For most of us, even if we climb, a romantic outing with our significant other rarely involves sustained mixed multi-pitch climbs to 14,000-foot summits with sketchy rappels and brutal slogs back to the car. But for UIAGM guide Caroline George, aggressive ice climbing and overnighting at an Italian hut with a husband just back from summiting Fitz Roy is a bit like movie night at the Cineplex for the rest of us. In a recap of her date night-and-day from earlier this winter, Caroline describes the romance of of climbing the Fantasia per Ghiacciatore in her backyard of the Alps with her husband Adam George.—LYA Editor
Words and Images by Caroline George
“Honey, I have an idea for a little romantic date in the mountains!” is how it all started. My husband and fellow guide, Adam George, suggesting a romantic date, in the mountains, with me? How could I possibly pass on such an offer? “Wow, yes! Of course! What did you have in mind?” I had just been on Facebook and seen a post by our friends Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker, who had described climbing a route called “Fantasia per Ghiacciatore” as a dream becoming reality. Knowing Adam and Jon were guiding together on the day he sent me the text, I wondered if that could be the route he had in mind. I was hoping for something a little…tamer for a romantic outing: I hadn’t been climbing much over the fall, wasn’t acclimated–the route tops out at 14,000 ft-hadn’t been on skis yet, I had hurt my ankle, and well, the route was described as: “Sustained, rarely in condition, prone to rock fall and no gear in situations.”
But Adam had just returned from Patagonia, and after summiting Fitz Roy within 72 hours of leaving Geneva, they had spent the rest of their time walking back and forth from El Chaltén to the high camp in hopes of doing something, but the windows of good weather were illusory. So he was motivated to do a hard climb; I was motivated to climb with him; and as the equation would have it, it meant that to climb with him, I would have to do this hard climb.
We packed our gear. He packed the rack. I discreetly packed a ton of ibuprofen so he wouldn’t know that in reality, I could barely walk, let alone carry a pack and skis. But I was determined it would be fine. My parents generously came over to watch Olivia so that Adam and I could spend some quality time together. These days, having a system to care for Olivia is what makes pursuing our passion possible. We drove across the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy and rode the cable car to the Torino hut, which was surprisingly open at this time of year. Two other alpinists were sipping cappuccinos when we arrived, bathing in the afternoon sun, looking out the window at the dramatic south side of Mont Blanc, with the Peuterey Ridge on the skyline.
The alarm clock rang all too early, as it does when you set out for a bigger day. Breakfast was waiting for us on the little square dining table. My favorite treat in Italian huts is to eat bread, butter and Nutella all together, something I would never do at home. I gulped a few ibuprofens, taped my ankle tight, and off we went in the crisp dark night, gliding on our skis to the Cirque Maudit. We guessed where the route was despite the lack of light, switched from our ski boots to our mountaineering boots, and geared up to climb. It was mid-December, so we didn’t expect the sun for another solid hour. Adam headed out in the dark, and crossing the bergschrund proved a little challenging with unconsolidated snow on a short but slightly overhanging lip. The first pitch was thin, technical and hard to protect. But the sun had just hit the route and we were thawing out as we were climbing. The best feeling!
The first couple of pitches of the route offer a both ice and mixed climbing to a steep roof with marginal gear that Adam made quick work of. The ice on it was delaminated and this section required a lot of snow clearing. Jon and Matt had gone a different way to the left that seemed just as difficult but mostly on rock. The next pitch climbed up a snowfield to the base of a chimney-dihedral corner that was mostly, well, dry! Upon Googling the route later, I realized that the conditions we encountered were indeed way drier than what it could have been. Where had the ice gone? Simultaneously, we lost the sun and it made this cleft feel very austere. The climbing was thin, with lots of loose rock and marginal gear.
As I was belaying Adam, lots of loose rock and ice was coming down and there was really nowhere to hide. After four pitches of tenuous and thought-provoking climbing, we reached the top of the route, which happens to be the col between Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit, a place that we normally reach by climbing up the north side of the Tacul. Getting there from a different aspect was somehow surprising. We snapped a quick picture, but it was hard to keep our eyes open because the wind was blowing so hard. We instantly got really cold, so we started looking for the rappel line right away. I made my way around a little rock spur to the west to find the rappel line that goes down another parallel route called “Fil d’Ariane.” Eleven rappels later, we were back down to our skis. We switched boots again, repacked our bags, stepped into our bindings, and glided down the buffed out glacier. We stopped a few times to look at the line we had just climbed. From a distance, the line looks impassable, with the ice at the bottom quickly disappearing into a blank and dark-looking corner. You had to be quite the visionary to climb this route when it was first put up by Patrick Gabarrou, Giorgio Passino and Pierre Gourdin back in 1989.
Though the climb was over, our day wasn’t. We still had to skin up to a col before descending down to Italy. The col was all ice and we had to rappel down the first section to get to a metal staircase that we use in the winter to get down to the Toule Glacier. To our surprise, the bottom of the staircase was either missing or there wasn’t enough snow to get to the glacier. We had to do another rappel to get there. Once on the glacier, we quickly realized that this would be a painful descent. The snow was crusty at first and deep slush later, and we were carrying big packs with all our ice climbing gear in the pack, including our mountaineering boots. And this was our first time back on skis, so our legs were in ski-with-a-heavy-pack shape. There was no snow from the mid-station down to Courmayeur, so we transitioned back to our mountaineering boots, and put skis and ski boots on our packs and started hiking down the very steep road to the valley floor, 3,000 ft below. I couldn’t believe how well my ankle was holding up. It was almost like this was helping it!
I went slow and steady, making sure not to twist it, while Adam went ahead of me to get the car. We were an hour behind schedule and my parents were watching Olivia, so we were trying to get back as soon as possible. When I reached the end of the dirt road, I was excited to see Adam waiting for me there after picking up the car and to finally take my pack off. Our romantic outing was coming to an end. It had been one of those perfect days where everything goes smoothly. We climbed an amazing and long route, the challenging climbing making the experience all the more rewarding. We got to be together doing what we love most. And we savored it all the more knowing that we would come home safe to our little girl, Olivia.
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