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Face Nord de la Tour Rounde

Despite my friends counsel I had no choice but to look for a climbing partner on the Internet. The chat forum of ukclimbing seemed to be the most appropriate site to do so. Long before I left for Grenoble I managed to find Chris, a 22-year old Yorkshire man who like me wanted to stay in the French Alps for our first full blow alpine season. A month later at the beginning of April we met in Chamonix and soon found a place to live together. A small hut in a forest of Argentiere, a commune called "The Shack". Here, waiting for good weather we exchange our knowledge and experience. Excluding a week of snow plodding, a five day winter course in the Tatras and a handful of easy ice falls this is going to be my first winter climbing. Chris has more impressive resume, but most of his achievements though were gained on climbing courses under guides' wings.

It takes us a few days of camping on "Valle Blanche" and few unsuccessful attempts before we manage to bag our first alpine route. The short "Arete des Cosmiques" allows us to compare our styles and match the complementary skills. Our next target is the north face of la Tour Rounde. Its a 250 m long ice slope at 50 degrees and a popular client guiding sector. Its aesthetic shape and reasonable proximity to Aiguille du Midi ski lift station can attract half a dozen ropes on a nice day.

Walking down the valley we pass la Tour Rounde, we are heading for the Fourche bivouac hut. Before long we find out the hut is too far from our target and somewhat unhappily we decide to spend a night in an open air bivvy. It is the end of April and at dusk we finish digging a 4 foot deep grave on Glacier du Geant, 200 yards from the face of the mountain. My suggestion of digging a cave on the slopes instead, echoes with Chris's ignorance.

Thanks to Mark Twight and his "Extreme Alpinism" book we learnt about the rules of alpine style climbing. As complying with them promises access to many routes on our target lists for this season, we are desperate to adopt and implement them. This is going to be our first experience of Mark's lessons. I am concerned about Chris and his literate interpretation of super lightweight idea. Even if it is going to be very cold, equipped with 2 seasons sleeping bag I only face uncomfortable sleepless night. Chris however has got neither bivvy gear nor down cloths. We brew tea, eat sandwiches and go to "bed". I sleep on the rope dressed in two fleeces and the sleeping bag. Chris is lying on his rucksack dressed just in two fleeces and a windproof outer shell. Curled up close one to another we observe the beauty of the sky and the surrounding peaks.

The fist wave of cold hits us when the sun sets. Then a slight wind blows the remaining clouds off the sky and the temperature drops even more. The full moon slowly makes its way west and when this last source of light hides behind Mont Maudit Chris becomes one big shiver. From now on I manage to get short spans of sleep between his wild convulsions. I know he is suffering but I am freezing myself and we need to learn a lesson. I cover his body with mine as much as I can and hope for a morning to come soon. His fight with cold continues until he is unable to respond logically to me asking how he is doing. I check the time. It is 3.30. I get up, force Chris inside my bag and busy myself with rubbing his body and melting snow. It is so cold that during the cooking the gas in the bottle gels into thick liquid. As a result the flame is low, and the water for tea is only warm but it still makes Chris start to speak. I let him sleep and rest for another hour and keep myself walking around the pit. At 5a.m. I see on the horizon two dots marching in our direction. On skis they are making fast progress from the hut. 15 minutes later they reach the bottom of our route. That brings to my hart the feeling of courage, mixed with envy. I wake up Chris. My partner doesn't look too good. By reminding him of our plans and the time spent on preparations and by feeding him up I manage to shake him out of his mild hypothermia.

It is obvious that Chris is unable to lead and I happily take that honour. One pitch* before the summit I ask him to take over a sharp end of the rope. He refuses but I insist. "It is your route Chris, you wanted to do it so much, please do it, you will like it, you can do it," I persuade. By that time he seems to be fully recovered and capable of doing so, and so he does. That makes him completely sober and with him guiding we descend to our bivvy, and from there down the Mer de Glace. All way down over 20 miles on our feet it takes us until midnight to arrive at the warm hut in Argentiere. It's been a long day, we drink endless cups of tea, share a short version of our story with shack mates and make for real beds.

Summary:


  • It is a long way to take you from theory to practice
  • Don't exaggerate with your light style, have the minimum of resources
  • Pair with someone who has complimentary skills, even if you travel to escape responsibility
  • If worst comes to the worst even the moon can be a decent source of light and warmth