(by Fergal McGirl, Brian Rowe, Martina Walsh; from the IMC Newsletter Spring 2001)
The thoughts of three individuals who set out to climb some frozen waterfalls in the French Alps , in a place called Celliac, which is a delightful valley about one hour south of Briançon, on 20 February last.
Tom & I descended into Celliac at around 5:30pm delighted to have completed “Holiday on Ice” without the aid of the excessive bad language that had accompanied the climbing earlier in the week.
Seeing that our heroes had not returned we left an explanatory note fashioned of twigs and branches on a snow embankment beside the car, which read something, like “gone pub”. Meeting up with Hugh (who had spent the day skiing) in the local bar we pondered life, climbing and the relationship between beer and olives for a couple of hours until darkness fell and our companion’s absence became more pressing (Martina had the keys and we were getting hungry).
Wrestling ourselves from the barstools was further complicated by a young barmaid who found her way to issuing us with bières gratuites. Grrrrr! “Where were they?!” By the time we got back to the car it was after eight o’clock with no sign of the errant pair. Being the youngest and therefore the one most recently qualified with leaving certificate French (only 13 years ago), I made my way to the nearest house which by chance was occupied by a guardian for a group of chalets, who was familiar with the area. Explaining the situation with broken French and fluent helicopter-like gesticulations, I got him to contact mountain rescue who usefully explained that starting a 300m ice route, which was rapidly going out of condition, at midday, wasn’t a great idea, and that they weren’t really surprised that the pair were missing.
The guardian, also suitably unimpressed with the ambitions of the duo considering the conditions was curious as to whether we had encountered any others out climbing. I was about to confirm that we had met a couple of other parties during the day when it dawned on me that the other parties consisted of other Irish who were happy to have a go at the rapidly decaying climbing matter. (Fortunately, my French at this stage didn’t allow me to communicate this).
Mountain rescue on the way, I prised myself away from the guardian (who was developing an increasingly schoolmaster-like demeanour) to go and check for progress with Tom at the car. On approaching, a ringing Galwegian bellow informed me that the pair were safe. The rescue was called off with much hiberno-french relief.
I had, I must admit, had the mountain rescue on stand-by once before. One of our first Alpine routes (Le Petit Dent de Vesini in Arolla) took us 18.5 hours instead of the 7 hours predicted and we arrived back at 11:30PM. Rescue had been called This embarrassment was never to happen again. Fergal and Tom however had not been informed of this and come 8pm Fergal was imparting information to a man on a phone who was asking embarrassing questions passed to him from a rescue centre in Briançon – "What route were they climbing …?" "Hmmm … I think they may have been heading for something called Chaos" "Did they realise it was out of condition … ?" "Well no, but sure there were lots of Irish climbers!" "What time did they leave?" "Could have been around midday …" "Were they experienced ice climbers?" "Three days experienced …" "Did they have torches?" "I don’t think so …" "Did they have a guide?" "They’re from the IMC …" (*See above for true account.)
Brian Rowe on Formes Du Chaos (photo Martina Walsh)
I was singing “Spancil Hill” or at least the two verses that I knew. It was echoing around the cave in a most spirit lifting way. I was, however, in competition with the waterfall that plunged down the cliff and was swallowed up in a huge gaping hole between rock and ice. The 15m wide rock-walled gorge widened at this point to include a large cave at either side. There was only a few metres of ice remaining at the side of the waterfall. The right-hand side was incomprehensibly steep. It was said that you could judge the conditions of the route by the size of the hole in the ice at this point. The size of the hole today read “Poor” loud and clear.
Martina arrived over the bulge and stumbled into my cave “what the xxx?x are we doing climbing an unfrozen waterfall? This is crazy!” The pitch, a full runout, had been dramatic. It started with a chaotic curtain of ice chandeliers 15 metres high. Obviously steep, there were more excitements to come, as a diagonal traverse was required directly above another gapping ice hole on lumpy vertical ice. Above this was a chimney and a second committing move out onto the face before moving up through easier ground to the cave.
So, we’re in this cave beside a raging waterfall having climbed one of the scariest pitches we’ve encountered and our notes tell us there is no going back. It’s a serious place we now find ourselves, resembling little the picturesque and friendly environment of the climbs we had completed two days before only 200 metres to our right. These had been made up of relatively short sections of grade 3 ice steps followed by long sections of ice gully. Views out across the ski slopes and mountains were framed by pine trees that reached up into blue skies. Company was jovial and all was well! We were expecting a similar experience – a little longer…yes, – a little harder…yes, – however, this was a harsher world of blank rock walls, cold ice and roaring water and dusk was drawing in.
The next pitch was less steep but just as scary for all the wrong reasons. The two to three metres of ice left for us to climb gave few options. Where the ice met rock it was solid but bubbled in large lumpy overhangs. Hard technical climbing. The path of least resistance and the route obviously taken by previous parties took the line beside the fall itself.
Moving up I realised that the ice was only one or two inches thick and the water could be clearly seen gushing down the other side We were climbing on lumpy glass. With slinged ice pillars and numerous ice screws I riddled my left side with protection. Delicately I tiptoed on the edge of oblivion with every expectation that my world was about to collapse. A full fifty-metre run took me to a few old rusting bolts, which I backed up with my last ice screw and got settled in. We were both moving slowly, Martina seemed to take forever. It was cold and the ropes were getting stiff. From my perch I had a rock-tunnelled vision giving me a slice of the world beyond and it wasn’t looking so good: gone were the toddlers skiing the baby slopes on the valley floor, still were the chairlifts that feed the baby slopes, gone were the cars that had filled the car park. By the time Martina arrived the day had slipped away and we were in darkness. We were not really sure how much we had left to climb. Night swimming upstream in a cold river of ice. Lovely.
Night ice climbing or "Glace en nuit" as we’ll call it, is I think, a very under-developed and under-appreciated sport. A good head-torch as provided by your climbing partner (as you haven’t bothered to bring your own) and you’re away. It’s a good reflective surface and sure it doesn’t really matter where you place your axe in this game as long as it sticks.
One easy pitch, a full runout in pitch darkness brought us to the base of a steep section – This is not what I wanted to see but 10m of grade 3 gets us to the first tree trunk we’ve seen all day. The top! We follow the obvious track to the right expecting to gain the autoroute and an easy plod within minutes – 40 minutes of stumbling and we get a strange feeling of déjà vu. Yes – we’ve been here before – three pitches up a climb we did 2 days previously. We now have three options:
- Climb the next 2 or 3 pitches of this route – too hard, too tired, too dark.
- Backtrack and try and find our path – don’t know the way, or
- Abseil off – this is the obvious choice as we know the ground and there are good ab points.
So – we choose option 2????? And spend another half hour meandering around steep wooded slopes trying to weave a path through cliffs until we eventually find our route home to our thankful friends. Our second rescue alert is called off.
It was a slow, hesitant start. Unsure of what areas were in condition, we hadn’t arrived in Celliac until midday and then the only suitable route was in dubious condition. We’d been told to look at the size of a hole in the ice 2/3rds of the way up the waterfall – it was rather large – but it looked as if there might have been a way up on the left hand side. We hummed and hawed….“Sure we’ll go up and have a look” – we knew that there was a bolt belay at the top of the first pitch – so lowering off was an option…not a very determined start…
There was another party on the route – a group of three or four. Ice was being knocked down by them – a lot of ice But the first pitch was away from the firing line – worth checking out. Off we went – the 1st pitch was lovely. 25 metres on solid thick ice on the right of the main fall – the description said that this was the only "normal" part of the climb – how true that was. “Thunk thunk, Thunk thunk”, as axes and crampons sank deep.
“Move out to the middle of the fall” – “Are you crazy?” – At the middle of the fall the ice seemed millimetres thick and the main flow of water gushed down behind it. There was a delicate traverse to the left-hand side of the gully. It was beginning to get very noisy – there was no chance of hearing the leader’s call. 2 tugs – Safe, 3 tugs – Climb when ready. A steep vertical section led to an easier snowy area and what a sight… an enormous vertical wall of chandeliers of blue ice 15 metres high with a huge pool below. The sound of running water was thunderous at this stage and I was wondering, “What the hell am I doing here?” My second thought was “If we hadn’t climbed up here I would never have seen this…” It was amazing!
Our description read that there was no going back now! Oops! So there was nothing for it but to climb the wall. “Traverse left over the pool of water and climb through two ice chimneys” – absolutely terrifying. If you had fallen at this point – you would have been either swimming in the pool or hanging over it (from an ice screw) with nothing but the rope to climb – Not good! I do not remember ever being so petrified.
Standing above the pool on my frontpoints – I was taking out an ice screw when the ice broke and the screw fell. Forgetting the gaping hole below me I thought – “Oh no! – Brian will kill me if I lose his new Black Diamond screw.” Looking down I saw the screw was delicately balanced upon my foot and I managed to pick it up with a crampon point. This incident brought home how precarious the placement of ice screws is – your weight is hanging from a single axe, and while you fumble with your ice screw your second axe is merely hanging from the face – if dislodged you would be unable to continue and you would be unable to return home as Big Seán McMahon would kill you for losing his axe.
The art of placing and removing ice screws had been a subject of much after-dinner debate in our male-dominated chalet.
Fumbling with mittens I got my axes back on my shaking hands and started up again. The ice was brittle, shattering when the axe was plunged in. Safer to look for previous placements or holes in the ice. I arrived at the belay point – blubbering “What the…? How the…? This is insane!” Brian grinned – “Fantastic isn’t it.” We were in a large cave on the left of the gully – the formations were just incredible. The waterfall was spraying through the large hole beside us. There was a five metre high icicle hanging a few feet away – I wondered how long it had been there.
And off he went again – “Do you want to lead this one?” “Are you out of your mind?” 3 metres up – “oh eh – this is a bit watery” – diagonal traverse over the hole – “Oh my God – What if it all comes down – it is only frozen water after all” Up and up he went – out of sight – up and up and up – it was getting really cold. I was hopping up and down on my belay to keep warm. It was way past my lunchtime, the day was nearly gone. Finally two tugs on the rope “Oh Thank God” – it was really dark now – up and up and up and up another terrifying traverse over a huge chasm separating the cliff face from the ice – “the ice is really thin – water is really loud – it is dark – it is vertical – I wish I wasn’t here”.
I think I’m coming off. I yell “Tight rope”. “Phew” I didn’t fall. Rope snagged: I’m pulled backwards. The shapes of ice overhead were incredible: “I hope they don’t fall off”. Brian had earlier knocked off a large lump, which had shattered the icicle at the last belay point.
Finally, I reached the belay We set off again – a full rope length passed quickly – we found ourselves at the base of yet another wall – this time about 10 metres high. “This has to be it” – Thankfully it was not too steep – but very thin. We had one head torch between us – “I hope the lads don’t get worried – let’s find the track down.” We followed a set of footprints that led to the base of another cliff – “this can’t be it” – neither of us could face climbing anything else. Aha – more footprints – we were wandering through the forest on very steep ground for some time until we popped out in a gully – “Hang on – this looks familiar” – sure enough – the third pitch of a climb we had already done “Holiday on Ice” – Doh!
Dragged back up the mountain: the ground was so steep that we had remained roped up, and kept falling into holes as we made our way through knee-deep snow. Up and up we climbed – finally a path – this is the GR54 – and so down we went and down and down until finally we could make out a solitary car in the car park and a torch flashing at us. Aha, the trusty Tom. So much for guidebook time!