July 1980, it was my second visit to the Alps - Chamonix to be precise. The previous years trip consisted of shortish rock and mixed climbs and was followed by deliberately off-route wanderings onto a high ridge. This year I had just graduated from university and even missed the ceremony in the rush to get out for the summer! A job? Well, that could follow, more pressing engagements were in mind. The first week was dogged by terrible weather and we had baled out of the valley down to Verdon - sunshine! A couple of routes and a long run later found me hitching back to the mountains for an amazingly fast unroped romp up the Courtes North Face in time for sunrise and a brew on the summit. The question now was "what next"!?
My partner on that route had earlier soloed the Chardonnet North Spur and encouraged by his words, I suddenly had a viable plan. 'Nothing too difficult on it' he said and 'not too long'. I had always enjoyed my own company in the mountains anyway. It was decided.
The morning of the ascent - packed up and ready to go - just a couple of visits to make first. An old friend was camping further up the valley and I hadn't seen her at all that summer. I hunted out her tent but it was vacant and she was away up doing a route. Very sadly this turned out to be her last. I never saw her again as she was one of many killed that summer in a tragic accident on the Tour Ronde. Then, to L'hopital! Another mate was having serious amounts of metalwork implanted in his leg after breaking it badly in a fall atop the Dru. Do you ever get the feeling climbing can be dangerous? Well, I was young then and knew full well accidents only happen to other people.
A quick 'frique ride, then one of my favourite hut approaches to the Albert Prem' - lots of mountains gradually coming into view as you round the hill. There's a flat concrete area behind the hut, possibly the top of their water tank. Just right for a bivvy site and a reasonable evening's half-sleep under the stars follows. The solitude even next to the hut is noticeable, but not a worry, I was actually starting to enjoy the commitment.
The options did not look very appealing at all and I started to wonder why exactly I was here, alone, in the dark. I was obviously off route. I had a rope and some ice screws so there were options. For the moment, however, I stayed perfectly still. Too scared to try either option. Just then there was a call from below, my name! It was Alain, who I had crossed the glacier with. In the dark they had been following my headtorch, consequently they were off route too!
He was a real climber, not a young, part-time, fair weather alpinist like myself. More importantly, he was roped up! After a brief discussion he agreed to let me tie on with my rope to Janu, his wife. They would bring me up behind them for as long as necessary. He surmounted the rock jumble without too much difficulty and into another snowy runnel, which narrowed and steepened into what we later decided was about Scottish Grade IV. Definitely not soloing ground for little old me. It was starting to get light now and we saw a couple of French climbers pass us some way to the right (“so that's where I should have gone!!!”). After two and a half rope lengths we were at the base of the final icefield. Time to unrope again.
I climbed up the icefield alongside Janu until Alain was nearing the top. The ice was brittle and lots of debris was coming down. Luckily a convenient rock was protruding from the ice and made a perfect shelter while I waited for them both to finish. I followed up shortly after. The summit! It was a beautiful morning. Astounding views. We even had the company of an Alpine Chough up there. What could have turned into a minor epic ended as an enjoyable climb with new friends.
In this new series of articles, Tom Ripley interviews some well-known climbing partnerships to dig up their dirty secrets and... Read more