|The Eckphiler. December 1978|
"Have you still got that card from when you me and Ian McMullan were trapped in the Giglione hut in winter waiting for the chopper many years ago? Just had another chopper lift two weeks ago with a bust leg in Switzerland. In hospital in St Moritz getting fit enough to be repatriated. Ah well!!!"
Spin back to 19th December 1978, I’m 19. I’m hitching at the southbound exit slip of Forton Services on the M6 near Lancaster. My parents had rather doubtfully left me, and two massive rucksacks, at junction 36 a short time earlier.
A motor cyclist pulled up. It was Paul Cornforth on his way from Ambleside to Preston Tech. “Where are you going with that bloody lot?”.
“Chamonix” I replied. He looked at me and my rucksacks. “Aye well, see you in a couple of weeks”.
The hitching didn’t go particularly well. Other people seemed to get picked up by jolly truck drivers in the first half hour, were given cigarettes and beer and even got to drive the truck! That never happened to me. I spent the next couple of days pleading for lifts, sleeping in drain pipes, finishing up leftovers in the scruffy motor-way services of the day, and generally having an unpleasant time. At last I made it to Chamonix and found somewhere to stay.
|Ian and Richard take a break in the Vallee Blanche|
At the end of the first day we bivied near the top of a steep ice field. In the morning it was snowing so we turned back. With few belays and deteriorating conditions we opted to reverse solo the 1500 feet of so of 50 degree front pointing. The weather deteriorated over Christmas and I left Marius to join Richard and Ian in their chalet near La Tour.
That would not be the last I would hear of Marius on this trip.
Richard and Ian knew I had an obsession with the Japanese route on the Eckphiler. Why that particular route? It had never been repeated, had a massive serac above most of the route so might be safer in winter and, of utmost importance, it might make us famous.
27th Dec - Day 1 Unfortunately Richard and Ian were daft enough to be compliant with my ill conceived plan. We joined a short queue for the first Midi Telepherique; very few people were heading into the mountains that day on a less than perfect forecast. We didn’t have skis, I don’t think we even had snow shoes and didn't have much idea of how we were going to get back from the summit of Mont Blanc even if we did get that far. On the up side, I had climbed the Bonatti Gobbi on the Eckphiler the previous summer so I knew roughly how to get there and get off.
|Ian McMullan. A short section of ice below the Tacul.|
Still in denial, we reached the ridge crest. There was no hut to be found. Richard and Ian took the bad news in good humor and we settled down for a cold bivi.
28th Dec - Day 2 The weather was good and we traversed the Italian side of the ridge until the hut was found. By then it was mid morning and too late to launch out towards the Brenva Face. We would have chance to reorganise and observe the route. Huge powder avalanches roared off Mont Maudit. That was the last time we would see the sun for over a week.
|The Brenva Face and Eckphiler (left) from the Giglione. The last time we saw the sun.|
29th Dec - Day 3 Mauvais temps. Spindrift blasted through cracks in the door and the hut rocked on its perch as the wind battered the ridge crest. The day passed with no let-up in the weather. Not to worry we had plenty of food.
The Giglione Hut was no palatial Swiss Chalet with pine cladding and a restaurant. Far from it; this was a basic mountain shelter. There were bunks and some blankets but not much else. We felt confident that the weather would clear up tomorrow.
“Actually lads, I’ve a confession to make”
I had left my carrier bag of food in the fridge back in La Tour. 32 years later I can still remember that it contained a pack of smoked sausages. What we would have given for a smoked sausage in few days time.
30th Dec - Day 4 No let-up in the storm. During the summer months the hut offers a basic meal service. There were a few bits of ancient, mouse eaten, stale bread lying about but there’s no way we were going to eat those! Of greater interest was several trays of lager. Calories plus alcohol, what could be better. One slight problem; the whole lot was frozen solid. I had the bright idea of sleeping with half a dozen cans inside my sleeping bag; surely they would be defrosted by morning. After a short time it was obvious that plan wouldn't work. The beer might defrost but I would die of hypothermia and if one of the cans were to prematurely explode it would be curtains even sooner.
|Ian McMullan and Richard Toon before it got grim.|
1st Jan - Day 6 New Years Day. We celebrated with a third of a Mars Bar each; our last Mars Bar. The food situation was getting critical by now so we started on the stale mouse eaten bread; it tasted fine. Mentally we were in reasonable spirits but lack of food, movement and cold were all starting to have an effect on our physical state. I couldn't get my feet warm. While this wasn’t particularly uncomfortable it meant that I was on a downward spiral. I had pain in my feet for months after.
2nd Jan - Day 7 Miraculously one of us had brought a pack of cards. I don’t remember who. Knock-out whist was the game of choice. Under normal circumstances you would deal the first hand of 7 cards to each player with gradually diminishing hands after that. We started with the maximum hand allowable dividing the pack three ways. We played all day, and day after day. The cards were difficult to handle with gloves but we had plenty of time.
3nd Jan - Day 8 A glimmer of hope. The weather wasn’t too bad. Still cloudy and snowing but it wasn’t as dark. We heard the distant sound of rotor blades and rushed outside. We had planned to bring food for 5 days, less what I had left behind, so we assumed Richard and Ian’s friends back in the chalet would have alerted the rescue by now. The helicopter briefly popped out of the clouds above the Brenva Glacier but then it was gone. We found out later the helicopter was trying to rescue a team of Japanese climbers stranded on the Brenva Face. Unfortunately they didn’t make it.
|Myself, in need of a haircut.|
5th Jan - Day 10 As usual the three of us were lying in a row on the bottom bunk. It was slightly lighter outside and no wind.
The rapid beat of rotor blades overhead took us by surprise. Faster than we could get out of our pits the door burst open. A red flying suit and white helmet dived in. The site of another human even after just 10 days was dazzling. The bright clean outfit contrasted strongly against our grubby brown refuge.
“Vite, vite, VITE!”
We rapidly shoved gear into sacks, pulled on boots and made for the door. The helicopter was perched on the narrow snow crest about fifty metres away, blades whirling and unable to put down properly. As soon as we steeped off the wooden catwalk running alongside the hut our physical deterioration manifested itself. The snow was waist deep and we could barely walk. The short distance to the sliding door at the back of the crimson Alouette seemed like a mile. The noise of the blades was deafening, the updraft was creating lots of spindrift, we were getting shouted at. With help from the co-pilot we were bundled in. A big heap of sacks, boots legs and arms. At least one of us was in tears.
I felt better when I saw that the pilot had ‘Bruno Le Bon’ written on the back of his helmet. He cranked the throttle and launched, nose down, off the ridge in the direction of France. We dropped like a stone at first then raced at low altitude back down the Valle Blanche over the Geant Icefall and the Mer de Glace. The weather window was short and the recusers were risking their own lives to bring us back. In less than 20 minutes we were dumped out onto the heli pad at La Praz and took the little blue van of shame back to the Gendarmerie in Chamonix. Our details were taken and we travelled back to the chalet in La Tour.
Richard and Ian’s friends had spent the last five days worrying as to whether we were dead or alive. They were furious. We had ruined their Christmas break. Not unreasonably, I seemed to be taking most of the blame. To make matters worse, despite the dire circumstances in the hut, I shamefully managed to slip a nice set of plastic compartmentalized camping plates into my rucksack on the way out of the door, for which I received a severe tongue lashing.
Marius and a climber from Manchester* whom, with breath taking arrogance, I had earlier dismissed as ‘nobodies’ had pulled off an early ascent of the Gaberrou Couloir on the Tacul while we were languishing in the hut freezing to death; a fact that was rammed home to me with merciless clarity.
|32 year later, still got the cards.|
We split the pack of cards three ways as a memento and said our goodbyes.
One of the couples in the chalet were driving back to the Lakes and hoped I might get a lift home with them; not a chance! The next morning I was standing at the entrance to the Mont Blanc Tunnel with my thumb out. Trucks and cars accelerated past, spraying my Levi flares and combat jacket with filthy slush. Who could blame them.
Sadly, Ian McMullan was killed by a rockfall at Harper Hill quarry in August 2002. I had seen Ian occasionally over the years at crags and in pubs and we never missed the chance to reminisce about our time in the hut and to check if each other still had his share of the cards, which we did.
I bumped into Richard by chance just once in the last 32 years, in the Golden Rule, Ambleside. We’re planning to meet up for a pint in the near future.
* I tried and failed, to find the name of the Manchester climber who repeated the Gaberrou Couloir with Marius. Looked back through old Mountain Magazines and checked the Alpine Club guide. If anyone can help please let me know.
Richrad Toon emailed me with his memories:
I remember the deep powder snow on the way to the hut and that we roped up but felt the edges of a couple of crevasses. The cold inside the hut was intense - I remember being cold inside my sleeping bag with duvet on - had to take the duvet off to let a little heat leak into my legs! The tea bags were recycled around three times or so! And the playing cards were the life saver!!
Certainly once the helicopter arrived, we had to move fast but the drain on our strength then became frighteningly apparent - there was no way we would have got ourselves out of the predicament by then. The flight out was fast and phenomenal and I remember the very stark contrast between the silence and the remoteness of the hut compared to the normal hustle and bustle of Chamonix.
What a way to spend New Year!