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"The first time I helped carry a body off a mountain, it was tough," he says. "After that it didn't really bother me. I never had a friend die with me on a climb. They just went away on expeditions and never came back."
In the summer of 1994 Bouchard attended a dinner party in Chamonix. It was a reunion of sorts, and the climbers, all in their forties or early fifties, sat around a long table on a porch across a valley from the Chamonix Aiguilles and spoke of the dead. Of Bouchard's original circle -- some fifteen British, French, and American climbers who had gotten their start together in the Alps in the early 1970s and had become friends -- about half had been killed in the mountains. In some cases people at the party had been climbing with them when the accidents occurred. In every case they were killed by what climbers call "objective dangers" -- hazards largely or entirely outside their control. World-class alpinists all, they were lost to high-altitude exhaustion, collapsing séracs, avalanches, crevasses. One of them, on Annapurna, looked up at the wrong moment and was struck in the face by a rock the size of a volleyball. Some of the survivors had not seen one another since the accidents, and as the evening wore on, the dead climbers became almost palpable.
Bouchard has climbed as hard as any of his peers (and his six-year sabbatical in paragliding was a good deal more dangerous, statistically speaking, than alpinism). He broke an ankle once, high on Cannon, and finished the climb. Later he was struck by lightning, near the summit of the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses, along the French-Italian border near Chamonix. High on the Gervasutti Pillar, in the Alps, he was once caught in a hail of falling rocks. For half a minute blocks from the size of mailboxes to the size of refrigerators tumbled down the face in a dense cloud of dust. Without cover, Bouchard had no choice but to lower his head and wait. When it ended, a climber in another party -- ten feet from Bouchard -- was dead. Bouchard and his partner were unscathed.
Bouchard speaks of the professional pressure to push limits. "You become very, very competitive," he explains. "As a climber, a first ascent is your work. And like an artist, you need to produce."
A National Merit Scholar in high school, Bouchard went on to earn a degree in medieval studies from the University of Vermont. "In college I was fascinated by the Crusades, by the Knights Templar," he says. "I felt that I had been given a calling -- that I was put here to climb. I had the sense when I was climbing of fulfilling a greater obligation." Raised as a Roman Catholic, Bouchard prays before significant climbs. He says he has experienced something like a state of grace on long, difficult routes, among them his solo first ascent of the Grand Charmoz. Although some of his peers aggressively deny the role of faith or superstition in climbing, Bouchard has found that most alpinists -- novices and experts alike -- carry talismans of one kind or another, and are willing to participate in impromptu religious ceremonies at the start of expeditions. These observances are often a combination of local custom and various Western prayers.
THE following day finds us scratching our way up the mixed ice, snow, and rock of a route called Wiessner's Direct. I have little experience on mixed terrain, and the climbing rapidly becomes more desperate as we proceed. We are not climbing, as alpinists are often forced to do, through subzero temperatures and heavy snow. But it is inarguably winter, and cold. Because many of the moves we make require standard rock-climbing holds, we climb ungloved, our ice tools often holstered. The knobs and ledges of rock are sometimes dusted or even blanketed with snow that must be brushed away with bare fingertips. While trying to attain the foot of a steep triangular snowfield, I have no choice but to plunge a blue hand deep into the surface powder and cling to the crusted snow beneath. In other sections, following Bouchard's unhurried example, I experiment with my tools. There is ice on the route, and ice requires crampons, but because much of the rock is bare, much of the climbing is dry-tooling -- hooking and wedging the picks and heads of the ice tools in rocky cracks, perching our crampon points on granite ledges sometimes no wider than a thumbnail clipping. Some of the slabs and holds are glazed with ice, too slick for a grasping hand and too thin to support a pick or crampons. Such terrain is often unclimbable, and alpinists must seek another way.
Here and there, tucked in cracks, sturdy tongues of ice allow reliable crampon and tool placements. Then we're off onto rock and snow again, mixing holds, pausing to consider choices. Deliberate or intuitive, there is puzzle-solving -- move by move -- in all technical climbing; the variables only increase on mixed terrain.
Near the conclusion of the third pitch, as I hang from my ice tools, their heads stacked above my head in a tapering vertical crack, it occurs to me that my adze -- a bowed crescent of steel sharp enough to peel a potato and designed to clear hard ice from a potential anchor position -- is perfectly poised, should the placement "pop" suddenly under my weight, to strike me in the face. As I prepare to move up with my crampons, I consider this possibility aloud. "It happens all the time," Bouchard remarks offhandedly from his belay position. "A partner of mine had an adze go through the bridge of his nose. It shattered his eye orbit and nearly blinded him."
"Thanks," I tell him, easing up to a higher position on my crampons, out of the weapon's way.
Bouchard wears a canary-yellow climbing jacket. Waterproof, streamlined, devoid of straps, buckles, and extra zippers, it is his latest design for Wild Things, a company he founded in 1981 in North Conway with Marie Meunier, also a climber and then his wife.
"The best climbing gear looks too simple to be appealing to many non-experts," Bouchard said earlier, in the parking lot. "Many of the bigger companies manufacture equipment and clothing that has the climbing look but is actually too heavy and impractical for technical climbing. One company makes a suit covered with gear clips and extra pockets and double zippers. It sells, because it looks hard-core and nonprofessionals don't know better. But no serious climbers I know would ever wear it."
He gestures at my shell, an industry classic that many climbers swear by. "That jacket's heavier than it needs to be. You take a climber's equipment: clothes, boots, tools, hardware. Unless you're manic about weight, it really adds up. A few extra ounces here, a couple there. It's invisible, but pretty soon you're carrying ten or fifteen extra pounds. On a long climb even three extra pounds can kill you." Bouchard then quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on aircraft design: "Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away."
HIGH on Wiessner's Direct, Bouchard sets out across a broad, featureless granite slab, headed for a crack at the foot of an overhanging wall. He has twenty-five feet to travel, and in summer the slab -- angled at about twenty degrees -- would be as easy to traverse as a sun porch. For a climber wearing crampons, however, it becomes a different proposition. There is nothing to hold, no crack in which to secure an anchor, and as Bouchard creeps out across the stone, his knees bent slightly, the angle is just steep enough to make his crampons slide a quarter inch at every second or third step. The narrow belay ledge lies three feet below the edge of the slab. Should Bouchard fall, he will come off. There is no way, I realize, that he could stop the momentum of his fall. He will come into me, complete with crampons and ice tools, or over me if I duck below the ledge. Either way the anchor will sustain a shock.
I glance back and down the nearly vertical wall behind me. Horns of rock protrude from the main face. There is nothing beneath me that anyone would like to fall on, rope or no rope. My responsibility -- at this moment the sole reason for my existence -- is to make sure he falls no farther from the anchor than the length of the rope he has taken out. Conceivably, I could rope in a few feet as he rolls. Should he fall, I decide, I will duck. A crampon in the face or the belay hand, beyond its immediate discomfort, would seriously endanger the belay -- with potentially fatal results. I'll drop behind the ledge, try to take in some rope, let him roll over me, and hope for the best.
I consider the anchor -- two pitons hammered into a crack, knee-high -- and wonder if there's any chance it could blow. Bouchard takes several creeping, precise steps, as if walking on a windowpane, and then he begins to slide. The steel points of the crampons growling on the granite, he slides an inch, two, three, and finally comes to a halt, the points catching on minute granules. He waits for a moment and then carefully steps forward again with one foot. He shifts his weight. It holds. He picks up and places his opposing foot. Step by step he inches closer to the crack and safety. Twice more he begins to slide and stops, each time proceeding a little farther. The farther away from me he gets, the more rope is out, the faster and farther he will fall on the anchor, and the more uncomfortable I become watching him. Finally he reaches the crack and gets a piece in. He clips in the rope. It's done.
For me, traversing the slab is nothing: the anchor is above me. If I slide, the rope will stop me. If I fall, I'll just get up. There, in essence, is the difference between leading and seconding.
By the end of the route -- pawing with my crampons, flailing and hooking with my tools, hanging shamelessly to rest on Bouchard's belay -- I've abandoned anything approaching decent form. For a climber at my level, the Black Dike was a formidable challenge. But Wiessner's Direct, at least in winter conditions, is beyond me. It doesn't help that the route's crux -- a nasty granite fin and then a chimney -- is the climb's conclusion. I get up it, just barely, with Bouchard reeling me in like a tarpon. Exhausted and jumpy, my nerves shot, I'm eager to get off the cliff and down to a warm bar and a meal. As Bouchard coils the rope, a fine snow falling in the dusk, he puts the climb in broader perspective: "On a big alpine wall like the Eiger you have to climb that kind of terrain over and over. Some of the pitches will be a little easier, some of them harder. But most of it will be about like that. Thirty, forty pitches. Twelve or fifteen hours a day. And then, twenty pitches up, you can always get hit by a storm."
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; On Cannon Cliff - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 111-115.