Standing at the belay, I see ice coming down from the party above. Sophie finishes tying into the belay and looks at me. She can see what is going on behind my eyes.
I’m psyching myself out. We know it but what do I do?
“You can do this”, Sophie says, “just remember, take it one step at a time”. I nod in consent, take a deep breath and step out onto the 85 degree ice of the crux pitch on the Chèré Couloir, a classic alpine ice climb just under Mont Blanc.
The beginnings of a dream, to climb the Chèré Couloir
Sophie and I first set out on our alpine climbing adventures 4 years ago with a life changing week which culminated in summiting the highest point in Western Europe, Mont Blanc. From that moment on, we have dedicated countless weekends, holidays, and now our whole lives to being outdoors more and climbing bigger, harder and more inspiring mountains.
We have learnt so much, made a fair few mistakes, and had our fair share of heated discussions while out on climbs. Each experience has given us pause for thought and this constant evaluation has encouraged greater confidence and develop our trust in each other.
As we have climbed more, I have started to develop a wish list. My bucket list of climbs I either want to climb, or want to get good enough to climb. Some of these we have achieved; some, I hope we will achieve this summer; and, some I will get to when I’m ready. The alps are big, they need to be respected, and, most certainly, not rushed.
I want to enjoy mountains for the rest of my life, not just the next 5 minutes.
Last summer Sophie and I made amazing progress as a climbing pair. We accomplished milestones we had set out before our trip; climbing the classic Cosmiques Arête; long multi-pitch rock routes; and, the culmination of our trip, Sophie’s first north face route, the north face of the Tour Ronde. During the summer I started thinking about the Chèré Couloir, a stunning ice gully that rises up the north face of Mont Blanc du Tacul.
At 200m, the Chèré Couloir gets quite steep with the crux pitch rising up to 85 degrees. This route is very popular with guided parties as it is very easily accessible and the belays are all bolted making it as safe as a mountain route can be. This, coupled with the large numbers of people climbing it make it sound very safe and straightforward – people talk about it as a little route that is nice to do once in a while. It is, however, still a steep ice climb in a very big mountain environment. Needless to say, the Chèré is a beautiful line that just begs to be climbed and, having walked past it numerous times, I wanted to climb it. But, I didn’t want to be taken up it by someone more experienced.
I wanted to know, ‘can I lead it?’
Over the summer, I heard of friends climbing it, coming away saying it was easy enough and I should have a go. I wasn’t ready yet, though. I hadn’t even led any ice routes by that point, let alone something that steep and long.
How I started to psych myself out
Over the winter, Sophie and I went on an amazing trip to Cogne with a minibus full of Royal Marines and RAF. Sophie gave the boys as good as she got and has since adopted several marine-isms such as popping out for a bit of phys. On this trip, I led my first ice routes and started getting comfortable on the sharp end, so to speak. One evening, over one beer too many, Sophie and I started talking about routes we could climb now. I mentioned the Chèré and her eyes lit up. When it comes to climbing routes, this doesn’t happen often for Sophie, she is more driven by amazing summits than deliberately difficult routes up them.
At this point I found my first excuse to not climb the route. It was winter, we didn’t have skis, and it would be impossible to walk to the route with such deep snow. Though a legitimate reason, I was secretly relieved.
I was so keen to climb the route, I was talking about it to everyone yet the first excuse to not climb it I got I took. I put the thought to the back of my mind and ignored that niggle.
I was back in Chamonix again a few months later for a long weekend and the chance came up again, this time with a new partner. Though still winter, the snow was more compact, there were tracks, and we could hire snow-shoes. I was suddenly confronted with making the decision: do I do this or not? The approach would still be hard work but achievable, however I started to clutch at straws. With a long and hard approach and descent, my lack of acclimatisation, what if we got stuck out up there for the night? There is the Cosmiques hut and even the toilets at the Midi station so exposure wouldn’t be a problem but unacclimatised it would be horrible.
This was my excuse. I called my new partner and bailed.
Over the next few weeks the decision haunted me. Did I make the right decision? I was pretty sure that technically I was strong enough but this exhibited the beauty of climbing and alpinism; you can be fit, strong, and a top climber but you also need a cool, calm, and collected head in extreme situations.
This started to highlight my worst fear; what if I don’t have the head for this?
This scared me more than the climb. I have committed a lot to climbing, to adventures, and to following the path I have chosen. What if I’m not actually strong enough, mentally, for the path I’ve chosen?
Facing my fears through honest reflection and taking just one step at a time
Arriving this summer, among a whole host of other dream route ideas, the Chèré was most definitely at the top. Would I be able to even start on the route, let alone climb it? I did the thing I always do when faced with an uncomfortable truth, I ignored it and pretended it didn’t exist. We climbed routes we had climbed before. We needed to find our feet again but I couldn’t help feeling this was just an excuse.
Recently I have been doing a little climbing and hanging out with a trainee mountain guide, Gabo Mazur. Prior to embarking on a professional career in the mountains, Gabo spent a number of years studying meditation and mindfulness and continues to teach groups in Chamonix. He has first hand experience applying the techniques to extreme mountain environments, using these techniques to survive a nasty night out in the open in a storm.
Gabo has been coming over and joining in my kettlebell sessions since we arrived and, after one of the session, he started talking us through the basic concepts of mindfulness. The first, and for me eye-opening, step was assessing where you are right now. It seems obvious but when was the last time I had truly and honestly assessed where I am both mentally and physically.
You can only move forward when you know where you are in the first place.
That evening, I decided to try the exercise that Gabo suggested. Starting with how I felt physically, I went through my body assessing my strengths and weaknesses – am I strong enough for these sorts of climbs. Mentally, did I really want to do this, did I know how to climb this sort of route, and did I have faith in my partner too? Finally, emotionally. This was a harder one to assess and observe but it was clear I was conflicted. Just thinking about the route got my heart pumping but was this fear or excitement?
As I dwelled on this, I started to relax. I am strong enough to climb the Chèré. I know how to climb ice this steep, this length, and have complete faith in Sophie. I am excited to climb not just this one route but routes like it.
I started to feel ready. I wanted to get there and really face my inner self.
We aim to get out a few times a week and Thursday looked like it would be the day. Sophie was keen, the weather was perfect, conditions were ideal. I had no excuses.
I had been honest with Sophie through all of this, she knew my fears and excitement for the route and she was just as psyched as I was to climb it. With words of encouragement and support we packed our bags and set off to the Aiguille du Midi lift, and our departure point for the Chèré Couloir.
Climbing the Chèré Couloir
As we set off down the arete and onto the Col du Midi, both of us felt great; we felt strong, confident, and ready to take on the world. The approach is an hour long walk across the glacier and, even at 8am, there were plenty of people around. Thankfully, only one of them seemed to be heading for our target.
At the base of the climb, we geared up, tied onto the ropes, and before I knew it, I was off. The party above we well ahead and so we had a clear run. The first pitch isn’t really a pitch, more a steep snow slope but you need to cross the bergschrund, a metre wide bottomless crevasse – well worth roping up for. The real climbing started next and I set off up the 70 degree ice. A nice easy angled pitch to begin with but very quickly my blood pumping, I felt that worrying burning sensation in my calves, and my grip was tiring round my ice axes.
As I moved up, it didn’t feel right. Have I made a mistake being here?
As I reached the belay, I made myself safe and started to bring Sophie up. While Sophie climbed I started to think about the route so far. Why didn’t it feel right? Should we just stop now? I took a few deep breaths and then decided to review the pitch. Physically, I had started ok but then quickly started to tire, why? I had been a little panicked the whole way up and this had come across in my technique. I had been climbing badly using inefficient axe and foot placements, wasting energy, this was why it had felt hard work.
I was performing badly because I was too tense. I needed to relax.
As Sophie came to the belay, she could see that something wasn’t right. I quickly set off on the next, very short pitch and, when she arrived at the belay, she looked me in the eyes and asked if I was ok. Ice was coming down the gully as the team above us climbed on and I started to get scared. What if ice falls on me while I’m leading? What if I fall? This was the crux pitch, the steepest and longest on the route.
Once I was on it I was committed. No (easy) way to turn back.
“Just start up, one small step at a time, think about your movements, your are good enough to do this.” Sophie gently said. I thought back to my poor climbing lower down and knew I could climb better. I knew I could climb more efficiently, more smoothly. I just needed to focus.
I took a couple more deep breaths and stepped out on the ice. Small steps, correctly placed. Moving up, just 6 inches at a time. There is no hurry. Just focus on your technique. Talking to myself as I started up, it took me 6m to realise I was loving this. It felt amazing.
I felt strong. I was climbing well. And, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
I cruised up the hardest pitch on the route and, getting to the belay felt a pang of disappointment, the pitch ended and I wanted it to go on! I felt on top of the world. Yes, it had been strenuous; yes, it had got my heart fluttering a few times while struggling to place an ice screw; but I had felt confident and that I belonged on the route.
As Sophie came up the pitch, she was smiling ear to ear. She had enjoyed it as much as I had and was so proud that I had climbed the way I had. That support and celebration from her sent me to cloud nine.
How amazing was this, not just climbing the Chèré Couloir but sharing it with my wife?
We finished up on the final pitch and just sat there. Basking in what we had achieved. This is by no means the hardest route in the alps but it was a massive milestone in our alpine careers. A huge step in testing our confidence in ourselves and each other, and we have come out shining.
It is all too common that we build up tasks or objectives in our mind. Something that we know we can do but, by putting it off, becomes a burden and struggle to face. We know that honestly confronting it is the only way forward, even if that means saying no. There will be more Chèré Couloirs for me, I know, but I also know that we all have the strength to face them, to honestly assess where we are, and to decide if we are ready to give it a try.