Alpine Training - An Epic - Part One
Written by Ross Cooper

As part of our Himalayan bid in the coming year, and with the small winter experience I held, I announced to Chris that we we're taking a summer trip to the alps to get some rock and ice in on the bigger scale. I had already sampled the bigger scale with several ascents of the East face of Tryfan, which totalled in 1600ft of rock being climbed over two days, but all along it had felt without commitment. Brisk retreats could be easily employed, and rather than the standard decent, hurried rushing down scree gullies promptly saw us back at camp within an hour and a half. We'd also ventured out on winter walking in Scotland, but that
trip within itself had been a mixed blessing, with me missing out on the big push on the Ben due to rubbing boots and a lack of confidence in my own stamina. The question of stamina was to be very soon answered.

We booked the ferry to take us to Cherbourg on the 9th of July, with the prospect of driving down to Font, to a hotel, and then on down to Chamonix the following day. Needless to say by half past midnight we'd failed to find the Hotel Ibis, and frustrations were showing with 9 hours driving behind us that day.

On discovery of the hotel, which did itself no favours in revealing it's location, we were faced with the next frustrating event; finding the only room left in the hotel (does this sound familiar...?) being mistakenly booked by the agent as a double bed. Too exhausted to care we got a few things from the car, which had done amazingly well considering the hammering it had during that day, and we both proceeded to pass out on the oversized bed. I failed to even wash or take my shoes off, and was surprised to wake finding it gone half nine in the morning.

Unsure of how long exactly it was going to take us to get to Chamonix, I bustled Chris out of the room, and downstairs to have a quick 'all we could eat' breakfast. Swiftly followed by us falling back into the roller skate of a car and promptly set off to get lost around the back roads again. Making good time, and being able to average over 80mph on the main roads of France helped us make a good recovery and saw us at the Molasses camp site before 7 in the evening.

I found myself to be pleasantly surprised the next day. With the early morning haze clearing to reveal beautiful corniced snow slopes, and intricate blue glaciers. Also an amazing complexity within the crevasses, that they encompassed.

The cable car which ran up to the Aiguille du Midi disappeared into soft grey clouds, and a warm feeling of success fell on me, with the previous doubts that had ran through my head on the journey down being dispelled. There was obviously no exaggeration of worthy of these lumps of rock and ice!

We drove the short distance to the centre of Chamonix, and spent an hour or so shopping, picking up a map, and guides to the area. The remainder of the day was spent enjoying the valley sport routes, pushing grades of 6b+, and heights in excess of 250ft. Our confidence soared, with reliance and trust in the widely spaced bolts as we went on to do overhanging and sustained routes.

By the time the first weekend was coming around I was beginning to really want to get on some ice and mixed ground, so we planned to take the cable car up on Saturday morning to the Aiguille du Midi, and climb a classic, not too difficult route.

When we reached the telegraphique station it was already gone ten, and we knew we'd made a late start. It didn't deter us, and by 11:30 we were kitted up, roped and ready. A natural order of progression followed suit, and I felt with the slightly higher experience, at least with climbing and rope-work, that I should be responsible to take the lead. We emerged from the ice tunnel at
the end of the South Piton, half blinded from the flashes from Japanese tourist groups. To the tourists we must of given a real sense of bravado; the way they posed with us for photos, and pestered us with questions. Embarrased and slightly annoyed we pushed out through the gate, and let all the frustrations lift away with perfect snow conditions as we plodded down the sharp decent ridge.

Leading down the slope I passed by a guy, who appeared to be a guide, with his second, or client following, and looking near total exhaustion. I stopped, and stepped down off the ridge onto the sheer side of the snow slope. He acknowledged us warmly as they passed by, with the client hardly raising his head. The ground eased, and the caution we'd exercised on the exposed part of the ridge lifted from us. We ditched slow plod for a speedy glissade down the gentle soft snow embankment down to the glacier proper, cutting ten minutes from the difficulty. Continuing our walk across the glacier was so memorable. We stopped, and took off our crampons - they balled up too frequently, and quickly crossed the glacier until just short of the climbers hut.

We'd made up good time, and at half twelve we were stood at the base of the magnificent rising snow slope which led up to the start of Cosmic Arete. I felt that Chris was feeling the altitude, going slower then he normally seemed to. I felt fantastic, barely noticing the thin air at 3800m; odd for me to have the stamina I thought.

We front pointed up the slope to an apex in a ridge, where the first rock section started. I quickly led off, whilst Chris secured himself into the belay. Finding the rock difficult and cumbersome with all my winter kit, and a weighty pack on
my back majorly changed perspective on alpine climbing. The difficulty probably being only Vdiff was very awkward, and found myself lurching up the rock, and throwing myself at big granite cracks, hoping I wouldn't topple out backwards. I scratched my new watch, which ****ed me right off; and I tucked it away safely into the chest pouch on my salo's. Chris followed up and led through on easier rock and secured another belay at the beginning of another mixed section. We moved on further, both quite enjoying the change of the ordinary scenery we were used to on Dartmoor - 'just a bit of a change eh?

The next pitch looked a bit intimidating, climbing up and over a small ridge I was presented with a 70ft steep 55 degree snowface, which was at a bisected angle to a gully shoot that ran off the steep side of the face with several hundred feet to the bottom. I nervously kicked steps into the soft snow. Then thinking better of it knocked a peg in a thin crack, and extended a long sling out to act as some sort of runner if I came to slip. I traversed out with a new sense of confidence, enjoying the warmth, but cursing my thirst.

A knee-jerk reaction saw me trying to ice axe arrest as without any warning I shot down the gully towards the huge drop. The axe was useless, and only the snow digging in to me stopped me before any weight came onto the rope. Slightly shaking, realising
there was only a very little amount of slope left before I would of been hanging upside down on the end of a 8.5 mm rope 400ft from the glacier. I quickly moved back up my slide path, taking more care with each foothold, and moved to the base of the steep snow slope.

Chris moved over, none the wiser for my escapade down the gully, and suggested that I took the lead to be quicker. I didn't fancy the prospect of moving up the next section. There was no hope of any runners, and it would've of been very painful if I'd slipped. The neve was very crisp on the surface, good snow underneath, but like a layer of ice a centimetre thick on the surface. I got to the top quite quickly and found myself on a magnificent saddle of snow, with a bigish drop down the far side broken up by gravel and dirt covered ledges. The South Piton shone like a golden Oscar calling me to victory and sanctuary.
A golden bronze shield lit by the sun, standing strong though ages long. I was feeling worried. Usually an omen. Time was getting on for 3:00 I worked out that we must be at least half-way with the hardest ground behind us.

The last cable car was at 6:00 we thought. So three hours to complete 50m ascent, and 150m of traversing. It'd be tight, but I thought we could make it ok. I took one look at the next section and it concerned me, looking steep, and time consuming. I moved up, and made an awkward undercut move on wet rock round a corner. Crampons grated and skidded on hard dirty granite. I could see where to aim for. Footprints, and more further down on clean snow where we were to traverse under a golden pillar. I fixed a nut, and shouted to Chris to give me slack as I climbed down. I touched a ledge, climbed up and right to where I could see a bolt for the rappel, I thought. 'Safe, come on quick mate, were tight on time. Chris followed quickly round the corner muttering that I'd missed a bolt or peg or something, and that I should've gone up. 'just come on, never mind which way, I'm 'ere now, so it doesn't matter. He
lent back on the nut, and with a very sudden graunch it ripped out the crack and the great mass of Chris and his bag disappeared down and away out of sight. I whispered to myself in disbelief. He'd come tight on the rope, but not tight enough: he must of landed on a ledge, 'Chris...?' I yelled as loud as I could muster. A quiet response wafted back.
'Are you okay, Chris? Yeah, but I've hurt my leg.!