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Serak du Geant, Mer de Glace

Collecting small chunks of amber coughed out by the frothy waves of the Baltic Sea I’m limping on the crouches along its sandy shore. From the cliff above I had spotted a dune-sheltered hollow in sand. It’s big enough to provide tranquillity and solitude I need to recall my recent chain of Alpine epics which finally resulted in me breaking my right ankle.

I’m a man free of phobias and superstitions so I laughed 3 months ago when being warned of a bad luck sign after I had bruised my forehead banging it on a lamppost walking on the street. Ignoring my shack mate's warning that "Everything happens in threes" and singing "I'm not superstitious" song Ozzie Mick and I take an early ski lift up the Aiguille du Midi. I'm quite desperate to practice crevasse rescuing so we decide to ski down the Gross Rognon on Mere du Glace. Mick on his wide powder board cuts the trucks through knee deep, fresh snow. The weather is good enough to see long way down the see of crevasses and saracs. The fist few pitches are well snowed up so we keep going fast, only sporadically interrupted by me falling on chopstick thin skis completely unsuited for such deep snow. Quite early Mick’s super fitness, gained over three consecutive seasons in France and Canada, makes me realise I’m going to struggle to keep up his pace. We take wide turns avoiding dodgy looking crevasses and shoo over the less obvious ones. By the time the scorching sun is in zenith we reach the most crevasse dense section named le Sarac du Geant.

Half way through this most dangerous part of our itinerary we stop to take a few layers off. Blessing for this moment of rest I suggest a longer break for a lunch. Mick ignores my unassertive plead and decides for us to go down another 500 yards to a place called la Salle a Manger.

Increasing tiredness and pain in my dead tired thighs affects the speed I take turns. Mick’s still on the head choosing our way between much more open crevasses. A long queue of skiers on the right indicates we have reached the narrowing final section of le Sarac du Geant. Mick avoides the queue by turning left, down a 2 feet narrow bridge between two open icy jaws. The pain and tiredness turns my vigilance into a burning desire to rest. I trust and follow Mick, knowing instinctively that only seconds divide me from a lunch break.

A split moment after Mick’s gone off my sight behind a sharp turn right I fail to take the same turn and I end up drifted out on its snow blown cornished lip. Missing the turn by inches I cause the cornish collapse under extra weight I had built up over 9 lazy months. Falling down I hit the mouth of a crevasse, located left below the turn, and flip back to dive head down its dark abbeys. All I perceive is the noise my skis make scratching the walls of this frozen well. All of a sudden, 15 feet down the crevasse the skis get blocked between two opposite situated ice mushrooms. "Fucking miracle!" I think.

It all takes so little time that its only when I have a while to think, hanging up side down of my skis, that I realise what has just been happening.

I’m suspended like a bucket in a verglaced, narrowing at the bottom well. The walls of that well are covered with rock scree which have scraped skin of my hands while I was trying to arrest the flight. The scree must have built up and froze to the walls during hundreds of years of detrition between the granite cliff and the crevasse. This friction is caused by the natural movement of glacier. My rucksack, which flew over my head, is now dangling below me, it is spitting out small bits and pieces of my gear. Finding it impossible to put an ice screw in black ice, I manage to place my ice tool in a small crack. Pushing up on a tool and using as a hand hold sticking out of the wall frozen rock I twist and bend my torso to reach and to unclip one of my bindings. Pressing my back to the icy wall with newly freed right leg I block my body. Still with my left feet bound to a ski above my head I regain the feeling of some control and relative safety. Until now my major fear was the risk of falling unknown distance further down the darkness. My fairly stable position allows to hook the icetool higher up on one of icy mushrooms that have so successfully stopped my skis. Pulling up with both hands on the tool I reach the second binding, which under the touch of a finger unlocks and returns my leg. I fell such a relief to overstretched muscles and tendons that I’m positive I’m already over the worst.

Using one ski, the ice tool and pressing my legs on opposition I make my way out to see Mick munching his sandwich and chewing the bud of his splift. Sitting at the Salle a Manger he welcomes me bullocking "where the fuck is our communication?, have you just been practicing your crevasse rescuing techniques?". He is so stoned that its only when he sees my skipoles and a rucksack missing that he believes my story.

On our way down to Chamonix we get a chance to go over the story again in the Montenvers train. We are so hyped up that initially we don’t notice an awkward silence around us. Everyone is all their ears picking up and putting the story together from the verbal diarrhea we are now exchanging between ourselves.

The next day we come back to collect my gear and to take a few photos. In thick clouds we build up a safe anchor to lower me down the dark funnel. After forcing myself through the narrow throat of the first section of the crevasse I find our gear scattered at the bottom 60 feet lower down. Covered in slime and dirt I pop out my head with a shout "we got it aaall"!. Three days later my third in a row accident led me to a broken ankle, an operation, and 3 months on crouches. I don't sing "I'm not superstitious" song anymore.

General crevasse rescuing tips:

  • Avoid going out when crevasses are open, cross them with vigilance,
  • Regularly practice crevasse rescuing and hauling systems; do one leg, one hand simulations,
  • Train as if you could rely 100% only on yourself,
  • Move over crevassed terrain roped up 35 feet apart,
  • Lighter person goes in front, the one at the back makes sure the rope is tight,
  • If there is a great deal of difference in weight between you and your partner put 2 knots at each end two arm lengths distant from your harness, then another 2 knots at each end another arm span distant from that. If you fall with such a system then the rope cuts a slot into the lip of the crevasse. The rope then slides and the knot gets blocked in a slot,
  • If you travel unroped then each one of you carries one line of a double rope in a rucksack tied to a loop outside (for protection and easy reach),
  • Each fall into a crevasse is different and will require creative solutions,
  • Once in a crevasse you put an ice screw in and clip to it. Now if roped up with your partner then your best option is to get out of it climbing up,
  • If you’ve fallen unroped then try to climb out or lower yourself down of an ice screw and make your way to easier angled part of the crevasse,
  • Always follow your instincts,
  • Make sure you have your crevasse rescuing kit sorted.

Crevasse gear check list:

  • On your harness 2 extended quickdraws, 2 ice screws, belay device, prusic, ropeman and a pulley,
  • Have warm clothes at easy access,
  • Keep your helmet on especially when tired, and one of your ice tool clipped to the harness.