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La Garde Couloir, Les Droites

April 19th, 2006

(The ‘schrund) Monday, April 17 – LES DROITES. I had long since given up any pretenses of trail breaking. That ended during the sprint through the final mixed ice and rock step; a low technical grade but after several hours of technical climbing and wallowing to a 13,000’ summit, it was all I could do to keep up with Colin. I had asked for the rope because I was tired and I didn’t want a small mistake on easy terrain to have big consequences. We were near the top of the La Garde Couloir on Les Droites, a longer, harder, higher-altitude version of Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak in the Enchantments back home.

Dragontail is one of my most-visited peaks in the Cascades. It was my first one-day ‘light and fast’ climb; Backbone Ridge is often done from a base camp at Colchuck Lake but if you are fit, have good weather, and go light you can be on the climb in two to three hours from the car. Further efficiency is gained in climbing style; your experience level will allow more calculated risk and therefore faster transit.

In landscape of ever-increasing challenges, Triple Couloirs was a pinnacle of achievement for me. Not just in the technical difficulties, but the long walk in, the bad weather, the bad ice, the wallowing. The climb turned for me when I broke a personal rule; no falls on alpine terrain. My nerve was shaken only halfway up the face when I fell on lead, ending up twenty feet lower and upside down. When Kevin Kanning and I finished the descent we intended to walk the nearly ten miles back out to the car but as we trudged across the frozen lake late in the evening it was all we could do to collapse in the tent. A day later, sitting on the porch of Hotel Latona (our house) in the comparative warmth of Seattle with a good meal and a cold beer I gave pause to appreciate the contrast in environments and mental states.

I have since returned to Dragontail to do variations and different routes, all with the comfort instilled by greater experience (if not fitness), but remember most that first push of that 17 hour car-to-car rock climb and, later, the personal suffer-fest of exhaustion and cold on Triple Couloirs.

I pulled over the summit crest of Les Droites to find Colin in the evening sun giving me a modified hip belay. “This descent doesn’t look trivial,” he said as I looked down at rock buttresses draped with loose snow. Finding rappel anchors would involve some serious digging. It was five p.m. and in spite of the warmth of the early evening light, the air was cold and I saw for the first time in Colin’s demeanor a calculated proficiency devoid of his usual humor. He was tired. I was exhausted. We needed to get down as quickly as possible because we still had to climb over the summit of Les Courtes and find the right face to descend to the Argentiere glacier where our skis were.

(Mt. Blanc in the distance) This is where Colin more or less completely took the lead. He determined the descent, he set the rappel anchors and, most importantly, he broke trail through sun-crusted knee-deep snow. To keep myself alert and moving through the traverse over Les Courtes, which in some places is only a narrow snow ridge defined by ancient glacial ice on one side and rocky couloirs on the other, I thought about all the other long days. And I thought about other alpinists for whom this sort of route would be child’s play. Even thinking of Colin breaking trail ahead of me kept me moving; while waiting for me on the summit of Les Courtes he had time to call Camilla. And, of course, sitting down wasn’t an option; a night out would not only be extremely cold but there was a whistle and wheeze emanating from deep within my lungs and I was coughing more and more. I am now convinced, as Colin pointed out, that it was just a high altitude cough from the cold, dry air and not the onset of HAPE. Apparently some Brit on K2 threw his back out he was coughing so hard. But I don’t know these things, and what I coughed up back in Chamonix a few hours later was beyond unmentionable.

(Traversing the summit of Les Droites) With the last of the sun on the mountain peaks, we found the descent and began wallowing down a 2300′ face that was skied three days prior. I followed Colin’s miniscule figure into the growing murk as the gathering clouds faded from pink to white to varying shades of gray. Our traverse of the Argentiere glacier to reach our skis was interminable, giving me way too much time to determine that, indeed, Colin’s stride is on average four inches longer than mine.

(The summit Les Courtes in the center) When we switched to skis things were much happier. We cruised across a darkened landscape in the glow of our headlamps, ski edges chattering on tracks frozen into the snow. Exiting the glacier onto groomed corduroy, we slalomed through a mist of crystalline snow flakes. We thought we were home free but when we passed the midway tram station we found the lower run hadn’t been groomed yet. The day’s skiing had left moguls now frozen hard as cement. But with each turn the air thickened and the lights of Argentiere grew closer.

(Last light) It’s been awhile since I’ve gone that hard or that high. I won’t say ‘that long’ because the time from the upper tram station to hitching our ride was only about 14 hours. Colin says he’s done about 20 days like that in the last year. Me? About three, with one year off for a bike accident. I’m out of practice, I’m not used to making critical decisions in a state of extreme fatigue, and I’m not used to pushing my body at altitude like that. And I say ‘altitude’ like someone who normally lives at sea level and whose mountains average 6000-8000 feet high.

But here I am, in Chamonix, with about three days to go, all with good weather forecasted. And there is a sea of climbing routes both within my ability and much, much beyond.

A few more pictures.

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