- Thursday 19th March 2020
Alpine climbing requires a series of decision-making processes. Stewart Moody reflects on this.
I walk into the dining room and sit at the table with my three friends Paul, Olly and Phil; we don’t speak. A few moments later the French Guides enter and gather by the kitchen door where the warden stands. The Guides look like shaggy dogs; long hair protrudes at all angles as they rub the sleep from their eyes. They have deeply tanned faces and are dressed from head to toe in the finest soft shells. They glance at each other and murmur conspiratorially. It is 3:20am in the Conscrits Hut which at 2,580m high sits amongst some of the more modest peaks on the flank of the Mont Blanc Massif.
I don’t understand a word the guides say, but I watch them closely for nods or shakes of the heads to betray their intent but I understand their predicament. It is the same predicament that I face. Do we defy the elements and attempt a traverse of the Dome du Miage, or not? Personally, I want to claim one more route before heading home to the UK. With my friends I’d already stood on the summits of Pointe Isabelle (PD+), The Index (AD) and the Aiguille du Tour (F). This is the last opportunity to achieve that sense of achievement and isolation you find on the summit of a big mountain.
Most of the other residents of the hut have Guides; as far as I can tell we are the only non-guided group. I’m nervous, and with that emotion comes a feeling in the pit of my stomach like I used to get before exams in high school. The door to the terrace opens, there is a blast of cold air and the sound of rain is clearly heard. A Guide goes through the door and disappears into the darkness leaving his clients at their table. Through the huge windows I can see that the surfaces of the tables outside are soaked, like someone has hosed them down. I look at my companions and then return my focus to my bowl of cereal. It’s good cereal, but I’m not enjoying it. I finish the last mouthful and force down a mouthful of hard rye bread. If we do go for it I know I’ll be grateful for this meal.
No one in the dining room seems keen to move, least of all me. I make passing eye contact with a few people and share a few bonjours. I wonder if they are looking at me and thinking the same thing that I’m thinking when I look at them: “What are you going to do, and when are you going to do it?” I feel no pressure from my friends for we are all in the same place mentally. The route we want is graded PD or PD+ depending on whose book you read. On the grand scale of things it should be a pretty straightforward ascent. But we are not career Alpinists and this turn in the weather has destroyed the confidence we’d built up over the past three ascents.
It seems wrong that my own decision will be steered so strongly by the decisions of others. In a way I just want them all to go back to bed. Then we will do the same, like sheep following the flock, but knowing that even the Guides deem it too risky. I feel like a fraud in their company. With only a couple of annual two-week trips to the Alps and a few modest summits under my belt, I feel out of my league. I’ve not had to make this kind of decision before but if some of them do gear up and head onto the glacier, what would we do then? Rely on their experience and pray that conditions don’t get any worse, and perhaps complete our route. Or wait for daybreak to head back down to our campsite, forsaking our thirst for one last summit. “Isn’t this supposed to be fun?” I ask myself.
A British Guide we shared our dinner table with last night, walks purposefully through the door to the terrace. There is another blast of cold air. The rain seems quieter, or certainly less intense. The dining room is emptier, I wonder what decision other people have made. I walk down to the gearing-up area, the big doors are open and it is cold. I see six or seven people gearing up. Whilst some strap crampons to their packs, others attach headtorches to their helmets. They are going for it, I head back upstairs and wait a little while longer.
We put our empty breakfast dishes back onto the tray which is cleared away by a Nepali kitchen hand with a big smile. I look again at my cheap Casio watch, 3:39am. The longer we postpone making a decision the more dangerous the ascent will become. If we are to go, we need to go now to ensure good snow conditions. But what are those snow conditions like now? The rain that has been drumming on the windows all night may have fallen as snow higher up, covering crevasses. The well-trodden trench leading up the mountain may have vanished making navigation harder. Both of these concerns may be true, I just don't know. Experience is my Achilles heel. I’d much rather attempt a harder route in ideal conditions than an easier route in poor conditions. Maybe I’m not alone in that.
I walk out onto the terrace again and see some headtorches heading up towards the glacier. As for the weather – same, same – but it is only a light drizzle now, things are looking up but in the back of mind a switch is thrown. Without a conscious thought I know that I’ve abandoned my plan to climb the mountain, and that is that. No matter what my friends decide is right for them I have made my decision; I feel that a weight has been lifted and smile. Don’t get me wrong, I’m disappointed too. The route looked superb and I feel that I’ve been robbed of it.
The others agree, and in a way, they all seem relieved too. As a group we decide to go back to bed until 4:30am and then decide whether to tackle the easier and shorter route up Mont Tondu (F). I clamber back into my bunk. The lights are out, the room is dark. I think back to a chance meeting with a friend in a Hathersage gear shop a few days before I left the UK. An experienced Alpinist, the last thing he said to me was: “If in doubt, leave it out.” Those words echo in my head and drown out the occasional sound of crunching rock under the crampons of those heading up to the glacier. Flashes of headtorches through the open window dance briefly on the ceiling. I don’t worry any more, my decision has been made and I’m pleased with it.
I rise to the sound of a mobile phone alarm at 4:30am and go back out onto the terrace. Nothing has really changed, there is drizzle in the air. The sky is getting lighter, and I can see all the summits shrouded in cloud. My friend Paul joins me, we ditch the Mont Tondu plan, and I go back to sleep until 7:30am. Despite the snoring of my companions, I sleep really well for those three hours.
The dining room is pretty busy and Olly buys me a mug of instant coffee. It appears that many people made the same decision that we did. They too are drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Being part of that majority makes me feel that I made the right decision and I feel good about that. But in hindsight, I’d have made the same decision even if I saw that we were the only group staying behind.
It’s now 8am and as I scribble these words onto a small notebook I carry around people are slowly leaving the hut in drips and drabs, heading back down to the valley. The French girl who runs the kitchen is making small talk with Paul as she stacks benches on tables and sweeps the floor. She asks us to adjourn to the small library so she can clean the room and we oblige. The British Guide and his client wave goodbye. The hut suddenly feels very empty and I want to leave. Half an hour later we too were on our way down to the valley with no regrets.