Barry Blanchard’s story “Bubba’s Alpine Album” first appeared in Gripped Magazine in 2011.
By Barry Blanchard
“Barry, Barry!” Anne Smith elbowed me. We were in the Cosmiques Hut, high above Chamonix, sharing a sleeping platform with 20 other climbers. “Can you switch places with me? The guy next to me just tried to put his arm around me.”
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“Really?” I asked, half awake.
“Yeah, I think that he thinks I’m his wife.”
“What if he thinks that I’m his wife?”
“Can we trade please? It freaked me out.”
We swapped, the French guy turned his back on me. No more arm-overs.
An hour before dawn Anne and I crunched off across the Vallee Blanche glacier towards the Gervasutti Pillar on Mont Blanc du Tacul. Giusto Gervasutti was one of the progenitors of the game that Anne and I were going to play: alpinism. He was also one its true searchers, a man who strove to find meaning in the high, austere peaks of the Alps. If you are at all interested in alpinism, and have not read Gervasutti’s Climbs, I strongly urge you to. Gervasutti died retreating from an attempt on the pillar towards which our headlamp’s beams now bobbed. It is one of the finest alpine rock routes in the world. 800 m of superb granite, almost all of it in the 5.6 to 5.8 range with one wide crack of 5.10 being the exception, and that crack rasped some hide off of my left ankle, blood dripped into my low cut rock shoes. Higher on the route I kicked steps into snow that washed the blood away, several faint small wisps of red were left clinging to the course crystals of snow.
The Alps are peopled. Towns, roads and buildings exist in many of the high valleys. There is a great need for accurate weather forecasting and I have learned over my numerous trips to Chamonix, specifically on this ascent of the Gervasutti Pillar, to trust what the Meteo’man says. And that was a hard education for an Albertan grown accustomed to weather forecasting performed by a guy in windowless bunker who throws chicken bones, feathers and stones from an earthen bowl then enters what he ‘sees’ into a computer to be ‘modelled’. Canadian Rockies forecasts are not as dependable as the ones for the French Alps.
The golden granite dimmed to gray as the weatherfront sliced into Mont Blanc. Feldspar crystals no longer twinkled in the sunlight. It began to rain and two Swiss mountain guides, the only other souls on the route, caught us up and we all huddled against the wall, rushing into rain gear and pulling on our mountain boots.
“We’re in trouble aren’t we Barrel?” Anne’s sea blue eyes were so deep, and nervous.
“Yep, this is bad, but going up is a better option than going down from here. We are going to have to move though.”
“I’m ready.” And then she rested her gloved hand on my shoulder, “I’m glad I’m here with you, Bear. I trust you. We’ll be OK.”
Our sprint over the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul at midnight remains the most immediate experience that I have ever had with lightning. And I’m the first to admit that I’ve had far too many. Anne and I staggered through the heart of the storm. The absolute white explosions of light were spontaneous with the tearing of thunder and it was all so tactile that my lungs shook. I felt the pressure of the hits reverberate against my heart. Snow raged on the wind and accumulated into the silhouettes of the Swiss Guide’s headlong plunge steps down the normal route. Eventually even that thread of aid was erased by the snow.
“Barrel, your ice axe is crackling!” And then there was another explosion of blinding white flashbulb light and ripping of the atmosphere. Balls of electric blue light shot across the black surface of the glacier like tracer rounds fired from the underworld. And then one light. The Cosmiques Hut where the custodians were worried for Anne and me. They were waiting with the light on at 2 a.m.
In the morning, I ran my finger over the shattered plastic ferule of my ice axe. St Elmo had broken it with his fire where it was strapped inverted -spike to the air- on the back of my pack. Anne had seen the bright blue finger touch it.
The cable car’s doors clunked open and Sean Easton and I walked into the old Torino Hut on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. Stone steps trodden to a glassy sheen, wood gleaming from the grip of human hands, decades of grabbing, grooves and recesses dark with grime from the push of so many fingers, climber’s fingers. Europe is so old.
And Sean was so young, “I’m going to have a grappa.” He stated. Outside the early afternoon sun was just then slicing swaths through broken gray clouds. “It’s my first time in Italy!” It was the third week of September, 2000. An expresso for me and a grappa for Sean and then we stepped out onto the glacier and trod off for the La Fourche Bivouac Hut.
The La Fourche smells like shit. There is a lot of it out back, but the front door frames the Peuterey Ridge, and Le Grande Pilier d’Angle – some of the finest mountain architecture in the Alps. Walter Bonatti carved his name into this golden granite, his hands wrought history here. I meditated on the man while Sean brewed tea by candlelight and darkness held our wee hut that was the size of a garden shed.
Two am, the sky was clear and the air cold. We rappelled from the front banister of the La Fourche and jogged across the first cirque of the Brenva Glacier. Another rappel over the Col Moore then a crash down its rubble slopes and sprint across the serac shattered wasteland of the glacier’s second cirque. I rushed onto the lower slopes of Le Grande Pilier d’Angle. Sean followed. We were sheltered and safe standing at the foot of the Cecchinel/Nomine’, a route first climbed in 1971 when I was twelve. Walter Cecchinel and Georges Nomine’ opened the route using the new, and controversial, “piolet traction” technique – planting the picks of an ice axe in each hand and pulling up on it via a wrist loop.
“That’s about the worst piece of aid climbing that I’ve ever done.” Sean said. A five metre corner of laser-cut granite linked the first concrete coloured ice ramp to the second and my young friend had just waged war up its snowcrusted spine teetering in tied-together slings rather than etriers. The second ramp of cement ice led up and away, I grabbed the rack and thumped out into it.
Late in the day the Belgian Direct Finish hung as a perfect strip of pewter ice above us. It led into the sky and we were both excited, giddy. It looked so good. “Is this me?” Sean gushed. “Yes lad, it’s all you, now get up there and put the rope over my head youth.”
The perfection of the climbing touched me. It was like my imagination had merged into reality and my dreams had left the vault of my mind to create the ice and granite that I was ascending.
At dusk, I led onto the Peuterey Ridge and while I belayed Sean I realized that it was 20 years to the day since Kevin Doyle and I had climbed the North Face of Les Droites – the ascent that had sealed my destiny as an alpinist. I could see where Kevin and I had descended and I now know that as I brought up Sean I may have been marking the far parenthesis of my time in the Alps.
Then Sean and I began the long traverse into night. A bitter northwest wind charged into us as we pulled onto the summit of Mt Blanc de Courmayeur. I rolled into it, fought my way into my parka and face mask. We staggered 700 m to the top of France, the wind slicing into us like a leviathan blade of ice, frostbiting, dangerous. At 2 am we found the Valot Hut. We’d been moving continuously for 24 hours.
My eyes felt like they were encased in sand when I woke up, and then Sean showed me his toes. Half inch thick blisters bubbled up from the surface of half of them -frost nip from last night’s wind. “Oh man, that looks painful.” I said. “It is, but they’re taking me home.” And he pulled up his socks and thrust his feet into his boots and we walked off down Mont Blanc.
You really have to ask yourself, “What in the Wide World of Sports am I doing?” stepping into the dark and frigid Sunwapta River at four o’clock in the morning, October 19, 2010. The river was to freeze over within the week and winter had already draped the first layers of permanent snow onto the high peaks of Jasper National Park.
Ragged running shoes and neoprene socks, ski poles to balance over the rounded river rocks, my feet were numb within five steps. I staggered and followed the splashing, cursing and laughter of my partners, Steve Holeczi and Marc Piche, both full Mountain Guides, like me, but 19 and 14 years younger than me respectively.
We changed into mountain boots and cached our trainers and clomped off into the black timber to follow the primitive trail up Woolley Creek. Felt like maybe I was getting to old for this alpinism stuff as I laboured to keep pace with Steve and Marc, then again perhaps my 5′ 9″ strides just didn’t measure up to Steve’s 6′ 4″ and Marc’s 6′ 3″ ones …. nah, I’m getting old.
I scampered and panted up the trail the beam of my headlamp bouncing from root to rock while the catalogue of my mind stepped back through the years bringing up snapshots of my half dozen previous trips into the big peaks of this valley: ’81, ’82, ’83; Albi Sole, Kevin Doyle, Gregg Cronn; ’85, ’90, ’92; David Cheesmond, Jim Elzinga, my girlfriend, Michele; Mount Alberta, Mount Cromwell, North Twin, Mount Woolley. One of the gifts of longevity is that one gets to walk through one’s history. The dark corridor of the valley felt like a long hallway hung with pictures of my partners as they looked then. I caught snippets of their words, saw glimpses of the younger me, felt the touch of those past trips.
But it was dark and in the wee hours we stopped to check our position with the GPS and map confirming that it was here that we needed to leave Woolley Creek and head up towards the North Face of Mount Cromwell.
In the cold pre-dawn we stood on the glacier that foots the face slashing our headlamps left and right, and right and left trying to figure out where we were and where the start of the route was. Our efforts were as effectual as trying to illuminate the night prairie with a pen light.
“Crap man, I just saw it again!” Steve blurted, “There’s someone coming up behind us.”
“No way, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Marc said, and then we all looked back to a solitary headlamp marching up the line of our steps. Whoever it was was about 100 m behind. Steve and I echoed yodels off of the steep black walls of Cromwell, shouted out hellos. The headlamp stopped and stood and, after several minutes, retreated. Didn’t say a word. “That’s bizarre.” I said, thinking that if we all hadn’t have seen it, it could have been someone walking up out of my past.
Dawn’s dimmer switch slowly turned up to reveal a slate grey sky. The Robinson/Arbic started up a diagonal ramp of snow and ice 300 m left of us. We snapped on crampons and trucked off towards it.
I’d done some of the hardest climbing of my life with Ward Robinson and Peter Arbic in the late 80s and early 90s. Ward was suppose to be with Mark Twight and me attempting a new route on Mount Everest in October, 1988, when he and Peter made the first ascent of the route that I now stood below. The birth of his daughter, his first child, Jenna, in August of that year, had put the Himalaya on hold. Jenna now climbs rock better than her father. Neither Peter nor Ward climb in the alpine anymore … yes, I am getting older.
Marc, Steve and I soloed into the route’s “hidden gully” and the climbing was perfect. Plaster like snow accepted, and encased, our picks and crampon points with satisfying thunks. I felt secure and alive, so good to be back being an animal on the wall. Marc and Steve’s banter was unrelenting and irreverent and ribald.
“The reason that you went that way -THE WRONG F-ING WAY- is because you SUCK! Piche!”
“We all suck you simian maladaption, but be clear on this: I suck less than you suck.”
The ropes came out and the climbing rolled on. Too little ice marbled snow on the original line at the next rockband so we traversed left to more probable mixed ground. Our variant necessitated an 800-foot traverse back right to gain the route and the massive ledge that we crabbed across held enough snow to avalanche and we worked right nervously trying always to edge above the slabs and stitch the rope into rock gear.
The sky remained gun metal grey and pellets of grauple sprinkled onto us intermittently. Wind gusts scoured snow from the face. Spindrifting snow was constant. Waves of it pulsed down the wall all day long. It sounded like rain as it drummed over our helmets and hoods. The climbing was fun and run out, never harder than grade 3 ice or 5.6 mixed. Crusty snow clung like mummified flesh to an emaciated skeleton of ice. Occasionally it took a short screw, but most of our protection was on rock. At 5 pm we traversed onto the glacial slopes that top the route and at 6 pm we stood in a col below the summit.
We had a minute stove, but no bivy gear. The half hour climb up the ridge to the summit was not in the cards. I downclimbed into the 3,000 foot descent gully falling to the south. Steve and Marc followed.
“SLAB! SLAB! SLAB!” Steve bellowed in and ascending scale of volume. I looked up to see the small carpet of windslab glide from its 10 centimeter by 10 m crown. It chequer-boarded into one foot by one foot squares that vibrated into white dust as they accelerated. The avalanche whispered by 5 m to my left. “If you must kick off slabs Steve-O, better that they are small ones.” I said.
At dusk we walked onto the glacier below the East Peak of Mount Stutfield. At 9 pm Steve said, “I have to eat.” And we sat in the moraines and cooked and ate and drank.
“Let’s do it here,” I said. 11 pm and we had just entered the timber. We collected a bunch of dead and dry wood and started a fire. The three of us bracketed the flames like sleeping cowboys. We kept the fire going all night.
“Every time I woke up to feed the flame I’d see you asleep with the smoke streaming straight into your mouth.” Steve told me, laughing, in the morning as we sat to large breakfasts at the Saskatchewan River Crossing. I’m still finding pencil tip, and pin prick, sized holes melted into the clothing that I wore, and the pack that I slept on, that night. It was a fine adventure in the company of good men. I’d traversed into my youth again … alpinism.
-Barry is one of Canada’s most accomplished alpinists. He lives in Banff.