Mortality and the Mountains

chamonix crossI wrote the following while sitting silently in a 1930’s mountain hut in chamonix, the Covercle. Wedged under it’s sheltering turtleback of granite, it has seen all come, seen all go. Ghosts. Streams of afternoon light deflected from the Grand Jorasses lit motes of dust, dancing across weathered wood, between light afternoon showers. Lying outside, I relished the marmot’s cheeping, and, with the valley to myself, sketched the twisting cumulus and serenely spilled light, as the sun worked its way behind the envers du chamonix. That morning I’d climbed a variant of the Couloir Angelique on Les Courtes S face, waited for some solar softening, and descended it on a snowboard. Not being very obvious, or in a well traveled area, it was probably(improbable as may sound in Cgam) a first ..also however as it was not very appealing. The wait for a slight softening of the rock-frozen face was a compromise against the steadily increasing rockfall, occasionally whining in the far, or near , distance. The top 70m was a mess of rock steps, bisecting a steep ice sliver, and took a hugely disproportional time to negotiate, mainly downclimbing on board, with some hop turns and one actual, sketchy downclimb, amongst amazing pink quartz crystals-mines of moria stuff, prims of light. A rock hit the end of my board as I transitioned, my torso sheltered by a slight overhang. The rest of the line was still locked solid, and involved
occasional cut outs to shelter when glances behind showed plummeting rock. Most sobering however was the wait beforehand, felling very small, very alone atop a ridge, cloud tendrils occasionally revealing the one way out I’d let myself. no-one had eyes o me, and by this late stage of morning, it turned out all had quit the valley, my friends included. I was feeling somewhere between transcendental and doomed as I safely reached the hut at one o’clock in the afternoon, and don’t believe I have ever passed such an odd afternoon. I still had some time left to finish my self-imposed Chamonix sentence…after a friends accident early on, this is the best word I can use to describe the constant oppression I felt from the mountains… for example, the next morning I expected to solo and snowboard the Whymper couloir. There was no-one to share my thoughts with. As such, I was definitely was feeling morbid enough to pencil the article below the photo;

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couvercle refuge

HEAVY

Jamie Pierre died. Sarah Burke died. The immortal superstars of skiing.
It’s been a heavy season, someone said.

It sure was.

Jimbo, playing strictly by the rules still got avalanched in
Colorado, and was injured. His partner Andre died. Later I
discovered he was the friendly Aussie snowboarder I’d once met,
quick to grin, radiating vitality. It was too brief an encounter, but left
a strong impression. The phrases “full of life”, or ”genuine”
slipped their cliche and became flesh, applied to him. It seemed
impossible. Rest in peace, Andre.

The famous Steven’s Pass backcountry avalanche claimed three locals. I wasn’t around but knew people who had known people, and well…turned out I’ also met one of the victims a year prior.
Shortly after a great day touring with Russell in Switzerland, he was
involved in a class 3 hardslab in the Aosta Valley. Russell Braddock.
Mountain mentor, my ski patrol educator, guide extraordinaire. The very
epitome of applied knowledge and caution. At Russell’s age (well
matured, like the fine french cheese he undoubtedly consumes daily), or indeed at any age, a knee ligament is no huge price to pay for
such a ride, it seems many of us have been relatively lucky this season…

For a while it seemed everyone I skied with got hurt. Tom slipped off a
frozen waterfall as we traversed in The Dive, Sunshine, Banff. It could have
been me, the ice hidden under fresh, but without skis on I would’ve
traveled much further. You might say he was fortunate, stopping just
shy of the largest cliffs; if the butt of many jokes, after 13
stitches to a torn anus.
Mikey slipped backwards while following my skin track, and put his shoulder
out. The day was over before it began.
And Ally almost died. But that was near the season’s end…

Earlier: Wiping snow from my goggles, I was waiting for my friend
John…Irish and
not used to deep December fresh…when I noticed a cloud drifting down the
gully below, fading fast. Surely not an avalanche? The new snow had bonded
well and would need a strong trigger. We rode down over messy rubble. A
tree had snapped under the weight of fresh and sent a large sluff to choke
the gully.

Matt and I were heavily sluffed in Aemmer’s couloir, Canadian Rockies.The
anticipation, upon seeing snow (and the guided party ahead of us) tumbling
from so far above is very similar to the apprehension felt spotting a large
set looming on the horizon while surfing.
The fear was with us, and just as when surfing we scrambled for safety,
silence thick around us, time slowed. The fear was realized; I glanced up
just in time to watch the powder cloud burst up over the rocks and our
heads. We clung to the rock.
The debris trail afterwards trailed over cliffs. Matt elected to sit the
rest of the day out…but me, I’m used to it. It’s been a heavy season.

Indeed, I did take my first ride ever, and this one, as opposed to Aemmer’s
(initiated from an invisible hanging snowfield, catching all the sun
we were trying to avoid) was stupidity. Snow fell, silent,relentless. My
frustration at not achieving anything I’d wanted from Cham first time around (Dec-Feb)was chafing, and
I knew I could handle the regular soft slabs breaking off under my feet,
from every wall, in the GM tree chutes. Second solo run in, my
presumptions were shattered. Speed was my friend as I cut a slab loose
exactly where expected, and onto the safe rib, but suddenly not so safe –
the rib ripped. fighting my way out 50m down I reflected what a
stupid place it would
have been to die, alone and unhappy. I went home.

The spell in the Rockies seemed relatively relaxed, torn anuses and
brushing avalanche debris from collars excepted. Then, like a fool, I went back
to Cham.
Of course, people had died before I left. It’s Cham, they say, a death a
day. To ease back into it, a climb and ride of the Mileau glacier on
Aig’ Argentiere hit the spot. Afterwards, we read a Norwegian skier had died
on the same headwall a week prior.
The next day out was Cosmiques Couloir. My ski partner Ally lost his edge, his
ski, and took a climber’s fall over 700m of hard snow, rocks, ice. The snow
was such it took me, I suppose, ten minutes to reach his body, and that was
self arresting constantly with an ice axe as I rode down. To my
astonishment, he was
alive. Prayer works. The heli was there inside twenty minutes, and in
hospital that night we had a long heart to heart – life, death, mountains, at
least as intimate as any I’ve had with my very best friends. It was that
close.

Three days later, Will got heart palpitations – Tachycardia -as we
neared the top of Mt
Blanc. Scarcely had he recovered and we’d again broken cover when we
had to deal with the incoherent collapse of our third member, brought on
by altitude and fatigue. For myself, the second chopper involvement within
days. Ally and Paddy were both lucky to be amongst these alps, rather than
our remote southern variety.

Last week, I brought down a ski I’d found on abseil, wedged in the choke of
the Tour Rondes’ North Face. Sure enough, it proved to belong to the Italian
who’d fallen, and died, skiing the same line a week prior. His ski is
now with his friends.

Yes. It’s been a heavy season.

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About ruari

a lover of the beauty of the mountains, coast and other wild open spaces. An adventurer and high-level snowboard freerider / snowboard mountaineer
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