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With Bernd on the Bonatti


by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally published Rock and Ice #14

Bernd was a hot alpine rock jock. That is to say he had been hot. "Fit as a butcher's dog," Andy described the well-muscled German who cruised all the problems on the Snell's Field boulder two years ago. That season he did nearly free ascents of the Bonatti on the Capucin and the South Face of the Fou. It had been a magical time when ambition, job, school, and circumstances had all congealed, allowing him to develop his full climbing potential. A time to remember, and dream of repeating.

"Tap, tap." I looked up from the book I was reading, sitting in the back of my old VW bus parked just outside Chamonix. I pulled back the sliding door and greeted the blond stranger with a universal "Hallo."

"You are Zhim'?" he shyly enquired in halting English. When I nodded he went on. "I saw your papier in the Bar National, want you a climbing partner yet?" When I emphatically answered "Yes!" he continued, "Excuse please my bad English, I practice not enough. You speak Deutsch?"

"No, I'm sorry, but don't worry, your English is fine." I was ashamed to admit I spoke no foreign language (my junior high Spanish long faded into memory) and felt in awe of the typical European, fluent in at least two, with a smattering of many others. In any event, Bernd and I had few problems communicating, striking up a fast friendship. I was impressed with his "hot" season two years ago, but even more attracted to his quiet, unassuming manner.

Our first "shakedown"climb together wasn't very serious: the Cordier Pillar with its good rock and fifteen straight forward rappels has become a standard descent from the Grandes Charmoz. Conditions were perfect; there was just enough snow on the ledges to cover the loose stones and lend an alpine atmosphere, but not enough to cause climbing problems. We had a great time, and so set off a day later for the Route Major on Mt. Blanc. This ended up being a bit of an epic "guided" ascent. Bernd's ice experience and aerobic conditioning were minimal. Then we were caught in a storm near the summit. I had to literally pull him along at times, but it was worth it when he embraced me on top, offering heartfelt thanks for taking him up "the biggest climb of my life."

Back in the valley, we had to decide on a final route. It had to be big, and it had to be rock, so there wasn't much debate, the Dru being the obvious choice. The only question was whether to do the American Direct or the Bonatti Pillar. Wc both wanted the summit, and so chose the Bonatti. We could bivy on the Flames de Pierre ridge, rappel to the climb, then return to our boots and bivy gear on the descent. Most modern parties on the American Direct climb to the jammed block (best free climbing) then rappel, thus avoiding the heavy rucksacks necessary for a summit climb and descent down the Charpoua Glacier on the back side.

Our British friends, Neil and Roy, accompanied us on the long approach. We had anxiously waited out some bad weather and were raring to go, but so it seemed were half the climbers in Chamonix. We arrived at the ridge to find a multi-national bivy city spread around on every available ledge. We counted ten parties. Our evening was pleasantly occupicd arranging rocks on a semi-flat spot fifty meters below the ridge, photographing two parties half way up the pillar, then gulping down a huge mess of my special salmon-potato flakes-soup-mix glop for a tasty rib sticking dinner. As we ate, Bernd studied the topo once again, speculating on the difficulty and nature of the individual pitches. He still held his long cherished dream to free the route, while I just wanted to get up it as quickly and efficiently as possible. We argued the merits of free versus fast until it became obvious no compromise was possible. He would make a free attempt, while I would do it any which way. Although I never directly stated it, I knew Bernd's plan was doomed to failure. University pressures had cut more and more into his training and climbing time. The old "butcher's dog" musculature was still discernable, but not so well defined. His technical skill remained, but he lacked the endurance necessary for continuously difficult climbing on such a long alpine route.

We were up early the next morning, gulping down cereal and coffee in our sleeping bags, headlamps illuminating the small granite ledge. Scrambling up, we didn't see any other lights until we picked up Neil and Roy on our way to the rappels. The first faint light was coming into the sky as we set off into the abyss. This area had a bad reputation for stonefall but our pre-dawn start paid off, getting us clear before most of the others started down the rappels..

Bernd and I were first on the pillar and moved well up the first few pitches, with Neil and Roy just behind. We all seemed to be getting into a good rhythm until we hit a few hard movcs and Bernd began to fiddle around with stylistic niceties, when a quick pull on a crab would do the job. I vocalized my impatience when Neil and Roy had to wait, and I could sec other parties finishing the rappels and starting to climb. Bernd ignored our pleading, mumbling something about his dream, and so we jerked along: Bernd slowly and beautifully working his way up his leads in immaculate style, while I heaved myself up, panting with exertion as I followed with the pack; then grabbed, jammed, grunted, stemmed, and generally cheated up my leads as fast as possible.

I really tried to put on the steam when I heard foreign voices approaching. We had been hearing shouts in various languages all morning, but they now seemed louder and more strident. When quiet and good-natured Roy began to vehemently curse, I wondered what in the world the problem could be, his party being out of sight just around a corner. When Neil, if anything, cooler than Roy, began violent swearing, I really got worried. Then the source of the trouble came zooming up and around the corner toward me in the form of the rudest, most arrogant jerk l've ever had the displeasure to meet in the mountains. Two ltalians were out for a "sport climb," dressed for a fine autumn day in Yosemite, wearing white cotton pants and rugby shirts. They were simul-climbing without a pack (nor food, water, extra clothes, etc.), clipping and pulling on all the fixed pro, moving in a frenzy that took no regard for the mere mortals in the way. Not once did they ask to pass; they just pushed by, even going as far as to use Neil's leg for a hand hold and his shoulder for a foot hold as he was leading! He'd never been tempted to pull another climber off, but he momentarily considered it until he realized they were clipped into the same fixed pins as he and Roy.

When the leader reached me I was hanging at a belay in a smooth, right angle dihedral, with no way to pass but directly over my body. Bernd was almost at the next ledge and I tried to ask the fellow to wait a moment and l'd be out of his way. He ignored me, reached up to grab my belay, pulled himself up. and shouldered me to one side. I shoudered him right back. Then he countered with an elbow in my side. I momentarily passed my brcaking point and began bashing down on him with my elbow. Suddenly, I came to my senses and realized where I was; high on one of the most beautiful pieces of rock in the world, and I was about to get into an all-out fist fight at a hanging belay! I slumped to one side, feeling dirty and ashamed of the beast inside still boiling with anger, and watched, my eyes smoldering with hatred as they pushed their way through.

As it turned out, they traversed off two thirds of the way up, presumably burnt out from lack of food and water, but not before they'd engendered the enmity of almost twenty climbers from Germany, England, America, Holland, Spain, and France. I still can't figure the point of this churlish exercise. After they were gone we all calmed down and continued. Bernd led the crux pitch, a hard to protect, strenuous wide crack which he laybacked. Thankfully, he was forced to rest on a Friend, thus ending his free attempt, but not before he'd expended a lot of precious time and energy.

We stayed well ahead of the other parties until a traffic jam occurred just below the aid headwall when we caught up to a Dutch party who'd bivied on the climb. They were stuck behind some extremely slow French. Both parties traversed off just above, giving Bernd and I a clear run to the summit, but we found ourselves moving slower and slower. These pitches were surprisingly sustained, with short steep walls of rough, orange granite, interspersed with good belay ledges. As the sun slipped toward the horizon, Bernd's energy (which he'd squandered lower) ran out. A few hundred feet below the summit his arms began to seize up with cramps, so we let Neil and Roy pass. They were soon out of sight. We were reduced to a halting crawl when Bernd had to stop every few moves to moan and massage his aching arms. Only two moderate pitches below the top it became obvious we'd better traverse off on a series of disconnected ledges that led down around to the descent ridge.

Neil and Roy caught up to us on the second rappel (they were the only party to reach the summit that day) and we continued down together, finally arriving at our bivy by headlamp around 11 p.m.

Relaxing in the valley the next day, I had mixed emotions. From Snell's Field you could see just the summit spike above the trees, a pristine apogee that had barely eluded me. Closing my eyes I remembered the incredible view down through my feet at Neil as he climbed a steep golden wall, the cracked and sinuous Mer dc Glace spilling out of the Vallee Blanche seven thousand feet below; and beyond, the tiny buildings of Chamonix nestled in green. But there were also the Italians, who had the audacity to be camped at a nearby campground. And finally there was Bernd. I was pissed; it was his unrealistic insistence on striving for his goal that had deprived me of mine. He had profusely apologized, only to be rudely admonished that I'd told him so.

By evening I was mellowing out and putting things in perspective. The warm glow of wine in my body seemed to match the alpenglow on the peak. As I passed Bernd the bottle I saw that his gaze was also high above the valley. Our eyes met and a silent bond of understanding passed between us. What matter the summit'? More important the striving, and then a safe descent. We had enjoyed some fine situations (and some not so fine), but in that moment we realized our friendship had survived it all. I slapped him on the shoulder, he took another swig, and grinning, handed me the bottle.

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