Descending the north face of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey on Mont Blanc was challenging at best, let alone when a large rockfall had cut off the route midway down. Standing on a narrow, exposed ridge, Dominic Elliston and his climbing partner, Dax Beresford, had to make a decision. Either climb back up the ridge and find another route down, or traverse a snow-filled chute that seemed to hum with prehistoric danger.
The weather had been on their side all day, with bluebird conditions making the snow sparkle with brilliance. But weather like this was a double-edged sword in an alpine wilderness. The distance across the snow-covered chute was tantalizingly short—forty feet, at a push. But the steepness of the slope and the unusually warm weather conspired to create perfect avalanche conditions.
Contrary to popular belief, climbing down a mountain is even deadlier than going up. The majority of falls happen on the way down from a summit. But knowing this fact wasn’t going to help Dominic right now. Being on the wrong side of midday and with precious few daylight hours left, Dominic wished they’d taken one of the tourist routes like the Goûter Route or the Cosmiques Ridge, which were relatively easy ways to summit the mountain.
However, easy was never an option for Dominic. He usually found himself storming headlong into a situation, only realizing the true danger once it was too late. After all, that was basically the unofficial modus operandi of a Royal Marines commando. But that was a very long time ago. Surely by now, he thought, I’ll be more restrained, more considered. Then again, consequences were preferable to regrets and he only regretted not doing things. Though even by his standards, this was extreme.
Dominic studied the chute through his Julbo glacier sunglasses. “Assessment?” he asked Dax, although it came out sounding more like an order—a hangover from his military service.
Dax grimaced and rubbed the stubble on his weathered face. “Too late to go back up, too dangerous to cross here,” he said in his gruff New Zealand accent.
“No other options?” asked Dominic.
“Weather?” asked Dominic. The weather was a constant, nagging stress, because up here it was the ultimate arbiter of life and death.
“Should hold out, but I don’t like the way this wind is building.”
“Then we should set up an anchor and traverse this chute. One at a time. It’ll be slow, but a damn sight faster than going back up,” said Dominic.
Dax scowled at the suggestion. “That slope just looks all wrong. The alpha angle is off. If the snowpack’s loose underneath, it could slip away big.” As a mountain guide, Dax was always a pessimist, always erring on the side of caution. Which, for some reason, always made Dominic feel more brazen.
“Better make sure the anchor’s solid then.”
Dax shrugged. “You’re the boss. So, you should go first.”
Dominic snorted. “Aren’t I paying you to take the risks up here?”
“You’re paying me to keep you alive up here. Better to have me on the anchor hauling your sorry arse up if you slip.”
“I never slip.”
“Yeah, right,” mumbled Dax. He started uncoiling the rope that was wrapped around his shoulder and torso.
“Never,” repeated Dominic.
The two had climbed many mountains together in the Himalayas, Europe, and parts of North America. Theirs was an easy friendship of mutual respect. Dax treated Dominic like a normal person. There was certainly no distance or deference on Dax’s part. Dominic could be himself around Dax; he didn’t have to live up to the persona that went with his professional life.
They’d been on the Mont Blanc massif for a week now and were due to fly out tomorrow. The thought of a luxurious hotel suite in Chamonix was intoxicating, but a dangerous distraction. When he was in the city—where he spent most of his time now—Dominic craved being in the mountains, yet as soon as he was in an inhospitable alpine environment, he longed for comforts of home. Forever eying the green grass.
Dax quickly set up an anchor while Dominic coiled the rope to avoid any possible snags on the rocks. He felt the cold wind find its way through the gaps in his clothing and stab at his sweat-dampened skin. He was all too aware that stopping for too long on an exposed face like this carried its own dangers.
Once they’d both checked the slings and carabiners that made up the anchor, Dax gave the obligatory call, “On belay!”
Dominic took a deep breath and felt the cold sting his sinuses. He stepped down carefully from the rock ridge onto the snow and sunk up to his knees. The snow was soft and wet—the worst kind. Pressing forward, his powerful legs negotiated the deep snow while he used an ice axe to steady his traverse. The crampons on his boots provided plenty of grip, not that he needed them in snow this deep.
Ten feet across, he stopped briefly to look up the chute. A dizzying expanse of snow and sky was above him. Downslope, the view made his balls tighten and his bowels loosen. The steep runout was a short distance to a lip of snow that dropped off to nothing but air and a deep valley below. Not wanting to mess about, he quickly carried on. With each footstep, he noticed the snow changing. It now had a hollow sound when he placed his feet. It was an alarming feeling to imagine he was on a fragile, thin layer of ice and snow. He prodded ahead with the ice axe to test the footing, which slowed him down even more.
He heard Dax call out behind him. “C’mon, Dom. Let’s have a bit of hustle, mate!”
“Yeah, yeah!” Though he knew Dax wasn’t joking. The more time he was exposed in the middle of the chute, the greater the danger.
Approaching the midway point, a gnawing sensation of instability threatened to turn Dominic around. Halfway there is halfway back, so might as well keep moving forward. He concentrated on every minute shift of his body weight, straining his ears for something out of the ordinary, feeling for the slightest give in the ice. The metal rock cams, carabiners, and pitons clipped to his harness jangled as he moved across the exposed slope. The ice squeaked as it compressed beneath every step.
Then he heard it. Not so much with his ears, but in his chest cavity. An impossibly deep, groaning vibration that flooded his veins with primal terror. He froze, looking up the steep slope at the expanse of snow above him. Everything looked fine—solid and still. He felt the wind on his stubbled cheek, the sound of his Gore-Tex jacket rustling, the pricks of sweat itching his forehead beneath his beanie.
He dared not move an inch and realized that he was still holding his breath.
Twisting, he looked back at Dax.
Dax didn’t call or say a word, he just held up his hand in a hold signal before quickly sitting on the rock with his feet braced in front of him. Seeing this was like a hypodermic needle of dread being emptied into Dominic’s heart. Dax was bracing to take his weight on the belay. When he was positioned, he waved at Dominic to come back.
The simple action of turning around was like a series of yoga moves on the steep, unstable face of the ice. Slowly, carefully, Dominic raised one foot and swung it around wide to avoid catching his crampons. The snow and ice crunched underfoot as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
No further sound came from the ice. Everything seemed still. Even the wind felt as if it had eased. Taking a deep breath, he set off back toward Dax.
As he took his next step, a preternatural cracking sound pierced the stillness and Dominic felt his feet suddenly swept from under him. He was flung onto his chest and immediately began moving down the slope feet first. Without thinking, he went into self-arrest mode. He desperately hauled his torso up and over the ice axe and dug it into the snow. This did nothing to slow his descent as the roar filled his ears and he realized what was actually happening. It was an avalanche.
The rope started to take as he rushed toward the lip. Rock and ice boulders hurtled past him and the air was thick with ice particles and deafening noise. He felt himself sinking into the snow, being swallowed by the gnashing monster. He fought the pull of the avalanche, frantically grasping at anything that offered some purchase, some leverage to keep above the moving monster.
Entwined in the roar of the snow, he was vaguely aware of the sound of his death scream. There was nothing he could do but pray that his rope held and they weren’t both swiped off the mountain. Consequences.
Suddenly, the snow that was swallowing him dropped away as he went over the lip of the cliff and fell into the icy abyss. After what felt like an eternity of free-falling, the rope finally took with a violent jolt and swung him to the side like a pendulum. Dominic could feel the thin rope running across the sharp edge of the rock lip above. It began to abrade while he swung helplessly. He bounced off the rock wall as ice and snow cascaded around him.
The terrifying swing came to an end directly below where Dax had set the anchor. Snow filled the air around Dominic as the chute above emptied into the valley below. His harness dug deep into his thighs and waist and he waited for the straining, fraying rope to succumb to the immense downward pressure. Gripping the rope, he tucked his face beneath the chin guard of his jacket to escape the suffocating ice crystals.
Any second, he thought. Any second and a boulder will strike me and cave in my head.
The immersive roar gradually became a distant rumble below and the deluge of ice and snow ceased. He was swinging from the rope twelve feet below the lip, seven feet out from the rock face and a thousand feet above the valley below.
Dominic breathed deeply. His heart stomped against his ribs as he did a quick check of his limbs. Everything was there, no sign of serious injury.
“Dax!” he yelled as loudly as he could. He listened for a reply. The rumble from the avalanche echoed off the surrounding mountainsides as a huge plume of snow cloud drifted down the valley. Remnants of snow and ice sliding off the cliff made a loud shushing sound.
If Dax was still up there, he couldn’t hear him. There wasn’t time to wonder if he was safe. Besides, there wasn’t anything he could do for him hanging here. Dominic had to get the pressure off the rope quickly and then get himself back up to the ledge.
He considered prusiking up the rope, but the rock wall appeared to have plenty of holds. He hooked his ice axe into a loop on his harness, looked up, and started to swing the rope. It was an unnerving feeling to lever the damaged rope and risk cutting it at this height, but he had no choice. Reaching the wall, he clung to a deep crack that ran up the cliff. He got his crampons onto the wall and briefly savored taking his weight out of the harness and the pressure off the back of his thighs.
His hands trembling from adrenaline, he slowly climbed up. With relief, Dominic felt the slack in the rope being tailed—Dax must have been OK. The lip was the toughest section to negotiate. He scrambled up and over on his belly. Nothing graceful or technically impressive, just a desperate slither onto the relative safety of the upper slope.
Kneeling at the ledge and breathing hard, he looked up and saw Dax standing where he’d left him. Dax had a smug, I told you so expression plastered on his face.
Dominic caught his breath and shook his head slowly. “I didn’t slip.”
“Kinda looked like you did from here, mate.”
“That was an avalanche, it’s different.”
“Just saying, one second you were here, next you were down there.”
“Bollocks. And you left me hanging!”
“Thought you could use the climbing practice. Least we should be able to get across now,” said Dax, pointing to the chute.
Standing up, Dominic looked to where he’d been a few minutes ago. The soft-packed snow had cleared away to reveal rock and hard ice. Glistening snow crystals swirled around him as he set off again toward the other side.
“Yeah, that would’ve been the avalanche,” said Dominic.
Dax smiled. “Call it what you want, I still saved your life! Again.”