10 July 2005

French Alps

July 2005

Climbing with the very able assistance of mountain guide Ric Potter.

3 July

0730 Le Plan, Chamonix. Steadily rising track 45 minutes to La Floria, a very attractive chalet but closed this early in the morning! Mont Blanc massif was completely clear. Good views to the Midi-Plan traverse. Zigzags beyond La Floria, running close to La Flagere gondola but mainly hidden by trees.
Reached la Flagere by 1000 but it was crowded so didn’t stop and pressed on to Index de la Griere 2361m. Good traversing path to Lac Blanc, plenty of ascent/descent, taking 1 ¼ hours. Very crowded at Lac Blanc: beautiful Sunday outing for many, so went up to above 2400m, affording good views of Lac Blanc and the mountains either side of the Mer de Glace. Cool wind but hot sunshine.

Mont Blanc Massif, en route to L'Index
Aiguilles du Chardonnet and Argentiere, left, from Lac Blanc
Lac Blanc
Lazy afternoon at Chalet du Lac Blanc 2352m. Friendly service, good beer and dinner. Place was full of Brits, many with a Rambler’s Association TMB group. Small room with four Frenchmen for the night…lucky me!

4 July

Clear skies at 0630 but cloud built up quickly during the breakfast period. Chamois and Bouquetin close to chalet at this early hour. By 0730 Dome de Gouter already covered in cloud. Departed then, with steep descent down steps and ladders to Lacs des Cheserys. Stupidly took a wrong turn (read the map!) and had an epic on an old path with decaying handrails and bolts – soon realised the error of my ways, but this cost me 20 minutes.
Down to the Chalet des Cheserys 1998m by 0830 and turned left on to steeply descending path signed to Argentiere. Very steep but brilliantly constructed and reached Argentiere by 0940. Sky getting heavier but still bright. Took cable car up to Lognan 1960m and strolled up to Glacier d’Argentiere stopping at the ‘Point de Vue’ after 45 minutes. Big views of the seracs.

Argentiere Glacier
Then up further, climbing easy path on lateral moraine to the right of the glacier to p.3328m with views to Aiguille du Chardonnet and Aiguille d’Argentiere. Descended to cable car c. 1300 but stopped for lunch and the gathering storm, which hit shortly afterwards. Descended by cable car, then bus to Chamonix to meet Ric Potter, British Mountain Guide, who was to lead some mountaineering trips for the rest of the week.

5 July

On the road early to meet Ric at the Midi cable car station in Chamonix. Reached the top station by 0915 and went through the clouds into perfectly clear weather at 3800m. Superb. 

Aiguille du Midi Arête
Grandes Jorasses from the Aiguille du Midi Arête
Climbed down the Aig. du Midi Arête and crossed the glacier to the Cosmiques Hut. After a quick drink we set off to do the Cosmiques Arête at 1030, nipping ahead of some larger parties. First sections were on relatively easy rock, albeit quite exposed, interspersed with snow ridges and steep scrambling. We made good progress and after a 20m rope lower and some careful climbing around the various rock gendarmes and on steepening snow, we approached the upper section of the ridge which features the crux of the route, a rock wall with very few holds and an in situ etrier which is supposed to help (it didn’t!). Ric made it look relatively easy, but I had a nightmare on it, finally managing to get my leg on to the top of the piton and making the key move essential to getting up the damn thing after almost 10 minutes of grunting and swearing. I am not, and never will be, a rock climber! Then on to a series of awkward chimneys and with my breathing getting ever more rapid… a combination of nerves and altitude!

Starting the Cosmiques Arête
Cosmiques Arête, Aiguille du Midi
View to top of the Aiguille du Midi from the Cosmiques Arête
20m lower on the Cosmiques Arête
Classic mixed climbing on the Cosmiques Arête
Stumpy on the Cosmiques Arête
Ground getting a bit harder now!
The crux section of the route

Final exit chimneys on the Cosmiques Arête

Nearing the top of the Cosmiques Arête
View back to Mont Blanc from the Cosmiques Arête
Exit ladder at the top of the Cosmiques Arête

The final section of the ridge is straightforward and you basically climb across a flat section before ascending a ladder to a viewing platform that happened to be full of American and Japanese tourists on the day. Needless to say, we were famous for about four minutes!
Down to Chamonix by 1615 and a well earned beer. Although it only took 4 hours to do the route (with a lot of waiting for other parties to do pitches in the upper section) this was technically harder than anything I’d done in the mountains before and Ric rated it as AD, even though the Alpine Club guide book rates it as PD+ with the rider that ‘some sections are hard for this grade’. The route gave fantastic views of the Grande Jorasses, Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Blanc itself, with breathtaking drops down to the Bossons Glacier and Les Houches far below on the north side. A very satisfying day.

6 July

A difficult day for decisions due to very mixed and unspecific weather forecast. Hung around at the café at the bottom of the Aig. du Midi cable car for an hour or so, bumping into another guide, Smiler Cuthbertson (Ecuador November 2004) and Steve Greenhalgh, his client, who’d also been in Ecuador with me. They were not going to go up that day because of the weather, but, in the end, we decided to press on, going up to the top and descending the arête in cloud…what a difference a day makes! The weather brightened as we made our way in the direction of the Cosmiques Hut so we decided to head across the Vallee Blanche to position ourselves at the Torino Hut in anticipation of better weather the following day.
Visibility worsened as we descended into the heavily crevassed zone below Pointe Lachenal and Ric used his GPS to navigate and mark waypoints for our return trip the following day. Tight rope needed on some big snow bridges crossing cavernous crevasses and a large avalanche was heard (but fortunately not seen!) somewhere towards the Mont Blanc du Tacul. Then a steady ascent up to the Torino hut with occasional glimpses of the Dent du Geant through the cloud. Arrived at the Torino hut 3375m in strong wind and snow early afternoon.

Summer holiday! At the Torino Hut
Val Veni from the Torino hut
Hut was not busy at all due to the weather, a capacious and rather old fashioned hut but with friendly service, good beer and food. During the evening, clouds cleared to afford views into Italy (steeply down to Courmayeur and Val Ferret / Val Veni) with spectacular views to the Peuterey Ridge and Mont Blanc itself. In the opposite direction views of the Grand Jorasses remained elusive and a decision was made to abandon the planned attempt on the Rochefort Arête due to expected strong winds and fresh snow on an icy base. In reality I think it’s too technical for me anyway…I’ll just look at the picture books!

7 July

Up at 0430 and on the hill by 0530, into strong winds with a dark cloud plume billowing off the Dent du Geant to our right as we left the hut. Our objective for the day, La Tour Ronde 3792m, by the South East Ridge. We descended to the Col du Flambeux, going around the base of Aig. du Toule and then up again, on a steepening route across fresh snow, into the Col d’Entreves. 

Ascent from Col du Flambeux
Classically, the S.E. Ridge is tackled from the col, but in deference to my dubious ability on rock, Ric elected to climb across the bergschrund and up some ‘Scottish’ terrain, directly to the saddle at Col Freshfield 3625m where we then climbed some straightforward rock with scrambling on mixed ground before surmounting a steeper rock wall just below the summit.

Ric crossing the bergschrund on ascent of Tour Ronde
First pitch above the bergschrund on the Tour Ronde
Ascent to Col Freshfield 

We topped out at 0950 ahead of other parties who’d done the whole ridge (and said that it had been tricky with the fresh snow). Huge views down to the Brenva Glacier and the Peuterey ridge to Mont Blanc, but windy weather and a lot of cloud constrained views to the east.

Nearing the summit of Tour Ronde

Summit in sight!
Tour Ronde summit, 3792m
On the way up I’d almost baled out twice due to my dislike of the terrain, a tricky bergschrund crossing, steep icy rock, and, at one point a small avalanche occurred just as I’d stepped off the snow on to some ice to the right. And, of course, some very unstylish climbing to get up one or two rock sections! Fortunately, we met another guide, Owen, a mate of Ric’s at the summit and we agreed to down climb to Col Freshfield together and then abseil back the way we’d come up. This we did, descending quickly, and after three and a half rope lengths (about 175m) we crossed the bergschrund back on the glacier.

Abseil down from Col Freshfield, 3625m
Abseil over the bergschrund
We had to cross some large snow bridges again, then turned north to regain the route back across the Vallee Blanche to get to the Cosmiques Hut for the night. A long grind, with poor visibility and occasional strong gust of wind, finally reaching the hut at 1515. A long day.
Again, a relatively empty hut, mainly populated by frustrated Brits who had gone up to do Mont Blanc but were now resigned to just doing the Cosmiques Arête due to poor snow conditions and high avalanche risk on Mont Blanc du Tacul. This was a potential final route for us, but conditions determined an early end of our trip. Beer, good dinner, usual disturbed hut night and descent via the Aig. du Midi lift the following morning.

8 July

Midi-Plan Ridge, for another day...
Descent from the Aig. du Midi, back to Les Contamines to dry gear then back to Chamonix for lunch with Ric. Bloody good food at ’le panier des 4 saisons’ (24 Galerie Blanc Neige, Rue Paccard, Chamonix: tel 04 50 53 98 77) – highly recommended!