The alarm goes off like a bomb. Jack and I bolt upwards, out of the blankets and head downstairs, rubbing our eyes. The hut is a ghost-town this early, with everyone having seen the forecast and decided to sleep in. For better or for worse, we saw the forecast and figured we’d get amongst it anyway.
The gas canister purrs briefly before the lighter jumps to life and the stove follows suit. We force down coffee and a few cereal bars. Shouldering the packs, we head out the door. Five minutes on the trail puts us on the tiny Moine glacier. Fit the crampons. Flake the rope. Tie in. Take coils.
|The final approach slopes.|
Twenty minutes crunching up the stiff neve puts us at the bergschrund. We drop our kit, stow the crampons and rack up. Jack leads off up the vague, broken groove, now rushing with water from the melting snowfields high on the mountain. The rope goes tight.
I scramble after Jack, taking each piece of protection out as I reach it. It’s seven o’clock and the first signs of daybreak are appearing. Thick, low-lying cloud prevent any golden alpenglow, but the surroundings brighten nonetheless. The terrain is mellow – moving together allows us to cover ground quickly with minimal loss of safety. When the gear has all been placed, Jack runs the rope around a block and belays me up to him.
We re-rack the gear and I head off this time, questing up the broken ground towards a hammer-shaped gendarme that marks where we gain the ridgeline. The conditions on the mountain are dynamic, and so must we be: gloves are removed and replaced as the climbing and temperature dictate, layering is adjusted to keep the muscle groups working efficiently. Rope systems change to suit the nature of the climbing: when a tricky section is reached, we opt to pitch rather than move together for maximum security in the event of a fall.
|Moving together on straightforward terrain.|
We reach the skyline just before my watch beeps for ten o’clock. On the ridge, the going should be easy – the routefinding should become trivial and the protection should be plentiful. Instead, progress is slowed by several short cruxes requiring frequent changes in rope-setup. The climbing would be straightforward in rock shoes, but we have opted to climb in boots, losing all the sensitivity that a tight-fitting rock shoe allows, rendering all but the biggest footholds untrustworthy. We stop to pitch four, maybe five sections of awkward chimney climbing, interspersed with easier movement along the ridge. On a number of occasions, in the interest of speed, we are reduced to pulling on the gear to aid upward progress, but the mountains are no place to debate ethics. We’ll do that back at the hut.
I pull over one last block on the ridgeline and gain the summit, belaying Jack up to me on a sling round a spike of rock. Celebrations are short-lived; it’s now two o’clock and our attention must turn swiftly to the descent – a complex down-climb of the South face. It is early season, and the descent route is still partially covered in snow, making the climbing treacherous. We opt to put the rope away, lest one slip forces us both off the mountain, and begin to make progress downward, towards the hut.
Before long, we are forced to rappel. The conditions have rendered down-climbing far too delicate to be an efficient way off the mountain. We rap hurriedly between anchors of varying quality, left by climbers in the same predicament as ourselves. Before long, we lose the line and have to make our own anchors from which to descend. On a single 60m rope, descending a 600m face is a lengthy process.
|Jack, glad to finally be on the summit.|
By this stage, tiredness is setting in. The process of rappelling becomes monotonous, our bodies start to switch to autopilot. But this is where mistakes so often happen. On the final rappels, checks are done out loud.
Anchor is solid. Rope’s in the belay plate. Prusik is tied. Screwgates are done up.
Eventually we reach the bottom of the South face, the last rappel putting us – inconveniently – in the bergschrund. Jack scrambles out, running the rope out down the glacier, and I climb out when it goes tight, his body acting as a counterweight should the snow collapse beneath me.
Back at the hut we lay the ropes out to dry and stumble inside, presenting ourselves to the guardian, who, by this stage, was starting to wonder what had happened to us. She, and the other alpinists staying at the hut, seem impressed that we reached the summit, given the forecast. It seems to be a British thing. Sometimes, you just have to get out there and force the issue.
|South Ridge of the Aiguille de Moine, centre background.|