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Climbing The Bonatti Pillar (Before It Collapsed!)

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Excerpted with permission from Uncoiling the Ropes: The Memoir of a Trailblazing Irish Climber, Copyright © 202 Clare Sheridan.


Uncoiling the Ropes, by Clare Sheridan, available here!

 

On the morning I was setting off for the Bonatti Pillar, the grass outside the tent was heavy with dew. I checked my rucksack again—rock shoes, harness, rope, helmet, ice-axe—all the obvious things were there. I was ready to leave but just as I was about to swing my rucksack up, I heard a little voice.

“Clare, I can’t remember what your face looks like.”

 I stopped dead. The voice, from inside the tent, was Oscar’s. It came again, more insistent this time.

 “Clare, wait, I can’t—“

“Sh, you’ll wake the others.”

I unzipped the tent as quietly as I could and then the flimsy inner door to where the boys were sleeping. Two bright accusing eyes looked up at me from the jumble of sleeping bags. Oscar, aged six, was wide awake.

“Sh, don’t wake the others, look here I am and I’ll be back soon, bye.”

He said nothing and I left. I felt sick. This would definitely be the last. The last Grande Course, the last big alpine classic that I would be thrilled to have done but that I found harder and harder to commit to with every passing summer.

The Grandes Courses were the great climbs that were forged by the alpine superheroes of the 1940s and 50s. The actual climbing was easier now because modern climbers had better footwear and lighter equipment, but the objective dangers—the random risks you couldn’t control—were as threatening as ever. Avalanches, storms, rock-fall, this was where luck came in, whatever your experience or ability. And the climb I was heading for seemed to have more than its share of objective dangers.  

On the approach we’d be avoiding crevasses and collapsing ice walls as we crossed a high glacier. Then to get to the base of the climb we’d do multiple abseils into a couloir that was battered by stone-fall. The climb itself, almost 700 meters of steep rock, would be hard to retreat from if a storm broke. A summer alpine storm would bring torrential rain, or snow, and thunder and lightning. Every climber’s dread is the sound of the metal climbing gear humming just before a lightning strike. I’d never been hit but the tales I’d heard from those who had were terrifying.                                                                                                                       

Was it worth it?                                                           

When our three boys were infants and toddlers I would head off to do big climbs without a backward glance, happy they were in safe hands and knowing I’d appreciate them even more when I got back, exhausted but fizzing with joy. Now that I was older the great alpine challenges seemed less worth the candle. But there was one climb that I longed to do – the Bonatti Pillar on the Petit Dru. It was one of the most famous and most beautiful alpine climbs in the world.

I had been in thrall to that slender spire for decades and now, in 1996, I had a chance to climb it and it was time to leave. I hoped Oscar had gone back to sleep. Malcolm, my half-English half-French climbing partner would be waiting for me at the Montenvers mountain railway station in Chamonix. He had just turned eighteen and he’d have enough enthusiasm for both of us. 

The following morning, after a bivouac on the airy Flammes de Pierre ridge, we abseiled into the rocky depths of the Dru couloir and pulled the ropes down from the last anchor. Now we were committed. We were level with the start of our climb and there was just the steep funnel of the gully lying in between. It was forty or fifty meters across and its sloped surface was pitted from the impact of falling rocks. We’d heard the sudden whoosh of stones cutting the air and then the cracks and thuds of nearby hits. We listened. The previous year Calvin and I had got to know a young American climber in the Argentière campsite. He had gone to climb the Bonatti Pillar but had died in this couloir in an abseiling accident. His campervan stayed parked below our tent for a week until the gendarmes came to tow it away. 

We listened again—nothing. Malcolm belayed me and I ran the gauntlet of the runnel to reach the ledge at the base of the pillar. There was still no sound and he followed. Now that we were ready to start the climb it began to feel right after all. We swung leads and made good progress up cracks and onto ledges and went astray the odd time as dozens of others must have gone astray before us.

It was my lead. I came to the foot of a big flake of rock that had a crack running all round it, detaching it from the main face. It was like a huge door that was slightly ajar. I stood on tiptoe to put some gear in and began to layback up the edge. I was soon well above my protection but as I reached to unclip another piece from my harness, the world suddenly jolted as the whole multi-ton slice of rock shifted. I squawked with fright—the granite door had opened further and I was hanging from the side of it. I froze, waiting for it to detach from the face and plummet to the glacier hundreds of meters below. But it didn’t. It had jammed into its new position, for the moment. Would it stay put? I was more than half way up so it might be safer to go on. Would I be lighter if I held my breath? I couldn’t work it out.

 “I’ll have to go on,” I shouted down to Malcolm who was looking up in alarm. He was directly in the line of fire. 

“Be careful,” he shouted back. Be careful? How the hell could I be careful? I couldn’t even put any gear in as wedging something into the widening crack might dislodge the flake completely. I climbed on up as smoothly as I could and anchored myself, shaking, to the solid rock face above.

That night we slept on a ledge two-thirds of the way up the pillar and when we woke at dawn we could see lightning flashing inside dark clouds in the distance. We packed up quickly and climbed the remaining pitches at top speed. The sky had cleared by the time we began our descent and when we reached the bivy site we found that other climbers had arrived, hoping to do the route the following day. They had been watching our progress and when we climbed down onto the big bivy ledge, one of them applauded and handed us mugs of strong sweet coffee. It was renowned Italian alpinist Ivan Ghirardini. To him we must have looked like a mother and son—I was forty four and Malcolm still a gangly teenager.

Down in the valley Calvin had everything packed up ready for the drive home. The end of another alpine season. Got away with it again, I thought. But I wouldn’t push my luck. From then on I was more conservative in my choice of routes, but there is no such thing as a worthwhile alpine climb that is free of objective dangers.

Over the next few years there was a lot of rockfall on the Petit Dru until finally, in 2005, much of the Bonatti Pillar collapsed in a series of thunderous crashes and monstrous clouds of dust.