Nov 30, 2014

Benighted and 'Au Cheval' on L’Arete a Marion in the French Aravis

I asked the question I swore I’d never ask…

‘Are we there yet?’

Our guide Jon looked at me incredulously. ‘There!? We’re not even half way! We still have at least two more hours!’

Not the response I’d been hoping for. 

It was nearing 4pm and dusk had started to cast its shadow on the mountain panorama sprawled out below.  We were ‘not even half way’ through a very wintery climb of L’Arete a Marion in the Aravis. During the  summer the route is a straight forward, ridge walk… during the winter, a corniced hell of seracs, avalanche prone slopes and icy-cold wind whipping up from the valley. It was ‘an adventure’ to say the least… much more of an adventure my climbing partner Nick and I had anticipated. And it didn’t sound like it was going to end any time soon.

I took a deep breath, dug in my heels and held the rope tight as Nick fell through yet another cornice, arms flailing for the stability of the rock.

‘Whoops. There’s some deep snow there’ he called out. I followed closely behind him, looking down into the ‘snow hole’, saw the blue sky through the other side.

Our journey had started much earlier that day.  We (ok, Jon) had begun to break trail up to our objective for the day at 9am after a scenic hours’ drive from Chamonix. It had been a bit of a risky decision to head to the Alps so late in the Autumn season with many of the lifts providing access to more popular routes still closed. The previous evening we’d all met in the bar in Chamonix where our guide Jon Bracey of Vertigo Guides promised us he’d do our best to find something fun and challenging - and he certainly delivered.

Less than 10 hours later Jon was skilfully and steadily breaking trail over the corniced, snowy ridge, brushing away the snow from the ridge to dig out the bolts. A precarious conga line with consequences. We’d already found ourselves 'au cheval' in uncompromising positions straddling the icy ridge as if we were riding a horse and trying to pull our bodies along while the wind whipped at our cramponed heels. 

As Jon navigated the route along the ridge, Nick and I held back, tied into the anchor and waiting for Jon’s signal that it was safe to continue. Many times he would disappear out of view, winding his way around rocky outcrops and using the featured terrain to create safety anchors for the rope and for us to move along. While he did this it left us to stand patiently, discussing all of the food that we were craving whilst trying to gauge of the type of terrain which lay ahead by how quickly the rope led out. We deduced that if the rope led out quickly it meant that the terrain was straightforward… when the rope remained limp it meant that Jon was ahead trying to navigate a more technical section. We quickly realised that what took Jon 5 minutes to navigate would take us 10… Our imaginations grew proportionate to our growing appetites and to our levels of exhaustion.

And we weren’t even half way there yet.

Jon had disappeared from view and the rope lay limp over the snow indicating that he was working his way through what appeared to be a technical section beyond our view. I wondered aloud the option of rappelling down a steep section to the right might be possible given that it was getting dark. Before we even had time to reflect on what that decision might have been, the rope went tight and we heard John shout over the wind. 

It was go-time.

Nick rounded the corner before I did. His running commentary provided a hint of what lay in store. ‘I don't have a good feeling about this’ he muttered balancing the front-points of his crampons in a tiny seam in rock-face with a 300 foot drop behind his heels. Reaching up, I followed, planting the tip of my axe in an iced seam in the rock. The 20 degree angle of the face made it incredibly hard to climb as you literally had to pull your body over the  almost flat icy smooth surface. From there I inched my way upward along the ice, praying that the axe tip was ‘bomber’ and would stay firmly lodged in the seam. The front points of my crampons scraped against the rock as  I tried to get enough purchase for the next move. And so we slowly and methodologically inched our way up the face.

I love the sense of relief after passing through the crux of a climb and when you are again fixed solidly to an anchor with precious moments to recompose and refocus. We arrived at the anchor gasping, eyes wide but laughing… experiencing a rush of endorphins with the crux now behind us. The summit of L’Arete a Marion was now within reach. We navigated the final section and popped out onto the summit just as the sun disappeared over the horizon.

A congratulatory handshake summit and then we quickly prepared ourselves for a rapid descent to make the most of the final rays of light before darkness fell.

“It is what it is” was Jon’s response when I questioned the descent conditions as I tried to mentally prepare myself. 

Exhausted but buzzing we arrived at the car for 8pm. The last hour had actually had me thinking that snow-swimming should be made an olympic sport, so much agility and flexibility was required when moving through waist-deep snow. It had been an absolutely BRILLIANT day. 

Massive thanks to Jon Bracey for organising such a fab day out, guiding us, and for doing the hard work..! 

Benighted - 8pm at the carpark


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