Rapelle-toi ... 8 days to remember

08/10/2012 11:49


In the week of Monday, 6th February  until Monday, 13th 2012 Matthias and me climbed " Rapelle toi que tu es un homme" and "Rappelle toi que tu es gnome", two exceptional lines in the Hautes Alpes. I let "Cousin Hubert" (WI5+) and the Viollines (WI5+/6) in the Freissinieres valley. Below i have written down some of my thoughts and impressions. 


It is Sunday afternoon, February the 5. The darkness is settling around us while the shadowed landscapes beneath the window of our van are rushing by in high speed. We are listening to our favorite music.I let my mind float, allowing myself to leave everything behind, sinking in this vast ocean of blackness around me, bereft of time and space.

I love these moments of calmness before a coming battle day.


We're heeding towards Briancon. Two extreme lines have formed, "Rapelle toi que tu es un homme"and "Rappelle toi que tu es un gnome" and  like bats to the light we're drawn towards them. We have climbed many long lines in the Hautes Alpes, and each one has been demanding. I expect no less from the climbs coming.


It will not be my lead-day. Nevertheless am i to enter a field, which is extremely dangerous. My task will be to give my husband and climbing partner since over a decade a belay, take photographs, do some filming and then climb up the ice- pitch in as much speed as i am possibly capable of. In most of the extreme lines, hanging daggers and huge icicles are a constant danger. Especially when east sided and sun burnt. Climbing fast is the only way to be safe.


We arrive in the snow laden vallée du Rabioux and settle down for the night.

Next morning i awake by the shrill alarm clock. Its still rotten dark outside and i sigh. The alarm points 5.30. I'm not in best shape these days, the moon cycles take their toll and Coffee does not help much. Nevertheless is the little cup filled with dark liquid my life belt in the morning. It helps me float above the darkness until i have found the force within.  Slowly do i take on full "armor". 

Outside temperatures are good, the cold has settled in again. We put on skins to the skis and start our track to the fall. After 20 minutes the gloom starts disappearing and curiosity takes it place. The valley is wonderful! Wild!  

After 1.15 hour we get a first sight of the fall. It immediately takes away my breath. "Rappell toi que tu est un gnom".The rock face is massive and the ice hanging down in a wild frozen line gleams dangerously in the dawn.The summit of the face is already bathing in red morning light.  Everything seems overwhelming. The feeling of being outnumbered by un overpowering force.

This feeling has become acquainted to me.

I have learnt  to keep it at distance. Slowly we ascend the way up and i try to find center,  adapting to the task at hand.


We inspect the fall sorely, it´s days are counted. The sun has already feasted brightly on it, the ice seems brittle and thinned out. But all in all it seems  still "healthy", we both have a good feeling.


So Matthias heeds for the first pitch through seemingly easy ground. But the  ice is bad and demands a lot of work. Much splinters are coming down and i try to avoid being cut. Soon belay is achieved and i follow up fast. Now starts the first delicate climbing. The belay is on screws, but they seemed to be placed on good ice. With one hand i am on the belay system, with the other i start filming. I hear the sound of the ice clattering down, and from Mat´s movements i  see how brittle everything is, how fragile. The ice is crisp, the sound of it alarming. Mat is in his element now, and apart of holding the ropes and hoping the best for him i can do nothing but watching, listening and waiting until it´s my turn to follow up.


Two pitches are following, each one brittle, tricky and very bad to protect. Sometimes i feel lost in this ocean of ice, this dimensions. Over the years i have trained myself enough to master the physical part of demanding climbs without problems. But ice climbing is foremost a deeply psychological game. And i know that the deep contentment only comes by leading . 


Some of the climbs which we did over the years i never would have wanted to lead, but they do inspire me for the "what is possible." To turn an "impossible" to "possible" is the greatest of human forces and i love to see it, take part of it -or experience it myself, in the deeds of others or in the projects i am aiming for myself. See someone, anyone, overcoming himself, aiming for his "impossible" delights my spirit and motivates myself. 

So arriving at the last pitch i congratulate Mat for this fine climb.

Sharing his highly earned moment of inner peace, i look around and suck in the magic of this moment on this crazy, crazy place, happy to be here, happy to have been part of this extraordinary climb. 


In the meantime the sun has arrived and is floating the whole area with her powerful energy. Some of the smaller icicles on the opposite are already breaking down with shuttering noise and each time the pure sound of it scares my very being to the heart. We still are in the middle of danger, so we press ourselves for speed. I wait on the second rappel and cannot explain myself what Mat is doing so long on the ropes. Only when i abseil myself, dangling three meters apart from the wall with only a huge icicle in front of me, do i notice what a hazard it must have been to find the way back to the wall....

The rest of the abseiling is done in a rush and soon we arrive on the ground. We take the ropes and run to the rocks on the opposite for safety. Finally safe and sound- i let out a huge sigh of relief. Only now do i feel how much of Adrenaline does have floated my system. Seconding on such forsaken places is not bereft of strong emotions, too it seems like.


After a skiing back on crusty snow, falling, taking skins on and off again, i finally see our bus and relaxing hour in sight. We sort out the material for drying and then drive to a nice spot with mountain-view for the night.


Tomorrow will be "my" day. The day when it is up to me to find a line to turn into my personal "possible". 

I am aiming for the "Viollines'" in the  Freissinieres valley.


I feel soar the next day. On the same time i 'm psyched. I cannot wait to finally be on lead in the ice, i can`t wait to get my wandering mind focused, let all my  fears and doubts behind, everything creeping around my very center, pulling me back, cloaking me in, all sourness, all tiredness. I can t wait to shatter it down like glass from my very being. Finding myself and my force on the glassy, utmost fragile medium: frozen ice.


But the "Viollins" are already in battle, two spanish climbers are already climbing on the first pitch. I do not like to be either stressed or  to stress others, so i decide to take the other option just offering itself on the opposite: "Cousin Hubert". The ice is in bad conditions and not optimal to climb, so in the end i have more fun than expected.

Especially the little pillar at the third pitch gives me trouble, since it is thin, and i have to be careful not to destroy it while climbing. But the last long pitch to the end of the climb is beautiful and when i reach the little tree for belay i am thoroughly happy - for today it had been just the right route, demanding but not scaring. 

I welcome Mat, who has not complained once, also temperatures are cold. We drink a tea together and it's for me now to join in the temporary peace.


But another line is waiting, and already the name has given me troubled thoughts:"Rapelle toi que tu est un homme"- how could this be meant? is it a credo to human force, reminding us to be "a man" and up straighten ourselves? Or is it, as Matthias guesses, the phrase which the roman soldiers were reminded to when they returned in glory after battle towards Rom?

Either way this route is promising to take it's toll and i feel already fear creeping in.


After one rest day, we drive to the vallee du Couleau.

A long approach is waiting, so next morning at 5 we take the skis and start on our mission.

The windblown road bents turn after turn, cutting it´s way through the valley. Patiently we skin it up, each of us deeply buried in his thoughts. I'm not bored of the long ascend, it gives me the time to get prepared for what is coming, to sort things out. For me it is the time where my mind works best, untroubled by distraction. 


After about two hours we see the line. An enormous white shield of mushroomed ice and sharp daggers  in the center of a massive black rock-wall. It's dimensions are stunning. It's frozen forms dazzling. Instantly we both come to a stand,  gazing towards this monstrous creation, searching for an imaginary way through the chaos of ice. "This is sick" is the only thing appearing in my mind. A cloak of coldness seems to tower around the place. "Let's get a better sight of it!", Mat suggests and traces the way directly towards the line. On a safe spot near the fall we put on crampons and start to investigate. Standing directly under the fall the power of the lines becomes even more pressing. 

Slowly, we visualize a possible way through rock and a questionable line through the ice.

This will take a tremendous amount of effort. Are we ready for it today? Confronted with such a massive reality we have to be honest with ourselves- "Do , or do not. There is no try" , are the words of Yoda in Star wars- here they seem to be right. No place for playing.

We have to acknowledge that we don´t feel fresh enough for this adventure. We decide to leave and to return the coming day. For today i am utterly thankful for leaving this place. It did not feel right and turning down the slope i feel an immense burden falling down myself. Not once do i look back- the fall has already branded itself in my mind.



Loaded up with new energy we track our way back the fall. Temperatures have fallen rapidly and we count - 17 degree at the parking place, in the valley down they will be even stated below, approximately -20 C. It is going to be very cold.

The atmosphere is serious. I know that i have to be prepared for everything. It will be one of those days where we are going to  commit fully.


We arrive at the fall with the dawn. We put out the headlamps and start preparation. Mat goes for the M8 mixed pitch. There are some old questionable pitons and some few options to place gear. While Mat is in the midst of the climb a group of Skiers arrive and track their way directly towards us. At first i think they are just curious, but then they put away Skis and walk directly towards me: One experienced guy and 2 youngsters. They make jokes while the obvious leader seems to  be a bit more serious, pointing out the way of this climb. We come to a talk and he presents himself as Christoph Moulin! A bell is ringing, here stands in front of me the first ascender of this route himself! Time to ask him for this questionable  " Rapelle toi" name. He answers that it is based on a long story which would take too much time. But we can talk about it later, it has to do with the roman soldiers returning after war... Originally he has come to climb with his 2 companions but on a climb like that, there is no way to climb under another party. They will come back the next day. With that we part from one another and it's again only Matthias, me and this icefall, still towering endlessly above. When it's time to follow up i put off my gloves for better grip and start to climb, hands slowly turning from frozen cold to burning warm. My rucksack is heavy, pulling me back, but i want to climb the pitch clean, so i focus on the rock, searching for good placements and using my hands when possible. I arrive at the belay utterly warmed up and return the gear to Mat. I watch him leaving the rock and setting crampons with uttermost care on the ice. The ice is hard and brittle due to the cold temperatures and the sound of the ice axes moving in is a metallic scratching. The whole fall seems to groan under the attack of the metal. Matthias is searching for a way through the huge corniflowers and candles, but looking up there is no obvious one. He starts heeding back to the more left side and then he is out of side and i concentrate on watching the rope moving, sliding through my hands, meter by meter until it is done. With relief i follow up, delicate climbing with very little foot placements. I am content to have chosen the monopoints for this fall. They avoid that the very thin and brittle foot-placements break and allow exact setting of the feet. With admiration for his lead i handle Mat the ice screws and on goes the climb.



We arrive at the end of the route with the  sun setting down. We are both spend, the climb has been long, cold and demanding. My only wish right now is to find snowy ground again and safety. But there is a long abseiling waiting and we have to build some v- threads. The time is running now fast and i feel  tiredness creeping in.


On the last abseiling anchor the unexpected happens: the darkness has fully settled in, Matthias is already on the ground and i prepare myself for the abseil. There is a huge meduse over which to abseil, and i could feel the black abyss under me when my feet are touching the void. I had not taken on a headlamp, and so all i can see is complete darkness. I scramble back and search for my headlamp, the i abseil down as fast as i can.


But the ropes rest stuck, when we want to pull them down. The knot is somewhere tangled in the corniflowers and so we leave the place, tired and spend.   


I awake the next morning by a radiating winter sun. I make some Coffee and let the memories of the climb pass by. The long day has left it's marks and it is not before midday until we leave, heeding for the fall again, this time to recover our ropes. With no heavy rucksacks on our back the way to the falls seems vastly diminished and soon we stand below it, our ropes dangling obviously from the first pitch. With the crampons on my feet i ascend the last meters until directly under the fall and investigate  the ropes. I pull one end , then the other, trying to get the stucked one down. Being fully involved in this task i suddenly hear a roaring sound, then the noise of a massive impact. I cannot believe it but looking down i see the big stalactite we've climbed on yesterday morning shattered down to pieces right in front of me: The large stumps scattered all over our crampon marks, left just minutes before. I suck in the sight, stunned, wondering.... Slowly we go back to work, but the ropes are totally stucked and we give up. Jümering up on that abalakov, trusting the ice daggers above doesn't seem like a good idea. We return with the upcoming shadows of the night.



We return late at "our " place for the night and i fall immediately into sleep. But the next morning a tough decision is to be made: either give in, into the tiredness and drive home, facing safety but also the greyness of the morning, or to find somewhere the force to go for the project i still had not accomplished: the Viollins.

Matthias can not help me in this decision and i feel  drenched and restless. I want the Viollins dearly but my body feels broken. It is a horrible conflict i am in, but then i am visualizing the long road back to Cogne and the mood i would be in all along if i refuse to take on these last battle.

I put on my armor and told Matthias i would at least take a try. We drove up the valley and i saw them again, majestic shimmering in the morning light, the Viollins. My heart is heavy. The sharp arrow in my mind still not set.

 Only by  approaching the fall, i feel my muscles tighten and my breath deepening and slowly, very slowly confidence is settling in. As soon as the first ice is splitting from my ice axes i know that i have won. I had overcome the body with the mind and nothing could stop me now. The most difficult part had been to bring myself on the ice.

With the doubts disappearing concentration takes  place and i'm climbing fast to the foot of the massive candle. There is another party of three, two of them waiting while their best one is battling on the ice. We come to a conversation. Time is consumed by waiting, i drink tea and watch them climb their way up. Finally the ice is free and i emerge on climbing. Feeling that the  long waiting and the upbuild tension is coming to an end  i release my last energy and concentrate on this awaited moment. There are huge medusas through which to climb and many natural foot placements, making the climb foremost a technical one and sparing muscle power. The ice changes it's appearance and structure while i climb higher and higher and noticing that this fall is fairly within my limits i feel joy overcoming tension. Soon i am taking the last steps out to the belay and clip carabiners .I am full of overwhelming relief and joy. I exchange some easy words with the other climber,share their offered cup of hot cinnamon tea and wait for Mat, who soon joins the little group. He claps my shoulder and we prepare for the abseil.                                                                                                                                                                


On the long car drive back the tiredness of the morning and all dark thoughts seems evaporated. The future lies bright before me, the light burns warm within me and anything seems possible.

I know there is a new morning coming, and new  valleys of fear and doubts to cross soon enough, but standing on top of it right now i just enjoy the illusion of invincibility.

It is this feeling which pays for all the fear, all the risks and all the pain and uncertainty  we endeavor, and it is for this moment we are living for: bathing in the certitude that from time to time, when we offer our best, destiny lies fully in our own hands.




These places of thorough dangers provide a pulling attraction.There are forces buried in them, which we cannot explain but who doubtlessly are leaving marks  deep inside of us.  Returning from these places makes us feel grown inside, formed and shaped by something powerful. We've  experienced intense moments, as if life itself has been bundled in this prism of glass, sucking out life- energy but on the same time returning it in powerful light. We feel elevated, light and full of inner energy, also our bodies are often soar, tired and spent.


These places keep  drawing us back.