Monday, July 2, 2018

A stormy traverse of La Meije (2)

Continued: Swiss guide Sam Brawand's account of a climb in the mid-1920s with Japanese alpinists Matsukata Saburō and Uramatsu Samitarō 

La Meije starts immediately. By that I mean, there is no long boring approach march; the climbing starts right behind the hut. And as the route was easy to find in broad daylight, we gained height quickly. We slanted into the Couloir Duhamel and after a short climb came up to where the pyramid must have stood. High above us the dreaded Grande Muraille rose into the sky. That must be the entry point.

The Doigt de Dieux, La Meije
(photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

As always, we climbed in two ropes and made rapid progress up the vertical wall. Emil Steuri took the lead with Mr Uramatsu on his rope, and his nose for route-finding did us proud on the Muraille. Hold by hold, move by move, he climbed higher, without looking around and seemingly without pausing for thought, as if he’d been there any number of times. Not a foothold was out of place, I’m quite sure of that.

Judging from the view into the airy depths, we must already have been at the Pas du Chat. Good heavens, that was climbing. Fritz Amatter once told me: "Look, there are holds, just as if God put them there for you to grab." Yes, there surely were holds. And when the holds are firm, on a wall that’s tremendously steep, and the climber is hanging off it or clinging to it over an abyss a hundred fathoms deep, then you get a wonderful sense of confidence in the mountain.

South face of La Meije
(photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

At 9.30 am we were at the Glacier Carré. We could scarcely believe how quickly we’d got up the Grande Muraille. After a quick bite to eat, we crossed the glacier and reached the loose rocks of the Grand Pic.

Only now did we notice that the weather had worsened again. Heavy clouds were rolling in from the west. Things started to get deucedly serious when a nearby roll of thunder punctuated the mountain stillness. What now? We had to get off the ridge. In the flank of the Grand Pic, under an overhang, we waited for something to happen. But we weren’t detained for long. We told ourselves that it was just a joke, and in the next few minutes we gambolled over the Cheval Rouge to the summit. By the time our watches showed 11.10, we were standing on top of this magnificent mountain. And this despite the half-hour we’d lost waiting down there in the rocks because of the dubious weather.

I don't remember how long we rested ourselves on the summit, but I do remember that suddenly over there, beyond the Brèche de la Meije, a searing lightning bolt struck down onto the Rateau, accompanied by a stupendous thunderclap. We hastily packed up. No one spoke a word. We were ready to go down. I had taken the reserve rope off my backpack, glanced over at my comrade Emil and spent the next minute or two pulling the rope through the abseil sling.

We both knew that, right then, it would have been wiser to turn back and give up on the traverse. But we were young and full of ambition, we had two excellent mountaineers with us, and we stood at the start of one of the most beautiful ridge-climbs of the whole Alps. Over there, however, the Pic Central raised his godly and admonishing finger.

Men must indeed atone for their sins. Our fall from grace would become a fact when we pulled down our abseil rope. From then on, there would be no turning back for the four of us.

I was already dangling over the Brèche Zsigmondy on the abseil rope. After my comrades followed me down, we pulled it down and fed it into the second abseil sling. Just as I was again hanging on the rope, snow began to fall, dry snow just as in winter. Then it struck me that we’d really blown it. In the Brèche Zsigmondy, a sharp southwest wind started driving the snow before it. Then the proper storm broke out as addressed ourselves to the Tour Zsigmondy.

How that wind whistled round our ears! The storm howled, flung the snow wildly in our faces and all but robbed us of our breath.

What followed, I can hardly tell ….

 (To be continued)

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