The Greatest Gift on the Bonatti-Talbou
“What the hell! Watch me! It is run-out from this bolt and it looks hard! NO, this is way harder than 5c (5.10a). I must be off route. I’m going to have to lower off this bolt back to the belay!” my husband, Jay Smith, yelled at me with anger. It was getting late and we still had another 300 feet to the top, including the crux pitch of the Bonatti-Tabou. I shivered as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the temperature instantly dropped to freezing. Jay was in such a rage that he took no notice.
Why do I do this to myself, I wondered. We had decided to go to Chamonix with Chris Noble and John Catto on one last climbing trip before Jay had to have his shoulders resurfaced. He was in such pain though, that he wasn’t sure he could climb at all and was resigned to the fact that he might just have to go mountain running instead. For me, this promised to be a trip unlike any other I had taken with him. Instead of being focused on the hardest climb we could do, perhaps we could go running together and have a romantic vacation.
We retreated and made it back to the hut just in time for dinner. John and Chris, who had also been on the climb, the Bonatti-Tabou route on the SW face of the Chandelle, decided to try a different route the following day because two teams of two was slow. Our options were limited because extreme warm and dry temperatures had morphed any ice climbs into shriveled tongues of brittle, black ice. The rock faces, between 12,000 – 13,000 feet high, had just received new snow and it was cold enough that the snow was not melting off the ledges.
I marveled at Jay as he announced, “I want to go back to the Bonatti-Tabou tomorrow. Lets figure out where we went wrong. We have to do something big in the mountains. I didn’t come all the way over here just to go sport climbing”. I watched as he popped more pills to mask the throbbing in his shoulders.
At sunrise, as we crossed the heavily crevassed glacier, Jay asked, “What pitches do you want to lead?”
“Well, I was thinking. You know how we each carry a little pack when we are on a long route? Maybe since you are a better climber, I will let you lead all the pitches and I will carry a pack for both of us..” I had decided to suck up my ego for the sake of the team in the hopes that it would be a deciding factor in our success on the Bontatti-Tabou.
Climbing quickly over familiar terrain, we found ourselves back at the pitch Jay had previously backed off of before noon. Upon further examination of the guidebook, we decided to climb a pair of cracks, which were harder than they were rated, but led to the next anchor. There, we stared up at the pin-scarred seam and questioned if it would even go.
“Even if I have to aid the pitch, I think we should do it”, Jay said with uncertainty as he resorted the rack. I watched with baited breath as Jay masterfully cammed his thick fingers and toes into the crack up to a rest before a roof. He had freed that section and, assuming the crux was over, let out a shout of excitement.
Once out of sight, I heard Jay again, “I need more wired nuts. I have another fifty feet to go up a steep headwall. I am not sure about this”. My heart sank, but the rope continued to move slowly upward. An hour later, Jay yelled, “Off belay!”
Back at the hut, as we unroped, Jay gave me a long hug and said with genuine tenderness, “That was the best gift ever!”
Later, he wrote a friend, “Turns out Kitty and I made the right decision and climbed one of the best alpine free climbs I’ve ever done. Every pitch awesome and had me climbing my best in quite some time, no falls no hangs and the crux pitch was like the Crimson Cringe on a dead vertical headwall 800 feet up. The route made the entire trip for me, bloody awesome. Felt like sustained 5.11 fingers for 35 meters and the pitches below were no joke at 5.11b, I’d say. Kitty followed with the pack and still fighting her cold. She did great! Headed out tomorrow for more trad climbing up on the sunny side of Cham. Gotta get in more routes before they cut my arm off”.
I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my ego everyday, but if I did, maybe there would be more room for romance.