“It is not down on any map; true places never are."
A few years back, as with Captain Ahab, the stirrings of a fixation with The Whale began to take root. I found my Moby Dick in the shape of a great gaping icy black eye that gazed up at me from frozen depths. It was whilst I journeyed across a sea of sorts. Known as the ‘Mer de Glace’ this was a sea of ice flowing down a great cleft bounded by huge Alpine peaks. I was making a foray into the surrounding mountains looking for routes to climb, to take a mountaineer’s perspective up high, yet what ultimately secured my interest was what lay down below and beneath.
Myself and my climbing companion (by coincidence named 'Wael') had spent the night up above the glacier in a refuge perched precariously on the sheer side of huge cliffs, overlooking the immensity of the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. This was up above a tributary of the Mer de Glace, the Leschaux Glacier. And we had spent the night ‘accidentally’ in the refuge on this spectacular platform. We had been aiming for a different refuge, expecting warm beds and even more warming hot meal and relative creature comforts offered by French hosts. In fact we had gone off course, seduced by the site of this gleaming shelter in the distance. We had climbed up steep and airy ladders to get to this eyrie only to find it deserted and disconcertingly less hospitable than our intended destination. Fortunately we were able to gain access to a simple dormitory to bed down for the night and had to make do with eaking out our cold rations as sustenance. Scanning the vista from the balcony I spotted the actual refuge we should have arrived at across the valley and higher up still above an even more sheer system of ladders and gantries. It would have to wait till tomorrow to travel onwards. Sleep took us despite the disappointment of no warming food and wine, and the alarming rumble of rockfall across the Jorasses massif that punctuated the night quietude.
The next morning did not welcome us with Alpine blue skies and searing sunlight but instead low cloud and heavy rain interspersed with thunderous bursts and sporadic lightning strikes that made the metal structure around us sing and buzz. Ominously. We pressed on, travel plans set, and made a cautious descent of the wet ladders, trying not to think too much about the lightning zinging around us.
We descended onto the glacier and trended down a middle line to avoid the slog of moraine-trudging at its edges. This also allowed us to gain a good sense of the aspect of terrain and to pick out the correct line to the Egralets ladders that led up to the refuge we were seeking out. It was a short way further down the Leschaux that I could discern the impressive sound of tumbling water, and see that the stream trickling from the ice floe higher up had started to channel into something of a torrent which carved out a deepening groove on the glacier. The source of this became soon evident as I stumbled upon a gaping maw where the river now plunged away into a large shaft into beckoning darkness. This is where a source of regret that would stay in my mind for some years to come took hold.
I was drawn towards this chasm and in two minds about fixing ropes and heading over the side to explore the unknown below. I had some tools, ropes, axes, and a degree of enthusiasm tampered by a fearful reserve, and mindful of the need to press on to our refuge, and the inclemency of the weather. But I should have just gone for it.
In the intervening years I often thought about this missed opportunity, and mulled over the forces of nature that would perhaps eradicate any evidence of this spectacular feature. For the glacier relentlessly rolls on, smoothing over all traces of previous sculpture. Though it does create new features in it’s wake. I was eager to return to Chamonix and find this object of increasing obsession. And I did so a couple of years later. On that trip I failed to find any feature of note that came close to this. Whilst I had an enjoyable trip climbing back up the same ladder systems as before and doing some rudimentary ice climbing in the vicinity, never really scratched the itch that was distracting me.
Then in 2017, returning with my good friend and climbing partner, Daz, we headed back up purposefully to the Leschaux refuge. This time the destination was intended – and most hospitable it was too! After some scouting about at the head of the glacier, and some of the pinnacles and seracs of the Mer de Glace, we decided we had had sufficiently fun times climbing up out of small crevasses and practice techniques out on the ice. The ladders for the Leschaux were approaching and time was good. It was at this point, when having given relinquished thought of finding ‘moulins’ (as the ice shafts on glaciers are known), that I stumbled across once again upon my Moby Dick…
It may have been in a slightly different location than before. It certainly had some similarities of features but was in all likelihood a different structure to previous. But this was my quarry and there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to seize the day! With water diving gracefully over the lip, the moulin was a large funnel high on one side and with a slightly lower slope on the side I was currently approaching from. I was able to rig up a rope anchor and carefully back over to the edge and peer into the gloom. I could not see the bottom and felt a strong tinge of nervous excitement and trepidation. I had to do this, despite some deep seated survival urge to turn tail and retreat to more secure ground!! Anyway I would trust my rope system, my belaying partner, and my capacity to climb back out using my ice axes. If all else failed I had some vague idea about using assisted rope ascension techniques. With that, I stepped over the edge and lowered down.
I had recently seen some incredible images of the interior of moulins in a periodical such as National Geographic or similar, and I felt compelled to gain access to such an environment and to strive to capture images for myself. So I was thrilled to find one of my ‘very own’. As I lowered further in, the colours of the shaft transfixed me. The ice took on a tinge of blue, glittering in the sunlight with a sheen of icy crystals. This contrasted with the blackness below, though as I descended and my eyes accustomed to the darkness, the colours and shades were more nuanced – blue-white tinged.
I began to make out more detail below and saw that there was a ledge part way down and then an apparent bottom in sight where the hole tapered to a point. Where the waterfall continued beyond was not so clear. I reasoned that the hole was perhaps 25m (or 80-90ft) deep and finite in it’s depth, though perhaps the gateway to a complex labyrinth snaking away into the bowels of the glacier beyond. The Stygian gloom had a profound effect as I dropped further, psychologically enthralling but oppressive at the same time in a way that had conflicting effect on my psyche. I tested the composition of the walls around my with my ice axes and found that the smooth ice was rock hard, and marble-like. In fact the first few attempts to gain purchase were rebuffed as my tools glanced off and sent thudding impact down my forearms. There came a point at which I decided, having had my taste of this awe-inspiring environment, I should attempt to climb back out. The struggle became quickly apparent as repeatedly my tools bounced off the hard surface and my crampons had minimal success gaining foothold. The walls were almost vertical, and in ice climbing terms this can feel a lot more like an overhanging pitch. My arms burned as I thrust upwards with repeated attempts to bury the sharp picks in the ice, and recourse to brute strength to slowly make headway. I was thankful that I was on the end of rope and not leading this desperate route at the sharp end as it were.
Back outside I was exhilarated to have had a glimpse of the interior of the moulin and to have this thrilling experience chalked into my memory banks to look back on. At the same time I felt humbled and unnerved by the scale of the glacier, it’s immensity of scale and hazardous character. In future I shall return and seek to drop further into the depths of some similar feature, armed as I am now with broader skills and equipment to allow me deeper access. The experience was akin to gazing into the soul of my ‘whale’, looking into it’s dark and cold eye, and reflecting back some glimpse of the depths of my own psyche…
“And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee”