The North Face Races - Les Courtes & Les Droitesby Gordon Smith Jun/2008
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Gordon Smith takes us back to the mid Seventies and shares some of his Alpine adventures. An all star cast help him along - 'Dirty Alex', 'Black Nick', Terry 'Kingy' King and John Bouchard amongst others.
Recently I've been reading about speed records up the Eiger North Face. Absurd ascents that make the Nordwand, or that which Patey referred to as the Mordwand, into something akin to a no-big-deal 10K footrace. It takes me back to when I did my own little bit of North Face Racing, years ago when I was a fit young laddie, in the Argentiere Basin near Mont Blanc.
I was very young then, and had not developed the little sense I now possess. I went out to the Alps on the back of someone's motorbike for a week's climbing holiday. Whilst preparing to descend from the Refuge d'Argentiere, defeated in an attempt on the North Face of the Triolet with one of the old hands, the sky being very clear and the weather cold, I happened to notice a very pretty mountain face that really struck my fancy.
"Wot's that then? Wot's that face over there? Can't we climb that one?", says I champing at the bit because our idleness had robbed me of some climbing.
"Oh no. That's the North Face of the Courtes. You have to be an expert with years and years of experience to climb that one. It's very hard."
We went on back down to Chamonix and Snell's Field. 'Nuff said.
Now, it just so happened that I'd really liked the look of that mountain face. It looked just like a proper mountain should, not like Ben Nevis at all. It had a pointy top and a triangular flank of shining white that faced the Argentiere hut. I really wanted to go and have a closer look at it because it didn't look so very hard. Not hard like Point Five and Zero Gully on the Ben anyway. Being young and very ignorant, I packed up my sack with some yummy things to eat, grabbed my Chouinard Frost axe, Salewa hammer and crampons and thumbed a ride to Argentiere village. I intended to go up and have my closer look. Being a lazy bugger, which is always an expensive problem, I took a ride on the first part of the Grands Montets Telecabine and wandered onto the Glacier towards Les Courtes. It was very beautiful, jagged peaks all around, blue sky, hot sun, white snow and a lovely glacier stretching up before me. At first the ice was bare of snow and an easy romp along. Then there was some snow to walk through, but with a very nice trail which, inconveniently, turned away towards the refuge. I wanted to go straight on up the right hand side of the glacier towards Les Courtes and soon I was wandering blithely over the crusted snow, meandering around some dark slots in the surface, looking up at the Vertes and the Droites above my head. They looked very big, and I felt very small. Just a silly boy out for an afternoon walk. Eventually, about three o' clock in the afternoon and having half fallen into several crevasses without denting the armour of my ignorance, I arrived at the foot of the Swiss Route on the North Face of Les Courtes. My original plan had been to take a look at the wall in the afternoon sun, and then sleep on top of a plastic bag that I had with me, and return down to Argentiere the next morning. But like all well made plans, the plan went awry. I popped over the rimaye for a closer look, because it was filled with fallen blocks of ice and snow and therefore easy, and I wandered a ways up the face because it didn't seem so very steep and therefore seemed so very easy.
Now it just so also happened that it took me almost exactly three hours for that little accidental adventure and a couple of years later a friend, that demonic pixie Dirty Alex, soloed the Swiss Route too. He did it, as he noted, in exactly two hours and fifty seven minutes. So he beat my time, and he was quick and proud to let me know it. I didn't quibble although I might have. I didn't know if I'd done the route in two hours and fifty minutes. Or three hours and ten. I let him have his moment of glory at the Club Vagabond bar, however. But the trouble with Alex was, I felt, that he wanted too much of it, the glory that is. Always a dangerous thing for a mountaineer. Statistically, that is.
The next year, 1975 that would have been, Terry King and I went up to do the North Face of the Droites, the Cornau-Davaille route, which still had an awful reputation for difficulty and seriousness at that time. For our first attempt the weather was beautiful and settled and we climbed together well, having already done a couple or three North Faces that season and so were no longer 'North Face Novices'. Unfortunately, in the middle of the great ice-field, one of my Chouinard rigid crampons broke leaving us with the choice of my gimping to the top hopping on one cramponned foot, or retreat. Kingy was always bold and driven but I restrained his enthusiasm and pointed him downhill. I had the easy part, then, abseiling down the rope anchored to wobbly ice-screws. Kingy, of course, had to down climb. Unfortunately, in those days Kingy was an absolute addict of the leaf. Tea and Tobacco were his sins. And he lost his packet of fags 'en descente' and, him being such an addict, got very shirty about it. Still, we carried on down, what else to do, with Kingy growling intolerantly and hurrying us on ravaged by his monstrous cravings. We stormed down the long path into the valley. The next problem, however, was that we arrived in the village sometime in the wee small hours when all were abed, no cigarette shops were open, and no cars were motoring along the road in the direction of the Biolay campsite and Kingy's fag stash. We stood by that road for hours without a car passing. At least I stood, ready to thumb a ride for us, while Kingy grovelled incontinently in the dirt looking for discarded butts to smoke. Kingy was like that, though. No pride at all. A victim of his cravings. Saw him a few days after following a little boy down the street in Chamonix, the little boy having a very large and unbalanced ice cream in his hand. The moment that ice cream hit the dirt, Kingy scooped it up and scarfed it down. I suppose we did lack luxuries in those days, being true climbing vagrants unlike the cosseted climber of today.
The next morning after a comfortable, if sleepless few hours on the hut verandah we six climbers trailed out after the French guided parties and made our sleepy way across the Argentiere Glacier, a little string of bobbing lights in the frozen darkness. With the sun well up we blundered our way into the rimaye, the yawning slot beneath the North Face. It just so happened that in those days I seemed to have an uncanny ability to find the best way through crevassed glaciers and out of rimayes onto climbs. Our 'B' team, Kingy and myself, were therefore first out of the traps and onto the thin ice covering the granite slabs. The 'A' team were fairly close behind but the other 'B' team, Dirty Alex and Black Nick seemed to have got themselves into a tangle, or had selected a peculiarly difficult place to cross the rimaye. Kingy and I climbed on up onto the great icefield, through a steep, bulging goulotte of water-ice, glistening in the early sunshine. The 'A' team panted behind and to our right, their red tongues lolling out as they scampered along as fast as they could go. Dirty Alex and Black Nick, the lazy dossers, still seemed to be sitting around in the bottom of the rimaye.
Striving on for the summit ridge, miles it seemed above our heads, Kingy and I noticed that the 'A' team had dropped one end of their 300 foot 9mm rope, and were now doing 300 foot pitches. We had two 150 foot ropes, instead of a single 300 foot rope, and so were limited to 150 foot pitches. This meant that the 'A' team were catching up at a hideous pace. As they steamed past us, all flags flying, we decided to drop all pretence of belaying from wobbly ice screw to wobbly ice screw and moved together in hot pursuit with our boilers overheated near to bursting. Black Nick and Dirty Alex by now had appeared, tiny dots far below, out of the rimaye but their chances in this race were dodgy indeed.
We followed the 'A' team up through the mixed ground at the top of the climb, ground that wasn't hard and that wasn't easy, slowly narrowing the gap until, sometime in the afternoon, we all suddenly came to the summit ridge and sat down. All, that is, but for Black Nick and Dirty Alex who were still little dots far below. We waited in the afternoon sun until the two laggards came fairly close and then we set about traversing the ridge to an abseil point. After the abseil we scampered down the gullies and along the paths that I recognised from my little adventure of the previous year to the Couvercle Hut, where a pleasant surprise awaited us. The so-called 'winter hut' was still open, a free and welcome doss for our gang of vagrant Anglo-Saxons.
Well, enough of this nonsense. Without a doubt Uli Steck and his mates would simply have looked down their high-speed noses at our old fashioned accomplishments. But that six or seven hours of exuberant racing up a face then regarded with such awe was one of the climbs that epitomised the cracking of old Alpine reputations, the disappearance of 'Grande Course' mystic. And this new proletarian attitude has been no 'flash in the pan' fad, either. The French, the Italians, the Swiss and all the other Alpine young upstarts, unwilling to be left behind, followed quickly in the footsteps of our 'smelly foot-brigade', with an explosion of youthful hard Alpinism. Oh, by the way Kingy and I went on to have another run-in with Bouchard and Sjawonski a few days after our race up the Droites. As we set off down from the first station of the Grands Montets Telecabine fiercely intending to do the third ascent of the Dru Couloir who should we find wandering back up to the station but those two, leering with very self-satisfied grins. And we knew the minute that we saw them, what they'd done. The dirty rats indeed!
"I haven't thought about Winter or Alpine climbing for about thirty years, except I did rock climb in Yosemite, Tuolumne, Joshua Tree and Lover's Leap for a couple or three years in the mid eighties. Got seriously into running and open water swimming instead. That evolved into sailing, so I single handed a thirty foot sailboat from California through the S. Pacific to the Philippines. Then I did a double handed trip on the boat to Japan and back to the Philippines, followed by a fully crewed trip (the youngest crew is clearly the man in charge, though he is a little young to be called 'captain') to Micronesia (whacked about for 4 days in a category 4 typhoon west of Palau Island) and back to the Philippines where I am now trapped in the hot, steamy jungles. Quite often I wish I was back in Scotland with a nice cold powder snow avalanche going down my neck!"