28 July 2009 – Mont Blanc Massif
OK, I’ll start right here by saying there are a coupla people in the world who are better climbers than me. That’s right, I’m no badass. Been having the best summer of my life, in fact, ticking off super-fun routes from LaRoche and LeLong’s 60 voies-plaisir 4 à 6a+ and asking myself how could it possibly get any better than this. I mean, seriously. Pleasure route? Man, I’m first in line.
Right. On to the story. Ode calls. He and Jarkko have been all over the range in the past two weeks. “Jarkko just left. Let’s climb the Peigne.”
“Nope, can’t go.” Thoughts of how gripped I was the last two times I’d been on it. How the closest I’d ever felt to death was on the Peigne. How I vowed never to go back. “Sorry, bro. Busy with work. Find someone else.”
The Peigne forms one of the giant gendarmes descending from the Aiguille du Plan dead straight to the mid-station of the Midi. I’d been on it twice. One of those times was when I first arrived in Chamonix and still had morals, the climbing kind. Went up with Per, Swedish masseur, worked in the Patagonia store with Will and Martin and Victoria with the fierce blue eyes, the posh accent and the Ducati Monster. Can’t remember how Per and I first met but we came to be lifelong friends despite this particular day. OK, it actually wasn’t that bad. In fact, I thought we were on fire – climbing strong, good pro, safe. And even if I do say so myself I held up admirably well under the barrage of shouting from below, “Pull on it! We gotta speed up! Pull the damn webbing!”
Quiet, Satan! I shall not to be led astray.
We passed the crux and then the second. The wall eased back and became more cruisy. Climbing as strong as I’ve ever felt, before or since. Totally jacked up from two nice crux pitches. They’re moderate, right, but man I was on top of the world.
Moving fast on moderate terrain, cruisy with the gear now, way above my last piece of pro and suddenly, as if waking from a dream, the search for a left hand snaps me back to reality. Hmmm… My feet aren’t that good. My other hand isn’t that good either, sloping. The broken terrain between me and my last piece four or five meters below me flashes into my head. Look for better feet. Nothing. Feel for something better on the sloper, nothing. I gotta make a move, hard bitter panic wraps its tentacles around my chest, my arms, my brain. Deep breath and reach with the left knowing that something is up there, gotta be something, feet slipping, what the hell, it’s only 5a. Nothing. Stretch again, fingers out, nothing, nothing, nothing, a foot slowly sliding, focus everything on the sloper. Will the hold to be there. One last gasping reach, a bit farther left … Bucket! Yessss! Yes. Thank you, God. Thank you. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Got the rope stuck three times on the way down. Something that’s never happened to me before or since. Except on the Traverse of the Aiguilles with Super and The Kid that time, but that doesn’t really count, does it. I mean it’s the Blatiére, right? Frikkin climbing rope graveyard.
Anyway, three times and it was me pulling when it got stuck the third. I really should have gone for it but screw it, it was his turn. Not an easy pitch either. Attitudes had turned shitty after the second one. That, and the subsequent realization that we’d miss the lift and be walking down in big boots. Water? Gone a long time ago. That’s about the time I realized fast and light is complete horseshit. Flaking the rope, “Your turn, man.”
Something is said that snaps me from the daydream. Ode’s persisting. “I’ll lead every pitch.”
Reason versus desire. Brain says no, heart says hell yeah!
“We’re not climbing Vaucher. We’re climbing Maillon Manquant.”
“That’s harder. 6B.”
“Yeah, a bit harder. More sustained. You can do it.”
Luckily there’s a shot of adrenaline to counterbalance the overwhelming trepidation. I remembered Maillon Manquant from both of my previous trips, careening up left towards the top of the Peigne. Steep, sustained, dark.
Ode: “We can rap back down the route if we need to. But we won’t need to.”
“OK, if you’re leading, I’m in.”
Starting just before us were Richard and Brice, confident guys who’d crossed the glacier in running shoes. They said it had been tense but it looked like they were on it now. Hit the rock and climbed five fast pitches. The climbing was awesome. We were stoked. Brice and Richard swung right. I shouted, “Thought you guys were climbing Maillon Manquant!” And in return, with the confidence of locals, “We are!”
The climbing over there looked hard but amazing. An airy arête with a couple
parallel cracks on the side facing us, maybe 100 meters away and in full view.
Ode, looking at the book, “Oh no they’re not.”
Good laybacks, solid handjambs, sparse but bomber gear with a bolt or piton every now and then. Bolted belays. A bit of route-finding but in the end a really natural line. Ode glides through the first crux, slabby 6b. Next pitch he throws in a kneebar so effortlessly I think it surprised even him. We meet Richard and Brice just as the routes converge. They’re
stoked. Great, fun, positive-energy mountaineers. Ode tiptoes through the beginning of the 2nd crux then puts some muscle into a steep crack and a featureless wall. I don’t know how he did it. Me following, flaming out while searching for crimpers.
Bottom of the last pitch; Ode’s stoked about the last pitch but tired. He sees it and slows down, savoring the warm sun, the cool breeze, amazing glaciers, big steep granite, blower day. Ode’s safe. I’m on belay. Climbing. Up a small ramp, past the first piece into a steep crack. Nut’s locked. I try with my tool but it’s not moving. I sit back on the rope for leverage, glad for a too-easy excuse to not depend on my tired arms in a not-bad-but-could-be-better handjam. Suddenly I hear Richard breathing hard and swearing as only the French can do before I see him. I look down to the belay and see his arm groping for a hold around the smooth left corner from the side. Ode and I had come from right and below. “Merde! Pas d’collant.” He’s struggling. His left hand is on something way out left. The belay ledge is just beyond a steep bulge that he can’t quite reach around. I can tell his feet are bad. He starts to gasp, swearing hard. I shout to Ode, “Gimme some slack!”
He can hear Richard panicking. “What’s going on?!”
I’m hanging on the rope, he can’t lower me with my weight on it. I can reach Richard if I can just get three meters of slack. Ode: “Get off the rope!” Richard: “Merde, Merde, Merde!” I envision the last piton, two or two-and-a half meters below. A bit rusty. Bent. Richard sucks in his breath, for a moment everything is quiet. Then PING, a freefalling arc, animalistic cry – fear and anguish, a deeply instinctual battle, well-fought, hard lost.
The top of the route is amazing. The summit of the Peigne still towers behind us. Two teams, like ants, working the normal route – one on the summit, one at the base of the slabs – dwarfed in its grandeur. We sit in the sun and eat sandwiches. The Midi, glacial ice shining in the bright midday light to the southwest. Two climbers smiling and laughing, stoked beyond belief. Nothing like a PBJ at the top of a route in the warm summer sun.