My kitchen floor lay strewn with the essentials for a 4 day winter route on the Grandes Jorasses North face, it would be the third time that myself and Korra had packed and unpacked our bags for Rolling Stones this winter. It was not meant to be, the weatherman had been wrong, again. Myself and Korra’s climbing partnership can be best described as ‘ambitious’- we are forever discussing obscene link ups and heinously steep routes around the massif; such is the privilege of making plans with one of Europe’s strongest alpinists.
Despondent, we were plunged back in to the world of choice- what were we on? Plan D by now? It’s hard to rally when you’ve got psyched for one of the biggest Alpine objectives in the massif and then had to just scatter the remains of that hope and excitement all over the floor. As luck would have it we’d been eyeing up a route called the Gabarrou Silvy on the Sans Nom face of the Aiguille Verte. In a way it’s a downgrade from our original plan, but it would take half the time. The thing about downgrading is that it can lead you to be complacent- but the Gabarrou-Silvy is anything but easy. It’s a modern mixed masterpiece in winter, and you can count the amount of free winter ascents on one hand- quite the boast for a route that was first put up nearly 40 years ago.
The Gab-Silvy, as its shortened to when chest beating down in the valley bar, has a bit of everything but mainly it has forearm busting pitches by the bucketful. I’d dreamed of the immaculate crux pitch for years- a perfect laybacking and bridging corner system that looks like a rock climbers wet dream, and a mixed climbers worst nightmare. Completely blank for crampons but with a uniform crack that looked like you could easily drop 3 sets of cams in it in the one pitch.
Martin would join us at the last second, promising to bring some Spanish ham if he could do so. That seemed like a no brainer. Arriving late in the morning at the base of the climb, Korra did his best to politely point out that we were unlikely to get to our bivy site before dark unless he led all the pitches. It’s a healthy system that allows you to protest that you would have liked to lead the crux pitch, but also retreat in to the calm headspace of a climber that doesn’t have to get scared at any point during the day. Martin and I didn’t protest much.
As Martin and myself settled back and nattered away, the Italian machine did what he does best, the sharp end. It was during a heated debate over whether we should tuck in to the milk chocolate cereal bar or the dark chocolate cereal bar, such were the choices affecting team ‘Shit Chat’ at the belay, that I had a pang of fear that I’d left the gas behind. I could visualise it on the kitchen floor amongst the mess of hammocks, aid rack, and provisions for 4 days on the Jorasses. A cursory search in my pack didn’t reveal anything. I waited until the next belay to have a better look, nothing. How awkward.
Fortunately Martin and Korra are hardened men. Martin’s reply was ‘It’s ok we have cigarettes’ and Korra was having too much fun making M8 look like M4 to care too much. The winter bivouac was cold and hungry for all of us, but thankfully Martin had brought that Spanish ham he’d promised. I was glad that Korra had led the buttress the day before, quite how he manages to enchain so many hard pitches in winter is beyond me. Quite how he was going to squeeze out another huge day the following day was also beyond me.
The advantage of not having any gas is that breakfast is a quick affair, a handful of snow and some crumbs from the bottom of the cereal bar wrappers. Martin and myself would take the second day but as we climbed on up towards the top of the face Korra managed to drop an axe. For an experienced team we were certainly showing some serious personal weaknesses. We’d found out at the bivouac that Martin had neglected to bring batteries for his headtorch, and so collectively we could very well call ourselves an embarrassment.
We did top out though, and we did survive descending the Couturier Couloir in the dark minus one headtorch, one ice axe and with a broken V threader. That’s almost another story though. The great thing about Alpinism is that you learn something every time you head out. I learnt not to forget the gas, Korra learnt not to drop an axe, and Martin learnt to bring batteries for his headtorch. Will it happen again? Probably, after all it’s not the first time I’ve forgotten the gas.