The ledge was about the size of a single mattress; perhaps a little shorter. Up ahead, the Pointe de Segogne was caked in fresh, unconsolidated snow. I checked my watch. Six-thirty in the evening – it’d be dark within ninety minutes.
Misha made the last rappel to join me on the ledge. He was obviously thinking the same thing – continuing at this late stage, given how slow we were moving, would be miserable at best. So we settled on the ledge, and in turn, the clag settled on us. All things considered, it was a decent bivi – plenty of places to hang the gear from, a big rock spike to clip ourselves into, room to semi-lie down. I’m not sure if you can really apply the word ‘comfortable’ to what is essentially sleeping on a rock, nearly four thousand metres above sea level, but if you could, we might have tentatively done so.
We made a brew and some food and discussed what had gone wrong. We’d been moving consistently, only stopping to belay for the occasional section, but conditions had made a slow battle out of what should’ve been an enjoyable day out. Undeterred by the fresh snowfall that recent weather had brought, we’d set out with the blasé attitude of ‘how bad could it be?’ Turns out it could be pretty bad.
As darkness came it began to snow. A little snow had been forecast, so we figured it’d be over before too long, but it just kept coming. Eventually I fell asleep, the hood of my bivi bag cinched down as tight as it would go, but still the snow crept inside. I managed maybe two hours’ sleep through the night, repeatedly woken by spindrift pouring down the face to my side and into my bivi bag. It wasn’t long before the snowfall started building up between me and the wall and the accumulating drift started to push me and Misha off the ledge. Luckily we were tied in, and Misha didn’t seem to care much anyway.
Come six o’clock, we discussed our options through the many layers of waterproofing and insulation in which we were each cocooned. We could either continue up and over the summit, or bail down an unknown couloir to the glacier. Up and over was starting to look like the slow but sensible option, until a sizeable powder avalanche tore off the calotte above us and roared down the face to the Nant Blanc glacier, far below. It was time to go home.
600m of down climbing through relentless spindrift avalanches, setting off sloughs every fifty metres or so, followed by a post-holing session across the glacier in a whiteout put us back at the Grands Montets lift, and we were thankful we were in Chamonix, and not somewhere a lot wilder. Nevertheless, rime-ice was starting to accumulate on both of us and I’d managed to get frostnip in one finger.
Paradoxically, we were out of the figurative woods and back down in the Grands Montets car park within half an hour, and before long I was back in Chamonix. It was amusing to observe everybody else calmly going about their day, in stark contrast to the relative shitstorm we’d just fought through on the mountain. I spent the next few days sitting in my apartment going over the climb in my head, trying to work out what had gone wrong but never reaching any answers. I beat myself up about the fact that we’d failed; the fact that we’d had to retreat. I hated the fact that we’d not had the reward of the summit, that we’d bust a total gut together and still come away empty handed. I tried to brush the memory away and chalked it up to experience.
I’ve heard it said that the best alpinists are the ones with the shortest memories. This little nugget of wisdom always seems painfully true when you’ve spent ten hours lying on a rock having your personal space invaded by several million small crystals of frozen water, Equally, when your alarm goes off at 3AM and you have that moment of clarity when you realise that you’re sitting upright in a slightly soggy down sleeping bag stuffing chocolate biscuits into your face and trying not to hurl them straight back up again, there always seems to be that quiet voice in your head going “ah yes, I remember why I vowed to sell all my climbing gear after the last alpine route“.
So, naturally, a few days later Misha and I decided to go for a similar sufferfest on the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. The odds were stacked against us from the off: cold weather meant big boots and big bags, as we set off with the intention of continuing up the Integrale to the summit of Mont Blanc. But we talked ourselves into it anyway.
At first, as ever, I found it frustrating that we seemed unable to move quickly, never settling into a rhythm or taking the difficulties in our stride, but before long I’d managed to surrender myself to the challenge. You can’t change what’s in front of you, so quit trying. You chose to put yourself in this situation – you wanted the challenge – so grit your teeth and get to work.
The Noire in itself was a big tick, but it was rendered bittersweet by the fact we’d tried – and comprehensively failed – to do it in good, fast style. I think we were both pretty bummed about that. Looking at the positives afterwards, however, I was proud that we’d sucked it up and suffered it out, without much complaint.
So perhaps good alpinists have bad memories. Maybe better alpinists can grit their teeth when those memories come flooding back.