The longest winter route ever (Alpine climbing)

An account of a christmas spent in Chamonix early in my climbing career. Unpublished.

Sunrise on Mont Blanc

Sunrise on Mont Blanc

Cold weather and hard routes, not much to ask for Christmas you might think. Still, it would appear that Santa isn’t an alpinist. A week in which all we’d climbed was one rather moist icefall left us frustrated and bored. If we stayed around it was only a matter of time before ambition got the better of common sense, after all we climbed in much worse conditions in Scotland, how bad could it be? A waist deep epic on the normally straightforward descent from the Argentiere icefalls in a blizzard reminded us how bad it could be, I shuddered to think of what it would have been like high up that day.

We were too skint to ski, too skint to drink and our gite chucked us out between 10am and 5pm each day. Days were spent moping around Chamonix in the grey drizzle, perusing various dismal forecasts and making plans should things improve. The forecast indicated one good day so we got the ‘frique up to Plan de l’Aiguille, broke trail to the bottom of the Pelerins that afternoon. The Carrington-Rouse looked hard, but we agreed to give it a go the next day and enjoyed a serene walk down to the refuge in the red evening light. “Red sky at night, Shepherd’s delight”; bullshit.

At four the alarm woke me from beneath five musty blankets. We opened the door to a full on Scottish blizzard and went back to bed, there was no way we were going to get up what looked like the hardest thing either of us had ever done in that. The forecast had said snow early on so we reset the alarm for 5.30. If the weather was better we’d go and do Fil a Plomb. We woke again and all looked well, a few clouds but we could see Chamonix now and it looked to be clearing, we had breakfast and some brews. Jackets on, Christmas cracker style pink snowshoes on, sacks on, door open, back to bed. Fuck this weather.

We walked down to the valley in tracks made by some Slovenians. They planned to climb Super couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul the next day, then climb Mont Blanc and descend to Les Houches. They had no skis or snowshoes and seemed to be unfazed when we pointed out that several kilometres and the Aiguille du Midi stood between them and the base of their route. Given their plans I assumed the weather would improve and wondered if we should stay another night. No they said, the weather was going to be very bad tomorrow. We left them to unload their massive rucksacks and walked off, wondering if they were incredibly naive or if we were just being soft.

As we slushed through the snow of Chamonix high street we joked about how annoying it would be if conditions were really good back home. In the Guides office we met some brits who said it was minus 14 degrees c in Scotland, we looked at each other and shouldered our packs. “Lets go home”.

All the buses full for the next five days, the train is £100 to London, it would almost be cheaper to stay and get a lift back in a week. A devious plan was ticking over in my head, my adventure rat needed feeding. They say alpinism is the art of suffering and so far the holiday had been short on suffering and rich in boredom, and hey, it would be good for my French. Blair doesn’t speak French and so got the train. I needed something to deaden the pain of so much planning and ambition falling flat on its face. I walked to the edge of town and stuck my mittened thumb out.

My first lift needed some gentle persuasion that they could fit both my big bags and me into their two door car but I was glad I had, they were going all the way to Besancon. It was cramped but they were great company. Soon after crossing the Swiss border past Geneva one of them started rolling the joints. This he took very seriously and what he produced were works of art, carefully honed by years of practice. “Ces joints sont tres charges” he told me. GCSE French had failed to teach me that one but it didn’t take much figuring out. Pretty soon I was completely unconcerned about how far I got that day, in fact I rather wished they’d offer me a bed for the night and I could carry on tomorrow. I was deposited at a peage and staggered out of the car wobbling on shaky legs, coming back to life after four hours of abuse. The next forty minutes must have made amusing viewing for the speed cameras. I fought the uncontrollable munchies while trying to keep my thumb out as the snow came down at a rate of knots. Dressed up like the Michelin man and while struggling to cut myself a piece of my mums Christmas cake someone finally stopped. He was going just far enough for me to thaw out.

The next lift took me all the way to Paris and, in a brief pause from chain smoking strong French cigarettes, he offered me somewhere to stay the night and a lift to the north of Paris in the morning. His chain smoking family didn’t quite know what to make of me but were very generous, one of them sleeping on the couch so I could have a bed. I was exhausted from having to think in French for a whole day and could have slept anywhere.

A late start saw me at a service station by 10.30 the next morning. I’m a hitching slut; I’ll go with anyone if I’m desperate enough. Thirty minutes of bitter cold later someone stopped. He was going to Brussels but could drop me on the way to Calais. I knew I would regret it but I got in. The turning to Calais passed with no suitable dropping off places and I ended up in Brussels, having been about 100km from Calais I’d gone 200km in the wrong direction. And I’d been bold enough to think I might get home tonight!

From Brussels I decided it would be best to head for Ostend, instead of Calais, and so set off that way. Soon enough a car stopped, I said I was going to Ostend, then England, he grunted a reply and I thought I’d got a lift all the way to England, no such luck, my lift spoke no French, no English, no German, only Flemish, but I managed to signal that I wanted to go to the ferries. “Ah, Fairies”, he said, the car lurching in the direction of the sign.

The man at the ticket desk regarded me with a look of pure disgust as I took off my two hats, scarf and mittens in his office; I guessed that my putrid smell had finally seeped through my many layers. Twenty-three pounds, he informed me, is what it would cost to get to Dover. I told him I’d think about it; in my money saving mindset that was a fortune. The bloke behind me in the queue was English and I asked if I could hitch a lift with him, so paying only ten pounds for the crossing. He was quite an experience, an ex serviceman, now a security guard, he delighted in telling me about beating people up, the “Kosovan scum” he was currently employed in preventing getting across the channel and living for weeks off a can of sardines and one piece of loo paper. Still, he bought me tea for the four hours before our boat left and deposited me at a roundabout in Dover.

A roofer from London dropped me off on the M25, luckily at a well-lit roundabout. Still, I had none of the luxuries of the previous night and was determined to get home “in a push” so as to be able to see my friends for New Year. It was as cold as they had said-minus 8 the first car said- and similar figures were quoted to me throughout the night. It’s amazing how thin five layers of clothing can feel. After half an hour at one roundabout I was forced to put on my plastic boots as my feet had gone numb. There was still no urgency about my travel, I had about 20 hours to get home before new year and so long as I could stay vaguely warm I was happy, my mind occupied with fond thoughts of friends I hadn’t seen for ages. In my mind they’d all be there, waiting at home, as happy to see me as I was them.

“You wouldn’t know it mate, but flour is four times more explosive than TNT”. My next lift promised to be entertaining, which is exactly what I needed to keep me awake at 2am. From talking about chocolate factory workers being put off chocolate he somehow got onto gynaecologists “see mate, you and I spend our whole lifes trying to get some pussy, but if you’re a gynaecologist you don’t want it, do you?” I quietly nodded. “Tell you what though, you’d be the only bloke on your street that could wallpaper the hall through the letter box”. I climbed out of his cab struggling to cope with his bizarre analogy.

As the night wore on my mind was busy thinking about two things, friends and routes. I was really longing for the New Year I had had the year before, with old friends from the States, people I hadn’t seen for several years and knew I wouldn’t see again for a long time. Moments made special through necessity and shared memories of great times. Then there were other things that had made last year so special. Surely I’d get home and she’d still feel as I did? No, snap out of it, you haven’t seen her for a year and she’s had a boyfriend for the last eight months. The dull ache of missing all these people was like a desperate form of homesickness, there was no way I could see them all because they were all in different places. I knew also that even if I could it would never be as good as in my mind. The dull ache was accompanied by a gradual seeping back of desire for routes, from hating climbing forty hours ago I was now contemplating forgoing all my friends and heading straight back up to Scotland, after all it was arctic cold. The feeling of missing friends and wanting routes struck me as remarkably similar in my heart, just a deep longing for something intense.

A long lift north finally got me clear of the M25 but I kept nodding off, then waking up feeling embarrassed. The old debate about whether it is better to stay with someone who is going almost in the right direction for a long time or get off much earlier to go via your original plan raised it’s head once more. There was no choice really, his cab was too warm and it was 4 in the morning, I’d probably not get a lift out there for ages. The sky dawned bright red on a crap hitching spot. It looked angry and I hoped I was home before the storm struck. After the coldest hour of the night stood in the same place I decided to start walking to a roundabout, not an easy decision with the luggage I had. I was half way there, walking on the right hand side of a dual carriageway with my thumb out when I heard something slow down and pull up, my heart leapt. I looked around. Shit; it was a police land rover. The driver commenced a tirade of abuse from behind the wheel “You’re hitching in a very stupid place aren’t you?” “Where are you going?” “What do you do for a living?” He bombarded me with aggressive questions, I was about to start giving as good as I got, after all I was breaking no laws, when his mate asked “Where have you come from?” “Chamonix” I replied. “Oh, are you a climber?” “Yes”, “Hop in then”. The driver steamed in silence while we discussed climbing for the next twenty miles, finally conceding before they dropped me off that “I was lucky, they only ever pick up squaddies and climbers!”. I got out with an uncontrollable grin on my face.

A couple of hours and two lifts later I was home. I phoned some friends and babbled nonsensically with the high of an insomniac. Blair said everything was going to thaw tomorrow so I stayed down south. New Years Eve was the most boring event ever, most of my friends had very sensibly stayed away and I don’t even remember it turning midnight, it was so inconsequential. I went to bed exhausted but with the vague realisation that most things in life are never quite as good as you anticipate them to be. Except climbing, sometimes.