Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Taste Of Chamonix And Saas Grund. The Alps September 2014

Well I'm back home again after another trip to the Alps. It turned out to be a really successful one and I feel re-enthused about the high mountains and I'm already looking forward to hopefully returning in the future. I had put a shout out for partners on UK Climbing and I got two replies. One from a guy from north of Dublin and the other from a young English lad from Brighton. Communication was difficult prior to the trip but from my conversations with the Irish fella I felt a confidence that some good climbing would be in the offing. Andy from Brighton was less forthcoming in his communications and I had reservations prior to our meeting in Geneva. Well to make a long story short Andy turned out to be a star and the other guy discovered that the fantasy and reality of Alpine climbing were poles apart and after two routes he (and we) decided that his climbing was over for this trip. Anyway,it will be a bit awkward to write and not mention one of the group (at his request) but here goes. Here is an account of the various days.

Wednesday September 3rd;
We arrived in Geneva in good time and met Andy and then used the excellent ChamExpress bus service to transfer to La Fayet where we caught the bus up to Les Contamines where we walked to our campsite. We had decided to make the most of our limited time in the area and our initial objective was the Domes de Miage which I reckoned would be a good test for everybody. We arrived at about 12.30 but there was nobody in reception and we had to wait until 3pm to check in. Still no one arrived and after a quick phonecall it was agreed that we could leave our tents and head to the Conscrits Refuge straight away. I knew that the walk to the hut was a long one so I set a reasonably stiff pace. Andy being a newbie actually volunteered to carry the rope and coped no problem so already my concerns about his fitness were easing. Indeed it was my own fitness I was worried about as the training I had done before going was poor and lets be kind and say that there were a few extra pounds of flesh to be hauled up. Anyway after all the travel it felt good to finally be on the move and I felt that familiar excitement start to build whenever I visited the high mountains.  "No 2" found the pace a bit much and returned to camp half way to the Tre Le Tete Hotel 1970 mtrs and Andy and myself continued on. A welcome rest and waterstop at the "hotel" and we were off again. Time was running against us and I was concerned that we might not reach the hut before dark or indeed dinner so I pressed on. I was surprised to see that the route to the hut had changed and we no longer had to go up the Glacier Tre La Tete and instead we went up to the left and I was initially delighted as I reckoned that it would make for an easier route as I thought we would gain all the necessary height at the start and a nice level traverse would follow to the refuge---I was wrong. After an initial climb the very rough trail contoured around many deep recesses and gullies and went up and down rock steps and generally sapped whatever energy we had left. The shock of reaching over 2000 mtrs also took its toll and its fair to say the well before we reached the hut I was well and truly spent. The cloud had been down en-route and it added to the atmospheric feel of the route and it also hid the extent of long contouring winding way of the track and I'm not sure if it was a good or a bad thing. We came to a new and exciting bridge that spanned a deep gully and while it wasn't very long it was built quite delicately and some of the wires/ropes looked on the slender side. It was lovely to cross and provided an nice diversion from our deepening fatigue. We climbed up some steep ground beyond and we broke through the mist and the stunning peaks from Mont Tondu to Aig Tre La Tete looked glorious in the evening light. It buoyed our spirits and soon after despite many stops we were delighted to eventually arrive at the hut. We were totally spent but the warm welcome and good feed went some way to restoring our spirits. We didn't stay up for long after dinner and as we climbed the stairs to our dorm we wondered we would cope with the climb the following morning. A good sleep followed.
Andy doing a bit of foraging

The Tre la Tete "Hotel"

Stunning scenery

The original route went into the rather grim Glacier De Tre La Tete

The local wildlife makes an appearance

New footbridge. Scary stuff :o)

The Conscrits Hut 2602 mtrs, A most welcome sight.

Thursday Sept 4th;

Up and down for a 5am breakfast where we ate our fill. The morning was crisp and clear when we emerged from the hut and while we were still feeling the effects of the previous day we were looking forward to the challenge ahead. This would be my third time on the route. The first time we traversed the ridge from Aig la Berengere all the way to the Durier hut and the descent from there in snowy and icy conditions isn't something I will forget in a hurry. The second time we followed the normal route from Col des Domes back to the hut and this time things were very very icy and the long descent to Col la Berangere was almost exclusively on pure ice. Today things promised to be in much better condition and indeed when we eventually reached the glacier it was a carpet of crisp white snow which was a delight to walk on as only the points of the crampons bit into the surface. Now as we approached 3000 meters altitude again began to make its effects known. Thankfully the gradient was mostly gentle and we made good progress until we reached the steeper slopes that led to the Col des Domes. 
Heading up the glacier

The stunning views back

The beautiful elegant ridge

Old Fart

Andy feeling the chill with Aig Bionassay and Mont Blanc behind

Looking back from Aig la Berangere

Looking down at the lovely Conscrits Hut

On the long long descent, getting there.

Inspirational scenery

Oh dear but I was slow. I had to stop very frequently and almost all the other parties passed us by. It was a big compensation however to look around at the grandeur and majesty of our surroundings. Eventually we arrived at the Col and as it was breezy and decidedly chilly we turned straight away up the steep slope to point 3633 mtrs. Andy wasn't fazed by the increasingly narrow ridge and indeed when it became a knife edge he was sure footed and progressed confidently and smoothly to the summit. It was great for me to see and it put any doubts I had about his suitability to this environment to rest. A guide and his three charges were returning towards us and it was somewhat alarming to see a woman at the front of the rope almost overbalance at the most delicate point on the ridge and Andy with Andy and myself only twenty or so meters below them. It showed just how precarious the job of a guide is and we both decided that it was a case of rather him than me, trying to safely aid (sometimes scared and uncoordinated people) over narrow and dangerous ground. Anyway we arrived at the  final summit at 3670 mtrs and after a short rest turned and faced into the long and sometimes steep (45 degrees) descent to Col de la Berangere. Once again Andy was sure footed and the descent went smoothly. Oh dear but the 100 meter climb to the summit of Berangere was tough on my weary body but we got there and now all that faced us was the long long descent down to the campsite. There were extensive snowfields on the way down to the hut and this provided us with a speedy and easy way down most of the way to the hut. Indeed sometimes too speedy as one time I decided to glissade down one stretch when I somehow managed to lose my axe and I picked up speed alarmingly before finally managing to stop myself with the point of my walking pole before I reached some rocks. Andy kindly retrieved my axe and I stuck to trying to stand up ski for the rest of the snow. We arrived back at the hut at 12.45 (seven and a quarter hours after starting) and rested for a half an hour before facing down to the rest of the descent. We eventually arrived back at the campsite at 17.30 a full twelve hours after starting our day, tired but very happy. Welcome to the Alps.

Friday September 5th;

It had been decided that we would head to the Chamonix area next and Aiguille de Tour was our first objective. We checked into the rather severely sloping campsite in Argentiere but we managed to secure a reasonably level spot and we later caught the lift to Balme where an easy hike up to the Albert Premiere hut followed. This would be my fifth time  on Aig de Tour but I was still looking forward to it as the mountain scenery all about is wonderful. I was surprised and delighted to find that the hut had undergone a major upgrade since my last visit and now had nice modern toilets, large bright public spaces and more spacious and pleasant dorms. The beautiful Aiguille Chardonay drew the eye,  perhaps one day I will get to climb the Migot Spur.

Saturday Sept 6th;

Anyway a decent sleep followed and we were up and away after breakfast by 5.30. The weather was once again being kind and we once again had clear skies and a nice crisp windless morning to enjoy. We followed the cairns over the rocky ground behind the hut before eventually reaching the glacier from where we followed the track up to Signal Reilly and onward towards Col Superior du Tour. The dawn was lovely and up here we were now in another world with true high mountain scenery surrounding us. I gloried in it and it only got better when we emerged onto the Trient Plateau and the sunshine where the whole of the Valais Alps and more lay spread out before us.
Looking down towards a moody Chamonix

The head of the Tour Glacier

Looking up towards Table Rock on Aig de Tour

View from the hut

The beautiful Aig Chardonay

Sunset behind Mont Buet

Towards The Verte

In the sun on the Trient Plateau
Easy snow slopes led to the base of the scramble up to the summit. This proved to be quite enjoyable and we took a direct line up the ridge to the top. A well earned rest on the airy summit and we turned back for home. The descent went relatively uneventfully and we were back off the glacier by lunchtime. A nice rest at the hut and we continued down to Balme where we enjoyed the great views towards Chamonix as we were eased back to Le Tour where we only had to wait a few minutes to get the bus back to the campsite. A warm leisurely evening followed.

Nice rock to the summit

To the north top

The Grand Combin and the eastern Valais beyond

Sunday Sept 7th;

Today we decided to do the Cosmiques Arret on the Aiguille de Midi. I had never done this route and it seemed that, as it is so short, that it would be possible to introduce the others to an AD route. As usual the Midi lift was busy and there was a queue when we arrived but we caught I think the third bin and we were at the top by 9am. Its some money making machine and at 55€ for a return trip its not cheap but it is none the less an amazing achievement and for the non climber it offers a unique opportunity to visit the high mountains. It is also something of a cattle mart as you are squashed into the lift in great numbers. Anyway we arrived at the top and quickly suited and booted and then headed out into the warm sunshine and faced onto the narrow arret that led to the Valley Blanche. I had no doubts about Andy after he dealt with the Domes de Miage so well but this would show what the other guy was made of. I stayed just behind him and kept him on a very short rope indeed and we set off. It was immediately obvious that the considerable exposure was getting to him and his tremulous breathing and nervous shaky footwork was making the rest of us very nervous as well. I coaxed and encouraged and eventually we reached the easy ground and made our way to the start of the climb on the other side of the Midi.
On the easy ground looking across at the Grand Jorasses

Lots of rock climbing on the Midi

Towards Tacul

First abseil

Looking down into the valley far far below
This isn't a place to go for solitude and we joined the queue at the start of the route. It started off pretty straightforwardly but soon enough some interesting steps arrived but these we passed without too much difficulty. It was a lovely route that was varied and engaging but also so so busy. One French guide that decided to pass us on the crux was a "prick" and made life difficult for a while as he was crossing ropes and offering advice as to how we should be faster. I decided to stop and let the asshole off and saw that he did the same to the group in front. Anyway the crux was "interesting" and I was aware that I hadn't done a lot of proper climbing prior to this trip so it was with some uncertainty that I led into it. Andy is a much superior rock climber to me but I was keen to give this a go. It went ok except for one crampon slip at the most delicate point which I wasn't too bothered about as I had "bomber" holds for both hands but it gave Andy a fright looking at me. I got to the belay and brought the two boys on and it was then that the guide became a pest but we continued after a bit onto the steep ground ahead that offered two more nice pitches os grade 111 rock. After three hours on the route we emerged onto the little narrow arret that leads to the ladder to the viewing platform where we were photographed and questioned about the climbing by some tourists, rock stars or what :o). Andy of course milked it for all it was worth by almost doing himself a mischief as he climbed over the railing and let all and sundry know he was squashing his goolies. Oh dear. Anyway this also marked the end of the climbing by No2 as nobody had confidence in his climbing ability and this environment is not very forgiving.
Looking down before another abseil

The way ahead up and to the left of the final "Gendarme"

Wonderful Alpine environment

The final arret

I really loved the picture in the lift station, so cool.

Monday Sept 8th;

The relief was palpable that the air had been cleared the previous evening and myself and Andy were free to climb unencumbered. As the weather forecast was pretty good and we had done a reasonable bit of acclimatisation by now we decided to have a go at Mont Blanc. We caught a bus to Les Houches and got the lift up to Bellevue at 1800 mtrs. I am never sure whether to get the train for the next stage or walk the relatively easy track up but today as we were only going as far as the Tete Rouse Refuge at 3167 mtrs (the Gouter being full) we opted to walk from here. Thanks to the extraordinary Mc Auliffe route finding abilities we took the wrong track and ended up climbing up a steep track that had us sweating heavily in the warm humid day, towards the summit of Mont Lachat. This proved to be a great choice as we emerged from the woods and were then able to enjoy a beautiful traverse of the gentle top which offered great views across to the Chamonix Aiguilles and beyond. It was such a nice change from the plod beside the railway and only added 40 meters to the climb. After a bask in the sun and a bite to eat we continued upwards. From the nearby col we once again joined the railway and soon we were at the station (Nid d'Aigle 2372 mtrs). Andy was getting over the shock of climbing with a guy that was older than his dad and getting used to my rather acerbic sense of humour so the chat and banter was getting better by the day. We were both having fun. After a quick visit to the nearby refuge we climbed steeply to the mostly barren, desolate ground that leads to the ridge that rises to the Tete Rouse glacier. There were many many people about and plenty of them were rather elderly which was great to see. As we got higher we met a couple of men in their sixties from Ireland and I had a nice chat with them, of which Andy informed me he understood not a word. We arrived at the ever busy hut and relaxed for the rest of the evening.
Busy skies and great views from Mont Lachat

The Chamonix Aiguilles from mont Lachat

The north face of Aiguille de Bionassay

Bionassay from the hut

The futuristic Gouter refuge precariously perched


Glacier de Bionassay which was earlier being searched by a helicopter, sobering.

Tuesday Sept 9th;

Alas the weather closed in the previous evening and after some electrical activity it rained through the night. The forecast was now for more of the same in the afternoon, so after rising at 1am and 4am and returning to bed each time we decided at 7am to call it quits and return to the valley floor. The rain had stopped earlier and the weather was showing signs of improvement but when none of the guides were going up and it would probably take 7 hours + to reach the summit which would mean staying another night in the refuge I think it was the right decision to turn our backs on Mont Blanc. It would be there next time.

Wednesday Sept 10th.

Today we decided to leave the Chamonix valley and head to Switzerland. Using the excellent transport links we caught a train to Martigny, another to Visp from where we got the bus to Saas Grund where we checked into the Kapellenweg Campsite at lunchtime. In order to make the most of the good weather we decided on a traverse of the Weissmies from the south southeast ridge to Hohsaas. We also decided that it might be nice to bivouac so we packed up food and sleeping bag etc and headed up towards the Almagellar Hut at 3pm. A long and pleasant hike followed but is was a bit disappointing to see the odd rain shower around us. They all missed us and when eventually we arrived at the hut at 2894 mtrs we spotted some likely ground for a bivvy up near the Dri Hornli. We continued on and were delighted to find a great spot under a large overhanging boulder that even had a few planks laid down so a smooth bed could be had. Luxury indeed. We set about making dinner in the gathering gloom and I must say I really enjoyed the experience. It is I think preferable to have lots of fresh air and look up at the stars rather than endure the (sometimes) cloying stuffiness of a hut dorm. Andy hadn't brought a sleeping bag and relied on the bivvy bag instead and so was cold from 1am onwards, a lesson learned I think. Still it had been an enjoyable experience which I hope to replicate more often in the future.
Looking down on the village of Almagellar

The Dri Hornli

Home sweet home

Thursday Sept 11th;

I had relented and brought No2 along with us but perhaps things were a little too real for him and after the bivvy he turned and headed down. Myself and Andy headed up and we soon reached the Zruischbergeupass  where we turned and began the easy early stages of the ridge.  On the east side of the ridge there was a snowfield that continued to high up on the mountain. We stuck to the more interesting ground of the crest of the ridge. There was a stiff breeze blowing but it wasn't a problem. One party coming up from behind was moving very quickly and when they eventually passed us out after leaving the snow they informed us in a kinda condescending German way that they had used the snow and thus they didn't have to put up with the wind. In Ireland boy, thats not a wind :o). Higher up the ridge gets more interesting and we roped up. I was pretty slow but we got there and we were on the summit shortly after 9am. The narrow arret to the summit was easier this time as was a nice track and you could use your axe for security. It was quite the contrast to my previous time here as there was a stiff cold wind that ensured that we were on the way down after only the minimum of delays. The descent is easy and there is only one place where the glacier drops away steeply and you traverse under some seracs, that you have to cross a big old crevasse which had a narrow snowbridge which while it was nice and frozen now I certainly wouldn't like to step on it in the afternoon sun. We met many groups coming up against us and I was pleased that the climbing was behind us. We reached the lift at Hohsaas after less than two hours and enjoyed the comfort of our trip to the valley floor. It had been a good day.

The pre dawn

Towards the Pjortengrat

Andy lovin it.

Nice more interesting sections ahead

Andy making it look easy

The summit ridge


The stunning view back towards the summit

Back down on easy ground.
Friday Sept 12th;

I was looking forward to this. We were heading up to the Michabel Hut (3340mtrs) and we were hoping to do the Lenzspitze to Nadelhorn traverse after ascending the east northeast ridge. I had seen it the previous day and had observed that things were looking quite white so I wasn't confident that it would be in condition. Still we took all we would need  to do it and after getting the lift to Hannig we struck off for the hut. There was some cloud on high but once again the forecast was good and we seemed set fair. The route to the hut is initially a zig zag path that rises steeply up behind the Distelhorn but the last 500 meters of climbing is on a well equiped "via ferrata" type route with ladders, ropes etc. In order to minimise costs we were also carrying a couple of bottles of water each as there was no drinking water at the hut. We stopped for a bite to eat half way and generally took our time but we still made the hut in good time and we were able to enjoy a nice relaxing evening. When we asked as to the condition of the ridge we were informed that it was very iced up and that it wasn't being done at all. That made the decision easy and we decided that the Nadelhorn via the northeast ridge was the target for the following day. Indeed standing by the hut looking up at the scary looking ridge that rose up into the cloud towards the Lenszpitze I was just as glad.

Looking across at the Egginer

View across to the Weissmies

The Lagginhorn

Starting up the "equipped" section.

The north northeast ridge on the Lenzspitze

Evening light on the Alphabuel

The awesome Dom

Saturday Sept 13th;

Sometimes one is fortunate enough to go on holiday and get good weather so that a decent run of climbing can be done but this morning we really lucked out. We emerged into a morning of almost indescribable beauty. The moon lit a sea of cloud that blanketed everything below 3000 meters and the mountains all about stood like islands adrift. It was truly beautiful and coupled with a windless crisp morning we set off up the ridge above the hut at 05.30am. My discomfort of the previous night (I didn't get any sleep in the stuffy dorm) was soon forgotten and we made good progress, initially on the ridge and then on snow slopes until we reached the Hobalmgletscher at 3600 meters. The onset of dawn made things even more beautiful and I wish I could adequately capture the beauty on the scene.
Andy surveying the scene

First rays of sun from behind the Weissmies

Spot the climbers on the NNE face of the Lenzspitze
The glacier was a beautiful basin with the impressive NNE face of the Lenzspitze drawing the eye and as the light improved three parties could be seen on it. One was moving rapidly and reached the summit just as the first rays of sun hit the mountain. The middle one was perhaps half an hour behind. As we got higher we noticed that the third party seemed to be stuck approximately 150 meters below the summit and we were getting concerned that they hadn't moved in a fair while. Soon the reason was revealed as they started to ski down the 50 to 55 degree slope, mad or what. On our route we took a direct line up to the Windjock at 3850 meters and turned and started up the long ridge towards the summit almost 500 mtrs higher up. What a beautiful ridge!. Narrow enough to require good concentration with the odd rocky outcrop that provided a little variety with a final steep section towards the summit that was a little icy. The scenery was stunning all around and I could see the famous "Nadelgrat" ridge to my right that promised future adventures. Despite being tired I managed to plod along at a reasonable rate and we were at the summit 3 hours 15 minutes after setting off. The airy top afforded stupendous views as you would expect but it was also bloody freezing and we didn't delay there long before turning down to face the descent. Initially we back-climbed the steep section. This was Andy's first experience of this and he coped admirably. Indeed it had been quite a while since I did it myself and it takes a bit of getting used to. We were soon beyond this section and we enjoyed the narrow but easier slopes below. We met only one pair coming up against us and discovered that another party of four had turned back after finding the narrow ground not to their liking. The descent went smoothly and it wasn't too long before we were enjoying a second breakfast back at the hut a mere five hours after leaving. As we neared the hut we were passed by two Italian guys who were the ones to speedily climb the Lenzspitze. They had done the face in three hours and crossed the ridge to the Nadelhorn in just two, despite the icy conditions. They were rightly proud of their considerable achievement. It had been a glorious morning and one I shall remember fondly  for a long time. After a suitable rest we resumed our descent to Hannig and returned to the valley two happy bunnies. That evening I had to go to bed at 6pm and a decent 12 hours+ of kip went a long way to restoring the body.
On the ridge

The skiers about to take off.

The Dom from the summit

The Matterhorn

Andy Lovin it.

Add caption

Looking down the length of the ridge

Wondering what if??

Wildlife and domestic

Approaching Hannig
Sunday Sept 14th;

After a long (much needed) sleep and as today was going to be almost a rest day I took the opportunity to walk up to Saas Fee and have a look about. As it was a Sunday morning all the shops were closed so I availed of the "free" lift pass and got the lift up as far as Felskin and soaked up the views. The Eggener looks amazing from here and definitely looks like a worthy day out. I returned to the town and the campsite and shortly after lunch we too the lift to Hahsaas and walked down to the Weissmies Hut. The last time I was here the lady in charge was a delightful cheery person. This time, lets just say the woman in charge didn't radiate the same cheery warmth. It didn't matter really and we were assigned our beds (now equipped with large down filled duvets) and we settled in to enjoy the sunshine for the evening. In the valley below the sun disappears behind the mountains at 16.15. Here we were able to watch it set at nearly 20.00. It was great. We had some discussion as to exactly what route we would do the following morning and we settled on the West Southwest Rib and South Ridge AD. 
The Egginer from Felskin

Some interested wildlife

Evening light on the Lagginhorn--Up the right and down the left

Beautiful workmanship on the old hut.

Monday Sept 15th;

We were up and out at 05.30 and we had gained good height by the time dawn arrived. The rib is a broken and occasionally chossy route that (while sometimes offering good scrambling) doesn't have a great deal to recommend it. Finally we arrived at the "gendarme" that led to point 3906 mtrs and its from here the fun begins. Suddenly the nature of the outing becomes much more serious and there followed several abseils interspersed with some exposed scrambling and climbing that really consumed the time. The 60 meter rope was a little unwieldly as well but we progresses steadily and safely. There really isn't much point in trying to give a detailed route description as it is long and complex but fairly obvious when you are there. It is however a tough and interesting route and the summit cross seems to be a long time coming. Eventually over seven hours after starting we reached the top where we didn't delay too long in case we missed the last lift to the valley. The descent went very quickly however, aided by the snow slope that covered the first few hundred meters. We actually arrived back at the hut less than two hours later so we had loads of time to amble down to the lift. The jump to a quality AD route had been a good education for Andy but again he was comfortable and sure footed in the way he coped and I'm sure he will progress to greater things and as Tim Long might say he will have a long Alpine Career ahead of him. I too was delighted with our outing. Its fair to say that we could have been quicker across the difficulties but I have no doubt that with more practice the speed would return. 
Yet again a beautiful dawn

The view back down at an interesting section of the Rib

The stunning looking North Ridge of The Weismies

Getting into the thick of it.

One of the abseils

Quality mixed ground.

Looking back along the South Ridge

The rather unimpressive summit cross

Tuesday Sept 16th;

A very early start saw me catch the bus to Visp followed by the train to Geneva and my morning flight home. I had time to reflect on the trip and despite everything it had proved to be a very successful one. Andy was a star and without his being there I'm now sure what I would have gotten done. In thirteen days we had packed in The Domes de Miage, Aig de Tour, The Cosmiques Arret, The Tete Rouse Refuge, The Weissmies Traverse, The Nadelhorn and The Lagginhorn Traverse. The weather had really been kind to us and I think I rediscovered my enthusiasm for Alpine climbing. I look forward to keeping in touch with Andy and who knows what the future brings.

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