Walker Spur, Grandes Jorasses - Winter Ascent
Friday, 25 March 2016
A faint cry comes from below, and I stuff the ropes into my belay plate and cinch down my hood. Spindrift sticks to my jacket and I start to shiver for a second, before snapping myself out of it. A few cams are held by willpower between loose spikes and flakes, but we’re only a pitch beneath the summit of the Grandes Jorasses. We’re almost out of food, climbing to stay warm, our motivations for success edging towards survival.
But I notice there’s been a change. A subtle shift in my mentality and my ability to deal with the uncontrollable and uncomfortable.
I knew a winter ascent of the Walker Spur would test me and make me suffer - that’s part of Alpinism. I knew it might scare me, waste my muscles, make my stomach rumble. A route on the Grandes Jorasses - certainly one of the greatest, biggest walls in the Alps - would force me to accept the discomfort, the sitting bivouac ledges, to keep going when all I wanted was to be still.
I just didn’t anticipate the size of this change. Now, it seems each time I venture into the mountains I return richer for the memories and experiences. A little wiser, a little more familiar.
As always, I slept badly the night before heading into the mountains. At least I’m still tired from my last adventure (a winter ascent of the north face of Le Petite Dru), only returning yesterday. In the comfort of my bed, I have to categorically analyse every worry, then rationalise, until I can finally dismiss it. I might fall off. I probably won’t fall off due to the climbing; there’s lots of good gear; I can always rest if I need: I won’t fall off.
What if I drop my headtorch?; I’ll handle it carefully; I’ll clip it in when I’m putting it on my helmet: I won’t drop my headtorch. And on. And on. And on.
I feel comforted by Pete’s alpine experience as we skin up the Leschaux glacier towards the Grandes Jorasses. It towers incomprehensibly above us and I could justify it being 10 or 100 pitches in my mind. But I’ve learnt not to make expectations in the mountains. To expect an outcome from an unknown game is foolish. There are too many variables which could upset any fixed plans. It is better to simply open my mind and adapt to the challenge.
Another bivi in the mountains and I’m happy, because now I’m very familiar with what’s involved. I know the mountains are cold and uncomfortable, I know I won’t sleep well; so I’m warm and comfy. I sleep well… relatively speaking, of course.
In the morning of the first day, Pete takes us to the base of the first crux of the route. The famous Rebuffat corners. I rack up and, with a thin smile, almost enjoy the climbing. Torquing baggy axes, slotting picks, balancing mono-points on tiny granite crystals. I turned to French Free some way up the pitch, but because the cracks easily accept cams, I think I’m moving quite quickly. A final whoop of delight and I’m at the belay - but what’s happened?
I’ve almost forgotten to be scared, almost forgotten to worry. The climbing was positive but thought-provoking and I moved fast. Besides, it was only about 6a+ if I’d done it in rock shoes…
Sitting bivis are another learning experience, a chance to adapt to new (dis)comforts. The nights pass quickly since we sleep at 2 a.m. and wake at 6 a.m. The second day rushes by, with more technical rock climbing in crampons and plenty of clearing snow from slabby ledges. Initially, I feel annoyed at how little we’ve climbed in terms of height, but the pitches have all been involved and tenuous, so we’ve had to go slower. Another luxury: to climb into the night. Another sitting bivi.
By the end of the third day we charge for the summit, on easier ground and darkness wrapped between us. I can feel my functions slowing with 8 hours sleep in the last 48, but a desire to be up, over and down the other side of one of the tallest walls in the Alps runs deep. Like my stomach churning on empty, beginning to digest muscle (please not the arms!) I take a ruthless approach. I will push myself as far as necessary.
In the end, however, we stop. Brew. Bivi. Bollocks. The worst bivi ledge yet gives me time to wonder - how strung out are we? If at all? At least we’re warm and dry on our sloping, three-butt-cheek ledge. We have definitely moved from an ‘I’ to ‘we’, the two of us now entirely dependent on each other and our actions a single, hungry, thirsty unit of ‘upwards.’
What does the summit bring? Happiness, elation, exhaustion? Faint glimmers of each, a numb mix of satisfaction and tiredness, and I file these emotions and this view for understanding at a later date, a time more suited. Ideally it’ll involve warmth, food, water; the comforts of normality. If I was to describe the route, the summit, the experience at that moment, I’d settle for some understated, totally inadequate comment. It can’t be described easily. ‘Yeah, it was ace, really cool! What an adventure!’
What an adventure.