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By Mathias

Caturgeas, La Grave. 600m WIII 4.

17 January 2003 / Mathias, Sean /*** Mindblower

The winter 2003 was one of the best seasons ever. It had been cold, there had been loads of snow, and just a week or two before Sean was arriving for a weekend of ice climbing, the snow stopped and we had perfect cold and sunny weather right up until Sean arrived. The weather forecast was good, so we couldn't ask for better conditions for this weekend of ice monstrosity. We headed into the La Grave valley Thursday evening with the intention of getting an early start and upon arrival we decided to aim for Caturgeas thenext morning at around 8'o'clock.

Caturgeas WIII 4

Everything was looking promising and we packed our bags ready to roll next morning. We also managed to get a few obligatory beers in, in the local pub in downtown La Grave.

Next morning was a perfect day: sunny, cold, not a wind and with a stable feeling in the air. Excellent. Obviously the weather plays a major role in ice climbing and with all these good signs we felt really fired up for the task of Caturgeas which is a 280 meter grade III/IV, 8 pitch ice climb. The 280 meters is only midway though and although many (or most) people abseil off from here the climb does continue for another 400 meter to the summit of "plateau d'En Paris" 700 meter above La Grave. As we started the first pitch we had both options open (abseil midway or climb the lot).

I led the first pitch and was sincerely enjoying being here in La Grave with one of my best climbing partners (certainly one of the maddest!), on a climb that I had always wanted to do. Sean joined me at the first stance some 40 meters of the deck and I was curious to how he felt about the whole thing (it all looks quite daunting from below). He had never really climbed water-ice as such before although he had done plenty of winter stuff in Scotland, The Alps and Greenland. When he joined me he was just one big grinning smile and I knew we were in business! I led the second and the third pitch as well since Sean needed a bit more time to get used to it all and get the systems going. I was up for leading the whole climb if needed but Sean joined me at the third pitch and told me "I'll lead the next one if you like". I was very pleased (and impressed) because this meant that we would tick this baby in the most efficient way, as it is much quicker not having to sort out gear and rope at each stance. It would also later turn out that I would seriously appreciate the shared mental work load of what ended up being quite a full day out.

As Sean took over the lead on the fourth pitch going up to an prominent rock overhang (where the ice splits in two - we went left) I enjoyed the back seat view, but less so the constant chunks of ice pouring down right to where I was belayed. Ice coming both from Sean (impossible to avoid), but also from two parties far above us (some real early birds). This scenario would repeat itself for the duration of the climb - half the time with me trying to hit Sean with blocks of ice (some which would have taken him out for good) and the rest of the time with Sean trying to aim for really painful and exposed spots on me - often hitting the helmet full on, and fortunately only once or twice hitting the arms or legs luckily not causing any major damage. It is really ugly this ice bombardment business and is not enjoyable at all, but often it just can't be avoided. Luckily we escaped completely unharmed with a few near misses (I dislodged a real nastily big chunk of ice that was going straight for Sean who couldn't do anything but crimp together and hope for the best, and I saw it smashing right next to him, jumping over him and carrying on downwards towards the valley floor).

Caturgeas WIII 4

Back to the climb: I seconded Sean on the fourth pitch and checked his placements as I went up (as he had requested) - absolutely tip top and I was getting really fired up seeing this quality climbing from Sean. I arrived at a rather manky stance which I wasn't particularly impressed about though; little did I know, that I would later dream about a stance as good as this one!

I lead the 5th pitch which looked pretty wild going out on the left from this overhanging rock which Sean was safely covered by. This pitch was our first real encounter with the violent torrent that was the Source of all of this kingdom of ice and was still happily thundering down underneath all the accumulated ice. The water had broken through this bit and I was forced to climb right next to a genuine water-fall. This could seem like a bit over the top (we would get totally soaked), but after having seen a couple of French guys returning to the bar in La Grave absolutely soaked from top to toe last year, I thought this probably was de rigeur for this level of climbing. So I committed and swung out into a quite exposed and very wet and very exciting pitch of, probably at that point, some of the wildest ice climbing I had ever done. I felt totally in control and was thoroughly enjoying the fullness of it all. We were in perfect harmony with the climb and was in The Yoor Zone. I found a belay shortly after and Sean followed, again impressing me by a completely "just do it" attitude which Sean has always had on everything we have done together.

Caturgeas WIII 4

Sean led the 6th pitch, I led the 7th, and Sean led a suprinsingly exposed finish of the regular climb on the 8th pitch and he belayed to a couple of good trees on an obvious finish on the top of the main steep section of the total waterfall.

We were now roughly 300 meters above the valley floor, the time was around 15.30 in the afternoon and we were feeling strong as oxes and absolutely on for anything. We were faced with the important decision whether to call it a day and find the abseil anchors (not on the route), or to continue the climb. According to the guidebook continuing would mean "a bit more than 300 meters of easy snow gully". And then instead of abseiling we would walk out on the plateau above it all and have a pleasant 2 hour walk back down to La Grave just in time for dinner. We discussed the two options for about 5 seconds and were not in doubt for any of those seconds: we wanted more, and would love 300 meters of easy finish and a nice walk down, rather than a 280 meter unknown abseil. So after a bite to eat and a bit of water, I led off "alpine style" up the promising looking gully. We probably "short roped" for about 70 meters (still climbing on pure ice) before I made a belay and got Sean up to me again. We had reached a steepened section and we had better climb this in normal style. I led up it and was a bit worried that the pitch had to go without any protection, the ice was getting thinner and thinner, and the torrent more and more visible. I tried making a stance with what I had after running out the full 50 meters of rope. I started getting a bit worried that we maybe was biting of a bit more than we could chew as it hadn't been "easy snowfilled gully" yet.

Sean came up and we assesed the situation. The ice wasn't turning into easy angled snow as far as we could see, and we had no idea for how long this would continue, or if there would be ice all the way to the summit. There wasn't really anything to discuss though, so we just carried on (Sean leading). We were fully committed to finishing the climb since we there was no way to abseil back to the midway point as we had no rock gear, no bolts or anything like that. And the rock was totally shite anyway, so it never really became a consideration.

I joined Sean and carried on. It looked like it was gonna go on forever and although the ice definitely was getting more and more delicate (with the ever thundering water just below) I was really enjoying (or at least forcing myself to enjoy) the excellent stretches of superb ice we still encountered. This was truly amazing - we had already done over 300 meters of pure ice and it was still on for it! Unbelievable. Sean came up and he's attitude was exactly like mine - we were enjoying it all!

We're probably talking about 6pm when the sun had positively gone. I think we had both silently hoped that we would be out of this thing before the sun disappeared, although we were in pretty good shape for a nocturnal outing - we had three headtorches (including my latest customized Petzl Zoom with a super strong halogen beam) and we still had a good bit of food and water and I even had my down jacket stashed away in the shared rucksack that Sean The Mule was carrying for the cold belays (we never used it). On top of this when we drove in the previous night the moon had been full and it was now already starting to illuminate the opposite North Face of La Meije and its lesser peaks, and we were hoping that we could be lucky enough for the moon to turn towards us at some point and show us the way.

Just before it got time to fetch out the headtorches (the moon wouldn't really come to our assistance until a good few hours later) I was leading a really ugly pieces of ice shield. I had looked at it from Seans stance below and It was like a shield of ice forming a tube with the water flowing violently inside, breaking through here and there. Mostly one could avoid climbing directly on this relatively thin ice but once in a while you would have to accept and commit. This section had a huge open at the base and then the tube formed above it. I got myself balanced delicately and carefully on the tube trying to distribute the pressure as much as possible. The absolute last thing you would want would be for the roof of the ice tube to collapse with you on top of it, sending you straight into a almost certain death in the icy cold water. A top climbed apparently died like this last year, somebody told me earlier this year and this kept going through my mind when we were climbing these sections - which most of the remaining climb actually was. By the way since we had left the midway point we had slowly and silently accepted the total lack of protection on the climb and had to make do with only the stances as relative safety. So falling off was never an option.
Anyway, back to the shield. I was balancing on the ice only tapping my axes which went all the way through the maybe half an inch think ice. the tubes was probably 1-2 meters in diameter so they were quite spectacular pieces of ice work.
I was really worried that when I transferred all my weight to the shield above the hole it would all naturally just fall down taking with me it. I transferred one foot, moved the one axes a bit further op and as I was releasing the weight of my second foot the ice gave a little "cracck" and about at my hip level I saw a crack going from left on it's way to the right. Shit. As quick and quitely as possible I got my axes a bit further up in some luckily increasingly thicker ice, so in case the floor gave in on my feet hopefully my axes would hold. Desperate. The floor held though and I quickly got up above it and continued with some significant relief but also with some significant worry, because Sean would have to repeat this and I feared that the ice would give in on this second go (not mentioning what a fat bastard Sean is!) so as I was continuing the climb above it my main concern was finding a decent belay somewhere so that we would be safe. I climbed and then I climbed some more, and then I climbed some more and the ice worringly started to turn into thin snow with an ice crust. Totally useless for anything and even quite dangerous to even climb on. As I was assessing the situation and realized that I just had to continue Sean came in on the radio "I can only give you to- maybe three meter more of rope - the rope is in a complete tangle". Okay, shit. Well at least it made my options easy - I had to find a stance of some sort within a couple of meters. I spotted some saplings (small branches) sticking out from some rocks a bit off the route on the right and I decided to divert and go for this, in the hope that they would maybe be coming out from a bigger mother tree. I could only just reach it and to my despair it was only a couple of downwards pointing branches and nothing else. I had no option but to put a sling around each of them (two) and then burrow my axes in the muddy earth in front of me. On top this I burrowed my feet in the snowy patch I was standing on (this was maybe 60 degrees) and I radioed Sean "Sean, I'm safe, well sort of. I'm okay I guess. You can take me off and start climbing when you are ready. But don't fall off, and take care on that thin tube - it looked pretty dodgy". "Roger, off belay". It was a tense next half hour until Sean reached me, and I wont forget the ever horrible sound of Sean's crampons banging into the hollow ice. Sean made it though he was now wearing his headtorch) and carried on past me. It was a nervewrecking period until Sean had reached his stance further above and could only pray that it would be better than the one I had spent perched on this rocky slope. When it was time to move on, I gently removed my slings and quitely thanked each sapling for their assistance to our climb.

We continued climbing like this - compeeting making the most creative and unsafe stances along the way, once when Sean radioed down and said "I'm safe, sort of", I knew how bad it would be since Sean being educated on the rock faces of the Avon Gorge in Bristol (where protection is marginal and stances often require creativity) and only rarely would consider a stance "sort of safe".

The hours went on and I think it must be when we hit a 20 meter stretch of genuine snowslope where I could finally make a real snow belay and Sean came up to me, the moon was starting to shine its light to us and we had a feeling that the worst was over our spirits rose and we were both actually really enjoying this. Little did we know at this point that the real sting in the tail was still to come, but we were still feeling strong, in good spirits and never did we really feel cold - although in ice climbing you always go between sweating like a horse (when climbing) and freezing your ass off when belaying - and it must have been at least minus 10 that night although we didn't really feel it (probably because there was no wind what-so-ever - thank god).

Sean carried on above my good snow anchor - over an incredible gnarly looking section which when I seconded it was nearly swiming up forever trying to get purchase with my axes and crampons in some ugly ice cube ice surrounding the torrent. Good effort from Sean I thought as I somehow managed to get through it. I joined Sean on the stance cursing whether this stuff would ever end, and also more seriously we tried to underplay the ever lurking fact that we suddenly could be face with a section of no ice at all and only water which would be pretty much the end of the road for us. I looked at the watch and on the altimeter - it was half past nice in the evening and we had and estimated 155 meters to go. We'd been climbing for over 10 hours solid with just one rest for the bit of food and water. We were hoping that we were nearer the end than the altimeter suggested but it looked like from what we could make out in the moonlight that we were soon to enter some sort of amphi-theatre with some very steep and long sections before what then had to be the real summit. I started off again and led the next pitch with Sean on his "sort of safe" belay.

Meanwhile at down in the village of La Grave...

Sebastian and Sonja, the owners of the chalet we had booked ourselves into and also good friends of mine, was getting increasingly worried as we didn't show up for dinner in the evening as they thought we would and that we had also originally intended. As the clock approached midnight the couldn't face the worry much longer. They knew we were out ice climbing but didn't know where. It was then they decided to phone the Gendarmeri - the local police of La Grave. While the police was discussing matters, Sebastian and local ice guru and shop owner Thierry went out on the road to try and locate what climb we might be on to try and help us. They located my car standing lonely at the bottom of the layby which was normally full of cars during the day. Sebastian spotted the discrete DK sticker on the side and knew it had to be mine. Thierry, being the real expert of ice here, reasoned that we had gone beyond the 300 meter point and carried up all the way to the top, and judging from the time that we started (which Sebastian roughly knew), he was pretty sure that we either was stuck on the climb or probably more likely had just about reached the summit and was preparing the (long but safe in this moonlight) walk down to La Grave. After looking for headtorches and shouting a bit they went back to their respective beds.

The police in the meantime - being police - was preparing a rescue attempt of some sort which they lauched sometime during the night. They never found any traces of us, and must have gone home fairly disappointed.

The next morning they decided to send the helicopters out to look for us, but again they found nothing. They also had been at the car investigating "the scene" and was probably expecting the worst.

Back to Sean and me

I was just preparing myself for the continuation at Seans "sort of safe" stance. The coming section didn't look clever at all. I had often considered if we should leave the waterfall and continue up the actual rock face. But carrying no rock gear and leaving our only real sureness of direction, this just wasn't an option and we were forced to stay in the waterfall for as long as it would keep us. But this next section looked like I would have to divert. It was bascially the full on waterfall probably just under two meters wide with a bit of ice - maybe 20 centimeters - accumulated on each side above a maybe 1 meter deep vertical water fall. I would have to choose either left of right - but the right side was really just a vertical/overhaning blank face of rock - so I went for the left side which looked like it would go - vertical rock for about two-three meters with a bit of this snow with icecrust on top and with steps here and there. Above it was pure rock but on an easier angle with boulders spread our here and there. If I could make it above the vertical bit I was convinced that we would be home free. I ended up "dry tooling" this bit - carefully like never before placing my mono-points on little positive holds on the rock and half using my axes and half my gloved hands trying to pull myself slowly up and upwards. If I fell off I would fall into the waterfall. This would be a bad job. The technique seemed to work well and I managed to pull myself up it, up to the gentler slope but on the constant lookout for any gear placements. I slinged yet another little sapling, and went back into the ice fall which was now getting more solid again. Eventually I reached a steep ice pinnacle which looked like it would take a good ice screw and with that and my axes used as anchors I called Sean up. I was hoping he could get up this section since he didn't have monopoints like I do, which would make the rock climbing a bit more difficult. He came through and somehow managed to gnarl his way up it. Without much talk he carried on up the steep ice. We were later amazed - we were nearing the end of the ice and we would have ended up climbing 600 meters of pure ice all the way! That's a lot of ice! Anyway, Sean led, I was right underneath him trying to cover myself from all the iceblocks but I was totally exposed to it all and got a few nasty hits on my arms and plenty on my helmet. It seemed to go on forever but finally it stopped and a while after the "I'm safe" on the radio came and I prepared going up to Sean. Sean had actually diverted completely from the icefall now and chosen a less steep looking contributor on the left, which just seemed more like the way. I climbed up and joined Sean in the amphi-theatre that we had seen from below and - thank god - Sean was belayed to a thick genuine tree and I clipped into the belay with a relief. It seemed like we were nearing the end now. We still had at least 100 meters vertical left. We shared some food and water and I prepared to carry on. At this point it would be rather random were we chose to go (since we didn't have the main waterfall to follow anymore), so I got a real boost of confidence when I by accident saw some fresh foot prints going away from our tree: somebody had done this before us, and judging from the prints quite recently. Excellent!!! We had to be on route.

I followed the foot prints tracking them carefully and they took me a full 50 meters rope lenght up to a little bush. Pfeew, this was really promising. Sean joined, carried on, and after another full 50 I joined him at a big block of rock where he was sitting with an even bigger smile on his face than what he usually has. We're there dude. Another 150 meters vertical or so of screeslope and after that, a genuine snowslope we arrived at the summit of the plateau (quite hard work). We took off the rope after 15 hours of climbing and had a break and the last bit of our saussage and cheese. We were so pleased. Now we just needed to traverse the plateau (2h), get to the nearest village (Chazelet) and from there it would be a bit more than 1 hour walk on roads down to La Grave and to our beds in Au Vieux Guide. We arrived back at 3am exhausted, hungry and went straight to bed.

The next morning we're woken up by a very relieved Sonja and Sebastian who could tell that La Grave had been pretty worried about us that night. Damn. I was very sorry for this, since I've tried this worrying business a few times now and it's not any bit of fun. They also told us the Gendarmes had been involved, which surprised us since we hadn't seen anyone anywhere for the whole night.

Sebastian gave me a lift to pick up the car and when I got back Sean and I realized that the trunk was empty. All Seans belongings and my video camera and camera was gone! Bummer big time. The freeze had made the lock not lock, so somebody had been in there. First thing we did was to go to the police station and low and behold, there was all of our stuff! They'd searched the car in the night and found it open and decided to take everything! Interesting work model, but certainly better than anyone else taken our stuff, so we thanked them a lot. They told us about their rescue missions during the night and in the morning which we could only appreciate, but in the same sentence had to make clear had been unnecessary. It took some arguing back and forth (they were trying to get us to pay for the chopper) and I think they wanted to know if we were really competent. They asked us where we had rented all of our gear and after I explained that it was all ours and we did this as a hobby and we enjoyed it and we'd done it before (well this sort of thing) I think they were happy and we left after a crazy 24 hours in La Grave! What a trip, and what a tick. We both felt we couldn't really top this effort and decided to get some good lunch and do some leisurely boarding which we did the day after in excellent Villard de Lans (Vercors).

Things to learn from a trip like this

  1. bring emergency rockets next time in case of an accident. We had no way of bringing attention to ourselves had there been a problem.
  2. if somebody knows roughly what you are doing, then let them know not to worry and tell them that you'll take care of yourself.
  3. when indulging in a really long route maybe ask around if possible in advance to hear if conditions are okay all the way up. (we didn't have a chance to do this, since we needed to start very early)
  4. even very thin ice can be climbed

Things that worked extremely well on this weekend

  1. our climbing and total execution was flawless
  2. the chalet owner's worry and subsequent actions were flawless
  3. the ice expert's assessment of the situation was flawless (he was spot on)
  4. the gendarmes involvement was straight by book

Things that would have avoided a helicopter call out

  1. if the people in the village had left a note on the door of the dormitory saying "we are looking for you, please let us know when you get back" we would have known that they were, and would have taken immediate action (at 3am) and this would obviously have called off any further actions.
Mathias and Sean ice climbing


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