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An epic of many mistakes Print
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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.


That's it, we have made it, not quite the way we wanted to but we both know well it was a right decision. Now it is time to make a safe descent. The figure of 8 knots at both ends of blue rope, which we used between us when moving together up the couloir are frozen. We can't untie them and cut them off, losing 3 feet at each end. It is getting dark and from a very poor description of descent route we cann't work out anything. Urged by the lack of time rather than rational thinking we eliminate the option of going down the way we came up. Walking along the corniced edge of the plateau, which formed the summit we are peering down hopping to find a sign of safe retreat. Our efforts are in vain. Foolishly, we made an unforgivable mistake of not taking the map. Finally, we decide to go down to the east, the only area we managed to inspect. I don't know Vinc's reasoning for this choice but mine is a hope to find a safe path made by people who might have climbed the "Cascades d'Anterne". "They look so impressive, someone must have climbed them recently," I think. So we start our descent. Relying on the moonlight and the beams of two head torches, it requires us to switch the sixth sense to find the safest way. It starts down icy slabs and we decide to rope up again. By doing that climbers rely on their partner arresting their fall, otherwise they both spin down pulling one another in unstoppable snowball. This controversial method seems to be right here, where occasional ledges provide us with body belays. A diagonal traverse right and we are in a tiny narrowing valley, following its neck, we enter a canyon. Over the edge of a loud waterfall covered with snowed up ice I belay Vincent keeping the rope very tight, almost lowering him down. When he makes himself safe I unrope and free solo this delicate section. I was afraid that if roped any additional pull from my tired partner would put so much weight on the ice that it would brake. When I reach Vincent I see lack of understanding in his eyes. I am close to explode with anger, I have felt unprotected being all the time the second on our descent. Dehydration, low blood sugar level and constant exposure to high risk has been slowly weakening our physical and mental resistancs. Sheer drive to success and breath taking beauty of this Snow Queen's kingdom keep us going. I feel like Kay and Gerda surrounded by the walls of blue ice glittering in full moon light. By making snow bollards*, drilling v- threads*, down climbing and rappelling of left gear we are escaping from her cold greedy arms. Step by step she is giving up the ground.

Our strategy is to follow down the stream of the "Giffre des Fonts". But Snow Queen employees her tricks as well. At some point the river zigzags and its frozen stream ends in a sudden black void. This place is called Les Tines des Fonts, a 450 feet tall vertical drop. We find ourselves at the edge of it, in a dead end unable to tell how deep it is. We have to go back, up and along its east wing to find more inviting section of this rocky formation. Again we swap turns ploughing up the hill through the snow often reaching up to our armpits. Vincent falls asleep several times walking. I know my time to push harder on a sharp end has come. Sticking close to the edge of the fall I manage to spot a slope, which is easier angled. Thanks to that it receives enough of moon light for us to see that we can make it that way. We abseil off a tree. Now for the first time we see what we have just traversed in its entirety. It is a band of rock with icefalls and ice cigars stretching along it. We start coiling the ropes and cut off another 60 feet of completely entangled and frozen blue line. Now on a flat plateau we regain trust and confidence. Eating snow we make it to our last abseil. A prussic around a tree and a double line of a blue rope goes down. A short abseil as it seems to be, but blue line is nowhere near long enough to reach its bottom. I hear Vincent shouting 55 feet below me. His voice banging in the valley multiplies by the proximity of its walls into loud mumbling. Due to the echo I'm unable to workout anything. Intuitively I understand what happened but all I can do is wait for him to act. No communication, our actions can't be coordinated. Minutes later he climbs up to where he feels safe and waits for me to help. I am confronted with a decision of making another abseil thread out of the longer red line or pulling out the blue and tying them together. The idea of providing the red to Vincent doesn't cross my mind. I know the second of my options will provide enough of length to reach the ground but it also means leaving Vincent for a while without any protection. I decide to opt for it. Shortly after I start proceedings I understand he doesn't like it. In the end after a short pause he allows me to pull up the blue line. He urges me, it is clear to me I have to be slick. There he is some 120 feet up on the wall in an awkward position relying only on his tired muscles. The urgency of situation and the piles of frozen rope makes me go for a shortcut. I whack tied ropes behind the tree hoping that they will not get caught. At the foot of the cliff we discover my hopes were in vain.

We can't pull it down. I offer to climb it up and retrieve it but Vinc decides to leave it there. It was an old rope, unsuited for ice climbing, but still a considerable loss. We are desperate to go down, call Amelie and we sense we are close. Back along the river and in its flow we finally reach the fist summer huts, then following ski shoes tracks to the village of Salvagny. There he calls Amelie and the Mountain Rescue Team whom she called a few hours before. We say no word but thank each other.

It took us seven hours to climb the route and the same time to descent it. When we arrived at Amalie's we drunk hot tea, eat some chocolate and went to beds. I stayed in mine for six more days, Vincent for three. I was so tired and sick that I had to force myself to leave the bed to eat. That very same winter we did together at least a dozen more routes, lots of which were of harder grade. Our partnership and friendship benefited enormously from many mistakes we had made on Ch'na Beru.

With thanks to Vincent for being so strong and wise.

Summary:

  • Small mistakes cumulate and can cause a big epic
  • Communication is one of the 4 pillars for safe adventures to build working partnership
  • Self-responsibility, motivation and experience are the other three