It’s been a few months now since I returned from my last trip to the mountains and I’m still digesting all the events that took place. Ultimately, we failed to achieve what we set out to do. But was the trip a failure? That is a very subjective question.
Back in October 2014 Wilki and I launched our speedwings from the top of the Aiguille du Midi’s North Face having made a swift ascent of a TD mixed route up the iconic dark wall of ice and rock. The flight down got us back to Chamonix less than ten minutes after leaving the summit ridge. During the flight- whilst descending at a rate of 1200ft every minute- my mind was racing as I considered more serious routes that could become our next ‘speedwing alpinism’ objective.
This last March we returned to the Alps to take the concept to the next level with two main aims: firstly, we wanted to fly off the top of more technical routes, in the ED range; and secondly we wanted to use the wings to cover more ground than we could possibly manage on foot; flying from the summit of one mountain to the base of another, and then climbing a second route before flying off its summit.
Wilki and I were joined on the trip by my brother Niall and Murray Smith (Muzz) who would be climbing as a pair; and climber/film maker Dan Habershon-Butcher and his incredibly capable partner Nida. Together we hauled sledges heavily laden with all our climbing, flying, skiing and filming equipment up the Argentiere Glacier to the refuge situated halfway along the valley. From there we were well positioned to access the steep north faces of the Verte, the Droites, the Courtes, the Triolet and various other lesser peaks, as well as the southern slopes of the Chardonet and the Argentiere. My idea in basing ourselves here rather than down in Chamonix was that we would be much better positioned to make the most of any short weather windows that we were offered, even a window as short as an hour would give us enough time to get out for a ski and short flight.
Each evening in the hut we eagerly awaited the arrival of a new weather forecast and each evening we would sit- slightly deflated but always upbeat- rearranging our plans to try and make the most of what we were being dealt. By and large the weather was by no means awful; it just wasn’t conducive to ‘speedwing alpinism’, or any climbing for that matter. The few parties that did venture out to attempt climbs invariably came back disappointed, and one or two narrowly avoided disaster when they got caught in avalanches. Impatience can be lethal in the mountains.
We kept ourselves busy from day to day with some fun skiing and a few flights down the valley’s south facing slopes. One of the highlights of the trip was watching Dan and Nida making their first ever speedwing flights, both were naturals. I remember being very aware of a number of different emotions vying for dominance within me; a responsible and caring side of my personality watched with great concern as each of them sped into the distance; overriding that, was a mischievous child lusting after a moment of schadenfreude, which in the end was delivered as Dan flew at high speed into a thick bank of fog. Our laughter would probably have just about been audible to him as his world turned totally white and he crashed into a drift of powder!
As the days slipped away and our return date loomed ever closer my plans became progressively more and more ambitious as I rearranged and expanded missions to fit all of my main aims into the few days we had left. Eventually, still empty handed, it came down to the final day of the trip and our last chance to get something of serious magnitude ticked off. The weather finally seemed to be playing ball and we formulated an ambitious but achievable plan which, if we succeeded, would make all the weeks of waiting worthwhile. Wilki and I were going to climb ‘Late to say I’m sorry’ on the North Face of the Grand Rocheuse- an ED route- then fly off the summit of the neighbouring Aiguille Verte to the base of the Courtes where we would then ascend its North Face via the Swiss route. Niall and Muzz meanwhile were going to climb the Couturier Couloir to the summit of the Verte and attempt to launch from the same spot as us. Dan and Nida very kindly volunteered to film from the valley bottom.
At 2am Niall, Muzz, Wilki and I set off skiing across the glacier to a spot where we left our skis and took only what we’d need on the climb. From here we wished each other the best of luck and set off separately, Wilki and I feeling very aware that we needed to be moving fast to remain on schedule. I remember feeling an intense pang of emotion as we parted ways knowing that if anything happened to my brother there’d be nothing that I could do.
Wilki and I moved fast as we simul-climbed up the lower ice fields. For hours on end the sound of my own heavy breathing and the small circle of torch light in front of me were the extent of my awareness. We reached the bottom of the real difficulties just after the sun hit the face and a beautiful pink alpenglow dripped down the wall to our stance. From here we could see the majority of our route; an impossibly thin thread of ice weaving its way up through the vertical cliffs of the Grand Rocheuse. We climbed quickly and efficiently alternating leads up the relentlessly steep ice and rock with only one moment of serious drama when the 6 inch wide ice feature I was climbing ripped off the rock taking me with it. After falling 8 metres I was finally caught by a stubby ice screw that I had placed as an afterthought. Had I not placed it the fall would have been closer to 30 metres. By early afternoon we were on easier ground and once again simul-climbing at a good albeit somewhat laboured pace as we were now above 4000m.
Teetering along the knife edge summit ridge of the Aiguille Verte we had a good view of the Couturier Couloir which Niall and Muzz were climbing. Based on the speed they’d been climbing at earlier in the day we anticipated they would now be nearing the top of the route. My heart rate noticeably sped up as we scanned the route and saw no sign of either of them. Had they retreated? Had they been swept off the face by a serac fall? They certainly hadn’t topped out already as we could see that the summit was still pristine and untrodden. I tried to stop worrying about them and hoped that for whatever reason they’d made a safe retreat back down the couloir.
After no more than 5 minutes on the summit Wilki and I marched down the west ridge to our launch spot, but things weren’t right. The wind wasn’t coming from the northwest as had been forecast, it was coming from the northeast. This may not sound too bad but a 90° difference meant the wind was blowing across the launch slope rather than straight up it, on top of this it was very erratic; nearly non-existent at times but gusting up to 30-40km/h every 30 seconds or so. We decided to sit and wait for a few hours to observe the wind; noting any patterns and hoping that things would improve. They didn’t. By now the idea of flying to the base of the Courtes was out of the question, we were just thinking about how we were going to get down at all.
Eventually we decided to just give the launch a go. It felt strange untying from the ropes and packing them away for our take-offs; as a climbing partnership I’m used to having an umbilical cord between us, we are responsible for each other and make all our decisions together, with speedwing alpinism the second half of the mission is carried out solo, something I’m not used to. We stood separately, going through our own personal checks and tests, lost in our own thoughts. After a few minutes the silence was broken when Wilki spoke out, partly to me partly to himself.
“I shouldn’t be doing this… I’m getting married in 3 months’ time… I shouldn’t be doing this”.
They were the words that I desperately didn’t want to hear but had been anticipating for the past few hours. I wanted so badly to fly off the mountain. It wasn’t over yet though. Wilki said that he was happy and confident to descend the mountain on foot by himself and he would do anything he could to help me launch. I asked him if he was sure he was OK with the plan and he assured me he was. I returned to my preparations and no more than 2 minutes later I was ready to go. Waiting for a lull in the wind my heart thumped against my chest like never before. The repercussions of a failed launch were terrible, I knew that, but I was confident that I could pull it off. The lull came and I made my move. As soon as the wing was up I was blasted by a powerful gust and thrown to the ground, I shouted out to try and reassure Wilki.
“I’m OK, I’ve got it.”
Slowly getting back to my feet I stabilised the wing, but just as I was ready to give it another go a second gust hit me, throwing the wing and me with it across and down the slope. I was no longer in any way in control and Wilki dived in to stop me getting dragged off the 1000m cliff I was heading for.
“F**k this s**t mate it’s not worth it!”
Wilki’s words sounded strangely distant as we finally got the wing under control. I sat defeated and appalled at myself; appalled that I’d been prepared to take such a risk, to let my ambition rule my rationale. I’ve always prided myself as someone who makes sensible decisions in the mountains. I’d let myself down this time and I felt truly ashamed of my actions. Not only had I put myself in unjustifiable danger but I’d been prepared to let Wilki descend the mountain solo, an inherently dangerous task.
Feeling very sombre, and with a huge amount of adrenaline still pumping through my veins from my near miss, we packed up and trudged back over the summit to access the top of the Whymper Couloir- our descent route. It was now getting late and the sun was close to setting, my thoughts once again turned to Niall and Muzz, they must be worrying about us, wherever they are. I was pulled out of my thoughts by an unexpected sound and the sight of two shapes that my brain couldn’t quite figure out at first; two dark blobs 50m below me that certainly hadn’t been there earlier in the day.
“You guys are a sight for sore eyes!”
To my amazement, and immense relief, the words came from Niall as he led a very weary looking Muzz up the final snow slope towards the summit. They’d been climbing for 16 hours and were massively dehydrated and hypoglycaemic, the one thought keeping them going was that the summit was the finish line; from there it’d be just a 3-4 minute flight back down to safety, or so they thought. I felt truly sorry for them as I broke the news that the conditions weren’t right for flying and we were all going to have to descend on foot to the south.
“We’ve got a long night ahead of us boys.”
Little did I know just how long.
Wilki and I had descended the Whymper Couloir at night once before, back in 2012, so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect and set off ahead of the others to scout the route as the light faded. Unlike the frozen snow and ice on the north face the snow on the south side was soft and deep making it easy enough to solo down climb; that said, a trip or slip would be bad news as the couloir ends with a series of cliffs which you wouldn’t want to fall over. After a few hours of down climbing we finally reached the cliffs and set up an Abalakov thread to abseil off. I rapped first and called up to let the others know that the rope reached the bottom of the cliffs and it was safe for the next person to come on down. The first person to appear out of the darkness above me was Niall looking and sounding much chirpier as he descended the last few metres of the cliff towards me. I’d been worried about him for the past few hours as he was clearly feeling quite jaded as a result of his dehydration, so it was a relief to see him looking more alert and energised. My relief was short-lived. As Niall lowered himself down the last few feet of rope I gave him a little warning that he was nearing the end but he clearly didn’t absorb my comment. He told me later that he had thought he was abseiling down to flat ground – the very bottom of the mountain – but the reality was that at the bottom of the cliff was another 300m slope leading down past the bergschrund – a giant gaping crevasse. I watched in horror as Niall abseiled off the end of the rope and started tumbling down the slope, building speed with each second as the time between his impacts lengthened. Before I could even properly absorb what was happening he had disappeared into the darkness beneath me.
I screamed internally.
Had I just watched Niall plummet to his death? I set off down-climbing in a panicked frenzy, my mind a mess of dark thoughts. After 20 seconds I stopped climbing and shouted down into the darkness. I had no expectations of receiving a reply but to my amazement I heard Niall’s voice rising up from hundreds of metres below me.
His voice was reassuringly strong and a wave of relief flooded over me. We exchanged a few more words before I continued my descent unconvinced that he could possibly be as unscathed as he was suggesting. I followed his path of ‘body-prints’ down the slope for 200m – amazed at the distance between some of his impacts – until I reached the bergschrund. Niall didn’t realise it but he had cleared the bottomless abyss with one massive flight before continuing his tumble for another 100m!
At this point I realised with a moment of panic that I hadn’t warned Muzz not to make the same mistake as Niall. How terrible would it be if he came tumbling past me as well! So I quickly shouted up to the other two and communicated what had happened. It was a further 45 minutes before I finally reached Niall along with Wilki and Muzz; I had had to engineer an enormous snow bollard as a means to safely cross the giant crevasse and at times I thought that Niall had had the right idea in just flying over it! Niall looked damaged. He was standing awkwardly and his face was bloody and swollen. Amazingly though, other than a very sore ankle he was indeed uninjured, the same couldn’t be said for his underwear unfortunately… no he hadn’t soiled himself… one of his ice axes had punctured through his pants and ripped a giant hole leaving them in tatters. It’s a real shame; they were a good set of pants…
For the second time that night I had to tell Niall that it wasn’t over yet. We still had a long trudge down the glacier to get to the Couvercle Hut, a little shack with beds and rugs where we could get some kip. It was 4 hours before Niall finally got off his feet and got some rest. We had left the Argentiere Hut 26 hours earlier.
Despite the beautiful weather, I felt pretty subdued the following morning as we sedately strolled down the Mer de Glace to the Montenvers station. I had been so excited about this trip and the prospect of taking ‘speedwing alpinism’ to the next level. In hindsight I would say I had been too excited, and too determined to make it work. I had been building myself up for a big fall. The reality is that ‘speedwing alpinism’ can work, but it should never be assumed that conditions will come together to make it a viable option, one should always assume that it will be necessary to descend on foot, and only if everything is absolutely perfect should a speedwing descent be considered. I was disappointed with how the trip had gone; I felt that Mammut would be unimpressed with how little I had to show for all their support; I felt I had let down my family and Lucy by taking the enormous risk of trying to launch in spite of the dangers; I felt I had been hugely selfish in being prepared to leave Wilki alone on the mountain; and on top of all this I felt that my over ambitious ideas for using the mountains as a playground had nearly got Niall killed.
So back to my original question, was the trip a failure? Well, it’s taken me months to see it this way but my answer is “No!” What I’ve come to realise over the years is that the majority of my ‘mountain wisdom’ has come through surviving bad decisions that I’ve made. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or in Niall’s case it gives you a bloody face and a ruined pair of pants. The late great Roger Baxter-Jones used to say that there should be a hierarchy of outcomes from a mountaineering expedition:
- Come back alive.
- Come back as friends.
- Reach the summit.
We achieved all 3 of the above on this trip and had some pretty cool experiences along the way. I’d count that as a success any day!
I need to finish this post with a HUGE thank you to Dan and Nida who not only sacrificed a beautiful mountain day to film us on our climb, but then had to spend the whole night that followed wondering what on earth had happened to us, and the majority of the following day ferrying all our gear down to town where we were busy stuffing our faces at a local restaurant. Dan and Nida, you’re absolute legends!
Hey Finn, I met you briefly at Base Camp this year and have just spent a weekend with Niall and Rachel at Yestival. We had a long talk about this accident, and we agreed that Niall needs to get his account written down himself before things start to fade. A lucky escape but as you know, we learn from these things and must move on – continue to push the boundaries and move forward with more experience. Loving the adventures and captivating writing. Keep us posted on new ventures! Shara