“So what time do we get up tomorrow?” I wonder how many times I’ve had this discussion with Will, “up at 4 and off by 5?” came the reply- we’ve never made it out from a mountain bivouac in under an hour and a half, never mind, we both ignore the truth and 4 it was. There was no hurry after all, the Hypercouloir of the Grandes Jorasses lay not far above us, and we’d be enjoying the relative luxury of ice climbing in the sun the next day. The mind seemed to be a bit more accepting of a day on a sunny south side, rather than on a cold north face.
Its been a tricky autumn season this year, but a fair payback for the exceptionally good one we had last year so there’s a flip side to every coin. Apart from a few climbs up high since I came back from Pakistan I haven’t really had my eyes set on anything big, I was tired by the end of this year and the mountains of Chamonix weren’t calling me. Every day we got closer to winter was a brutal personal realisation that the summer warmth and longer days are more appealing than the horror show that is winter alpinism.
Nevertheless the best laid plans are hatched over dinner and wine, and whilst I complained about the upcoming weather forecast Will pointed out that we were just using it as excuse because we couldn’t be assed, and we both knew it. That was the meat of it really, there was nothing up high that got me excited enough to want to go and get cold and suffer. But sometimes the winter psyche has to be jump-started and ‘not being assed’ wasn’t a good enough excuse: “I’ve got an alpine objective for us, Hypercouloir on the S side of the Jorasses. We could leave tomorrow?” I texted, and a few hours later a very psyched Will was on the phone.
The appeal of the Hypercouloir was in the adventure- it’s a south facing ice line and we had no idea if it would be in or not, seeing as there has been very little precipitation this autumn and very warm temperatures. But there’s definitely something special about going in blind; no tracks, no idea of conditions, or what kind of a rack to bring. No preconceptions about how it’s going to be or if it would even be climbable.
At 4am the alarm went off, the usual awkward morning bivy ritual begun and an hour and half later we were on our way picking a line through a rocky buttress towards our route. A battery failure left us with just one working head torch under a moon-less night so the going was slow, but there wasn’t anything to stress about. Daybreak revealed a perfectly clear sky all around, the lights of Courmayeur coming on one by one announcing a new day, but we were alone up on the mountain and that’s quite a rare thing, something to be savoured and enjoyed. Part of the adventure.
The light drifted its way down the wall above to meet us, sending huge plumes of spindrift along the line with it- it was windy up above and we were going to spend a day getting very wet by the looks of things. I was on a high though, I’d been up the night before thinking about shooting steep waterfall ice in the mountains at sunrise with heavy spindfrit all around- it had just snowed and I’d allowed myself to dream up this shot. As a near constant stream of snow flowed down the gully things weren’t looking great for Will as he racked up but they were looking great for my camera. The ice was hollow, brown, and rotten. The rock pro was sparse to non-existent at times making the first ice of the season a pretty full on affair and I was glad when Will ploughed his way up the first pitch of sunbaked 90 degree ice.
Hours later as we topped out of the route on to the plateau beneath Pointe Walker it felt like we’d made the right call in coming- the route had been worthy of the same reputation that some of the classics on the North Face get and here we were taking in the view in the early afternoon sunshine. Above lay a very wind blown summit but with only a few hours of daylight left and one working head torch we decided to play the safety card and rap the line whilst we still had the light on our side.
The last purple rays of the day melted away us as we neared our bivy, narrowly avoiding an eerily quiet serac fall that billowed across our path only a few minutes ahead of us. Back at the tent there was only one thing to do, head back to Courmayeur for some well earned food and rest.