1994 on the South face of the Courtes near Chamonix just after dawn. Mixture of snow/ice fields and rock bands above and below.
Typical group of fairly inexperienced Brit mouatineers, but I hadn't realised just quite how clueless a couple of them were.
Anyway, there we were strung out across the face,5 of us on one 50m rope. Me in the middle. The guy at the end's crampons had fallen off for about the 8th time that day, and he only had one ice axe cos he thought it was cool and old school. So we had to halt again so he could try to bodge them back together. I was perched in a gully gouged out of the ice by the daily meltwater. Front points jabbed into the ice and ice axes firmly placed to stop me falling down the cliffs below.
We'd taken far longer than we should have to get to this point, Mr Crampons also had a faulty headtorch and so we'd had regular stops on the way up to fix one end or other of him. The key difference between stop 7 and stop 8 was that the sun had now come up. mmmmmM mid 90s sun in the Southern Alps. mmmmM Global warming. Even early in the morninig you could feel the lovely warming rays on your skin. mmmmM
What's that buzzing sound? Bees, perhaps it's giant bees flying past.
Click clack, click clack, bzzzzzzm
Click clack bzzzzzmmmmm thud.
Oh ****, it's not bees, it's rocks falling from the summit slopes 1500m above us. The sun was slowly melting the ice and snow and occasionaly a rock would come loose and head downwards. Each time the rock hit the snow/cliff it would impart a spin to it. By the time they went past us they were spinning and buzzing like crazy. Most of the rocks were small, but some of them clearly weren't.
And there was me stuck in this gully down which a proportion of the rocks were falling. I couldn't go on because Mr Crampon behind me was unable to move due to lack of spikes. I couldn't go back because the two guys in front were understandably reluctant to climb back across the gulley to give me slack. I suppose I could have untied from the rope, but untieing from the rope half way up a cliff/ice face is scary. Besides I needed both hands to hold my ice axes. There was a small boulder embedded in the glacier in front of me which provided something to partially hide behind. I had my rucksack hoisted as far up as it would go, to cover my head. Every few seconds it would get pulled back as a stone hit it at speed and tried to pull me backwards. The others were all looking and listening up the slope to try to avoid the next rocks that fell. This was easier said than done due to the aforementioned spinning. If the rock landed anywhere above you then it was pretty much random which direction it would bounce in. Would it bounce away from you or directly towards you?
Due to the tight rope before and aft, and the fact I couldn’t easily move in the gully, I wasn’t dodging. I was just hanging on for dear life and praying. Pretty soon the inevitable happened: I heard a succession of louder click clack click clack bzzzzs followed by meaty thud. The thud precipitated a tremendous scream that started directly to my right but quickly dissapeared behind me and towards the valley below.
Aha, I thought, that rope could prove to be problematic over the next few seconds. It’s going to come tight on me, pull me backwards and down the mountain with him. And just as it’s starting to pull me down I’ll be exposed to the full force of the next rock to come down the gully.
I was fully properly scared.
[Next installment: Cheap Russion Titantum. Is it possible to walk with a broken pelvis (if sufficiently incentivised)?]