Catherine Destivelle on the Bonatti Route, late winter, 1994. destivelle managed the second ascent of the route in just three days. Bonatti had established the route twenty-nine years before over six days in February. Reinhold Messner, among others, had failed to repeat it at the time of Destivelle's climb. [Photo] Pascal Tournaire

The Bonatti Route Solo in Winter

Posted on: July 1, 2006


That evening in the hut I tried to act as though it were the night before some ordinary excursion. I didn't want Erik to worry, though my objective had clearly given him good reason. He didn't encourage me, and he didn't try to talk me out of it: the decision was mine. He respected me too much to stop me. As he said then, and as he has always said, "If you want it, go for it."

I felt like an egotistical monster making him an accomplice to my project. We could have done the climb together. If he'd been the one insisting on soloing the Bonatti Route, I would've been anxious about him. Instead, I was grateful that he didn't show the slightest sign of alarm. I didn't say anything about it, but his decision to climb the Schmid Route soothed my conscience a little. At least we both had our own program.

The next morning, around 9 a.m., I found myself at the base of the route. It was hard to leave Erik alone. But when he embraced me, my remorse faded. His big smile was proof of his approval.

Delicate, but not difficult, my route went up compact rock with few places for pitons and absolutely none for nuts or Friends. I felt as though I were climbing with no protection at all. As if that weren't enough, every five meters, big white mushrooms perched under small overhangs. I had to concentrate to get by them: the unstable snow was always on the point of falling. Brushing them away took dexterity. I feared the falling snow would knock me off balance.

Completely absorbed in the effort, I lost track of time. When I finally glanced away, exhausted, I saw with deep frustration and anxiety that it was already four o'clock. The light was starting to fade, and night would fall in two hours—too little time to exit the wall and find a place to bivy. There was nowhere to anchor my hammock, and even though winter had locked everything down, I still felt too exposed to falling rock. I moved on, saturated with panic. I absolutely had to find a solution before dark.

As I reached another snow hummock, I realized the solution had been right in front of me for some time. All I had to do was carve out a bivy in the snow.

An hour later a bout of nausea shot me out of my tent. I threw up everything. I felt horrible. This is truly the end of my ascent, I thought; I have to go down. In that moment, however, I wouldn't have had the strength to do it safely. I had to recover first.

I forced myself to eat and drink. I could only choke down a little dried fruit, but this I managed almost every hour because I couldn't sleep. Little by little I felt my body regroup and early the next morning, though my spirits were less than stellar, I woke up in adequate form. I would have had no trouble getting down.

When I nosed outside the tent, the wall quickly changed my outlook. The rock above attracted me like a lover. Listening only to instinct, I decided to continue the climb. I spent that day on the Traverse of the Angels, full of happiness.

When the lights of Zermatt glimmered in the emerging dusk and I attacked the overhang above me, it was already seven. The climb over those ten meters of upside-down wall was magnificent: aerial movements on huge, gorgeous holds. At one point, while scrutinizing the wall in search of holds, I glanced down and spied a small black point moving in the distance below me. It was Erik, climbing up the enormous ice sheet at the base of the Schmid Route, on schedule. It was sublime to realize he was living through the same experience as I was, at the same time. It was like being with him.

After the overhang the wall became less steep. But ice and exfoliating rock had fragmented its compact slabs, and the climb again turned delicate. Placing anchors once more proved difficult, if not impossible. But I was used to this problem by now, and I calmly advanced along the next 300 meters anyway because I was alone. Then, knowing that finding a bivouac wouldn't be easy, I closely examined the wall. It was desperately homogenous, offering neither the slightest hint of a ledge nor the smallest of steps, only endless verticality. I started to get tired, and my ability to concentrate fluctuated. By now without hope, I pulled in beneath a sort of shelf and decided to stop, however reluctantly.

In the end, my bivouac was not all that uncomfortable, but it was painful to wake up again; my hands hurt, as they do in all winter climbs. In order to feel the holds better, I hadn't worn gloves from the beginning. What's more, when I went to slice some butter the night before, I cut one of my fingers. Fortunately, the pain wasn't serious; after I ate breakfast and put my things away, I didn't think about it again. The summit and the reunion were getting closer and closer.

Three or four pitches higher I finally saw Erik, no more than 100 meters away. According to our calculations, we weren't supposed to have ended up so close together. Had he moved too far to the right, or was I too far to the left? Or had we both slightly modified our trajectory in order to meet up? At this point it hardly mattered. The terrain was the same at that height, and we finally gave each other a hug some 150 meters from the top. Overcome by emotion, I couldn't suppress a few tears.

We decided to continue together. Thus proceeding one behind the other we reached the summit ridge at about four o'clock, too late to think about descending. Instead, we slept on the summit, where we celebrated our ascents. Erik surprised me by pulling a bar of Swiss chocolate filled with pear liquor out of his backpack, carried to the top for the occasion.

Never had chocolate tasted so good!

—Translated from the Italian by Linda Eklund

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