I Have been back in the U.K. for two days now & am feeling a little bit like I’m in the throws of delayed shock.
It all started so well as I arrived in the Chamonix valley’S Bossons campsite with Fraser along for the ride to be greeted by Kean & Sandra, brightening skies & a few too many glasses of wine as Kean updated us on his & Sandra’s alpine tour beaming from ear to ear.
Saturday dawned, blue skies, if only my head was that clear, & a quick farewell to Kean & Sandra left me to contemplate the days ahead. First things first, my planned training run up to the Belachat hut & beyond to the Brevant’s summit at over 2,500 metres. Learning from previous years I decided not to run too much of the ascent & simply fast walk instead in the aim that this would leave me in better condition for the real climbs ahead. That said I must admit that sitting outside the Belachat hut 1,250 metres above my start point I did feel a touch of smugness come over me as I heard two brits congratulating themselves by being slightly under the signpost estimate of 3.5 hours for the climb. I had done it in 1.5 hours despite not hammering it, however smugness can come before a fall but more on that later. Reaching the Brevant’s summit I was surprised to see huge patches of snow across my planned descent route so after some hesitation simply turned around & went back to my normal descent route, 1,500 metres of descent hurt the quads but Day 1’s acclimatisation had gone well & lasted a little over 4 hours, to cap things off my knee felt fine too!
Sunday saw temperatures rising as Fraser & I headed off to join Steve & Judy at their apartment in Morzine where we enjoyed a more relaxed afternoon stroll around some ridges at circa 1,800 metres before being treated to an excellent meal cooked by them.
Monday & reality hit as Tim & I headed off for the hard stuff. Tim had listened to my concerns (when we’d met on Saturday evening) & the first two days were now tailored to something a little easier than previously planned. That said the Petite Aguille Verte, on the North East flank of the Mont Blanc range, looked anything but easy as I walked out of the cable car to view it’s steeper than I’d expected snow slopes. Tim is not one to listen to whimpers but I did my best before succumbing to the inevitability of shutting up & putting on my crampons, we were soon on the slopes & I was feeling very edgy – why hadn’t I taken advantage of all that Scottish snow last winter!
In truth things improved from here-on as I slowly got used to being back on steep snow, the 45 degree slope that followed the initial 30 degree slope even seemed more enjoyable & we were soon on the summit ridge having passed two couples on our way. The summit ridge was mixed snow & rock, crampons grated worryingly but we moved safely & at good pace passing a group of four as we did so. Of course speed is not everything up here but Alpinism is about moving lightly & well & it felt like we were doing both. The exposure as we looked over to the iconic Dru was immense, two down-climbs were really full on but I was heartened by Tim’s words ‘I don’t know how you did that Paul because even I was at full stretch’. This warm feeling soon drained out of me as Tim led me over to the final summit rock, he wasn’t going to take my shake of the head for an answer. Crampons scratching, fingers clinging, arms burning but I was there clinging like a limpet albeit a very tired & nervous one. Returning to a safer ledge camera out to take a photo of Tim still on the summit rock, we were both laughing as the camera wobbled in my shaky hands, surprisingly I actually managed to capture Tim quite well.
The descent route saw Tim opting to get us off the increasingly busy ridge by belaying me as I front pointed down a 50 degree slope before he lowered me over the next steeper section, I was actually really beginning to enjoy this now. Un-fortunately two groups of four saw our descent line & began to follow thereby nullifying Tim’s attempts to avoid being in shooting range of any debris they might send our way. Thankfully we were moving far faster (due to Tim’s excellent guidance & control) & we were soon back into a safe position well away from danger. Lunch stop followed, I satisfied myself to that Day 1 had gone well only to then walk into a big & steeper than expected glacial descent as the next 3 hours saw us make our way to the Argentiere hut. Very friendly greeting met Tim & by association me led to a relaxed evening & booking of a 3:00 am breakfast.
At breakfast there was just us & two other pairs both of whom left before we did. As we set off at 3:30 am with headtorches we seemed to be alone but soon we could see torches of the other pairs far ahead of us. On the first snow slopes my pace slowed as my nerves increased, Tim bowed to the reality that I cannot even dream about moving on gentle slopes the way he can without the security of crampons, we stopped, crampons on, thank goodness for that.
Now we began moving well, after some two hours the pairs ahead were now clearly visible & climbing a 45 degree snow gully. Tim commented in his matter of fact way ‘Paul, I’m really worried for the guide (of the 2nd pair) his client is moving very slowly & they’ve got a big day ahead (our route was 10/12 hours all going well)’. Stopping briefly to get on a short rope at the bottom of the gully we were soon headed up & then our world changed!
A shout was heard, we looked up, I think our understanding & thoughts were the same but these were mine:-
Small debris coming down left, rock coming down centre, we are centre, move right now (being only 15 metres up the slope I do not remember thinking about ‘what if I slip’). Quick look up again, the rock is big, shit it’s moved to the right too, hit the deck, cover helmit with arms, then the moment was over, although in truth it wasn’t. Groan from Tim who as I looked around was now over to my right led on his side looking away from me, as I shouted ‘Tim are you O.K.’ the initial response was garbled shock but soon he was back & appraising the situation. ‘Paul, I think my ankle’s broken, give me your axe, you need to retrieve my axe & help me get down’ Seeing something dark below I headed off to get it ‘Paul the axe is above us’, I’d seen the rock which had buried itself below us. Now normally on a 45 degree slope I like an axe, tight rope, etc. etc. but needs must can do small wonders I was soon scurrying back up & above Tim to retrieve the axe some 5 metres above him. With his guidance we used the two axes with Tim facing out, me facing in & Tim using my shoulder as a second point of contact to inch ourselves back down the slope. Back to relatively safe ground it was now simply a case of incident management.
Tim had a Satelite phone called in for rescue, full details of our plight & situation led to an agreed response & procedures. This phonecall went in at 5:45 just 10 minutes after the rock fell. The helicopter would set off at 08:00 & be with us at 08:03, more than two hours to wait, it would be cold but they knew we had kit, a shelter & could keep in contact if the situation worsened. There is then a magnitude of small detail about how we tried to keep comfortable, minimise Tim’s pain or chances of heavy loss of blood inside his boot as well as simply pass the time but I won’t go into that here. What I will say is that we felt stabilised enough to refuse an offer from the pair above to help (had we been in their shoes I know we would have descended irespectively, they didn’t). Tim also felt there was no need to beckon to a group of five (Mont Blanc acclimatisation course) who 30 minutes later passed to the North of us. With Tim’s breathing slowly returning to normal the mood lightened & I even found time to dig out the rock & re-introduce it to Tim. It measured approx. 30x15x10 cm & weighed an estimated 8/10 kilos. We had been unlucky but also very, very lucky!
As time passed my thoughts turned to the massive rock face above to our right & the suns rays soon hitting it, Tim’s turned to maybe it’s not a broken ankle after all but another wince of pain told me not to suggest movement away from the rockface, nothing had fallen from it yesterday (i.e. no new debris) so why would something fall off before the chopper arrives.
When the helicopter came it did so with purpose, the downdraught was tremendous sending spindrift hurtling into our backs but Tim had already made sure we’d secured everything. The draught blew out, I turned & one of it’s legs was on the ground one metre away from my boot, we were manhandled on board in an instant by the crew (five in all inc. the pilot) & soon away from the cliff. As they began to put a splint on Tim’s leg I looked around at a seemingly endless array of huge alpine walls as the chopper banked seemingly in every direction before realising we were landing as hoped on the roof of the Argentiere hut. This incredibly competant crew had agreed to our request to make a pit stop so that I could collect our stashed gear & most importantly Tim’s car keys.
It all felt a bit surreal as I hopped out & ran to get the kit with onlookers & their camera’s clicking away but I was soon back in chopper & at 8:12 am we were landed at Chamonix hospital.
As Tim began to be assessed I re-organised gear before poking in to say goodbye, there was time to look at his lower leg, the good news no significant blood loss, the bad news there were some angles that were not what you’d consider to be healthy. A weary one hour trudge with heavy sack followed as I made my way back to the Bossons campsite to awaken Fraser & paint a picture.
Well that was a hard to fathom 9 days ago now, Tim had to be moved later that day to the larger hospital at Sallanches where the next afternoon he was operated on. His injuries included a broken leg, broken ankle & shatterred bone which are now being held in place with a plate & screws. He was dosed up on Morphine when I last saw him on Thursday, he is now out of hospital but still in some pain (this the guy who one hour after the rock hit was trying to convince us it might not be broken & maybe we could walk out, so when he says pain I think we can assume it hurts a bit!).
Did we do anything wrong, potentially beating the others out of the hut but I am not the quickest at getting ready when in an already nervous state (the days climb was to be a 111AD compared to the 1PD of the day before) but that said the route was quiet, the gully comparatively safe, the narrow rock band that the two above climbed onto should have been avoided left. The fact that they went onto it was probably due to the clients nerves but even so to dislodge something that big was at best clumsy but more accurately reckless. Tim’s management of the incident was as professional as I’d expect & I felt surprisingly calm throughout.
As I re-planned my week I refused Tim’s offer to find a replacement guide, my plans had been for a progressive upping of the anti there was simply no way I still wanted to do that without him by my side. I felt conflicting feelings of relief at not having any more climbs ahead & disappointment at having begun to warm to the task in hand & now having my goals put beyond reach.
The revised plans included revisiting Steve & Judy, Judy was clearly concerned that I might be in shock & worse still put of Alpine climbing for good. In truth I felt neither of these but today it has hit me a little, the shock that is, as for Alpine climbing?, well before I sat down to type this I first pinged Tim an e-mail, 2017………….!
Many other things happened last week but for once even I know when to stop.
Finally though I have returned to rumours that a species known as a ‘Rowlands’ has been seen lurking in the Arenigs so be careful all you mid-pack fell runners you might have some competition this weekend!