The Grand Cap- Copyright Jon Griffith
(Spot the people on the snow approach)
Luke proposed a plan that seemed irresistible- go out to Chamonix and try all the hardest classic rock routes we were yet to do. So we arrived at the end of July in a world of rain and Snow, with Luke also being destroyed from driving without rest from the UK, avoiding the motorways... A rest day was needed.
After being beaten off by some sketchy snow slopes on the approach to the American Beauty, a very steep route with apparently 'the best F7c crack in chamonix', we sat down and decided what we were really psyched for. The same old routes were circled around and around, finally deciding that for our main objective we needed some acclimatisation and a bit of a warm up on the Grand Capucin.
The route of choice was obvious- Voyage de Gulliver (or Gulliver's Travels). This was the rock route to try and free climb in the chamonix area, with tales of the sponsored hero Tim Emmett failing to free it. So after missing the last lift; having to break into luke's car; a crap sleep and then a long walk across the Valle Blanche, we had our reservations when we looked up at the impressively steep wall of the Grand cap.
Our route was not that obvious and our topo was terrible. After some very composed and impressive climbing from luke, with moves of UAII VII+ protected by terrible slings over zenoliths a long way away, we got back on route and Luke 'graciously' gave me the 'nice E1 pitch' as I was feeling pretty knackered.
The fine undercutting crack was viable up and around the corner; with padding feet in a great exposed position. This would have been the best E1/2 in the peak, were it in a less extreme location and led to a bolt below a blank wall. From here I looked about and couldn't see any way through the blank surroundings, certainly not at E1 anyway. I was getting quite pumped now, without the best of feet and the last holds of the cracks remaining my island of security for a couple of minutes. I could see a crack out left and a bolt above this. So off I went.
The great thing I love about alpine climbing is how there is so little time- you are often in a wild position, you are gripped and you can't see how to do the moves ahead. Despite this you continue, where normally you may downclimb or slump on the rope, this failure will not achieve anything in the grand scheme of getting to the top of the grand cap. So this forces you to keep moving, often surprising yourself by getting further than you think you ever could do.
The Swiss Route- Copyright Oscar Lopez
I burst out left, feet on poor holds and fingers on crimps that definitely would not feel usable, were it not for the recent Danby crag training. O, how I miss Danby crag as I swing out of control into this wild crack; 500 metres above the glacier and 3,700 metres above pure air. A real fight with every cam being a battle to place in this flared monstrosity. I continue for another 20 metres on easier cracks, but I'm so pumped I nearly come off again and again. Composition and mind control. I get to a bolted belay with a happy Spanish chap attached and shout 50 metres down to Luke that I'm safe. The Spaniard abs off and Luke congratulates me on freeing the crux pitch and linking it with the two pitches either side.
"Typical Luke !" I thought- failing to mention that the logical extension of your 'easy crack pitch' was a high altitude finger searing battle into the unknown.
We continue now, with mania suppressed by exhaustion, climbing the final three UIAA VIII pitches with panting breath. We then encountered the final two VS/HVS pitches, which are wet and unappetising. We're not that fussed as we have climbed some of the best pitches of our lives and a wet mooch to the top seems like a poor way to finish a day, which has been such a great success. So we abseil off. We have a good belay and Luke leads the way, off to find the next belay about 55 metres down.
Small pieces of ice have fallen down the face all day, with the odd little piece stinging your hand and keeping you slick. Then something all together larger comes down.
"ICE!!!" I shout, but panic is in control- these things always miss.
Luke has swung out right and there is a small bulge between me and him. I see the volley of ice fly at terminal velocity to his exact position behind the bulge.... A massive bang as some ice hits the rock and some ice hits something else. A slight pause before an unconscious figure swings out into space below me. FUCK!
Time seems to evapourate in this panic-stricken and red sun-baken environment, but Luke eventually begins to rouse. His murmurs are less consoling than if he had remained unconcious. Thoughts of prussicing down on the tight rope to him are replaced with the possibility of him getting himself out of a a position where he is at risk of suspension trauma. I shout to him, trying to be clear, but still not clear enough. In the mean time some people on another route have seen the incident and have phoned 112, calling across that a helicopter is coming.
By some luck, Luke had swung back to an old bolt and he clipped himself in. I abseil the 50 metres faster than I have ever abseiled and arrive at a horrific scene. There is blood everywhere and Luke is evidently in a lot of pain. A crap cam is the only back up for this old bolt and I really dont want to abseil off with both of us swinging from it. I set up a rope to lower him off, but in my haste don't pull the ab ropes properly and one gets stuck. Now with one 60 metre rope I try again and again in vein to get him to put his weight onto me, but the ice fall has justifiably terrified him in his concussed state and he, like me to a large extent, wants to just curl up in the corner and feel safe.
A helicopter comes, but the cliff is guarded by overhangs and a helicopter has been lost here before. I have to get Luke down, but the only way is to ab with him attached to me dangling above the vertical face. I set up my thirty metres of rope and tie a knott in the end. I push Luke off and he screams in agony. It's been a while since he got hit now and the adrenaline is wearing off. The belay is bad and alone on the rope I would have been scared. We reach the knott and twenty stone is suddenly on the bolt. I then have to swing us left, desperately clawing on sidepulls to get to the corner of the Swiss route. A better ledge is reached, but the helicopter comes and goes again, each time freezing us with updraft in the now setting sun.
I'm scared now. I'm scared that Luke is acting so oddly and that a glacier won't be passable in Katanas with a seriously injured person. The clouds are rolling in too, risking an end to rescue attempts. I keep abseiling, each time Luke's weight making swinging very difficult. Finally after a few hours, a helicopter manages to get close enough to signal that one more abseil should put us in a rescuable position.
Luke then swings around the prussic loop and the last abseil is a test of finger strength- desperately crimping the prussic loop down the rope and just wanting the whole experience to be over. The ledge is reached with wrecked tendons and the chopper comes back, eventually swinging a gendarmerie guy onto our ledge. He prepares Luke and they swing him out across the Valle Blanche. I am relieved to just have myself to think about now and thoughts of worry for him are put to the back of my mind as I begin the rest of the abseiling as he is flown to intensive care.
With worries of walking across the Valle Blanche in rock shoes growing with the cloud cover, I am pleased when a gap opened in the mist, allowing a chopper to get in and give me one of the best trips available in Chamonix, but only after retrieving most of our gear. I'm very impressed by the madness and professionalism of the Gendarmerie and the Resilience of Luke's body- already out of hospital and walking about on Tramadol, psyched for moors new routing, some CT scans and a new helmet.