The Greatest Summer - Part VI. Chances

Tony seconding through the clouds on Gulliver's Travels, on the Grand Capucin.


Saturday, 1 August 2015

‘You pays your money, you takes your chances.’


We ducked under the roof, waiting for impact. My face was an inch away from the wall,  head down, legs tucked in. The sound grew louder, a solid, heavy whirr of granite and I tensed. As we cowered, the falling rocks began to hit the wall below us, cracking the silence and exploding into dust and shrapnel.


After several seconds the rockfall subsided, a strange calm returning to the mountains. We poked our heads out from beneath the small roof, nervous eyes searching for more danger. Tony and I exchanged a glance and continued up the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses.


Tony called a halt a pitch or two below the Grey Tower, just before the route moved round onto the west flank of the spur. Rock had occasionally fallen down the line of our route throughout the afternoon - loud hum, sharp crack, plume of dust - and we accepted this as ‘part of the course.’ Large blocks had tumbled from the higher reaches of the walls above the Japanese/Colton-Macintyre couloir. As they bounced onto the west flank of the Walker Spur they exploded and ricocheted down. Now we were moving within their reach, towards the Colton-Mac. We stopped. Watched. Waited. Weighed our options.


Our fast, light, late and in-a-day approach meant our bivi kit was a pair of leggings, a thin jacket and a bivi bag. We carried no stove, nor sleeping bags. The night was forecast to be ‘pleasant and warm,’ but this now meant we doubted it would be cool enough to hold the rocks in place. Waiting for nightfall would be pointless, as temperatures would remain well above freezing. Abseiling was also out of the question: we carried an alpine rack, one 60 metre 8.5mm rope and had climbed over 500 metres.


Our hand was forced. Disappointed because we felt we were doing so well, we were annoyed to have to call it due to objective dangers. Reluctantly, but accepting it was the right decision, we called the helicopter.


Earlier that morning, we saw a helicopter repeatedly hovering over the upper section of the Walker Spur. We later learnt that it was a party of three Brits, one of which had been hit by rockfall. We wish him a quick recovery. 


As we sat in the campsite that evening, surreally sipping a beer, the mountains rumbled with thunder and flashes of lightning. It would’ve been very interesting to be bivied below the summit of Pointe Walker in a storm! Thanks to the PGHM for plucking us off the route: true legends.




A month of hot, dry weather has stripped the Alps bare, revealing a tumbling world of choss and loose rock. The approach to Divine Providence down Col Moore was too dangerous, and people are saying it’s the driest summer since 2003. We’ve been told that the French Alpine summer season is over for this year, pretty much from the start of our trip. 




We shook the tent every half an hour, clearing wet snow from the fabric. Sometimes it fell as sleet or rain, silent and bleak. A glimpse out the door revealed nothing - just white thick cloud against a white glacier. Sleep did not come easy as we camped beneath the Grand Capucin, and we were beginning to curse our bad luck.


I led a pitch up and left, up and left, into the pouring water. Icy, the seepage fell in a steady stream from a roof high above; I was getting soaked. It was just before the crux pitch and I stopped chalking my hands and swore. Tony, strong as ever, quickly took the rack and led the wet crux pitch of Gulliver’s Travels.


We briefly took it in turns to run to the summit as the sun set. Thoughts quickly turned to getting down. Rappel after rappel, we took turns to slide down the icy ropes.




The final routes of our trip were good; long multi-pitch climbs on the Swiss mountain crags of Wendenstock and Salbitschijen. We swore, cursed, fell, frigged and occasionally enjoyed the consolation prizes of our trip. They were not the fantastic, ‘world-class’ routes that we had spent months dreaming of. They were not multi-day pushes, committing routes and drawn-out sufferfests. But they were still fun.


As Tony said, ‘you pays your money, you takes your chances!’ We paid our money, we gambled and we had a good time. We wouldn’t even have ventured into the mountains if we didn’t take our chances. But on this trip, we were unlucky with the weather and conditions.


The routes we wanted to do - still want to do - are not easy ticks. They aren’t ‘so-called’ alpine routes which actually have loads of bolts and rap belays. They don’t look good on postcards, they don’t get loads of ‘likes’ and ‘hashtags.’ They’re not quick hits and clip-ups. They aren’t climbed ten or more times a year. They’re much bigger and better than that. But there’s always next time.


Thanks very much for a great trip, Tony. Apologies for the jokes, dancing, shit banter, poor knowledge and bad smells! It was a bloody brilliant time.

Tom LivingstoneComment