Sunday September 6th;
My flight landed at Geneva at 11am and Andy had arranged a transfer to Les Houches with Mountain Dropoffs ( who he had been working for all summer) so I finally arrived at 13.00. It was great to see Andy again and we quickly settled into a comfortable banter. I deposited my gear in his shared flat and quickly got my rucksack together and we set off into Chamonix where we caught the train up to Montenvers. The weather was great, sunny and not too warm and the beauty of the place is almost an assault on the senses. The sheer scale and grandeur of the mountains is easy to forget but when I got out of the train at 16.00 it was an almost overwhelming sight. Still we didn't have too much time to tarry as we were heading up as far as the Courvercle Hut where we planned to bivvy before climbing the South Ridge of Aiguille Moine the following day. The fun begins straight away with the ladders down the rock to reach the Mer de Glas glacier. A long easy walk follows in astounding surroundings before you reach the horrible "dirty " Glacier de Leschaux where progress slowed and became a bit awkward as we crossed the loose stony ground before we reached the ladders that scaled the high rock band. The last time I was here (2008) we didn't bother putting on any harnesses etc but today good sense prevailed and we suited up a little to allow for extra protection should anything untoward occur. The "equipped" section is exposed and goes on for a fair ways and I would guess maybe 400 feet of near vertical cliff is scaled before an easier path is reached that eventually scales the moraine high above the Talefre Glacier and reaches the Courvercle Hut at 2681mtrs.
|The ladders down to the Mer de Glas|
|Speak softly but carry a very big stick|
|Some of the ladders on the way up.|
|The Grand Jorrasses|
|Towards Mont Blanc|
|The Dent du Geant|
|The Talefre Glacier|
We found a lovely spot for a bivvy a few hundred meters from the hut and we quickly set about getting our dinner ready before darkness set in. At least that was the plan except I had forgotten to bring our pasta meals so we had to improvise with what we had brought. Luckily we had erred on the side of caution and we weren't hungry as we settled in for the night. It was hard to get my head around the fact that just a short few hours earlier I was at home in my domestic bliss and now I was in an astonishing wonderland of magnificent mountains that offered breathtaking views in all directions. Waking up in the middle of the night and opening my eyes to a rich tapestry of stars and then turning my head to see ghostly white peaks bathes in the faint light of a crescent moon is a memory I will long cherish.
Monday September 7th;
When the time to get up arrived (4.30) we roused ourselves from our cozy sleeping bags to a frosty morn. Ice coated my bivvy bag and the water had frozen in our bottles. We busied ourselves making breakfast (yes I had thought to bring it) and we stashed our excess gear and set off in the dark to the base of the route. We had timed things nicely and first light had arrived by the time we were crossing the small dry Glacier du Moine. We arrived at the base of the route and we had the place to ourselves.
|The rather confusing Aig Moine|
The guidebook says to climb until you reach a series of ledges that head to the left before reaching easier ground that leads to the ridge near a gendarme. All very straightforward except we missed the ledges and continued to climb straight up as we looked for them. The first couple of pitches were ok but then we arrived at a wide groove that had a chockstone sitting at its top and it looked very difficult to me. Andy is an accomplished rock climber and he set off up without any hesitation and dispatched the section without any difficulty. Lets just say I was the exact opposite. I couldn't seem to find any traction on the fairly blank walls of the groove and by the time I had huffed and puffed my way to the chockstone I had been pulling on the rope as often as not to make progress. Now here at the stone which gave an overhanging dilemma I was really struggling and my lack of strength was really in evidence. I hauled myself up and over eventually but not before I had practically exhausted the pathetic strength I had left in my arms. Andy was patient and encouraging but as we hadn't reached any graded pitches (according to the guidebook) I was wondering if my lack of climbing practice had come back to bite me. Anyway next up was a corner with a crack running up the center. This looked a bit easier and once again Andy gained the top with relative ease. I was by now a little in awe of his prowess. The time he had been living in this mountaineers paradise obviously hadn't been wasted and his progression had been great to see. As you might suspect by now I once again struggled but eventually gained the top. We had completed four pitches and we were no neared to finding these mysterious ledges and Andy, seeing how much I was struggling correctly suggested that we go back down. I was in full agreement and we abseiled back down to the glacier. As we went down we passed another party who were climbing up the same route. Another group of five were nearing the base of the route and it was astonishing to see such ineptitude as they struggled mightily to move on the glacier. It was a huge relief to me to be back down and we were soon back at our bivvy spot enjoying some tea and a bite to eat. We returned to Montenvers and caught the train back to town where a cool beer with a burger and chips went down a treat. Andy was great company and it was totally relaxing to be in his company. Its fair to say though that my confidence had taken a huge battering and I wondered what the rest of the trip would reveal about me.
Tuesday September 8th;
Today we headed around to the Italian side of the mountains to Courmayour and we headed up on the new lift to Hellebonner. We planned on camping on the Galcier du Geant and climbing the Dent du Geant the following day. The weather was still set fair so we were good to go. Andy was driving a few clients for a friend of his to the start of a section of the "Tour de Mont Blanc" so we had a nice early start and we were leaving the very swish new Hellebonner station at 10am so we had a long day to do with what we wished. Things are a little different now than when I was last here four years ago. The new lift station is beautiful and modern and you now take a lift down to a tunnel that leads to the Torino Refuge and the access to the glacier. The hut was closed for renovations and there was a large group already camping on the glacier. We had hauled up sufficient water for a couple of days but we didn't have to carry it far as we found a nice semi-prepared spot for our tent a few hundred meters from the hut. We busied ourselves setting up camp and after a bit of hacking and leveling we had our tent up and our gear stowed. Now all we had to do was figure out what to do with ourselves for the day. The nearby Aiguilles Marbrees didn't look too appealing and were dry and loose after the super hot summer. The Tour Ronde would be equally dry so we just tooled up and set off for a stroll towards the Col des Flambeaux with half a plan to have a look at the Aiguilles d'Entreves.
|The Italian side of Mont Blanc. Its huge|
|The easy way up|
|Home sweet home|
|Target for tomorrow|
It was wonderful just to be here in this amazing place and once again it hit home just how strange it is to go from a lush warm valley to this icebound landscape in a short few minutes where the "real " world is suddenly left behind. Anyway we reached the col and we took an easy trail to the Col Orient de Toule where we deposited our axe and crampons and scrambled easily to the pleasant summit of Aig de Toule 3536mtrs. We relaxed here a good while and basked in the sun and the views which were as you can imagine stunning. After a suitable time we returned to the col and we were soon back at out tent. A friend of Andy Rebecca was due to join us on the climb and she was to arrive on the last lift from the Aiguille de Midi so we headed up to the lift station to await her arrival. The last lift came and went without any sign of her but she arrived from Courmayour shortly after. We returned to the glacier where we readied a spot for her tent and settled in for the night. The cold was evident as soon as the sun went behind the mountains and we decided to retire to our tents early.
Wednesday September 9th;
After a chilly breakfast we were on the move by 04.30. It was chilly and cloudy but there was a good trail on the surprisingly well conditioned glacier and we made good progress. The going is pretty easy and there isn't any steep section until you reach the berschund before the climb to the wide spur that comes down from the base of the Dent. The last time I was here it was a smooth snow slope up to the spur but now the berschund was open and the slopes were dry so we climbed the rocks on the left hand side. It was light by the time we reached the easy slopes on the spur and we rested here a short while. I was pretty pleased with how I was moving and I seemed to have acclimatized pretty well. We set off across the loose spur and we were soon slightly off route and navigating steep loose scree and rocks but we went further to the right and found better rock and made better progress. We reached the "salle a manger" where we turned to reach the start of the rock route proper. The fixed rope that was there the last time was now missing so Andy place protection in the in situ bolts and we reached the belay. The last time I was here with Dave Commins we were surprised to see a guide arrive down from the route to collect crampons and axes for a group but today we were the only ones here.
|Dawn over Italy|
|Andy and Rebecca|
|At the base of the slabs..Andy in his element|
|Long way down|
|Yes it is that steep|
|The final abseil|
Friday September 11th;
After tooling around Chamonix on Thursday we had decided to head around to Switzerland and try to climb a mountain I have long wanted to climb...The Grand Combin 4314mtrs. After the dry summer the only feasible route left to us was via the Meitin Ridge AD. Andy had asked a friend of his Robin (who hailed from Sweden) who had a car to join us and he agreed so it was a simple thing to get to the start of the trail at Bourg St Pierre. Unfortunately the morning broke and so had the weather and rain and cloud was all that could be seen. Rain in the valley probably meant snow high up and I suspected that the route would be out of condition. Lots of checking the weather forecast followed and with a clearance arriving late morning we decided to take a chance and go. We thought that the Valsorey Refuge 3030mtrs was closed so we had food and gas etc for the trip.
|The complex and interesting Mont Velan from the Valsorey Hut|
|The ridge soars above the refuge|
Saturday September 12th;
Up at 03.30 and we were out the door of the refuge at 04.25 into a dry mild morning.A well marked trail leads up behind the hut and traverses across the dry Meitin Glacier before joining a loose moraine type ridge that drops from just east of the Col de Meitin 3611 mtrs. We made good progress and we had reached the first step of the Meitin Ridge before first light appeared. There was a little snow in places and the occasional verglassed patch of rock but generally the going was good and we managed to (mostly) find the correct line. The quality of the rock varied greatly but the best of the climbing was closer to the crest of the ridge. When dawn arrived we took a break for water/ food etc and enjoyed the beautiful sight of Mont Blanc rising above the cloud in the distance. We once again set about our task with Andy or Robin taking turns in the lead and me tied into the middle of the rope. It felt a little strange to me to be playing second fiddle but in truth after my poor showing on the Dent de Geant I was happy to leave the others take the lead. Thankfully the climbing was well within my compass today and we mostly moved together with a rolling series of protection being places in the steeper sections. After the first tower we traversed a shoulder and went up a gully that had a fixed rope and then the final and shortest step saw us arrive into the sunshine atop the subsidiary top of Grand Combin de Valsorey at 4184mtrs. It felt great to be in the sun and the main summit was now not that far away across a completely different snowy landscape. Crampons were donned and we set off (initially downhill for 60mtrs) towards the Combin de Grafeniere 4314 mtrs. It is always hard to switch to a slog after climbing but the 200 meters climb to the summit didn't take too long and we arrived at the deserted top just 5.5 hours after we left the hut.
|We were well established on the ridge by dawn|
|Robin making it look easy|
We were well pleased with our efforts and as you can imagine the views were amazing as well. We were perched bang in the middle between the Mont Blanc massif and the giants of the eastern Valais and there was plenty to please the eye. Monte Rosa in particular looked amazing and really stood out as the largest massif over 4000 meters in the Alps. Others like the Dent Blanche and the Matterhorn also wowed as we whiled away some minutes just soaking it in. A light breeze and reasonable temperatures allowed us to remain in relative comfort. We discussed what way we would descend and we opted for the Couloir du Guardian which would hopefully give a straight forward way down to the northwestern side of Combin de Valsorey and we could cross over the Col du Meitin and back to the hut. Off we set down across the frozen landscape and went in search of the start of the route. We followed some tracks that we hoped were heading the correct way but they disappeared when we reached the serac bands at 3980 mtrs and after a short while of futile searching we opted to return whence we came. Oh deary me I found the slog back up to the top of Combin de Valsorey tiring and interminable but we reached it eventually and wasted no time in setting of down. As is often the case the thought of descending steep ground is often worse than the actuality and we made good steady progress on the way back. The sun had also by now softened the frozen screes patches so they took a step much easier than the ascent which made for a bit of a bonus. A few abseils down the steepest bits and eventually we reached the path back to the hut. This we dispatched rapidly and we enjoyed a brew and a bite to eat at the hut before setting off back for the car. As we descended from the mountain cloud was building all the time in the valleys and just as we reached the car the rain that was forecast arrived. Perfect timing or what?.
|Looking across at Combin de Granfeniere|
|Dent Blanch Weisshorn Michabel range etc etc|
|Ominous when Mont Blanc wears its cap|
|Almost back at the hut|
Sunday & Monday September 13th and 14th;
Being the rather reserved old fart I decided to leave the gracious hospitality of the apartment and I decamped to the campsite in Argentiere. The weather forecast was poor so any climbing was out for the day and I must confess that it was great just to throw myself into the tent and enjoy my own space. A day of reflection and strolling around the shops followed and we hoped to do some climbing on one of the many crags in the valley on Monday. Monday dawned bright but the weather got worse and worse as the day went on so no climbing was possible either today. Andys "friend" Rosie was to arrive Monday night and we hoped to possibly climb Aiguille Bionassay over the Tuesday and Wednesday but Rosie wasn't able to arrive until Tuesday and with a lot of snow having made the high mountains dangerous we had to change our plans. I decided to head the following day to the Refuge dents de Midi and hopefully experience the high mountain atmosphere once more before the trip was over.
Tuesday September 15th;
I set off without any hardware and carried food for a couple of days and caught the train to the mountain village of Les Marrecottes over the border in Switzerland. I alighted here and after my usual faffing about trying to find the correct route I set off for the ski area of La Creusax and steeply up to the col La Golette at 2466 mtrs. Now I was wondering to myself why I had chosen this way to reach Salanfe when there was a shorter route that involved less climbing but the only reasonable answer is that I was restless after two days off. Anyway I reached the col and then dropped 500 meters to the lake shore and walked round to the Auberge at Salanfe. I have been in this area three times before and it never fails to inspire. The sight of the truly beautiful mountain of Tour Saliere 3220mtrs which soars over 1300 meters above the lake is always inspiring and when you couple that with the stunning Dents du Midi cutting the sky across the way it is a walk well worth the effort. By the time I was at the auberge I had been on the go for just four hours and had climbed almost 1500 mtrs but I still had over 900 meters left to climb to reach the hut so I didn't delay before setting off up. I was tired but I kept a slow steady pace and the path twists and turns so progress isn't too difficult but I was still surprised and delighted to take only two further hours to reach my home for the night.
|Looking back from La Golette|
|What a view awaits|
|Finally at the Refuge Dents du Midi The Haute Cime and Dent Jaune beyond|
|Cime de l'Est|
|Dent Jaune route follows the diagonal ledge and then the skyline to the summit.|
|Lots of snow had fallen. Across to the Dent de Geant|
|Le Tour Saliere.. I must climb it one day|
The Refuge Dents du Midi 2884 mtrs isn't manned and is beautifully situated on a rocky outcrop above the Plan Neve glacier which is backed by the series of teeth that make up the Dents. These each rise precipitously almost 300 mtrs out of the ice and make an impressive backdrop. On the other side it seems that the whole of the Alps can be seen with a wall of mountains stretching from the Bernese Oberland all the way to the Mont Blanc massif. Closer to hand the Tour Saliere and Mont Ruan 3044 mtrs look equally amazing and I feel I must climb them one day. Despite not being manned the hut has everything you need for a comfortable night. It has a water tank and a store of dry wood underneath which I wasted no time in getting the woodburning stove on the go. A well stocked pantry with condiments and some tasty odds and ends was also there. Soon a brew was being made and a change of clothes meant I was really cozy in the pleasant space and as I had the whole place to myself it was blissfully delightful. I spent the evening just relaxing and gazing at the views on both all sides which were lovely. Cloud built steadily over the evening so that by the time darkness came the hut was enveloped in mist. I thought back to when I first came here in 2008 and looked across at the moon rising behind the massive bulk of the Grand Combin and it was then that I first took note of the mountain I had stood atop only a few days before. A restful and warm night followed and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the rising wind whistling through the chimney.
|The rather airy/shakey Loo|
The morning was dry but a little chilly and the main feature was the strong wind. I had hoped to perhaps climb the Haute Cime 3257 mtrs this morning and then make my way to Champery and catch a train back to Argentiere. As well as wind there was a distinct threat of rain in the air and when I left the hut the first drops were already falling. With the prospect of such a bad morning I decided to forgo the mountain and head back the easy trail to Les Marecottes. It would be a short outing but I didn't mind as I had enjoyed the hut "experience" and I was still filled with satisfaction after the Grand Combin. Easy pleasant walking back to the valley ensued but I confess to having been a little bit disappointed when the day cleared up beautifully by late morning and I thought I had been perhaps a little hasty in taking the easy option.
|It was an easy decision to take the easy route|
|Lovely chalets near Van den Haut|
Thursday September 17th;
Today was my last day in the area as my flight left Geneva at 6am the following morning. It was also my last chance to have a catch up with Andy so we arranged to go for a hike up towards "The Junction" with Rosie in the morning. It was a cloudy wet morning and lets just say it didn't get better as we climbed the at times steep path from the ski jump in Les Bossons. It could best be described as atmospheric and views were non existent. We still enjoyed ourselves and the banter with Andy and the delightful Rosie made it a lovely morning. By the time we were above the tree line things dis-improved further and thunder crashed about us in the torrential cold rain so we saw sense and went back down. We were well and truly soaked by the time we reached Rosies van and we wasted no time in returning to the apartment where we thawed out. A brew was all we had time for before I had to say goodbye and return to my tent to get myself tidied up and packed up to be in good time to catch my departing train. I cannot thank Andy enough for his wonderful company and looking after me so well throughout the trip. He was saying that he has aspirations of joining the Guiding Programme and I hope he does because he would be a great addition to that profession. I hope to get the opportunity to climb with him in the future but before I do I will have trained and prepared better.
|A wee bit worn..oh dear|
His flatmates Nick and Danny couldn't have been more welcoming and generous hosts and it was a pity that the weather turned against us as Nick had hoped to join us for an outing in the second week and that would have been much fun. As an aside and perhaps a little in my defense we noticed after my debacle on the Dent du Geant that the front and soles of my boots were worn to such a terrible extent that there was no rubber left and I was down to the plastic. I felt a pillock for not having noticed before but was somewhat mollified by the fact that it would be nigh on impossible to gain a grip on anything tenuous with them. A lesson learned I think.