|Aig du Tour from Montroc le Planet|
|Wonderful meadow at Le Tour|
I headed off to Geneva early on the morning of June 12th from Dublin airport in the company of a young east Cork man called Kevin Ring. The plane was about twenty minutes late leaving and we had some concerns about catching our bus transfer from Geneva to Chamonix. We were ten minutes late leaving the baggage reclaim but we needn't have worried as Cham Express were there waiting for us. This ensured that we arrived in the Chamonix valley before noon. We had planed to stay in a campsite in Montroc le Planet but after the driver going out of his way to take us the extra few kilometers we found the site had not yet opened. We walked to the nearby train station and caught a train into the next valley to my usual campsite near Vallorcine. This meant we were further delayed and as we intended (or hoped) to get up to the Albert 1 hut under Aig de Tour that day, time was now becoming our enemy. When we arrived at the site we quickly set up the tent and sorted our rucksacks out and caught the next train back to Montroc from where we started the long grind up to the hut. The day was warm and sunny and despite the full bags and slightly rushed timetable it was great to be here in this wonderful place and to once again be climbing towards another adventure. There was another plus. Kevin was proving to be a wonderful companion who was full of enthusiasm and good humour. We were getting along famously and when we could get our breath the hike was frequently punctuated with bouts of laughter.
|Moon above Aig Chardonnet|
We rose early with the intention of climbing the Table Couloir, and AD gully that rises at an angle of approx 45degrees with a slightly steeper exit to near the summit of Aig de Tour. This would have made a nice interesting start to our holiday and at just over 3500mtrs Aig de Tour was a perfect first peak in order to acclimatise for hopefully greater things. However when we rose the dodgy weather that had been forecast had arrived. We were enveloped in mist and there had been no frost so the hoped for firm neve in the gully would have been an avalanche prone nightmare. A change of plan was called for so we decided to just follow the snow track of the normal route. We set off in the first light of day and followed the cairns over the rocky ground behind the hut until we arrived at the glacier. Here we suited and booted and headed off up into the gloomy mist. Although there was little to be seen we remained in a positive mood and consoled ourselves that we were on a good acclimatisation day. We moved slowly but steadily up past Signal Reilly and were soon on the long gradual pull up the Tour Glacier.
We were soon feeling the effects of altitude but we set a pace where we could keep moving and we were actually passing some groups. Soon we came to a steepening and the track zig zagged up for about 150mtrs and we were at the Col Superior du Tour 3289mtrs. A quick rest here and we proceeded up the Trient Plateau. Soon enough we were at the berschund and then we began the scramble up the final 160mtrs to the south summit. We stuck to the ridge and near the top took a direct line to the summit that involved a few tricky moves. Unfortunately when we reached the top we were greeted by the same views that were on offer all morning, nothing but mist. Still we were happy to be out and about. There wasn't any point in dallying so we began our descent quite soon. Again we took the direct line down which gave us the chance to involve direct and self belays over the tricky steps. Soon we were back to the col and crossing the berschund again. Despite the cloud the Trient Plateau gets more heat from the sun and there was already a noticeable softening of snow conditions. The descent back to the hut was uneventful and we were back by one pm. We relaxed for a while and in the improving weather of the afternoon and later went down to the glacier to try and find a nice bit of ice to climb. This proved surprisingly difficult and we abandoned our efforts after a short while in favour of more leisurely pursuits.
After a good nights rest we rose at 04.30 and enjoyed the excellent breakfast that the Albert Premier hut offers. We were in great spirits after the mirth and giggles of the previous evening. I haven't had a fit of the giggles in ages but we found ourselves in stitches when we recalled a faux pas of Kevin's about a conversation we were having with two young Irish lads we had met and Kevin having briefly lost the thread of the discussion, expressed astonishment that Dermot Summers (a well known mountaineer and TV presenter) was only thirty years old, when in fact we were talking about Uli Steck. Between that and the detailed description of Mick Jagger with a beard we laughed ourselves to sleep.
We left the hut and emerged into the wonderful dawn of a cloudless alpine morning and the promise of a great day ahead. The plan for today was to climb the north face of the Tete Blanche. This is a short climb of approx 120mtrs of fifty to fifty five degree snow/ice to the summit at 3429mtrs. This would give us another good acclimatisation day with the bonus of putting both ice axes to good use. As with the previous day we followed the track to Col Superior du Tour and turned right when we entered the Trient Plateau. The big difference between today and yesterday was the weather. Whereas yesterday was misty and dull, today we enjoyed everything good that the high mountains have to offer. Pristine snow covered glaciers surrounded everywhere by impressive spires of rock and peaks covered in snow and hanging glaciers. Another big difference was the heat. Even though we had made swift progress, it was already quite warm at only 7am. The snow which had been hard on the Tour side was now turning soft and we found ourselves occasionally sinking as we passed Col du Tour and begun the pull up to the berschund under the face. The snow was now quite soft and as I stepped gingerly on to the snow bridge over the berschund there was unsettling noises underfoot. The berschund is by the way huge and cavernous. It was not only deep but really very wide and was going back under me quite a long way. I was glad of the reassuring feel of the tight rope Kevin was keeping on me. Anyway I tried to place the axes in the snow above the Berschund and all that was happening was they were sinking down through sugary powder that offered no purchase at all. Between that and the fact that the slope above looked to be fairly loaded with snow the decision to retreat was an easy one.
|Tete Blanche summit with Petit Fourche behind.|
|The ridge up to the Tete Blanche with the pitch near the top.|
We decided to retrace our steps as far as the Col du Tour and scramble up the ridge to the summit. The ridge is in the main easy until not far before the summit we came to a steep slabby section that required a short pitch of balancy VDiff. We reached the top and just sat and savoured the our surroundings. We decided that we didn't need the slog of a further 100mtrs to the top of the Petit Fourche so we descended the easy slopes across the glacier back to the hut. We were moving very well and we were relaxing at the hut by half past noon. A nice long relax with some good coffee and treats and we were ready to tackle the long descent back to the valley floor. I was a little trepidatious of the effects the the descent would have on my dodgy knees but I needn't have worried. They were fine and we were really quick. We thought we would be able to catch the 14.08 train to Vallorcine but in the end it was not to be and we were at the little station at 14.20. This allowed us the luxury of 45minutes with our boots off and relaxation in the glorious sun.
We eventually got to the campsite and after a most welcome shower and shave we headed off on the train to Chamonix to meet Dave Commins. Dave is from Carrigtoohil (via Waterford) and had driven from Ireland over the previous two days. It allowed an enthusiastic Kevin a little time to explore the town and when hunger reared its head we headed to the McDonalds, whose terrace has perhaps the best view of any in the world, and there the trio became complete. We ate and chatted and made plans and relaxed. All in all I think we had fitted quite a lot into our first three days. Later on it was decided that Dave would need a couple of days to settle in and get some hikes under his belt. He wasn't in any fierce hurry as he planned to stay for over two months. As Kevin only had a week we decided to head up on the Aiguill du Midi and do a climb on the Triangle du Tacul and head across the Glacier du Gheant to the Torino hut and do a climb the day after. So after a few beers we retired to our tent that evening with a solid plan for the next couple of days.
We rose early and caught the 06.30 train to Chamonix and walked to the lift station at Chamonix Sud. We caught the next telepherique up to the middle station. Here there was a delay before we boarded the final spectacular lift to the summit station at nearly 3800mtrs. With all the delays it was after 8am before we emerged from the ice tunnel onto the arret that leads to the Vallee Blanche. The arret is quite narrow and exposed and ensures that concentration is immediate and sustained for its duration. The day was again glorious but this also meant that the heat was already considerable. We followed the obvious track down and across underneath the Aig Midi and headed in a direct line for the obvious Triangle in front of us a kilometer further south.
|The Triangle du Tacul and Chere Couloir|
|Heroic or what?.|
|View down from belay|
|Rock climbers heaven on the Aig bu Midi|
|On easy ground with giant seracs behind.|
It was now really warm and as we were also quite tired we decided to return to the valley floor. The weather forecast for the following day was thunderstorms for the afternoon so we decided that going all the way to the Torino hut with the possibility of bad weather spoiling play was not worth the effort so we were happy with our decision. It was perhaps just as well as we really suffered on the walk back up to the lift station. We had to stop often and the heart rate was ofter very high but we eventually finished the slog up the arret and entered gratefully into the cool of the ice tunnel of the station. Here we luxuriated in the cool and packed away all our hardware. We were really pleased with our day and I was glad that my new Quark axes had gotten a really good outing. We descended to the town and enjoyed a nice meal with Dave and had a nice relaxing evening back at the campsite and had an interesting chat with an engaging elderly Canadian couple.
|Happy backy and Mr two mega pixel|
This was a lovely day. After the rush rush of the previous four days today it was decided that the three of us would go to a crag in Servoz and do a little rock climbing and relaxing. The forecast was quite poor for the afternoon but the morning was fine so we took advantage of Dave's car and drove down. The crag is right by the roadside and has a wide range of climbs from the easy to the very difficult. A general rule seems to be that the higher you climb the more difficult it becomes as most of the top is overhanging. There was a group of young teenagers already there and it was great to see them leading climbs and generally taking responsibility for their own safety.
|Dave (keep it goin) Commins et moi.|
|Dave leading up.|
DAYS 6 and 7;
|Dave (who ate all the pies) Commins|
|Something odd in the water.|
|Above Mauvoisin dam towards Arolla|
The track was wonderful and well engineered, at just the right angle so that it ensured that we were able to keep moving but we were gaining substantial height. Onwards, ever upwards we went and soon the landscape was changing from abundant flowers and grass to the bleaker rockier ground that marks where the snow lies for long periods of the year.
|Grand Combin and Combin de Corbassiere on right.|
|The South Ridge|
|Combin Corbassiere with route up from bottom left|
|A weary Dave.|
We eventually arrived back at the refuge and were surprised to realise that it was still only 1pm. We spoke to a young German pair who were planning to climb the Grand Combin the following morning. We relaxed for the afternoon and enjoyed the improving weather and views that it afforded us. The relationship with Dave was different to my relationship with Kevin, not surprising really as they are quite different people. With Kevin it was all chat and lively while with Dave there were more quiet times and this was good too as there was no pressure to fill the spaces and conversation ebbed and flowed in an increasingly comfortable rhythm. The afternoon was interrupted by the arrival of the guardian who arrived early in order to prepare for the summer season. He spoke intermittently to us as we lounged about. We discussed our efforts of the morning and we both regretfully agreed that the Grand Combin, at 4314mtrs, would probably be a step too far too soon for Dave and we resolved to return to Vallorcine the following day. We were pleasantly surprised when as evening approached the guardian invited us to join him for dinner. This we gladly accepted and shortly afterwards enjoyed a delicious meal of pasta with a caper, tomato and anchovies sauce, accompanied with a very fine cheese from the valley below. He spoke informatively about Switzerland and the meal passed very pleasantly. After dinner we sat outside and looked up the glacier at the Grand Combin who was now making its own cloud in an otherwise cloudless sky and at times seemed to be almost on fire.
We rose late and had a leisurely morning. We were in no hurry so we relaxed and made the most of our beautiful surroundings. Eventually we loaded up our bags which were still almost as heavy as when we came up and set off on the journey back. We came to the spot where the Germans had set up camp and were surprised to discover that they too were packing up and readying for the descent. It seems that one of them had taken ill the previous evening which meant that the other one couldn't go up. Bugger and dam it I thought as if I had known we could have paired up and made an attempt together. Still no point fretting now and we continued over the col and down. Back to the car and down, down the long road to the Rhone valley where the heat of the lowlands was really noticeable. Back over the Col de la Forclaz and back to the tents. Yet again the weather for the following day was suspect so we decided that we would again for Servoz and do some rock climbing.
|Yet another Alpine garden|
DAYS 11 and 12;
Wednesday dawned warm and sunny so we set off fairly early for the crag. Dave was in good climbing form and was pushing the grade and indeed led up to grade 6A. One route went right up and over a substantial roof and nobody was more astonished than me when I actually managed to climb it clean albeit on a top rope. We climbed a fair few routes and I led one route of 5B. The crag was quite busy and sometimes we had to wait a fair while for our chosen route. Eventually we had enough and took off down to the Quechua store where I discovered that I didn't really need or want anything. We returned to the campsite and I went for a run/ walk up to the Col des Posettes. Here at 1997mtrs I was some 700mtrs above the campsite and I ran the Twisting track back to Vallorcine and to camp. Yet again the weather had turned and indeed on Thursday we had three separate storms. Still things were to improve for the following few days and we had plans afoot.
Friday we decided to take the train into Chamonix and from there get the bus to Courmayeur. From there we would get the gondola up to the Refuge Torino. I had phoned the hut and spoke to a grumpy mare who had space for Friday night but not Saturday. We decided to forgo the hut comforts and its surly staff and bivvy instead. So yet again we set off with heavy packs for the train. We mistimed our efforts slightly and missed the train at Le Buet but drove to Argentiere and caught up with it there. We purchased a few supplies in Chamonix and caught the bus at 11.45. The Mont Blanc tunnel is impressive and runs in a straight line under the mountain for over six miles and emerges into the Aosta Valley in Italy. The first thing that strikes you as you head into the town, and its a big thing, is the extraordinary and awe inspiring Peuterey Ridge which is revealed in its entirety as it soars up to abut the gigantic southeastern side of the highest mountain in western Europe.
|The Peuterey Ridge|
We got off the bus and went up the hill to a bus stop where we waited for a local bus up to the lift station. Unfortunately we had just missed one and long story short we didn't get to the lift station until nearly four pm. We got out tickets and enjoyed the wonderful and inspiring sight of the Italian side of Mont Blanc as we rose. We had known that high winds were forecast for on high but when we emerged from the tunnel at the refuge at 3371mtrs, the force of the wind still took us by surprise. Adding to the problems was the fact that the cloud had come down and we were again in the mist. Still we set off onto the glacier and followed the track in the direction of the Tour Ronde which was our objective for the following day. On we went into the very limited visibility looking for somewhere sheltered where we could be out of the wind. When it became apparent that we had followed the wrong trail and had arrived at a col before a rocky ridge we decided to retrace our steps and head instead for the Helbronner lift station which is at 3475mtrs is a hundred meters above the refuge. Here we found a lovely sheltered platform which was sheltered from the wind where we made our home for the night.
|Home sweet home and Dave in flattering pose.|
|Towards the Chamonix Aiguilles|
|The Grand Paradiso|
|The eastern Valais with the Matterhorn and Monta Rosa|
|The intrepid duo.|
|Evening light on the Peuterey Ridge|
|Aig Noire de Peuterey|
|Distant Dents du Midi|
|Morning glow on the Tour Ronde|
The wind howled throughout the night and ensured a fitful sleep. I was constantly listening for signs that is was abating yet when morning arrived any easement was not in evidence. Still we rose as planned at 04.30 and had a good breakfast. We were unsure what to do as we reasoned that being on a ridge in these conditions would not only be dam cold but possibly dangerous. We decided to head down to the refuge and hang out there for a bit and await developments. The Torino hut is not the most inviting of places and at 5.30 am it seemed especially bleak. We sat about and shuffled and got colder and colder. Eventually I had enough and suggested that we head in the Tour Ronde's direction and even if we decided against going up at least we would have done something and warm ourselves up. So off we went at about 7am and joined the track on the glacier. The wind wasn't too bad and when we entered the giant basin under Tacul and the Tour Ronde we were actually quite sheltered. There were a fair few other parties out and we head off for the normal route. Before we started the climb up to the gully that would give access to the ridge we put all our excess food and gear into my bivvy bag and left it on the glacier. It was quite a relief to ease the burden and now that we were actually doing something the spirits were good.
|Pristine conditions en route|
|Warming up in the sun and shelter|
|Two climbers on the north face|
We had thought about the north face but with the late start I didn't want to be high up on the face as it turned to slush on the morning sun. Still the normal route is graded at AD so it promised to be interesting as well. With our light packs we made good progress and climbed the gully quickly and were soon on the southeastern ridge. This is fairly straight forward with an exposed traverse of a rock barrier giving the only pause for thought. There was actually a good number of parties out, mostly guides and their clients and it was interesting to watch how they cajoled and encouraged their charges over relatively easy ground when it was very obvious that some had little experience and even little head for heights. We continued up and were soon past any difficulties and on a wide snow slope that leads to the summit rocks. This was a bit of a plod but it passed and we were soon sharing the summit at 3792mtrs with several other parties. We rested a while and enjoyed the only intermittent views and after a few pictures headed down before we got too cold. Here the wind was again quite strong but as we descended we gained the relative calm once more.
|On the Tour Ronde summit.|
|Aig d'Entreves summit|
We returned from whence we came and when we reached the top of the gully we decided to use the in situ gear and abseil down the gully. All went well we came across a party that were being lowered down by their guide who proceeded to go under then over our rope and generally make a nuisance of themselves, much to Dave's annoyance. Anyway soon enough we were back below the berschund and it was amusing to watch another guide lower his client who was floundering on his back and flailing with no grace as he came down the snow slope. Sometimes I guess they really earn their money. We returned to our bag of food etc and a snap decision was made to also take in a traverse of the nearby Aig d'Entreves 3600mtrs. The pull up to the Col d'Entreves on the right was gentle but now it was later in the day and the snow had softened and we were once again hauling heavy bags. Still we were soon enough at the col and here we could leave behind the soft snow and enjoy a pleasant scramble on the ridge. Easy ground was the order of the day and were enjoying ourselves despite the burdens. As you near the summit the character of the ridge changes and it becomes a spectacular knife edge with good exposure on either side.
Upon arriving here we were confronted by several groups going in opposite directions and there was something of a logjam. We paused for a bit to see if things would sort themselves out but eventually we had to just push on and force and cajole our way past. Though narrow, the ridge is of good rock and it provides many good hand and foot holds. Still care is needed if only to avoid unnecessary bumping and shoving. We eventually got past and finally after a steepish back climb of not my favourite snow on rock we came to the end of the difficulties. Here we were confronted by yet another group that was being lowered by their guides. We decided to put some gear over a rock and abseil down the thirty meters to the snow slope below and so speed-ed things up considerably. We were now back on easy ground but we were faced by the slog from the basin up to the plateau near Helbronner. By now fatigue was really taking hold and the heavy loads were taking their tolls. I have seldom found a walk back as tough and I was constantly stopping and trying to ease the ache in my chest caused by the tight rucksack and rope coils. We got back and had to wait only a little while for the lift station to close and we again assumed vacant possession of our home for the night. Lots of snow was melted as we re hydrated after a full 10hour day.
After a fairly decent nights sleep I awoke to a perfect alpine dawn. Not a cloud was to be seen and all traces of the strong winds of the previous couple of days was now gone. One final word about the bivvy. It is a wonderful experience to look up in the dead of night and see the stars as they can only be seen from nearly 12000feet. We were nice and cozy in our bags so we decided to have an extra half hour so a snooze before we rose and faced the crisp morning. The objective for today was the peak that was drawing the eye constantly over the previous days, the Dent du Geant. We had a good breakfast again and packed up and descended to the glacier. This time we didn't have to carry the heavy loads too far and after about a kilometer we stashed the excess. The conditions could not have been better and we continued up the crisp neve to the berschund. After crossing this a steeper climb sees you arrive at the shallow Col Superior de la Noire at 3622mtrs. Here you turn right and the ground becomes more mixed and some easy scrambles make the going more interesting and easier. Soon you round a gendarme on the eastern side via an exposed rising traverse and you arrive at the Salle a Manger. This is the spot where the great rock pillar of the Dent doorstops the wonderful Rochefort Arret.
|Looking up the slab on the Dent Geant|
|Looking down on the Rochefort Arret|
The heat seemed oppressive when we landed back in Courmayeur but as we had over an hour to kill until our bus back to Chamonix we treated ourselves to a delicious pizza. We got our bus and we arrived in the Gare in Chamonix at one minute past eight in the evening. The only problem was the last train to Argentiere six miles away had left two minutes before. There was nothing for it but to walk to the outskirts of town and stick out the thumb. This I did and as I was explaining to Dave that I was usually very lucky the first car that came along stopped. He gave us a drive two miles along the route before he turned off at Le Pras. Again I stuck out the thumb but this time the magic was gone and I had to wait until perhaps the fifth car before we got a lift. This time a young Swiss guy dropped us right at the station in Argentiere. Though we were tired we were buzzing after our day and just how well things had turned out.
DAYS 16 and 17;
After a good night sleep, Monday was a rest day and a chance to get organized for my departure early the following morning. The day was a scorcher and we just lazed about and chatted, enjoyed the view and reminisced. We talked well into the night and generally got along famously. I think we have plans to make plans for the future, watch this space. So it ended and the return home went flawlessly. Roll on the next outing.