Solo in the Winter Alps

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.

Going there

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.

Winter_alp_solo2
Nathan Murphy about to descend the midi with 35kg+ bag

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).

Winter_alp_solo3
Snow hole with dive-in exit to the right.

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.

Climbing

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 andContinue reading “Solo in the Winter Alps”