Jeff Mercier & Nick Bullock Rive Gauche Jack Geldard and Nick Brown - 5th August 2015 in association with
Nick Bullock - D.O.B. 25/12/1965 - No Fixed Abode
Nick Bullock is undeniably one of the UK's leading Alpinists. His CV of expeditions spans both continents and decades and his bold first ascents across the globe reek of commitment and drive. Bullock is not a young man, and at the tender age of 49 he still lives the dirtbag lifestyle, travelling, climbing, living out of a van and burning through climbing partners as his appetite for adventure, be that on ice or rock, is never satisfied.
Not one for the modern upside-down world of 'sport dry tooling', Bullock keeps fit on the hill, swinging his axes in to steep traditional terrain in the Alps or Scotland, interspersed with summers of climbing unprotected rubble on the sea cliffs of North Wales. He's a traditionalist. He's opinionated. He lives on a shoe string, and he climbs mountains that would make most of us quake with fear.
The route that started it all! Nick Bullock making the first ascent of the terrifying and virtually unprotected corner of Homeward Bound (Scottish VIII,8). After abseiling in to the wrong part of the cliff whilst searching for a much easier established climb, Bullock and partner Kenton Cool inadvertently discovered the potential of the Rive Gauche, a long 150m high rock band sat above the mouth of the Argentiere Glacier.
British Alpinist Nick Bullock, two-thirds of his way through his 2014/15 Alpine winter season, atop the Rive Gauche, Argentiere, France. Bullock, a vegetarian, eats a healthy, if somewhat price-restricted diet and keeps fit through climbing and regular circuit training. On this day the high food costs of the Chamonix valley have taken their toll and Bullock's fuel for the day is a large bag of 'Bon Prix' pain au chocolat, a little old, and bought at a knock down price. Not quite French 'haut cuisine'.
One of the old-guard of British Alpinism - more 'gnarly and bold' than 'fast and light' - Nick has climbed some of the Mont Blanc Range's most testing routes, but this season the crux of the climbing came in finding partners that weren't against spending a cold night or two away from their own beds.
Jeff Mercier - D.O.B. 07/09/1970 - Chamonix, France
Jeff Mercier is one of France's top winter climbing athletes. The 45 year-old Frenchman is a full time Mountain Rescue Officer in Chamonix and this super-fit father of two competes at the highest level in Dry Tooling competitions worldwide, taking the top spot in last year's Ouray Ice Festival in the USA. Like Bullock, Mercier's climbing CV is hugely impressive and well-rounded; as well as repeating many of the hardest dry tooling sport routes in the world, Mercier is also no slouch in the high mountains of Chamonix, regularly making desperate first ascents and repeats of difficult and bold mountain routes.
The clean-shaven Alpinist skis like he was born on snow and when he climbs his style is smooth, and despite the difficulty of some of the routes he tackles, Mercier is one of those climbers that 'makes it look so easy'.
Jeff Mercier on the hard classic Mach 3 (M9 / WI6) at Kandersteg, Switzerland. This was taken when Jeff climbed three of Kandersteg's hardest multi-pitch routes in a single day (Mach 3, M9 / Flying Circus, M10 / Ritter der Kokosnuss, D13).
Jeff Mercier belaying at the top of his own route 'Call of DT' - Rive Gauche, Argentiere. Mercier lives in the centre of Chamonix with his wife and children, and his job with the mountain rescue sees him flying in a helicopter over his beloved Mont Blanc Massif on an almost daily basis. His knowledge of the range is second to none, and Jeff keeps his eye on conditions of hard and rarely formed routes, ready to strike when the conditions and the weather are favourable.
In many ways Jeff Mercier and Nick Bullock share a lot of similarities. They are both passionate, opinionated and neither is afraid to speak their mind. They seek out adventure in the mountains and have the mental and physical abilities to create and repeat amazing climbs that make the headlines and fire people's imaginations.
Despite their obvious similar interests and personalities, when Bullock and Mercier first 'met', it wasn't all back slaps and beers. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Following the climbing media closely, both Nick and Jeff had been peering at each others lives, like snooping through windows, checking out each others' routes, achievements and abilities.
However these internet windows aren't glazed with normal glass, and what you see through your computer screen can be more akin to viewing the world through a fairground mirror. Things can be distorted, either purposely or accidentally, and reality can be a little different, with more room to manoeuvre. Reality is after all multi-dimensional.
Their online relationship started with a bang when in the winter of 2008/09 Nick Bullock climbed a steep French icefall called Cascade de la Lyre in the Cirque du Fer a Cheval, around an hour from Chamonix. Bullock, as is his wont, followed up his ascent with a report on his blog called "WILD MATE!", crafting his achievements in to a sarcastic post, making fun of overly stickered sponsored climbers and their "spraying" on the internet.
Bullock is an intelligent man and it wasn't lost on him that he himself is a sponsored climber, and his very post was 'spraying' on the internet, but using a sarcastic style of writing was part of his internal battle for authenticity, a battle that he fights only with himself, as he strives for real, authentic climbing experiences, but finds himself sharing his adventures - and consequently promoting himself - through magazines, his blog and recently his own book. This battle is one of Bullock's many demons, and one that weighs on his mind perhaps more than it should, but climbing is more than just a hobby to a climber like Nick. It's his life and livelihood, it's the centre of his world and it is a huge part of his self-image. To question his climbing, is, essentially, to question his life.
Unbeknown to Bullock, Jeff Mercier had recently lost two friends in a tragic accident at this very icefall, and when he read, in his broken English, Bullock's spray-fest of heavy-handed humour, writing that Jeff took as a show-off post making light of the dangers of this exposed and falling-ice-prone climb, with arrogant talk of sponsors and photographs, he took the "look-at-me" style at face value and penned a bitingly critical reply on the French climbing website Kairn.
A screenshot of Nick Bullock's Blog and the post about Bullock and Tim Emmett climbing the Cascade de la Lyre. You can read the full post at http://nickbullock-climber.co.uk/writing/wild-mate/
Reading the article on Kairn, Bullock was himself offended, and wrote another blog post in response, defending his position. When Bullock updated his blog design a few years later, he chose not to keep the response online.
"Diplomacy wasn't my greatest asset in those days..." he reflected.
Feathers had clearly been ruffled on both sides, which in the macho world of Alpinism is nothing new, and these two peacocks could have waggled their online tail feathers and gone their separate ways, but with Bullock spending winters in Chamonix, and the two climbers sharing a passion for hard and bold mixed climbs, it was only a matter of time before their paths crossed in the real world.
When an accidental abseil led to the discovery of a new buttress on the Rive Gauche area above Argentiere - "Sector Highlands" - the stage was set for a series of hard new routes from Bullock followed by rapid repeats and often down-grades from Mercier.
A screenshot of the French climbing news website Kairn.com. This is the article that Mercier wrote in response to Nick Bullock's blog. He refers to Bullock as NB and is critical of Bullock's insensitive reporting of his climbs.
Following Bullock and crew's initial development of the Rive Gauche 5 years ago - climbing the routes in a very British style with no bolts or fixed belays - the crag gained in popularity as the ease of access and the quality of the routes attracted high-level mixed climbers looking for a traditional challenge in a different style to the bolted sport mixed routes that are available at other venues in the Chamonix area. The Rive Gauche gave a full-on mountain style of experience but for only three pitches and with a 10 minute flat approach walk.
The original topo from 2010 created by Pete Benson detailing his and Nick Bullock's new routes on the Rive Gauche. You can see a blank sector without any routes on the right of the topo, just left of the lines 5. Tequila Stuntman and 6. Nuit Blanche. This steep and blank sector was to be developed by Mercier in the following years.
Happy with his discovery, and having had his fill of the European Alps for a while, Bullock left Chamonix and concentrated on Scottish and Welsh climbing and trips to Canada. Over the following few years Mercier repeated almost all of Bullock's routes, and then started on the lines left as "projects" on the topo Bullock and his climbing partner Pete Benson had posted online. When these were finished, Mercier spotted a new buttress, steeper than the rest of the crag, that had been overlooked in the initial phase of development.
He called this hugely overhanging wall The Blade Stadium.
The Blade Stadium Topo drawn by Jeff Mercier. His hardest route on this cliff to date is Saction Stylee (M9) that forges a direct and unrelenting line up the centre of the biggest face (Route F in the topo)
Too steep to hold any real snow or ice, and without the wet and windy conditions of Scotland, the routes on The Blade Stadium can look very dry to the British winter climber with our need for a coating of white rime-ice, but this isn't Scotland, and the heat of the Alpine sun would strip any thin whiteness immediately. Without the British need for rime, the routes on this steep piece of rock, hanging some hundred metres above the crashing Argentiere Glacier, lend themselves perfectly to hard, traditionally protected mixed/dry-tool climbing. After his first foray down the crag on abseil, Jeff Mercier knew he had stumbled on to something special.
Like a kid in a candy shop, Mercier set about establishing several desperate first ascents on this stunning buttress, picking off the steep crack lines and corners, but saving the steepest and blankest wall until last.
The last route to go free at The Blade Stadium. Sanction Stylee was climbed last winter by Mercier and is his most difficult route on the buttress. Graded M9 (around Scottish X,10), the main pitch of this hugely overhanging and desperately technical climb follows a blank crack/seam up a soaring wall for around 40 unrelenting metres. Jeff hammered in two pegs prior to making the first ascent, and with the exception of these two safe havens, the rest of the protection is sparse and difficult to place. Jeff, not familiar with the British style of wiggling in small wires, opted to protect much of the climb with shallow micro-cams.
Jeff battling with the micro cam placements on Sanction Stylee. Whilst sometimes faster to place than small wires, cams require a larger slot in the crack and can be fiddly to arrange. Jeff joked: "I don't use many wires. I don't know what to do with them!"
The winter just gone saw Nick Bullock return to Chamonix after a four year hiatus from the Alps, as keen as ever for new routes and adventures.
It was early in the season when Bullock, excited with what he had seen picked up the phone to fellow Brit and Chamonix resident Jon Bracey.
"I've spotted a new crag on the right end of Rive Gauche! There's loads of lines to do!" exclaimed Bullock.
"Jeff Mercier has already climbed them all Nick! It's called The Blade Stadium." replied Jon.
Later that winter, both Jeff and Nick were looking for a mid-week climbing partner. The good skiing conditions had lured many alpinists away from the vertical, and partners were thin on the ground.
UKC, knowing the two climbers were at a loose end, suggested a day out all together, and keen to finally meet one another in the flesh, they both readily agreed.
"How about you show us The Blade Stadium Jeff?" suggested Nick, keen to see if Mercier's routes were indeed as hard as his own.
"Yes, we can go there." smiled Jeff. "I know a good route for you Nick!
The gauntlet had been thrown, and there was no way Nick Bullock wasn't going to pick it up. It was time for the final chapter in the history of the Rive Gauche, and it was time for these two driven climbers to forge a friendship by sharing a rope.