UKC

The Hard Way Down: A Brutal Reminder of Alpine Danger

Like many British climbers, Cassim Ladha and his friend Paul ventured to the French Alps this summer to get their fill of some classic routes. All was going so well - until complacency set in and the inevitable happened. Many thanks to Cassim for bravely writing about his experience, in the hope that others take heed and respect the indiscriminate dangers that an alpine environment poses.


The plan was hatched as usual down the wall. The psyche was high and Paul was as desperate as I was to get some alpine action under his belt. Last year had been a wash out for both of us with the good conditions only appearing late August and September when we had both already taken our annual leave. 

Unlike previous years we took the tunnel instead of the ferry and managed to time our escape perfectly around traffic jams caused by striking ferry operators. After only a 13 hour trip we arrived in Chamonix and immediately set about getting everything unpacked and in order. With 5 days of consecutive sunshine forecast we were adamant to make the most of it. 

Cassim enjoying the early days of his Alpine trip, 120 kb
Cassim enjoying the early days of his Alpine trip

Our main objective for the trip was the North Face of the Dru; something both Paul and I had had on our tick lists for years and - all things going well - a route which should be within our grade limit to find enjoyable. However, we decided to get a few metres under our belts first and make sure we were well acclimatised. The very next morning we woke at a moderate hour, caught the cable car up and walked in for the Frendo Spur.

With an excellent route topo I found here by Alex Buisse, we dispatched the bottom rock pitches easily and found ourselves at the bivi spot below the snow break in time for an amazing sunset. 

Early next morning, we found the top ice pitches in much better nick than we expected and after a few hours of burning calves we were basking on the veranda of the midi station sipping Powerade and talking rubbish.

That night we slept low but decided to go up again the following day and try to make use of the fine weather spell. After a long debate and hard ponder over the Philippe Batoux Mont Blanc guide, we set our sights on two days of ticking-off granite classics we had always passed on the walk in to other objectives; Contamine route on Pointe Lachenal followed by the Rebuffat route on the Midi.

Climbing the Contamine was utterly brilliant; the bivi beforehand was not. In an attempt to experiment with clothing systems, we managed to get very cold! After the route we started the walk back across the Vallee Blanche and without much convincing, both Paul and I decided we owed ourselves a night in the Cosmiques hut.

The first days of the trip, 149 kb
The first days of the trip

The next morning we were up bright and early with the rest of hut. After a swift breakfast, we were keen to get on with the climbing; we knew the route was a classic and there could well be queues. After dispatching the previous routes, it would be fair to say I was in a fairly confident mood. That morning I happened to be ready before Paul (he had some issues with the hut coffee and dropping the kids off!). With him a few metres in tow I started to make my way down the path from the hut and over to the route base. That morning, unlike the previous days, we decided to walk in un-roped or even without helmets. For those not familiar with the area, the walk is a brief 10 minute affair, downhill, across a large snow glacier called the Vallee Blanche (and on that day there was a well-beaten path trodden by hundreds of other climbers). Out of the hut, I remember thinking the snow was a little slushy underfoot and in hindsight this was the red flag that we should have changed our modus operandi. However, following two parties ahead on the way down the path I came across a small opening about the diameter of a car tyre. Being in the nonchalant mood I was, I hopped over and then I was falling.

I remember hitting my head, hard, once. Then guarding my face with my arms, then hitting my head again. It seemed to take ages to stop falling and I remember mid-way through thinking so. When I finally did come to rest, my eyes were blurry and there was a lot of blood next to me. At first I thought I must be impaled but then quickly realised I had dropped my axe and it had disappeared down a deep hole beside me. In fact, most of the stuff on my harness had managed to become unclipped! The following seconds involved me doing a series of weird system checks on myself; can I move my toes, legs, fingers, arms? What is the damage to my head? Where is all the blood coming from? Where does it hurt to prod? I took several photos of the back of my head, and face to try and work out the damage.

A selfie to assess the damage, 70 kb
A selfie to assess the damage

During all of this I also realised just where I had landed. On both sides of me were deep, black, unforgiving voids of nothingness. I remember feeling an icy chill bubbling from them and a disturbing creak every now and again. The large chock of ice I was standing on suddenly became very scary and I became even more keen to get out of the huge crevasse I had tumbled into.

Panoramic view of the crevasse. Small patch of red is where I landed, 77 kb
Panoramic view of the crevasse. Small patch of red is where I landed

It was a good few minutes before Paul finally poked his head over the edge and hollered down to me. I later found out he had taken the time to secure a rope and shout for some backup help (thankfully, being where we were there was no shortage of people about). It wasn't long (about 10 mins) before he had lowered me a rope with an ice-axe attached and organised a team to help haul me out. Being in the state I was, I never did get those people's names but if they are reading, please drop me a line! 

In the end I managed to walk back to just before the ridge line on the Arête du Midi. For those not familiar with the ridge, it's fair to say it's a pretty knarly footpath; a 250m long snow arete that's probably as exposed as it's possible to get this side of the Andes. It was Paul who suggested we call a chopper in, and he was right. The conditions by this time in the day were Slush Puppie at best and given I had fallen 25m, I knew at that distance I was at risk of internal hemorrhage (not to mention I didn't have an ace axe any more and my eyesight was a bit blurry at best). I would need to go to hospital anyway so why risk walking the ridge and delay things with a painful walk out and car ride?

In hospital I was kept in overnight and it turned out nothing was broken apart from my nose! I was relieved but also very emotionally reflective on the events that had just unfolded; what if things hadn't turned out that way? It took a while for it all to sink in and it was whilst lying in bed watching the Tour de France that I decided to write this article. 

Getting the once over in hospital, 173 kb
Getting the once over in hospital

The truth be told this was probably the wakeup call I needed. I was a prime candidate for all this to happen to; a little bit cocky of the routes I had just done and not really giving the mountain environment my full attention. Of course, it's important to enjoy the surroundings but I just forgot where I was; I was acting like I was not on a huge glacier and did away with the rigorous protocols I deployed in the more remote regions. Why? After getting out of hospital I spoke to a number of folk about it including Ueli Steck (whom was camped next to us doing his 82 peak challenge) and Will Sim who needs no introduction either. The conversations that ensued again made me realise how close I had come to "meeting my maker" and Will actually mentioned that this particular crevasse was quite well known amongst the guides (but obviously not to normal folk like me).

As a take-home message from all this, the point is that nobody is immune against the mountain environment and despite the bland appearance when the weather is fine, it's never ok to let down your guard. Sure, alpinism IS a game of poker. Bad hands can be dealt to anyone. In the end though, there are things we can all do to make the odds more acceptable and in my case, I have learned some very valuable lessons about strategy, bluffing and risk. It's good to be reflective and I have been rattled and humbled by the whole experience.

I ask myself now, even though I got away with it this time, was there a different way to get the same result; a safer way perhaps? If this stimulates anyone else to think the same, then it was a not a waste of time sharing!

 

 



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