Sunday, September 14, 2014
Monday, September 08, 2014
“Before The Verte one is an Alpine Climber, after the Verte one is a real mountaineer.”
So said Gaston Rébuffat one of Chamonix’s most famous Mountain Guides .
The weather in the Alps this summer has been terrible. Twenty two years I have worked in the Chamonix Valley as a Mountain Guide and this has been the worst- whole weeks have been washed out and many peoples mountaineering dreams have been put on hold until may be next year?
However the constant bad weather meant that it snowed a lot, the glaciers and their crevasses remained filled in and the snow plastered the north faces acting as a form of rendering gluing everything in place. Then finally at the end of the season the high pressure built and we were set up with near perfect climbing conditions for climbing on snow and Ice. These conditions were almost unheard of for a generation and numerous possibilities evolved.
At the same time my client of 22 years who has never missed a season Charles Sherwood arrived to a mouth watering combination of a fabulous weather forecast and perfect conditions.
I had identified a particular route for us to attempt. Namely the Nant Blanc Face of the Verte. The face is rarely climbed because it is rarely in safe condition and pretty much never at the end of the summer, but as I have said this was no normal summer.
Yet even with perfect conditions the challenges are considerable : The face is massive from the Bergschund to the summit it is over vertical kilometer. The ice climbing in two sections is vertical and the final key section at over 4000 meters involves scaling an overhanging serac. [I did not know this before we started otherwise I might have not been so keen]
In addition actually getting into position to start the climb was very hard work;
At mid day Charles and I took the Grands Montets cable car to the top and then headed across and down the glacier from where we had to make a series of difficult abseils down a horrible lose gulley towards the Nant Blanc glacier. Things did no go well because the brand new ropes I had bought for the attempt were immediately damaged by loose rocks [one irreparably] which must be some kind of record - an hour old.
We found a place to bivouac at about 6.00pm and enjoyed the setting sun while having our dinner.
Breakfast was at 2.00am the next morning and we were packed and away by 3.00pm.
We scrambled down onto the Nant Blanc glacier and threaded our way through a maze of giant crevasses by the beam of our head torches. This was difficult and I took a wrong turning and headed up a false line. Everyone can get lost in this game the trick is to realise quickly as and rectify the situation , which we did but still it was frustrating and time consuming. Eventually just before dawn we arrived at the start of the route which is marked by a giant crevasse - the bergschund the last crevasses between the mountain and the glacier. The guide book rather unhelpfully suggests it will be between 12 to 15 hours to the summit from this point.
Climbing over the bergschund was steep but thereafter the angle laid back a little for the next 400meters. We made steady but unspectacular progress because the snow was very hard and we were balanced on our crampon front points instead of being able to kick steps in the snow.
10.00am we reached a narrowing of the climb. We were confronted with a pitch of very steep ice- far steeper than anything we had expected. Fortunately the quality of the ice was perfect and the ice axes stuck in the snow like they were being driven in to cork. Perfect nevé.
Above this pitch the route moved onto another giant ice field before heading left to a rocky ridge . By now the the sun had come round onto the face and it got unpleasantly hot added to which bits of melting ice started spraying us from above some of which were football sized!
We were now tired and thirsty and we decided we should stop for the day and bivouac. The problem was we could not find anywhere remotely flat enough and so we just kept on climbing up and up in the vain hope of finding somewhere suitable. What happened was that as we climbed higher the ground became even steeper and so we reluctantly set up a belay and abseiled back down about 50 meters to an area which was the least worst option! We carved a ledge out of the snow - a sort of bucket seat and climbed into our sleeping bags at about 9.30pm. As Charles observed this is know as a “double head torch day” : you start by head torch and you finish by head torch.
We awoke at 4.00am and began to melt snow to brew pint mugs of tea. Packing everything up was difficult because it was all frozen like a board but eventually we were back climbing at about 6.00 am .
Above us was the crux of the climb- an overhanging lump of ice know as the “Calotte" which barres the route to the summit. I arrived at the foot of the feature which was made up of fluted ice and I was not a tall sure that I would get any purchase with my ice axes. Firstly I cleared all the flutings of ice away like a vandal attacking a giant chandler. Then I launched my self at the over hanging ice and climbed what was the most certainly exposed bit of ice climbing I think I have ever done because it felt as if I was hanging above the entire Chamonix valley. I was happy to pull over the lip and see ahead of me much more mellow ground. I belayed and it was Charles turn to follow.
Above us lay the summit of the Verte a short walk away. The scene was stunning and we arrived on the summit at about 8.30am,hardly any wind and not a person in site.
The next challenge was to get down which off the Verte is never simple. Some earlier pre planning- We had learned that the Whymper Couloir was still full of snow [again because of the bad summer] and because we had arrived on the summit early the snow was still frozen and safe, so we headed down the rather narrow ridge to the col and set up the ropes for the numerous abseils back to the glacier. It was a rather hot walk on a soggy glacier to the marvelously positioned Couvercle Hut , some beers, massive omelettes and bed.