The Fall | Introducing The Climber Who Plummeted 70 Metres Down A Chamonix Mountain... And Lived To Tell The Tale
"The rock just exploded and I started to fall"
Words by Ollie Peart | Photography Magnetic Mountains
Risk. It’s different for every one of us. Our personal perceptions of what is risky are often moulded by our own life experiences and upbringing. We all have our own risk threshold, but why is it that some people take it to extreme, hedonistic levels? And when does too much risk become unacceptable?
The climber Steve Wakeford has been asking himself these very questions. Two years ago he fell 70 metres while climbing Les Petites Jorasses in Chamonix.
"I woke up, hanging upside down with my leg broken pointing back towards me, covered in blood…"
“They say I was passed out for two minutes," he tells me. “I woke up, hanging upside down with my leg broken pointing back towards me, covered in blood. I said, ‘Where am I? Where am I?’ Then I looked at my leg and thought, ‘I’ve not done that before.’"
The build up to the climb had been smooth. He says: “I’d been training all year. I’d had a good week beforehand. The first pitch was jet black and there was a gully with a huge snow plug in it. The size of a house."
I was still trying to figure out the logistics of climbing in complete darkness as Wakeford continued: “I found the way around this ground and it felt good, you know?"
I didn’t. But I could tell by the expression on his face that this was the kind of thing mountaineers came here for, to figure out puzzles and work out routes. The mountains are like one giant crossword to them.
He goes on: “Then the guys followed up. We were pushing fast, pushing hard in the big hills, everyone does it. You’re [feeling] confident [on the] terrain, you’re not putting as much gear in, just to move faster."
Wakeford and his friends continued, a few of the others leading various pitches before he was leading the hard and fast charge again.
“I said: ‘Let’s just get this pitch done, this is easy.’ I placed something about five metres after the belay where I’d left [my friend] Mike, carried on up and 45 minutes later I found where I needed to get to secure myself in to bring Mike up. There was quite a tricky move up."
“I had a really good foot. I can still see them now. An ice axe in some really thin ice and another one embedded in some crumbling rock which were good enough to pull up onto. But as I went to make this move, the good foot exploded. The rock just exploded. I started to fall. My initial thoughts were, this nut I’ve placed in this rock is going to catch and I’ll be alright and I just felt..."
Steve makes a quiet whoosh noise.
"The rock just exploded. I started to fall…"
"The next thought I had was: ‘Brace yourself.’"
“I spun round and I’m facing down the gully with 45 metres below and I know that I am going another 45 metres past them, because the rope isn’t attached to anything. My next thought was, ‘This is going to be a long way.’ That was the last thought I had."
While Wakeford hung upside down, his friends tried to call mountain rescue, but it wasn’t straight-forward.
“They said: ‘We’ve tried but we can’t get through. We don’t have signal.’ I luckily still had my British SIM card in. We were on the Italian border and I got an Italian phone network and phoned the PGHM (helicopter rescue), but about five seconds into the conversation I thought, ‘This is too much for me…’"
“They spent ages on the phone. Asking us what we were secured into. And we were like: ‘Get the chopper out now!’"
“A few minutes later you hear the helicopters coming and it’s unbelievable. You’re in this horrendous situation and they are coming to pluck you from the mountain."
“A guy comes in on a wire hung from the helicopter, he just takes a glance at our situation and leans over, clips into our rig and the wire flies off. That’s why they wanted to know about what were clipped into…"
Chamonix PGHM (Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne), the helicopter rescue service, performs hundreds of rescues every year. They’re an incredibly experienced team who make it their life’s work to save lives on the mountain. You’d think they might get tired of risking their lives all the time, especially saving people who should know better, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Wakeford says: “The helicopter winchman was Mathieu, he’s a mate of mine now. That helicopter ride was the last good bit of the whole experience."
Perhaps PGHM have something in common with people like Wakeford. It’s not as if he isn’t an experienced climber. He knew what he was doing and he knew what needed to be done to complete the route. There is a mutual respect and admiration among those in the mountains who push themselves the way both PGHM and Steve do.
When he fell Wakeford ripped his bicep off, destroyed his shoulder blade and broke his leg in three places. He was confined to a wheelchair for months during which time he plotted his journey back to Chamonix. He says: “Since the day I fell, there has never been any doubt in my mind that I want to go back and re-climb the same route."
After such a close call I have to ask why? “Because I want to," he says in an answer that’s reminiscent of George Mallory's famous reason for wanting to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there."
He’s making a film called Magnetic Mountains about his experience. It includes this insightful gem of a quote from Sir Chris Bonington: “There are an awful lot of people trying to close us down into a risk-averse society [but] I think mankind and society itself needs people who want to stretch the limits, who are prepared to take risks." It’s due out in 2017.
For more info visit Magnetic Mountains