Mountain Memory II

(by Paddy O’Leary, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2004)
A miraculous escape from a lightning storm on the Grépon in 1962.

Pádraig O’Halpin was almost forty when he started climbing; he smoked, and this was his first time in the Alps, so it was not surprising that we moved less quickly than was required on the Charmoz-Grépon traverse. Pádraig was an able climber and pioneer of new routes on Irish rock, besides being a likeable, complex individual. But, as we made our way up the Grade III and IV pitches of the SW face of the Charmoz, he struggled to move with the urgency required on a route which normally took 12 hours from Plan de l’Aiguille. By the time we had completed the Charmoz we were well behind schedule. Pádraig led the highly polished Mummery Crack in fine style, but I was too fretful about passing time to fully enjoy that historic pitch and the subsequent, exciting, exposed sections as we approached the Grépon’s North Summit. More importantly, I was not alert to weather conditions. We had just finished the delicate moves on the Rateau de Chèvre when an ominous rumble drew my eyes towards the nearby twin peaks of the Blaitière: a blinding lightning-stroke hit the nearer peak, followed by a loud crack and thunderous roar as looming, dark clouds swiftly engulfed not only the Blaitière but all the peaks of the Chamonix Aiguilles.

The storm would hit us in seconds. I tried to get Pádraig to move faster, whilst keeping the fear from my voice. We scrambled hastily along the next section, and had just reached the summit of the Grand Gendarme when a lightning stroke hit the Nth. Summit just behind us. We scrambled back down with the horrible, familiar, sulphurous smell of a high-tension discharge filling the air. We couldn’t have been in a worse place, caught as we were between two of the highest pinnacles on a long traverse, with near-vertical drops on either side, the one down to the Mer de Glace being over 2,000ft. Lightning continually hit towers and pinnacles all along the ridge. We sat, ignorant of the malevolent ways of lightning, with our backs against the Grand Gendarme, our feet dangling over the edge of a narrow ledge. Hail fell heavily, covering us quickly in a thick white mantle. Then, I heard – or did I feel? – the terrifying hiss as an electrical charge built up on our bodies. It seemed to me that the hiss came from the accumulation of hail so I flailed wildly, irrationally, at my chest, trying to brush it off. Pádraig looked on uncomprehendingly but I could see that he had caught my fear. The hissing went on, amplifying, winding up my fear. Then, we both gasped as a violent charge coursed through our bodies.

‘Oh, Good God’ Pádraig whispered, ‘what’ll we do’? I began to crawl for shelter towards a wide cleft in a pinnacle and was blinded by a stroke of lightning; its zig-zag line, as it shot down the cleft, remained imprinted on my unseeing retina for long seconds afterwards. When I could see again, I returned to where Pádraig sat, dazed and wide-eyed. Now that the build-up of fear had climaxed with the stunning charge, we both calmed down and peered with some optimism at what appeared to be a slight dissipation of the cloud cover. We even discussed how we should proceed when the storm eased.

Then, a crash of thunder, and a series of flashes which quickly came closer, silenced us as our fear built up again. The crack of electrical discharges, the simultaneous deafening detonation of thunder and the almost palpable odour of brimstone were together terrifying portents of the next inevitable charge. I held my nerve with great effort, partly to encourage Pádraig, partly out of self-respect. But I had never been so frightened. Suddenly, a tremendous sledge-hammer blow in the back; an excruciating internal agony followed by loud, twin moans as breath was driven from our bodies; and a quick descent into unconsciousness, told me I was dying. The ensuing few minutes (seconds?) can only be described and understood as an out-of-body experience in which so many dream-like things happened that I knew that this is what it meant to leave this life. But slowly I was drawn back to that ledge and the awareness that Pádraig too had been unconscious. ‘I thought I was dead’ he said quietly. We didn’t need to describe what had just occurred; we were both grateful that the other had somehow found his way back. Pádraig agonised for his family and brooded about his business responsibilities, which made me resentful. He had experienced a number of years of married happiness, I thought peevishly, while I was just a year married and my daughter was only two months old. Surely my need to live, and the likely pain of my family, were greater than his?

We gradually recovered our composure, empathised more with each other and nudged despair to the corners of our minds. But the gigantic, irresistible force of the storm was renewed and again approached from the direction of Mont Blanc. With each rapidly-approaching, explosive crash our fear mounted. I steeled myself with the knowledge that I had come safely through past alpine dangers, even thunder-storms, but Pádraig, who for years had not been a churchgoer, began to pray aloud and again referred to his family. I was a regular mass-goer and a typical Catholic of that time, but I regarded him with impatience and tried to calm him as his prayers became almost incoherent. The nearby pinnacles were again smote by strokes which seemed to split the dense cloud. I felt panic rise like gorge, threatening to suffocate me, and then, to my utter horror, I heard myself echoing Pádraig’s Acts of Contrition and mouthing pleas to God, to anything, any agency which would get us out of this terror. And then that sledge-hammer blow again as the electrical charge streamed down the rock from the summit of the Grand Gendarme. Our unconsciousness barely registered this time and could not have lasted more than a second or two. Our relieved, frightened laughter belied our fear and I recalled descriptions I had read of soldiers subjected to repeated, massive shelling, of their cycles of terror followed by relief, and then the renewed build-up of fear until brave men broke.

Somehow, the imperative to live asserted itself. I was ashamed of my earlier panic and aware that, in crossing that boundary, I had entered into other, previously unknown realms of experience. I realised that, in the throes of terror, I had yielded to superstition, to a willingness to ask for help from any source; a black cat, a rabbit’s foot would have been grasped as fervently as a miraculous medal or other amulet of my Catholic youth. An incipient, new self-knowledge was forming, a doubting of traditional verities, a whole new view of the world’s realities which was to develop further during the rest of that night, and during the weeks and years that followed. One result, I already knew, would be that I would never again bring to climbing that abandoned, carefree feeling of my youth; thoughts of those I cared for would impinge.

As the storm eased and then again began its inexorable, predatory stalk towards us, I was less afraid. An odd mixture of fatalism and a determination to rely on my own resources, replaced the earlier abjectness. For the fourth time an electrical charge spilled down from the tip of the Grand Gendarme and coursed through our bodies, but it lacked the intensity of what had gone before. The deafening roar, the sharp, sulphurous crack of lightning eased, and echoed, at a safe distance, from the summits of the Dru where our friends were climbing. It was getting late and it was imperative that we get to a safer place before darkness fell. We scrambled to the peak of the Grand Gendarme and attached a rope for abseiling. I reminded Pádraig of the guidebook’s admonition to stick to a groove on the Nantillon side in order to land in the next brèche, and watched him disappear into the misty gloom. I waited anxiously, crouching to make myself less of a lightning conductor. Ten minutes passed: there was no response to my shouts. The rope had not gone slack but, when I pulled, it slowly yielded about six or eight metres. Then I heard a faint shout. Above the wind and distant peals of thunder, Pádraig managed to inform me that he was stuck on a small, foot-sized ledge on the Mer de Glace face; he was below the level of the brèche and could get neither up nor down. I had little choice. Gambling on having enough slack to enable me to do so, I abseiled into the brèche while keeping Pádraig attached to the rope’s end. The ice-stiffened, hawser-laid rope now formed a sharp angle, with the abseil anchor and Pádraig at either end, and with me in the fork. Complicated manoeuvres followed, during which we had to cut the rope and managed to devise what we later learned to be an assisted hoist; during which Pádraig tied himself to the wrong rope, had a frightening fall (I thought it was to his death) and recovered with a desperate tenacity; and during which our determination to survive grew stronger.

It was dark when this struggle was over so we settled into a niche for the night. Periodically, we heard shouts which Pádraig was persuaded came from rescuers. He shouted ‘Au secour, mes amis!’ several times before being convinced that no help was forthcoming, that we should have to get out of this ourselves and that his shouts might confuse the other party. As we struggled interminably to keep warm during the long alpine night, and not to nod off for too long, we were charged once more – making five occasions in all – but this was a weak shock and just served to remind us that the storm could return. In the biting cold of the morning we were glad that the first few pitches were easy and included the wide, snow-covered Vire aux Bicyclettes, so that by the time we encountered difficulty we had warmed up. At the foot of the final summit tower we found the party whose shouts we had heard – a group of lightly-clad young French men and women, probably students, who had endured an even worse night than we had, trying to find shelter on an uneven ledge beneath the final pitch, the Z Crack. I got up that ice-filled crack, clawing at it, using knees, elbows, ice-axe – and a slightly demented resolve. On the summit platform I belayed as far as possible from a metal, conductive statue of the Virgin – a tidy metaphor for my new-found heresy – before looking after Pádraig . As he brought up the leader of the other party I threw our rope down the other side. I was on familiar ground here and was confident that we could extricate ourselves. Pádraig objected to our leaving the other party to its own devices, but I knew we had a struggle ahead and that the stronger Frenchmen seemed sufficiently competent.

When we eventually reached the fringes of Chamonix, Pádraig, newly returned to the fold, said, ‘Tomorrow is Sunday. I’m going to Mass.’

In fact, it turned out that we had lost track of time; next day was Monday and my friend sheepishly returned from church to the sympathetic laughter of this new-born agnostic.