If at first you don’t succeed, try again (and go lighter)

Giovanni Rossi

Giovanni Rossi is leading Blue Ice company with a real passion for climbing, flying and alpine culture. That’s why technical products as the Choucas harness are not the result of a coincidence…

It was late July of 2006; I was between two jobs and I had some time to climb that summer, so I thought I was in good enough shape for a great classic alpine climb in the Mont Blanc range: the south ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. The goal was ambitious for my amateur skills, but my climbing partners were highly motivated, and since we had learned to climb in the area, we knew this kind of terrain.

We knew that the climb was very long and we had planned to bivouac before the summit. That was our biggest mistake. There wasn’t any snow to melt on the ridge, so we had to carry two days worth of water, adding another 4.5 kg to our packs, which were already overloaded with food and not-so-light bivy equipment. It looked more like we were setting out to climb for a week in the Himalayas than attempting a classic route in the Alps.

Noire South Ridge, view from the hut ©Giovanni Rossi

We left the Refuge de la Noire early in the morning and arrived at the base of the climb just in time for daybreak. Perfect timing. We were two solid teams and we were counting on our experience on this type of terrain to help us move fast, but we didn’t. The more time passed, the more obvious it became that with our packs we could not move at a decent speed, and that a two-day ascent would actually last at least three days. Our first attempt lasted about three hours before we decided to avoid even more embarrassment and retreated without much pride, knowing that we were not well prepared.

Two years later, another friend called me about his plan to climb the south ridge of the “Noire”. Once again, we would be climbing in two parties: Stefano would climb with me, but our friends Beppe and Sabrina would also be with us. Beppe was preparing for his guiding exam and was extremely experienced, while Sabrina had lots of experience climbing with her boyfriend, a local guide as well. This was good news for me, because I knew that the experience of the two parties would help us make the right decisions. I was quickly sold on the project.

©Giovanni Rossi

Once again there was no snow to melt in case of a bivouac, but this time we did not plan for one. Instead, we very carefully applied the light-and-fast mantra I had learned from my pro-alpinist friends. Before leaving, we weighed everything and replaced the heaviest pieces of equipment with lighter ones. We packed and then unpacked to remove more gear, and then packed and unpacked once again to remove all the redundant tools we did not need. In the end we had: 2 liters of water each, one of the skinniest climbing racks I have ever carried, one knife, one nut tool, one stove, two head lamps, and two emergency blankets for the two teams. A bivy was considered only as a last resort: we had just enough equipment not to freeze at an altitude of almost 3800 meters, but we knew that if we had to bivouac, we would suffer.

I also took great care to make sure that my personal equipment was as light as possible, but still provided a margin of safety. The most problematic piece of equipment turned out to be the harness. I needed something light, since there was little chance I’d be hanging in it for long periods of time on this kind of route. Nonetheless, if we had to retreat, I knew we would have to rappel, in some cases for hundreds of meters, so I needed something comfortable enough. Instinctively, I picked my trustworthy Bod harness. I had already rappelled with it and I knew that the lack of a belay loop would be a major inconvenience, but the wide webbing made it very comfortable and I thought it was lighter than my climbing harness (hey, it is just a piece of webbing after all!). But when I put it on the scale, I found out that it was actually much heavier than most traditional climbing harnesses, so I went for my regular harness, which weighed about 400 grams.

On average, our packs weighed about 8 kg. We knew we could climb confidently for long periods of time with this amount of weight on a route like this one, but we still had enough equipment to safely spend a night at altitude in case something went wrong. And so we began our adventure.

This time around we climbed faster than the first time. When a decision was to be made, Beppe and I would quickly agree on what had to be done and our friends on the other end of each rope would follow promptly. Still, the route finding was time consuming and by the end of the day we were running a little bit behind schedule, so we headed for the descent route just below the summit to gain a few minutes. The descent from the east ridge is extremely tricky and we knew that many tragic accidents had happened here, so we decided not to take any chances and to descend before dawn.

So we did, arriving at the route’s last change of direction just as night fell. It was 9 pm on a moonless night, and all of a sudden we were in the dark, pitch dark.

©Giovanni Rossi

The terrain was easy and normally we would have down-climbed, but it was impossible to see our own footsteps and we only had two headlamps for the four of us. We decided to look for a line of rappels that we knew was in a gully at the far left of the descent, and we found it.

We started the rappels and time began to fly. We were thirsty and exhausted from the day of climbing, but we had to go down. Beppe stoically led every bit of the descent with the only headlamp that was powerful enough to find a belay 20 meters away. With every rappel, my pack and harness dug into my hips, which were starting to bleed. Being four at the belay stations was extremely uncomfortable, and our state of exhaustion was adding to the pain.

©Giovanni Rossi

After countless rappels, we finally hit a hard, frozen névé with no way of escaping sideways. We had neither crampons nor an ice axe, so we joined the ropes together and I lowered myself as far as I could, and then started digging a mushroom for the next rappel with my nut tool. When Beppe joined me, he looked at my primitive sculpture and asked, “Do you think it will hold us?” “No,” I replied, pulling gently on a cordelette around the snow mushroom and looking in disgrace as the whole snow block slid away: The snow was frozen on the surface, but a few centimeters below, it had absolutely no cohesion. It was like digging in sand.

You could almost hear our thoughts: now we are in trouble, who wants to volunteer to slide down a 50 degree frozen snow slope and see how hard the rocks at the end of it are? Then we saw a headlamp, and a dude chopping snow steps at 3 a.m. in the middle of the infamous névé.  “What are you doing, sir?” I asked.  “I was in a tent down there and I couldn’t sleep. I saw your headlamps and thought you might need some help,” he replied.  “Thank you, sir! Could you lend me that ice axe and let me chop a few steps to get out of here?”

I chopped the best steps I could in order to traverse off of the névé as quickly as possible, making a path for my friends. From there, after about an hour of stumbling on every rock on the old moraines in pitch dark (our headlamps had run out of batteries by then), we finally reached the hut, where water, food, and beds were waiting for us.

Time has passed, but the 25 hours I spent on the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey are always with me and in my dreams. I kept thinking about how I could have improved my equipment, and what would have made a difference for me that day. We probably could have left the bivy equipment at home, but that was a safety net I was not willing to do without. On the other hand, the harness, that darn heavy harness, was so uncomfortable! How could I make things better and lighter? Why hadn’t anyone thought of making a light version of the heavy but super comfortable webbing harnesses used in the past? And so while drinking a beer with friends in the Choucas bar in Chamonix, the Choucas Harness was born: a modern, ultra-light harness that is also comfortable in the mountains.

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