The stripes running along the side of my Citroën AX GT were white. The colour of the car was red, a bright, fiery red. The interior was black. On the hatch-back, near the roof, was a small spoiler. The wheels were silver alloy crosses. I loved that car. I loved everything about it, I loved its looks, its dexterity, its fuel economy, but most of all I loved its excitable 1400cc engine that combined with a body weighing something similar to an empty sardine tin, made it as edgy as a teenager, and to use a phrase stolen from my dad, it stuck to the road like shit to a shovel. I must have grown up by the time I bought my AX GT, because I never crashed it unlike my cream coloured Alfasud that I crashed three times, the final being terminal, fortunately though, only for the car.
In January 2000 the Citroën was getting weary. I had bought it in 1992 after qualifying as a PE Instructor in the Prison Service, and the eight years and 100 000 miles, had taken a toll, but another form of risk had taken over my life and tired or not, I was adamant my Citroën would be transporting me to La Grave in the Hautes Alpes region of France, to meet Bruce French for a week of ice climbing. This was my first trip abroad to climb waterfall ice, I had been on expedition to India and Pakistan, climbed in the Alps above Chamonix, and climbed ice in North Wales and Scotland, but never had I climbed pure waterfall ice, but I was sure it would be pretty easy.
My Citroen broke down on the outskirts of Lyon when a water pipe split, but after a recovery and a night in a hotel, it was fixed and I continued. It’s difficult for me now to comprehend my absolute determination to climb, and climb, and climb as much as I could in those early days. I remember lying on the hotel bed distraught because I was going to miss one day of climbing, a frustration to trump all frustrations, or so I thought.
I arrived and met Bruce the following day, he had booked me a room in the Edelweiss hotel that was at the top of a steep flight of steps in the centre of La Grave. The cold in the centre of the sunless town was intense, almost as intense as my fervour, and not even the cost of the hotel, (which made me smart nearly as much as the chilly temperature) could dull my excitement.
Early the next morning, Bruce led the way to my first Euro waterfall climb of my life. I can’t remember the name of the climb, but I think it was WI 4 which equates to Scottish 5, a grade of climb I had soloed many times back in Scotland, but I had never seconded someone on a steep climb of pure water ice where they had protected the pitch with ice screws, ice screws were just not Scottish!
“Don’t wear your mitts.” Bruce shouted down from the belay at the top of the pitch.
“I can peel oranges in these, I’ve climbed loads of routes in Scotland wearing mitts.” I called, certain that WI 4 was too easy for me, and knowing a big pair of Gore-tex mitts would not slow me. At the first screw, I grappled and thrashed, tugged at the axe leash with my teeth, floundered, I couldn’t get the leash to slide because it was frozen, I couldn’t get the mitt off because of the leash, I couldn’t grasp the screw because of the mitt. Pumped. Eventually I removed the first of several screws, pushed the mitts down the front of my jacket and continued with bare hands. Bruce hung from the belay laughing at my ineptitude, maybe he had a point, I needed to wear gloves to do this waterfall ice stuff. That first day was an eye opener; we started late, had a short walk, climbed some stuff, climbed some more stuff, and returned to the hotel in time for a shower and a beer, although at that time I’m sure I wouldn’t have drunk the beer because my body was a temple, although looking back, my mind was less temple, more outdoor market selling fruit and veg on a busy Saturday afternoon!
A few weeks ago, I drove Betty, my white Citroën Dispatch van through La Grave on the way towards Briançon. This was the first time since 2000 I had been to La Grave. There were a few differences, this time I was on a rock climbing trip and I dawdled, content and relaxed in my diesel van. The sun was shining along La Grave high street and I would certainly have a drink of wine, whenever, and wherever Zylo and I ended up that evening. A few minutes earlier we had passed the wood yard with a waterfall gushing down the rocks behind. “That’s the Grande Clot, the first grade 5 icefall I ever climbed.” I proudly said. It wasn’t many days into Bruce and my ice climbing holiday when we climbed it, so I guess my learning curve had been steep and the gloves I borrowed from Bruce must have worked.
We passed through La Grave, slowly climbing the steep road – hairpin, hairpin, tunnel, hairpin, until we crossed the Col du Lautaret and began the decent towards Briançon. A thunderstorm obscured much of the view, giant splattering raindrops exploded onto the windscreen, but in the valley to our right, I could see meadows filled with flowers and in the base of the valley, a river cut the green.
In my red Citroën, Bruce and I travelled this road on a day-away from La Grave to climb in the Fournel Valley near the town of L’Argentière-la-Bessée. The car didn’t have snow tyres and I didn’t own snow chains, but the roads were clear. We reached L’Argentière and turned onto a road heading up the Fournel Valley. The icefall we hoped to climb was described as 5 minutes from the parking, but the parking was at the head of this narrow and steep road, and the road had no barriers to stop a car tumbling into the valley below. I carefully negotiated the bends and of course desperately wanted to climb, but a sense of panic that my Citroen and I were out of our depth was rising. On occasion we drove across sheens of ice where the streams running off the hillside to our right had frozen. The car managed OK, but these had been on flat sections of road and the frozen flows were narrow so the car never had both front and rear wheels on the ice at the same time. For some reason Bruce decided to walk. Driving around a corner I was faced with a frozen flow on a section of road that was not level, the road was higher on the right, and the ice tumbled off the roadside and down the hill to my left. Without stopping I drove onto the ice and immediately the Citroën began sliding sideways towards the drop. I braked, the car slid, but stopped short of going over the edge. Bruce pulled his crampons from his rucksack and fitted them to his boots. I sat inside; the air was clammy. Bruce crunched onto the ice and stood at the side of the car pushing. I removed the handbrake and reversed. The car wanted to slide, but Bruce stopped it from slipping, and in seconds, that felt like hours, the car was back on gravel. I parked up and we began the two-hour walk, to a climb that should have been a five-minute approach.
Even in a heatwave, rock climbing around the Briançon area is possible – go high and climb north faces, I can’t recommend it enough, the cliffs and surrounding areas are beautiful and peaceful. I carefully drove Betty, my lovely white van, up tracks, down tracks, through rutted fields, even to the top of a red ski run to a 2000m, north facing crag called Pimaï, everything was fine, but memories of the little red Citroën and its near demise were always in the back of my mind. Zylo and I visited a crag called Falaise du Grand Bois several times. The cliff, situated above the small village Puy-Saint-Vincent is a surprise of overhanging orange and grey limestone, that springs from dense woodland. To reach the crag, a drivable track from Puy, heading towards the Col de la Pousterle is followed and after parking, a walking track through the woods leads to the cliff. After climbing we drove onto the col and spent the evenings in solitude apart from the gangs of greater spotted woodpeckers, parents and juveniles, hopping and flitting, climbing and agitating the trunks of the pine. As dark took hold, ravens skimmed the tree tops making no noise apart from rasping flight feathers and the occasion cough. The track continued over the col leading down to the Fournel Valley where years before, Bruce and I had our near miss on ice. I told Zylo about the Citroën ice epic and hoped to get the chance to drive down into the Fournel to see where I had almost copped it.
My chance to revisit the Fournel Valley came near the end of the three-week trip. Given the hot weather, we decided to visit Falaise du Grand Bois for a few more days before finishing the trip at the lower crag, Rue Des Masques near the town of Guillestre. This time we climbed on sector one, a less travelled sector than the cliff we had climbed previously, but in my mind, even better. Possibly the brushing, the mossy wet pockets and the more out there feel suited? Once again, we slept in Betty on the Col, and once again the peace and tranquillity almost overwhelmed. On the final night, after a day of great climbing, we pulled onto the col and parked at the wooden table and benches. A family of six greater spotted woodpeckers ruffled the pine fettling for grubs. In the morning Zylo set off on her bike, we arranged to meet at the car park by Les Mines d’Argent, which is close to the outskirts of L’Argentière-la-Bessée, part of the way up, (or a long way down) the Fournel Valley. I’m sure the last time I had passed the mine I was walking, because Bruce and I would have abandoned the little red Citroën before this point, but given the 30 degrees centigrade and clear weather, I was confident nothing today would go awry.
The sun pierced the canopy and dazzled. I drove slow along the rutted track, taking in all of the flowers and the scenery for the last time,. A bird took off from the grass before landing on a branch. I really like woodpeckers, and sure it was one of the family we had watched the night before, I strained my eyes attempting to pick it out amongst the green, and in doing so, didn’t notice the track narrowed as it passed over a large concrete drainage pipe built beneath the track to carry a water course. Taking my eyes from the bird that I decided was a fieldfair, (a good bird, but not in the same league as a woodpecker!) I spotted a large rut on the right. To avoid jarring Betty, I turned left to avoid the rut, it was hardly anything, a minor detour, but because I’d been watching the bird, (a fieldfair, not a woodpecker) I hadn’t noticed the narrowing of the track or the great big hole excavated to accommodate the large concrete pipe. BANG, Betty’s front left wheel dropped into the hole and the front bumper smashed against the concrete structure holding the pipe. I sat behind the steering wheel looking forward but actually looking at the ground such was the depth of the hole we were now firmly planted. FUCK! I opened the door and jumped down, I had to jump because Betty was in the air, the right-hand back wheel was off the ground. FUCK! Shakily I walked around to the left-hand side and climbed into the hole. The left wheel was suspended in the air, the front of the van, with the caved in bumper, was rammed against stone and concrete, what the hell, I was never getting out of this by myself. FUCK! And it wasn’t even a woodpecker!
I’m a member of Green Flag and I have European assistance. I imagined the phone call, “So Mr Bullock where exactly are you again?!”
I decided I had to wait and hope a truck or something big would come past, hopefully they would give me a pull, but over the course of the trip, we had spent several days up here and there had hardly been any traffic. FUCK!
I went around to the back, the doors were facing the sky, but I managed to open them and pulled out boxes to lighten the load. I’ve no idea why I did this, because the back wheel was in the air, if anything the load needed increasing to act as a counterbalance. I couldn’t get the image of Michael Cain lying on his back in bus in the film, The Italian Job, “Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea.” But I didn’t have a great idea! I returned to the hole and had a look at the wheel. It didn’t appear that any pipes had been damaged and the suspension and steering looked OK. FUCK! And it wasn’t even a woodpecker! The stream bed had large rocks in its base, so in a flash of inspiration, (or was it desperation?) I began to build a platform. When it was touching the tyre, I built backwards until it met the top of the track. No way would it work, but there was nothing better to do while waiting for someone to come along. I climbed out of the hole and up into the driving seat, started the engine, put it in reverse and let out the clutch. On the right, the tyre was on a good surface, it didn’t spin, but the left tyre did, so I pressed the clutch pedal in, had a breather, and tried again. The left wheel caught on a rock this time and the van went back a little, but the tyre spun again, the smell of burning rubber wafted into the cab. I engaged the clutch and the van went forward, but this time instead of coming to a halt, it rocked backwards and as it did, I released the clutch and the tyre caught and the van moved back. I revved even harder and the tyre caught and in one fluid movement, Betty popped from the hole and onto the level…
“FUCK YEAH YOU FUCKING FIELDFAIR!”
I got out of the van, checked it was drivable, (which somehow it was) and set off down into the Fournel Valley to find Zylo. Hopefully there would be no more woodpeckers.
So, the moral of the story… when visiting the Fournel Valley in winter, take snow chains, and if summer, ignore the woodpeckers as beautiful as they may be, because in reality, it will be a fieldfair!