Alpine 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 place.

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 fixed
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 axe.
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 it.

'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 of
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 we'd survived.

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 account.

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 for us.

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.