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Safety

Chamonix Unfiltered

Are we good or just lucky?

11.02.2018

Pete Houghton lebt in Chamonix und hat jahrelange Routine in den klassischen und weniger klassischen Steilabfahrten der Gegend. Kürzlich befuhr er ein Couloir an den Becs Rouges. Nach gutem Schnee im oberen Teil und zwei Abseilern querte er in sein anvisiertes Exit-Couloir und musste feststellen: Die Ausfahrt aus der Rinne war seit der Besichtigung abgerutscht und nicht mehr existent. Von oben drohten Steinschlag und Nassschnee.

View from top of line: South Couloir of Becs Rouges add_circle
View from top of line: South Couloir of Becs Rouges

Pete Houghton lebt in Chamonix und hat jahrelange Routine in den klassischen und weniger klassischen Steilabfahrten der Gegend. Kürzlich befuhr er ein Couloir an den Becs Rouges. Nach gutem Schnee im oberen Teil und zwei Abseilern querte er in sein anvisiertes Exit-Couloir und musste feststellen: Die Ausfahrt aus der Rinne war seit der Besichtigung abgerutscht und nicht mehr existent. Von oben drohten Steinschlag und Nassschnee.

Der einzige Ausweg: Ein provisorischer Standplatz, ein Anruf bei der Bergrettung und Warten auf den Hubschrauber, während zwei Meter weiter die Nasschneelawinen ins Tal rauschen. Im Folgenden schildert Pete sein Erlebnis und kommt zu dem Schluss: ob wir überleben oder nicht, ist manchmal nicht nur eine Frage von Können und Erfahrung, sondern vor allem Glückssache. 

 

Sunday 28th January

“God dammit...” I mutter quietly to myself. There's no-one else around to hear me, anyway. I've just spent far too long carefully sidestepping downhill, axe in hand but skis on feet, over deep runnels of bulletproof snow and bare rock, carved out and polished by last night's avalanche. Obviously, this was not part of the plan.

As I slowly creep around a shallow corner in the wide couloir, my eyes fall on a sight that makes my heart sink even further: the huge cone of snow that I had seen through my binoculars just yesterday evening, still stacked up neatly at the bottom of my exit couloir at sundown, is no longer there. It is now splayed across the glacier far below me in a fractal of ornate tendrils, each a hundred meters long, and in its place lies a narrow, rock-strewn gully, bordered by towering granite on one side, and a crumbling moraine wall on the other. “God dammit.” I repeat, quieter still.

I glance back at the cliffs above me and the south-facing slopes beyond them, glowing, shimmering in the midday sun. I don't have long. I pull the shaft of my ice axe out of the snow above me, and anchor my rucksack to the hillside with the handle of a ski pole driven into the hole. I unlock my toes and step out of my uphill ski, swap into the first crampon, then stamp out a small ledge under my downhill ski to stand on comfortably so I can do the same for my other foot. After strapping my skis to my pack and stashing one pole, I press on down the broken couloir, picking my way between patches of mirror-finish ice over the maze of spines and runnels. Even with careful, methodical movements, my progress is reassuringly faster than on skis, but too many minutes and too few meters of descent later, a faint rustle and a series of dull thuds draws my eyes downwards: the moraine has started to crumble in the heat of the day and a skull-sized chunk of granite has just peeled away from the dusty ochre wall, bouncing down the centre of my intended line of descent, before sliding to a halt among a cluster of its former neighbours, still nearly two hundred metres below me. For some reason I hear a slight giggle escape from between my curled lips, and I allow myself a short moment to wallow in the absurdity of the situation. But I know that won't help.

What I do know, however, having studied this line obsessively through binoculars and photographs over the years, is that there is a hanging snow slope sandwiched between the right-hand moraine wall of this couloir and the cliffs just above it, and that I might be able to use it to rejoin the route a little lower down, below most of the potential rockfall. Once back in the couloir, if I ski quickly enough and pretend to be much thinner than I actually am, it's entirely possible, even probable, that I won't be crushed to death by rockfall and become a pink smear on the bottom of the glacier. The odds aren't great, I admit, but they are the best I've got right now. “I don't have time for this,” I mutter as I start to climb back up the couloir, finding small comfort in my own commentary. “I literally do not have the time for this.”

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Looking across from Lognan - Line and anchor position add_circle
Looking across from Lognan - Line and anchor position

Eventually, I find a patch of snow that reaches up to the base of the cliffs, and there is now a traverse of thirty meters or so to a stunted rock buttress which marks the closest edge of the hanging snow slope. The soft and accommodating snow on the traverse has been left untouched by the avalanche of last night, and I am soon underneath the buttress, where a short but noticeably-steep climb puts me firmly on top of this small bastion of solid ground. I dig around in the rocks at the bottom of the cliff and find a good sturdy flake to grab onto with my right hand, so I can lean out a little and take stock of my new situation. My heart sinks again: along the entire left-hand edge of the slope below me, the moraine wall is crumbling away, and every twenty seconds or so a piece of it tumbles down to the glacier. The entire length of the remaining couloir is stained pink from constantly-falling debris, and although it is out of my sight, I know that the story will be the same along the base of this hanging slope as well. I can't see a way out. I reach over my head into the top pocket of my backpack, take out my phone, and turn off airplane mode. No signal, but maybe it just needs a moment or two to wake up. I slide it into my thigh pocket.

That instantly-recognisable hiss. The quiet-but-growing sound of constant surf breaking on a rapidly-approaching shore. I turn around and face back towards where I've just come from, grabbing the flake of rock with my left hand instead, just in time to see the first wave of the avalanche carve down the guts of the couloir, not thirty meters away from me, the noise now a steady roar as a churning river of dirty white launches into the air, tearing at the walls, plucking loose rocks from the trembling moraine and swallowing them whole, spitting them out again a hundred, two hundred meters lower. A minute later, the world is silent once more, still, except for the rain-on-a-tin-roof rattle coming from the moraine. I unclip a short sling from my harness and drape it over what I have decided to be one of the very best flakes of granite on Earth, and as I clip my cow's tail on to it, I feel my thigh vibrate. My phone must have found signal.

“Hi honey,” I answer. My wife sounds panicked, I am already quite late by this point. “Listen, I'm not hurt at all, and I'm perfectly safe, but I think I'm going to need a helicopter.”

View from Aiguilles Rouges the day before, with intended line add_circle
View from Aiguilles Rouges the day before, with intended line

* * *

Mountain Rescue call me back about ten minutes after our first conversation. They want to double check that I am not injured and in a safe place, well out of harm's way.

“I have to ask,” the operator says to me in slow, patient French, after my own abysmal attempts at the language have made clear that it's necessary, “If you are in total security, do you mind waiting for a while? The helicopter has to go to another incident elsewhere in the valley, someone has fallen and might be quite badly injured.”

“No, not at all,” I reply. My anchor is solid, I'm relatively sheltered from anything falling from above, I'm warm and dry and I have another jacket in my pack. Although I have finished my Thermos of tea, the hollow tube of my ice axe is collecting the meltwater dripping steadily off the rocks behind me, and I have a pocket full of sweets. I can stay here indefinitely, I suppose. “I am in total security. I have no problems here, if the helicopter has more serious things to attend.”

In retrospect, perhaps my timings were a little on the tight side. The same warm sun that had softened the snow to a skiable consistency in the upper couloir was bound to carry on heating the entire face throughout the day, and I was banking on the lower couloir being a clean and quick ski, allowing me to be well away from the area before the inevitable and incessant avalanches started in the afternoon. No such luck. For the next two and a half hours I watch slide after slide tear down the couloir to my left, with the brief lull between every crashing wave filled by the constant clatter and occasional boom of the moraine wall crumbling away beneath me.

As I sit so close to the carnage, I can't help but dwell on how much closer I could have been. The elapsed time between my crampons taking their final step out of the couloir and that first unstoppable wall of snow sweeping everything out of it's path can't have been more than ten or fifteen minutes. That time could just have easily been spent earlier in the day, sorting out a stuck rope after a rappel or clearing ice from the toe piece of a binding, or stopping to grab some time lapse footage of swirling clouds, or watching another team on the other side of the valley through a pair of binoculars, or any other pointless and banal thing you find yourself doing sometimes in the mountains. It might well have been the right decision to climb out from the couloir and cling desperately to the rocks above it when I did, but that most definitely isn't why I'm still alive today, sitting typing these words over a week after the fact in my dressing gown, with a half-ignored mug of lukewarm coffee by my elbow. It was luck. Nothing but dumb, blind, luck.

* * *

As the blue PGHM helicopter comes into view hovering high above me, my phone rings. It's the pilot, he wants me to guide him to my exact location, a tiny speck of blue and red lost somewhere on a colossal mountainside. Rotate sixty degrees to the right, I tell them, lower two hundred meters. It's hard to speak into my phone when I'm waving both arms high above my head. They see me. I don't know if I should hang up yet... it seems rude.

A man on the end of a cable reaches out to me. He takes hold of my arm first, then my rock anchor, then he sets his feet down on the tiny ledge I've stamped out for him in the snow. I pull back the bottom of my jacket and stretch out my belay loop as he clips the winch cable to it, then as we both go to pull the sling off of my rock he waves his other hand in a circle above his head. We are airborne. As the scarred couloir and ragged cliffs that I've called my home for the last few hours lurch away from me, fifty meters, a hundred, two hundred, the astonishingly-handsome man cradling my legs between his glances down at the unnecessarily-skinny, lightweight mountaineering harness cutting deep into my thighs. “Ca va?” he shouts over the noise of the rotor, an unmistakeable expression of rather-you-than-me on his face. Ca va, I nod.

We are set down on one of the Grands Montets pistes, near the Refuge de Lognan, then we crouch as the helicopter lands next to us. My rescuer goes to lift my rucksack into the helicopter, but I tap him on the shoulder and mime that, perhaps, and I'd hate to appear ungrateful, it would be easier for them to leave me here... I can just ski home to Argentiere. They shrug at each other and nod. I shake every hand available, mouthing my thanks, and clasping my hands together in gratitude to the pilot as he lifts off again into the sky. A moment later, my sixty second rescue is over and the world is silent once again, with not even the pitter-patter of constant rockfall in the background. Under the surprised gaze of a small audience lining the edges of a nearby piste, I quickly swap my crampons for skis, and ski home in the fading early evening light.

Some time later, around my third beer, I learn why I got to enjoy a few hours of sunbathing above my crumbling moraine wall. After inadvertently following someone else's tracks, a group of skiers had found themselves in difficult conditions just a few of kilometers to the south of me, in the Chapeau Couloir. The PGHM helicopter had been rescuing one member of the party, and then, from a couple of hundred meters lower down the couloir, recovering the bodies of two of his friends. 

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Kommentare
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freak 13.02.2018 | 19:58 Uhr

Yeah, thanks from me too for the insight. Good read and glad youre safe!

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knut 12.02.2018 | 10:37 Uhr

A very insightful view into the inner worlds of mountaineering. Thank you very much for this well-written report of what I can only guess was a life-changing experience. I guess you will not make decisions in the mountains quite the same way you did before, although there's no obvious or even platant mistake to easily avoid next time.
And I guess I won't, either. This insight you managed to pack so neatly into words will oscillate with my own thoughts and views as well. Thank you for sharing this!