Swiss Route – Saving the winter.
An over the top video, as well as the thoughts I had leading up to my first big climb.
In my very first blog I told (with a massive dose of self-righteous opinion on the commercial mountaineering scene of Mount Everest) the story of how I got into climbing last September and about some of the adventures that followed.
If I were to continue the story, I then messed up my winter by breaking my leg (if you really want to read about “living in a tin can camper van in winter with a broken leg” you can do so by following that link). So, as far as I was concerned, I’d lost out, I was playing catch up. Again.
In the end, my winter was “saved” by climbing my first Alpine north face, from which I produced the over-egged video at the head of this blog. As there are an array of blogs that talk about the nuts and bolts of particular climbs, I’d prefer to try to capture the thought processes, dark as well as light, that we experienced before we got to the top of this thing (and, much more importantly, back down again). I honestly have no idea about the relative scale of the achievement of planning and then leading a climb on this face within the first 8 months of learning to climb. Many other climbers may have done similar, but at the same time, and I guess most importantly, it felt like an immense achievement to me.
Before breaking my leg, the Swiss Route on the North Face of the Courtes had been doing laps in my head. Someone on UKC had suggested we could climb it together – maybe they thought I was more experienced than I was or, having checked out my experience on the website, that it would scare me off climbing with them? Jon Griffith and Tim Neill (experienced and highly regarded Alpinists) had soloed it early season and I “figured” that skiing down the south face of the Col des Doites wasn’t too steep for me – that sounded like a right adventure, something big, something bold, even. I had mentioned the climb to Ted Rudd in La Grave, to which he responded that I should tone it down a bit and start off with something easier, like the Cosmiques arête….. RED RAG!… Although on second thoughts, “Enthusiasm is no substitute for knowledge and experience” STEVE! (my new moto, see last blog) did run through my mind, but then, without knowing any of my “connection” to the route, my flat mate Trevor just came out with it…. “What about Swiss Route?”
What about it? Now THAT would be an achievement. My leg was nearly fully fixed. I could think about climbing again. If I climbed an Alpine north face then the winter would not have been wasted. I could drive home an “Alpinist”. A north face! I could climb what Jon and Tim had climbed. After all of their achievements they still thought it was a proper day out. Could I climb it? Belief means that you think you are capable, right? That’s different to enthusiasm. 3856m in altitude, 800m of vertical ascent… nowhere to sit down properly for 800 metres, what must that be like? This was a big step up from the Alpine routes that I would have started on had I not broken my leg. If I were to climb it, I first had to believe/check that I was capable of doing so. I had to immerse myself in it. Unless you immerse yourself, you don’t become it, right? To go up there and come back, without a guide, meant proper immersion in every way – planning, fitness, equipment, attitude. This was going to be a project. It may have been fueled by enthusiasm, but this one had to be governed by rational thinking.
Hi-Res side on view of the Swiss Route on the North Face of Les Courtes.
Normal Swiss Route in Red, our variation in Blue (although we may have traversed higher than that). A climber at the top of the “1st Crux” has been circled.
Photo by Julian Lösche.
Swiss Route was on!
Except, suddenly, not for Trevor. Despite the usual planning and risk assessment of a previously skied slope – the West Couloir of the Aiguille du Midi (it was skied that day and 2 minutes beforehand for that matter), Trevor was caught by a freak slide avalanche and dragged 400m. He was still alive, but bruised, physically and mentally. Watching the go pro video shot during the avalanche and hearing him shout made me feel extremely protective of him: my friend, a strong skier and mountaineer, in need of help. I didn’t like this video at all. Emotional stuff. I now had even more to think about.
Trevor had had an epic winter, his pilgrimage to Chamonix had “been a blast”, but now it was time to chill. Was I pissed off that I didn’t have a partner now? Yes, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I had been seriously into the idea of climbing with a proper friend rather than a new acquaintance from the UKC website. A friend would be fully aware of my mindset as well as my experience and capabilities; we could take time to plan and discuss it together; plus, on such a relatively “serious” route it added an extra comfort factor. Then in stepped Julian Löshce, who I’d met just a few weeks before – an intimidatingly good looking and brilliant skier from Berlin, who was also keen on climbing. In fact, Julian was keen on anything to do with the mountains. So keen that he had taken over 2000 photos during his trip to Chamonix. Not photos of wild nights or his mates skiing, but over 2000 photos consisting entirely of couloirs, faces, access points and potential climbing routes (even though he had not done any real winter climbing before now). Julian’s enthusiasm to be my partner on the Swiss Route, coupled with his lack of experience, was initially a bit of a worry given my new “Enthusiasm is no substitute for knowledge and experience” moto.
I was so wrong. To my surprise and delight, over the next 2 weeks, a period that I can clearly pick out as one of the best of my life, Julian, as well as becoming a solid friend, was a constant source of good ideas and rational thinking.
We had a fair bit to work out. I’d heard that Don Whillans (an old-school mountaineer who many, including Chris Bonnington, regarded as being right at the top of the mountaineering game) was apparently renowned for thinking through absolutely everything. Many climbers may not think this route is a big deal but we had to take it as a big deal. My leg had to be good enough. We had to get ourselves up and down safely. It’s 800m of vertical ascent, parts of it at 70 degrees, I had to downclimb and Julian had to ski a 55 degree avalanche-prone snow slope (Joe Simpson of “Touching the Void” fame had even been avalanched on this slope). I had climbed 70 degree ice before, I had climbed 90, but not with a drop of several hundred metres at my feet. Was it “over thinking” to walk around Chamomix with a tilt meter app on my iphone measuring things to remind myself what 70 degrees looked like? Possibly, but at least I was immersed in it.
Although I still don’t know what other climbers think of a new climber nailing this route, at the time I didn’t want to ask them. If someone had said to me “hmmmm, maybe not yet Steve” then that would have sown a seed of doubt in my mind – I could have thought about that during a sketchy moment on the climb and worried myself. I wanted to be positive, break the climb down, work out if it was theoretically possible and then go for it.
Whilst I was all up for planning it from Chamonix and then picking a day to just go up and “give it a go”, Julian came up with the inspired idea of just going to “have a look”. More knowledge would be in the bag. We weren’t in London planning a route on the Ben with the net or a guide book, we were right bloomin there. Trevor could come along for a gentle skin up the glacier and an easy (for him) run back home.
Steve Wakeford, Julian Löshce and Trevor Thompson at the far end of the Argentière Glacier.
My first proper day out in the mountains! I’d looked at them for so long from the van, even this cruisey day was a proper adventure and one with a purpose at that. I’d only been “skinning” (ski touring with sticky traction matts on the bottom of the skis) once before and not off-piste yet. Bring it on!
When we got there, 1100m of the North Face of Les Courtes from glacier to summit loomed up in front of us. I still didn’t know how big an achievement it would be, but it looked absolutely bloody huge. But hang on, if people were soloing it, how hard could it be? The crux, 60 metres of 70 degree ice, was low on the face, that was cool. If we couldn’t do that we could retreat… “RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!”….Never. After that crux, there was only another 20m of 60 degree ice and then according to the guide book “difficulties were over”….. That’s of course if you went the normal route, which in the end we didn’t.
Looking up at Les Courtes from the Argentière basin. Swiss Route in Red and our “variation” in Green.
We had a good look for a while; Julian suggested the absolute best idea was to build a snow cave and sleep on the glacier the night before the climb (this would also be good for Trevor’s movie). We skinned up for an hour or so to the Bergschrund (crevasse between the glacier and base of the mountain); I lost a ski on my first off-piste turn since the leg break; skied down on one ski; found ski; skied some more and decided that if I was still that rubbish at off-piste skiing, there was absolutely no way that I could climb the thing and ski down the other side. The (seemingly never-ending) season was turning anyway, so, when we eventually came to climb Les Courtes, skiing down the south side was no longer an option as the avalanche risk was too high. Skiing down the NNE face with Julian would be just insane. In fact, skiing down in the conditions that he ended up skiing it in (bullet hard ice-snow) and then jumping over the, to quote him, “gnarliest bergshrund I have ever seen” was off your rocker mental. In fact, downclimbing that 12ft wall of snow after lord knows how many hours of climbing was definitely the most iffy moment of the climb.
Julian and I had a deal: I’d teach him to climb, he’d teach me about snow, in particular snow sliding down the side of a mountain at high speed. Real snow, not the snow I had seen in the diagrams of the books that I had in my van. I was fairly new to avalanche risk, I wasn’t that “avy savy”. I’d missed out on a course in Cham due to my leg; I had done some training with Richard Pyne in the Lake District and I’d read a lot of books but still, I was about to descend 1000m of mountain! It was like A-Level economics all over again – I think I’ve got the theory but if I don’t apply it right, I’m not just going to fail, I’m gonna die. Was it right that I should be doing this? Yes, Steve. Just work it out. Julian’s there, he knows this stuff. Comfort factor.
In fact, why was I doing this again? It wasn’t simply to save the season and to call myself an Alpinist despite the setbacks, was it? That’s greed right? Self-affirming greed. Or is it a joy that comes with a passion? A passion to experience everything that I love about climbing. Yes Steve, that was why, now your thinking is back on track. You’re doing this as it’s a high target but you don’t think that it’s out of the realms of your capabilities, you just have to reign it into your comfort zone. Work on that.
We had a few things to work out:
Q 1) What it was like to climb 800m of vertical ascent, mainly at 55 degrees. Could my leg do it now? Could our nerves hold?
A 1) We went out for the day and soloed 600m of 55/60 degree snow-ice on the North Couloir of the Aiguille Carée. For me, this was the first time I had soloed anything with this much drop beneath my feet. The downclimb was so mentally tiring (Julian skied down of course). Moral of story – NEVER EVER EVER GO CLIMBING WITH AN EXTREME SKIER! Climbing soft snow sucks. Big time. Having said that, it gave me excellent preparation for what was to come…. including learning to deal with a climbing partner who had forgotten his harness!! – we made him one out of slings, hopefully he won’t want any children anyway.
Top – The view from Julian’s skis with me downclimbing to the skier’s right.
Bottom – The first time I had seen such an intimidating view beneath my feet.
Q 2) How can we lose more weight? Julian had his skis as well, Alpine style was fast and light. We would still have to ski down to Chamonix at the end, I wasn’t cool with the idea of skiing with all this weight.
A 2) We could lose weight by only taking one rope. I had read about Rob Jarvis, a mountain guide, climbing the Eiger with one full rope and one length of cord http://www.highmountainguides.com/index.php/eng/Useful-Information/Equipment-Lists/Eiger-North-Face-Kit-List.
In order to do full length abseils it seemed that there was a way to abseil on the full rope only and use the other thinner piece of cord as a pull cord. The French shopkeepers in Chamomix were no help on this, they either looked at me as if I was actually crazy (was I? I still don’t know) or patronizingly asked me if I was a guide. In the end I worked it out from these three links on Andy Kirkpatrick’s ever useful website:
I then abseiled off the mezzanine level inside our flat. All was going to be good with an 800m drop below me as I descended down the exit crag of the NNE slope.
Q 3) The weather was all over the shop. Was the avalanche risk on the NNE descent route too high? When was right to go?
A 3) This was the new stuff for me and yet the most important. After 3 days of scouting, practicing, organizing and learning to ski a bit better, the weather closed in. We could then see a window opening up and then it would close in again for a good 10 days. We had to use this window but we also had to let the snow settle. We took advice from the High Mountain Office in Chamonix centre – extremely friendly and helpful advice. Made all our judgments, went for it, lost too much time on the approach, retreated and then went again on the final day of the weather window.
3D Model of the Mont Blanc Massif in the High Mountain Office in Chamonix.
Q 4) I was nervous. Did we have the balls to climb the crux?
A 4) Julian had always wanted to just go and climb the crux and then rappel back. I wasn’t a fan as it seemed like a waste of a day. He was also 23, he would recover in 5 minutes. Would I? I’m a cripple, remember. So we did eventually set out to climb the whole thing, we did build the snow cave, I did learn those skills, we did sleep in it and I did feel even more alive for doing it. But Julian did not come – he had a stressful work-related payment issue that he needed to sort out. I spent the whole night thinking, during cold, broken sleep, about whether I could solo the route. I set off in the morning with my solo head on… i was going to do this! Then Julian called and said he was coming. I waited. I left my skis low to collect on the way home. I waded in thigh deep snow on the approach and took far too long. We started too late. We soloed the first section; I lead the crux. Placing one ice screw at the bottom I then climbed the 60m without being able to place another screw (I also felt good and didn’t want to). The ice was soft, good enough for picks but not for screws. I was getting drenched in sluff and spin drift as well. It was late, I made the call to retreat. I set up my new abseil system and we bailed. That felt so good. We had had a go but not let ego rule over safety. Risk and reward had been balanced.
Again, this may not be a big route to other climbers and mentioning these concepts of risk and reward may seem over the top, but they are all new ideas to me so it felt right to think about them and apply them.
Ally Watson, Trevor Thompson and Steve Wakeford spend the night in a snow cave. Pics by Trevor and Steve.
My massive bag, new found abseil mechanics and a few shots of us retreating.
Q 5) What are we going to do about the amount of time the approach is taking me?
A 5) Skin up so I’m not wading in thigh deep snow. Then put my skis in a bivvy bag lined with an iso matt for extra slide and push them back down onto the glacier, letting gravity do the work for us (as in video). Julian would ski down quicker than I could down climb and the legend that he is then found my skis in the dark, hauled them back up to where we could both safely ski from, he then climbed back up a good 200m to the Bergshrund and guided me over it in the dark as he knew it would be sketchy. I can’t thank him enough.
So as for the climb itself, here are a few key points that I have picked out:
1) It was all Type 1 Fun. None of it, not even the downclimb, was Type 2 or 3.
If you aren’t aware of the types of fun they are as follows:
TYPE 1 – Actual proper fun, a right laugh at the time
TYPE 2 – Not really that fun at the time but great craic to talk about in the pub later
TYPE 3 – Not fun at all
2) Although I loved it, wasn’t scared and didn’t have any negative thoughts, I did occasionally think:
“I really hope that I get to sleep in my bed tonight”
“I’ve been doing winter stuff for a while now (even before leg break), I’m so up for some hot rock!”
“Don’t stop for too long as you might get scared”
3) There wasn’t any time for properly enjoying the summit. As soon as we got there the instant thought is “right, now we HAVE to get back down”. Even when I tell the story I don’t pause on the summit and people interrupt with, “hang on…. What was it like??”
4) We spent a while looking at the route and we still cocked it up. Sort of. I knew that there was a variation that meant exiting out through the rock band at the top. As I was in the lead and love mixed climbing, I went that way. It lead to some pretty spicy soloing, so we decided to traverse back out and up the normal way. This was without a doubt the most fun winter climbing I have ever done. The fact that I had to clip my axe and hand jam at one point made my day. I loved it.
5) Somedays things don’t feel right, we had had days like that leading up to the climb when we could have gone for it. On the day , despite being late, my lift pass not working and then me staking it on the way down to the glacier by hitting some serac fall debris and losing my 22cm ice screw as well as abolokov threader, it still felt right to go for it. We were ready and I could thread a v with something if need be… couldn’t I?
So after the climb, I then left Chamonix and drove into Switzerland. I was now an Alpinist. Or was I? Who cares anyway? I had got something out of the Winter; I was over the moon. I was content. Or was I? No… it had just baited my hunger for more.
By the time I got to Grindelwald, I already had the idea of soloing the Mittellegi ridge on the Eiger. Jenny Brydon and Clare Newman had climbed it with guides. I could solo it, couldn’t I? But hang on, why did I want to do that? To get one up on them? Cos I was confident? Enthusiasm alone is dangerous remember, especially when fuelled by the wrong reason.
You have to think these things through properly, remember?
So I drove home.
(Anyway, the weather was crap).
Steve Wakeford on the 1st Crux.
Steve Wakeford heading up into the Wakeford-Lösche Line.
Julian Lösche on the traverse back to the regular Swiss Route.
View back down the final snow field.
Steve Wakeford reaches the ridge. Lösche customised ski poles in foreground… please contact for more info!
Steve Wakeford heading up ridge to the summit.
Julian Lösche on the summit of Les Courtes.
Next stop Grindelwald. Checking out the Eiger in iffy weather.