With the release of Nick Bullock’s much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed first book Echoes, we’re publishing two extracts from Tides: a climber’s voyage here on the Mountain Equipment blog. This week’s extract details Nick Bullock’s solo attempt of Lagarde Couloir, North Face, Les Droites.
Words by Nick Bullock
Merging into the rocks and moraine, the Argentière winter refuge stood on the opposite side of the glacier. The hut was cold and dark – it felt like entering a walk-in freezer – so I decided the most sensible option would be not to go there at all. I skinned beneath the Droites, and the clouds that had swirled, covering the complexities of snow, ice and rock, lifted. The 1,000-metre north face came into view. The higher section of the face looked doable, but not guaranteed. Streaks of ice followed runnels but there were also sections of blank rock where the wind had stripped the face. This, I decided, was not the domain for a solo climber. The Lagarde Couloir it would be.
I continued until I was beneath the initial snow cone that poured from the Lagarde. I couldn’t see into the couloir, but I had passed it several times this winter and I knew it looked in condition. Stamping a ledge into the snow, I swapped skis for crampons and poles for axes. Hopefully, as arranged, Baird would be feeling better and crawl from the sofa and collect my skis tomorrow.
I started to climb the snow cone but after a short time I pulled up, stopping to stick my nose over the lip of a crevasse. The edge of the slot had blended with the slope above; it was not until I had nearly fallen that it had become visible. Overhanging like the eaves of a house, I reversed from the edge. I laughed nervously at my stupidity before continuing on my quest to rub Bairdy’s weak nose right into his bucket of self-pity, although how soloing this climb would do that I am not entirely sure!
Deep in thought, my legs broke through a snow bridge while crossing the bergschrund. I plunged both of my axes above my head and out of sight. I must have looked like a small child fighting to grasp the top of a steering wheel. My legs pedalled and eventually crampons caught something and I pulled myself free.
Thick, squeaky ice. Thin, rotten ice. Soft snow and hard névé. My nose bumped into a buttress of rock. The dark shrouded an ephemeral sheet of ice that continued direct, almost mystifying, as it swathed away disappearing into the dark. I had been climbing for an hour or so and had reached the foot of a rock buttress splitting the couloir. Direct couldn’t be the way.
The clue was in the name of the climb. The climb was not called the Lagarde Couloir for nothing. A deep, deep, dark – darker than the dark outside the couloir, and leading into the heart of the mountain – this had to be the correct line. Into the couloir: walls enclosed. And in the confines of this place, my stomach sank. I could sense a turning of the tide.
Living on a narrowboat and navigating the canal systems, my parents travelled up and down the large system of canals over the summer months. I lost track of them and where they were staying for the night. Looking it up on the map and visiting them was quite exciting. In the spring, they planned which system of canals and rivers they would explore before setting off.
Walking a section of the Grand Union Canal towpath in the centre of South Wigston, Leicestershire, the sun warmed the brick houses with their fenced gardens that butt against the towpath.
Drops of rain glistened on nettles. While training to become a PE instructor, I regularly travelled through South Wigston heading to Glen Parva Young Offenders Institute. I hated Glen Parva: red brick and razor wire; volatile, confused, abused, disassociated, ill, and sometimes dangerous, eighteen to twenty-one year-olds with whom I had a really tough time connecting. All of my experience within the penal system had been with adults. Generally I could connect with adults, or at least reason with them. I didn’t get juveniles, and with my lack of understanding came intolerance and stress.
A lawnmower buzzed in a garden and swallows skimmed the surface of the still canal water. If they danced, they would pirouette, and so would I. I was returning to an area that now held no torment but which once did. I could enjoy the day and the day after and the day after that.
Emma came into view. Sixty foot of blue and green steel, and with her, walking the towpath, windlass in hand, was Mum. Mum had lost weight if that was possible; she couldn’t really get much slimmer. Her dark hair was greyer, and tied into a ponytail. ‘Hi my love,’ she called as she spotted me. Her skin was as dark as ever. We hugged. She smiled, a tired but content smile, a smile created by navigating the canals, jumping on and off and opening the locks all summer long. I helped push the heavy wooden balance beam that opened the gate, allowing Dad to steer Emma into the lock.
Since the onset of my climbing obsession, the weight of time and the lack of time had played on my mind. The lack of time and even the act of climbing did not feel much like fun on occasion. This weight and drive had always been selfish. The weight of never having enough time to do the things in climbing I wanted to achieve was at times heavy; but what exactly was it I wanted to achieve? I suppose the thought of being a known climber appealed to my ego, but this really wasn’t what drove me. I just wanted to push myself and extend personal boundaries that at one time in my life were not entertained, not on my radar. I wanted to surprise myself with how far I could take the climbing. Walking the towpath that day and seeing Mum, I realised that for my parents, time was running out, and the thought of being without Mum somewhere in my life was daunting. Dad was still smoking and he had almost used half of his four years the doctors had given him to live, but he appeared to be no worse. Out of breath and coughing, but no worse.
On occasion in the past I had felt angry when I had lost valuable climbing time in order to visit Mum. It was a distraction and I begrudged anything that took me away from training and climbing. I used to think: If I come and see you and miss a day’s training, I may die when I fall from one of my dream routes on North Stack Wall. But seeing her now, frail and old, made me feel guilty for ever having thought that way.
Dad steered the boat into the chamber. I leant against the smooth wood of the balance beam, pushing my feet against the edge of raised bricks set amongst damp cobbles. The gate shut with a judder and I jumped on board alongside Dad. He held the tiller, his strong freckled fingers clasped like he was holding the grip of a motorbike. Mum fitted the iron windlass and started winding. The metal bar with its teeth engaging lifted the paddle – a shutter covering a hole in the bottom of the gate – and water was released from the chamber.
The sun disappeared. Gushing water with creamy brown bubbles surrounded. Dripping and dank. Green algae between black bricks. Gloom. Imposing walls. Surging water. The heavy oak gate at the head of the lock trapped us inside this man-made tomb. Eventually the water equalised and the slime-coated lock gate gave up its battle with the weight. Escape was successfully navigated at four miles per hour, and once again we were into the sun and the vibrant banks of the canal surprise with a punch.
A vertical corner with loose granite blocks stacked one on top of the other obstructed the couloir that was no longer a couloir, but a chamber. The feeling of uncertainty wrestled at last into my thick skull. The Lagarde is a popular climb. I began to look for in-situ gear above the frequent steep sections. There is the odd piece of rotten tat or an old peg, but the normal mélange of fixed gear that usually festoons the walls of popular alpine climbs was nowhere to be found. I stopped and removed an old rusty peg. Arrogantly, I had dispelled the Lagarde as an easy outing. But this mountain, the Droites, had killed my friend.
I imagined Baird, prone and coughing but at last escaping the threads that had entwined him over the days. The threads were now threatening to tangle me. I continued and refused to accept the obvious.
‘Fifty-four degrees and two sections of Scottish grade 4. It’ll be OK, it’ll open out soon.’
The overhanging chockstone blocking the chimney that now prevented my passage was not fifty-four degrees. A slither of thin and fragile ice dribbled down the left side. Above, the ice had disappeared. I climbed beneath the overhang and stretched up. Scrabbling, I attempt to find some ice thick enough to plant a pick in, but there is none. I reverse and begrudgingly kick my way to the right of the chockstone.
A clot of compressed powdery snow that had formed between the chock and the smooth vertical wall on the right of the couloir blocked the narrow overhanging chimney. The clot was a big marshmallow. I burrowed beneath it and began to dig upward. Lumps of dense snow broke free and punched me in the face. The wall to the right was smooth. There were no holds, nothing to aim for or grab. Digging, digging. An inch was made, and then another. I plunged the shafts of both axes up to the hilt into a soft snow step. I was running on faith and hope. I heaved and wedged my shoulder against the wall on the right. Both legs cut loose and dangled into the dark. I lifted my knee and rammed it repeatedly into the snow. I began to scream at myself and doubt my ability.
Cutting and digging, my body wedged against smooth rock. Hyperventilating. Questioning. Mantling. Kicking … Praying.
An inch higher. Come on. You’re not going to die here, you stupid bastard.
Every inch was relief. I forgot about the cold. No placement felt secure. At any moment, I expected both axes to rip and my feet to cut through the powder. Nearing the top of the chockstone, squirming and bracing into the snowy confines, I kicked a high boot hole and just hoped it would hold. Rocking over, putting all of my trust into the boot hole and reaching over the top, I hunted for something secure but all I found was powder. My heart sank.
‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’
My foot slipped with a jolt and my head almost blew apart. Pushing a shoulder against the rock, I hoped the added friction would hold me, just long enough to find something solid. I fight and dig and dig and dig … then catch a sliver of water ice at the back of the corner. It was enough. I nearly threw up as I pulled above the chock and established myself into a narrow snow gully above.
An hour later things were more serious. My euphoria at surviving the chockstone had worn off and controlled panic had taken its place. Move after move after move of technical mixed climbing had me stood on a knife-edge arête with unseen gaping exposure to my right and steep walls above and to my left. I was in control but I also knew my control was close to crumbling. Several hours after a rational person would have arrived at the conclusion, I conceded that I had taken a wrong turn. I blamed Baird for being ill and not having moral fibre.
You just wait, Baird; it’ll be on your head when I die up here, you bastard.
I had forgotten to turn my phone off – I couldn’t believe it, usually there is no signal in the Argentière basin. Now, at least if I can’t find a way up, I thought, I can let someone know where I am and share the concern. I left the arête, dropping down on the right side overlooking the north face. It was obvious: I had followed a minor couloir to the right and was balanced precariously somewhere near the top of the north-east spur, approximately 200 metres from the summit.
A hidden chimney cut back to the top of the arête. Climbing the arête, I willed it to lead to the summit, but almost at once the walls reared up. Trying not to panic, I followed a ledge that led left beneath more vertical walls. The yellow beam of my torch followed the ledge until it ended at a sheer cliff. The corner was my only hope for continuing but it was very steep. Once committed, there would be no turning back. I wasn’t prepared to blindly start climbing and hope that everything would turn out rosy.
A little late to begin using some sense don’t you think, Bullock?
I needed daylight. I would have to wait and if I couldn’t climb the corner I would return to the arête and look around the top of the north-east spur in hope of finding another way. If all else failed I could call a helicopter, but I was sure I would rather attempt to downclimb before I took the little-red-dot option.
An hour passed while I chopped a small ledge. Feet, still booted, were pushed inside my empty rucksack. Wrapping and folding my arms under my knees, I pulled my chest to my thighs and began the wait. Stars flickered, satellites followed arcs. The moon was a perfect crescent. Bouts of shivering startled me awake as I drifted in and out of consciousness. Foetal, cramped and twisted, I stared at the silhouetted crest of the Pré de Bar for telltale signs of dawn. There were none. Teeth tapped like castanets and my heart thumped.
Pinpricks of light, thousands of feet below, emerged from the Argentière Hut and floated across the glacier. Two, four, six lights leave the hut. Time passes. At last, after about seven hours of sitting and shivering, the grey hints that the end of the torture is close. Light filtered through the black.
BUY TIDES: A CLIMBER’S VOYAGE
Nick Bullock is a climber who lives in a small green van, flitting between Llanberis, Wales, and Chamonix in the French Alps. Tides, Nick’s second book, is the much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut Echoes.
Now retired from the strain of work as a prison officer, Nick is free to climb. A lot. Tides is a treasury of his antics and adventures with some of the world’s leading climbers, including Steve House, Kenton Cool, Nico Favresse, Andy Houseman and James McHaffie. Follow Nick and his partners as they push the limits on some of the world’s most serious routes: The Bells! The Bells!on Gogarth’s North Stack Wall; the Slovak Direct on Denali; Guerdon Grooves on Buachaille Etive Mor; and the north faces of Chang Himal and Mount Alberta, among countless others.
Nick’s life can be equated to the rhythm of the sea. At high tide, he climbs, he loves it, he is good at it; he laughs and jokes, scares himself, falls, gets back up and climbs some more. Then the tide goes out and he finds himself alone, exposed, all questions and no answers. Self-doubt, grieving for friends or family, fearful, sometimes opinionated, occasionally angry – his writing more honest and exposed than in any account of a climb. Only when the tide turns is he able to forget once more.
Tides is a gripping memoir that captures the very essence of what it means to dedicate one’s life to climbing.