We got off with a warning

(by Frank Winder, from the IMC Journal Winter 1952)
An ascent of the Aiguille du Peigne, 3.192m, by the Chamonix face and the SW arête, finishing by the upper part of the NW face.


The sky was clear and starry as we started from Montenvers at 3.15, but the stars had faded and the eastern horizon was already pink when we reached the Plan de l’Aiguille hut and began the trying trudge up the moraine. We had had not allowed ourselves enough time for the start from the more distant hut, or for the inevitable mistakes on a strange moraine. So the day had dawned long before we strapped on our crampons at the foot of the Chamonix face of the Peigne.

More time was wasted on difficult rock, because we did not like the look of the loose couloir which we should have taken. However. we soon regained the correct route and, climbing together, started ascending a groove running diagonally across the steep slabs which make up the lower portion of the magnificent, two thousand foot high face. Mixed climbing for some seven hundred feet brought us around to the west side of a gendarme in the middle of the face. (According to the guide-book, we should have passed to the East of this pinnacle). A steep couloir and easy ledges brought us to the 3043m. Brèche in the SW arête.

Here we had breakfast — our last meal until 2.30 the next morning. It was distressingly late (about 11 a.m.). Three on a rope was proving far too slow for an expedition like this. Consequently we decided not to take the direct route up the remaining third of the face, but instead to climb the SW arête which bordered it on the right. This was no easier, but offered opportunities of escape should time run out.

As we started the arête we realised that continuous climbing would be impossible from now on. I volunteered for the middle of the rope and carrying the luggage, leaving Peter and André at the ends to share leads. The ridge reared itself up with disturbing steepness and a succession of vertical cracks and chimneys, of grades IV and V, tried the mettle of the whole party. One steep, exposed, and delicate slab, with a piton half-way up, was outstandingly tricky. After a couple of hours of this we traversed to the left to reach a large platform below the final 100 feet, which ran up the steep NW ‘facette’.

The weather had been looking uncertain for some time, and now black storm clouds were boiling up from the South, over the Aiguille du Midi. Soon they would reach us, and distant thunder suggested that their arrival would not be pleasant. Speed was imperative. André launched himself up the Lepiney Crack (V), which ran up the almost vertical wall, slanting out over a frightening drop. A piton and a minute stance enabled him to bring Peter up, who then ascended a horrible open chimney (V). A short, pitoned artificial pitch and a difficult groove led to the summit.

Back on the platform again, a series of abseils brought us into the Peigne-Pelerins Couloir —the normal route for the Peigne. It was now 3.30, and the storm had arrived. Very heavy rain and sleet made climbing difficult, while the mountain seemed to shake with fear as crash after crash of thunder exploded above us. In an hour we had arrived at a spot near where the snow-filled back of the couloir had to be crossed. Waterfalls threatening to sweep us away now roaring down every groove in the mountain, while the air hummed with flying stones. For twenty minutes we sheltered, and shivered, under an overhang while we peered through the mist and sleet at the far side of the couloir, where the next portion of our route 1ay. We did not know the way exactly, but hoped we could find it. Very steep, and with black mud flowing menacingly over the rocks, what we could see did not attract us; but it was the quickest way down, and night was fast approaching. We decided on a dash. We stumbled one by one through a waterfall, watching for flying stones, stopped for a second under another rock, and then together made for the snow- filled back of the couloir. We had moved only a few steps when the thunder of a hundred trains coming down the couloir stopped us dead. Great black boulders came leaping out of the mist above, followed by others bigger and more numerous. Deafened and appalled we watched them pour down the snow ribbon on which we would have been a few seconds later. A few stragglers bounded towards us, dropped at our feet, and then joined their companions in that devil’s race down the couloir. Crossing the couloir was out. Anyway, the whole of the far side had been raked.

Despair as black as the near-approaching night seemed about to descend when an almost hopeless suggestion of mine — that we should cross over to the Chamonix face and descend the way we had come — was leaped at by Peter, who raced up the rocks towards the 3043 m. Brèche in the SW arete. André and I followed as another great stone-fall came down the couloir. This time the stragglers which bounded towards us had found our range, and we left the place gladly. The Brèche was quickly reached, and our chances seemed brighter — but André announced that he was almost incapacitated by stomach cramp. However he kept going and soon had plenty of other worries to help him keep his mind on other things. Nevertheless the remainder of the descent must have been a severe strain on him.

We started to fight our way across the Chamonix face. How different from the morning. Fresh snow covered everything, making the climbing highly treacherous. We were wet, cold, hungry, tired, and it was all we could do to keep moving mechanically, unthinkingly. Peter, though, had just that bit of external cheerfulness which kept despair a pitch behind . the party, but even he must have felt the same horrible uncertainty under it all. We decided against the morning’s couloir, expecting to strike that described in the guide-book instead. Too late we realised that we had missed it in the dusk and were committed to one which diagonalled across the whole face, and then dropped sheer down the North face. We left it for steep and difficult rocks on the left, hoping to be able to spot a break which would enable us to force a way back to the familiar route before night closed in completely. Horribly steep, overlapping slabs made this impossible, and after another couple of hundred feet the arrival of pitch darkness found us on a tiny ledge surrounded by hopeless precipices.

With difficulty we regained the couloir which was as steep as ever. Abseiling it had to be. Our whole two hundred feet of rope was used. As I swung down into blackness I realised that if I couldn’t find a stance and abseiling spike before I reached the end of the rope my number was up. I couldn’t climb the hundred feet up the thin rope. As we had no safety line the boys couldn’t help me — even if they had the strength left. However, a ledge and spike were found, and the others followed. The rope came down — we had now no line left for slings and just were hoping that it wouldn’t stick. Three more descents into darkness — our lamp had given out — and my feet touched snow. I was not too tired to cheer. This last time the rope did stick, and Peter ascended twenty feet to free it. Coming down again, the rope slipped off the knob on which he had placed it. He fell only a few feet, but if it had happened higher up… We found later that the rope had been cut in two places — a slight pull and it parted.

The bergschrund and the trudge down the glacier had few terrors, but the interminable moraines were just hell to our exhausted minds and bodies. The plod along the track to Montenvers was mechanical, but seemingly endless. We arrived at 2 a.m., after twenty- three hours hard going. Our dormitory was full of French tourists. When they objected to our disturbing them by getting some food, I was too tired to translate my envenomed language into French. However, they seemed to understand what I meant.

Il y a également un musée à Zermatt. Ou plutôt une morgue, car tout ce dont le cimetière n’a pas voulu, on l’a rassemblé ici sous des vitrines impitoyablement astiquées. Débris innommables, touffes de cheveux décolorés, bribes d’étoffe, boutons de culotte en six morceaux, le tout de provenance. Killed on the Matterhorn.

Naturellement, l’une des cordes de Whymper (Whymper avait au moins dix-huit cordes le jour de la conquête du Cervin) et un oeuf.” Samivel.

Leave a Reply