I wrote this a while back, I wanted my friends to know that we often turn around to try again another day when conditions are favourable. There may never be a good or appropriate time to post it so here goes…
The day starts off bad. Getting on the Midi cable car a tourist rips my down jacket with his ice axe. Wearing his rucsac he was completely oblivious to the havoc his unprotected, out of the wrapper, razor sharp axe was causing in the packed cable car.
At the top, I forge past the tourists to get away from other potential mishaps and quickly descend the fixed ropes on the arrete to the platform cut on the South Face to get my skis on. The snow has been hardened by the wind and I’m eager to get an edge on my feet. A clattering above me causes adrenaline to surge through my system, as my heart starts to pound in my chest I fear the worst. As I look up I see a tourist has slipped on the iron hard glacier ice under the ropes and is about to blow me off the face. The milliseconds are drawn out in my hightened awareness, I can take no action but have to wait for the outcome. The clattering continues and a ski rattles off the buttress and kicks over head. I get lucky, fate dictates that I’m not to be decapitation by the flying samurai sword. The tourist is still slipping around high on the arrete with a jumble of poles and a single ski under arm. I quickly ski down to the glacier and a position where I can see the death troopers coming from 300 m and maintain my relative safe position while waiting for my ski partner.
We tour into the shade and at 8 am its cold, -35C and gusting 30 mph. I have a windproof balaclava, a Hannibal Lecter gimp mask, my thickest hat, ski googles, 2 hoods, down jacket, and polar gloves. I wait for the sun to come round to the access couloir, putting my feet into the cold snow is not a sensible option. We climb fast on hard runnelled neve up and over a couple of rock steps. Above, the couloir steepens to over 50 degrees as it doglegs left. There is an accumulation slab on the lower angled ground on the right but I think nothing of it as there is a line of old firm snow to follow on the left. We swap over leading and my partner heads off. I start concentrating taking my time keeping 3 points of contact on the steep section with my axe pick on the hard snow.
The snow above allows me to shaft my upturned pole as a second tool to increase my security, my climbing rate slows slightly as I take my time to keep as many points of attachment as it gets steeper.
I look up just in time to see my partner start to slide with the slab. Time hangs again, standing just on my front points I don’t imagine any other outcome other than the snow load on me rising until I’m ripped off and fall over the rock steps below. I never thought after nearly 20 years in Chamonix it would be ended by a tiny 4 m wide slab. I duck low, it goes dark as the snow goes over me, a flash of colour is my ski partner passing me on the left.
And with that its over. I’m still attached. My partner has miraculously stopped a couple of metres below. I retrieve my googles and hat from my snowfilled hood. The goggle lens is scored, it saved my eyes from the upturned point of my pole or my partner’s crampon?
The sunny col beckons like a venus fly trap 20 m away. There is another slab there. The wind has picked up and our planned ski descent is now on the lee and accumulating rapidly. Its time retreat from the trap, time for me to go home, the mountains are saying no to me today. I’m not sure how my partner really feels because of the language barrier but I think he is disappointed. I know what it is like to be a weekend warrior and the frustration of not getting a route done. Either way its over for me today and I’m down climbing back the way we came.
I’m annoyed at myself, assuming that my partner had read the snow the same way as I did. It would have taken me 10 seconds to communicate where I thought the safe line was. I didn’t want to be anal, always the one who says that looks dangerous, but I still should have made sure my partner had seem the hazard.