My life in the outdoors has been pretty short, only four and half years ago did Sophie and I sign up to climb Mont Blanc and it was a little over 2 years ago that I came to the Alps for a winter trip to try out waterfall ice climbing. In that first trip, I fell in love with ice climbing and especially mixed climbing as we had one of the best days of my mountain life on a route called the Lillaz Gully. I would never have guessed that just over two years later, I would be back and climbing it, sharing the leads, with a friend.
Lillaz Gully, my first ascent
In December 2012, I came to Chamonix with Robin Beadle, a mountain guide, who had led Sophie and I up Mont Blanc on our first alpine mountaineering adventure. We had become friends and were both keen to spend a few days before Christmas trying something new. Robin, and experienced IFMGA guide, had done plenty of winter climbing but not been to Cogne, Italy, a mecca for waterfall ice. On my part, I had climbed a handful of Scottish winter routes but never climbed proper ice.
Over the 3 days we were there, we climbed several beautiful frozen cascades and got a feel for this amazing network of valleys, steep hills, and frozen waterfalls. On our last day, we were wanting to try something a little different and came across the Lillaz Gully, a route tucked away above the little town of Lillaz that appeared to be a much more mountain route combining waterfall ice and mixed climbing (climbing rock with ice axes and crampons).
I remember this day vividly as it was the day I fell in love.
The route consists of 7 pitches and, as Robin and I made our way up the route, both of us had a permanent smile on our faces. The climbing was just superb. Beautiful ice, a stunning environment, and more to come. It was so good that, at each belay, I felt a little sad – surely that was the best pitch done and the next wouldn’t be as good. But it was. Every pitch just got better and better. Even down to the final gully where were were climbing between and over trees. I knew this was the type of climbing I wanted to pursue. I was in love.
It was the single most important route I ever climbed. I showed me so much, taught me so much, and made me realise what climbing was out there. I was well and truly hooked on my return to the UK and, I guess, have been looking for that sensation ever since. There are a number of routes that have come close but nothing that has affected me so much.
For all my wonder and amazement, one thing was clear – I couldn’t ever imagine actually leading the route, truly belonging in that environment. It was steep and difficult and, though not massively committing, well beyond what I could comprehend leading.
Since then, I have climbed more – a lot more – and gained so much experience. Since the beginning of the winter I have been entertaining the thought – am I ready to lead the Lillaz Gully?
Opportunity meets preparation
Working away at home on Wednesday afternoon, I glanced over at Facebook to see Nick Draper was packed and ready to go for a climb but had lost his partner. I dropped him a message to see what he was meant to be climbing purely out of interest. He was very keen to make the most of the current high pressure and wanted to get up high. I’ve not really sorted my winter climbing admin and, though I like to blame not having a warm enough sleeping bag, overnighters aren’t really appealing right now.
I had bumped into a local guide friend of mine and he had mentioned how he had just climbed Lillaz Gully and it was in great conditions.
Floating the idea to Nick, I suddenly had the fear – what if I’m not good enough yet?
The seed was planted, however, and Nick quickly jumped on the idea. Plans were put in place and, before I knew it, it was 6.30am and we were driving through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy and on our way for some ice climbing. Nick and I hadn’t climbed as a pair before but had been in the mountains together a few times and I think we both saw this as a great way to test our climbing relationship.
Leaving early paid off. As we finished the steep ascent up to the base of the route, we could see a number of parties following us up. As a gully, any ice falling down would funnel down the route but we were first, and could enjoy the route without worry of taking an icicle to the face.
At the base of the route, Nick turned to me and very chivalrously offered ‘Do you like to get on lead first to get in the game or warm up seconding first?’. I was grateful for the offer as, I have a habit of psyching myself out of leading sometimes and was keen to start off on the sharp end.
As I set off, I knew this was right. I knew it was the right time for me to be on the route both from a technical and mental perspective. Moving up the 75 degree ice, I felt really strong and settled into the zone of leading ice – keeping my form good, breathing, and taking my time. The first hurdle came about half way up when, after stepping into a little cave, I had to then pull out back onto the ice for the final 85 degree wall up to the belay. This took a little time, psyching myself up and stepping out of the safety of the cave but I felt strong the whole way. I never panicked, never worried, and never felt like I was out of my depth. It felt right.
Just as the first time I climbed the route, it just got better and better. The ice was superb, though the fourth pitch was a little wet, and we made smooth progress, swinging leads and both having a good time on the sharp end.
The Lillaz Gully, so much progress
As we finished up the final pitch, both Nick and I were grinning ear to ear. The Lillaz Gully hadn’t disappointed. I checked the time and had to double take. It was just 12:15. We had set off on the route at 9.15 that meant just 3 hours to climb 7 pitches (well, 5 really as on pitches 2 and 3 we moved together) of grade 4 ice and mixed. Less than 40 minutes a pitch, that was really great going! We hadn’t been rushing though. We had climbed smoothly, enjoying every pitch and even chatting away, just having a great day in the mountains.
Both of us had climbed competently, smoothly, and relaxingly giving an amazing flow to the day that was illustrated in the speed in which we climbed. As my friend Gabo often says ‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’, and, for a first climb together, I think both of us were a little surprised how smoothly it went.
It also felt like another great benchmark for me, as a climber, to go back to this route and to witness so much progress from the green, wet-behind-the-ears, wannabe climber I had been just a few years prior.
As the winter progresses, this now gives me the confidence to carry on pushing my boundaries, to take the next steps in pushing either my technical or commitment levels, and to seeing what doors this route has opened.
Cheers, Nick, for a super first climb together. Here’s to many more!