written by Viktor Varoshkin
translated by Balkan Vagabond
Where the hell am I!? It’s dark. Outside, the roar of constant rock falls is knocking on the wooden door trying to come in. We are in the shelter Cravero. To get the idea imagine a tin can stuffed with human flesh, placed among the crumbling rock towers of the Alps, and held by the only two meters of solid rock that won’t dissolve into Brevna glacier. Unable to stand upright, we can only squat. Tiny, little, ugly jar that for the entire length of its lifetime has longed to look like the modern shelter – Gervasutti. We were so damn glad to see it. Ah, the price we paid to get here..
Along the abseil route from the top of Aguille Noir de Peuterey we saw cut ropes belonging to unfortunate climbers. They make you gulp in fear and hope that God will be merciful. Marto takes the leftover pieces of ropes and carefully makes a master point for each subsequent belay station. After us the Austrian climbers will find them useful. They’ve made the same mistake – Peuterey Integral. I’m the second to reach the next belay station which is held by two well rusted pegs. We thread the rope through, it looks bad but there is nothing to add or back up, I put my weight on the pegs and they move.
Marto mechanically releases the master point off his weight and steps onto some tiny footholds, using small crimps for his hands. He stays that way until I rappel down in the 40-meter overhang. At this moment he is more than eager for me to reach the next platform. However my heavy backpack pulls me backwards, my abdominal muscles abdicate during all this I can’t afford to rush it because it would compromise the smooth movement of the Micro – Jul, which means creating light dynamic hits on the sketchy anchor above. It feels like a disaster in slow motion. The backpack is turning me upside down, I make haste slowly because of the Jul, the pitons move. Marto clings anaerobically to the rock and both of us feel sick from the whole thing. Things are beginning to go beyond the realm of alpinism rapidly descending into pure idiocy. As if we had any choice…
We reach the saddle Dames Anglaises. Looking around. What a stupid part of the mountain. Crushed rocks, sandy couloirs and towers, nothing here is stable. One wonders why it has not collapsed yet. It must be some kind of spell. Gwendolyn, please don’t break it before we cross. I immediately come to the realisation that what follows will not be climbing, it will be surviving.
In the distance, the day begins to melt like the wax of a burning candle. In order to reach the shelter Cravero we must go up and down two rock towers which means we are in dire need of daylight to navigate. After dusk we might not be able to find it in this cacophony of a landscape.
I will quickly list the upcoming events as even the vague memory disturbs my mind causes a brain melt:
– 20 hours of climbing have passed.
– We had no idea that it will take us another four hours to do a 100 meter tyrolean traverse.
– The first almost vertical 60 meters needle, we climbed using a single cam stuck between two rocks. That was all.
– As the second needle appears, we feel sick just by looking at it. Its state is horrendous, the Tower of Pisa seemed more stable – so we decide to traverse its left side.
– We need to rappel down into a gully, climb 40 meters upwards, and the shelter will be reached.
These slabby, sandy 40 meters take us 2 hours. Believe it or not, I too couldn’t comprehend what an epic struggle this turned out to be. It was just not happening for us. Marto is leading, and barely manages to scramble between rock bombardments. The risk in this couloir is so out of control that it is pointless for me to repeat.
I wait for Marto to throw down the rope. However, everything is so eroded that Marto is having difficulty fixing it securely. The next set of rock falls from the surrounding needles are channeled into the couloir, while I’m at the base. Rock shrapnels whistle all around me. They tear the darkness, the silence, and my composure. I take off my backpack, I put it in front of me, and cringing I duck behind it. Three seconds later, a solid rock hits it, and for a moment I loose balance.
Several hundred meters beneath me, the glacier Frene is ready to swallow me. I still remember the spark made by the handle of the ice axe. 23 hours of climbing. It’s 11 o’clock at night and I am fighting for my life, just 30 meters away from the shelter. I did not expect this. I promised myself that if we survive it we will stand on Mont Blanc.
We collapse inside and slam the wooden door of Cravero. Two centimetres of rotten wood stand between us and the mountain. This does not seem sufficient. Outside – everywhere – everything is falling. We are together with the Austrians. They are doubting their ability to withstand another day like this. Their plan is to stay in the shelter until noon, get a better rest, and wait for lower temperatures in the next snowy and icy sections of the route. The two climbers express hearty thanks for the rope that Marto found a way to drop us. They had switched to crampons and ice axes for the upcoming sandy couloir. That would have not helped them exceed the fifty percent chance of survival.
We put out some of the scarce food we brought with us which in no way was sufficient to make up for the calorie expenditure. Then, wrapped up in a shared sleeping bag, we fall asleep. Frayed from the backpack shoulders, blistered feet, dehydration, fatigue – everything scraped at my nervous system as if trying to prevent me from sleeping. But they all fail. I close my eyes.
I open my eyes. It’s morning. We get up and look at each other, still sleepy and beaten up. Marto opens the door of the shelter to check whether the last needle is in place, and has not collapsed already. After the rappels from the top of Aguille Noir de Peuterey, we are back to 3400m altitude. We start to feel the heat. Our water is limited, we’ve got gas for about two litres, and we expect to reach snow at Aguille Blanches, at 4000 m. No time to waste, we get ready and we go. The Austrians abandon their original plan with the resting, and take off with us. Nobody wants to stay on his own in “hell’s kitchen” – Jonathan Griffith. Nobody wants to be part of the menu. Soon we part. We have different visions about the direction of the route along the edge to the base of Peak Guglielmina. Several hours later, we cross the elegant moonlike snow ridge between the two peaks of Aguille Blanches. It’s nice to be surrounded by water again. Although frozen it brings the illusion of abundance. We reach the second peak (4112m) and our attention is attracted by the eastern wall of Grand Pilier D’Angle. The home of one of the local titans – The Divine Providence (7c, Abominable Difficulty, 900m) – the beautiful solution to the inaccessible and overhung “Head wall” from the east. Our faces must have been sad. The wall was falling apart in real time. The words of the French guide, based in Chamonix, echoed in my head – “In your place I would not go there.” The popping noise of the rocks was almost constant. At the base of the wall there wasn’t a single white spot, everything was covered by fallen rocks and soot. The time spent in conversations and mental preparation for our encounter with those titans was chewed up and spitted out by the sudden aggression of the landscape before us. We both realised that to make an attempt in these conditions is tantamount to death.
With some effort I managed to unhook my gaze from the east wall, mentally gliding along the line of The Divine Providence, reaching all the way to Mont Blanc. I felt the hot wax of my melted hope burning me inside. The hope that the external forces will allow us, and the internal forces will be sufficient to overcome Divine Providence in early August. But right now our lives did not depend on this line. There was another one. We were here and now in the very heart of Peuterey Integral. The siamese twin of The Divine Providence, joined with him by Grand Pilier D’Angle. One reaches the eastern wall, and the other the southern edge. And my gaze is now fixed on it. Under normal conditions the south side of D’Angle is reached via the 40-50 degrees ice couloir, found on its westernmost point. At the moment this couloir looked like a funnel packed with crushed rocks and stones. At its base we could see the spread of deep trenches formed by rock falls.
The rest of the south side was cut across its base by a terrible bergschrund, torn and blackened by rocks and crackscollapse, it looked like the back door to hell. Our only chance was the southern ridge. To get to it, we had to go through another serious altitude drop – rappelling to Col de Peuterey, where once again the south side of D’Angle rose. The prospect before us was tiring. However, going back was a deadly choice. It was an early afternoon and the mountain was steamy. Mists were rising all over. The surrounding icy-granite grandeur whispered into my ears: “You little presumptuous, arrogant man.” Trespassing into the territory of Col de Peuterey, we have long lost control over our own destiny, and surrendered our lives to the Titans around. I felt the need to look at one of them. I turned to the west, where the central edge of Frene, ripped off from the glacier, cuts through to the fog and rises up towards the sky. Maybe its name should have been Atlas? The presence of this well known rock giant gives me confidence. Maybe after all we belong to this place and our human impermanence has the strength to endure the laws of timelessness that rule this place. Another roar rips through our senses. Somewhere a serac collapses. Turns out the mountains are mortal too. Just like us.
With every sinking step we make, the possibility of crossing the bergschrund seems closer. We see a place where the passage is relatively accessible, and we traverse parallel to the bergschrund to the base of the 300 meter mixed wall, located left from the southern edge. Presented with a new dilemma, we decide to give up on the southern edge. I begin to traverse the steep ice over the bergschrund without much confidence. The fresh snow on top of the ice prevents me from having a clear sense of how deep my crampons go into the ice. After twenty-thirty meters I reach a crack, put a cam in it and Marto joins me. He moves with apparent ease and confidence, which for an instant I confuse with carelessness. For a moment my mind creates an image where his step triggers the collapse of the ice, Marto loses balance on the slope and 20 meters later falls into the abyss of the bergschrund. The rope tightens, the cam fails and I too disappear.
I spit in the ice. What a horrid mental image. Marto is now next to me. I want to continue with traverse to the left, where the surface makes a considerable positive incline, but the glacier underneath has darkened from the rock falls. The idea is to risk 20 minutes following the right diagonal, which will eventually get us out on an easy terrain outside the area of the rock fall. Marto does not want to hear about coming near that place. He gears up for a 40 meter climb of a clean overhang that looms over our heads, which to me does not look less risky considering all the weight we carry. A fall and a slight injury here has the potential to create a very dangerous situation. Marto takes off. The climb is challenging but possible. I tremble with anticipation and the hope we are not making a mistake that will cost us more than one hour, and make us leave behind some valuable gear. After some time Marto shouts that we have made it, he has reached an easier terrain. Once again his intuition did not betray us. On our right the Austrians have successfully reached the first ledges located at the base of the southern edge. We too continue to climb. Without wasting any time we continue through the mixed terrain. After about two hours we join the southern edge, and continue on it leaving behind Grand Pilier D’Angle and the Austrians, who stop for a rest and to melt ice. And probably they tactically wait for us to dig the thousands of steps up to Courmayeur Mont Blanc. I turn, low clouds break into the top of D’Angle and cover the Austrians. It was the last time we saw them. Before us stands a system of sharp ice-snow edges with several hundred meters of steep, oblique slopes. One wrong step and we would have two seconds to regroup our bodies into a safe position. A small delay in doing so would cost our lives.
Marto continues forward. In the late afternoon, the snow is dangerously soft and unpredictable. Trailing behind, my eyes are fixed on him. Should he slide on one of the sides, the only chance for both of us would be to throw myself into the abyss on the other side so the rope could catch us on counterweight. His confident footsteps bring a sense of relief, which somehow causes me to put extra effort into controlling my reflexes. We are about 4500m high, and in the twilight of the second day of continuous climbing. The fatigue pulls us like rag dolls. The void on both sides has consumed the surrounding world, mockingly leaving us with the meagre 30-something centimetres of a snowy ridge. We’ve got only this and ourselves. The heavy snow and the constant danger are getting us tired. Few steps and we stop. Only the edge doesn’t stop, doesn’t end. Its sharpness makes switching the lead difficult. It’s getting cold. The snow suddenly turns into ice and each footprint we make requires an extra effort. I take the lead. The edge spills into a steep icy slope. I look down, it has no beginning. I look up – I don’t see the end. If I wasn’t so tired, I would have the energy to be afraid. To feel my heart beating wildly, overtaken by the thought of a single slip that forces my body down the endless slope, how the ice axe rips out of my hands after some wretched groove in the ice and relinquishes my body into uncontrolled and murderous speed.
“I wanted dead solid axe placements” – the thoughts of Joe Simpson (Touching the Void) seconds before he broke his leg on top of Siula Grande wander in my head. No room for error because there is no edge, which allows us to throw ourselves to the other side in order to use our counterweight. Only endless slope which makes up the equation: one error = two lives.
My total trust in Marto completely frees my mind from any daunting expectation about a possible mistake from his side, that would get the rope tight and instantly, and without warning pull me towards the abyss. I fully focus on myself. The confidence I was lacking on the ice over the bergschrund of D’Angle has now overtaken my entire body. An eternity passes during which I only see how the beak of my ice axe and the spikes of my crampons alternate, for a long time just the front spikes and after everything starts to incline and leave our minds only with worries about the upcoming difficulty, overcoming the cyclopean cornices, hanging over our heads from the top of the leeward slope, we are currently on. We couldn’t see them because above us the peak was drowning in clouds, but we knew they were there as we noticed them from the top of Aguille Blanches. Last year, on our way down from Frene we saw two black dots crossing under the cornices, deprived of any options to overcome them. To me they appeared to be at least 30-40 meters high, and ready to collapse onto anybody born without luck.
And just when I freed my mind from the concept of an end to this exhausting climb, before me flashed a snowy ridge which could absolutely safely take us to the top of the peaks just before Courmayeur Mont Blanc. This was essentially the end of the technical part of the route. I rushed forward ( “rush” in the context of 4700m altitude after two days of exhausting climbing means the same slow drag, BUT WITHOUT RESTS) and reached the summit. I remember crying out, and my mind getting clouded with overjoy.
The peak began to clear. The cumbersome clouds were retreating, moving afar, refracting the sunlight, which was sinking somewhere in the far west. We found ourselves in the eye of a breathtakingly beautiful storm which was melting away any prejudice and sense of belonging in me. It was making its way through all the layers of definitions and identities that were choking me. In search of the essence, the substance, the soul. It did not feel nor understand. Just knew what was going on. The emergence of a brief moment of unity mediated by the two-day illusion of separateness from the world in which, helped by our bodies, we drew the contours of a single gigantic and complete line. Days in which I lost the notion of time and scale. My being reduced to an intuition devoted to the mountain. To the ice in which I push against my crampons and ice-pick, to the rock I grasp, to the routes I choose and the belays I trust. In these days God was not inside the Madonna’s melted by lightning head. Boundlessness could not be stuffed into the confines of false idols. God was in the air. In the frantic need of a single human being to interpret himself through his own beliefs and abilities.
It took us another whole day to came back from Peuterey Integral. We came back from the edge of ourselves. With cuts on our hands and feet. With shoulders worn by our backpacks, aching muscles and bones, burned faces, bruised hands. Numb fingers. Exhausted psyche. Dehydrated and threadbare. Hungry. Thin and rickety human beings, who snatched a few crumbs of happiness from the aggression of the surrounding landscape.
Well, we stole the fire from the gods and it will, for some time, keep us warm. Then new dreams will emerge, and we will dare to reach out for it again. For us, happiness is a matter of action than a choice. And we will act. Only the spiritual avatars of our species are able to stay in one place without suffering decay. Man is as big inside as it is small outside. And in the mountains it is very, very small.
Perhaps, after all, they are the right place for man.
Watch the adventure film: Granite Alps