Read Alpine Introduction by Rich Cross HERE
Read The North Face Races - Les Courtes & Les Droites by Gordon Smith HERE
Courting the Easy Way - An ascent of the Austrian Route in 1980
What a summer we had ahead. July 1980 & I had just graduated from university with what just constituted for a degree. A “sportsmans degree” some called it, but I was no sportsman, just too busy messing around on rocks with or without ropes to be bothered. Hell, I'd even had to call a mate to find out my grade whilst walking up to Whyte Ghyll crag to get a last route of the day in. Graduation ceremony? Why bother, too much action to miss in the Alps.
The journey out in the Hobbit's pale blue Ford Anglia (no, it couldn't fly, like the boy wizard's) was a telling start to the summer. First he was late leaving Wembley due to brake problems, so when he reached my place in north Kent he crashed in bed whilst I loaded the car up with my extensive amount of gear & food, no two week trip here, all summer was the aim, no job to come back to, so let's make the best of it. It was a long drive down, getting an early morning ferry from Dover, then a slow progression along French country roads. We gave up for the day somewhere near Dijon, took a side road, turned into a field & crashed in some sort of farm labourer's caravan, almost luxury after the Anglia's cramped seats. This was one of those journeys that seemed to exist solely for the purpose of the journey itself, not the destination.
The next day eventually saw us reach our destination, the Alpine hotspot that was Chamonix, meeting up with friends & getting ensconced in some woods below the Bossons. It also saw the start of interminably crap weather. The Bar Nat' became very familiar, far more than any mountain top views. One aborted trip up to the Talefre glacier saw a lot of snow plodding and a stomach bug. After a week we bailed out for the sunny south, La Palud to be precise, where the cream of British rock climbing were exercising their muscles in the Verdon Gorge - on rock we could only dream of. Hey, it was warm & the rock was dry, if a little daunting when 500 foot abseils took you to a ledge half way down, & the easiest way up is the abseil line! No matter, 2 routes later & all was well. After a failure to find a route on the last day I went for a run & got carried away, arriving back in the campsite over two hours later, sadly after sunset, making the discovery that the showers were solar heated, brrrr.
Enough of the sun, back to the mountains. The Hobbit & I fancied the North Face of Les Courtes. Everybody was doing the Swiss route, so to be different we set our sights on the Austrian Route; a touch easier, but more interesting, the books said. Getting up there was no bother, & I was keen to try out my latest idea for lightweight bivvying, inside a fibre-pile bag (this was well before fleece was invented, remember) with my Goretex cagoule wrapped around it as wind-proofing. One slight problem, you try doing up your cagoule zip with your hands inside a sleeping bag. Oh dear, I ended up in the cagoule with the sleeping bag outside, which the wind ripped straight though, perched as we were on an exposed section of the Argentiere Glacier. By midnight I was approaching the condition of those wee cubes you drop in G&Ts, so while the Hobbit made breakfast he let me climb inside his bag & regain some feelings in my extremities, & the rest. Fortunately this had the desired effect & life returned. Come 2am we were heading across the glacier to the foot of the face, which was lit by a full moon, with a crystal clear sky, perfection at last.
We started on the route at 3.15, finding it in unbelievable condition, beautiful neve, often with steps in it. Our only upset was that two other climbers had got on the route before us, spoiling our dream of an empty route. They had probably started about an hour before us & were already some way up. As it was in such good nick we left the ropes in the rucksacks & climbed unroped. At about half height we caught up the others, two Dutch lads, they were pitching some or all of it. Just after that we encountered the only water ice, for 50 metres or so, this was the only time we resorted to headtorches, such was the light of the moon. In some ways it was mostly a protracted snowplod, but in the stunning surroundings of the Argentiere basin. After the ice it was more neve and steps to the small ridge, then ever upwards to the crest, just right of the summit. We arrived on top at 6am, & the sun popped up above the horizon five minutes later. There was nothing to do but brew up & sit there, watching nature reveal a stunning mountain landscape turn from grey to orange. From the Grandes Jorasses to Mont Blanc the world came alive, still with our full moon watching over it. This was truly magical.
Our Dutch pair reached the summit safely as we readied ourselves to descend to the Couvercle, which we reached at 9am, still with a full day ahead to enjoy our experience. The memory of the rest of the descent has been lost in time. More routes followed, several failures, much lounging around Chamonix before the summer ended with a lift home in a minivan & the reality of finding a job.
We were young then and fairly fit, but very, very lucky to find this classic face in such good condition & have an amazing night to climb it in. No other route was rewarded by the sight of Mont Blanc slowly being bathed in colour. A magical end to the night.
About Mike C:
"Known as Mick Corser; in the late 1970's & early 80's I climbed regularly at Exeter University & after, when not stuck on drilling rigs in various locations. Marriage & movement to the flatlands saw that slip away until, now living in Scotland an accidental discovery of UKClimbing reawakened possibilities. The friends made through UKC turned it into reality & the thrill returned. Although not climbing as much or as well as in the past I still enjoy what I can do, and Scotland has so much to explore."