Cascade Climbing In France

In this book I have given special prominence to the laws that govern gravity.

—Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

For almost two decades the commonly held conceit among North American ice climbers has been that they set the standard for the esoteric activity of climbing frozen waterfalls. Even European climbers seemed to agree, many of the best of them making a pilgrimage to Canada to do such classics as La Pomme d'Or in Quebec or Weeping Pillar, Polar Circus, and the like in the Rockies. But a trip to France in 1992 convinced me that the Continent is once again spearheading a revolution in yet another form of ascent. Just as with alpinism and sport climbing, intense pressure from a large climbing population, coupled with truly extensive waterfall ice in many of the Alpine valleys, has revealed a treasure trove of outrageous routes.

Recently, the main employer in the small industrial village of L'Argentifcre La Besee closed its doors, leaving the town in financial difficulties. Consequently, the town fathers have welcomed the recent influx of ice climbers, In January 1992 they hosted their second International de la Cascade de Clace, an annual meeting of ice climbers, media representatives, and spectators.

Arriving from Colorado late on a Friday night after a long journey by plane, train, and automobile, I caught the tail end of the first evening's talks and movies at the Mai son de Ville. When the lights came on and the crowded hall began to empty, I ran into Thierry Renault, one of France's best all-around climbers. He invited me to join him on an area classic, Cascade des Viollins (III, Wl6 in the new guidebook) the next day,

In his mid-thirties, Thierry had the unquenchable desire for difficulty that usually characterizes a younger man. For several years he had been searching for the most radical ice climb he could find. In excellent English he conveyed his passion for this aspect of climbing in terms I could fully understand. His enthusiasm nearly reached the intensity of a feverish disease. Unfortunately for me, it seemed to be communicable, and in the next few weeks 1 found myself with a full-blown case of water ice fever, something I thought I had become immune to years ago.

Even jet-lagged and fatigued, I was able to appreciate the boldness of Georges Chantriauxs 1982 solo first ascent of Cascade des Viollins. The initial 250 feet of 80° to 85° ice lead to a 130-foot, free-standing "cigar," which Thierry led. At the top of the Chantriaux route, Thierry and I made the first ascent of a two-pitch variation up an easy ice face and two tiers of thin, vertical pillars. The last pitch was mine. It began with thirty feet of delicate, pigeon-toe frontpointing up a free-hanging fang and finished with forty feet of unprotected stemming between a vertical rock wall and a curtain of poorly bonded icicles.

Saturday evening the participants (who had come from all over Europe, as well as the handful of us from farther away), along with an estimated audience of two thousand, were treated to a spectacle on the hillside at the edge of LArgent 1ère la Besée, Here water had been diverted to ice-coat a couple of crags, creating the stage for a morality play, complete with lights and sound effects that would have done justice to a Broadway production. The drama ended with the hero battling the devil as he and the heroine escaped up a fifty-foot, 75° slab of ice against a backdrop of fireworks. C'«i fantastique

On Sunday I was dragged out of bed at dawn by François Damilano, Thierry's main competition for the title of France's leading ice specialist. For ten years François had been responsible for some of the finest and hardest new ice climbs in France, as well as in the Canadian Rockies and other areas. Whereas Thierry's technique was almost flamboyant in its artful balance and precision, François climbed in a very straightforward and efficient manner, with no extra flourishes, François had plans that would up the ante over Thierry's variation of the previous day. Together with Jean-Marc Porte, the editor of Montagnes magazine and a very personable fellow but not a very experienced ice climber, we headed for the Val de Freissinières and an unclimbed line of tenuous smears, chimneys, and pillars on the 1,200- to 1,500-foot-high Tête de Gramusat.

François Damflaito, 1»toyed by the author, begins Mi ill-fated dance with the big kide.

fPhoto: Jean-Marc Portal

Tete GramussatClimbing Into Space

Tlwrry Rtnoult m rid whIv the big roof (Photo: Jeff Lowe)

François led the route's short but difficult fifth pitch in great style, climbing up under a six-foot-wide roof on a tongue of ice, then turning out to face the valley and stepping into space onto a stalactite hanging from the lip. Finally he spiraled out to the front face and ascended to a ledge above the roof. Going second, JeanMarc, along as reporter and photographer, swung repeatedly out into space. Dangling, exhausted, he pleaded softly, "What am 1 doing here?"

When my turn came, ! found the pitch to be excellent and a true grade 6. Stepping out onto the stalactite 600 feet above the beginning of the route, my heart was in my mouth, even with the topropel

It was now my lead, and we faced the obvious crux of the route, a seventy-five-foot, rotten, free-hanging icicle that failed by five feet to connect with our ledge. I took a long look at the creaking monster and told the others that it was time to turn tail and run. I was really surprised when François disagreed, saying he would like to give it a try. Reluctantly I put him on belay, double-checking that we had bombproof anchors well out of the fall line. Jean-Marc said nothing, but readied his camera

Ten minutes later, with François one-third of the way up, having placed one

Tlwrry Rtnoult m rid whIv the big roof (Photo: Jeff Lowe)

screw, the icicle snapped at the roof line, and down went François, lashed like Ahab to Moby Dick! The calamitous roar lasted several minutes as the entire lower line of our climb was scoured by a hundred tons of ice that triggered an avalanche down the steep, 1,000-foot approach slopes. I saw a crowd of people on the valley road scamper away from the avalanche's path and feared the worst for François, but only a moment passed before his shout came up: Tm OK.!" Soon he was back on the ledge. François and I giggled like schoolgirls at our good fortune to be alive, agreeing now that it was time to go down. Jean-Marc stared at us as if we were both from Mars,

Thierry wanted another shot at me. He had picked out another new line on .the Tête de Gramusat, left of Gramusat Direct (VI, Wl6, done in 1991 by François and the Scotsman Robin Clothier). The next day I caught my first glimpse of the future of frozen waterfall climbing as Thierry and 1 spent ten hours on our new plum, Blind Faith (VII, Wl7-, A2>. Of its eleven pitches, two in particular stand out. The fourth pitch (WI6 + , A2) tackles a fifteen-foot rock roof to a hanging tongue of ice. Thierry used two pitons for aid here, which allowed him to spear the tongue of ice with one tool and swing over. Following the roof with our pack was quite exciting, as I had to unclip from Thierry's last aid piton before 1 could make the final long stretch to plant my axe in the icicle. If 1 had fallen then, ! would have been ieft hanging in spacc 500 feet above the approach slopes with no way to get back onto the ice. Luckily, I was able to make the move up and around the corner of the roof onto vertical ice. I was surprised, however, to see that the pitch continued to be severe. The rope snaked up through another thinly iced overhanging corner, which, going second, 1 found to be as difficult as the lower roof had been. Joining Thierry at his belay above the band of overhangs, I congratulated him on an excellent lead. He asked me how difficult I thought the climbing was, and 1 said probably WI6+, A2; but if the roof was done completely free, it would probably be M7 or 8.

The way was now easier as we surfed waves of ice to the right and up for several hundred feet. The seventh pitch (WI6+), again led by Thierry, ascended a free-standing pillar, which gently overhung for sixty poorly protected feet, surmounted a big "umbrella," and continued up another steep, free-standing pillar for ninety feet more. Following Thierry's lead with our light pack was almost too much for me, and I arrived at the belay with barely enough strength to open a carabiner. My taste for waterfall ice had been reborn!

It was getting dark fast. Thierry and I climbed the final four or five pitches of WI3 and 4 with no intermediate protection between belays. Even so, it was 7:00 P.M. and dark when we climbed into the trees at the top. We pulled out our head lamps for the traverse through snow to the top of the descent route, which required seven rappels down a buttress on the side of the cliff. We arrived back in town at 10:00 P.M., tired from a long day, but happy.

Val Cenis is a quaint alpine town in the Haute Maurienne. The Maurtenne and

Haute Maurienne are not notable for especially great peaks, but the terrain is excellent for ski touring, and the valleys have a large number of frozen waterfalls. François, who is the primary liaison with the French press for the sport of cascade climbing, chose Val Cenis as the site for this phase of the meeting because climbers of all abilities could enjoy themselves here. Perhaps most importantly, the press could be brought to a spectacular vantage point on the edge of a deep gorge overlooking the area's jewel, the 400-foot, grade III, WI5 Glacenost.

During the weekend this climb was done by at least a dozen roped teams. There was an orgy of picture taking, for much of the day, the climb enjoyed full sun under blue skies. 1 waited until the sun and most climbers were off the ice on Saturday afternoon before taking my own solo spin, I found perfect ice and a grand ambience.

Saturday evening's fine banquet was preceded by a tribute to the late Italian ice climber, Gian Carlo Grassi, Beautiful slides and music communicated Crassi's great spirit and passion for this singular sport. Grassi was one of the leading exponents of the European school of extreme ice climbing in the 1980s. He discovered and climbed many of the best off-season water-ice routes in the high mountains and pushed the limits of safety while making the first ascents of many alpine ice falls. He was also one of the first Europeans to travel to Canada to make ascents of the classics, such as La Pomme d'Or, Polar Circus, and the Weeping Wall. His death the previous year had been a blow to the world ice-climbing community.

On Sunday, Thierry demonstrated state-of-the-art mixed climbing to the spectators as he opened a new route to the right of Glacenost. After ascending a poorly protected overhanging rock wail with occasional patches of ice, he locked his legs behind an icicle only eight inches in diameter. Stretching up to the thin ice above, Thierry planted his pick, and at the same moment, the icicle he was straddling broke. His feet swung free, and the peanut gallery wet its collective pants. Of course Thierry didn't fall, commenting later that the route was hard, but only M7+!

The artificially supported tower of ice created for the Competition d'Escalade at Courchevel in February was staggering in its beauty—a crystal version of a desert sandstone spire, I immediately longed to climb it. Standing over 100 feet high and weighing an estimated 450 tons, luminous blue in the shade and dazzling white in the sun, the tower was truly a work of art.

Ropes outlined the route boundaries on each side. Protection was fixed for clipping on the lead. As in golf, the lowest score would win. Points were counted for every placement (or attempted placement) of a tool; a slip of a foot cost five penalty points. Overall style was judged on a scale of 0 to 20, with 0 being perfect. Twenty minutes were allowed for climbing a route, and three points were subtracted from the competitor's overall score for each minute less than the full twenty taken to reach the top. Saturday's qualifying rounds were held on three separate routes, the top three finishers from each route advancing to Sunday's finals. The

Frendtman Roland Georges on an overhangtng arête in rite finals af the tompétition al Courchevel (Photo: JtH Lowe)

Sunday finals also included points from a speed climb. All pretty complicatcdl

Watching some of the other competitors on the opposite side of the tower from my qualifying route, ! wondered if I could move as smoothly and precisely through the bulges and roofs, it was a month before the Albertville Winter Olympic Games, and CBS was in the area to do background pieces to run during its coverage of the Games, so when my turn came, François, looking like a big bug, jumared alongside me with a CBS camera strapped to his helmet. Clipping the pro and passing overhanging Sections without hanging around to place ice screws was a joy. I had to laugh to myself: "Just like sport climbingl" In the middle of the course the judges told me to go back down a few moves and use my tools after 1 had started climbing with my hands, Ohhh, I didn't know about that rule! After ten and a half minutes of really enjoyable ice climbing, I was up, slightly surprised to find out later that I had the lowest score in the qualifying round

But my self-satisfaction was short-lived. Going first in the Sunday finals, I was attempting to clear the initial roof, but my attention was focused on the upper sections of the fantastic route. 1 made the classic beginner's mistake of placing my tools too close together. Down I came, along with a chunk of the overhangl The crowd groaned, and, with a sheepish grin, I walked out of the competition area. Humility is good for the soul!

The following climber, a local lad by the name oi Bruno Soursac, looked surprisingly good, negotiating the twisting, overhanging path in under eleven and a half minutes. Romain Lovai made a mistake similar to mine, but half a foot lower, (Oh, good, I'm not the only stupid onel) The following two competitors each ran out of time before reaching the top. Going fifth, Richard Ouairy showed the form that allowed him to solo Canada's Weeping Wall, Polar Circus, and Ice Nine all in one day in 1991. Then the colorful Italian, Enzo Marlier, defied all probability by struggling to the top after repeated near-falls and missed clips, a reflection of his 3:00 A.m. antics on the dance floor earlier that day. Next to last, Thierry appeared more nervous than if he was facing a class-8 death-lead, but he still completed a masterfut ascent, a couple minutes slower than Bruno's, but with greater control, Doni Maillot went last with a solid, but not sparkling, climb.

Suddenly 1 was awakened from my role of spectator to go first in the top-roped speed competition. This was a new and somewhat ridiculous experience for me. I have spent all my life learning precision and control, and here I was slamming, jerking, and flailing my way up the ice. To my surprise, I had the second fastest time after the first round—one minute, twenty-three seconds to Bruno's one minute, seventeen seconds. After several more head-to-head heats, 1 ended up third behind Bruno and Doni. Speed counted in difficulty results in some way that I couldn't understand, and falls by both Richard and Thierry moved each down a notch in the final difficulty standing. The overall results put Bruno in first, Thierry in second, and Doni in third. (François later told me that in future competitions, difficulty and speed would be completely separated.)

All in all, the ambience and organization of the Courchevel event were superb, complete with Gallic energy, Van Morrison on the loudspeakers, and an incredible fireworks display on Saturday night that transformed the tower into an erupting ice volcanol V

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