Alps, France

Miles to the Sun

Date March 2010
Posted April 2010
Climbing Mont de Grange the hard way
The glimmering arrow moved across the vista almost silently, twin vapour trains scoring a blue sky with sharp lines that would soon begin to fade as they migrated west with the breeze. This was one of the few times when being up there, encased helplessly in an aluminium tube, was starting to seem like an attractive alternative. Not that the view was bad, or the air, or the company. Turning to the left presented the open valley, looking back far below to the ski lifts that had brought us to the foot of Mont de Grange.

A look directly down at the gulley visible between my boots was a clear reminded that frozen water alone defied gravity's incessant efforts to prevent our ascent. More snow thumped down from out of sight above, launching off the rocks above and flying past and into the thin alpine air. Jamie didn't appear to be having a good time up there.

Another half an hour passed.

Mont de Grange, Alps, France (2010) courtesy of

Standing a little short of 2500m in height and located in the French Alps, Mont de Grange isn't exactly a fearsome mountain. With snow melting though the avalanche risk was cruising a little higher than earlier in the winter. First objective of the day had brought this home - there's no ignoring the might of the spring avalanche when you're stepping through the remains of one that fell only a week earlier (clearly visible in the photo above). That mess came from a lot further up, bringing countless trees down with it. Luckily nobody was up there at the time - this one occured naturally, so said the lift attendant who articulated in broken English that the mountain spat this one out. And besides, if it's come down, it's probably settled for the time being. Reassuring? Not really.

First col was conquered by crossing the avalanche field and traversing a little lower than a group of skiers, apparently also heading for the summit, but via a steep looking gulley to the left of the peak. Our own plans were set to take us up onto the icy rock faces below the summit for a tricky lead climb before taking the top ridge to complete the ascent. Technical it would be, but in theory not overly difficult. Really though it would depend on the consistency of the snow and ice.

Mont de Grange, Alps, France (2010) courtesy of

Since the earlier avalanche a top crust had formed on the snow. This caused no problems as we traversed the steeper slopes in the couloir, pushing across towards the rockier areas below the summit. It was becoming apparent though that the snow wasn't perhaps as supportive as it might've been. Stamping down reaffirmed this observation as we sought to find stability in which to unpack crampons and rope gear, and put away the snow shoes, their work done for now.

Environments such as these are slightly deceptive. Surrounded by seemingly soft powder, you'd almost be forgiven for thinking that a slip or fall would be fun. The next stage in the ascent was to suggest that the mountain might be thinking up less enjoyable futures for all involved. Jamie pushed up the first gully, out of sight around a rock face that couldn't be climbed, simply because there were no placement opportunities for safety, and in fact very little in the way of holds to climb up. The snow was proving tiring - so soft and powdery that creating steps up and onto the top of the rocky outcrop was draining. Ice screws would be a waste of time - the only ice to be found was dripping wet and simply too thin to be of any use.

Mont de Grange, Alps, France (2010) courtesy of

Here then, standing in my kicked out step I waited for more news. Northcave sat perched above on a precarious ledge above, showered every now and then by a fresh bucketload of snow from up above where Jamie was doing his best to build a pathway out of this mess. Going back down had already been declared impossible - three sets of rigid soled mountain boots had destroyed the best of the snow, and now as I fought for support I could see yet more between my feet crumble away, leaving the front points of the crampons jammed into a sliver of ice that looked unnervingly thin. Additional 'safety' was found with the axes, having discovered some ice of their own beneath the snow.

Vital to the roped-up climber or mountaineer are good belay points, or anchors to which he (or she) can attach. Again we came up blank - even snow belays (burying an axe in the snow, having secured to it a rope or a nylon sling) were virtually impossible, pulling out of the powder with the smallest of tugs. And now that we were negotiating a path up between the exposed rocky slabs, a slide, if it happened, would inevitably give way to a fly.

Mont de Grange, Alps, France (2010) courtesy of

An hour in the gulley had passed. Three hundred quids' worth of crafted Italian boots were starting to feel the cold. Without movement it's only a (short) matter of time before cold gets the better of you, taking hold first in the extremities as the body seeks to keep it's temperature up by restricting blood flow. Fingers this cold I'd never felt before, so cold that I had to wonder if feeling would ever return. Some movement was possible, a shaking of the legs and shoulders, but as ever it was the not knowing that was the real killer. This was the first phase of what looked to be already an escape as we sought the relative safety of the couloir where the skiers had ascended.

Eventually it was time to move, struggling for grip, not daring to think about the below, only the above. Relief came as I found my way onto the outcrop where Northcave has sat, only to realise that it was probably worse here, since any slip would give way to an immediate 30ft drop. Up above a deep path in the snow had been hacked up the mountain side, twisting off above and around more rocks ahead. The depth of the trail revealed just how useless this snow was, a mix of the thin harder crust and the slushy rubbish below. Not much good for climbing up, and certainly no good for placing protection in, but a rope was available nonetheless, something which Jamie, leading had done without. As I moved further up the mountain, the extent of his bold achievements became clear. Photos of this part of the climb are unfortunately absent, simply because pretty pictures were the least of our worries.

Mont de Grange, Alps, France (2010) courtesy of

After several hours of digging snow seats and doing our best to make things safer the situation was looking a little clearer. A long traverse back to the couloir was the only way we'd be making the summit, or indeed anything other than a complete mess of the climb. The route directly above was impossible given the conditions, and by now the sun was beginning to go down behind the summit. As Jamie and Northcave began the traverse, they did so belayed both from a single device on my harness, itself backed-up on a questionable axe-belay. Another all-too-familiar 'just don't fall' scenario.

Following the new trail, progress was possible because the snow was packed enough to support our weight, even on the relatively steep slope. Northcave was already out of sight somewhere up the couloir, pressing ahead fast to make the most of the light, all of us still determined to make the summit. The tracks carved by the skiers on their descent didn't make things easier, since we were relying on having as much solid snow as possible on the way up to the imposing looking cornice at the top of the couloir. By the time it was in sight Northcave was nowhere to be seen, presumably on the final ascent up to the summit.

Aside from fatigue, it felt just a little like climbing a house of cards, as if the snow would suddenly give way, collapsing somehow and allowing an entirely different scenario to unfold. But it held, and then there was the cornice, climbable with care, for the wind-blown snow had created an overhang which would only take so much weight. In keeping with the rest of the days' developments, defeating the cornice brought more problems.

Mont de Grange, Alps, France (2010) courtesy of

As before, stakes were high. The summit was now clearly visible, another, similar ascent required. But below there was little variation in possible outcome other than 'violent death', should a fall occur. Fitter and more confident, Jamie overtook and pressed on before climbing the final wall of snow. The going wasn't impossible, but it was difficult - how do you climb when each step seems to remove more snow from in front of you and send it off behind? Soon though the slope became an overhang, with too much snow disappearing at the bottom and not enough at the top. No support for the feet, and nothing for the axes. Suddenly thoughts of shouting for a rope, but then deciding to continue anyway.

Finally the top of the ridge came, and with it the evening sun and a small margin of safety next to an antenna station, just enough space to roll over the top and look up at the sky. To the west the sun was going down, silhouetting Jamie who had moved across to follow Northcave's route off the summit. The slopes on this side were tamer, but still of questionable integrity. As the sun was going down there was little time to hang around and enjoy the view.

Mont de Grange, Alps, France (2010) courtesy of

Lack of energy meant the requirement for food. Eating hadn't been possible until then, with either hands occupied or no time to find it in the bag. Now it was necessary to satisfy this need before stowing the climbing kit and negotiating the equally treacherous path to the top of the descent, the snow on this face much the same as that we had climbed before, abeit less steep and more rocky, providing much needed support.

As 7pm approached we reached Northcave on a lower ridge just above 2000m, the haze turning to darkness, the stars above and torches dug from the bottom of each of our bags the only sources of illumination. Now we were faced with a new problem - just how were we going to get off this damn mountain?

(Big thanks to T&JG, Jim, Jules and Ginny for the accomodation, transport, cake and laughter)
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