Mt Tagne (6,111)

Tagne 2001


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Alan's Diary

Day 29 - Thursday 26th July 2001

see also Dan's Diary for today

photo © 2001 dan
Getting ready to go in the dark

At 2am in the morning the long-dreaded alarm went off. The clouds had come right down in the night and the stars were hidden, and there was again no moon. A few snow flurries came down. We set off regardless, having made 3 weeks of effort to reach this point. Now the route was known, it should be OK. I headed the column of five, twisting through the crevasse field in the dark and cloud, my headtorch seeming especially weak. With the new snow it was quite worrying and the obvious route we had found on the way down 5 days ago had gone. Eventually we were out of the crevasses and breaking through crusty snow on the higher part of the glacier. There had been a parallel crevasse at the bergschrund but it was now hidden by snow. Luckily we didn't find it and we reached the col in a murky dawn.

photo © 2001 dan
The top of the first rise above the col

The first couple of bulges went easily, and a snow crest led to a crevassed area. This was more scary and time consuming than it should have been, with what appeared to be a giant, covered crevasse running along the ridge itself. The glacier side was far too steep for easy movement, so we balanced our way along the edge of the crevasse with the occasional leg-in-hole incident. We went up scree on the left of the ridge and then the flakiest, shaliest rock-scrambing I have experienced. We then arrived at a flaky, shaky rock pinnacle and I made an optimist's belay. We were still in cloud and it was snowing gently but steadily. I also noticed that Dan and Andy, on a another rope, had turned back. Jon said that Andy had shouted up and that Dan was ill. Steve, Jon and I remained.

It was Jon's turn to lead and he took us across a narrow ice crest with some enviable confidence. The left of the ridge became rock again and we followed this, being more comforting than the steep ice the other side, although the rock was of the loosest kind. Ahead was the impressive step in the ridge, and it was suddenly my turn to lead again. I headed out into deep snow and occasional ice. It was a choice of either the steep shallow gully on the left, or the crest, split by a tiny not-quite-crevasse. I started with the gully, but there was hard ice under the thin surface snow, so I tried using the crevasse on the crest as a gangway. The ice there was of the lightest kind and wouldn't hold an ice screw. Every few steps I would sink deep into the crevasse. It was still preferable to the steep, shelving, avalanchy snow of the glacier face on the right. I caried on until I became totally wedged in the crevasse and unable to move up. I decided to take a belay and let Jon have a go. He took the crest confidently again, one foot on the steep avalanchy face and one on the sugar-ice wall of the crevasse. We were moving together with occasional running belays, Jon putting trust in a thread around a crusty piece of useless ice.

At the top on easier ground I caught up with the other two, and suggested it might be time to go down. It was 9am, we were going very slowly and I thought there was still a lot of ridge before the summit. The snow was gradually getting heavier. If the sun came out we would be running the risk of soft late afternoon snow, making the ridge dangerous. Even if we didn't we'd be coming back in the dark. We couldn't see very far into the cloud, though, so it was easy to imagine the summit was just over the next bulge.

Steve was adamant that we continue, Jon was mostly happy to go on. I didn't protest too much with the chance of making a first ascent right there. I hoped the bad weather would continue all day and keep the temperatures down. We had a brief rest, some cold water and some cold muesli bars. Jon now got the lead since I knew that at the next difficult bit, I'd want to turn back again.

We headed up another steep ridge, each side the huge drops obscured by clouds. The snow was falling heavily now and the footsteps behind us were starting to fill up. I lead up another steep bulge, hoping that it would finally be the summit. Again, there were just more pinnacles leading into the gloom in front of us. I had another go at convincing the others to turn back, and we had a long discussion, and were on the point of turning back. Then Jon decided to have a look over the next bulge and kept on going, so we all had to follow him up. Above was what looked like another endless series of pinnacles and snow ridges, as if the ridge would continue forever. As I came over the bulge, Jon was climbing onto a rocky pinnacle. "Can you see the summit?" I shouted up. "I don't think so. I think it is the summit." We had so nearly turned back five minutes before. Jon confirmed it was the summit, finding big drops in every direction. I took a quick picture from my own pinnacle but the camera was getting covered in snow so it had to go away again. I briefly headed up to the summit to touch it, but it seemed fairly meaningless. The problems of descent filled my mind. We had to descend our ascent route, but everything we had found hard before would be harder, on softer snow, and our footsteps had been obliterated by the fresh stuff. I was 1pm, it had taken 10 hours to reach the summit.

I prepared mentally for the huge slog of the return, keeping alert and not letting tiredness and loss of concentration lead to a fall. We agreed to take the descent with as much safety as we could provide, with fixed belays on the hard sections. We had taken so long to reach the top, it would hardly matter being slow on the way down too.

The snow was soft and new, and it balled instantly into huge clumps on our crampons. On the steep sections it was easier to face in and let the front points contact the ice below. We had let out all 50m of the rope to make it easy to pitch things if necessary. Jon and I alternated on the way down, using the protection until it was exhausted, which wasn't that long with 3 ice screws and 2 snow stakes.

I belayed on a screw at the top of the first hard section we got to. Jon was off down, but didn't get far, it seemed, before I had to follow. Below, there was 25m of rope to Steve, in the middle, who was next to some kind of protection. Face in, I had to make each crampon placement bomber, keeping up concentration, just keeping going and remembering the difficulties still to come.

At the biggest step, Jon was happy to try the shallow gully alternative, loaded with fresh snow that luckily was mostly solid on the ice beneath. It was still easiest to use crampon points kicked through the snow to the ice below, facing in, only really 40 degrees but pitching it was the only safe option. Jon belayed on a rubble pinnacle, then 50m below I found two solid screws. We still weren't at the bottom of the step. Jon finally got to to the dip at the bottom but found bottomless snow and hidden crevasses, blocking us from our original route on the crest. Eventually he found a way through and we followed down.

Now, every ice-screw removal was an effort for me, and sometimes I just had to stop and pant but without gaining much strength. My chest was very painful, probably caused by continual coughing, and every breath caused pain. I led off on easier ground, getting off the nasty snow, and the worrying loose rock from the morning now felt like a little garden path. Crampons gripped nicely into the loose rock flakes. It felt like we were nearly down.

Suddenly we had to use the snow again and it was the tricky bit we had forgotten all about, the knife edge section. Any optimism faded away. Halfway across I belayed and Jon lead through. He placed a screw and tested the snow on the other side of the ridge, triggering a snow slide, so he quickly hopped back to my side. Then he was balancing on the crest, then using the dubious steep snow for steps on the other side again, another snow stake, another screw, he looked wobbly, and then at last he reached the flaky pinnacle belay. Steve went across first, and I was worried for a second as he started slipping down the North face, but he quickly recovered. As I went across my chest and throat were still very painful, I was panting hard. Stopping and belaying had not eased things much.

Down the flaky rock climbing we went, so keen to get off this ridge. We came down out of the cloud to see the sunset below. The light went, the cloud came down again and the wind picked up as we crossed the crevassed section. The dodgy snow always slipped towards the drops. We finally abandoned our sunglasses and fixed headtorches on our helmets.

The next section was easy, but in the dark with our footsteps gone, it would have been easy to go the wrong way. At first, memory was the only guide to the route. Then the occasional drifted remnant of a footstep showed, shadowed in the torchlight and cheered us on our way. Finally the rocks of the col emerged from the dark and we sat down and rested. It was now quite cold and the rope had frozen white and stiff. Steve complained of imminent frostbite in his single-thickness boots. However, all the real problems were past and only the glacier remained. We crossed it slowly.

A faint moon was now out but it was no real help as more snow had covered the crevasses. Ice bridges were indistinguishable from crumbling snow. After the mental effort needed to get down the ridge, there was little left for this last danger. Steve, having had no opportunity to lead on the ridge, was retied at the front and offered in sacrifice to the glacier. There were dead ends, endless dead ends and Steve broke through a couple of snow bridges, dangling feet into huge caverns under the snow. We twisted back on ourselves, and sometimes the first and last man were only yards apart but separated by a 20m detour. Then finally the last of the crevasses and we could be happy, we knew we were off the mountain. It was 11pm.

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© Copyright Steve Jolly 2001.