The weather in Chamonix is typical early summer weather – amazing sunny mornings then, between 1pm and 2pm, the clouds come in and shortly after a storm kicks off. It is pretty much like clockwork. Jesse and I set off on a rock climb up high that would easily get us back to safety in time. Until it didn’t.
Beautiful Chamonix granite
Our target for the day was the East Face of the Éperon des Cosmiques, a route not often climbed but an obvious and striking crack system that hundreds of people walk past everyday without noticing. At just 5 pitches, it would be perfect for us to get the first lift up, climb the route, and be back down before the afternoon storms.
The route really is an overlooked classic. With good climbing to be had by both parties, I was very lucky to get the money pitch, pitch 4 – 50 metres of perfect and steep granite flake climbing, with good protection the whole way. We had decided to abseil the route and walk back up the snow arête as neither of us fancied climbing with heavy packs on. As we topped out, just below the Cosmiques Arête, it was only midday, the day was well in hand.
It was at this first abseil that we made our first mistake and gained our first lesson.
Lesson One – Always make sure your abseil point runs freely
As we completed the first 60m abseil, I started to pull the blue rope. It wouldn’t move. I checked with Jesse – we’re pulling blue, right? – he agreed and gave it a try too. It still wouldn’t move. We tried pulling green, maybe we both had made a mistake. It wouldn’t move either.
Both of us had independently checked the ab-station and hadn’t seen anything the knot could catch on so what was going on? Jesse offered to climb across and try pulling from a different angle. In a moment of stupidity, I then offered that if it didn’t work, I’ll prussik up the rope and try and free it. It didn’t work. Bugger.
Prussiking up a rope is a long and tiring exercise normally reserved for short stints of crevasse rescue. I had 60m to get up. Huffing and puffing due to the effort and complete lack of acclimatisation, I made it to the top, sweating profusely. I looked at the belay, it looked fine. The know wasn’t caught, there was nothing jamming the way and, as I tried running the rope through the maillon, it moved fine.
A little confused, I moved the knot past the lip just in case and abseiled back down thinking all will be well now. It wasn’t. It still didn’t move. What we discovered was that, because the abseil point was not on a vertical or overhanging point, the rope was dragging against the very coarse granite. This added a huge amount of friction to the rope and made it very difficult to pull through. It was pulling through though. As I had prussiked up the rope, it seemed only fair that Jesse take the lead on pulling the rope through.
The weather had turned
As we finally freed the rope, we made quick progress getting back to our boots but it was clear that the weather had turned. The sky was no longer clear blue but solid with clouds and you could feel something in the air. We quickly packed up, put our boots back on, and started making our way back up to the lift.
Just at that moment, the heavens opened. Hail started beating down on us, ball-bearings bouncing off our hoods, and the temperature quickly dropped. It’s ok, I thought, we’re only a short distance from the lift.
We made it to the bottom of the arête just as the first bolt of lightning struck the needle on the Midi, the whole area around us rumbled with thunder. Jesse had to put his crampons on and, as we were not roped up, I thought keeping moving was a good idea.
I started up the arête. After a little way I looked back to see how Jesse was getting on. He had stayed where he was with a guided party and another person. Lightning was hitting the Midi every minute and I realised they were thinking it wiser to wait out the worst of the storm and ascend later.
I was already halfway up, what do I do?
Lesson Two – What does OBLA feel like
I could feel the lightning coming each time it struck, I could feel the static build up on my ice axe. I realised I had all the climbing rack in my backpack too so I was a walking electrical conductor. What do I do?
I was terrified. Every time I could feel the static build up on my ice axe I would throw it down and get low on the slope. Once the lightning had struck the Midi, I would get up again and move as fast as I could. It was hard, really hard – to be running up at altitude up steep stepped slopes and completely unacclimatised, I struggled.
While on my PT course I learnt about OBLA – Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation – basically, that moment when your body is working anaerobically and so lactic acid builds up. You can normally carry on in this zone for 1-3 minutes before you have no choice to stop. We had experimented with what that feels like on a running machine but it is hard to really push yourself there.
As I was pushing as hard as I could to get away from the lightning, I entered this zone. Unable to get enough oxygen into my muscles, my legs were burning and, the moment I made it through the ice cave at the top of the arête, I collapsed on the floor, legs like jelly.
So that is what OBLA feels like!
Lesson Three – What to do when lightning is all around you
The storm passed after about 45 long minutes, as I waited for Jesse, I kept trying to poke my head out and see if he was ok. When he made it back up, he had lost all feeling in his feet and hands but, thankfully, after a serious bout of hot aches, all sensation came back. We had made it out ok!
We were waiting with the lift with some other friends, they had been put off their route after the storm and were heading back down too. They had seen what had happened to us and immediately said they would have done what I did – run! However, a craggy faced and clearly very seasoned guide cut quietly added his knowledge and said that Jesse had been right.
Yes, the temptation is to just get out of there but it was also very risky. What he suggested was to remove any metal objects from you, place them in a pile, and move away from them. Next, descend off the ridge and hunker down, just like Jesse did, and wait for the storm to pass.
It was scary and I made mistakes. Thankfully, we all came out unharmed but with a lot more knowledge for next time. It is easy to think these storms come out of nowhere but the same storm happened at the same time every day for 4 days prior. Also, the weather had seriously deteriorated at least an hour before the storm really started. Knowing how to quickly and efficiently escape routes is a crucial skill in the Alps but so is knowing when to be somewhere and when to make sure you are anywhere but there.