Coryphène Trad Climbing – A flirt which could not survive a ground fall
by Salome J.
“Who goes for a route like Coryphène without the certainty of being able to do it?” is the rhetorical question that reaches me from the front of the van. Sunny Monday morning, on the road home from the Calanques, we picked up a friend from his mess of a weekend to drive him back home. The males sitting up front laugh at that question. I don’t. I always go for a route unsure of the outcome. No great danger awaits me, but the possibility of facing a metaphorical wall is always there: on the approach, down the rappels, at the foot of the actual rock face, or even mid-pitch.
My answer is followed by an uneasy silence. Bragging sounds bitter after the events of yesterday. I could brag but I don’t. I feel guilty, unsure, scared in some way of the future to come. Yesterday my partner fell and hurt himself. Sure, he is driving right now, laughing with his friend, and apparently un-harmed. But in private, yesterday, this morning, bragging wasn’t an option.
7 pitches of unbolted trad, that’s exciting. Not that long, but exciting. Add two hours of sustained hike to approach the first rappel, and (as we would discover later) 3 hours of looking for sketchy rapp’ anchors in a dirt face of crumbling rocks and dust, you get a full day in the blazing southern France sun. It’s late May, and summer just started showing us what climate change could bring. We are still enthusiastic at the idea of climbing in the sun. Just a little bit more cautious about the water we will carry. I add an extra litre compared to yesterday, we are off for a harder climb and we will be hauling the bag anyway.
We are in no hurry, alarm has gone off at 7:30, but we were both already awake (early risers are a must on climbing trips). The bags were packed pretty fast, and we left our camp ground on time, if being on time was a thing we had thought about. We know each other, we spent about 10 hours in La Demande in Verdon, but it is 100m longer and has a mystical feel around it. Plus that Verdon trip did definitely boost my trad head. I know I can be faster, and I have been the previous days. We start hiking around 9:45, mistake a path for another, turn around, lose half an hour in the process. Stress hasn’t kicked in. The conversation is mixed between a phone call to a friend to discuss the challenging rappels, our jokes about faces we think we recognize on the way, some flirting and holding hands, and a whole lot of “if we are not back by midnight it means it was too hard for us”. He knows it isn’t, but I don’t. I doubt, and follow. We will alternate leads, but he gets 2 pitches of 6b, while I get the hardest of the 3. I trust my absolute level, but not my ability to spare energy on 90m of the hardest trad I’ve climbed. The rest has a 5c and 6a pitch, he naturally gets the 6a if we keep alternating, and in between I climb a long 4c, a relaxing walk of 50m.
We start rappelling off. I let him go first, self-esteem and confidence give him an advantage over me: if he messes up no one (including himself) will tell him what a failure he is. He misses the third anchor, lands on a lower ledge and takes some time getting back up to the right one. We are already wearing our climbing shoes and the dirt sticks to our feet and ankles. Those are short rappels on a positive face, the rope moves soil as we lower ourselves under the subsequent rain of pebbles and dust. Our mouths are dry by the fourth rappel that was hidden 2 meters higher behind a boulder. Glad I spotted it, as well as the obvious ledge of the following one. The last two remaining require skills to reach anchors that are far in the overhanging wall which forms the three starting pitches. That also takes a lot of time.
When we finally reach the foot of the route, on a triangle ledge 7 meters from the sea, the sun is at its highest, so is the heat. Below us boats of lazy weekenders and tourist tours point at us and we can hear in the megaphone “climbers on one of the hardest face of the Calanques”, it’s just for show, but all those eyes and all that laziness make our endeavour slightly more absurd and appealing. It is late. I can’t remember how late, some minutes before 3? Or before 2? Too late anyway, we need to set off rapidly. Anyway we cannot wait to climb at that point. The hike was nice but took its toll and rappels were anything but a good time. We pack up the hauling bag and the remaining tension linked to finding the rappel itinerary and we rope up. The ledge is small and I can’t find a good belay spot between the bag and the rope. I am fumbling around with my feet to make some more space looking at the sketchy n°3 set in a crack as my belay station. While those thoughts occupy my mind, he has organized his gear and is ready to go. I check left and think I’d rather start there. But he goes for the righter crack, and sets off confidently, talking to me about those people in the boats, bathing in the sun while we are about to go on that adventure. We are not on the adventure yet. His feet are one meter from the ledge, he is considering getting a sling through a rock bridge at the height of his shoulders. He does it with little conviction about the usefulness of such protection: we are trad climbing, the leader never falls, and especially not one meter from the ledge on an easy 6a beginning. He moves right from the rock-bridge and up a little to reach the main off-width chimney we would follow the next 90 meters.
That’s where it happens. His right foot slips, and his tall body occupies for an instant all the space between the wall and the ledge. Arms out and legs pedalling, he hits the corner of the triangle with his lower back and I can see his sunglasses fall towards the water. I imagine the gear flying too, but it doesn’t. My hands have closed on the ropes as soon as I’ve seen him fall, but that’s not enough. The limited space on the ledge has prevented me from stepping back, and he only stops some 50cm down the corner of the ledge. Some 6 meters lower, the water is blue as ever. I look up at the rock bridge that, above that sketchy n°3, is holding the both of us. It holds. “Why weren’t you belaying me?” is the cry that gets me out of my safety check. I mumble a “I was”, realizing that if I wasn’t he would have been down in the water. I am still concerned about the rock bridge and would rather have him on the ledge, so I ask gently if he can get back on. He only has to roll over the edge to be back and safe there. But even then he is breathing hard. The drama happening on the ledge has remained unnoticed by the boat owners and sunbathers. I’d rather have someone else check if he’s alright. But I ask anyway “Are you hurt?” knowing his lower back hit the ledge pretty hard. Legs are responding, but he moves from head to toes as if he was sore all over. I dare not let go of the belay rope, in case he faints or something, he is still pretty close to the edge and not recovering. He sits up, and start checking himself.
I can see pain and anger as I remain quiet in my belay corner. I feel guilty already. It has happened to me once: a friend fell clipping the second bolt on a route a bit hard for him. I knew the route and that first bouldery section: I stepped back and sat down in my harness as soon as he let go of the hold, and stopped him right when his heels hit the ground. And they didn’t hit the ground, just caressed it while he started dangling on the rope. So my experience of ground falls is very limited. I am pretty sure I did everything I could, but he is already giving blame. That makes me angry, while he was falling I had time to assess all the risks that he was facing. Hitting the ledge with a limited portion of his body is the least that could have happened. But I am also mad at myself: I could have said “Wait I need to move the bag to have more space”, or “let’s not hurry at the start, I need to gather my wits after those nightmarish rappels”. But I didn’t. I could have jumped down the ledge to counterweight his fall. I could also have let go of the rope, or he could have neglected that rock bridge… Possibilities are endless. And I am no one to change the course of things. Now decisions must be made.
“How are you feeling? What do you want to do?” We discuss solutions back and forth while waiting for the pain in his back to go away. No major injury, nothing with symptoms at least. I guess spine is ok, as well as head. My worry is for his coccyx. But he wants to go on, so I bet the pain isn’t that bad. I offer we invert the lead so that he doesn’t have to get back on that pitch. I can never get back on something after taking a bad fall. Mentally I hold, but physically my body resists “not going back there, it hurt last time”. He seems different. He wants to go. It’s a 30m 6b trad. No escape before R3 (meaning up those three 30m pitches of 6b). Are you sure? I know I can do it, but I can’t do it by myself, let alone drag him all the way. At that point we don’t know it, but we have been losing so much time.
He goes up again, climbs slowly and prudently, placing gear. No major issue up this pitch. I set off to discover the crispy rock that is so characteristic of this route. Chips of white limestone peel off the holds, it feels like holding layers together by compressing the slopers to go up. I meet him at the belay, we exchange gear but barely any words, and here I am on the hardest pitch of my short trad climber’s career. I climb well. The best I have climbed a 6b in my life. I enjoy it a lot. This overhanging off-width with organic shapes and round holds offers a variety of knee-bars and hand-locks. The rusted pitons are no use, and I fear rope-drag as I start seeing the belay ledge on my left. The climb is special, or is it my mind-set?, I feel challenged and encouraged at the same time. It does feel harder than the previous pitch, more continuous even if I manage some amazing rests thanks to my short stature and flexibility. I reach the belay, with a lighter head, thinking the day might go on as planned. I kind of feel like holding him in my arms. Apologizing for the accident, and erasing it from the history of the day to enjoy that beautiful route. His gloomy face passes the ledge, and reaches the anchor. The bliss of the pitch disappears as the weight of the events returns to me while the gear returns to him.
Up the third pitch, that he led, he loses it. His face is white, pains soars, hauling the bag and belaying me he feels like puking. We are out of the difficulties of the route. I can lead everything from there. I try to be encouraging, I stand strong and confident (on the outside) to let him release a bit of his troubles on my broad shoulders. I’m resolute “Tell me where to go, and I will bring you home safe and sound”. His answer curbs my enthusiasm “sound? That’s already too late”. Alright, no need to argue, just keep going or it will get worse. I fix my eyes made blurry by anger tears above me to try and find the route. My sense of itinerary on rock is not that bad. But I am looking at the 50m 4c pitch, and it has nothing to do with rocks! We are back on the rappels slopes, of bushy vegetation and dusty soil, with faces of grey limestone showing for 4 meters at the time. I don’t know where to go. The black dihedral I am aiming for has a twin. I crawl/climb on the slopes until the ropes get caught up in a bush. I build an anchor there, thinking how tired I will be if I have to suffer so much drag on 30 more meters. He reaches me looking worse than before. So I set off again quickly to avoid facing his pain and complaints, my guilt, and the shredded trust laying between us. Actually at that point I set off quickly to finish the route as fast as possible: the analysis of the broken relationship would come later.
He joins me at the station, back at the foot of a proper rock face. At that point I am getting tired. I am not sure I can keep hauling the bag, kinda dragging him behind; and I have to manage our safety as each pitch takes a bit more of his energy and he is less and less active at the stations. Apparently his back is hurting more and more as the muscles get colder. He decides to lead that one pitch out of fear of not being able to set off if I go. I am worried, it’s another weird chimney, and obviously your back and spine get in unnatural positions in those climbs. He does it, smoothly. In front of us, there’s a long 5c pitch, a weird traverse and a bolted 6a+ that he knows. I lead the 5c, he even compliments me on my gear placement when he reaches me. Were those the first gentle words we exchanged since the accident? Maybe. I forget about the pain in my arms, and sets off again, hauling bag on my back, to traverse to the next station. I am fast and unprotected most of the time. But I am confident now.
The sun has lowered, the light is beautiful but dimming fast. A long bolted pitch stretches in front of me. I gather all the quickdraws, leave the hauling bag at the first bolt, and set off on a fast and beautiful climb. Last pitch of La mémoire de nos enfants, ironic name when he is always joking about marrying me or making babies as the only way to keep me around for sure. If we were to have kids, that day would probably become a good (or bad) family story; or not, if we were to have kids, that day would be followed by thousands of other days of adventures probably better and worse than this one. I don’t linger on the idea. I don’t want kids, and I don’t need to tell my adventures to anyone. Living them is the best part. I look up and the next bolt disappears in the greyish light of sunset. I reach the station, and night creeps around while he makes his way up.
Back to the top, two hours from the car, I gather the ropes, tie them up, and organize the bags with one super heavy (for me) and another super light (for him). He calls his parents while lying on the ground. Their babble reaches me from far away. I am still coping with the accident, listening attentively only when they talk about the gravity of his injury. It is all fine, but I still want to get him back to the van as soon as possible. When everything is packed, we are off. No words, except to that friend on the phone, that he calls right before midnight to prevent further worries. They chat, laugh, joke… I feel so distant from that lightness. I only get his gloomy face. Anger, resentment, coldness on his part. Guilt, sadness, determination on mine. I offer a hand on the last uphill segment. I offer to drive. I offer to go straight to ER. I offer to make a bowl of pasta at the camp ground, I offer a kiss as he lays in bed. There are so many things he refuses to take after that day on the Coryphène.