My aim was to go for about a week, alone, live in a snow hole in a self-sufficient manner and climb some routes on the Tacul Triangle and, if that went well, hit up some bigger steep routes on the back of the Mt. Blanc Massif.
At the time I did not really realise it but I was feeling a general background hum of stress at the time (2010) with the recession nabbing the more interesting projects for the coming year while still having staff costs/general overheads always there. The ‘recession’ was literally everywhere with doom and gloom in the news, papers, TV, radio and in conversation.
The previous winter I was meant to go to the alps with a mate but he managed to totally ruin a finger pulley bouldering so cranking on ice axes was not going to happen. This year there was not really anyone eligible to go (motivated & in possession of the cold-weather right gear)but as I was super keen to get out so I decided that this was as good a time as any to test myself with a solo trip.
I had big aspirations (as you do when sitting in the warm a 1000 miles from the mountains). I learned how I could self-belay on half ropes, should I need to, and started my training. This mainly involved running and calf training with the general expectation that if I can keep comfortable on my front points, avoiding a fear inducing calf-pump, I will not find it too scary and can stay in control.
I spent quite a bit of time studying a super high-res picture of the Tacul Triangle I found online to work out which route I fancied doing first and which sections could be more daunting for free solo. My preference was ice over mixed as it felt more secure from a soloing point of view.
With ropes in a big carrier bag as hand luggage and wearing my mountain boots, I took a morning flight to Genva, coach to Chamonix and, as always, got there just at the 2 hour French lunch was starting. This means there is nowhere open that sells cooker fuel/gas (the only thing I did not bring with me). After walking around Cham waiting for a couple of hours I was able to get some gas so I went up the to the Midi via the cable car started the walk off. My bag, with enough for a week’s snow hole living and various options for climbing weighed around 35kg (80lb) making getting down the thin edge of the midi a little more precarious than usual. Later in January they put up hand rails to help with the decent – but I was there too early to benefit from such a luxury.
Once down I picked a suitable place, away from potential avalanche and started to dig in to the deep snow. I made an L shaped snow-hole and, to finish it off, heaped snow up at the entrance so it could more effectively be blocked with a bag to keep some of the cold out (but requiring you have to dive/slide in).
A few hundred meters away was a tent, unusual for this time of year, but no sign of any people throughout the evening so I bedded down for the night and possibly for the first time I felt actually quite alone. Being the first week of January there was literally no one around and it was insanely quiet in the snow hole. I melted snow for tomorrow’s water, cooked some pasta and went to sleep waiting for the carb-loaded dinner to start warming me up.
The next morning I woke up to good weather and as I slowly got stuff sorted I saw a rescue helicopter choppering off what seemed to be stretchers from the longer routes on the East Face of Tacul. It turned out that the day/evening before two young British lads took a fall from the upper sections of Gervasutti Couloir. The news of these deaths via text message was a little sobering; a few years before I had been on that route; a fairly straight forward route but with high objective risks due to the massive towering Seracs looming threateningly over the top of the climb. It reminded me of the seriousness of the winter Alps.
During the day I walked to the base of the routes breaking a trial to make it easier when I went to climb them. To reduce the amount of stuff I had to carry I did not bring up snow-shoes making trail breaking fairly arduous, the snow builds a hard crust in the top layers which takes 90% of your weight to punch through, meaning that you are constantly doing steps ups.
Moving from London (elevation 20m) to 3500m on Mt.Blanc in a day is a fairly significant shift in altitude so your body is not used to it. For me, the usual affects are a constant mild headache (for which I bring plenty of Asprin) and general sleeplessness. The sleeplessness is caused by the fact that your heart has to pump faster and your lungs breathe more making your body keep thinking it is waking up not falling to sleep.
The next morning I woke with the light, time was not such an issue since I was going solo, so I geared up and got ready to go to try the Contamine Massaude route on the Tacul Triangle. It is not an overly complex route but in winter it is pretty much a 450m ice route.
I got to the base of the route, carrying in my pack twin ropes, some water wrapped in my down jacket, some food and a few ice screws – over all I was probably 15-18kg over my normal weight. Climbing over the bergschrund I made my way up the route climbing carefully.
The next few pitches worth went well, the ice was bullet hard and brittle, meaning there was little respite for my calves – fortunately those were well trained. As I moved higher I was starting to tire so I plugged in a screw, hacked out a ledge for my feet and rested for a minute or so.
After a short while, feeling better, I made my way up again. Around 300m (900ft) from the deck I was becoming increasingly out of breath with it only taking a few axe placements for me to want for a rest.
At another upper section of hard brittle ice resting was not giving me much benefit and with each few moves it was apparent that my cardio fitness was struggling to meet the demands of 4000m ice climbing with little acclimatisation.
Each exhausting axe placement was taking several hits, smashing the hard plates of ice off in layers before I could get a solid deeper placement. Each foot placement required more kicks than ideally necessary to get purchase.
It was about then, when repeatedly smashing axe placements, with tired arms, that I was starting to become sloppier with placements. I climbed up to a place where I could place my foot on a decent rock lump, put in a screw and evaluated my progress. I was actually pretty exhausted after just a couple of hours or less of climbing, even with periodic short rests, the distance I was able to climb decreased as did the quality and efficiency of my climbing.
At points in the last hard-ice section I was feeling a little scared, the brittleness did not inspire confidence and the loss of efficiency made me even more tired; making me feel like I did not have the control that was required to be safe. A slip would result in a 1,000ft fall, highly probable death before stopping and, if not, a rapid death due to severe cold, blood loss or concussion.
It was while contemplating this that I decided to retreat, rappelling the route using Abolokov threads. I soon after regretted not sorting my skinny half-ropes out separately as had about half an hour of sorting out a total cluster-fuck of rope while hanging off a couple of screws.
The next morning I awoke to a confusing crunching/sawing sound, a little worrying when buried in snow. I soon worked out was a couple of skiers, avoiding the detritus below, skiing over the middle of my snow-hole. The day was beautiful; total blue sky, still and, until the wind picked up, warm in the sun. I pulled out my sleeping mat, made a seat and while eating some Tesco Polar bars (like a mint Penguin bar) for breakfast I had a read of a book.
The next few days I walked a bit, aclimatised and did a variety of shorter solos around the Midi and the Tacul. Totally abstracted from the world it was a great, if perhaps not easy, experience.
I had a couple more days left so I thought I would give the route another go. However I came across the same fitness/control barrier – I had focused too much on my calves and not enough on cardio.
On the last day, I packed up my gear, and started the laborious process of climbing up to the Midi, this in itself was pretty tiring while carrying a 35kg pack and felt fairly precarious. I was glad to see that they had put up some of the cables and gladly used them in the upper section of the ridge. I got to the tunnel, fairly exhausted sat down and kicked of my crampons.
In the midi station, at one of the coldest places in France, there were these large adverts for bikinis which while I waited for the cable down, after not seeing a woman for a week, I could hardly stop staring at the warm looking picture..
What I learned
From a soloing point of view the trip was not exactly as successful as I imagined and I feel this was down to two key things;
- Lack of cardio training
My calves were strong; and I was thankful for that. However my cardio was nowhere near to the requirements of quick altitude change, climbing with 15-20kg of extra weight and the inefficiency of desiring more solid placements than probably necessary. I think running dragging a tire while lifting dumbells might be an appropriate form of training – especially if climbing on hard brittle ice..
- Lack of good rests
When I think about it, although I am carrying 8kg or so more than if I was leading as a pair, a big difference was the amount of time you spend recovering/resting when belaying your partner. If I was to do it again, on top of a far more strenuous cardio training regime I would probably force myself to have a 10 minute break every 100m or so in order to ensure I am more refreshed for the next pitches. When you see what athletes like Ulei Steck can reminds me how unfit and unacclimatised I was.
- Lack of soloing experience
Not having done a huge amount of much soloing in the past was psychologically challenging and perhaps my perception of fear was inaccurate compared with the actual risk I was taking. Perhaps I was more stable and less weak than I thought; only the feeling of loss of control was amplified by the dangers of falling; lowering my tolerance of a feeling of tiredness.I had not climbed winter routes for 2 years; if I was to do it seriously it would be better to do a season and cover a lot of ground before hitting up routes solo.
Psychological effects of the trip
I came down from the mountain utterly refreshed.
I can only imagine it would be similar to as if I had been off meditating for a week or something. I had my perspective on life totally restored and, as the year was going to be difficult due to the recession, I decided to have as much time off as I could. We changed our strategy from a programming house toward making our own products and could really, honestly, not give a shit about the recession.