Close encounters on the Grandes Jorasses

by Larry Ware

Many years have come and gone since the day on the Walker when I had the good fortune to meet Claudio Barbier. Roger Brook and I have just survived a sleepless night on a bivouac ledge near the bottom of the wall.

Two Germans have been shot down by lethal rock fall a few days previous to our stay. This we have not been aware of as we dodged ricocheting massless with our mis-spelled names splashed across them.

As the sun timidly peeked its weary eyes over the prickly horizon, we were already hihh tailing it for the upper reaches of the Walker. Progressing up towards the historical Rebuffat bivouac, we were passed, goingin the opposite direction, by more rocks doing their apprenticeship in the laws of gravity, followed closely by retreating members of the more human species, their nylon means of descent sweeping the face before them. We passed eight such reteating climbers. Curiosity finally got the better of me, I asked the obvious question. « Why? » The weather, they said, was changing. We hardly mountainers, with our days supply of Mars bars, minimal bivouac gear, immediately ticked them off as so many wisps and clambered on. The Jorasses Hut was still a fair distance away.

Yet, despite our carefree attitudes, I must admit to a sort of warm feeling of relief when low and behold we espied two lone figures on the other side of the traverse which follows the Rebuffat crack. I climbed across towards them making my usual line of silly comments to appease any fear that might have slipped unawares into my consciuos mind. The figures didn’t move upwards for the older of the two was stealing my partner’s and my soul with his magic box. The camera was still clicking as I reined in beside him. We greeted each other through gritted teeth. Upon being informed as to their nationality, I felt compelled to show off my limited knowledge of Belgian climbing circles. « I’ve heard about one Claudio Barbier. » I informed them. The older of the two beamed his pleasure at this knowledge. I interpreted this reaction as one of gratitude that a Belgian climber should have been heard of across the seas. So, I went on to expound on my Alpine learning by saying, »I’ve heard that he is a bit deranged and decidedly marginal. » I was of course most lost for words when I was informed that the older was…Claudio Barbier. As I remember it now, he was most polite about the whole affair, making me feel the more embarrassed.

Their rope maintained the lead until around two o’ clock in the afternoon. This permitted me to appreciate Claudio’s amazing ease on rock. This did not mean that he, in anyway, ever relaxed his concentration: quite the contrary. Where as I tend to incessantly babble or sing home-made compositions, Claudio was almost religiously silent.

Bernard Hanoteau à la Walker (ph. Cl. Barbier)
Claudio Barbier à la Walker (ph. B. Hanoteau)

On top of the Grey Tower Claudio and his partner stopped for lunch, but, as we didn’t have that much to nibble on. We diceded to continue. It was early and we still had high hopes og getting to the summit before dark.

We had only climbed for two more bitches when the mist enveloped us in its ominous shroud, thus awakening us to a rality that we hadn’t been aware of: that there had most probably been a slight bit of good old common sense in the « wimps » decision to retreat. As the first flakes settled on my helmet, heralding what was inevitably to come. I started off on the next pitch. Roger tried in vain to entice me back, but somehow when the worst is upon me I have this maddening craving to be heroic. But lightning glued my fingers to a carabiner and upon jerking the twitching member free, I reseeded back into my natural human garb. In other words, I blush to admit, I was scared. I took Roger up on his most generous offer to lower me back down tohis minute ledge. It was snowing quite hard by then so out with the bivi tent, great invention, on with down jackets and oieds d’elepfants(that is to say mine as Roger only had a plastic bag to shelter his feet, and we settled our rear cheeks most miserably upon what purchase there was. Our only protection was a sling-treaded moac (nut). As I recall the vieuw downthe face was quite ethereal, the snow blanketing the precipitous wallsbelow.

Claudio had made his home on the ridge of the right of us. He must have hada breathtaking vieux of the « Shroud » between whisps of dancing mist.

Claudio Barbier, bivouac (ph. B. Hanoteau)

A bivouac is a bivouac so I want go into details. Suffice it to say that both Roger and I promised not to mention dying, we were far too younganyway. We tore a paper back of mine in two and settled in to wait the imminent and the storm. We were to reside there for twenty-four hours.The last half spent hanging from our uncomfortable harnesses. The void becoming most impatiently. The only pleasant memory I still have was that of the Caruso like voices of three Italian climbers who had bivouaced a few pitches below us. They serenaded us all night, their voices erily bouncing off surrounding walls. They ware a fabulous trio and I would like to extend to them a vote of thaks for their most couragious morale. Mostimpressive was the fact that their team was composed of a Guide lacking inmost of his fingers, another guide without toes and o client who was certainly getting his money’s worth.

Canaly of the Mac Kinley fame was the toeless leader. He has since died in an avalanche. He was, as all those who were fortunate enough to know him were aware, a wonderful man and a remarable climber.

As snow drift after snow drift had rendered our happy home most unlivable, Roger and I democratically decide to pull uo « anchor » and move up. As I had already climbed most of the pitch above, I generously permitted Roger to have the first lead. Was it my fault if my lovely rock pitch had become a vertical snow pitch and that the pitons had disappearde somewhere below thepure white surface. Anyway off he went, as I stoicly stood there up to my waist in accumulating snow drift.

As I was feeling most woebegone and lonely, I shouted across to the Belgian hovel on the not too distant ridge. Claudio’s partner answered me and we exchanged polite conversation; what beautiful weather, etc… But no utterance was forth coming from the leader until I asked as to their plans. Here I was answered by Claudio who stated most emphatically that he was waiting for a helicopter to whisk them off. I remember being quite tongue tied at this statement and felt it necessary to point out that no suchrescue was possible under the present conditions: zero visibility and high winds, but there seemed to be no persuading him, and in any case, Roger had accomplished the amazing feat of getting to the top of the pitch so off Iwent to join him wishing Claudio good luck.

After three not too memrable pitches in gruesome, cold conditions, we suddenly heard voices above us. There was a spattering of English and another of german. Polish was also being used though somehow lost to me in the crowd of recognisable tongues. On to the ridge below the Red Chimeny we clambered and there we were no longer alone in our vertical white desert. As we had only two Mars bars left, the generous offers of soup and tea were most welcome though I must admit to feeling most sheepish at having not beought food and cooker with us. It was a lesson well learnt. You may be fit and fast but weather doesn’t care.

In any case, we settled down with the others on the ridge and made ready for one more uncomfortable night on the mountain. I thought ever so briefly of Claudio waiting impatiently for the expected rescue all those pitches below. He must have been getting tired of the italian repertoire. Then dark closed in and sleep somehoe took over. We felt paradoxally secure in the idst of our ten new companions.

As day broke, we all decided to rope together for the two pitches up the Red Chimeny. It was a long wait as each team in turn struggled up the rope lenghts. But the weather was fine and the atmosphere was most congenial. At about ten o’clock, Claudio’s rope was at my side, followed closely by the Italians.

I tied one of Claudio’s ropes to my harness and the Italians clipped one of theirs to Claudio’s companion Bernard (Hanotteau). One big happy family. I tend to recall that Claudio appeared to be quite drained of all colour. He seemed very upset, even scared. But this seemed most implausible because so contrary to what his reputation would logically lead one to believ. Had not this man soloed all three North Faces of the Lavaredo in one day? I did notknow then as I do today of his phobia concerning snow and ice. I don’t want to down grade him in anyone’s eyes for he was to become a most feeling andgenerous friend and I for one most sorely miss him.

But as I have been asked to put down on paper an account of what happened to him on this most dramatic ascent, I will attempt to do so honestly.

After the first pitch of the Red Chemeny, which even in normal conditions is demanding, Claudio’s fingers were frozen solid. He was obviously not used toclimbing in gloves and had climbed bare handed. Luckily he was on the end of a tight rope and when he got to mehe was in tears. I helped him warm his hands but the subsequent pain drove him to near to hysteria. I then brought his mate up to the stance and groped my way up to the top of the next pitch only to find that we had been left behind by the teams above, impatient to get to the top and down to the hut by night fall. Again I brought the Belgian party up to my small stance as Roger, unbelayed, crossed a patch of snow to the bottom of a semi-gully. Upon arriving at small bump of protruding rock he drove a knive-blade halfway into a blak crack and hung from it precariously. I started confidently across. Then I was hanging under an overhang like a disjointed puppet at the end of the rope which Roger was holding mostprofessionally around his waist. The fresh patch of snow, which Roger had crossed most confidently a few moments before had chosen that moment to take its leave of the rock: me with it.

How I got back up over the overhang and found myself panting beside Rogerwill forever be a mystery. Roger had taken all the weight thus avoiding toomuch of a demand on the shaken peg. I didn’t stop to express my gratitudebut, half stunned, climbed as fast as possible to a more secure stance further up. Claudio had apparently been even more shaken than I by the turn of events and consequently refused to unripe from us. Even the Italians refused to detach themselves from the « umbilical cord ». So dodging rockspelting down from the exiting ropes above I climbed with great alacrity for the summit. Roger was not able to belay me since to save time he was compelled to belay Claudio who was climbing like the shadow of the man I had seen in action two days previuosly. I felt sorry for his mate, who being quite inexperienced had put all his trust in Claudio. Getting up lastpitches was thus slow and I was often giving vent to my impatience. At last, at six in the evening, we were all on the top.

Claudio Barbier, sortie de la Walker

It had been a truly international rope. Unlike the Britich, who wereto later write a most ridiculous and unjustified report of the last day, pompously expanding their chests, the Poles waited for us on the top to make sure that we all got up. They had even had the good grace to leave one of their ropes hanging through the summit cornice. A true example of what the « esprit  » de corps should be in the mountains. Once up, ratings set in, Roger and I were to sleep another night on the mountain, but this time on the descent. Claudio suddenlydiscovered wings, and as Canali knew thw way down through the seracs, they spent a warm night at the hut. We straggled in the next morning.

There is not much more to the story except that the spaghetti was delicious at the hut and we finally returned to Chamonix, it mas morbidly amusing to read our obituaries in the day’s paper. We had been given for dead.
Claudio’s fame gave the newspaper story that much more colour. The Japanese climbers, a still rare sight in those days, broke open a few bottles of Champagne at the Alpenstock cafe to celebrate our resurection. And I distinctly remember Claudio dancing on the tables singing songs in every language possible: and he was a master of many tongues.

Claudio and I became good friends. There was mutual respect. We climbed again together but on minor rock routes. I don’t believe the mountains ever again had a physical attraction for him. I miss him. We all miss him. He was a great climber, a great fried. He had the heart of a child and the wisdom born of innocence. But are not those the makings of a true poet.

Bergheil, my friend.

Larry Ware

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