The Magic Number
This article first appeared in the November 2016 (#76) issue of Trek & Mountain magazine.
Tony looked down from Col Moore at the rubble and scree, then turned back to me.
'Ach eer... y'know... It doesn't look great,' he said.
'It looks like death,' I agreed. The loose, 200m descent from Col Moore to the Brenva glacier, on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, had rapidly put a stop to our journey on the wild side of the Massif. We were aiming for Divine Providence.
Divine Providence is one of the best and most adventurous climbing routes in the Mont Blanc Massif, according to Philip Batoux's book, '100 Finest Routes.' The complicated approach, committing nature, tricky climbing and 'remote' (for Mont Blanc) feel is guaranteed to create a rich experience. Of course, even the descent (up, over and down Mont Blanc itself) would not be easy.
Tony made some classic Scottish noises as he studied the choss below. 'Well... It's just... y'know, eerrr. Shite.'
We were both keen, but it was summer in 2015: one of the hottest, driest Alpine summers in recent times and the mountains were being stripped m of snow and ice. They were shedding rocks at an alarming rate, and our descent - just one part of the approach - looked too dangerous.
After a long silence we turned towards Chamonix.
A year later: Tony and I planned a return visit but ended up in Scotland. We'd checked every forecast and spoken to every alpinist, but June was a washout in the Alps. Even Big Tim Neill said, 'I wouldn't bother.' You know you'll be sitting in a cafe in Chamonix, watching the rain pour, when Tim says that! Divine had eluded us again (but Scotland was ace). It currently stood as The Alps: 2. Climbers: 0. Such is the way with the mountains.
It might seem I prefer climbing with Scotsmen (I have no preference... I think!). But they're a hardy bunch of straight-talking, 'dark horse' climbers, who are usually tight and modest, which I like. So I returned to the Alps with Uisdean Hawthorn, Scottish joiner and sheep farmer, in August. I admit to having a selfish, single goal: Divine Providence. Uisdean is thankfully laid back and keen for it all.
On Friday night we bounced into MBC bar in Cham, to celebrate our good friend's success: John McCune, Will Sim, Paul Swail, Tom Grant and Dave Gladwin had all completed the British Guides Scheme, after many years of hard work. The beers flowed, Guides young and old appeared, and John McCune - already two 'pitchets' down - was in full swing.
'You're going to Divine!' He shouted in his Irish accent. 'And I'm coming with you!'
It's always a pleasure and a show to climb with John - and we'd talked about Divine before - but now he was free, psyched and... smashed. 'Fine!' I replied. 'We leave on Sunday.' A part of me wondered if John would be sober in two days time.
They say climbers' mental states are either like mechanics or artists; some people have elements of both. Mechanics rigorously plan and prepare. They carefully analyse the topos, work out how much food to take, and find comfort in organising. Artists are more relaxed: what will be, will be. They pack some clothes, chuck in some food, and don't care if their kit is looking old. John, Uisdean and I each have very different mental attitudes.
At exactly 10am on Sunday morning, Uisdean and I sat in an empty apartment, bags packed, technical clothes on. We were ready to leave for the mountains.
John was late. In fact, he was still chilling in his apartment, enjoying another coffee, and hadn't even packed. If I had OCD, it would've been flaring big time.
We drove to John's place and he threw on a rugby shirt, then emptied the contents of his van onto the car park. Random items were thrown around: a rucksack appeared, then a jacket, a bag of food... All while Uisdean and I sweated in our high-tech kit, dressed for the mountains. We stared as John sat on the floor amongst the debris of his kit, two opposite worlds crashed together.
We finally jumped on the Midi (after John bought a quiche), and then onto the glacier (after John bought a pizza). It felt good to be in the mountains, with the smell of margharita in the air.
From the Fourche bivi hit we studied the Grand Pilier d' Angle, on the quiet Italian sided the Massif. Snow covered the lower and upper faces, but the 300m headwall appeared dry. I hoped yesterday's snowfall wasn't going to cause any wet sections on our route, but we had our doubts (the crux is often wet). Still, Uisdean and I had our 'poof pants' (M.E. synthetic insulated trousers), so we'd be fine. John had a pair of leggings. I told the story of Twid and Dai nicking a hut blanket when they climbed Divine in the 80s. John's eyes began flicking between our poof pants and the lovely hut blankets...
As is so often the case in alpine climbing, the experience of Divine Providence was much richer and more fulfilling than I imagined. The physical difficulties of the route were harder and longer than I expected. But it was also easier and shorter than the stories made it out to be. Mentally, 'just getting on the route' was a major crux and I felt great relief when I started the first pitch of climbing. Of course, this was soon replaced with the usual uncertainty and fear of the unknown.
Our intention was for the leader to free climb, and we made good progress in the style. Strong winds caused melting ice to rain down on us, making it feel very Patagonian. Our dreams of freeing the route came crashing down like the falling ice when we reached the crux pitches-they were dripping wet despite the outrageous steepness. We resorted to aid.
As we climbed higher and the sun moved off the wall it became very cold and windy. The temperature dropped but we reached easier (snowier) ground near the top of the wall, while still being buffeted by the wind. To continue along the ridges and snow arêtes to the summit of Mont Blanc would have been dangerous, despite reaching the top of the wall (not the top of the GPA) at about 6:30pm, after 13 hours. We found a small bivi ledge and spooned through the long night.
At dawn we thawed ourselves out, finally huffing and puffing our way to the summit of Mont Blanc at noon. It was an incredible adventure with two legends, and I enjoyed going straight to Elevation bar once back in Cham. Cheers, boys!
It was a shame not to free the route but for now I’m completely sated. I'm psyched to go back for the clean ascent one day. Our intention was also to single-push it, but perhaps another time... It’s so rare to succeed on a big route in the mountains, and it shows with the number of attempts Divine took: 1 in 3 is pretty good odds! I’m also renowned for disliking climbing as a three - particularly UK sea-cliff climbing, where it seems to descend into a faff-fest. However, it can work very well in the mountains, and this has restored my faith again. Three is the magic number.
I puzzled at the reflection staring back at me in the window. I was awake, but also asleep and badly sunburnt. I rubbed my eyes and drank more coffee, but it had no effect.
Uisdean and I were quiet on Thursday morning. We sat in Tim's apartment and stared vacantly out the window - it had only been 36 hours since we'd returned from Divine Providence. I had an insatiable appetite but my mind was slow; as if in a thick fog. The sun in the garden warmed my face but didn't inspire, only soothing my aching muscles.
Divine Providence had taken a lot out of me: big routes in the mountains always do. The final arête on the Midi was tough and I was feeling it today.
The forecast gave us two more days of sunshine, but we were both satisfied; we'd climbed the big one and were left wondering what to do. Would others just go cragging? I thought most people would be content to sip beers in the sun, rather than suffering all over again.
We bumped into Jon Griffith and he was a bundle of energy: "what's next boys?!" Within an hour a message arrived from him, listing all the options of routes to do. We thought of those granite spires again, and knew we'd have to go. We settled for going 'semi-big' and chose to attempt a one-day ascent of the American Direct on the Dru. We saved a single push attempt at the Peuterey for the next trip, limited by our short weather window and a deep fatigue.
I wanted to be psyched; I wanted to be positive. But when we stepped off the Montenvers train that evening and walked towards the Dru it all went wrong. It had taken all day to get ready; the access ladders had been removed; the bolted alternative was shit; and we arrived at the bivi at 10pm, ready for only five hours sleep. This negative attitude illustrates how tired I was, considering my normal enthusiasm.
We were already awake when the phone alarm went off at 3am. It chimed happily but we groaned into the darkness. The headtorches threw jagged shadows into the night and neither of us moved. Last night we'd talked about our serious doubts with the route, and they still hung in the murky air in our bivi cave. But we crawled out, neither Uisdean nor I willing to break first. 'Were we being foolish?' I wondered as we ate our breakfast of chocolate waffles.
Uisdean tried to lift the psyche by blasting some old-school rock 'n' roll from his phone, proper Dad music, and we felt a bit better. There was no particular reason not to try the route, so we strolled over to the base, pretending, kidding ourselves, 'just taking a look...' and started climbing.
The initial ground was easy and we were absorbed by the circle of light from our headtorches, following it higher. Uisdean climbed his block quickly and the ground dropped away. An imposing black wall stretched above us and we had no sense of scale until the dawn light hit the summit, far above. But we also realised how far we'd come, and pushed on. My brain-fog began to clear and positive thoughts began to return.
By the time we reached the Jammed Block at about 1/3rd height, I felt like I was back and ready to punch 'up!' My attitude had changed and I was fixated on the summit, rather than the ground. Uisdean's encouragement spurred me on. 'Let's have it!' But I was still an amateur in crack climbing, and the 90m corner looked menacing. At the first technical pitch a few hours ago, I'd embarrassingly asked Uisdean how to tape up my hands for the rough granite.
The 90m corner didn't disappoint, making Dinas Cromlech look like a kindergarten. The two open-book walls soared and soared, and I climbed and climbed until there was nothing left in my arms. Laybacks, cracks and jams took me up to the belay, where I stopped with relief.
At the top of the corner an aid traverse out left brought us to the North face. I wobbled out over the 90m corner, hanging from rusting thin nails. I tried to forget my terror by rhythmically aiding leftwards, eyeing the finishing ledge, but the air beneath me made it feel like flying, way out from the Dru.
We followed the ghosts of Kim and I through thick cloud up the North face; we'd climbed this way during our winter ascent of the Pierre Allain and memories came back, piece by piece - albeit with much easier climbing. Where previously we'd used baggy axe torques and micro-edges, we could now jam our hands and pad up slabs. Skirting round the summit of the Petit Dru and reaching the top of the Grand Dru at dusk was very special, because it marked a place which I thought was almost unattainable only yesterday.
We had a long night ahead, and I'm always wary of the descent from any mountain, but these lucrative and 'disgusting' rappels sounded especially tricky. In the fading grey light we rushed, pulling on boots, jackets... No time... Just 'Go!'
We hurried down the ridge, waving our headtorches left and right, searching for the telltale flash of metal.
What followed was a typical rappel down a 800m face, at night, over loose and slabby granite. Of course we lost the bolted belays, spinning over cliff-bands. Of course we resorted to using booming anchors and hollow spikes. The hours dragged, our minds slowed and a numb, dull brain-fog returned.
'When will we reach the glacier?'
'A few more, always a few more...'
At 3am I would've laughed if I wasn't so tired: Uisdean's phone alarm sounded again, echoing into the darkness and seemingly mocking us in our desperate situation. Exhaustion hit us hard and we started falling asleep at belays, waiting for the other person to find the next anchor or make something out of a piece-of-shit spike. I didn't care what we abseiled off any more-I just wanted to be down. We'd last eaten or drank yesterday.
At last - at last! - we both stood on the glacier, dizzy and hungry, with the mountains shadowed above us rather than below. We wanted to be in the Charpoua refuge, just a short walk beneath us, but the mountains played one final trick; the glacier was a jumbled mess of crevasses and we had no idea how to get through, so we found a rognon of rock and slumped onto the least lumpy area. I thought like Steve House and his mental attitude for a few hours as we waited for dawn:
The shivering was brilliant; very life enhancing, cold to our core. The hunger and thirst was a reminder to consume more next time. The fatigue was absolute, our heads falling and rising like nodding figures. The cramps screamed through my muscles like fire, and the dizziness made me spaced-out...
But dawn finally came. The morning sun glowed orange on the summit of Mont Blanc and crept down towards the valley. We shook ourselves upright and walked towards the refuge.
To succeed on two alpine routes in one week is a rarity - at least, for me. It’s usually the weather which dictates the game, so when the high pressure arrives you simply have to go. Summer alpinism also allows for quicker, less arduous style of climbing compared to the winter, which helps. I hope this prepares Uisdean and I well for our alpine trip to Canada in September. Two alpine routes in one week - perhaps two is the magic number, not three, after all?