Kev Reynolds and his climbing partner Hugh explore the Vignemale and Vignemale glacier in the Pyrenees, but all was not well when they crossed the glacier.
Entering Spain on the way to Morocco in 1965, our truck crossed the Basque country as daybreak stole from the sky, with the Pyrenees depicted in that soft light as little more than low misted hills. Weeks later, with Atlas dust grimed into our clothes, we returned via the eastern end of the range, with heavy rain obscuring any view of mountains. The High Pyrenees would have to wait. And then when I did get to see them at last, it was only as a distant outline from the swift-nested ramparts of Carcasonne – a ragged horizon turning purple when the sun dropped. Having run out of money I turned to hitch my way home.
But the Pyrenees were worth waiting for. A first visit revealed snow-capped 3000m peaks, modest glaciers, fragrant valleys and canyons, hundreds of sparkling lakes and the richest mountain flora in all Europe. I’d have to return. So I did. Again and again, year after year, until the Pyrenees became my spiritual home.
To help pay for mountain holidays, I was writing magazine features about the Pyrenees at a time when no-one else was doing so. One day I received a call from Walt Unsworth, editor at the time of Climber and Rambler, one of only two or three outdoors magazines on the market in the UK. He’d started a small guidebook-publishing business. Would I be interested in writing a guide to the Pyrenees? Having never looked at a guidebook before, let alone used one, I did some basic research to find out what sort of information was required for such a book. It seemed straightforward enough, and the prospect of becoming a published author did wonders for my ego. So I signed the contract and set to.
First published in 1978, Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees is still in print, providing an endless set of excuses to revisit those enchanted mountains to walk, trek and climb as I gather material for new editions and updated reprints. And every visit is cause for celebration.
Hugh, I discovered, had an insatiable appetite for climbing. With each summit reached during that hectic fortnight in 1978, he’d point to a neighbouring peak and demand to know its name, altitude and history. He’d spot a high point far off and want to climb it, so we raced from one massif to another, scrambled up gullies, chased along ridges and collected summits like manic Munro baggers. And when he caught sight of the Vignemale, with the longest glacier in the Pyrenees, he demanded we add it to our list. Little did he realise what that would lead to.
‘So what happened to daybreak?’
It must have been at least two hours since he’d anticipated sunrise would happen within the hour, and there was no sign of it yet.
Hugh had left his watch at home, and mine had given up the ghost a couple of days ago, so we had no firm idea of time. Not that it mattered overmuch, but it would have been helpful now and then. Last night, for example, we’d discussed making our ascent of the Vignemale by way of the Ossoue glacier shortly after dawn, which would mean leaving our tent in the dark and using headtorches to find our way up the trail. ‘A little over an hour should do it,’ I’d told him. ‘Fine,’ he’d said. ‘We’ll set out an hour before the sun comes up.’ Tapping the side of his head, he’d claimed to have an inbuilt clock. ‘I’ll give you a call,’ he’d said. ‘Trust me.’
Now we were seated upon lichen-cushioned rocks by the snout of the glacier several hundred metres higher than our tent, and stars were still flashing in the black night sky. If sunrise were imminent, it was a well-kept secret.
I don’t know how long we sat there, but dawn was a long time coming. So long, in fact, that I reckon he’d woken me some time before midnight; although we’d never know for certain. But when day did break at last it was spectacular, for as the mountains emerged from darkness, the valley in which Gavarnie lay far below now filled with cloud, with only the upper reaches of the Cirque wall standing clear. Streamers of sunlight – ranging from magnolia to a deep cherry red – flooded the sky and dazzled on the glacier beside us.
‘Time to go,’ I said, desperate for activity, and we roped up.
Our route led up the left-hand side of the glacier below the Crête du Montferrat, and as I’d been on the mountain before I was happy for Hugh to take the lead and have the task of breaking trail through the fresh snow that covered the ice. There was a purity about that snow covering, but it also demanded caution as crevasses could be hidden by it. Because of that, Hugh probed the way ahead with his ice axe while I enjoyed the views.
It was a slow plod that morning, and after a while he grew weary of the glacier, for he much preferred to be on rock. ‘If it’s not vertical,’ another climber once told me, ‘ice belongs in whisky.’ Perhaps Hugh sympathised with that notion. ‘What’s that ridge like?’ he asked, pointing off to our right. ‘Interesting, but not overly difficult,’ I told him, ‘with a monstrous drop down the north face on the far side.’
I then proceeded to explain that there was a route across the summit of the Petit Vignemale that continued to Pointe Chausenque, beyond which it was necessary to descend to the glacier and cross the head of the Couloir de Gaube before tackling the final rocks of the main Vignemale summit, the highest point on the borders of France and Spain at 3298m.
‘How about it?’
‘That’s fine by me,’ I agreed.
‘Then let’s cut across the ice and get onto rock,’ he said.
Avoiding a hummock that protruded from the surface of the glacier to reveal layers of blue-green ice, he carefully worked his way towards the ridge that formed the glacier wall. Then suddenly he stopped and muttered: ‘I’m not sure I like this.’ And as he spoke I noticed he was sinking through the snow surface.
I just had time to slam in my ice axe and put a twist of rope round it, and when I looked up there was a neat hole about ten paces away, into which Hugh had disappeared. The rope was running after him, snatching coils from my hand, so I threw my weight on the axe, took the strain, and the rope stopped moving.
Somewhere in that hole Hugh would be swinging in a crevasse. I’d never had someone on my rope fall into a crevasse before, but I figured he was strong and experienced enough to climb out. After all, he had prusiks to hand, and I was certain he’d know how to use them, so I relaxed and took my time to study the view. It was a beautiful morning and I had it all to myself. There was no sign of other climbers on either the glacier or its bordering ridges, no recognisable sound disturbed the peace, no bird sailed above or below me. Nothing moved, save for the sun, which climbed slowly above the distant mountains, and Gavarnie’s cloud-sea that started to evaporate as the day began to warm. My location on the glacier was perfect for a study of the frontier peaks, and I was content to put names to individual summits, ticking off in my mind those I’d summited in the past. So many held memories, and they’d never looked better than on this pristine morning.
But as time ticked by I began to wonder how Hugh would be faring in his crevasse, with a view somewhat less expansive than mine, but a situation rather more exciting.
Ignorant of the true passage of time, it seemed that I knelt on the ice for at least half an hour, but it was probably much less than that. There was still no sign of Hugh, and I speculated whether I should untie the rope and go home to inform his widow where his remains could be found.
Then I noticed a movement around the hole. The tip of an axe appeared. Then the top of a helmet. Hugh’s face looked out at me; it was red from exertion. Then both head and shoulders were revealed.
‘Hold it there,’ I suggested. ‘This will make a great picture.’
And as I carefully composed my photograph, he spoke. Rather calmly, it seems, in retrospect.
‘I shouldn’t take too long if I were you,’ he said. ‘Only, from where I was swinging, I could see exactly where the crevasse is running. And you’re standing right over the top of it.’