Training - An Epic - Part Four
Written by Ross Cooper
I'm going to
get my crampons, let me down yeah?' He nodded,
and I pulled against the now stiff rope. The
slope seemed very stable considering, but
I still didn't like it. The crampons were
there still, buried. I dug them free, only
to find them bent awfully. It was that moment
that it struck me how close I'd been. To see
steel bent like that, just from frozen water.
I took one, but left the other. It was too
close to the big drop for comfort.
I made tracks down the slope, it was time
to go, so with positive kicks with numb feet
I moved down through the snow, still skirting
to the right of the drop when looking down.
I came across what I thought was a power line
at first in the snow. I was careful to avoid
hitting it with my picks, moving to a boulder
and safety just below.
I watched Chris follow, and belayed him round
my waist. I'd belayed to my axes, both planted
deep in the snow. I knew it was unlikely to
hold, but I had to try something after the
day before. Whilst he climbed down I studied
the power line, then realising it wasn't insulated,
it was just a cable. That wasgreat news. It
didn't seem to do anything, It just laid in
the snow. I pulled on it and it didn't move,
even if it wasn't attached at either end,
the snow and rock seemed to hold it well in
Chris joined me using his snow stake as an
improvised ice axe, He'd lost his axes in
the fall. 'We'll ab off that' I said as I
a mallion to the cable, and clipped the rope
through. 'Get as far as you can, don't trust
it totally, but climb down and I'll take the
strain on the cable!
Okay, that way yeah?' Chris still seemed to
question me on direction, and I wasn't totally
sure myself. I remember when we'd crossed
the glacier the day before seeing a large
bergschrund and crevasse at the bottom of
this slope, and that was one thing I didn't
know how or where to cross. 'follow the gully,
It's empty now, and should lead to the bottom.
I didn't know if there were any more crags,
but hoped that we could get round them.
I followed Chris down and away, this time
to the left and down. Soon the spindrift blinded
me, and I had to look away with tears running
from the pain in my eyes. I put my shades
on for protection, and looked back for Chris.
He was now gone from
sight, and the rope was all used. I waited
for a few minutes, and tugged the rope a few
times in an effort to let him know I was following.
I thought we must be close, if not to the
bottom, and this was the test piece for me.
This was solo.
There was no way to protect the descent. 170ft
of technical descent on a 60 degree slab.
I unhitched the mallion, and the rope slipped
down towards Chris and pulled at my waist.
I followed a few footprints in some deeper
snow whilst I could see them, but they quickly
went. With no crampons, this was hard. My
feet skated around on the thin layer of snow
looking for purchase. The water under the
snow had frozen again creating a coating of
ice. But the ice was no good for the axes,
I threw a hard swing into some grit below
a boulder, and swung down and round on the
It wobbled, and A desperate throw of the second
stopped the swing. The traverse followed out
left, nerves and picks right on the edge,
I wouldn't stop this time if I went. I shuffled
across to deeper snow, and slight relaxation.
I kicked and followed down a groove, moving
around slabs of different heights, and making
good progress. Emotionally I was wrecked.
The fear had peaked, expecting to go at any
time, without warning. But it never came,
I moved further and further down until Chris
was well in sight. He'd burred the snow stake
and was belaying me down. At the bottom was
the Bergschund, and crevasse. He'd managed
to jump it on the rope, but my nerve wouldn't
let me leap for it. I was 20ft up, and with
a 5ft crevasse to jump I wasn't happy with
'Go for it, I've got you on the rope'. He
urged me on, but I couldn't contemplate how
deep the crevasse was, and wouldn't
even try it. I faced in and kicked hard into
the now firm snow. Stepped down, swing left
axe, release right, swing lower. Good. Weight
on arms, step down with left...
I was wedged up to my thighs in very soft
snow, just feet from Chris. The face I tried
to come down had just disintegrated and I'd
with luck cleared the crevasse to in the fall
and landed in the pile of snow that had come
down from the groove. We laughed with hysteria.
We were down. The relief overwhelmed us.
It took us just twenty minutes to cross the
glacier and reach the sanctuary of the hut,
more like a two star hotel on a mountain top.
We passed a team of old boys who were making
there way to the cable car, saying it was
still running. We arrived at the hut, with
teams roping up and getting ready to get to
the telegraphique and get down from the storm.
We stripped our clothes and let them dry in
the room allocated, and sat in underwear,
staring into space sipping from a huge bowl
tea. We could barely speak from sore throats,
wide eyed, and be humbled by the experience.
The locals who ran the hut were astonished
with our account of events. We were told of
how the route had recently become very dangerous
due to rock fall, and how a guide and two
clients had perished on it just two days before
we tried it. They went on to tell us that
that night temperatures had dropped well below
minus ten degrees. we couldn't absorb that
I examined Chris's knee, and suspected that
he'd maybe broken, or chipped his kneecap.
It was huge, and reminded me of Joe Simpson's
I pestered the owners if the cable car was
running, finding it hard to believe them,
but eventually accepting the fact that it
was. We were then faced with the choice. We
had money enough to stay and eat for a night
at the hut, and recover. But I worried that
Nils and Sarah at the campsite would raise
the alarm if we didn't return that day. We
thought of phoning the campsite, but found
our mobiles frozen, and the number inside,
being unable to retrieve it. We waited till
one, then made the final push.
My clothes were still damp, but know fully
re-warmed, and though exhausted, new that
we could make it back across the glacier to
the cable car. We tied on, for what would
be the final time that month, and started
across the glacier. It was still whiteout,
but not from snow, but more of low cloud.
The wind was more fierce than ever, I led,
bent double fighting the headwind, and following
faint footprints in the snow. The map and
compass were gone. Disappeared in the fall,
so with instinct, and knowing that there should
always be rock on our left we trekked for
an hour to cross the snowfield. The foot prints
weren't so much prints, but more bumps
where the loose snow around had drifted away
leaving the shape of the compact grey prints,
about an inch deep.
We hit the final long slog of the ridge we'd
stepped out on a full 26 hours earlier, and
very slowly followed it up. The wind shifted
direction. Now it hurtled along the glacier
and up the rise and hit us at what must of
been 80mph right out on the peak of the ridge.
Now again I was very cautious. If we slipped
down the right-hand side of the ridge we'd
be gone, no doubt. The only hope would be
to try and throw ourselves over the other
side to stop the other if either of us slipped.
About three hundred metres out from the sanctuary
I was force down on hands and knees and a
crawl to the top. Chris followed close behind.
I hid within y hood, as far done up as possible,
left eye shut all the time, and both running
with tears from
the pain of ice and snow grit hitting my face.
The wind would whip up just about the hardest
ice from the glacier, and seemed to aim it
all right for us. I felt embarrassed by my
fear, and for crawling, seeing Chris walking
behind me. But it dawned on me that he had
something to follow; me.
I couldn't make out more than three feet in
front of me, where the ridge was, and where
the two thousand foot drop started. My embarrassment
shifted away, and caution came back as we
made slow progress.
After another twenty minutes of exhaustive
crawling, I stood again and walked the final
fifty metres into the ice tunnel and sanctuary.
We silently coiled the rope, packed our kit
away as best as possible, and stared silently
at each other. Some Japanese tourists came
out of the door and went to look out at the
end. A lady slipped flat on her back, and
we shouted at them to get back
inside. I couldn't bear to see anyone going
out in that, not that. I'd had enough of suffering.
We sat and talked quietly as we waited for
the cable car. We boarded, I gripped tightly
to the rails for the entire journey down,
waiting for the cable to break and a huge
fall to the bottom of the valley. We got off
at the bottom, and wandered over to the car.
We struggled to work out how to pay for the
car park, with fatigue setting in, and set
off back for the campsite.
We fell out the car, and were greeted by all
the friends we'd made. Two Dutch guys, only
slightly older than us, a middle aged English
couple, and Sarah. She explained how when
we hadn't returned the night before, and our
sleeping bags were still in our tents that
they got concerned. We turned to see Nils
returning from the town, smiling to see we
were back safe. He questioned us, and said
he was just about to phone the emergency services
Over the two days we had left at the site
we slept, showered regularly, and ate lots.
We returned to the UK, buzzing with excitement,
having had the best time ever. Even the day
after we'd got down, we were called to return
to the mountain, it may of been an epic, but
it thrilled. Later a good guide friend of
mine pointed out to me that the experience,
and survival we'd made in those two days,
were worth far more than his multiple years
in the mountains.
It was eight weeks before we climbed again,
due to work. I went straight back in at E1,
with the first lead. Finding strength was
still there, though finding the hanging belay
hard to trust at first.
Chris struggled to trust gear for a while,
but is back up to following me on any routes,
and leads at VS, as he did before.
Looking back, I'm completely glad of the experience,
I learnt so much for my faith from it, but
also in myself, strengths, and stamina, and
experience. I new what had gone wrong, and
I wouldn't make the same mistakes in the Himalayas.
It would be alright.