A Change of Perspective
Re-visiting Céüse was supposed to be like returning to my favourite holiday destination. Six years ago I arrived at this super-crag - the crown of yellow and grey limestone overlooking the south of France - with Rachel Slater. We were relatively new to serious sport climbing, and it was a harsh learning experience. Our pumped arms turned to ‘bouteilles’ (‘bottles,’ as the French say) by the second bolt, and I'd glance at the enormous run-out beneath my feet, 15 metres off the ground. But something about the climbing, nature and views made me feel content.
The rock quality of Céüse is just perfect. There’s not a loose hold or a creaking flake on the cliff. The crag bows out from an undercut base, like an incoming tidal wave, weighty and punchy. It’s just like the climbing. We tack-tack-tacked our way up perfect face holds, the crag swelling with steepness.
As weeks passed, we grew fitter and stronger. Each day, our enthusiasm built as we slogged uphill to the crag, helped by an old radio tuned to the local station. The hillside slipped beneath us, the horizon stretched for 30 kilometres, and the tempo rose.
When the weather turned to northerlies, Rachel and I drove south to the Verdon. But I will always remember that first visit to Céüse, climbing impeccable routes like Blocage Violent (7b+), on this impeccable cliff.
I’d picked up a minor finger injury in Canada a few weeks ago (note to self: training with Fabi Buhl, Luka Lindič and Ines Papert after a winter of ice axes is a bad idea!). I was keen to test it by sport climbing. In hindsight, of course my finger was going to complain, but I was still surprised when I tried to crimp on classic 7b+s at Céüse and my finger ached. Killian Buckley, unwitting volunteer for the trip, made sympathetic noises - but of course I was a fool. Do I learn?
It was still enjoyable to be back in this place. In 2013, I’d borrowed Alex Hallam’s van for the Europe road trip, and I’d parked it right here; I’d hung out in that cafe whilst the van was in the garage; and hang on, had I climbed this route before...?!
The sights and smells all felt familiar, too. Rose-coloured blossom trees stood next to my van. Every morning, I brushed petals out of the corners of my miniature home. Every evening, the trees silhouetted the crescent moon as stars peppered the clear sky. Sport climbing’s simplicity and (usually) fair weather make for a very pleasant lifestyle.
But one day, I woke to the smell of rain. I slid open my side door and looked across at Killian in his van. Sometimes he’d be serenading the world with his Irish tones on the guitar; on other occasions, he’d stroll over to our car park neighbours and strike up a conversation in French. On this occasion, however, he lay tucked up in bed, reading a book. ‘Bugger!’ was all that needed to be said. Heavy grey clouds swirled around the crag; Céüse’s crown was now smudged.
Staying true to climber’s form, we headed to Gap in search of entertainment, showers and WiFi. Staying true to French form, it was a national holiday and the only place open was a grimy betting shop. It was the kind of place where flies immediately landed on our coffee saucers, and the locals didn’t care if we could understand what they said. They turned their noses up at ‘les Anglais’ (“I’m Irish!” protested Killian), and I turned up the volume on my headphones.
Back at the crag, I craned my neck and looked up at all the routes I so desperately wanted to climb. It was almost funny seeing this place with fresh eyes. I’d longed to return here, but now I felt this wasn’t where I needed to be. It was a change, and not for the better, like re-climbing a favourite route which has been polished and worn away.
I massaged my finger gently, acting like it was no big deal... but aware what I really needed was a change of scene altogether.
A suitable distraction was needed. I’d soloed a few rock routes in the past, but what about soloing something bigger, which didn’t aggravate my finger…?
This alpine spring has been unsettled, and although the pistes resembled mud-slides on the lower slopes, up high it still looked like winter. It’s hard to make use of good weather windows in these conditions - when the sun appears, the temperatures rocket and the snow becomes useless and dangerous. But there were a few things I’d had in mind, and I flicked through the forecast tabs on my laptop like choosing a drug. Which poison would work?
I’d wanted to climb outside of the Mont Blanc Massif (shock-horror!) this winter, as I’ve climbed comparatively few routes in the rest of the Alps. Some alpine rock in Switzerland, some choss in Slovenia, a week in the Dolomites, bouldering in Ticino… but I’d barely scratched the surface. The iconic peaks of the Matterhorn and Eiger were obvious omissions.
Soloing can be an intense and personal experience. Soloing a 1,220 metre ridge would mean I’d have to concentrate, unable to sound ideas off a partner or draft in their wake every now and again. In summer, the Matterhorn’s classic Hörnli Ridge is ‘a scramble of enormous dimensions.’ I guessed it’d be an interesting challenge in these conditions. Even a few years ago, I’m not sure if I would’ve entertained the idea of soloing the Matterhorn. Perspectives adapt, and my climbing has developed. What was once daunting now becomes entertaining.
I knew the Hörnli Ridge would be a fun day out in dry conditions, but was also put off by the reports of ‘up to a hundred people’ on some days, and the reputation of the Zermatt guides. As the mountains were still covered in snow, and the alpine towns were relatively dead in the inter-season, I went for a look…
After negotiating the circus of Zermatt, and trying not to spend a bazillion Euros, I caught a lift to Furi and shouldered a pleasingly light backpack. I figured a 6mm tagline rope and a harness would be useful for the route, and didn’t pack much else.
Following switchbacks up a steep hillside in the sunshine, I thought about how enjoyable this was. The afternoon heat released the familiar scent of pine trees, and their occasional shade across the footpath was welcome. As I walked higher, the hustle of Zermatt began to fade, and I could hear the friendly call of a cuckoo over the sound of the helicopters in town. I wove around trails of red ants, each one carrying a leaf like a bobbing sail, and I remembered leaving sugar cubes out for them when I was a child.
The tempo of my mind naturally built like the walk-in to Céüse. From a distant drum-beat beneath my boots, the sound in my head swelled to nervous excitement as the peak grew closer. I studied the intimidating Hörnli ridge, reminding myself it was just a scramble, and accepted the snow plastering all faces would just make things more interesting.
The following morning, I left the winter room of the Hörnlihutte at 3.40 am, my crampons already on and my stomach full of out-of-date porridge. I guess a Polish team had stayed in the hut earlier in the winter, as there were packets of chicken soup and energy bars originally from Poland. I ate a couple of these, even sampling a mystery tub of ‘meat’ (it could’ve been cat food), and stepped into the night.
In summer, following the Zermatt guides and numerous arrows painted on the rock, route-finding would be quite straightforward. However, I found it hard to stick to the line and occasionally checked the topo or looked around the corner, hoping for an easier way. In the darkness I waved my headtorch left and right like an erratic lighthouse, before committing to the best option. Occasionally, my concentration would be broken when I’d find a bolt or metal stanchion poking out of the snow, surprising me, and I’d be back on track for a while.
Dawn washed slowly over the mountains, like a black and white photograph saturated with colour. Distant smudges of windblown snow hung over the surrounding peaks, but thankfully the Matterhorn was simply set on fire in the morning’s alpine glow.
Stopping in the Solvay hut at 4000 metres, I sat on the table and soaked in the morning sunshine through the window. Thick timber planks, staunched and weathered, protected me from the strong wind, and I put my toes on my hot water bottle. The hot aches came eventually, like splinters throbbing through my extremities. I pulled out my insoles, pulled on my spare pair of socks, and pushed open the door again.
Climbing higher, I enjoyed the feeling of balancing my frontpoints on perfect flat edges. The route was easier to see now - just follow the ridge and aim for the mess of hanging fixed ropes - and I kept moving as fast as I could. I occasionally sheltered on the northerly side of the mountain swinging my arms like a windmill. I became acutely aware my only acclimatisation had been a night in the Hörnlihutte at 3260m, and chose to ignoring my headache and the cold.
But wait! There’s the statue of St. Bernard! Suddenly realising that I was close to the top, and with the final slopes easing, I walked up the snow and onto the summit. Wearing all my clothes, and with the mountain all to myself, I took in the new perspective.
I felt pleased with my solo, and it was an enjoyable way to test my mind a little. To have a mountain as iconic, and historic, all to myself was a rare treat. Sometimes the climbing was harder than summer conditions due to the snow, at others it was was easier. Of course, my solo is of little significance to anyone except myself.
Back down from the mountains, and after a few days of rainy, springtime weather, someone asked me, ‘how’s your head?’ I replied that it hurts with altitude and Tequila. I know how to acclimatise, but I’m working on the Tequila.