Saturday, 14 August 2010

Snow Camping

We did a couple of snow camps this trip. We were the first on the Italian side in a while to really dig in, building a pretty spectacular snow wall (whilst all the other tent-dwellers looked on enviously before trying to replicate).

We don't have a great photo of it, but when we returned back to the tent at the end of the day, our straight, snow-brick walls had become Gaudi-esque - curving in towards the tent, due to a combination of a hot sun and strong winds, but thankfully not caving in!

Note the kitchen area, to the left.

And for the other on the Aiguille du Midi side, we merely needed to borrow a spade from one of the many other climbers there and dig out someone's old placement. We were spoiled for choice, really, and went for a hole with walls higher than the sides of the ten - we couldn't see the tent from a distance - that also had space for the "kitchen", of course!

We're not entirely sure whether you're "allowed" to pitch tents above the snow line in the Mt Blanc range - apparently you're meant to take your tent down during the day, and there is of course the issue of waste.

But the reality is that everyone camps up there, leaving their stuff in their tent whilst they climb, and considerate climbers sneak into the huts' loos when necessary. (Wardens of the huts may see this differently, but in the interests of keeping the glacier poo-free - I say: bugger the wardens, keep using their facilities and support the huts when finances allow!)

And in good weather, it's a lot quieter and cozier than a hut - with a much better chance of a good night's sleep!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Rest day and more rain in Chamonix

But it's still better than being at work.

Oooh, our breakfasts have just arrived ... large bacon, lettuce and tomato baguettes! Better go!

(Dan, we've got great trip reports that we'll type up later. Promise!)

Tea in bed

It's easier when you sleep in the kitchen.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Giant's Tooth

When we arrived at Aiguille du Midi on the cable car, it was pretty hard to miss Dent du Geant - the Giant's Tooth - across the Vallee Blanche.

(It's the pointy bit on the left.)

And as we walked across the glacier to its base, it just kept looking more and more impressive.

It's also meant to be quite a straight-forward route, well within our abilities - so it was something we were pretty keen to climb.

We camped on the plateau near the Refuge Torino, looking right up at the Dent. It took a bit of effort to eat something at this altitude - but a spectacular sunset and then the incredible number of stars overhead ... well, camping in the mountains is always pretty special.

What was concerning, however, was the sheer number of people coming back down from the Dent. Team after team, even as it got late and dark - they just kept coming. We know it's a moderate and good looking route, right near a chairlift, and it was Saturday, and the weather that day had been great - but still! We asked one party, and the problem was simply too many parties - all climbing over and around each other during the day, and then all getting stuck at the top and having to wait for each other to rappel off to get down. It did not sound appealing.

After an uneasy night, wide awake due to the altitude and listening to the wind pick up outside, we decided against the pre-dawn start. Once the sun was up, we could see the clouds racing over the Dent - and quite a large number of parties already on their way up the hill in spite of it. So we waited, and had a leisurely breakfast.

However, with the news that the wind would drop that afternoon, around 11:00am we decided to just go for it anyway. The crowds would be ahead of us, and we could always turn back if the wind, the cold or the dark got too much. It was a great decision.

Now that's a fixed rope!
The climb is in three parts:
- a long gentle slope up the glacier, that gets increasingly steep towards the rock;
- a "mixed" scramble, which really means loose rock covered in snow - just enough snow that crampons are required, but enough bare rock for continual "nails-on-blackboard" noises (this was Jen's least favourite section), and this leads to the Salle au Manger, the large rock platform where crampons and bags can be left; and
- a 180m rock climb with fixed ropes to the top - around an arete to a corner, then up the corner to a ledge, before the final slab head wall.

With an Italian party messing around with their ropes at the very top, and a German crew on our tail, we didn't spend too long admiring the view (and probably didn't quite make it to the true summit) before rappelling off, popping the crampons back on and heading back to the tent.

We were back to camp still with light to spare, about 7:00pm, feeling pretty happy that we'd decided to go for it.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The trouble with ropes and bright ideas

So we climbed a route called Guy-Anne, which was a fabulous moderate classic right near Envers des Aiguilles hut.  Theoretically we'll do a trip report about that ... one day.

Although the sun was still relatively high in the sky when we were at the top, we wanted to rappel off with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of speed and efficiency. We'd hoped to be able to walk back out to the train station at Montenvers, and head back down to the valley that evening. We didn't quite manage that.

We had the brilliant idea that the person left at the top would lower the rope out to the person rappelling down, in order to avoid the two 60m ropes becoming one massive cluster - something which seems to happen more often than not, particularly if you're in a hurry and don't properly coil the ropes before throwing them. Then, when the half way point was reached, the person at the top would throw the tails over the edge. Fast and no cluster - brilliant, right? This worked perfectly for two abseils.

However on the third abseil, as we definitely should have guessed would happen, the tails of the rope when thrown became tangled behind a massive boulder - this massive boulder being, of course, above Jenzing on rappel. Climbing up (and simultaneously sliding a prussic up for a self-belay), Jenzing worked out what had happened but couldn't actually do much about it as she couldn't climb high enough. The ropes were stuck behind this boulder, in a crack roughly the same width as the rope itself, in a number of interlocking loops and twists, and no amount of coaxing or pulling or pushing would get them out. She couldn't pull too hard or weight the rope in fear of the mess getting even worse (if that was possible), but she wasn't getting anywhere with it either!

Jen made herself "safe" on a handy nearby bolt to keep working on the massive cluster behind the boulder more comfortably, and Mark came down the rappel to try to pull the tails out from above. Slowly, slowly, first one loop came out, and then another and another, until the rest of the ropes were free. This whole debarcle took more than 20 minutes - a long enough time when you're thinking the only other solution is to cut the ropes.

Next time? Lowering the ropes like this was dangerous and stupid - far too much risk that the ropes would get caught and jammed above the abseiler. The lesson has been learned and we'll never do it again!

(On a side note, we completed the rest of the abseils the usual coil-and-throw method. Unluckily, the ropes then proceeded to get caught twice more as we pulled the rope down behind us, with the very end of it getting snagged around something about 20m above the belay. So someone would have to climb up and rescue it. There was now no way in hell we were making that train. It was not our day, really.)

Envers des Aiguilles

"Unsettled" and "chance of storm" means "don't stay in a tent" - well, for us anyway!

And this being the Alps, there is no shortage of refuges and huts where you can stay inside, warm and dry, whilst someone else cooks you dinner. There's usually a few games and packs of cards lying around to while away an evening, as well as maps and local guidebooks to suss out routes (if you haven't done so already). Oh, and a large number of other climbers to chat to, too! So it all sounds pretty good to us.

This is all budget dependant of course, as they're not cheap - if you ever wondered if the membership of your local alpine club was useful, here's your answer: affiliated clubs get you a fat discount.

But huts and their wardens differ dramatically. We've heard stories of places that charge E50 a night, and then even more for food. Of hut wardens being fired for not letting people sit and shelter from a storm in the main living area (well, not without buying something - apparently these ain't a community service!). And if the hut is anywhere near a popular, easy alpine ascent - be prepared to be woken up at 1:30am as everyone else in the room noisily gears up to start their uphill trudging.

However, Envers des Aiguilles gets the thumbs up from us. It's not just the chic Club Alpine Francais tableware, the helpful wardenesses and the aloof resident cat - it's the fact you can cook inside if you're staying there (a bargain for members at E11.50 a night without food).

And for us, we love it most of all due to the massive skillet of crispy skinned chicken - served when we came in cold and hungry, after having a bitch of a time with ropes getting jammed on rappel. Thanks girls!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Did you know ...?

That if the visibility is really bad, the cablecar from Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner is FREE?!

But considering the conditions, we just caught the elevator up to the top platform at the Midi station - and this was also free.

Shame we couldn't actually see anything!

Monday, 2 August 2010

Bivvy Mornings

So we'd got back to the tent very late the night before, after a very long day of climbing. We hadn't eaten dinner (a muesli bar is not a meal!), and we were out of water.

But we woke up here:

And all we had to do for the day was make tea, lie in the sun and eat bread and honey.

It's not a bad life, really.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Voie des Dalles - or, the Way of the Slabs

The forecast for the weekend was perfect. Hot, sunny, a slight breeze - and then a massive thunderstorm sometime on Sunday evening. It was time to do something longer and make a trip out of it. We settled for a climb called "Voie des Dalles" - the Way of the Slabs! - on a large buttress just over the hill from the Index chairlift, called Pouce.

We set off a bit later than usual but this wasn't really a problem, we thought, as we had all day and all night. No need to rush for the last chair back down like most other climbers, after all! But the way was still slow - the gully up to the col from the Index chair was loose, with many rocks coming down, and our bags were heavy with climbing and bivvy gear. We passed a group of British climbers who had decided to turn back after seeing the descent on the other side - this wasn't very encouraging.

At the col, we left the bivvy gear behind and pressed on.

The Brits were right: the descent wasn't pretty. It was covered in large chunks of part-frozen new snow, and was a slippery scramble over sliding rocks. We did find several places to rappel down, trying not to dislodge anything on top of us as we went, and we eventually passed it. But what really cheered Jenzing up was being able to bumslide down the snow on the final ramp - bumsliding is second only to ice-cream at improving her mood, and if there were more snowslopes and ice-cream vans around, Jenzing would be an extremely happy little Vegemite.

(Interestingly, the next day the descent looked far more pleasant as the sun had got rid of most of the snow on the rocks and it would have been much easier. But maybe the bumsliding wouldn't have been as comfortable.)

And then we were there! At the base! Ready to go, ready to climb! And it looked spectacular - if a very long way up! There was a party far ahead of us, on another (much harder) route that we could just see, and some more British climbers getting a bit lost on what they thought was Voie des Dalles but was actually something else (and also much harder). We tried to help the Brits out a bit, and explained what we'd hoped to do, before heading around to the right side to get on the easier starting pitch.

The guidebook clearly tells us that there's no gear on this first, easy pitch and there's a bolted belay at the end. Jenzing lead off without reading this information - so up and up she scrambled, but very slowly! She found one or two bits of gear, but nothing terribly comforting, and always looking for more but of course not finding anything. When she thought she'd gone far enough, to a little corner with a few fissures, she set up a pretty awful trad anchor. Nevertheless, Mark came up without a hitch and fixed it up - and only then we saw the bolted belay, right there only a few metres away! Jenzing's confidence went from slightly shaky to completely shattered, and there was no ice-cream to cheer her up, so with a mere 14 pitches to go it was decided that really Mark should do all the leading from then on.

Mark then got a little lost on the next pitch, being lured too far to the right by an old piton and consequently taking a much harder and less-protectable line. We'd been slow to get started in the morning, slow on the walk in and now slow on the first two pitches. Hmm!

Fifteen pitches for 350 metres of climbing suggests to us that it's going to weave back and forth, so drag will be an issue - or if not, you can link pitches. Thankfully with double ropes, the latter was the case, so soon we were moving properly and setting a respectable pace, and were far above the ground below. Although we still had many change-overs at belays, they became smoother and more efficient. Oh, and we started checking the guidebook frequently to avoid any more route-finding errors!

True to it's name, most of the climbing was on slabs, following the easiest line up the face and arrete on the right-hand side of the buttress. Generally it was straightforward stuff on fairly good rock, and tricky bits could be "French-free'd", in the interests of expediency if necessary. It was just good fun and lots of it - lots of pitches of climbing on sun-warmed rock and a brilliant view across to the Lacs Noir, and then up to Mont Blanc shining on the other side of the Chamonix valley.

The route was listed as "partly protected", and we'd bought a bunch of nuts and a few friends along. There was the odd bolt, in places where it would have otherwise been hard to naturally protect, many old pitons of all shapes and sizes bashed in along the cracks, and the belays were almost always two bolts joined by tat or a piton/bolt combo.

Jenzing did eventually lead another couple of pitches, and we swung leads up some easy ground at the top. The climb increasingly became a scramble, and the rock did get softer and more likely to fall. We think we may have popped off route here as well, taking the dreaded early exit from the chimmney that is warned against in the book, but no harm came of it (as long as you're prepared to build a trad anchor!).

This was the view from the top:

Sunset. Ahhh. So pretty.

It also means you walk down in the dark. In this case, it means you walk down slippery, ice-and-snow-covered rocks that are balancing on a narrow ridge with a dramatic drop-off on either side. We had headtorches and the moon rose, and we stayed roped up and moved together, scrambling slowly and carefully, but we were tired, it was dark and the terrain was not as easy as we'd hoped.

It felt pretty great to finally see the bivvy spot, pop the tent up and fall asleep.