Chamonix: a mecca for skiers, mountain bikers, trail runners and above all climbers. PJ and I had missed out on climbing there with the MI meet there a few years ago and again last year when the weather was just awful, but we were determined to get the little T@B caravan there this year and have our turn. Initially sworn to secrecy, we thought we’d have a sneaky attempt at Mont Blanc and maybe pip Keith to the post, after his multiple past attempts but we soon couldn’t help telling people excitedly “We’re going to Chamonix!!”
PJ’s mountain rescue team were planning a trip too, so we arranged to hook up with them, though we were taking the leisurely Rosslare-Cherbourg ferry route and driving down to Chamonix and having a 2.5 week holiday. The lads had 7 days and were hitting the hills fast and hard.
We arrived at Iles de Barrat campsite on Sat 28th August and were treated to a marvellous thunderstorm that night. Main street Chamonix outside The Pub was literally a river.
Sunday was climbing on hot rock (it literally burned your hand in the afternoon sun) at Les Gaillands, a very handy crag less than a mile from the campsite.
The team arrived that afternoon and routes were discussed for the next day. Billy had been there a few days doing the Dome de Miages and a solo run over the Trois Monts, ending with a bivvy at the Nid d’Aigle train station having missed the last train down. Hardcore in that thunderstorm! He and Roy K were off to the Conscrits hut next day which left 8 of us deciding what to do.
PJ and I had thought a leisurely acclimatisation on Petite Aiguille Verte but Robbie had other plans: a straight climb from the valley floor at Le Tour up to Aiguille de Tour (2000m of ascent), back to Albert Premier hut for the night, then Tete Blance and Petit Fourche the next day. No messing and you can forget the gondola too!
Our enthusiam wilted a little next morning as we struggled to find the path to the ridge up to the Albert Premier (there’s a clearer but more circuitous route round the back, using the gondola). Then it became clear that Robbie’s guesstimate of a “2 hours no bother” climb up the steep ridge was, for us mere mortals, a tad eager.
Anyway we reached the hut and previous residents exclaimed how new and refurbished it all looked, the previous hut having been a bit of a “shithole”. A 30 minute break and we were off to the Aiguille de Tour but we hadn’t yet reached the Col de Tour before there was much dragging of feet and gasping breath. We struggled over the col, and made it to about 150m below the summit at 3.15pm before making the decision to turn around. Dale, our enthusiastic first time alpinist, wanted to push on, “It’s just there!” but the rest of us were too busted and more concerned about making it back in time for dinner at 6:30!
A 6:30am start next morning and we were back over the same Col de Tour, this time on fresh legs we covered the samedistance in half the time. The guidebook we’d read suggested an AD route 150m up the north face of Tete Blanche but one look at the overhanging bergschrund was enough to tell us that the beginners in the group were never getting up it, so we settled for the scrambly north east ridge instead. From the summit it’s a short hoof across the col to the steep snowy north slope of the Petit Fourche, which finally involved a little ice axe fun as you zig-zag up it.
The descent all the way back to Le Tour was initially exciting as we negotiated the steep glacier with several crevasses but then the trudging began. The knees weren’t up to the steep ridge so we descended by the longer route, aiming for the gondola. The feet were in quite a bit of pain by the time we gratefully reached it and paid our €13. I’d have paid €50 to be honest!
Wednesday was a day off and I spent the morning scanning the Gouter hut website for free beds that weekend, eventually securing 2 beds for me and PJ and informing the lads that there were 4 other beds. Using Rab’s phone to book these 4 places however I must have entered his email address wrong because, although we saw a “successful booking” page, we didn’t get the confirmation email. Several trips to the Mountain Guides office couldn’t clarify if we definitely had the beds and it wasn’t until we arrived there on the Friday night that we could breathe a sigh of relief as the guardian looked us up and said “Row-bare??” (French for Robert).
Roy M’s knees had had enough and he was flying home, Billy and Roy K had rock climbing plans, the newly arrived Pete along with Mike and Robbie were off to the Conscrits hut, so that left PJ, myself, Rab, Nigel and Dale to do Mont Blanc. Rab’s 4th bed would have to go begging. So what to do on the Thursday? As usual time was of the essence for the guys, so if we wanted to do the Cosmiques Arete it was now or never.
We were up for the first lift to the Aiguille de Midi but so was half of Chamonix, still we were up there by 9am and raring to go… sort of. Problem number 1: several of us had just seen climbers pick their way down the NE snow ridge with that awful drop to the left and there were a few nervous trips to the loo to be had first. Problem number 2: Nigel had left his crampons behind. Luckily Mike was able to get them to a friendly elderly Scottish couple on the bottom lift and, with a little bit of texting, arranged to handover at the top. Meanwhile PJ and I geared up in the ice tunnel, getting relentlessly photographed by Japanese tourists, then it was time to swing open the little gate and teeter out.
“Oh Mummy!” I had flashbacks of the top of Matterhorn as we picked our way down, short gasping breaths, heart racing a million miles an hour, do NOT trip up, do NOT trip up… Phew, we’re down!
The bowl of the Vallee Blance is a magnificent place to be, the Rochefort Arete, Dent de Geant, Point Helbronner, Tacul, Maudit and Mont Blanc all surrounding you. As we trundled over to the start of the ridge we were stunned to see climbers high on the blank looking face of Éperon des Cosmiques. Seriously tough looking grade 6 climbing at least.
When Rab, Nigel and Dale caught us up we set off up the ridge and from the start you realise “this is gonna be a bit testy”. Solid severe grade climbing that never lets up. Route finding was initially straight forward but at the first gendarme we had to work it out, then at the abseils it wasn’t entirely clear where to abseil to, but a best guess got us there. At this point several parties (both Éperon and Arete ascenders) had caught up with us so we cleverly allowed them through and watched where they went. This worked for the next few chimney and slab sections until they were so far ahead we were back to best guessing. The crux pitch was a highly polished affair and tough in big boots but I laced the crack with gear and thrust up, leaving the gear for Rab’s team. By the time we reached the exit chimneys I was glad for the day to be nearly over. I think the longer I’m on a route like that the more my head goes “You’ve made it this far, don’t balls it up now!”, whereas the rest of the guys, especially PJ, seemed to have become inured to the big drops.
The final clamber up the rickety ladder to the platform is hilarious, dozens of clapping tourists eager to take your picture and ask stupid questions like “How far could you fall???” After a team photot we lunched in the restaurant, anything for a few more hours at altitude, then it was back to camp to pack for the big one.
The Bellevue cable car and Mont Blanc tramway to Nid D’Aigle are a very pleasant way to get to 2300m below the Aiguille be Bionnassay but then it’s 1500m of climbing to the Gouter hut. An initial hoof becomes steeper as you turn for the short Tete Rousse glacier crosssing, then it’s the notorious Grand Couloir. The weather had been gloriously sunny all week and we’d heard previous horror stories when the weather had been too warm, bur we had no problems on it, bar the effort of running with a full pack at 3200m, no stonefall at all. The final ridge is a long 700m climb with several steep scrambly sections in the middle and more to finish, this time with the aid of wire ropes though.
The Gouter hut is a magnificent edifice, visible from way below the Tete Rousses, inside it’s all pale wood and warmth with airplane-style views out the windows. The airplane effect is continued with the vacuum toilets. The comfy quilted beds were made use of for an afternoon doze before dinner and we were all tired enough to go straight back there after dinner, none of the usual beer and card game shenanigans.
Up at 2am and out by torch light at 2:15am to join the conga line. The hut had only felt 3/4 full and several of those were guided clients who’d ascended the day before from Tete Rousses and were headed down, so the route didn’t feel too congested. In fact PJ and I were probably the 3rd or 4th party on the line. The climb up to the Dome De Gouter felt interminable, the party in front of us were frustratingly just a little slower, enough to constantly break up our rhythm but not slow enough that we could accelerate past them. Things started to break up a little once we reached the plateau and parties rested and again at the Vallot hut where we 5 had a quick snack, so that we basically had the Bosses ridge to ourselves. By now daylight was arriving and the narrowness of the ridge was quickly becoming evident. Our initial “100 steps and pause” method was now reduced to “50 steps and pause” and again the mantra of “Do NOT trip up!” echoed in my brain.
Off the ridge there is a small rise and then you reach a crevasse with a steep wall behind, which thankfully had steps cut it into it and a fixed rope. So a leap over the crevasse, grab the rope with one hand, ice axe buried with the other and haul yourself up. Then it’s up the final narrow summit ridge, over a false summit, then suddenly there is nothing else above you. We’d made good enough time that only one party was heading back down the summit ridge but I for one was glad when they stepped aside rather than us. The breath was really short now, 50 steps had maybe become 40, I was leaning on my ice axe when we stopped and my trembling calves were making me sway a little which unnerved me. “Do NOT trip up!”
At 6:59am we were on the top and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but I hugged PJ and we took several pictures as we waited for Rab, Nigel and Dale. The forecast had said clear weather but it was quite overcast and extremely cold in the biting wind, so there wasn’t much celebration. I tried looking out for the Matterhorn but couldn’t see it and eventually the pain in my hands prompted us to leave.
Strangely I felt more confident descending the narrow ridges, I suppose when every step isn’t a monumental effort you can actually enjoy yourself, and I enjoyed the views more on the (long) way down. We were back at the Gouter hut by 9:30am and took a well deserved 2nd breakfast of pizza and Orangina. An hour later the horrible final descent began. We had to make the train at Nid d’Aigle for 2:45pm, they’d cancelled half the trams and the 5pm one wouldn’t let us catch the finalBellvue cable car, sothe race was on. That 700m initial steep ridge took longer to go down than up, some 2.5 hours and we feared missing the tram but we eventually made it with time to spare despite lots of aching, numb toes.
Billy was retiring, his official last day of work was Sunday so, with a big hill to celebrate too, we all headed out in Chamonix, lumbering from one blaringly loud bar to another and imbibing several expensive whiskies. There was even a bit of dancing too, despite the tired legs. I think PJ and I struggled back at 3am and awoke next day with missing memories and a missing watch, that was later found inside the Portaloo, but that’s another story.
The guys were headed home and PJ and I had had enough of the big peaks so we packed up and headed over to Lake Annecy. We spent a pleasant few days on the municipal campsite, whose only drawback was the fact it was at the top of a steep winding hill. My legs protested every time we returned from quaffing beer blanche and rose wine in the late afternoon sunshine in old town.
We found time, amid the quaffing, to do the via ferrata at La Clusaz, an achingly beautiful alpine village just below the Col de Aravis. 100m of ascent through the woods from the car park to the start of the climb, then 300m of D grade ferrata, then descend round the back to the car again. Great fun, especially the overhanging difficult exit (there’s an easier exit too).
So one of the most memorable alpine trips in years, we really lucked out with the weather, it only ever could have been called “dull” on that Wednesday rest day. Still, there remains lots of stuff to do in Chamonix and this won’t be our last trip there.