I’d spent the first two weeks of my winter alpine climbing holiday in bed, struck down with a virus that was rampaging through the climbing population of the Chamonix valley. Luckily the day I felt good enough to get out of bed Paul Ramsden arrived from the UK – gagging for some climbing after a crap year of failed climbs and overwork. We needed something challenging, but not too extreme for unfit men with jobs and children, so chose the Messner route on the North-East face of the Droites, a mixed line that was rarely climbed in winter, but one that would allow us the luxury of going slowly and doing what we did best (Scottish style mixed climbing, suffering and camping).
True to form the following evening we were camped out just below the bergsrund in our little 1kg bivi tent, as comfortable as it’s possible to be below an icy 1000 metre face. We woke in the morning to the sound of French climbers passing our tent on the way to climb the Koenig-Suhubiette and the Lagarde, and we listened to them babble and shout while we had a lay-in, after all, we were on holiday. When we finally packed up to go Paul complained of a headache, and of feeling a bit ‘crap’, symptoms of the dreaded lurgy, but not wanting to fail yet again he chose the press on. The first third of the climb was up a snowy depression, with the climbing never harder than Scottish 4, and with good belays and runners all the way. We weren’t climbing super fast, but we were making good enough progress, arriving at a big snowfield by nightfall. Traversing over to a small buttress we dug out a brilliant tent platform and pitched our tent to the sounds of all the French teams rapping back down – obviously too slow and without bivi gear to site it out (camping does come in handy). Once brewing up in our tiny tent Paul admitted to feeling pretty bad, while I had started getting heart palpitations and an irregular heartbeat, which didn’t feel too good, and no doubt caused by my virus. The obvious thing to do was go down but with us both having a crap climbing year we just wanted to get up something, even if it meant killing ourselves in the process.
So the following day we climbed several traversing pitches across to the Lagarde’s broad snowing couloir, hoping to top out that day and get down to our sick beds.
The higher we climbed the slower we became, the mountain suddenly feeling about 4000 metres higher than it really was. With my heart pounding like a drum and bass track, I literally crawled my way up, luckily the climbing never harder than grade II. Eventfully darkness closed in again as we climbed a chimney that bared the top of the line, forcing us to pitch our tent on a jammed boulder (it’s truly amazing where you can pitch a tent). Paul looked like he was about to die, and due to a bad back he was unable to sit up, so laid half dead, his feet dangling over the drop, while I clung to my chest hoping my heart would see me through the night. Of course, it began snowing sometime later, and slowly Paul’s end became buried, his head wedged between the rock and a ton of snow – which didn’t really make him feel much better.
Morning dawned cold, and we scrapped our way up the last few pitches to the summit, glad to be free of the tent, until which hit the top of the North East spur and staggered onto a sunlit summit. I’d stood on the same summit twice before, each time utterly spent, but this time I felt as if we had no right being there, so not even stopping for a summit shot, we headed down to our sick beds.
DROUITES NORTH FACE, MESSNER-LAGARDE VARIATION (1000 metres, Scottish V 4 one pitch of 80º)