By Kasha Rigby
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Photography: ©Jimmy Chin
We slept amazingly sound for being sardined head-to-foot, four people in a three person tent. The good night’s rest helped us put an optimistic spin on the (again) mixed bag of weather in the morning. The climb started with an open snowfield for a bit, and then proceeded to a series of rocky ridges—the combo of loose rocks, exposure, and deep sugary snow quickly slowed us down, and halfway through the first ridge we were setting anchors, both ropes in use. After the rocks, the pitch mellowed out a bit into a long, snowy ridge, bordered on the left side by a sharp overhanging cornice, and thousands of feet of exposed slopes on our right.
The weather steadily got worse as the few blue holes turned into just the lighter grey patches against the dark of the rest of the sky. Snow was blowing sideways—but the limited visibility may have been a boon mentally in that we could no longer see the exposure so much—out of sight, out of mind, right?! Jimmy led up and over a small steep pitch topped with a cornice, then belayed the rest of us up.
We took our first real rest at a rock outcropping and decided that, given the worsening weather and limited visibility, the wise thing to do would be to turn around, so we did. For about 200 feet. Getting ready to belay back down the corniced pitch, suddenly we were all like those old guys that sit on the balcony in the Muppets, totally changing our tune. “Well, the weather has never really been that good since we got here, but it’s never really been THAT bad, either. It’s snowing, but not really accumulating. The winds aren’t too terrible, and we’re all feeling pretty good. We should keep going!” About face!
We roped up in teams of two to negotiate the wide, crevasse-striped slopes, and the next several hours were a blur of one foot in front of the other. The trail breaking was fairly brutal and we switched out positions from time to time. There were a predictable series of wider, flatter, crevassed slopes where the deeper snow made for slower going, followed by shorter, steeper, icy humps. Kasha was wanded the route with zen-like precision, marking any holes and significant spots, and Giulia took waypoints on her GPS every so often. We stopped every hour or so for water, Clif Bloks, and some particularly tasty organic pop-tarts, but never for more than a few minutes because we had momentum--we could all feel that without even having to discuss it—and we didn’t want to break it.
After what seemed like an eternity of trail breaking, our altitude was finally reading over 6000m and we knew we had to be getting close. It was snowing and daylight was fading fast. The steep but manageable snow slope we were on suddenly gave way to a steeper, icy bulge. We knew we had to make up time for all the slow trail breaking in deep snow. So, we decided to unrope and punch for the top, each soloing, using both tools to clear away the rotten ice on top and get a solid bite in the watery ice beneath. You just couldn’t go too far left (steep overhanging cornice), and you really didn’t even want to look down right (ice cliffs, Exposure with a capital E), which made it easy to focus on getting every point solid before moving the next one. Thankfully that part wasn’t too long, and a few hundred feet later we were back on deep, lower-angled snow, and then on top of a flat knob. Beyond that was a huge crevasse, separating our bump from another bump like a big wide butt crack bisecting the two massive butt cheeks that made up the summit block—we were there!
At this point, visibility was really poor. We couldn’t really see anything, so a photo or two and we had clicked into our skis, made the glory few pow turns at the top and then side-slipping, side-stepping, one tool and one whippet, not saying a word to each other, down the ice bulge. What had taken us 12 or so hours to climb up took less than three to ski down (very carefully in the low visibility and now dwindling daylight). We basically skied by Braille and scanned the white out landscape in front of us for crevasses, major drop off’s and wands. A little sketchy for sure. We eventually made it most of the way down the ridge with some clever route-finding, one skis-on rappel, and a short rocky section where we had to take our skis off and downclimb for about 150 feet or so. The further down we got, the more the weather abated until there was only a haze in the sky and still air all around us.
As a bonus, on the way up we had seen a potential ski route that would allow us to avoid the longest section of rocky ridges—on belay we sussed the one part where we didn’t know if it went or not, and then once we knew it did, we skied pow under a full moon on the open snowfield right to the tent. A celebratory meal of Italian cheese and salami put everyone out cold—and the next day we downclimbed one more rocky section and ripped mushy turns over the barely covered talus all the way down to 15,500 feet.
That evening, after hauling our huge packs back to base camp, we were eating tortellini in chicken broth, in disbelief that everything had gone so smoothly. And of course, the next morning as if to taunt us, the top of Reddomaine showed her face for a sunny half-hour. The summit block looked far far away and tiny compared to what it felt like when we were on top. Then she went behind the clouds for the remainder of our stay. After a day of rest and packing, we got the horses loaded. We eventually shouldered our packs and hiked slowly down valley towards civilization, always looking back over our shoulders towards Redommaine and smiling.