Monday, 29 August 2011

Mont Blanc (or, Monte Bianco)

We decided that to cap off our stay in Chamonix, we should probably climb the tallest mountain around … we'd met plenty of tourists who had come to the area for that purpose only, ignoring all the other lovely peaks and interesting routes to focus solely on getting to the top of Blanc. Whilst we didn't envy them their short stay in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, we knew that friends and family might not understand that we had climbed things that, for us, were more fun, more challenging and with just as stunning views from the top and yet had missed the one that everyone comes here to climb. So, to Mont Blanc we were to go!

But the truth of the matter was: we just didn't want to join the crowds in a long, slow tramp, taking the easiest line, for the sole purpose of being able to say we'd reached the summit – and yet, on a tall peak like this, we also didn't want to bite off more than we can chew and not make the summit at all.

So – which of the many routes to the top were we to take? The routes on the Italian side appealed most of all, particularly as such a route would involve a traverse across the massive, from one side to the other. A quick phone call to the Gonella Hut confirmed our fears that the easiest route to do this was no longer possible, as crevasses had cut open the glacier, but it would be possible to take a different glacier or a rock ridge … perhaps a slightly harder undertaking, but not too hard, and that suited us perfectly.

And so the preparations began. We had felt pretty acclimatised to altitude, but had spent a few days now in the valley. Packing a picnic lunch and the Kindle to read (a much loved new toy), we used our penultimate lift pass to head up to the Aiguille du Midi for six and a half hours of hanging out, to check we hadn't lost our ability to survive on thin air. Then, shouldering our rather light bags, we walked up to the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel in the hope of hitching a ride …

It should be said here that yes, there is a bus – and no, the bus is not expensive or inconvenient. But hitching (around the Chamonix valley, at least) is fast, efficient and certainly cost effective – so we didn't think that hitching through the Mont Blanc tunnel would be any different. After 30 minutes of waiting by the road, we felt less optimistic … and we had to persevere for another 30 minutes before a kind Swiss lady took pity on us and gave us a ride. In fairness to our original optimism, she was shocked it had taken an hour to get a lift. Maybe it was just us?

Arriving in Courmayeur late in the evening, we set about finding some pizza for dinner and wondering why they put a dinosaur in their centre square. Not seeing much that inspired us to stick around (ie not finding a hotel within our budget), at 8:50pm we jumped on the last bus to Val Veni with thoughts of finding somewhere to bivouac on the route to the Gonella Hut. A short way up the approach road, we found a flat, soft-ish spot under a large pine tree, laid down the rope, put all our clothes on and got into our bivvy bags … and shortly afterwards, surprised at being warm and comfortable without sleeping bags or tent, we were both asleep.

(Around the middle of the night, the temperature dropped dramatically and there was a severe freeze up on the peaks – it was the first truly cold night in a month. We didn't get much sleep after that. Then, the hotels in Courmayeur started to look like excellent value.)

Rising early and not in the most positive of moods, we got moving in order to warm up. Within a short while, the sun had risen enough to hit the path, making our excess clothes redundant, and our breakfast of a can of coke and cold pizza (delicious!) went down very well.

Taking it slowly, across the moraine and up the hill and with a generous stop for lunch, we had hiked up 1300m or so and were at the brand new Gonella Hut within 6 hours. First priority was a decent afternoon snooze, getting up again in time for dinner – we had decided to splurge on hut accommodation AND food, just this once, and with great pleasure sat down to a four-course meal … an amuse of proscuitto on home-made bread, pear and gorgonzola risotto, cured beef and fresh vegetables and fruit for dessert. Yum. A quick chat to the helpful warden about the route, and it was time for bed again …

Awake and smiling at 1am.
But the thing is, hitting the sack at 9 and rising at midnight meant another night of short sleep! Gulping down the coffee and biscuits, we didn't know if we were eager to climb this mountain or more inspired to go back to that warm bunk, but we knew that once we were on our way it wouldn't feel so bad. Or rather, we hoped it wouldn't!

The amended route to the summit from the Gonella Hut was described to us like this:

“Leave the hut, and follow the old path to the glacier for only a hundred metres or so, until you see a patch of snow. Then cut directly left and up onto the ridge itself, and follow the ridge up until it becomes flat. There, look left again and you will see an entrance onto the glacier. Traverse down and across the glacier until you reach the middle – but this traverse will be on sloping ice, mixed with dirt and stones, that is as hard as concrete, and is the most dangerous part of the climb. Then head up, moving right when you see the small col between the rock ridges. From there, it's up the rock and you're on the ridge – follow this up, over Gouter, and you're on your way to the top.”

Too easy, eh? Well, keep in mind it was before 1am when we set off and there was no moon that night – just the stars and our headtorches to show the way – but Mark's route finding ability and this description proved to be enough to set us (mostly, we think) on the right course. The difficulties we had were inherent in the path itself, not finding it!

First of all, cutting directly left and up onto the ridge itself involved moving over steep and loose terrain – small stones rolled beneath our feet and convenient hand-holds proved to have no foundation. It was slow and careful to progress, particularly as we were not the only party on the route but were the first – right behind us, there were seven more Alpinists, and none of them wanted to get hit by a falling rock any more than we wanted to drop one.

However, we found the entrance onto the glacier easily and started the traverse – and sure enough, found the hard ice and dirt mix too. This was like walking on sloping, slippery concrete and our crampons barely seemed to make any impression at all: the hut warden was certainly right when he said it was the most dangerous part of the climb! The crowd (for all 9 of us were all moving at a very similar speed) dropped vertically down at this stage about 100m and eager to avoid this horrible surface, we followed suit – and this is where, perhaps, we dropped too far and left the hut warden's path.

At first, this way seemed easier to gain the middle of the glacier – we dropped down and around to the right of a small-ish crevasse, then followed it across. But to start climbing up again, we needed to weave our way through a series of large icefalls … these are spectacular to see, from a distance, as the ice creates dramatic blocks, curves and deep abysses. Trying to climb through them is a matter of trial and error, as feasible options end in impassable cliffs or drops; as it's also the most active part of the glacier, it's not really the safest place to hang out for too long. Thankfully for us, two keen Spanish climbers had overtaken us on the down-climb and had picked a good route through the ice-fall – it was much faster for us to be able to follow them and avoid the dead-ends.
Sunrise and a mouthful of chocolate!

It was quite a relief to see the smooth glacier rising ahead of us. Picking up the pace, we started to quickly gain more altitude with our sights on the col, just visible in the starlight on the horizon. We did have to pass a few more crevasses, working around them to the left, but the way was now much easier.

We got to the col at very first suggestion of the sun rising, and realised that climbing from the Italian side had protected us from a strong and cold wind. Time for something to eat, and for some more clothes to be put on! Barely 15 minutes later, as we approached the ridge itself, we had to stop again to put more clothes on … it was cold!

Looking back to Bionassy.
The ridge was only footprints wide, but as the sky turned pink and stars were replaced with sunlight, we could see Mont Blanc ahead of us and the peaks and cliffs of the massive, plus the villages and green hills in the valleys spread out below. It was simply stunning.

And now it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, and plodding up ...

... up ...

... and even more up! Over Gouter and up the Bosses ridge, and up some more.

A well-deserved can of Pepsi.
We'd covered about half the vertical distance by the time we'd reached the ridge, and all of the more difficult terrain, but there was still another 800m or so of vertical ascent to go. We rested briefly out of the wind at the emergency shelter, but by keeping a steady pace we were on the summit within 10 hours of leaving the hut.

Being later than the usual crowd from the easier French routes, we also had the place to ourselves …
They say that the summit is only the first half of the journey, but thankfully I'm more than half way through this blog post!

We had chosen to go down via the Aiguilles du Midi chair, following the well-marked path through the snow around Mont Maudit and Mont Tacul. Despite a few dramas at the double abseil point (we managed to reach it at peak hour), and also with altitude and tiredness slowing us down, we made it back up the steep slope to the Midi in more than enough time for the last chair back down to Chamonix … where Fred, a hot shower and a good night's sleep were waiting.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Frendo Spur

The Frendo Spur
Mark had wanted to do this route since hearing about it before our trip last year … and with it in good condition, there were no more excuses to stay away!

We headed up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to the midway point the afternoon beforehand, and set up an outdoor bivvy on top of the moraine wall. After a few games of cards, and well before sunset, we called it a night and tried to get some sleep – we would need all the rest we could get the next day! True to form, Jen managed to drop off fairly quickly.

The alarm went off the next day at 1:30am. Ouch. We had a pain au chocolat, stowed our sleeping bags and mats under a rock and hit the path. Despite the (almost) full moon, we were glad to have sussed out the moraine route the day before and we were quickly on the ice ramp leading to the start of the route.

Once up the ice ramp, the crampons came off and the scrambling began. Route finding in the dark isn't exactly easy, but all in all, we were pretty happy with the path we took and never really strayed from what the description said we'd find.

Approaching a steeper section, we switched to rock boots – whilst this meant we had to carry our heavy boots, it made us more confident on the rock so we could move a bit faster. We were constantly concerned about our speed – above the rock, the icy ramp would soon be getting the morning sun …

Just after dawn, five hours of climbing done - happy faces all round?

This is a bit more like it!
We topped out of the rock about 10:30am – we'd already been on the move for 8 ½ hours! - and after a brief break to change back to the heavy boots and put on the crampons, it was time to take our steps onto the snow ridge.

Although it looks flat from here, it's really not flat.

This is a better picture of what it's like!

We were glad to have two snow stakes to protect the narrow ridge, but still moved slowly and cautiously – this is not the place to slip. And when the ridge steepened into an icy wall, Mark got some ice-screws in too: this was more familiar and comfortable ground! It's been a while since winter, so the arms and calves complained a little, but the motions of ice-climbing have not been forgotten.

Stuck behind two friendly (but slooooow) British guys, we pitched out the top - moving to the left of the last rocky rognon up steep but stepped-out ice, which was conveniently close enough to the rock to allow Mark to put in some rock pro too. Jen finally cheered up a little, having spent most of the morning grumpy and terrified … it had been a long morning of climbing, and a bit of lose rock at the start plus the break in her beauty sleep had done nothing for her mood.

Nevertheless, we eventually topped out over the ridge … and see? Jen is even smiling. (Pure relief?)

And thankfully, the descent did not involve 16+ abseils (we should tell you about Dent du Requin one day!) but rather two cable cars, packed with tourists, and a great view back over our route. We stopped at the half-way point for a drink and to collect the bivvy gear, and congratulated ourselves on a great (if long) day out. 

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Refuges around Chamonix … a brief comparison.

Around Chamonix, there are a series of mountain huts for alpinists and climbers to use. Most of these are owned by CAF – Club Alpin Francais – and run by franchisees, who make a business of the restaurant whilst the accommodation fees go back to CAF.

Like any business, there are up-sides and down-sides – the hut wardens have a captive market on the mountainsides and can charge quite high prices for food and drinks that have been flown in by helicopter. But frequently the hut wardens find that people do not honour their bookings, meaning they prepare meals and people do not show up to pay for them. Or people show up late with no reservation, after the kitchen is closed, and expect a 3-course meal and warm bed.

Hanging around at Requin - a hut we would definitely recommend!
 Often, we take the tent – it means a quieter night's sleep, rather than being in a room with a mix of people, some going to bed at midnight after celebrating a good day and others waking up at 2am to start climbing. It's also cheaper (but means much heavier bags)! But if we're near a hut, we'll buy a drink or two or some food - but use their toilets and maybe their picnic room.

Recently, we have had two extremely different hut experiences.

The first – negative! - experience was at Refuge d'Argentiere. Although we were prepared to camp, when we arrived at dusk in the rain and found out the hut was quite empty, we thought we'd enquire about staying a night there there instead. But the hut warden was far from welcoming – yelling at us that we were too late, and we should have booked, and the kitchen was closed, and he couldn't (wouldn't!) help us – so we “must go down!” And lecturing us on climbing schedules, telling us we'd wasted a day.

All this before we could explain that we were planning on camping, had our own food and were not planning on climbing the next day – we had just come up earlier to have a day to recce our route and get an extra night of acclimatisation. We were less than impressed. Although they condescended to let us pay to sleep in one of their many empty beds, we had to be gone by 7am - something other huts have not demanded, as far as we know.

So, we put up the tent in the rain and slept far more comfortably in that instead. We didn't spend a cent in their hut – not a single drink or meal – and the next morning, moved the tent further up the ridge onto the snow.

The second – positive! - experience was at Refuge du Requin. We called and booked, but just for accommodation (yes, we're cheap … we have to be!). We asked about cooking our own food on the telephone, and the response was “No problem!”. When we arrived, although we were the only guests, the candles were lit in the colourful and tidy dormitory, there was a separate room for us to cook in (with crockery!) and we were welcome to eat in the heated common room downstairs. Delphine and Vincent, the hut wardens, gave us loads of information about our intended routes and all-round the warmest welcome we could imagine. Despite not being their best customers, just buying some wine and a breakfast for one early morning, we were really looked after … we will have to come back when we're employed again, to eat everything we could smell over the 5 nights we stayed there!

Requin: the hut and it's tooth
So, mountain huts are not equal. So far Requin and Envers are our pick... but we'll have to pass though some more to be sure...

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Five nights at Refuge du Requin

We have already mentioned that we found the Refuge du Requin very comfortable and welcoming … we had intended to stay for only three or four nights, and carried in only that amount of food. But in the little kitchen provided for those too cheap to buy meals, the left-over food box contained enough pasta, dehydrated potato, powdered milk and stock cubes to stretch our provisions to five nights – well, with a few supplements from the friendly hut wardens too. 

So what did we do there? On the first day, feeling like something “straight-forward”, we headed towards Congo Star. Michel Piola, the author of our guidebook and climber responsible for setting up many new routes in the area, states explicitly that “Nuts and friends not needed” for this route. He describes with some angst the re-equipping of the route by a previous Requin hut warden against the wishes of the original ascentionists, who presumably wanted to keep the line as predominately trad.

However as we started to climb, we realised that Mr Piola obviously hasn't climbed the route since its infamous re-equipping. Yes there are a few bolts around – but we were very glad on the first few pitches to have a few camalots and nuts with us: if you were only to rely on the bolts, it would be horrendously and dangerously run-out! As it was not turning out to be as straight-forward as we'd hoped, and finding the third pitch still wet from the previous days' of rain, we decided to pull the pin and rappel off.

The next day, we headed up towards the beautifully named “L'Eden de la Mer” (The Eden of the Sea). Thanks to the retreating glacier, it took us a while to find the start … an extra pitch of easy climbing has been added onto the bottom of the route, where once you should have been able to walk up the ice – sadly, not that uncommon these days! But we soon knew where we were heading and were enjoying some fabulous granite in the sun.

We didn't follow the route exactly, however. There are some bolts on it, and the rest uses natural protection, but in many instances it seemed to us that the bolts took the climber a few metres out onto harder, smooth slabs and away from the easier and interesting cracks which for the most part took good gear – so we opted for the easier line and didn't always clip the shiny hangers. Again, Mr Piola's guidebook lead us astray – he clearly shows the line of the climb going to the left of a large buttress (the buttress being one of the few features he has drawn on his topo), and we foolishly followed this rather than the bolt we saw on the right … this lead us into easy but broken ground, with enough rock spikes to create belays, but we doubt this was the direction of the original route.

At any rate, we shouldn't complain too much about the route, as the view from the top of the balanced boulder was quite lovely. 
The Dent du Geant
And what next? The Dent du Requin – the Tooth of the Shark – loomed above the hut … taking a rest day to sort gear, eat and chill out, we sussed out the possible routes. According to the hut warden, the best route by far was Voie Renaudie: first climbed on 4th August 1946 by Mr and Mrs Jean Renaudie, it has 570m of rock climbing but involves 900m of vertical ascent from the hut. An early start would be essential.

So, the alarm went off horridly early. With a group of Germans aiming to climb the nearby Chapeau a Cornes, we breakfasted, grabbed our gear and set off across the moraine. Hitting the ice, we popped our crampons on to head up what is described as a 35degree slope – the ice got steeper and steeper as we climbed towards the rock, and by the top we were joking that this was certainly an inaccurate geometry calculation! We may also have headed up the initial rock step the bonus-points way … (and still in crampons … urgh!)

So, all told, it took us a little longer than expected to hit the official starting ledge, marked with a large white arrow pointing the way.

Then the sun rose, turning the sky pink, then purple, then blue …

Ditching the crampons and ice-axes, we set off – moving together over easy terrain, with Mark placing a few bits of pro between us. We quickly covered the first couple of hundred metres this way, and after being so slow on the approach, we were happy to finally be making good time. The description of the route matched what we were seeing (funnily enough, it wasn't written by Michel Piola), and we reached Step 7: The Cliff Becomes Vertical. Changing into rock shoes, we started to pitch out the climb – and pitch after pitch of great granite climbing followed. Nothing too hard, but consistent, we climbed towards the summit ridge.

Hitting the ridge, we admired the steeper drop down on the other side and scrambling up and over the loose boulders, and through a small letter-box opening, we reached the step just below the block of the true summit around 2pm.

All that was left to do was abseil down … following Mr Piola's instructions, we found the abseil point and (foolishly!) did the long 50m rappel – despite the intermediate rappel points we could have used. Of course, the rope then got stuck and Mark had to climb all the way back up the rope to clear the jam – a simple sentence to describe two hours of hauling, pulling, flicking and pleading with the rope, not to mention the effort required to prussik up 50m of very stretchy, thin climbing rope. Oh, and then the fog suddenly came in – with snow, then sleet and rain to follow. We had enough gear to keep warm, but ropes are far heavier when wet than dry and even once we'd cleared the initial jam we had at least 16 more rappels to go. It wasn't until we were half way down that we found the promised abseil bolts, as we had been using instead an older, more slabby abseil line with slings around rocks – these were mostly OK, but some we backed-up with our own tat, and the terrain made us quite concerned we'd catch the rope again (which, thankfully, we didn't). All up, it was heavy and hard work, and we slowed down. We were back at the ice-axes and crampons far later than we'd hoped, and were even slower heading back to the hut.

Once finally at the hut, we were greeted with a warm welcome and the fire going … needless to say we slept well that night!

Looking back - the hut on the left and the tooth on the right

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Ah the Serenity

Cosmiques Arete
A few days lounging the valley resting and waiting for good weather, lead us to do something we had been avoiding - Comiques Arete. A short ridge leading to the Aiguille du Midi, it is extremely popular and we knew there would be crowds... but we wanted to do something relatively high to try and help keep our acclimatisation and the forecast didn't look encouraging enough to head in somewhere for few days. And we had to use our lift passes sometime.

So off we went, in time for the first cable car (6:30)... but not early enough – we only got on the second... not a good start. Chatting to those around us, many seemed to have just day packs... and yes, many of them were headed to Cosmiques.

A short walk from the Midi lead us to the start, and for most of the route, a pleasant mixed rcok and snow ridge, we weren't too pressed... but nearing the end we took the interesting way, instead of the simple route and the bonus abseil that entailed slowed us down, as more and more people flocked up the ridge.
Looking back at the hordes scrabling down ... and this was just the start of the onslaught!
Climbing the final slab and chimney system, parties began climbing over and around each other, with many people closing in on the shaking, cramponed feet of a tired second on one of the slower teams in front of them... and the traffic jam further down the ridge looked even worse. The crampon indentations in the rock tell you that this situation is nothing new and many, many cramponed feet have preceded you. (Or is it just that someone has drilled some conveniently spaced footholds in the more delicate sections?)

Jen was photographed next to a small girl having "gained the summit!"
Mark negotiating the treacherous final stretch, with yet another impatient climber behind him.
Up the ladder (!) back into the mid-station and it's all over. Not even half a day's worth of climbing, so we wandered off and lay around, eating in the sun with Jen chatting on the phone to Australia, increasing the time we spent up there.

Every summit needs a rocketship, right?
As we left in the early afternoon we looked back down the ridge and saw it was much quieter. So our advice if you want to do Cosmiques Arete is either to start from the first cable car and get in front of the crowds or wait a few hours and let the traffic jam subside – there's no descent that would be risky late in the day.