(January 2008, Chamonix, France)
A cold wind funnelling through the jagged V-notch in the summit ridge of the Droites stripped the warmth from my face. This was the first time I had stood in the Brèche des Droites, but looking around I recognised a ledge above me. Fixed, staring at the ledge for a minute – although it felt a lot longer – I eventually dragged my eyes away and turned once again to face into the bright sun. The dark and brooding Grandes Jorasses north face, the Géant icefall, tumbling and erratic, and the Vallée Blanche were all visible. I closed my eyes… immediately I returned to that winter evening, nine years before.
I remembered leaving the warmth of the climbing wall and the yellow sulphurous glow while driving through Leicester’s cold city centre. I remembered passing abandoned, graffiti-daubed hosiery factories, kebab houses with papers blowing in the gutter, and the high walls of the prison. I remembered the dark deserted park…
Driving out of the city, leaves illuminated by the van’s headlights blew across the country lane. Trees stooped either side of the road, twisted and skeletal. Sleet hit the windscreen. A news report between songs on the car radio: ‘British climbers are trapped on a mountain in the French Alps.’ I arrived home, switched on the TV, closed the curtains and waited…
Taking in, pulling the ropes through the belay device, my swollen wrist hurt. Ross Hewitt was still on the dark side of the mountain beneath my position, plugging away on the last few metres of the Ginat, the classic ice climb of the 1,000-metre north face. I had met Ross several years before while walking in to Creag Meagaidh in Scotland. I liked him, he was a Scot with an unusual accent, or at least I took it as an unusual, posh accent. I was more used to hearing Glaswegian or Highland which sounded more abrasive than east coast. Or maybe Ross was just posh? Whatever, I liked Ross, mainly because at least in his climbing he appeared to lack ego.
I stared at the TV, watching the two climbers stranded on the ledge that was now above me. One wore a yellow jacket, the same make, style and colour as the one I had removed after I had walked into my house that evening, nine years earlier. Four days before I had spoken over the phone with Jamie Fisher, who had been with me on my first and second expeditions to the Himalaya. He was heading to the Alps with his flatmate Jamie Andrews to meet Jules. Jamie Fisher, Jules and I all had the same distinctive jackets that had been given to us for our Shark’s Fin expedition in 1997. Watching the news, recognising the jacket, I knew it was either Jamie or Jules pinned by atrocious weather on the summit ridge of the Droites. The rest of that Sunday evening was spent sitting with the rain hitting the window and the dark and the memories…
Ross was nearly to me now. The spell would be broken with his arrival. Rock walls hemmed him into his snowy runnel. The Matterhorn and Monte Rosa were behind, standing head and shoulders above a million other mountains. The Argentière Glacier flowed, a rucked sheet butting its head against the rock barrier of the Pr. de Bar. I had skied along that rucked sheet so many times now.
We had climbed 1,000 metres of ice, rock and history, and as I stood belaying, I could hear the BBC reporter say my friend’s name, Jamie Fisher, and the other Jamie, Jamie Andrews. Taking in more rope I could see Jamie Fisher’s cheeky smile and his shock of unruly red hair.
This would be my final climb in the Alps that winter because of my wrist. I was disappointed it was all coming to an end but thrilled to have at last climbed the Droites, not once, but twice in a matter of weeks. It had been long overdue. I had a connection with this mountain, and as I pulled the ropes, my mind replayed the climb.
Thunk. The pick penetrated ice, shining in the light of my head torch. Reverberations travelled through the shaft of the axe and into my arm. The deep, nagging ache from my wrist took the baton and sprinted to my brain. I had broken my left wrist eight days before; I fell while bouldering with ice axes at Le Fayet and only a metre from the ground. Four days after the fall, after being wrapped with bags of frozen peas and taking a whole load of anti-inflammatory tablets, some of the swelling had reduced and I had regained partial movement. I convinced myself it wasn’t broken. The fifth day after the fall, I skied the Vallée Blanche, and on the sixth, I skinned beneath the Droites to check out the conditions on the north face. Ross and I walked in to the Argentière Hut on day seven and at 1.30am on day eight, we broke trail to the base of the climb.
I had been nervous. Would the pain be too much? I didn’t want to let Ross down and I desperately needed to climb, but more than that I needed the mountains. The thought of catching a ferry and returning to Britain was more painful than actually climbing with the injury. I had been nervous about what memories the climb would stir up. I heard Cartwright’s voice telling me of the relief and catharsis he received from climbing the Ginat some years after Jamie’s death … and now he was also dead.
Thunk. Again I threw the axe toward the ice. The teeth penetrated just enough to stabilise me before I forcefully swung the right axe and planted the pick deep. I couldn’t remove the left axe as I normally would by holding the handle and twisting, the leverage from the full length of the shaft caused too much pain. So, I slid my left hand halfway up the shaft and twisted. Shooting pains ripped up my arm; grimacing, shutting the pain away, I lifted the axe, hooking the pick into the ice at shoulder height, before I grabbed the handle and threw it again and again and again.
We had soloed from the bergschrund, but at the beginning of the Messner variation – a steep icy gully leading to the large central ice field – Ross had asked to tie on so we could move together. I grumbled, having soloed to the top of the ice field five weeks before when Houseman and I had climbed the line to the right.
The Colton-Brooks had been my first successful climb on the Droites. Houseman and I had climbed it without any problems in nine hours. It had felt great to be climbing with ‘The Youth’ again after our previous winter together. We were beginning to know each other well, which meant understanding and respect, and at times forgiveness. Spending hours, days, weeks and sometimes months together with a climbing partner is similar to being in a relationship; I didn’t want to spend time with people out of convenience – being in the hills with someone is as important to me as the climbing itself.
After the years of wondering, skiing beneath the dry, grey, out-of-condition face and imagining the hell the two Jamies had been through, the Colton-Brooks was almost too good to be true. I had stood alongside Houseman on the summit ridge, basking in the sun, looking across at the Brèche wondering, why them? Why not me?
At the time of the tragedy Jules had been in the Chamonix valley. I had asked him afterward if Jamie Fisher had had a sleeping bag with him on the Droites. I was trying to bring some sense to what happened and knew Jamie was an advocate of moving fast and light. As it turned out he did have a sleeping bag and bivvy kit. People, including myself, are always trying to find explanations and somewhere to place the blame for accidents in the mountains, especially people in the press looking for a story or some way to hype it up a bit. But sometimes there is no blame, no underlying story, no hyped newsprint. The mountains may have been tamed with time but on occasion they still present a worthy challenge.
Ross had been climbing cautiously and admitted to feeling exposed without leashes. Soloing without leashes meant if he was hit by a rock, or a large lump of ice, he would fall and be killed. He said he would move quicker if we climbed simultaneously, tied together and placing protection. This was the first time we had climbed together but I had skied with him and watched him throw himself down steep slopes, slopes so steep as to have a climbing grade. It came as a surprise to find that someone so bold on skis was thinking of what might go wrong on a relatively easy climb. My mind didn’t work like that, not yet anyway.
Belaying, stood in the Brèche, I started thinking that moving together attached to the rope did make sense. If I came across grey, steely hard ice, I wasn’t sure I would be able to swing the axe with enough force to make the pick penetrate, but time was our main concern. We carried no sleeping bags or bivvy gear and the thought of the two Jamies’ fate had been with me every step. Three years had passed since I had spent that very cold night on the Droites by myself and I wasn’t eager to repeat that experience.
Ross moved a lot quicker once tied to the rope. I followed, while imagining him 60 metres ahead pushing himself, and thinking, come on you bastard, complain about the speed now. We took turns in front. The ice was thin but chewy and didn’t need a forceful swing – I was glad about that. Gently placing the left axe for support and pulling with the right arm had us weaving around the constrictions following thicker streaks. On one occasion, in the lead, I leant back to look at a bulge of ice blocking the way. I knew I would have to swing the axe with force to enable me to pull over. Nervous of the pain, I swung the axe from behind my head. The shockwave hit, turning my stomach – but looking over my shoulder, the red glow of the sun creeping over the horizon helped. Being in this wild, empty place always helped. I was almost free, almost content.
Ross climbed into the Brèche alongside me and we shook hands. Five weeks before when Houseman and I had easily climbed the Colton-Brooks the winter had only just begun, and my head had been spinning with the possibilities. Now I was savouring the last of my time in the mountains for the season. Melting ice glistened all around me like mirrors and in these mirrors I imagined the face they reflected was one of contentment. Almost. Jagged snow icicles, warmed by the sun, wept. Braced, buffeted by the wind, I took it all in knowing this felt right, but still I felt sad. The mountains around me were friends I would be leaving behind for an indefinite period and already I missed them.
Ross sorted out the ropes and rigged the abseil ready for our descent. I threaded the rope through my abseil device and clipped it to my harness. Stamping my feet clear of snow, zipping zippers, changing gloves – I did anything to delay leaving, but eventually I could delay no more. Leaning back from the ropes I turned to look at the ledge above and quietly whispered my goodbye.