Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Bullet hard pistes replaced with cold fresh snow.

Charles Sherwood heads off into the Aravis
Since before the New Year it had not snowed.  Neither had it snowed in the first week of 2019.

Our planned skiing in and around Megeve was looking like it needed to be relocated. The  Plan B had been discussed in readiness for a venue change. Yet the day before we were due to meet not only did the temperature drop significantly but it also snowed.  Even better, the weather cleared  to reveal close to perfect conditions.

Our group was organised by Charles Sherwood and consisted of  his brother Simon, plus some of his other very good friends Peter Folkman, Simon Allen and Martin Smith. I had skied with everyone many many times although I had never met Martin before.

The Bus Stop.
The first day we skied in St Gervais.  We found some delightful meadows to ski.  There was one particularly good descent in un tracked snow .  The down side was that the run ended up at the foot of a Poma lift [that unbeknown to me ] hadn't actually opened for the season.
Luckily there was a shuttle bus. Nevertheless  it did lead the group to allude  to the   Napoleon quip about his  Generals : Do you want a good Guide or a lucky Guide?
No harm was done and we even got to eat in the  quaint restaurant  Sous Freddy's run by the  Mountain Guide Olivier Curral , who for his sins was once the guardian of the Gouter Hut.  [ Food has improved.]

January 11th We skied in Combloux.  The descents were excellent.
Lunch was at the  Auberge de Bonjournal.  This was all very merry.  Possibly the  "on the house " Genepi was the cause of the days principle accident.  One of the group fell into a ditch while  not rejoining  the piste.


the one in the middle didnt get any higher

On our final day together the 12th January, our plan for the day was to ride the lifts of Praz-sur-Arly and then ski down into Hauteluce, from where we would take the short bus ride to Les Contamines.  We then planned to ski off -piste from the resort.  Yet when we arrived at the car park the weather was looking like a "jour blanc." I decided that we would be better off skiing somewhere else.  Mind you the indifferent weather did not stop the local balloon festival taking off. Or not, as was the case with the balloon in the middle of the photograph.  This one suddenly fell out of the sky.  It was while driving out of the car park that we saw the balloon  drapped all over a house and the passenger basket had lodged itself in the windscreen of Mercedes- Benz

Instead we skied again in Combloux and Les Geittaz.  The snow was still very good and the trees helped with the visibility.  Yet an attempt to find even more pristine meadows was thwarted by some uncooperative bushes which created much hilarity and the observation that anyone who followed our tracks assuming an uninterrupted powder descent , would at best, be surprised.





Thursday, December 27, 2018

The winter Season so Far


Andrea raises the Women's Varsity Cup.
This season our eldest daughter, Andrea started skiing before I did even though she is at University in the UK. She went to Val Thorens, to captain the Varsity women's ski team to victory. In addition, she won the Giant Slalom and came second in the Slalom.

For early season skiing, Val Thorens is often the best bet because at 2300 meters it is the highest ski resort in Europe.  Indeed, the Vanoise received a lot more early snow than the Haute-Savoie and  Chamonix. Here the resort was slow to open and in order to wake up my ski legs it was necessary to go to Courmayeur where the conditions on and off the piste were excellent.

Although Andrea is now qualified to teach skiing in France and she has started on the long road to become  Internationally qualified.  What this means is that she has to pass the Eurotest which is a Giant Slalom Race.  She thought she should at least go and see how much work she needed to do to pass, by entering the first qualification race of the season in  in Alpe d'Huez.  I decided to go with her because it was an opportunity to explore a new area.

I now know that Alpe d'Huez and Les Deux Alpes are not the same resort badly pronounced, but in fact two distinct resorts facing each other across a valley. We drove from Chamonix in about three and half hours and stayed in a quirky trendy hotel, Les Grandes Rousses, which Andrea had managed to get us a good deal on.
Les Grandes Rousses Hotel was on the piste.

It was quirky because the we had to share our bedroom with a meter-high rainbow-coloured polar bear which was someones good idea of interior design.

Needless to say the weather the next day was awful.  A blind man galloping by on a horse would have known it was not safe to run an Elite ski race, but Andrea still had to turn up, sign on and get her race bib, all at the rather grim hour of 7.45hrs.

queuing for the race bibs
At 11.30hrs the race was canned.

Can't run a race if you can't make out where the sky starts and the ground stops
The race was rescheduled for 12.00hrs the next day.  It snowed all afternoon and then it finally started to clear in the early evening.
The next day the weather was stellar. Andrea did her two runs but missed the qualification time by 0.4 of a second.  She at least knows it is attainable.
This is the race slope. Believe me it is steeper than it looks!
waiting for the race slot

Next, our middle daughter, Florence, returned from her first term at University in the UK.  She too wants to qualify as a Ski Instructor having passed the entry exam last year known as the " Test Technique", this is as it might suggest a test of your technique.  The next stage for her will be the 10 day course known as the "Cycle Préparatoire."  The only snag in this plan is that as a Ski Instructor you also need to be able to snowboard and teach snowboarding. Florence therefore needed to learn to snowboard.  She set off to do this with no real plan but plenty of determination. After subjecting herself to mild concussion she lay down to reflect on what she should do next.
day 1 of snowboarding
So with a day off to recover, Florence then asked one of her friends to give her a few pointers. We asked who this might be and if she is any good at the snowboarding?
She's my school friend and she is the Freeride World Tour Junior Champion, Anna Martinez. Progress was rapid but it allows the opportunity to roll out the well worn joke :

What do ski instructors and snowboard instructors have in common?
Answer: Neither can snowboard.

The bad weather had resulted in a good dump of snow and the conditions became good. The best
off-piste skiing in the Chamonix Valley is currently at La Flégère where there is a good depth of quality snow :

Off Piste at La Flégère




Christmas Day was wonderful.  The skiing at Les Grands Montets was excellent. After the unfortunate burning down of the lift station, access to the glacier is by an hour's skin from the top of the Herse chairlift, so slightly less time than standing in the horrendous lift queue. The big plus is you arrive in a trackless pristine wilderness.
Les Grands Montets looking down Combe de la Rachasse.

So all in all conditions are quite well set up.  Happy New Year.

Christmas Day: The one day a year that the Seaton Family ski together.


PS ; Andrea is a great Ski Instructor and  can Snowboard .





Sunday, November 18, 2018

Arete de Marseille. The classic of the classics.



Making the most of November ,  a "nothing month" between the end of the summer and the start of the winter can be a challenge, yet what we did might prove to be a very good template for future years.

A call from my friend and fellow Guide [retired] Bob Barton suggested that we should go climbing in the south of France seemed like a very good idea.

Bob flew from his home in Scotland and stayed the night with us in Chamonix. The next day we set off for the south of France.   I was particularly keen to try and climb in Les Calanques.  Bob was just keen to climb on  dry rock.  This world famous climbing region was an area which was missing from my climbing CV.  Like a lot of climbers , I  heard it had  the  reputation for being the best place to get your car broken into by the Scroats that live in near by Marseille.  This had always made me luke-warm about the place. Yet  once I had sussed out a strategy to minimise the chance of a car break in , my one and only attempt to climb in the area had been thwarted because the whole of Les Calanques National park had been shut by the imminent of risk of forest fires.

Nevertheless the challenge of getting from Chamonix to Marseille and also climbing on the same day does require a bit of pre-thought.  Therefore we hit on the plan of driving to just before Sistereon where we had identified an ideal winter crag which faced south and accordingly received  the suns full rays. This was at Châteauneuf-de-Chabre above D942 along the river La Méouge.

Yet the plan did not factor in steady rain.  After four hours sitting in a car we at least needed to stretch our legs , hence we went to look at the crag.  Rather unexpectedly the rain stopped, the sun came out , the rock dried out and we climbed for about four hours  in an idyllic situation .




As dusk set in we headed for the Mediterranean passing through Aix-en- Provence and eventually arriving in the sea side town of Cassis.
Cassis in the rain
Despite it chucking it down with rain , Cassis was busy and finding anywhere to park the car  in the small port was a challenge .  We fortuitously stopped in a parking bay for a Hotel.  It seemed like a reasonable place so we went in and found our selves a room.  We ended up staying there 4 nights and using it as our base to climb in the area.

On our first day in the region we decided to climb in the La Ciotat area.  The town was originally famous  because it was the setting of one of the first projected motion pictures, L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat filmed in 1895.  It was also where Petanque  was invented.  Its a bit like bowls , but played with a giant  metal ball-bearing and a bottle of Pastis.  Petanque is almost a French national sport.

Plus La Ciotat  has some of the weirdest rock I have ever seen or climbed on. Yet the first challenge was to actually find the crag because it was located behind some very expensive real estate. The owners had decided to reroute the path to the crag and the guide book editor had failed to pass on this information.  Mind you we didn't help ourselves by asking directions from what we thought were fellow climbers , but we failed to spot the flippers and lead weight belts in the back of their car.  They gave us a set of useless directions and we ended up walking into a botanical garden and concluded we were in the wrong place when we were confronted with a big "Escalade Interdit" sign.
About an hour later we arrived back where we started , found the path and the crag. [Hind sight and all that.]
Walking to the Crag
The rock is actually solid
We climbed on the weird rock , which is a type of conglomerate and finished the day with a mountaineering excursion to climb to the summit of Le Capucin.



Between Cassis and La Coitat there is a spectacular " alpine road" called the Route des Cretes D141.  This was to be the departure point for our attempt to climb on the crags called falaises de Mallombre near the  Semaphore which is a modern light house and naval communication center.

Once again the crag took some finding in part because  our route to the crag was over complicated by a helpful local mushroom-picker giving less than accurate directions , despite his help eventually we did locate the crags. However we were not impressed as all the routes resembled mirrors where you could see the reflection of everyone who had ever attempted the climbs and therefore made them impossibly difficult for their grade.  In the afternoon we decided to explore some more of the area and bumped into two local women , who new exactly where to climb.  They proved to be a wealth of information on the local climbing area as well as their view on potential car crime.  They advised us to completely clear out the car if we planned to climb in Les Calanques close to Marseille.  I asked them what they thought was the route we should try and climb.  They suggested the Arete de Marseille on La Grande Candelle.

Despite an initial poor weather forecast , we decided that this route would be a fine objective. The path to the climb starts at the University car park.  It was about an hour and half's walk to the foot of the route.  Once again I made the mistake of stopping two students who were out for a walk and asking them to confirm we were on the right path for La Grande Candelle. Uncannily  like the previous days , these girls were only too happy to offer us spurious directions and even tell us we were in the wrong place and should turn around.  We thanked them and this time ignored their advice.

 The weather was decidedly  windy and there were some significant spots of rain, but the weather forecast was for the weather   to improve and we pressed on.  This  meant we had the route to ourselves and therefore made it an even more exceptional climb in a unique situation.
The spectacular arete de Marseilles on La Grande Candelle.

The first pitch is  the hardest. yet after the experince of the previous days climbing it was  straight forward and solid positive climbing.  The pitch which makes the route famous , is the start of the second pitch. It requires you to step/fall/jump from the pillar to the main arete. It is spectacular , but it is surprisingly simple.  A further five or so pitches of immaculate climbing leads to the top and a 30 meter rappel dumps you back on the return path.

Looking down the arete
Bob sporting his special badge
So I had finally climbed a route in Les Calanques.  It was worth waiting for.  Yet it seemed that we should ride on our success and return to what is arguably the most popular area.  En Vau.


 This is a place steeped in French climbing history and where among others Gaston Rebuffat cut his teeth to become one of Frances most distinguished  climbers [and writers of mountaineering literature.]


 We identified the route called La Moitie-Moitie as the route to go for .  We drove up to the Col de la Gardiole and parked the car.  From there it is a question of walking down a track [partly tarmacked] virtually to the sea.  Although it is understandable that access is restricted it is also annoying to be constantly passed by military trucks and forestry vehicles who in the latter case , it seems that there only function was to drive up and down the track making sure that no one else drives up and down the track.  Whats more when I flagged down one such Forestry official to ask him if he knew where our climb was he hadn't a fucking clue.

Once located ,the climb was superb and this being mid November we saw no other climbers.  The weather was perfect.
En Vau
We then walked back to the car , sorted ourselves out and drove to Sisteron with the intention of climbing on the crags opposite the Citadel the next day.  This is exactly what we did before driving back to a rather chilly Chamonix




Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A resort with issues.

Economists will tell you "invest in the resort and the people will come." In Chamonix there seems to be the view: Don't Invest and the people will STILL come. People would joke about the "third world" lift system saying it just added to its charm.  



Some Background

 Then around the new millennium  someone within the Powers that Be had the bright idea that they should target a "better class of skier." But not  better skiers, just skiers with more money. It was theorised that people with more money generally only want to ski in the sunshine, so the logic was to reinvest in the lifts on the south side of the valley i.e.  Le Brevent and La Flegere. and  spruce up the center of Chamonix with some posh shops - hence the arrival of the Chanel Boutique- [which has now gone again.] So, firstly Flegere and Le Brevent were linked with a horizontal cable car thus creating a larger ski area . The Brevent /Plan Praz telecabine was rebuilt and a new Index cable car was installed. When it was pointed out that skiing on the south side meant the snow deteriorated quickly in the afternoon , the official thinking was wealthy skiers don't ski in the afternoon, they eat lunch. Yet the project was half baked because they never got the cafes and restaurants sorted out. The choice is laughable. At the top of la Flegere cable car there is a cafe called the Foehn. This is supposedly named after the Foehn wind, the same disastrous wind that frequently shuts the cable car leaving thousands of skiers trapped on the mountain very regularly. The decor inside The Foehn cafe gives a nod to the Eden Project with savanna grass like  carpet stuck on the walls and spot lights that hang down like triffids. It sells insipid coffee and car-wash sponges purporting to be  flavoured muffins at eye watering prices. In the same building down stairs there is a restaurant which provides DIY incinerators loosely based on table top barbecues.  These barbacues have a two stage job. Firstly they allow you to burn your own meat and cheese which creates a thick impenetrable stench.  The smoke then accomplishes the second job of completely blanking the jaw dropping view  through the un openable windows. Over on Le Brevent there is La Bergerie, which is okay, but only as long as you don't go  down stairs into the cafe where you will be treated as an inconvenient annoyance. The whole thing bumbled on for many years , then there were some big infrastructure warning signs that even a blind man galloping by on a horse would have seen.  

The Vallee Blanche Eggs


Firstly there was the high-season breaking down of the Eggs which traverse the Vallee Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi to Helbronner. Last year this made international news headlines. Many people went home with some memorable  stories. For example , being plucked by helicopter in vertiginous rescue would be up there with anyone's holiday memories. Meanwhile others were "lullabied" to sleep in the Eggs. If that wasn't fun enough, on their eventual "hatching"  the next morning they were  presented with a free voucher for another  complimentary trip. Yet it was arguably last winter which marked the start of the slippery slope.  During a winter storm the cable which suspends the Eggs snapped sending the Eggs to the glacier floor.  


The Aiguille du Midi Second section

Next there was the saga of the Aiguille du Midi damaged cable. This, don't forget is one of the biggest generators of cash in France and it is meant to be the 3rd most popular "natural" tourist attraction in the world after the Pyramids and the Niagara Falls.  Well the second stage broke down for the second time in six months. Firstly the tractor cable , which pulls the cable car up, was replaced. Soon it turned out to be rusty. Rumors flew about that this was because there had been corners cut in the sourcing of the cable. These were categorically denied. The new cable was defiantly sourced in Switzerland and this time the lorry transporting the bobbin did not get stuck under the railway bridge in Argentiere. The new cable was up and running by mid summer. It was during a routine check in mid July that a 60cm section was found to be damaged. Again rumors started flying - the most popular was that the permafrost had melted and the mountain had moved, causing the cable to be out of alignment. Whatever the real reason know one seems to know . What is agreed upon is that this won't be fixed until Christmas 2018 may be January 2019.


Le Brevent

Moving across the valley to the other side of Chamonix to the Brevent , while the Plan Praz telecabine is the bench mark of a modern unit, the same can not be said of the Plan Praz /Brevent cable car. Presently the cable on this also being changed.  It was at the point when they had completely dismantled it that the engineers had the eurika momment to experiment with  a new tractor cable.  Perhaps in the context it isn't surprising that they are struggling to get it up and running again?


La Flegere

Moving along the valley we arrive at La Flegere. Regular users will be accustomed to the depressing queues which go with trying to shoe-horn skiers into a cable car that is no longer fit for purpose. As already mentioned it closes regularly due to the Foehn wind , but in addition the motor regularly burns out .




Le Tour

 At the head of the valley in the village of Le Tour it is universally accepted that the telecabine is in dire need of a new one. It was 'old' 30 years ago. Now the pylons are unstable and again rumors suggest that even the people who work on the lifts are scared to travel in the bubbles because they are worried that they will spontaneously self detach . There was and is  a plan to rebuild the lift. It was to start from a slightly different place. A place that not everyone in the village could agree upon. There was a petition signed arguing that the new lifts departure point would disadvantage certain businesses.  The whole project stalled and consequently there has been little economic alternative other than to put a "sticking-plaster" on the current lift and hope it gets through the next winter season.

 Les Grands Montets

Moving back down the valley on the north side there is Les Grands Montets. This is considered by many to be " the jewel in the crown" of skiing in Chamonix. It has some of the best and steepest skiing terrain in the world. It is mythical. It was also the first resort in the valley to have "Ambassadors."

These brave people  are there to break the news to you that the whole Grands Montets experience is not going to be quite as good as you thought it was going to be. This is often because the queue is too long , or the lifts have broken down , or because the chief Pisteur detonated a preventive avalanche that  ploughed through the middle of the Plan Joran Restaurant.

This next season the Ambassadors are going to have even more to explain. The challenge will be to explain how the roof caught fire and destroyed the Lognan lift station, bringing down the cable and causing upwards of 40 million euros of rebuild.
How the roof did catch fire is a matter of conjecture . But it all seemingly stems from cost cutting: The building needed a new roof but it was judged that patching it up would be fine. So a local contractor was employed to use a flame thrower to melt and spread hot tar over the biggest holes. Only it went wrong.



Monday, October 01, 2018

September Solitude.

My favourite time to be climbing in the Alps is late Septemeber early October. Everyone has cleared off, it is cooler therefore less knackering , it is safer because the rocks are glued in place and the weather can be so clear and the views show off the autumn tinges at their very best. Fortunately for me, Reuben agreed with me about the benefits of Autumn climbing. We had a long standing arrangement to climb together at the end of September. We had no fixed agenda other than to do some interesting climbs and experience some real solitude. We started with the La via ferrata des Evettes high above La Flegere. It is an ideal "shake down" day and is good place to bank some early acclimatisation.
It was also a chance for Reuben to spend sometime with his grown-up daughter who he doesn't get to see that often. Emma was able to join us for our first two days together. On our second day we rode the Montenvers Railway up to what was was "formerly" the Mer de Glace and climbed on the impressive slabs
On our third day together we drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel , rode the Skyway lift to Pointe Helbronner which over looks the Vallee Blanche and climbed the Aiguille du Marbree.
It was cold clear and it all felt wonderfully remote. On our fourth day we climbed above Argentiere on Les Chésérys cliffs. We climbed the immaculate, route the L'EMHM [The ecole militaire du Haute Montagne] no guesses for who originally put the route up. The penultimate pitch is very very good.
Our fifth day was probably the standout day. We left the Chamonix valley and drove around to the Col des Aravis. On a beautiful morning we headed up the tough steep unrelenting comb which leads to the start of the Arete Marion. This is a ridge which is in a wonderful position with views back to Mt Blanc and the surrounding area . We were watched from a far by two massive Eagles. They came so near that I was suspicious that they weren't actually real , but instead giant remote control toys.
The penultimate pitch is the one for the memory banks:
As we were climbing up we saw, below us, another team of two climbers. We joked that this was not what was meant to happen this week , the whole idea was to climb in complete solitude and we had failed . After the climb, as we walked down from the summit of the climb we could still see the climbers making what appeared to be unusually very slow progress they appeared to be just standing there. Yet the next thing I heard this almighty whooosh and two figures came flying down the comb , before deploying their parachutes. "Squirrel Suiters."
They made it down quicker than we did. On our final day we headed over to Switzerland. We drove up and through Verbier and then on and up the Savoleyres pistes system [ Land Rover Defender useful] and parked at the top. We then walked over to the Pierre Avoi, the giant pillar that can be seen from Martigny . We climbed the L'Arete. A route which is all about being in amazing situations . The only complaint was that it was too hot!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Lead Like a Guide

Chris Maxwell is a Senior Fellow who works at the Wharton Business school. It is one of the most renowned business schools in the world. It is within the University of Pennsylvania. Chris recently wrote a book entitled "Lead Like a Guide." The basic premise is that the best Guides demonstrate all the skills that are the skills needed to lead effectively in business . After interviewing an array of Guides from all over the world Chris distilled six key skills which the best Guides possess. These are , he argues the same six skills that business leaders should develop.
The Wharton Business school went on to develop an outdoor program for its MBA students. Unlike a lot of Outdoor Management based courses they were able to show transferable results from the out doors to the business environment. Chris was a Key Note speaker at the recent "Summit of Minds " conference held in Chamonix. It is an international meeting with 250 participants from 5 continents organised by Thierry Malleret, director of the Monthly Barometer and Blaise Agresti, Mountain Guide and director of Mountain-Path. - Sort of mini version of the World Economic Forum held in Davos. It was prior to the summit Chris Maxwell gave a short presentation to a small invited group of local Mountain Guides. The presentation was based on his book "Lead Like a Guide How World-Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to be better leaders." It was empowering and fascinating stuff, not least because it shows that people are appreciating our skills as Guides out side of the mountains, as well as what it means to be a Guide in the modern constantly changing world.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Climbing Mont Blanc; A different Strategy?

Catherine on the summit of Mt Blanc4810m
The majority of people who have little mountaineering experience who dream of climbing Mt Blanc hire Mountain Guides. Although there are some slight variations most of these groups follow roughly the same template. Namely a three day two nights in mountain huts glacier expedition. The main goal is to acclimatise . This is mission critical. The perceived view is that once you have the acclimatisation it is important not to lose it by spending no more than a night in the valley before heading off to one of the Mt Blanc mountain huts , either the Tete Rousse, the Gouter or the Cosmiques hut depending on where you can get a reservation. This has been the standard practice for at least a generation and it still works well for most people. Yet certain mountaineers have begun to question if there is not another way. This premise starts with the view that rest and a good nights sleep is as important as acclimatisation when the "Big Picture" view is taken. For example someone new to mountaineering who has just "endured" two nights in mountain huts with poor sleep and big physical days needs a proper rest before going onto a challenge which more often than not is the most physically demanding thing they have ever done in their lives. Put simply the view that once you have acclimatised you need to stay high in order not to loose the acclimatisation is no longer sacrosanct. For example as Steve House the accomplished mountaineer and Guide notes in his book "Training for the Modern Alpinism" The super-rich Everest Oneabees are acclimatising on Everest and then chartering Helicopters back down to Katamandu for some R&R before flying back to Everest for the summit attempt. They are generally in a better shape than the people who stay at base camp. While this type of narcissistic "mountaineering" can be debated, the point is that quality rest at low altitude can be more beneficial that suffering at higher altitudes. [Of course there will always be people who can not acclimatise no matter what protocol they follow.] While it may be impractical for people with limited holiday time who are on a climbing course to adopt such a strategy, it is an interesting option for people who live and work [say around Geneva]. They can go on a three day climbing and acclimatisation trip , then go home, sleep in their own bed , rest , get on with their normal lives and then return the next week for the summit attempt. This is precisely what Catherine Lewis and I did and it worked like a dream:
For the first part of our trip we met at the road head at the end of the Lac de Moiry. Catherine brought her husband Richard along. This was their first climbing trip together [ever] and one of the very few times they had been away with out their children for a very long time. We packed up and headed up to the glacier for some ice axe and crampon revision work. We then continued up to the Cabane de Moiry. This is an ideally positioned hut because it is high at around 2800 meters [consequently perfect for acclimatisation] and it has a selection of peaks which are ideal for training, they are not too bigger days , so you don't end up exhausted and demoralised
AND the views of the surrounding peaks are as good as anywhere in the world. After our first night [where we had showers albeit cold showers] we headed out and climbed the Pointes de Mourti 3564m. It was absolutely perfect because it has some simple scrambling near the summit which is excellent practice for the climb up to the Gouter Hut on Mt Blanc.
We also had impressive glacier scenery to pass through.
We arrived back at the Hut for beers on the terrace. The Hut guardian had decided to round off the season by showing a series of esoteric mountain based films . After dinner we were treated to one about the great Walter Bonatti. On our third day together we climbed the north ridge of the Pigne de la Lé 3396m. A rocky scramble which took about two hours. From the summit we descended the glacier on the south side, made our way back to the Hut , collected the extra stuff we had left and descended to the car park. Thereby completing a wonderful three day trip . Catherine was adamant that this was a wonderful expedition in its own right. All was left was what is becoming a bit of a tradition: a swim in the Lake. Which by the way was all part of the Master Plan...
PART TWO. A key piece of this strategy is flexibility. Flexibility is the name of the game. It is a mind set. Without it, you might as well find yourself another pass time. You need flexibility so that you can have the optimum weather and conditions but equally so you can get a booking in the key Mt Blanc Huts. For example, instead of phoning the hut and asking for a specific night. The strategy was to ask "Have you any nights free in the next week?" This clearly took the guardian by surprise because instead of saying "No we are full" he said he would check and call me back! Which he did offering us the two beds we needed. It also goes with out saying that a team of two: 1 Guide - 1 client increases the flexibility [ not to mention safety ] of the whole project. Further more I got us a reservation in the Tete Rousse which meant we could spread the ascent over three days and dramatically reduce the effort needed the first day. Catherine drove up from just outside Geneva where she lives and we met at Bellvue cable car in Les Houches. We met at 10.00hrs. Because it was mid September it was quiet. It also made a difference that the Nid Aigle train had shut the previous day. We set off walking to the Tete Rousse Hut on a beautiful autumn day. Three hours later we were settled into our first beer.[Or I did]. I have spent more nights in the Tete Rousse than I care to remember , yet there was something different about this night. It was late in the season it was cold and clear therefore conditions were perfect. Perhaps because of this there was a relaxed atmosphere. More over there were a unique set of Guides in the hut that night. Stuart McAleese was just down from climbing Mt Blanc for the umpteen time this season - who gave us key information - it had been very cold. Next there was Blaise Agresti. The charismatic ex head of the PGHM Mountain Rescue, not just for Chamonix , but the whole of France. In my line of work a very important person. His client was a journalist for La Monde who was writing an article about Mt Blanc - although I never got to understand if he was there to say climbing Mt Blanc was a good or a bad thing. Next there was Thierry Renalt. Indisputably one of the best climbers France has ever produced. He has always been a brilliant Guide and once again he was here demonstrating just how good he is by having the patience of a saint to help an old guy reach the summit of Mt Blanc. Finally there was Sandy Allen. A mountaineering icon and fellow British Guide who was awarded the Piolet d'Or for his audacious ascent of Nanga Parbat. The plan was to leave the Tete-Rousse hut and climb the 1700 vertical meters to the summit of Mt Blanc the next day. The dilemma was whether to have the breakfast offered at 3.30hrs or 5.00hrs. The issue was that there was a spot of indifferent weather forecast for the middle of the day. An early start would potentially avoid this . The flip side was starting too early could mean that at its best we would summit in the dark OR it was just too cold to summit. The information from fellow Guides [Stuart] descending back to the hut was it was very cold. I choose the later breakfast. We left the Tete Rousse at 5.45 hrs. We climbed in parallel with Blaise and his journalist client. The journalist took photos of Catherine and I . We are now immortalised somewhere in the French media. Less than an hour and half we arrived at the old Gouter Hut. We stopped to strap on crampons over trousers and thicker gloves.
Next it was a plod up to the Dome de Gouter. There was a very good track and because of our later start we could see where we were going and enjoy the experience. We were motoring. We stopped at the summit of the Dome de Gouter to drink down some tea and munch on some snacks. Our next stop was at the Vallot Hut . 4300m. We put on our anoraks because the wind was building. We continued on.The whole nature of the climb changes here . We joined a narrow steep ridge, the famous Bosses Ridge ,which was buffeted by the wind . After all it is Europe's highest ridge. Catherine started to have her first doubts. I gave my standard MR Motivator response. "I have never failed above the Vallot Hut and I'm not going to fail now." The next time Catherine looked anxious we stopped to employ the secret "Wim Hof" breathing technique [ something that is set to potentially be a game changer in high altitude climbing] Then finally when people are running on empty and the summit is within touch , something that never fails: A hand full of force fed Gummy Bears. Miracle "food."
A few more steps and the summit was exclusively ours . It was 11.45am. A very respectable and impressive six hours for the ascent. An emotional hug , the summit to ourselves a few photos then an easy couple of hours back to the Gouter Hut and several celebratory beers .