Yep, after going on about feeling stronger and the benefits to being stronger in the mountains, I headed out and got firmly put back in my place. And it’s not a bad thing at all.
I headed up to climb a stunning but very challenging route here in Chamonix, the Supercouloir, with Graeme – mentally, physically and technically this route pushed me, harder than any other route before.
Stepping it up
People say there is a steep learning curve here in Chamonix – they say it is not a place for beginners as everything is very steep and big. Though I agree, in part, I feel it has been the most incredible learning environment for myself.
There is just so much so do here with such unparalleled access that I believe it is the perfect place to learn. The stiff initial step up might be high but after that there is a huge range of climbing and skiing to build your experience and I have been working my way up through the local classics lists and progressing well – I reckon!
Winter climbing, especially what is called ice and mixed climbing – climbing mountain routes with ice axes and crampons, moving between ice veins to rock, and back again – is by far my biggest passion. I simply love the feeling of moving around on this terrain and the mental challenges the consequences of climbing like this entails.
It is hard. It is cold. And you’re only there because you choose to be.
I have been making steady progress over the last few years, becoming more confident on steeper and more technical terrain. The routes that have been opening up to me and the places I’ve found myself has been greater than I ever expected and yesterday’s adventure was a step I didn’t think would have happened anytime soon.
I have been climbing with Graeme Barr for a few years now and it has been one of my longest and most varied climbing partnerships. Graeme runs a construction company in Scotland and comes out to Chamonix regularly with his wife to get away and to climb. His experience is immense and I’ve been very fortunate to learn so much from him.
His main passion is ice and mixed too – being Scottish, this is his home turf, so to speak. This is a passion we’ve shared and I have climbed some of my best routes with him.
He messaged me to say he would be out for a week and was mega-psyched to climb north facing ice as much as possible. I’ve not managed to climb much this winter as skiing has been dominating my time so I was instantly in.
With a few warm-ups lined up, Graeme’s sights were firmly set on one route in particular – the Supercouloir.
This route is simply stunning – a striking line the slashes the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul that you can’t help but be notice while skiing the Vallée Blanche. It consists of two pitches of very difficult mixed climbing followed by over 500m of easier but still challenging ice climbing. The full route, at over 800m, is graded ED – Extremement Difficile – and is a serious outing. The length and technicality mean it is no small undertaking and would be my hardest climb yet.
Graeme is an extremely strong climber and was happy to lead the first, crux section of the climb, giving me the opportunity to even attempt such a line. We would spend the night at the Cosmiques Refuge then set off early giving us plenty of daylight time to climb.
There is something truly magical about sleeping and staying overnight in the mountains and, even more awesome, is staying in managed huts – getting fed a huge hot dinner and it was during this dinner that we were treated with an utterly beautiful sunset with the orange sky lighting up the Aravis mountain. Perfect.
The hut was extremely quiet – the last time I had stayed here was during the summer when the hut is full to the rafters with Mont Blanc ascensionists – just 8 or so people having dinner before skiing the VB by moonlight, a rather magical idea. We were going to be up to ski about by moonlight too so, after finishing our dinner it was off to bed.
My alarm woke me at 2.45. I say woke but really I hadn’t managed to sleep too much, I often don’t in mountain huts. The combination of excitement, nerves, and my body adjusting to sleeping at 3,600m normally keeps me up.
A quick breakfast of cereal, hot chocolate, bread and Nutella and we were off, strapping our skis on and setting off down the VB to our climb. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and, though only 3am, head torches weren’t necessary – the moon had the snow glowing and we could see perfectly.
We made our way round to the east face of the Tacul, attaching skins to our skis to climb up to the base. There had been warnings of high winds predicted but there wasn’t a breath of air blowing and we silently forged our way up to the beginning of our route. Gearing up, I started to feel the cold. At -22° it was not the sort of temperature to be standing around in but the nature of the climb meant just that, that I would be standing for hours at a time.
A few days earlier I had been climbing on a similar aspect with Graeme and had got too cold – my hands went numb and just wouldn’t warm up meaning we had to bail. I wasn’t going to take any chances this time and was wrapped up as warm as possible while still allowing me to climb.
As Graeme was going to be leading the first few pitches, I thought it only fair that I lead off first across the bergschrund, dragging the ropes up to the first stance for him to set off up the difficulties. What I didn’t expect was such a challenging start.
As I made my way up I approached the gap in the snow and ice between the gully ice and the glacier below. Hmm… I thought. This is a little open. As I reached up to find purchase for my ice axes above the gap, the bottomless gap just beneath my feet seemed to grow. There was nothing for my feet to stand on and I was desperately trying to get one foot up just by my rib cage to find solid ground. But I couldn’t. I could just about get my foot up but the snow my axes were in was sugary and get coming away. The exposure and insecurity got the better of me and, a little embarrassed, I called down to Graeme and asked if he would have a look.
Supercouloir – 1, Me – 0.
Graeme made light work of crossing the ‘schrund with me following up relatively easily – it’s amazing what a rope above you can do – and I carried on up to the first stance. The sun was just starting to come up but it was still bitterly cold. I put on a big down jacket (thank you for the loaner, Steve!) and braced myself for the wait and what was to come.
Watching Graeme set off as the sun came up was magical. The rock started to glow orange beneath him as the sun started to warm the couloir and the climbing just looked insane – pulling on small hooks, balancing on non-existent ledges, and scratching around in cracks for purchase. He made steady progress and before long it was my turn.
The climbing was by far the most technical I have ever attempted but I was glad to find a rhythm and start moving my way up consistently. Though difficult I could always find an acceptable placement and never felt unsafe.
We continued up with Graeme leading and me following. The sun was well above the horizon now and warming our cold bodies. I say warming, I was still wearing every item of clothing I had with me and was very close to opening up some hand-warmers I had bought especially but it was just about bearable.
This is what I wanted to learn here, dealing with the cold on technical climbing. I’ve climbed ice and mixed in mild temperatures and have loved it but there are many routes I want to do that you simply need to attempt in full winter but dealing with the cold is something I’ve struggled with. After my mishap a few days early, however, I feel I’ve started to get the hang of it. I reckon I can take that as a point..
Supercouloir -1, Me – 1
We quested up this unbelievable terrain, with the climbing just getting better and better and before I knew it we were just underneath the crux pitch of the whole route; a snow plug. At the top of an overhanging section, the exit is blocked by a huge snow mushroom that you have to somehow negotiate. It doesn’t look too steep from below but trust me, it was. Graeme started up and just carried on going, he absolutely cruised it and I got really excited to try the moves myself.
It was steep, very steep, but it felt like all the ice axe and foot placements were there. As I was making the moves over the final section of the plug, however, something popped. My axe? My foot? I don’t know. Maybe both. Either way I quickly found myself hanging in the air. Regaining my composure, I went at it again, this time getting past unscathed.
Supercouloir -2, Me – 1
Having past the main difficulties, it was now just the 500m of ice above. The first section had taken us 4 hours, not exactly guidebook time but, with Graeme having to have led it all, I think that is a good effort.
I took over leading at this point and, looking up, I was very excited. Yes, I already felt massively tired but the easier angled ice looking enticing.
I started up and it quickly became apparent this was not quite what I was expecting. We had been warned that the ice was thin but I hadn’t quite expected it to be this thin. All my placements felt solid and I was climbing confidently but every time I went to place an ice screw for protection, the hollow ice, at only 10cm or so deep just wasn’t good enough. It started to scare me.
A few failed attempts at getting a good screw in ended with me pretty much giving up and having to just accept the fact that I would be soloing the pitch. Shit. Weaving my way up I was able to find a few good pieces of rock protection but the whole section was very bold. As I made myself safe at the anchor, I looked back down the 55m I had climbed and was able to count the protection I had placed on one hand. I felt wasted, my mind fried.
As Graeme followed up, I looked up at the long gully above. The ice was in terrible condition and I was not sure I had what it takes to carry on. Thankfully, as Graeme made it to the belay he gave me an out. He was just as put off by the quality as I was and I immediately jumped on his suggestion to bail. I was done, I really needed to get down.
Supercouloir – 3, Me – 1
We made swift work of the descent and, except for a minor rope snag on the last abseil, we were back down at our skis in good time. Now just a 17km ski down the Vallée Blanche to home.
Though a magical and wonderful experience, both Graeme and I just wanted to go home and so made it down to the gondola station at the bottom of the VB in 45 minutes. A quick bootpack up to the James Bond track and one final ski down a winding track and we were down, on dry land and safe. And I was beat.
14 hours since we put our skis on outside the hut, I loosened my boots for the last time.
What was an incredible day, I believe, is all the more important for what I learned. I learned I am not ready for these sorts of routes, not truly. Yes, I can have a good crack at them but they are still something that I am very much aspiring to achieving. I have a lot to learn about winter climbing; the admin, techniques, and mental fortitude to get through the hard parts. And, I’ve learned how far I am from the climbing grade I need to be to be safe on them.
I think this is great though, the route has been a benchmark test for me. I’ve put myself up there and seen where I am, honestly and truly. The fact I’m not ready right now is, really, no surprise. What I do know, however, is what I need to do to be ready, to be good enough and that is what is going to be my plan of action moving forward.
I now know the necessary steps to building on what I have already achieved to get me to where I dream of being.
Thank you, Graeme, for taking me along for the ride and thank you for your patience with me.
Here is to getting spanked and taking the next steps.