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An epic of many mistakes
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Ch'na Beru, Sixt-Fer-a-Chaval

Argentiere 5.20a.m. wakening up at The Shack.

The water tap froze during the night. I don't have enough time to melt snow to fill in my water bottle for the day, neither to camel drink*. Ten minutes later I am on a first morning train to La Fayet with my climbing gear in a rucksack neatly packed the night before. Forty minutes of sleep before I see Vincent's stoical face and Amelie gesturing in a wild French manner. They are my climbing partner and his girlfriend waiting for me on the platform. A handshake from Vinc, a quick "Bonjour" and no usual chick kisses from Amelie. She is late for work because of waiting for me. We leave her by the entrance to the office and exchange understanding, friendly smile. Finally, silence, no more bollocking, and the sulky tone of her voice. Vinc shouts behind her "On va revenir ver 21h". Uff... one problem off our backs, let's hope the last one today. Clear sky and the chilly weather promise a good day.

It's a one hour drive passing Sallanches, Magland, Cluses, Samoens. We turn right in Sixt-Fer-a-Chaval towards Salvagny and see just in front of us today's goal. Collet d'Aterne and its unmissable silver white line "Ch'na Beru". "Fer-a-chaval" means a horseshoe. This sexy name was added to Sixt after an absolute jewel of semi-circular cliffs placed 3 miles further north. This stunning looking half a mile long and 1500 feet tall circus gets completely covered in ice every winter. The ice forms some of the hardest to climb and wildest to reach formations in that region. These we decide to leave for another time. Although, "Ch'na Beru" doesn't mean anything, this 600m long icefall, bending beautifully in an S-shape, is a classic line, and it gives a real alpine experience.

We drive as far as the road or rather snow on it permits and park before "Le pont de Sales". Following the bed of the river "Giffre des Fonts" for two hours, we cut a path in waist deep snow right to the bottom of a not so impressive and rather dry icefall. On our way there we passed the Cascade du Rouget, which also wasn't well formed. Hoping for more ice higher up Vincent takes the privilege of leading the first pitch. The ice is thin and brittle. He doesn't like it. I can tell that by the amount of debris and swear words filling up the air above me. He finds a stance, I quickly follow.

My turn to lead and as a typical Pole I choose a mixed line. That gives me a chance to jam my ice axes in cracks and hook them on ledges. This drytooling* love we share only with British climbers so used to such conditions in the Cairngorms. Shortly before I hear Vinc shouting "dix metres" I realise that the ice proceeds only for another rope length and then completely disappears. Vinc hates following my alternative to a shroud of doggy ice on the left and right. 300 feet above the ground our climbing ends. Vincent believes we aren't on the route. We must have missed or not yet reached the start of Ch'na. Two quick rappels, and two hundred yards further east of the face of Collet d'Anterne we find the right "Ch'na Beru". It is 1p.m., dangerously late but the route looks so impressive that we find it difficult to deny strong temptation. We agree to be extra cautious and to return at any additional danger. Yet we don't decide on a predetermined turn-around time. In the end the summit is only at 1816 meters above the sea level, which is a half the altitude of an average what we do in Mont Blanc range.

Vincent, the more experienced and fitter starts. The ice looks much more positive and we make encouraging progress over the first 700 feet of reasonably easy ground. Apart from the first rope length the slope is angled at 60 degrees, which permits to move together* in a V shaped, almost chimney like diedre. This bizarre diedre* is a feet wide at the bottom, filled with ice and slightly more than a shoulder length wide above my head. Its unusual shape and gently right turning course makes climbing a very enjoyable adventure. We set up a first belay when diedre changes into an immense rock pillar covered with a thin layer of crystallised water. Encouraged by the peace Vinc decides to continue. This section however proves much trickier than we expected. Lack of good protection makes his advance very slow and nervous. He keeps on looking at me with a strange expresion, muttering something that to a moderate French speaker like me sounds like inarticulate blurb. I could though clearly read his effort as a question to return. All I offer to him in return are words of encouragement, advice and my will to take over the lead. It is the latter I guess that makes him carry on going until he reaches ice again. Belayed from above I find the verglace-cleared rock surprisingly easy to follow. There were however only three rather weak points of protection on the way up. I congratulate him on a good lead, take over the gear and happily start my first lead on "Ch'na Beru".

The start of the pitch requires a short traverse left over an ice bridge. It takes me two wide splits with the tips of my crampons in shallow ice, giving just enough support to the ice axes to make progress. Another step and I am on good ice. I screw in an ice screw*, clip a rope and look down after hearing the dangling noise of falling gear. It was an ice screw as Vincent told me at the end of a day. From there I lead three pitches of grade 4 ice and following a snow field we reach a hidden free standing cigar. It is vertical but seems to be of good ice. Vincent has a bash on it but takes a short fall. We avoid climbing this obstacle by traversing left below the rocky roof. Of its top a curtain of icicles hangs down like a church organ. This ice wall closes the roof to the shape of a thin cave. The beauty of this fragile construction tempts us for a closer inspection and threatens with its enormous mass. One more short pitch and we are faced with a decision to go right and continue on the upper icefalls or to go straight up and follow a longer but easier snow couloir*. At that time I start feeling the results of lack of liquid in my body. Eating snow helps with dehydration only for a short period. We both know well it is much to late to face another four pitches of 80 to 85 degrees ice. My gut feeling tells me it is quality ice and I feel zest for it. It is almost 5p.m., we have no time left we have to opt for fastest and safest choice. With sad eyes we share the last cup of lukewarm tea from Vinc's thermos and start plodding up the snowy couloir. One hour later we stand up at the top of a rock band called Les Faucilles du Chantet.