Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Mt Blanc. The first ascent of the year on foot was hard earned.

Jody Laoureux crossing the Gouter Couloir

Global warming has been messing with the traditional climbing seasons for a while. For example attempting to climb Mt Blanc in the height of the summer has become just too dangerous because the snow which acts like glue and keeps all the rocks in place has gone.
Partly due to this the Gouter Refuge has opened earlier in the season in order to take advantage of better snow cover and therefore safer conditions.
With this in mind I set up an attempt in late May [the day after the Gouter Refuge opened for business] with Gareth Preece and his pal Stewart Beardwell.

Not for the first time the prevailing weather didn't seem to want to play ball with our plans.  The weather forecast for the week was appalling and it snowed hard. 

We met on May 23rd and headed up to the Mer de Glace for some crampon training and to make sure  the kit actually worked properly.  The weather was beautiful.

24th May. We headed up to the Torino Refuge with the main plan being to gain as much acclimatisation as we could.  The other part of the plan was to climb a couple of mountains. 

Our first climb was the traverse of the Aiguille du Marbree which was in perfect condition, covered with just enough snow to glue all the rocks in place , but not too much snow to make it too difficult.
southern endof Aiguille du Marbree

The Torino hut is huge with many many places.  The night we were there they had five customers.  The three of us and another British Guide Dave Gladwin and his client Andy.  They were on the same schedule as us , the plan being to head over to Mt Blanc after some acclimatisation.

25th May .  We eat breakfast at about 5.00hrs and were away to climb the Tour Ronde at about 6.00hrs.  There was no one about .  This might have had something to do with the fact that the weather was rubbish.  Although not too rubbish for us to climb the peak and get back down in very good time for plenty of rest and eating.
Summit of Tour Ronde.

Bye now the weather forecast had improved considerably and we had identified a window of good weather coming up.

On the morning of the 26thMay I picked Gareth and Stuart up from their Air B&B apartment at 5.30hrs.  It was from this point that the trip turned into a true unpredictable , adventure with many twist and turns.
At this stage in the summer season none of the cable cars, train infrastructure are open.  There are fundamentally two choices 1, Start walking from the valley floor .2 Use a 4 wheel drive to drive to the top of the cable car at Bellevue.  We took the  Land Rover Defender which is arguably THE seminal off road vehicle.

Bionassay valley from where we set off.

We started walking at 6.30hrs.  But not before checking our avalanche transceivers were switched on.*
The goal was to get to the Gouter Refuge, [where after a lot of tedious internet work we had secured our reservation.] I reckoned we had a big day in front of us of between eight and nine hours.  We had not been walking long before we met our first snow.  My boot went into it up to the knee. Then the next step was the same followed by the next and so it went on.  We eventually arrived at the Nid Aigle railway terminus [ buried in snow ] after 3 hours, slow but not catastrophically so.  In addition because we had set off early we still had time on our side.  Yet the problem was the scene which confronted us .  There were no track to be seen anywhere and each attempt at a step ended up with me sinking in to my waist.
I turned to Gareth and Stewart and said :
 "there is no way I can do this."

It was looking like our Mt Blanc attempt was about to end.  The guys were reasonably philosophical and reasoned that they had already climbed two of their first alpine peaks.  If this was to be as far as they got then so be it.  We sat on a rock and pondered what to do .  I made some calls to see if I could get a better overall picture of the conditions.  While we were sitting down , we spotted two people slowly making their way up behind us.  We waited about forty minutes for them to catch us up.  It turned out to be a Chamonix Guide and his already completely knackered client.  I asked him what he thought about conditions and what his aim for the day was .  He seemed totally undaunted by the fact there was no track and just headed on ploughing the track through waist deep snow.  We just looked on open mouthed and  incredulous .  We watched him for a further twenty minutes believing he must either turn around of die of exhaustion.  He did neither and so we thought  we might as well follow him and see what happens.  He kept on going and even though his client only had to merely follow, the client could barely keep up.  The Guide ploughed on for a couple of hours .  Eventually he stopped for a rest .  We caught him up and I took over the trail breaking.  It was now unpleasantly hot and we had run out of water.  Then our luck slightly improved , we were caught up by another Guide who told us that the Tete Rousse hut might be open, we could at least refill our water bottles , plus there was another Guide Jody to help break trail.  After 9 hours from leaving Bellevue we were at the Tete Rousse Refuge, but not the Gouter as planned.  To give the situation some context it normally takes 3 to 4 hours from Bellevue to the Tete Rousse.  One to two hours from Nid Aigle.

So although the Tete Rousse refuge was not officially open for the season we were allowed to stay .  I phoned the Gouter Refuge and put our booking back a night.  The fact that no one had made it to the Gouter should have told me something .
Spot the issue :Dog watches as snow is harvested for drinking water.

Dave and his client turned up a couple of hours after us relatively fresh from following our track.  The same could not be said for Super Guide.  Although he was fine his client was "totaled"  They decided to try and get back down the same day.  This left eight of us in the Refuge.  Then a lone guy from Mumbai called the Refuge for help saying he was exhausted and lost.  Dave and Jody went down the hill to drag back up into the Refuge.  The man was a complete accident waiting to happen, all the gear and no idea , plus a miss placed sense of his own mortality, who was incapable of listening to advice. But over dinner he was very generous with his advice as to where we were all going wrong. We thought we were slow but it had taken him two days to get to the Refuge.

27th May. We were up at 3.00hrs and away by 4.00hrs.  There was a vague track to follow , but we still sunk through it.  The Gouter Couloir was in safe condition and we were able to cross it and climb its right side .  After about an hour and a half we stopped to let the other teams take their turn at making the  track.  It was all very good , beautiful surroundings, virtually no one around.  After three hours we arrived at the Gouter Refuge.  We dumped all our superfluous stuff [like helmets] and headed out of the door and back onto the route.
There was no track above us .  The very first step I took I sank up to my thigh.  Then next step was the same , as were the next few thousand.  I once again said to Gareth and Stewart
 "I didn't think this was on."
 They both then  had ago in front and it was fairly instantaneously that they agreed.  Eventually Jody turned up and he and his group were already looking tired.  We decided that we could try and work together, hoping that conditions under foot might get better.  Jody set off and we followed.  Dave and Andy eventually caught us up and Dave had ago in front.  The snow had not improved Dave was now crawling up hill on all fours. We eventually made it to the shoulder of the Dome du Gouter.  We decided we could try and get to the Vallot.  This next section was down hill , but the snow under foot was even worse .  The sort of snow that supports your weight for about two seconds before collapsing sending you into the snow up to the groin.
We struggled on to the Vallot.  The weather was good . There was little wind and the track was now reasonable because a lot of people had arrived on skis from the Les Grands Mulets route.  Having left their skis they had climbed the final part of the ridge on foot.  All was looking a lot better, except everyone was seriously tired .  Stewart was doubting whether he could go on.  Andy couldn't go on and threw in the towel.

Almost there - but running on empty and digging deep
A bit of a motivational speech persuaded Stewart to to continue.  Jody and his two clients also continued with us .  Progress was slow but we kept going. Then we had a go at the remarkable "get out of jail" breathing technique .  We zoomed ahead of the other group  and at  14.45hrs we summitted.  We were alone.   Views and conditions were perfect.  Against considerable odds we had made it.
Stuart Beardwell and Gareth Preece on the summit of Mt Blanc
Jody Laoureux summits Mt Blanc.
28th May It was all very well climbing to the roof of Europe , but that left the not inconsiderable task of getting back down.  At first this went very well, and we arrived back at the Vallot emergency shelter in good time.
Le Vallot Shelter
Yet after that we entered a kind of hell because although we were retracing our track, it would still not support our weight and with each step we sank in up to the knee.  We eventually arrived back at the Gouter just in time for dinner at 18.30hrs.  Dinner was the most perfect calorie packed meal you could wish for in such circumstances . Tartiflette.
May 28th. Breakfast was at 7.00hrs.  We were a way by 8.00hrs.  It had snowed a lot over night . Our tracks of the previous day had been obliterated .  The descent below the Gouter was exciting .
Who said Mt Blanc was just a walk?
After a lull in the weather it was now snowing hard again.  We crossed the Gouter Couloir and once again had to break trail back to the Tete Rousse Refuge.  We stopped for some very welcome soup before"bum sliding" the snow slope below the refuge.  The snow turned to rain as we slogged our way back to the Nid Aigle railway terminus.
Fairly uninspiring conditions

The railway. No trains any time soon.
Normally this marks the end of the journey for most people who have climbed Mt Blanc.  But with the railway track being chocked with snow and the two tunnels blocked our climb was no where near over.  We still had to burrow our way out of the end of the tunnel and descend a treacherous slope which was above a void.
Escaping through the tunnel. Gareth still has a smile on his face.

All in all the descent took from the Gouter back to the Land Rover took nearly nine hours.

Mont Blanc anyone?

* Best practice is to wear an avalanche transceiver when there is a lot of snow around, no matter what time of year .  See blog Thinking of climbing Mt Blanc this summer? Guided Ascents of Mt Blanc: What they Don't tell you.You need to know this.

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