relax my quivering muscles and constricted throat.

I was left physically and emotionally drained - an empty shell gradually filling with fatalistic acceptance. I swept out the broken glass and anxiously awaited the others. Even though I knew it was hopeless I felt an urgent need to do something.

Neil prescribed a solo climb to treat the depression he felt upon finding his camera missing. Kieran, Alice, and I spent a frustrating hour at the local police station filling out forms the policemen didn't understand. Luckily, the instructions were also in English. We finally determined that we needed to go to the station in Aosta to get things straight.

We found Neil, then continued up the valley, stopping at a VW dealership to ask about a new window. They told us to return in the morning. The rest of the day was spent running around changing money (luckily Kieran still had his passport and traveler's checks) and visiting both the city, then national police stations trying to get clearance to cross the border without passports. We needed to cross both the French and Swiss frontiers on our way to the consulates in Geneva. As it turned out, I just flashed Alice's and Kieran's passports and got waved through without a check.

Throughout the day, everyone we encountered was sympathetic and as helpful as possible. Alice's French helped immeasurably, but by evening, the endless line of offices and oppressive heat had us all rather hot around the collar. Thank God, we had each other to joke with. Although I certainly didn't wish this misfortune on them, I couldn't imagine going through all of it alone.

We treated ourselves to a campground with showers that night. After dinner, I pulled out a bottle of Canadian whisky, and we proceeded to get a little drunk and a lot crazy, clowning it up for the surviving camera (which I was wearing on the climb).

It took half an hour at the VW place the next morning to find out they didn't have the window. We headed for the tunnel with a pile of police reports and our fingers crossed. Our smug happiness at sneaking over the border was soon choked by the noxious exhaust fumes blowing in the empty window, burning our lungs with the equivalent of a year's worth of New York smog. We were all quite green around the gills by the time we emerged into the sweet rain-washed air of the Chamonix Valley twenty minutes later.

A quick stop at Snell's Field confirmed that the equipment left in tents was still safe. We headed into Geneva, stopping at two VW places on the way, looking for windows. By the time we got to the city and made some phone calls, it was too late to do anything. We drove out of town to find a bivy spot in a copse of trees where we passed a rather depressing, sultry night.

The next day was a long series of minor annoyances: getting the window fixed, changing money, getting passport pictures taken, searching for the consulates (four sets of wrong directions), and more paper work. We persevered, emerging that evening with temporary passports.

Les Courtes

By the time we rolled back into Snell's after a hot day of cragging on the Saleve we were anxious to get back in the mountains. It took a day to buy and borrow the bare necessities. Poor Kieran had lost too much so he had to wait for a new Visa card to replace his gear. Luckily Neil and I still had our ice tools and hardware, so a bit of begging enabled us to head up into the Argentiere to see what conditions would permit. The north face of Les Droites was first on both our summer hit lists, but the heavy snow, followed by very hot days and nights (freezeing level above 5,000 m), discouraged us.

We spent the next day acclimatizing and observing our second choice, the Swiss Route on the Courtes. While frequent wet snow sluffs poured down the Droites and Verte, the Courtes stood silent and gleaming. We hung around the hut, drinking several litters of water each, and avoiding the blistering sun. In the evening, we walked out onto the glacier to a gravel patch below a boulder for a few hours rest.

The warm night permitted easy sleep, but apprehensive minds upon waking. When we set out across the glacier at 2 am there was a slight crust on the surface, but with every step we broke through into twenty centimeters of mush underneath. Repressing nagging doubts, we hoped to find better conditions on the face.

Ploughing up the initial low angle slopes, I was about a hundred meters ahead of Neil when the roar of a large serac fall shattered the calm night. I knew there was nothing threatening above us, and the initial crash sounded far to the side, so I wasn't too worried. I stopped and switched off my headlamp, peering into the gloom. As the thunder of falling ice subsided, a strange, sibilant hiss took its place. The pulverized ice and wet snow it gathered, was washing across the low angle glacier in a slow but steady wave spreading out into an expanding fan. As the insidious noise grew, a thrill of fear electrified my body for action. When I caught my first glimpse of the leading edge rushing inexorably towards me, I 'sprinted' as best I could in plastic boots and wet snow. A moment later, it slid past, five meters behind me, a huge stealthy beast in search of prey.

By the time it reached Neil, it had expanded to a point where there was no excape. With icy death seconds away, nerve and instinct took kover. Any attempt to run was useless, so he turned his back and watched over his shoulder. At the critical moment, just before it rolled over him, he jumped as high as possible, landing on his back, well up on the first chunks. Frantic backstrokes pulled him up onto the crest where he rode for over a hundred meters, whooping with amazement!

When it finally ground to a halt, Neil found himself sitting a few metres from two Polish climbers we had passed half an hour before. The last thin sloughs had partially buried them, so he helped dig them out. Pulling at the wet glop, he asked, "Will you go down now?"

The Pole, a tough little blond fellow, didn't hesitate an instant. With his legs still stuck in the avalanche, he smiled and pointed toward the mountain, "I tink vee go up."

By the time they reached me, we had all recovered some composure and resolved to carry on to the bergschrund to assess conditions. Neil's initial half-hearted attempts at the short, overhanging lip ended in disgust with the sloppy snow which refused to hold a pick. My extra reach got me established in the runnel above. I ran up the first fifty metres, then called down that it looked OK. I was dragging an 8.5 mm rope, and we both carried a couple of screws and krabs.

The surface snow was soft out of the runnels, but the ice underneath was good, taking half a pick with each swing. We moved fast up the first bit before thin ice over rock slowed us down. My third placement that hit rock bounced out funny. I was flabbergasted when I saw the pick of my brand new axe bent back 180 and staring me in the face! I managed to hack my way up the 70 section then set a couple of screws to belay and replace the damaged pick.

Neil continued up the crux pitch directly above. We went a bit right of the normal route and ended up following thin, unprotected, Scottish grade IV or V runnels up and back across Ieft to the central ice field. It took Neil a long time to find a belay, and when he did, he warned me not to fall.

I confidently started up the ever-steepening wall, moving quickly on the thick, firm ice. Ten metres up, a bulge reared to 80 and the ice became soft and thin. Not able to judge it in the dark, I swung my axe full force through a lean spot into solid granite. The dull 'thunk' it made bouncing out sounded strange. I was stunned to see the new replacement pick also bent 180 back, totally useless! If it had snapped, I could have used the remainder. As it was, I had to make do with the straight adze for the crux. What followed were ten delicate minutes of tenuous climbing. In places, Neil had knocked off large chunks, exposing bare granite slabs. I was left with one foot front pointing on a thin runnel, the other scraping futilely on rock. I tried to get a good placement for my hammer, then chop the adze in for balance. The trick was in removing and replacing the good tool, while carefully keeping weight over my feet. The pitch didn't have a single runner, so a slip would result in a long pendulum across jagged, steep, mixed ground.

I reached Neil's tied-off screw belay as the first grey light of dawn gave form to the ice field above. Luckily, the snow was good so I untied and Neil dragged the rope. I headed for the closest rock where I used my hammer to knock off the bent end of the pick, leaving a usable seven centimetre stub.

The rest of the climb went quickly and easily. We traversed up and across to the right hard edge of the face near the top when we found the final slope to be unsubstantial snow over hard ice. We were up early enough (8.30 am) that the snow on the descent of the NW spur was still OK. The hardest part of the climb was walking out of the Argentiere under a broiling sun, the snow-covered walls on either side reflecting like an oven on the windless air.

Chardonnet

Our close call below the Courtes dramatically emphasized the danger on the mixed routes in hot weather. We were resigned to rock when we met a friend just down from the Gabarrou Couloir on the north face of the Chardonnet. He assured us that conditions were perfect; there was no objective danger and while short, the technical climbing was interesting.

Eager to get in one more ice route before Neil returned to England, we hiked to the hut that afternoon. A walk across the glacier the next morning put us beneath the 'schrund just at sunrise. The short 'n' sweet nature of the route is its primary attraction, allowing a casual approach. We had time to enjoy the view and take photos without feeling rushed.

The two pitches we belayed in the couloir were fantastic. Steep water ice led up to an ovcrhanging chockstone, then continued for another long pitch above. Good belays are found in the solid granite on either side. We unroped for the last couple of hundred meters of easier mixed ground. The summit panorama is onc of the best in the range, overlooking the magnificent north walls of the Argentiere.

The descent was uneventful, and we arrived back at the hut around noon. Taking advantage of the early season snow fields, we glissaded directly towards the valley. I jumpcd out of my last turn onto grass and started across toward a trail on the moraine crest.

I don't know exactly what I did wrong, maybe I maintained the large, skidding steps I'd used running down the snow, and failed to adjust for wet plastic boots on grass. In any event, I suddcnly found my feet flying out from under me. Such minor slips are common (for me at Ieast) especially on rough trails at the cnd of a long day. Normally, the result is no worsec than a bruised ass, or scraped palm.

I didn't see it, but when I dropped my north wall hammer to free my uphill hand, it must have fallen onto its head, the shaft momentarily balanced straight up. That momcnt was all it took for me to fall full force onto the point, driving it three and a half ccntimctrcs into my bare thigh before my hand touched the slope. When the jolt zapped my Ieg, I couldn't figure out what had hit me, not realising it was my hammer until I was Iying flat out, staring down aghast at the blue shaft protruding from my leg. A strcam of obscenities was all I could think or say as I gingerly pulled it out. Whitc muscle tissue showed through before thick blood began to ooze up.

Neil was twenty metres ahead when it happened. He turned when he heard me swearing and asked if I was OK. "No, l've stabbed myself with my &*+#$! axe!" I moaned. A wave of nausea rushed over me, so I lay back and closed my eyes, thinking, "Great, just GREAT. Now I'll go into shock. Neil will have to run down for help, I'll have to be rescued (for the first time), and of course, the rest of the season is blown, right when I am getting acclimatised. %@#$!"

Neil sat waiting while I tried to relax and return my systcm to some semblance of normality. After a few minutes, I slowly sat up still a bit light-headed, but ready to do an objectivc damage assessment. I was relieved to see just a trickle of blood. Apparently, I didn't hit any large veins or arteries, but then I began to worry about infection and realised some bleeding would clean it out. We didn't have any sterile water to wash it. When I tried standing, it hurt; but not unbearably. I was determined to get down on my own if at all possible, so Neil took most of the weight from my pack and we started down the last three or four kilometers.

What followed were two hours of painful hobbling down the steepest damn trail I ever hiked in the Alps. I developed a system where I would hop down on my good leg, Ietting it absorb the shock, as I swung the gimp leg along behind. Careful planning, similar to that on a difficult rock climb, was necessary to co-ordinate a sequence of moves across a treachcrous bit to the next good stance, where I could catch my breath and scan the next section.

By the timc I got to the car, I was used to the throbbing in my thigh and the widc-eyed looks tourists gave the dark streams of blood beginning to dry. The fun wasn't over yet however. I'd left the lights on after going through a tunnel, and the battery had run down over the last two days. I steered while a friendly Frenchman helped Neil push us out of our parking place. Luckily, we were on a hill so it was easy to get started.

Neil had a ride back to England waiting at Snell's Field, so I dropped him off, bid adieu, and drove myself to the hospital. I almost enjoyed having a couple of pretty blonde nurses assist the doctor in cleaning, stitching and bandaging the wound.

I spent the next couple of days Iying around my bus, reading, bullshitting, and carefully monitoring the swelling, immensely relieved to have avoided infection. I hoped that a week's rest would be enough to permit some hiking, but after five days, it was obvious more time was needed. I was flying to Kenya in two weeks and didn't want to blow it pushing things now. When the mountains cleared and everyone headed back up on the hill, leaving me to mope around town, I decided it was time to go.

Driving home I reflected on my short disastrous season and put things in perspective. The robbery was depressing, especially the loss of my camera gear, but in the end I realised it was only money. The close call with the avalanche scared the poop out of me, and the defective picks were frustrating, but actually it all made for an interesting and exciting climb. Finally, my leg was healing well. It put me out of commission for a couple of good vacation weeks, but seemed a mosquito bite compared to the two young British lads who fell to their deaths descending the Chardonnet a few days before.

To paraphrase Dickens: It had been the best of seasons, it had been the worst of seasons, it was a season I would never forget.



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