Monday, September 26, 2011

Bare on Night Mountain

...is the parable of the Goat, the Fish and the Dog.

In the last post, I tried to describe how my outlook and experience changed over the length of the HRP.  This post describes a key moment in that journey.  It's a confession, and a catalogue of errors, because things got a little bit too epic for comfort.  I'm not proud of my part in it.  Incidentally, the names have not been changed to protect the innocent, they were the names we gave to each other at the time.

As always, click on the images to make bigger.



The tale of the night begins with the day, and continues through to the end of the next.  It starts wet, drying out.  We had camped in a wide sided valley down from Pombie after soup and a half sleep in a thunderstorm and waking up in 2 inches of water on the backside of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau.   Thanks heavens for bivy bags when the heavens open.  I'll have to come back for the third time to make it to the top of that one then, on the walk out water is still crashing down the sides, and visibility is not more than 20ms at the Col de Suzon, no chance and no views so what for anyway.  And so we're still sluggish and waterlogged as we pull up through woodland then a mist shrouded valley towards Arremoulit.  The Fish isn't really coping, his gears grinding, until I take his tent and mat again, a whopping 4 kgs, my teeth grinding.  He perks up after this.  I move away, lugging the dead weight, sweating and furious.  This is the familiar pattern of the last week.  He is out of his depth, but making the rest pay dearly.  I stopped feeling bad for him a day or so ago, now I just feel bad. 



2 hours later, I sit just off the col in thick cloud and wait.  After a snack, I realise I don't have map and case, normally clipped into the mini caribiner at my shoulder.  Providence.  I'm ready to snap, and its got right in the way of the walk, concentrating on pride and anger instead of group safety.  I must now eat words, bite tongue and find map.  I am lucky, though.  A Basque couple saw it laying on the path and passed it to on to the others.  Little is said as my co walkers return it...we all know whats afoot.

We are heading for the Passage d'Orteig, a vertiginous but chained short section of the walk that I have done before, but is new to my friends.  We hang right at the sign for the 'delicate passage' and line up for it, the Dog at the front and me behind.  I have hyped this alot as the Fish gets vertigo, and to his credit he wants to deal with this head on and doesn't flinch when he sees the drop.  The Dog will do just fine.  We start in on the narrow part before the ropes and I start talking.  Distraction is the better part of valour.  If you fall, fall to the right.  Don't forget to breathe, or you'll die.  And so on.


Its fine in the end, the hype pays off and it was all a storm in a teacup right?  There's one part I still don't like, where the rock juts out and the basque couple tie in, but we're plucky brits and don't carry rope (only because we don't know how to use it).  Up and over past a line of beautifully constructed cairns made to guide us in to one of the best refuges on the HRP.  Loitering at the refuge with soup and a catnap, tarp out to dry a little.


3pm. The first mistake.  We leave for the Col de Palas.  I have reservations which I share, but limply, not wanting to say we are moving too slowly, letting the others growing confidence after the Passage override.  Its too early to stop.  Its not too far on the map, n'est pas?  The cloud may clear further up.  We move easier and refreshed up to the lakes above the refuge and onto the team's first snowfield.  The approach to the Col is as good a first time experience of snow in high mountains as I could wish for my friends.  Firm but not rock solid, crags atmospherically shrouded but not overtly threatening.  Spooky but not scary - the mysteries of rocky strata beckon us on.  I love this world above the brush and the tundra, its become my reason for walking in the Pyrenees but its fickle up here.  And its too late to go up, in this weather and with this team.  Judgment calls.  I don't answer.


A Spanish team passes us on their way down and seems in good spirits, we continue on, in denser cloud, on fields of boulders growing larger, until the chilly col is reached.  We go left at the top cairn and contour around steeply on slippery red shale and scree, treachery draped in soggy mist, our movements slowing, grinding to a halt.  Pace is required but not forthcoming, I should've called it then but there is no way the Fish is backtracking on this eroded mess, he's unnerved, the path has fallen away to nothing and its only our handholds that are holding his footholds in place. 


Because of the mist and the slow progress and the wanting it to be so, we reach two cairns and assume its the Port de Lavedan.  At first, then no joy.  It looks like a col in 5 metres visibilty and the map tells us nothing at all at 1.50K.  Not happy.  We get busy with map and compass, Goat on forays out and the Dog calling in for safety.  This is The System, but there may as well be none.  We are lost on granite nothingness, now here, no where, a vector labyrinth of snowfields, giant boulders and vast rock faces that loom out of the mist.  We can reset the map all we want but if we don't know our position..?  The backup GPS on my iphone is not playing ball today, so a cheat is out.  A little rain now and then, its getting cold and we're moving in ever decreasing circles.

With hindsight, I can tell you that the Port is set obliquely at an angle on the border ridge south of Palas.  I would have at some point early on been only a few metres from the final approach, but it was concealed completely from me then by dense clag and its obsure angle.  7pm passes, forays down, then up to no avail.  We retreat to the 2 cairns again, 8pm comes and goes.  Shortly after, the cloud clears for a few seconds and the Dog correctly ID's two lakes far below us.  I confirm them as the lakes on the Spanish side I walked last year, down from the Col de Arremoulit - the Ibones del Arriel.


8.10pm Second Mistake.  We don't go down to the lakes.  It would mean losing many hundreds of metres in exchange for a safe pitch.  Why the hell wasn't I calling this in?  I even remember thinking that.  The Dog's ID was good, my decision making was not.  Instead, we head off NE as instructed by our dutch guidebook on a vague bearing, steeply around a large snowfield with more loose scree underfoot in ever thickening cloud and drizzle.  North, then East to compensate, but we're too high now.  We reach a tiny climbers bivy chiseled out on a crumbling bluff just off a windswept ridge down from Palas itself.  Again, we see what we want to see.  This is the port?!  No.  There's no way down the other side, its not even a col or a saddle, let alone a gash in the rock.  Darkness descending, weather deteriorating, 9.30pm.  I wrestle with loosely formed options but its synapse soup, any thoughts I have are pickled in the clinging cloud. 

9.40pm Third mistake.  I decide to descend on the French side of the ridge, pack on.  A small foray.  The Dog is nervous, fair enough: potentially fatal errors are made in increments and he's wise enough to know this.  Its awful going straight down on wet, loose rock.  The next morning we see climbers going up this section roped up and and with protection, I went down with 15kg on my back, without.  About half way down I realise I can't go up again, so its down or nothing.  I really, really don't like the feel of nothing.  The Dog is asking me what to do, but I don't have the words, I can't think, I am concentrating too hard on controlling hands, feet and fast rising fear.  Stupid, they can't do this, I barely can.  He calls it, thankfully, they stay up.  I feel panic rising in my stomach, my legs are starting to go, my breathing is erratic, I am slipping into the early stages of shock and we barely have comms - the mountain takes all the treble from our voices, we only hear muffled bass.  This is now, officially, out of our control. 

I go down another 20 or 30ms.  I don't know how but I don't fall.  I see a kind of walkway of scree and rubble below at a horrible angle below, and a terrifying V in the ridge on the left, black fangs in the mist.  I reach the sloping floor and make my way towards the V.  This is definitely it, its the Port de Lavedan, its what we've been aiming for.  NE was right but out by a degree or 2 at most - enough in the clag to ruin us.  The Dog and I bellow instructions at each other, barely audible.  They can't move, they are basically cragfast.  I'm breathing hard and starting to shake.  Body is not doing as instructed.  Breathe deep, talk it down, its fine, nobody is hurt, you know where you are, you know where they are, you just don't know how to join them or what to do next.  Bizarrely, I take my pack off and start to climb straight up the side of the Port!  Almost instantly, I stop and realise that is insanity.  I have both shelters, the single working lighter and alot of insulation - If I am separated from that, it means they have to come this way.  What for?  And what if we can't find it again?  Dangerous.  A few moments, a serious few words with myself.  Don't fuck this up, this counts now, this is how people get hurt.

We have to stay up here tonight.  Think.  OK, there's no choice.  I can't go back the way I came.  I can probably go up, but they can't follow me back down again.  I have to go round, it must be doable, its the way we were supposed to come.  I know this but I'm resisting, there's something really intimidating about those fangs I don't want to be anywhere near on my own.  But it has to be.  Talk to Dog.  ''I. COME. TO. YOU''.  Wait.  Again.  Then the answer.  ''O. KAY."  Up and over the Port.  There's a car sized boulder in the crevasse 10ms off the top which almost gets the better of me again.  Breathing hard, I can taste the panic rising, sour bile.  Control it, fear is the mindkiller.  Make like a slithering reptile, stay glued to the rock as much as possible, still stumbling and falling.  Hard with a backpack, harder still with half of someone else's kit attached.  Then down, and around a snowfield rotting at its edge.  Rock disappears high and hard into foul mist ahead.  Vague voice directions from the Dog.  A request from me for him to move a little west away from the ridge and show light, so I can see him beyond the overhang.  I see it and start to climb.  Treacherous, wet bag hanging from my shoulders, granite rounded, soaking wet.  No.  Grip.

About 15 minutes later I'm back and we're together.  I'm at the edge of shock, but get warm and I'm good again.  They have had time to work out a plan, they rig a fly over the crumbling granite wall of the bivy and make food, lots of it.  I don't want to stay up here, there's a better spot to pitch a few metres back I know, but I'm in no position to make requests.   Eat.  If the weather holds we'll be OK, if not, who knows.

Then, something shifts.  After food, suddenly and unexpectedly, the dense cloud lifts, swept away to the French side in seconds.

A sea of boulders was lit under cold blue-white moonlight, exposing the granite underworld where we came unstuck.  And mountains forever, above, beyond and around us.  Scale and proportion are completely unreadable, its as if a painting has been engraved on my retina now, for good.  I've been up high before on a clear night, but not like this, not this high on guilt and adrenaline.  I couldn't concentrate then - I felt too bad for my friends, but I'm glad they got the payoff in the end.  I've come to appreciate it afterward.  The Dog said it was 'a humbling that resets you to your core', but there are no words, really.


Why did the weather clear after we, I, had neglected to make all the proper decisions?  No reason.  We were lucky. 

Clear means cold.  We bivy, the Fish lying down shivering under a space blanket, the Dog and I sitting up in our bivybags, all layers on, the most uncomfortable night I have ever spent bar none, hard rock in soft places, cramp.  At dawn we break camp and make coffee.  The cloud clings to the French side, but all of Spain is exposed in the first orange rays of a new day, burning off fast.  Are we glad to see it?  That would be a yes.


Down the way I had come up the previous night, the Fish is mostly silent, brooding, cursing my name.  We limp over the Port past climbers tooling up for Palas and down on a steep mess of rubble, downwards for an eternity, limbs sluggish with fatigue, post adrenaline.  Its a wide eyed world, I am happy counting my blessings, but its an achingly long, tough descent for 3 tired and hapless walkers.


Once again, the guidebook steers us wrong, and we descend too far to the lake.  The 1.50k shows little but a path we should have joined by now.  By 10am we are dog tired of boulders and loose scree sapping every calorie, again not thinking clearly and liable for more mistakes if not extra careful.  I call a stop for breakfast after the Dog warns me off a particularly steep option.


A little better, we climb up again, I lead a route over a vast granite knuckle but quickly lose sight of the others.  Slow down over the crest, wait, blow whistle to signal.  The path is ahead, we are out of the woods.  The Dog catches up, wide eyed.  He's heard 2 blasts on the whistle and panicked, not knowing that the universal signal for distress in the mountains is 6 in 1 minute.  Ok, we are all still wired.  Again, I curse my own preparations - assume nothing, not knowing is not a crime, not explaining is.   I apologise, we confer and swap positions, his turn to take point.


After another hour we reach the Lac de Micoulaou, strip off, and dive in.  Freezing but needed.  A little kit washed, some more food.  Stumble to Larribet, no faith in my directions now, everything questioned, but say nothing and get us home safe.  Coffee and cake outside the Refuge.  We'll stop near here tonight.  Camp, drink some beer.  Sleep.  What a bloody shambles.

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And there ends the tale.  As you might infer, alot of the issues we had stemmed from bad preparation and a breakdown in communication.  I'd never hiked in a group like this before, and wasn't clear about my role.  This experience absolutely shaped how I approached the remainder of the HRP when walking with others - it was key.  Here's my take home lessons from that night, as much for my own future reference as for anyone else:
  1. Know your team, don't assume knowledge, skills or experience.  Ask specific questions which pin down exactly where your team members are at if you haven't hiked with them before.  Be ready to change plans if the walk is different to the talk. 
  2. Know your own skills and experience.  Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and don't be bullied or acquiesce.  
  3. Accidents are often a compound of a number of tiny mistakes, one small risk leading to another bigger one, and so on.  Check and balance each decision as its made.  Hunger, thirst, emotions or tiredness can all get in the way of the walk.  Check it, rectify it, move on.
  4. You may have a right to put yourself in danger if you wish.  You don't have the right to endanger others. 
  5. Probably the most important: Know when to bail, and always have a plan B.  Bailing is not an admission of failure, bailing is admitting you'd like to keep hiking in the future.
(thanks to the Dog for the title of this post) 

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I walked the HRP for 2 great charities - the JMT and Soundmix.  If you didn't donate yet, you can still do that, here  Everyone who donates £10 or more gets a Trip Report bundle.  The blog will not contain the full report.  Donate, then send your details to davepowered(you know where)gmail(you know what)com and you'll get a thing, when its done.  Thanks

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