Volume 46 Number 1 Article 7
15-19 December 08
Since starting doing a bit of climbing I had long had a hankering to do some ice climbing. I joined a Jagged Globe trip to the Ecrin’s in the French Alps. This was based in a B&B style French chamber d’hote near Bourg D’Oisan. Not having done any ice climbing before, the first day was spent focusing on basic skills going up and down two short pitches. I had been paired up with Hamish who is not a climber, although he has done a fair amount of mountaineering (Dinali, 6000m peaks in the Himalayas), so the next day I was paired up with Louise, who like myself climbed in the UK.
The next day Jim took us to a route called Le Pylon, a two pitch route of fairly steep ice. A three quarters of an hour walk from La Grave finished with a steep trudge to the foot of the climb, which added to the sense of exposure to the climb. There were two other parties on the climb, but we all managed to find a route to do. Standing well to one side while Jim led the first pitch, we were out of the fall line when the leader of one pair dropped his ice tool, landing a foot or so away from his belayer: an ice-axe through the head from 20m is going to hurt.
The slightly warm weather (a few degrees above freezing) meant that the ice was lovely and plastic, very easy to make placements. The views at the top were spectacular. The easy ice and a multi pitch route on our second day was good for our confidence. The 50 odd meter abseil was exciting, with plenty of bounce on 8mm half ropes. At the bottom we put in some abalakovs and did some climbing focusing on technique. I lead a pitch with a top rope for protection.
The next day we went up to Alpe d’Huez to try a route of a similar grade. Here the temperature was colder, so the ice was hard and brittle, so it felt many times harder. I was climbing on leashless axes and 5m up managed to come off leaving an axe in place above me. Trying to climb vertical ice with one axe only succeeded in tiring me out. Eventually I managed to dislodge the axe and start back up the route. At the stance it was clear that Louise and I were not enjoying ourselves. Had Andy asked us did we want to continue we would have opted to go down, so wisely Andy just announced that he was continuing up and off he went.
Standing at the belay, some ice came down, one piece hitting me on the back with a dull thud: the lung actually ampifies the sound, so once the shock had worn off I realised I had not been mortally wounded. I had misjudged the interval to give Louise before following her, so halfway up the second pitch found myself snapping on her heels so I hung back waiting for her to get to the top. By now we were under increasing time pressure to make the last cable car down the valley, but I eventually struggled up the pitch to a precarious stance and soon we were all abseiling off, the 60m ropes thankfully reaching the bottom so we were able to abseil in a single hit and save time.
Day four was back up at the same crag on a easy route. Today Stephan was going to help Louise and I just focus on technique. Three days ice climbing is time enough to start to pick up bad habits, so we went up and down a single pitch on a top rope with lots of focus on improving technique. As we focused on technique we moved on to climbing with just one axe and even no axes. Towards the end I wanted to lead the pitch without a top rope. Seven or eight meters up the route steepens to vertical for a few meters. Having got an ice screw in half way up I was ready to go for it, when the leading head started to taunt me with unspecified dangers. Knowing I had just done that bit with one and no axes I was able to counter-argue that with two axes and a good belay I was perfectly safe to just “go for it”.
On the last day we were doing a multi-pitch route back near La Grave. The day started well. Louise and I were climbing confidently from the previous day’s work on skills and soon Andy and I were on the top of the fourth pitch, waiting for Louise to come up to the stance and start the last pitch, the crux. Suddenly I heard Andy shout a warning and it all just started coming down. Small bits, middle sized bits, spindrift. The small bits of ice (gold ball size) sting when they hit bone and the middle sized bits make a dramatic whoomph when they hit. This went on for about two minutes and I was elementally terrified of something big hitting and doing real damage. Poor Louise was on the pitch with nowhere to hide. At one point I opened my eyes and Andy was gone. He was belayed such that he was able to shelter around a corner. I was too tight into the belay so had to just stand and hope. At one point I realised that by standing straight rather than stooped, my helmet was more likely to get it rather than my neck.
Eventually it ended and Andy called down to find out how Louise was. Soon she came up, and Andy removed the half a tonne of ice in her jacket hood. At the stance she had a quick cry to purge the emotions, then we decided to get off the hill pronto, so with one last longing glance at the crux we abb’ed off. At the bottom we decided to go back to the van for a bite to eat then return to an adjacent route to do a little bit more. Just to show we were bower but not totally beaten. Three or four climbs on a top rope was enough to feel we’d ‘got back on the bike’ and we could run away with some pride still intact. What a great week!