Before I explain why and before I show some nice pictures, I have to state, that to date, this was the most brutal outing of my life. It is not the duration or the heavy bag full of necessary survival and mountaineering gear, nor the weather and the sudden weather changes, what made this 2 day journey physically and mentally so demanding. It was the constant physical work of minding and creating your own track, checking on avalanche risk and snow-holes with no break and looking out for down-shooting rocks on vertical slopes, launched by mountain goats or the melting ice. A fast alpine peak ascent is often in the 10hour or less range, what covers often 70% approach and 30% technical sections. Well at this moment with the mixture of melting and ice-hard snow, it is the exact opposite. Hard technical work of 70% of the time while at least half of this is very exposed, then some easy to moderate approach for 30% of route.
When climbing up on frozen walls of snow, ice and rocks, foot placement is crucial. You must position your crampons and ice-axe / poles correctly to have the best grip, basically to keep you alive, as if not there would be some 300 plus meters waiting you “to be absorbed”. On 45° to 50° slopes, the avalanche risk assessment is constant and your life depends on your route choice. The wet snow sometimes made me climb upwards in chest deep wet and heavy snow, not powder, but real wet partially melting and frozen slush. It was a must to select sections where I can have a small safety break on a cliff, reroute myself, check GPS position and change line.
All horizontal trails what joins multiple cols together are completely invisible too. These are normally hikable literally in sandal summer time. However what you can see now is just a freakishly vertical frozen snow wall. Climbing slightly upwards is always easier, than descending. I often chose to get slightly lower than my point of arrival and did these horizontal, but very exposed traverses in a low uphill angle. Imagine doing 1km in an hour and the half, moving side to side, smashing your crampons into the wall and looking permanently for a safe spot with your axe. It is not like mixed climbing, when you can nearly always see a patch of security. No ! When you are engaged, you are mentally surely locked in for 90minutes at a time. No chance of panicking, no possibility of mistakes. Anything goes wrong, you end up 100s of meters below, possibly in a frozen lake ! I was in the state of the deepest presence I ever felt. Super calm and completely zenned out, but zoned in !
Finally the flat or slightly angled snow fields. These were just the most relentlessly unstable surfaces ever. Sometimes you walk for 5minutes feeling happy, then bang your knee into a rock, due to a sudden immersion into shoulder deep snow. I even got submerged 3meters under. It was a good 20minutes of hard work, to get myself out to the surface. We know that avoiding trees and rocks is part of the safety measure on snowfields, cause the structure is weaker there and you might experience an even up to 10m sinkhole. Did not make a difference. I had to go an all 4s for around 2,5 hours by wearing all my waterproof gear in like 20°C temperature. I was checking the snow quality with my poles constantly and just by dropping my walking stick vertically, it would submerge completely. Finally when reaching high ground, knee deep wading was possible.
We don’t talk about super technical mountaineering here nor very high end alpinism. However, due to the constant exposure to danger and the excruciating physical work, my body was getting into a state of trance, a state of flow of “concentration and muscular contraction”. Nothing else mattered. At the moment you don’t feel it, you just move, groove with everything you got. But when it’s over, you are spent, exploded in bits and pieces and felt apart. This is the third day after this experience and I am still having bags under my eyes, due to some adrenal fatigue, I still am very much wrecked in my knees, calves, shoulders, lower back, but the mental fatigue is even deeper.
The first day comprised the traverse of the Col de Gialorgues and climbing up towards La Bonnet, by passing Col des Fourches, an old military basecamp. I found a small shepherd hut not so far under the col, where I had a long night sleep. I had arrived there a bit too early, but I decided to go to bed asap and woke up intuitively. I was in my sleeping bag at 17:45, was snoring till 2am and after a coffee and the remaining cous cous – macadamia nut meal, I was back on the snow at 3am.
The Col de Pouriac was the first stage, where the snow was still very firm. Morning temperatures were ranging from -5°C to +5°C, depending where I was in the valley. However, up on the Col, icy wind was blowing and the downhill was so frozen ,that I had hard time really penetrating the surface with the crampons. One of the dangerous traverses were at this spot, with headlamp and navigation with 100% GPS. Then some technical parts and the final descent to the village of Ferriere. An Italian thirty house community, where I met the only person during my 2 days adventure. The next section was a climb up to Col du Fer, then a descent to Lac de Vens and the vertical wall of climbing back to Lac Babarotte was a treacherous one ! I did not do 20km in like 12hours. Monstrous it was. I consumed 4 sachets of nuts, 10gels, 200g of dark chocolate and at least 500g of dates. It was not enough !!! I drank at least 6L of water, but still was dehydrated. I had not pissed. On the descent to St Etienne de Tinée, I refilled my camelback twice so finished the 15,5 hour day with like 9L of water and 8000kcals consumed. Climbers don’t often use water bladders, as it freezes, but I just blew back the water from the tube and except some light ice chunks, water can flow freely.
Fortunately I had at least good weather. This means some light rain, snowing every 30minutes, regular strong wind gusts, some hail and rarely, some sunshine. The Mercantour is very unstable. When everything looks perfect, this is when big thunderstorms happen with 1m of snowfall in like 5hours. When the wind is blowing, there is no constant cloud cover and all clouds have different colours, you know what to expect. Even the darkest most blackest cloud would be out and away in 20minutes.
10hours of hard work on the first day and 15hours of sufferfest on the second one. I don’t know why us endurance men like the exposure to elements out of control We also tend to forget way too fast and I am already planning my next long days in the mountains.
- Osprey Exos 58L
- Tent: Ferrino Bivy Tent
- TNF 5 Point Vest
- Z-Lite Thermarest Mat
- Millet LTK800 Sleeping Bag
- Cooking: Esbit Stove 13g, Vargo Wind Blocker 38g, Elderid Titane Cup 660ml 65g
- Black D Alu Z-Pole 120-140cm
- LS Trango Alp
- Altra Lone Peak 2.5
- Mountain Hardware – Ghost Whisperer Jacket
- Lifesystems Rescue Bag
- Petzl Ride – Ice Axe
- Simonds Steel Crampons
- Garmin GPS60s + Samsung S7 + Nokia back up phone
- FastFind Ranger – PLB: Personal Locating Beacon
- 16000mah battery
- Suunto Spartan Ultra
- Silva Ranger Compass
- Cous cous – Organic whole
- Sausage – Paprika, garlic
- Cheese – Comte 12monts
- Pitted dates – deglet nour
- 15 Gels – Overstims all tastes
- Energy Bars: Cricket Protein Bars from Yumpa
- 4 sachets of mixed cashew and macadamia
- 3 tablets of Dark Chocolates
- 4 sachets of Overstims energy powder