Friday, April 23, 2010

Back in Chamonix

After Patagonia I was home in the Cascades for a whopping ten days, and then took off for my vernal pilgrimage to Chamonix, France. Just as Yosemite is the ultimate playground for rock climbing, Chamonix is the ultimate playground for alpine climbing and ski mountaineering. And just as Yosemite is the perfect place to get in shape before Patagonia, Chamonix is the perfect place to get in shape before Alaska (where I am going in May with Bjørn-Eivind Årtun).

My time thus far in Chamonix has been super busy, with lots of days up in the alpine, and many "rest days" spent sportclimbing or doing a lap on the Arete des Cosmiques to stay acclimatized. I haven't yet taken time to update my blog, so today I will attempt to post reports from several of the more noteworthy days.

My first couple weeks were spent mostly skiing, as there was lots of new snowfall, and I had some catch-up to do, having missed almost all of the ski season in the Patagonian summer. On one day of skiing off the Aiguille du Midi I shot this helmet cam video:


Aside from a couple laps on the Arete des Cosmiques, my first day alpine climbing was the Ginat Route on Les Doites with Norwegian friend, Nils Nielsen. I met Nils earlier this winter in Patagonia after he had climbed the Supercanaleta on Fitz Roy. We managed the climb itself in 5:30, but had a long day nonetheless, as we started from first bin at Grands Montets and opted to traverse over the summit of Les Courtes for our descent route.

The North Face of Les Doites, showing the route we climbed (Ginat with Messner start):

Colin approaching the base of the North Face of Les Doites. Photo by Nils.

Colin on the central icefield. Photo by Nils.

Colin near the top of the central icefield. The first technical pitches, where we chose to rope up, are visible just above. Photo by Nils.

Nils leading the first technical pitch.

Colin leading up to and through the easy mixed ramp. Photo by Nils.

Nils leading up to and through a slabby mixed bit, which I thought is currently the crux of the route (although only M5).

Colin coming up moderate ice. Photo by Nils.

Colin starting up the last technical pitch, with is the other crux of the route, with about ten meters of M5ish climbing. Photo by Nils.

Nils arriving at the belay after the last technical pitch. I had soloed La Ginat last year in fatter conditions, but was glad this time to have a partner and rope.

Colin on one of four 30m rappels we made down the South Couloir of the Breche des Doites. Like 97% of "ascents" of the Ginat, we went merely to the Breche des Doites, and not the summit of Les Doites, so I think it must technically be considered an attempt. Photo by Nils.

Colin down-climbing just above the bergschrund. Photo by Nils.

From the South Couloir of the Breche des Doites, it is necessary to climb back up a long ways before starting the traverse to Les Courtes. The enveloping white-out caused us to take many wrong paths before we finally found the West Ridge of Les Courtes. Colin climbing up the icy West Ridge. Photo by Nils.

Colin on the upper West Ridge of Les Courtes, with Les Doites behind. Photo by Nils.

Almost at the summit of Les Courtes, Colin getting very tired due to poor acclimatization on the second summit of the day. We then down-climbed the Northeast Face of Les Courtes to return to our skis in the Argentiere Basin and ski down to the valley floor. Photo by Nils.


I had never climbed the Tour Ronde, so a few days after the Ginat I went to ski the Gervasutti Couloir with Nils and Marion, who is a bad-ass chick in the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne (the French high-mountain military - a group of climbers who get paid to go climbing and skiing in the Mont Blanc Massif all year!).

Marion breaking trail up to the Tour Ronde. The North Face is visible on the left, and the Gervasutti Couloir is hidden between buttresses on the right. Photo by Nils.

Marion and Colin climbing in the upper part of the couloir. Photo by Nils.

Marion and Colin reaching the top of the couloir. The slope to the right of the ridge crest is the top of the North Face. Photo by Nils.

Marion and Colin arriving at the top of the Tour Ronde, with Mont Blanc behind. Photo by Nils.

Colin dropping in to the top of the Gervasutti Couloir. Photo by Nils.

Colin picking through rocks in the upper couloir. Photo by Nils.


Feeling the steep-skiing buzz, Nils and I headed the next day to the Northeast Face of Les Courtes, along with friends Jonno Jacobs and Magnus Kastengren.

Jonno, Magnus and Nils de-skinning and donning crampons just above the bergshrund.

Nils on the lower part of the Northeast Face.

Jonno and Colin nearing the top of the Northeast Face. Photo by Nils.

Magnus on the summit ridge of Les Courtes. Jonno is visible just below at the top of the Northeast Face, which drops down to the left.

Colin on the summit ridge of Les Courtes, with Mont Dolent and Aiguille de Triolet visible behind. Photo by Nils.

Colin and Magnus higher on the summit ridge, with Les Grandes Jorasses behind. Photo by Nils.

Colin, Magnus and Nils on the summit of Les Courtes.

Colin on the first few turns down the Northeast Face. The snow was ideal for steep skiing - soft but well-bonded. Photo by Nils.

After we had only skied a few turns down the face, Magnus traversed to skier's right to what looked like nice snow. He unexpectedly hit a big patch of blue ice, obscured by just a few inches of powder, and started sliding. Almost in disbelief, Nils and I watched as Magnus several times almost gained control on small bits of snow, but then hit more ice and kept sliding, eventually hitting a rock band and tumbling over it. After the rock band Magnus immediately starting tumbling down the 45 to 50 degree face, and in well less than a minute fell 700 vertical meters, to past the bergshrund. Jonno immediately called for a helicopter rescue, and I started skiing down as fast as I safely could. I arrived to Magnus just a few minutes before the helicopter, and, astonishingly, he was not only conscious but standing.

Magnus and Colin standing below the bergsrund, as a PGHM rescuer is lowered to us. Photo by Nils.

The helicopter coming back a second time to bring a PGHM medic:

Miraculously, Magnus seemed to have no serious injuries, but after such a long fall he was helicoptered straight to the hospital in Sallanches in case of internal injuries. Nils, Jonno and I skied down to the valley with Magnus's equipment. In the end, he came away from a 700m fall with a swollen elbow! I had already felt that extreme skiing was much more dangerous than climbing, and although the outcome of the incident was benign it was an eye-opener to me of how serious even a "via normale" of extreme skiing can be.


Since part of my reason to come to Chamonix was to get fit for Alaska, I wanted to do a big, endurance day, and fortunately Nils was game for the idea - to climb Aiguille Verte, Les Doites and Les Courtes in one day. We rode the last bin up to the top of the Grands Montets on the 16th so that we could sleep in the telepherique station and get an early start in the morning.

Colin holding half the rack at the top of the Grands Montets (we planned to simul-solo everything). Behind are some of the many other climbers who slept at the top of the Grands Montets, who made lots of noise departing at every possible hour, and ensured that I got only one hour of sleep before we finally departed at 4:50am! Photo by Nils.

Our first objective was the Aiguille Verte, which we climbed and descended via the Couturier Couloir.

Nils in the early-morning light half-way up the Couturier.

Colin higher up in the Couturier. Photo by Nils.

Colin at the very top of the Couturier Couloir, about to hit the summit ridge, with the Grande Rocheuse behind. Photo by Nils.

Nils on the summit ridge of the Aiguille Verte with some strong morning wind.

On the summit of the Aiguille Verte, with Les Grandes Jorasses behind. Photo by Nils.

We quickly downclimbed the Couturier, with one 30m rappel, and were back at our skis just as the first parties were arriving from the first telepherique bin. We skied down to the North Face of Les Doites, for our next objective, the Lagarde Couloir.

Colin climbing the first of the ice pitches in the lower portion of the Lagarde Couloir. We tried to stay on the side of the gully, as a lot of spindrift was pouring down. Photo by Nils

I had climbed the Lagarde Couloir once before, in 2006 with my friend Tim Matsui, so it was a bit nostalgic to be back. Nils climbing one of the mixed steps near the top of the couoir.

Nils on the summit ridge of Les Doites, with Mont Blanc behind.

This time on the true summit of Les Doites.

We descended off the south face of Les Doites, and began the traverse over to the West Ridge of Les Courtes. Colin nearing Les Courtes. Photo by Nils.

On the summit of Les Courtes for our third time in a week! Photo by Nils.

We had originally hoped to finish our day by climbing the Swiss Route on Les Courtes, so as to do three north faces in a day, but after descending the Northeast Face of Les Courtes quite tired, our motivation to head straight back up the same mountain was too low. We were happy nonetheless to have done three summits and only two north faces. Colin starting the ski out, and above, from left to right, are Les Courtes, Les Doites, and Aiguille Verte. Photo by Nils.


After our big endurance day, Nils took off to guide the Haute Route, and my friend Andreas Fransson approached me with some more extreme skiing ideas. I was still a bit concerned about steep skiing after Magnus's accident, but Andreas is such a good partner that I was quickly convinced on the objectives. Last year I had accompanied Andreas in putting the first tracks of the year down the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi and the North Face of the Col du Plan. Andreas is a far, far better skier than I am (in fact he is almost certainly the best extreme skier in Chamonix, and perhaps the world), but I make an OK partner for him because of my climbing skills and because I am quite comfortable on steep, snowy terrain.

With only one rest day after my trilogy with Nils, Andreas and I headed up to ski the left branch "Y Couloir" on Aiguille Verte, as a "warm-up" for a more challenging objective later in the week. We caught the first bin up the Grands Montets, and made good time up the Couturier Couloir. Andreas was particularly fit and fast, and was waiting on the summit for fifteen minutes before I topped out. We made our various equipment adjustments, and skied off the summit at about 1pm. As we had done during our ski days together the year before, Andreas was the lead the whole descent.

The Y Couloir was steep and difficult from the start, especially because the snow was challenging for steep skiing (re-frozen crust). We made two rappels over rock bands in the upper couloir, and a fair bit of side-stepping as well. Andreas had to wait for me a fair amount, but I couldn't safely ski such steep terrain any faster. Even while things were going smoothly in this section I knew that afterwards I needed to tell Andreas he would need to find another partner for the main objective later in the week - I simply felt that the danger involved in this sort of skiing was greater than I wanted to accept. After the junction with the right branch of the couloir we were rewarded with some pure skiing - still steep and difficult, but a nice, long section without rappels or sidestepping.

About 300 meters above the glacier the main couloir cliffs out, so just above the cliffs we traversed out of the gully to skier's left, Andreas going first as usual. It was quite warm, and just as I finishing the traverse out to skier's left of the gully, a large wet-slide avalanche came roaring down the gully. I scrambled to press myself as far against the left side of the gully as possible, and dug my whippets into the slope. The avalanche pulled hard on my backpack and the tails of my skis, and I was only just barely able to keep from being swept off the cliffs to my death. As soon as the avalanche subsided I quickly finished the traverse out of the gully and started cursing. I think it was tied with one experience when I was seventeen as the closest I've ever come to death, and needless to say, I was not happy about it.

Andreas had been around the corner and hadn't seen quite how close of a call I had had, but knew I had not missed the center of the avalanche by much time. We both knew it was dangerous, and just wanted to get down at that point. Above the next gully further to skier's left we set up a rappel on a rock horn, and rappelled into the gully. We traversed across to the skier's left side of the gully as fast as possible, where we were safe from any slides coming down.

From our safe spot on the skier's left side of the gully we tried to make a rappel anchor. We hoped to make an anchor as far to the side as possible, to avoid rappelling into the gully itself, but couldn't find any good placements. Eventually, I equalized two knifeblade pitons a couple meters further in, and we set up the rappel ropes. Andreas set off on rappel first, and kept his skis on. He had just rappelled about twenty meters down, into the gully and beyond where I could see, when a large wetslide avalanche came roaring down the gully. I felt the rappel ropes come very tight for a few moments, and then they went slack, so I knew almost certainly that Andreas had been swept off rappel. As the roar from the avalanche subsided I yelled to Andreas, but heared no reply. I immediately called the PGHM and asked for a helicopter rescue, and then began to take my skis off and put crampons on. From my position I could not see down the gully or the glacier below. I kept yelling Andreas's name periodically, and was extremely relieved to finally hear a reply. I couldn't understand what he said (it might have even been in Swedish), but I yelled back that a helicopter was on it's way.

Once I had my skis on my backpack and my crampons on my feet, I began the same rappel, but traversed hard to skier's left to stay on a rock buttress instead of in the gully, as avalanches were still periodically pouring down. In the meantime I heard the helicopter flying into the amphitheater to pick up Andreas. Andreas had had all of the rock protection, so as I rappelled down the buttress I looked in vain for a horn of rock to sling. I couldn't find any horns to sling, so I eventually had to stop mid-rappel on a ledge about sixty meters down the buttress (we had seventy meters of rappel rope). I had two ice screws on my harness, and there was ice in the gully, but avalanches were still periodically coming down, so it was out of the question to go into the gully. From my stance mid-rappel I could at least now see down to the glacier, however, and could see the PGHM recuers putting Andreas into an orange stretcher. In total he had fallen about 200 vertical meters, half of it down an icy gully with small cliff bands. I feared the worst, and wanted to yell down to ask about Andreas's condition, but figured that I shouldn't distract them at all.

I was periodically in touch via cellphone to the rescue dispatcher, and as the helicopter was finally taking off with Andreas he told me they would soon come back to get me. By this time it had gotten quite cloudy and no avalanches had come down the gully for about fifteen minutes, so I decided I could finally finish my descent. From my traversing rappel I swung into the icy gully (which was quite painfull on my knees), immediately placed an ice screw, and rappelled another sixty meters down out of the gully. I put my skis back on and skied down over the bergshrund to the glacier. I saw one of Andreas's skis and a few other items strewn about, and thought about collecting them, but then I immediately heard the helicopter coming back up the glacier to pick me up. When a rescuer was lowered on the long-line I had to ask, "Il vit?," and was immensely relieved to hear, "Pas de soucis, il vit." The helicopter picked me up and flew me down to Flegere (I was very impressed at how professsional and well-trained the PGHM rescue were), where I started calling some friends to arrange to go to the hospital in Sallanches.

Andreas is now in the hospital in Grenoble, where he is recovering from a broken neck (second vertabrae), broken pelvis, and a couple broken ribs. There fortunately does not seem to be any nerve damage, but it will for sure be a long recovery period. Andreas is fortunately someone who generally has an inspirationally positive attitude, and hopefully that will aid him through the recovery process.

I have of course been playing though my head possible scenarios of how we could have avoided the accident. I don't think we made any "wrong" choices, as of course everything is more clear and obvious after the fact, but these are some things I have thought of simply to learn from the experience:

-Our first potential way to avoid the accident was of course to not ski the Y Couloir in the first place. We knew it was southwest-facing and would therefore receive strong afternoon sun, but we didn't anticipate quite such warm temperatures that day.

-After my close call with the first avalanche, we could have waited on the rib between the two gullies until the face began to re-freeze. This could have taken several hours, and would have almost certainly meant descending to the valley by dark, but would have avoided the accident.

-From our safe stance at the rappel anchor, Andreas would have been OK if he had made a traversing rappel on the buttress to skier's left (as I did after the accident). However, he would have had to switch from skis to crampons to make such a traversing rappel, and from our stance we expected just a quick rappel through the gully and then more skiing below.

-Andreas might have avoided the fall if there were knots in the end of the rappel ropes. However, it might have been even worse for him to be stuck on the rappel ropes in the full force of the avalanche than to be ripped off the rappel ropes with the avalanche. Additionally, if there were knots in the ends of the rappel ropes the rappel anchor (two knifeblade pitons) might have been pulled out, and then we would have both taken the 200m fall (as I was clipped to the rappel anchor), and perhaps no one would have been able to call for a rescue.

Needless to say, the whole experience was very traumatic, and the accident has serious consequences for Andreas. I'm not sure if I will be interested any more in such serious extreme skiing. I am, however, extremely happy that Andreas is alive, and hoping for a good recovery.

We both wore helmet-cameras during the descent. My battery died just before the accident, and after my first close call I just wanted to get down so I didn't give a damn about replacing the battery. Andreas's helmet-cam was of course ripped off during the fall (and his helmet has a bunch of very big dents in it). This photo of the Charpoua side Aiguille Verte at least gives some perspective to the story. The blue dot is where I was almost swept off by the first avalanche, the green dot is where Andreas was swept off rappel, and the yellow dot is where Andreas landed after the fall.