"Oh you bastard, don't do this to me now... Shitshitshitshit...!"
It's a burst of earthy Anglo-Saxon delivered at high volume to a small international audience of on-looking bemused guides and clients. Not the sort of language you'd expect to hear in such a beautiful place but I'm not happy and I don't care who knows it. I'm on the hardest section of the hardest Alpine route I've ever done, one move from the top, and I can't get my foot onto the hold because the crampon on my right boot has snagged itself on my gaiter.
It's a slapstick moment but I'm not seeing the funny side. I need to move my right foot about 6 inches higher to get the twin steel front points of my crampon onto the granite flake. Pull as I might, the elastic toggle that's designed to stop the gaiter from sliding down my calf is stronger than I am, leaving me precariously balanced and feeling weaker by the second. I'm more angry than scared. More than anything I want to be off this piece of rock, off this route and back in the comfort of the Aiguille Du Midi cable car station, which in the clear alpine air can be seen a tantalising few hundred feet away. First of all I need to get up and onto the relative comfort of the ledge. What the hell was I thinking coming here?
The Cosmique Arete is a classic beginner's level mixed climb, winding along, up and through some spectacular rock pillars at an airy 9000 feet above Chamonix on the valley floor and a proper 'three star classic'.
My friend Dave had suggested it to Phil and I as part of our trip to the French Alps to push our climbing horizons. Reading through the comments on UK Climbing I can see that every man and his dog have done it. The comments, 'brilliant', loved it' and 'amazing' tell their own story and at my desk in Nottingham, sneaking a look through the pictures at lunchtime it looks great and pretty straightforward. A read through the route description yields the following, 'a couple of abseils' (care needed here obviously), some 'straightforward scrambling' and one bit of 'actual rock climbing' at a grade I can do consistently and easily, about 3 hours in total. "Yep, looks great Dave, I'm up for that." I email back. Phil is more circumspect, but then, I think, he's not really a climber and so isn't as strong as I am on rock. Phil will not be joining us for this bit of the trip. I will come to very much envy Phil and his wisdom later.
The Aiguille du Midi Station itself is something to see. One half motorway service station to one part videogame level from 'Doom'. An assortment of ironmongery bolted and concreted to two rock spires. Switchback corridors, rusting metal, an ice cave and overheated giftshops and cafes. All this at 11 000 feet. It's 9 am, we shuffle out of the first cable car of the day, still yawning and digesting breakfast at this early hour and follow our fellow Alpinists through to the kitting up area. 'I'm now an Alpist' I think to myself. I like the sound of it. Dave and I gather rope coils and wrap them over our shoulders. We almost look the part. Dave looks at me and pauses, “We should have put our rucksacks on before coiling the rope” he says. Sheepishly we try again and get it right the second time. Fortunately there are no witnesses, most people have already left, slickly and efficiently doing what it took Dave and I two tries to get right.
A step through an iron gate leads onto a steep narrow path that follows the snowed up ridge. Even leaving the station gets the heart pumping. To the left, there's a hundred feet of steep slope before the drop of 5,200ft down to the halfway station. To the right it's a mere 1000ft down to the Col du Midi. These are not sheer drops, you'd bounce a lot before eventually coming to rest. I focus determinedly on the path. Best not to look down. It's well trodden but my feet still feel unsteady, despite the crampons. I take a firmer grip on my ice axe and concentrate on keeping my weight on my heels, picturing the spikes digging securely into the ice. It is an incredible place. To our right rises Mont Blanc du Tacul, a 45 degree snow slope leading up 2200ft, crevassed and intimidating. Beyond it lies Mont Blanc itself, a great white dome, somehow inviting and oppressing at the same time. The Glacier du Geant, a blasted white plain takes up most of the rest of the view, split by the Hellebronner cable car run, punctuated by myriad peaks and spires.
We make our way down to the glacier, walking apart, each holding a few coils of the rope that joins us. I look up at the great granite cliffs towering above us, tawny grey-gold and pinkish in the strong sun. I keep half an eye on Dave, aware of the slight but ever present risk of one of us falling through a crevasse and feeling occasionally for the comfort of the ice screw, holstered at my hip, hoping that I won't need to use it. What would be worse, I ponder, falling through and dangling in the icy chamber above the deep dark depth depths, or frantically trying to hold the fall and screw in the protection, your partner relying on you to make them safe.
The ground soon begins to rise towards the start of the arête and even this modest gradient is a reminder than we're over 10 000 feet above sea level. We have to slow up so that we don't keep losing our breath. There are plenty of footprints to guide us up the ridge and despite our early start there are a lot of parties ahead of us. We stop to wait for a space to clear above and I risk a glance down to our left. The drop is sickening, almost literally. I swallow hard, take a good hold of the rock and try to think about other things. “We're not on the route yet” Dave tells me. “Oh, right” I reply. There's not much more I can think of to say.
It turns out we're queuing for the first abseil. To me, an abseil is what you do at Stanage if you need to lower down get some stuck climbing gear out. You feel the sun on your skin, smell the scent of the heather, chat casually to your partner as you lower off, the carpark a 10 minute walk away and perhaps there's an ice-cream van tinkling in the distance. Crouched on top of a snow covered rock pillar at 12 000ft waiting for a party of 8 Quebecoise Canadians to get clear it becomes a much scarier proposition. The delay, however, does give a waiting Italian the chance to tell me my crampon isn't attached properly. He's right and I thank him and sort it out. I now feel like an idiot. Still, it's something to take my mind off the increasing amounts of fear I'm feeling. The phrase 'cart-wheeling like a rag-doll down the face' is spinning through my head.
Dave will go first. I check his set-up and watch as he seems to struggle to get down and across to the next platform, a space just about large enough for the 6 people waiting for the second abseil to stand. It's my turn and I move on cramped legs to the lower-off. This abseil goes down and sideways, so I can't just dangle on the rope and let my weight pull me down. I need to keep in contact with the rock with my hands and pull the rope through the belay device. The ideal number of hands for this would be around four. I'm handicapped with having just the two. I struggle to get my body around a bulge, moving the rope through the belay device and French prussic six inches at a time. If I lose my balance it'd be a sideways pendulum of about 10 feet and then a dangle over a drop of hundreds of feet. Nothing to worry about in theory but I'm as scared as I've ever been and I focus utterly on the rope and keeping my balance, creating enough slack to allow me to shift my weight around the snow plastered pillar and then stand. With a last shuffle I get my hips around the obstacle and with a huge amount of relief move across to Dave. “That last bit wasn't much fun” I say, making sure my voice is steady. Fear can be infectious and I don't want Dave to catch any from me, or for him to worry that I'm having second thoughts. “Yeah, it was pretty hard”. Dave sounds confident and I'm very glad he is.
My relief is short lived. The next abseil is coming up and it's a steep scramble down to the bolted metal lower-off. We set up a belay to give Dave some protection, digging the ice axe vertically into the snow and looping the rope around it. The previous party scrambled down un-roped but we don't feel that confident. Dave sets up his abseil and lowers awkwardly off, bumping past the protruding blocks and disappearing from view. He soon shouts “safe” and again it's my turn. I'm clipped to the lower-off with an 8 foot nylon sling which dangles slack by my feet. I know it's not a good setup if 'shockloaded' and may or may not be good enough to hold me if I slip. There are waves of fear and near panic boiling up inside me. I want to curl up into a ball, to go back, to have someone lower me off this route, to have someone call a helicopter. I'd give pretty much anything to be somewhere else. The fear's almost to the point of incapacitating me, the babble of panic drowning out the voice of reason and leaving me frozen to the spot. I manage to muffle the doubting voices, knowing that forward is the only real way off here and move down to the lower off as carefully as I can. I attach myself to the rope and immediately feel massively better. I move down to join Dave quickly, the vertical drop actually making it much easier than the last abseil. There are now no more abseils, just the crux pitch to look forward to.
Dave and I rope up again, moving around the base of a giant granite tower or 'gendarme', Dave looping the rope over rock spikes as he leads off, so that if either of us fall they'll hold us. There aren't always any spikes though and if either of us slips we'll drag the other off. Dave leads up through a gully, pulling himself over snow covered blocks and I struggle to follow, feeling awkward in my clumsy boots, crampons scratching and scrabbling, unable to find the strength to pull myself up, belly-flopping over the top in an undignified heap. All of my climbing wall trained finger-strength and delicate footwork is of no use here, smothered by bulky clothing, rucksack and gloves. I am again immensely glad that Dave is leading instead of me.
We shortly find ourselves at the base of the crux pitch. Dave will go first. The ledge beneath the slab is narrow, too narrow to stand on and belay him so I stand a few feet off to the side. He clips the rope into the piton that's been driven deep into the crack, about 5 feet up. I'm aware that if Dave falls he'll pull me off my feet from where I'm standing and we'll both end up dangling over the drop, a combined 26 stone resting on a few inches of steel. He powers his way up, determination serving instead of grace but he's got the job done. And so I start up the pitch, actually climbing well, smoothly and controlled, I'm feeling good and glad to be showing the locals that while we might not be much good on the snow, we're ok on the rock. Until of course I get my crampon stuck...
“Oh you bastard, don't do this to me now... Shitshitshitshit...!”
All I need to do of course is calm down and take a moment. Taking a strong grip with my left hand I reach down with my right and fiddle the elastic clear of the spike and in four moves and I'm up alongside Dave and tied into the metal bolt in the granite. Having completed both the abseils and crux pitch we know that we're nearly at the end. There is absolutely no danger of my relaxing too soon.
Halfway up the final gully Dave turns and grins a massive grin, “This is brilliant” he says. I scrape together the approximation of a smile, not trusting myself to reply. He disappears and I contemplate my belay. Two good anchors, perfectly equalised, it's bomb-proof and textbook. I'm proud of it and the guides strolling past with roped up clients can at least see I'm not a total amateur. We can see Phil on the platform photographing away, no doubt wondering what's taken so long. Finally it's my turn to move and with the drops hidden by the gully walls I can start to climb like a climber, looking for the holds, shifting from balanced position to balanced position; moving economically from stance to stance. This is, after all, a lot of fun and total punter that I am, this is still properly easy. I move out to join Dave at the top where we tidy up the loose coils of rope and walk the last few feet across the narrow snow path to the battered steel ladder that leads to the tourist heavy viewing platform. I'm grinning too now, an adrenaline smile of relief. We're finished and I don't have to do anything like that ever again.
All that day and for days afterwards I'm very sure that I never want to do anything like this again. I pushed myself too far out of my comfort zone, tried to take too big a step. I went where eagles dare and found out I was more of a penguin. But I also found I wasn't disappointed in myself. I'd hoped to find a cool courage in the mountains, to be tossing off laconic Whillanseque one-liners whilst dangling one armed over some death-drop, dealing competently and slickly with everything that came along. Instead I found I was more frightened, weaker and more hesitant than I ever thought I would be. But that was ok, because I had kept it together, kept myself and my partner safe and I'd seen it through. The route had burned away all the bravado, the over-confidence, the stupid macho desire to prove how 'hardcore' I am to myself or anyone else. I'll never again think badly of anyone who can barely make themselves move up the easiest scramble, because I know that I'm no better than they are and that I too have my limits. The route left me with an honest confidence, an understanding of my limits and a purer ambition to walk and climb each path and route for its own sake. No more walking or climbing for the numbers, pushing out to greater distances, up higher hills or harder routes. Just the pleasure that each day out can bring, long or short, in the high hills or valley bottoms.
When I arrived home I was looking through my mountaineering books. I read again about Andy Kirkpatrick's routes. About his certainty at the end of each trip that it was the last, he'd never go back, that he was done with climbing. Maybe I'm not as much of a coward as I thought and just, well, normal. And was it as bad as I remember? It can't have been really, can it? Some bits were actually brilliant. Now I know what to expect it'd probably be fine wouldn't it? So is anyone up for a trip to the Alps? There are some great routes I want to do. You'll love them. I promise.