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Peaking Into The Void

Rory McCrea

We had gone up to Le Tour glacier to climb Aiguille Du Chardonnet, a beautiful 3824m peak above the village of Argentiere. We had been thinking about the Mignot spur as our route. However a couple of serac collapses and avalanches on the north face during the night changed our minds. Forbes arête, a ridge traverse, seemed like a better idea.

We were climbing unroped in the interest of speed. A decision quickly reversed after the first technical section when Merak began a traverse and the snow slithered off granite slabs from under his feet. The early morning sun was heating up. A combination of crumbly snow and moving together as a roped three slowed us down. Sweat trickling, we moved from rock to snow ridge and back to rock, up down and around. Part of a snow ridge crumbled in front of me, just before I crossed it.

Small puffs of clouds were gliding across what had been a clear sky, chased by big bruised looking clouds on the horizon. On we went inching our way across the ridge, hoping and praying that we’d be off before the storm hit us. The wind began blowing and huge cumulus clouds approached from either side of the mountain. The flashing lighting and rumbling thunder were worrying. We carried on moving towards the summit, hidden behind innumerable aiguillettes. There was no other option. We were now above the north face and had heard too many rock falls on the southwest face for any thoughts of an impromptu abseil.

Within minutes visibility was reduced to swirling mass of white, the wind howling around the rocks. Lightening flashing all around, thunder exploding instantaneously. I reached the shelter of a gendarme and brought my friends across.

After a brief exchange we decided to keep moving, Merak now taking the lead. He disappeared around the crown we were sheltering behind and into a white flurry, out of sight. I could hear a buzzing noise that was irritating me like a swarm of bees, or air escaping from high pressure. I shouted across to Grzegorz who was a sitting miserably below me, “what’s that noise?” He shook his head slightly, not replying.

I started thinking about static electricity, lightning and high points. It seemed like a good idea to move lower, away from the top of the rock. Only problem was that would mean untying from the sling around the rock. I moved as low as I could with out untying.

On we went inching our way across the ridge, hoping, praying we’d be off before the storm hit us. The wind began blowing and huge cumulus clouds approached from either side of the mountain. The flashing lighting and rumbling thunder were worrying.
forbes arete, Mont Blanc Massif

BANG

I opened my eyes and saw Grzegorz’s horrified face. I was dangling against the slab – a sling and carabineer supporting my body weight. “What just happened?” I screamed at Grzegorz, the wind snatching his reply away. I had memory of being punched at the base of my skull and feeling like I was being electrocuted. I pulled myself onto my feet, staying as low down as I could.

I shouted at Grzegorz again. “What happened?” “Are you alright?” he screamed back with a look of horrified fear on his face. “We have to get out of here now!” We both began shouting into the howling white madness. “MERAK, Merak, you have to stop, we have to get out of here! Right now.” We yelled and screamed until we heard a faint reply. “Just wait a little bit…” the wind drowning the rest of his words. “NOW! We have to get out of here, NOW!” Frantic fear filled words.

On we went, across crumbling snow bridges, sugary snow slabs and cold granite. Wrapped up in our private misery, isolated from one and another by the storm and our thoughts.
We faced an eternal moment of thundering light and howling wind and then the rope tightened and Grzegorz shot off into the swirling snow with me behind him, flinching at every crack of thunder. All thoughts of falling were overridden by a greater fear. When I got to the belay point at the next pile of rocks we huddled down to sit out the worst of the storm, realising we were in deep shit. I’m not sure how long we waited. Just when it seemed the thunder was moving off, there would be another blue white flash bang nearby. Shivering, we huddled together, too cold, numb and scared to appreciate the terrible beauty of the storm. Only vaguely aware the day had turned into night.

Eventually Merak stood up. “We need to move. This storm could carry on all night!” I nodded glumly, the numbing cold making a lighting strike a better option. On we went, across crumbling snow bridges, sugary snow slabs and cold granite. Wrapped up in our private misery, isolated from one and another by the storm and our thoughts. The howling screaming white madness pushing and pulling, tugging at the rope. Two more gendarmes and we were nearing the summit – foolishly and brazenly over the top instead of around. The thunder seemed to have moved off although the wind, hail and snow still battered down. Another two rope lengths and we were on the snowy shoulder of the west ridge, the storm still raging.

As we started searching for a way down, tired, hungry and cold, I stumbled and looked up to see Grzegorz falling, sliding through the swirling blankness before he rolled onto his axes, stopping before the rope tightened. I stared numbly as he lay there, his head pressed to the snow. Finally we found a cairn and were no longer wondering blindly. We had found the light. A weak flickering glow admittedly, but somewhere within a reachable distance was an abseil point. The weak glow flaring up as some ones head torch revealed a couple of old slings.

Merak set up the abseil and is first to go. “Watch out,” his parting words. “the rope’s wet.” he disappears down into a ice gully, swirling snow obscuring his light. A couple minutes later we hear him “… rope’s caught… sort it out as you come down…”. We join him at a point 10 meters lower. We tug and pull the ropes free. Merak, the heaviest, goes first again. A big rock fall to the right grabs my attention. The still howling winds whips cloud, hail and snow around us. A sudden thought. Where’s the rope?

forbes arete, Mont Blanc Massifforbes arete, Mont Blanc Massif
I look across at Grzegorz, dangling off the same sling. “Where is the rope?” I shout, throat raw. We look around, frantic headlights stabbing into the white. Behind us, the rope streams up, out of reach. We had left the ropes running through the first point above us so we could move quicker but not securing them near to either of us. We can’t see Merak’s light. We scream into the storm but can’t hear anything above the wind. Merak must still be on the rope. That’s why it’s so straight. The feeble glow of hope had just gone out. We hang there for another cold numb eternity, getting colder and colder. We would die if we stayed here all night. I tried to reach the rope with a walking pole but it was out of reach. Grzegorz suggested extending the sling with another one. I pulled an axe free, swung into the ice and jammed the other hand into a icy crack. I kicked my front points into the ice, put the axe away and try again with the pole, but fall back – the rope is just out of reach. I screamed with frustration, bouncing up and down in anger. I snag the rope but it slips. Finally I catch it again.

I go down the icy ropes and look for Merak but there is no sign of him, no blood or rocks either. I shout as Grzegorz comes down to tell him to find a abseil point. I untie so he can swing across the icy rocky slope until he finds one. Then I have to climb 15m of bowel loosening ice and rock to reach him. I tell him Merak’s gone. The ropes are frozen. We manage to get one down and undo the knot but the other won’t come. After another two short abseils we were on a steep snow slope. We rope up and set off – still about 3000m up and we weren’t sure which slope we were on. We found boot prints – big yeti-like tracks. This must be Merak, no one else on this mountain has size 13 feet.

Relief and anger renewed tired arms and legs. I wasn’t sure whether I’d punch him or hug him when I saw him. We zigzagged through the clouds, the snow and night limiting sight to a couple of meters. The storm had not finished with us yet. I gingerly down climbed until I my head lamp illuminated the maw of a gaping crevasse. Slowly and carefully I climbed back up to Grzegorz. Merak’s footsteps had just carried on over the edge.

We had no way of setting up a secure anchor in the soft sugary snow so I could check the crevasse properly. Tired, freezing and hungry, we moved back and forth unable to find a point where we can jump across the chasm. We ended up digging a hole in the crumbly, grainy snow. Too tired to care about avalanches, we huddled together on the rope, a foil bag above us, and fell asleep in each other’s arms.

A pattering of snow sliding across the foil startles me awake. I pull it off it to see the clouds have lifted. I can see the moon and the warm lights of Argentiere down in the valley. I know where we are and where we want to be. We’re still high up, still a way to go.

We find a snow bridge across the crevasse on the far right of the cwm and tip toe across it before the clouds swallow us up again. We just had to keep down climbing. On and on we went, plodding down. Too tired and cold to care about crevasses or avalanches. Finally, in the predawn gloom we stumbled onto the glacier. We knew then that we just had another 2 hours to the bivy site.

Two young British clcimbers walked us back across the glacier. A helicopter buzzed in and of the clouds surrounding Du Chardonett. A quick phone call on a bad signal established they were looking for a three-man team. The chopper left the mountain and buzzed across us before heading back. We couldn’t make out what had been said about the third member of our party.

We passed a group of people leaving the refuge. I was staring bemusedly at a beautiful face when she said my name. It turned out I knew her from London. She started telling me about this crazy scene where ‘this Polish guy staggered into the refuge going on about his friends he’d lost on the mountain.’

I grinned. Merak was ok.


We ended up digging a hole in the crumbly, grainy snow. To tired to care about avalanches, we huddled together on the rope, a foil bag above us, and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Addendum

We weren’t prepared for the alps. We were a little lucky and learned a lesson. Not panicking and being stubborn helped but we were lucky. The storm lasted for more than 10 hours. I was not struck by lightning. I was electrocuted by static electricity discharge from the granite. According to Grzegorz, I was surrounded by a blue glow before I fell down.

Unfortunately no super powers have been revealed.

Born in Zimbabwe, reared in South Africa, Rory McCrea was introduced to bouldering and scrambling in the mountains above Cape Town by a good friend. It wasn’t until he moved to the U.K. that he got into sport and trad climbing, under the influence of a group of polish climbers. From there, much to his surprise he got into alpine climbing and mountaineering.

He has a love/hate relationship with the cold.

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