BD athlete Zoe Hart reports on a recent ascent on the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan above Chamonix
Black Diamond athlete Zoe Hart lives in Chamonix, France, working as a mountain guide, and sent us the following essay after a full-on alpine outing on the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan with her fiancé Max Turgeon.
[Max heading out into another deep untracked snowfield toward the next technical chimney pitches.]
2 hours climbing
As we walk through the dark of the early morning, I am happy when our path diverges from the others. Just a few days ago Max and I headed for an easily accessible route above the Grand Montets and found us intertwined with almost a half a dozen other ropes! Today we are alone in our approach. There are no steps to follow, no track. We will soon find, as we had expected, that there are no fixed anchors. There seems to have been less than 10 ascents of this fine line nestled on the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan.
The sun crests the ridge as we reach the start of the route, giving light to the first steep, hard mixed pitch. Max works his way tenuously up the steep crack with bad feet. After 15 meters he’s on easier terrain and kicking steps up the couloir to the belay.
I follow suit, my hands now frozen from belaying and fingers numb. I pull hard and am quickly pumped on the first pitch. Ughhh, I think (a little intimidated), maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. My feet slip and skitter and I find myself hanging on my tools flailing to keep purchase. Eventually I find small nubs and rebalance myself.
[Max enters another stellar chimney pitch of mixed climbing.]
My hands already feel like blocks of wood, completely frozen. I make my way up the last few steep moves, and as the terrain kicks back I stop to embrace the screaming barfies. I groan and whimper as life comes back to my hands. The burning turns my stomach to knots and I am bent over my tools wondering once again, why the hell I alpine climb… why the hell I agreed to come on this route. As my hands come back to life and a warm feeling washes over me, I am proud of myself for not barfing or crying. I continue up the snow to meet Max at the belay. He smiles at me and passes me the rack.
As I pull the slack in the rope through my ATC Guide I see the first bin of the day rise towards the top of the pinnacle that is the Aiguille du Midi. I notice the small specks that are houses down in Chamonix. I can even see the motion of little cars and trucks that look like Tonka toys.
5 hours climbing
Max meets me and swaps to the lead. Pitch by pitch we delve further and deeper into the route. I take mental note of the places we made anchors on the way up, of how big our rack is: single set of Camalots, a handful of Stoppers, some slings and some tat. We could likely make it down from here, but it would be an adventure.
The route is stellar granite and classic climbing. I can’t believe no one else is here. I think of the guy climbing in and over my ropes the other day and me screaming at him to put in a f@*ing piece of protection as his potential whipper will take me into the bergschrund with him!
[Zoe wallowing up the untracked snowy couloirs between steps of technical climbing.]
From the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan we have perspective on the valley that we haven’t seen before. It feels like we were in another world. The style of climbing is different and there are no fixed anchors, no tracks. Ominous seracs on steep North Face of the Aiguille du Midi calve off in the background at regular intervals during the day, adding to the alpine ambiance. And just then I hear the echo of the man over the loud speaker, “Prochain depart pour Chamonix dans cinq minutes.” Then in English, “Next departure for Chamonix in five minutes.” And finally in Japanese, Italian and German. It reminds me of the people over there who are filing up and down the lift like cattle in a pen to see what you can see.
We take turns blazing trail through the snowy gullies and up the various technical steps. Chimneys, with a little ice, good rock pro, a snow mushroom, and even find a crazy roof to get through with a stein pull (something you almost never do in the mountains). The climbing is difficult in sections but enjoyable, leading us to the steep crux pitches on the headwall of the West Face. The sun kisses us on as the daylight descends behind the ridges. We were having fun with no sense of urgency. I hear intermittently the man on the loudspeaker telling me that it isn’t yet 4:30 when the bins stop running.
9 Hours climbing
Max starts the unprotectable thin crux; calm and collected. I realize that I am holding my breath as he climbs the steep, precarious thin ice and rotten rock, above a green C3 and marginal Stopper. I feel like barfing. Mentally I scan to see where he will land if he whips. I take stock of the anchor and am pretty sure it will hold a big fall. Max launches a foot for a ledge out to the left and is over the bulge and into the nook where there is better pro and then climbs with ease to the next belay. I follow the thin technical crux and then we are finally on easier terrain. We finish the last pitch to the ridge in the dark. The man on the loudspeaker has gone home for the night. The helicopters that were out and about for the day picking up injured climbers are parked until tomorrow. I see lights, like fireflies, filing up and down the streets of the valley and yet they have no idea of our presence here.
We work our way along the summit as the cold air and wind of the night set in.
[Max heading up the snowfilled couloir to where he'll find an unexpected stein pull to navigate the roof above.]
12 hours climbing
At 8:30pm we are on the summit after 12 hours of climbing. Max asks, “Have you ever done the Midi-Plan traverse?” That’s how we will descend.
“Nope, but I can’t imagine it’s that complicated… it’s a classic and it gets guided all the time! We should be at the Aiguille du Midi by midnight!”
19 hours climbing
“Oui Bonjour, Chamonix PGHM.” (The PGHM are Chamonix’s mountain police, and sophisticated mountain rescue team.)
“Yes, ummm, I’m calling from the Midi-Plan traverse, we are on the Rognon du Plan, on the arete, and we are having a hard time finding the actual route?” I explain in French as my teeth chatter and my body shakes. We have been climbing what seems to be M7 R terrain for the past four hours in an attempt to get across this damn ridge to get back to the Aiguille du Midi, and we are still no closer to finding a way across the ridge. I attempt to shove the phone beneath my hat so that I can put my glove back on. My hands are freezing as we speak.
“Are you cold?” the PGHM operator asks.
Yes we’re freaking cold! What the hell do you think? Our gloves are soaked and rigid, we are standing on a windy ridge, at 13,000 feet, above a glacier, in the dark, at 2am, with temperatures forecast at -8 degrees Celsius in town.
“Yes, Monsieur, we’re pretty cold, but we will just keep moving so we’ll be alright.” “We can’t send you a helicopter in the night unless you are hurt,” he explains.
“No, that’s not what I’m asking for… we don’t WANT a helicopter. We just want directions,” I attempt to explain. “The topo… can you read us the topo?”
He seems bewildered that I don’t want a helicopter, but really I just want to know how the hell we can get off this ridge without his help. We aren’t hurt, we aren’t dying, we aren’t even going to losing fingers or toes, despite the negative-God-knows-what temps, the wind, and the fact that we have both only drank less than a liter of water and eaten four bars in the past 20 hours. We know how to manage… or to suffer, I guess.
I look at my watch it’s just past 2am, and count the hours until daylight. Maybe in the light we can find the way… for sure it will be warmer. But there is no way in hell we are just going to sit here for the next four hours shivering in the wind, waiting.
[Max tenuously leading the crux pitch with thin ice and marginal protection.]
“Do you have a copy of the topo, of the Midi Plan Traverse? Can you read it to us?” I ask the man sitting in the safety of his office. The man is quite bewildered… Did we not come this way? Where did we start? Why the hell are we there at 2am? All relevant questions.
I explain to him that we climbed the Gabbarou Route on the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan. He flips through the book, finding the topo of a route that was originally climbed with points of aid and said to be rarely repeated. It’s an impressive 700-meter face with climbing of up to M6 and WI5+, and now we are asking for directions on the Aiguille du Midi-Plan traverse, which classifies as a Grade 3+ rock climb in the summer and is a classic guided route.
He reads the topo to me without too much judgment, and I’m grateful he doesn’t ask my name or make me tell him that I’m a fully qualified Mountain Guide. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a Mountain Guide on the days I’m being paid and on the other days I’m a scatter brained alpinist, who has a propensity to forget to pay attention to the descent. I’m realizing this isn’t my first mini epic on descending, and it seems to be a pattern with Max and I lately.
After explaining the route to us he finishes by saying kindly, “When the sun comes up, you can call us back if you want a helicopter.” I tell him, we’ll be ok, we’ll just keep moving.
[Zoe holding onto the railling for support in the last steps to the cable car, bag of food, and warmth in the sunrise.]
23 hours climbing
Max rigs a rappel and in 10 minutes we are down on the glacier. I traverse 200 meters to the left of where we rappelled, but still an eternity by standards of what we would have had to traverse on the chossy, unprotectable ridge we were attempting to climb. I find a blue fixed rope with knots tied every 3 meters telling us we have found the cattle trail we had been looking for for the past five hours. Somehow we miscommunicated with a friend who gave us directions by text and seemed to be looking in entirely the wrong place—our past five hours of climbing were nowhere close to where we needed to be.
Now on route it takes us another three hours to get back to the Midi. Twenty-six hours after starting up the West Face, we lumber up the last, painfully steep, slopes to the Aiguille du Midi, exhausted, cold to the bone, dehydrated and hungry. The daylight hits the mountains as it did yesterday morning when we started the climb. The sun gives us new energy, but I’m still only able to walk 20 steps without stopping to rest. My eyeballs are freezing in the cold south wind and my eyelashes are covered in frost. I worry that I am getting frost nip on my cheek so I walk with my hand in front of my face. Voices follow me, and I sense that I am forgetting someone or waiting for someone as I walk. Everything that moves streaks like a shooting star. After 26 hours of non-stop motion, cold, lack of food and water, my mind is playing tricks.
[Zoe shattered and empty upon arriving at the Aguille du Midi, 26 unexpected hours later!]
We find our backpack with all the supplies and goodies that we had a lift operator stash yesterday for our bivy that never happened and empty it ravenously in search of water, the sandwich, quiche and chocolate meant to be last night’s dinner. We pay three Euros (the equivalent of five dollars) each for hot chocolate from the cafe in hopes to warm up.
Back at home a half hour later, we race to the hot shower and collapse into our bed, under the warm covers. I ask Max if he was stressed up there, if he worried whether or not I could make it through the cold night. If I would be able to keep moving, to keep warm enough?
“I was a little worried for sure,” he honestly says. “I know you are tough, but I was also a little worried.” I don’t need for him to explain more than that. Climbing with the person you love is excrutiating. But the moments where you see each other raw,and vulnerable, the limits that you find, the fact that you don’t have to explain how it feels afterwards.
Max smiles and wipes the tear from my cheek. “No more fences huh? You’re too tired for fences?” Max says holding me tight, knowing that I have nothing left, no reserves to be tough.
“I‘m happy,” I answer with a mix of relief and happiness, still unsure of how to balance all the emotions of these kinds of experiences. I fall asleep wondering if I need those experiences, those moments, to lower my fences and remember that place where I am vulnerable and fragile.