Thursday, September 29, 2016
It did not start well. The stellar weather we had enjoyed for about a month had come to a big full stop. The forecast was poor for the entire alps. This coincided exactly with the arrival of David Brooksbank.
I met David with the inevitable trepidation of someone bringing bad news and disappointment. This was because David's primary objective of climbing the Weisshorn was already dead in the water. The only way we were going to do any climbing at least in the short term was to leave the Alps and drive south. Fortunately David had a very positive disposition and up for my suggestions. So this is what we did:
Saturday 17th September. At 8.00am I picked up David from his hotel and we headed off. It was cold grey and chucking it down. We drove past Annecy and it was still raining . We passed Grenoble and it was raining harder. We picked up the RN 87 and as we drove over the Col de Croix the rain had stopped. Instead it had turned to sleet. It was a question of holding the nerve and believing in the forecast, which stated it would be good in Orpierre...
As we descended the other side slowly it began to clear and by the time we reached our destination of Orpierre the sun was shining and we had a long afternoon climbing on the crags above the village. This was very much a refresher for David who hadn't been rock climbing for around 40 years!
We stayed at what has become my regular port of call - the very good, but slightly quirky Hotel Le Ceans. It's another establishment where no matter how hard you try you will not get the Madame to utter one word in her native language but insists on speaking my native language. Putting this aside ,there is a reason for going there because the hotel sells the best beer I have drunk in France -Beer Alphand, a brewery started by the famous French downhill skier Luc Alphand [the Hoteliers cousin.]
Sunday 18th. The sun was out , but the result of this was that the cliffs were mobbed with people. Orpierre can be one of those places that no matter how badly you think you are climbing it is a certainty that there is some one far worse than you. Unfortunately for David and I some of these people were on our chosen climb. Yet non of the acrobatics seemed to phase David one bit and it was as if he had never been away from climbing.
After we had finished climbing we "relooked" at the forecast . It was still bad for the Alps but very reasonable for the Vercours , so that is where we went. The plan was to attempt the Mont Aiguille. The only problem was it started to rain.
We arrived at the Au Gai Soleil Hotel at the foot of Mont Aiguille. We enjoyed a very competent dinner and excellent wine.
David and I looked like the only climbers staying in the hotel, because we WERE the only climbers. We went to bed and it was still raining.
Monday 18th. We left the car at 7.45am. It had stopped raining but it was distinctly soggy as we walked up through the rather dark broad leaf forest. We were at the foot of the route for 9.00am and summited at 11.30am just as the weather cleared to give views of the Ecrins mountain range plastered in snow.
We then had the small matter of the descent. The descent goes no where near the line of ascent. While the ascent is relatively straight forward the descent is not. Firstly it follows a series of chimneys which are comparatively simple to down climb , then a more open gully where there is potential to kick lots of rocks down because it is dangerously loose. It was while descending this part of the gully that we met the only other life forms we saw all day - namely a bunch of Ibex.
After our wildlife encounters we were confronted with the key part of the descent - the two committing rappels. The second of which disappears into a chasm where the exit is far from obvious. In addition the potential for getting the rope caught is very high.
Once we had sorted this out the climb was done and dusted. All that remained was to retrace our steps back through the dark forest where we were back at the car at around 1.00pm. A quick look at the weather forecast suggested that we should try our luck by returning to Chamonix which we duly did.
Tuesday 19th. The Cosmiques Arete . This is one of Chamonix's "must do" climbs. But if you must do it , don't do it in high summer otherwise it becomes an exercise in queuing. This is to say that it is so busy that the climb becomes untenable.
Instead David and I found it in perfect condition. We had a beautiful clear windless day . While we did not have the climb to ourselves all the teams moved along simultaneously. Consequently we enjoyed a very good alpine day.
Wednesday 20th An indifferent day was forecast . Not terrible but not inducive to going into the high mountains. We decided to go rock climbing at Les Chesery high above the village of Argentiere. We climbed the voie Bleu which was good but we were completely humiliated when a Ibex wondered up the 1st 5c pitch.
David was convinced he and his friend had some how traveled all the way up from Mont Aiguille because they looked surprisingly similar.
Thursday 21st. There had been some snow overnight yet as the weather forecast predicted the day dawned bright. We left the top of the Helbronner lift and headed to the start of the Traverse of the Entreves. It was cold and clear and there was a real feeling of Autumn. Clearly I am up in this area a lot , but there are certain days when it looks and feels magical. This was one such day. There was a track in made by a couple of people way ahead of us. So we enjoyed the solitude with all the benefits of someone else breaking trail and clearing snow off the key holds.
This was the last climb that David and I did together and wrapped up the 6 days we spent together. Despite the appalling weather forecast at the begining of the week we did not get rained on once.
Once again it shows that you need flexibility to enjoy the climbing in the alps and always a plan B. [Or C plus the rest of the alphabet]
Friday, September 16, 2016
SO-1750 vertical meters descent from the Aigle Hut later we arrived in La Grave. La Grave is about as far away form where we left the car 4 days ago as it is possible to get in the Alps. This problem was solved with by a very pleasant taxi man at a very reasonable 80 euros for a two hour taxi ride. Especially in the context of the Chamonix cartel of taxi drivers who charge 50 euros to go from Chamonix to Argentiere. 8 km !]
So back at the car Charles and I talked about what we should do next. The plan had been to spend a couple of mellow days rock climbing around Alfoid before attempting the East Ridge of Monte Viso. Yet when we checked the weather forecast the perfect weather was forecast to only last a couple more days. Further in mid September bad weather usually means snow , which sometimes doesn't clear and that can mark the end of the alpine climbing.
So if we were going to attempt the climb it had to be the next day. This meant retracing the road back to La Grave , then going over to Briancon climbing out over into Italy passing through the ski resort of Sestriere and down and down to just outside Turin before driving into the foot hills of Monte Viso. Yet there is a good incentive because at the end of this marathon drive there is the most perfect hotel - the Hotel Colletta. Run by a delightful family who have been there for several generations . It has very good food and a very good wine list.
Semi refreshed,the next day we drove up to the town of Crissolo and from there drove up to the road head at 1800 meters.
This is a very popular destination in its own right because is the source of Italy's longest rivers the Po. The actual source is somewhat underwhelming and if you weren't told by a sign you'd think you were walking past any bit of boggy ground.
The path to the Rifugio Qunitino Sella is and was very beautiful. At least until it started lashing it down. One of the issues with Monte Viso is that because it is so massive and so isolated it generates its own weather. By weather I mean poor weather. More often than not the time around mid day is shrouded in mist.[Last year I failed to climb the East Ridge because it was engulfed in an impenetrable fog.]
Although walking up in the rain was unpleasant , it did eventually stop just before we got to the Hut.
The hut was busy , because it is on a very popular trek and it is a destination in its own right. Plus the normal route on Monte Viso is hugely popular late in the season when all the snow has gone because then it isn't necessary to use an axe nor crampons.
Fortunately the East Ridge was not busy. Charles and I set off at about 5.00hrs in the dark. After about 20 minutes we were climbing up eternal shale while attempting to find the start of the route. I was making a bad job of this when the only other party we were to see on the route, a French Guide with prior knowledge, past us and identified the start. This is a good reason why being first out of the blocks is not always a good idea when you haven't actually done the route before!
Nevertheless once we were established on the climb everything was simple. Albeit long: 1500meters of ascent. We paused to watch the sun rise over the Italian plain
A little further up I was left to ponder why someone had abandoned their bike on the climb?;
About half an hour from the summit our route turns left and joins the normal-route and then onto the summit where there is a giant cross because this is Italy and they like their crosses.
There were many people on the summit and the scene was seemingly fairly stereotypical of a Sunday in Italy : Chaotic. Charles and I managed to slalom around most of the groups reasonably efficiently , then we had a clear route all the way to the hut and managed to make it from the summit to the hut in under 4 hours.
We repacked our bags at the Hut and then psyched ourselves up for the walk back to the car. We were particularly keen to do this because another meal and beds at the Hotel Colletta was a great incentive to get back down.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Everything went like clock work. I scooped Charles Sherwood up from Geneva Airport as he walked out of the terminal. We then drove down towards Grenoble before heading up the vertiginous road to La Berard. A road where key sections have disappeared and ended up as rubble a 1000 meters down a ravine. It now has passages where if you missed the bend and the fluorescent warning string didn't stop you,then you would certainly die , but only after having a very long time to reflect on your inability to judge the width of your car.
There are only a few times that I can remember having such a stellar forecast. Conditions were perfect. We arrived in La Berard and parked right by the sign which pointed to our accommodation for the night the refuge du Châtelleret. Before we set off we stopped for [and ordered] an omelette in using the French language to do so. Yet once again it was inevitably served by yet another Frenchman who insisted on speaking my language rather than replying in his own.
The weather was hot. So hot that I decided to set off wearing only my underpants which I argued doubled as shorts. The rational for this was I could keep the rest of my clothes both fresh and dry [ We had planned a 3 night 4 day expedition.] Fortunately, mid September is a quiet time of year so my eccentricities weren't seen by many.
Two hours later we were at the Hut. It was beautifully peaceful with us and only four other guests.
The next day we made our way to the Refuge du Promontoire 3082meters. Our thinking was if we arrived early [and as we had done,] broke the trip into two separate days, then it would provide good gradual acclimatization. This is particularly important for the traverse of the Meije because you spend, all in all, about eight hours at nearly 4000 meters, rather than just bagging the summit and turning tail.
My preferred way of acclimatising is to do it while sleeping . After I woke up in the late afternoon I bumped into a colleague and fellow British Mountain Guide Neil Johnson and his client Roger . Their plan was the same as ours.
This hut was full with loads of people taking advantage of the perfect forecast and equally perfect conditions. It is a great hut with very friendly motivated staff who after dinner gave us a good briefing on the route conditions and weather forecast in what was evidently a nightly ritual.
Breakfast was at about 4.00am and we were away by 5.00am. The route description states: Turn left out of the hut and climb up between the hut and the toilet. Something has possibly been lost in translation but the first obstacle after leaving the toilet is the wonderfully named "passage de Crapaeu." It was not long before I followed a set of cairns in the pitch dark. With the benefit of hindsight it was all going too well because these were not the cairns for the route. Instead I took us up a "variation." Possible to climb , but not by me. Neil on the other hand set off later than us. Neil spotted us back tracking and seamlessly took the correct line. Although this was mildly humiliating it was ultimately good because we traveled along pretty much together from that point on.
You know your on a world class route when the route has features which are famous in their own right. After the Passage de Crapaeu you have such names as the "Dos Annes" which provide relatively simple but beautifully exposed rock climbing in a classic setting.
All the time the goal is to reach the foot of the Glacier Carré. Here you stick on your crampons and follow the upper edge of the glacier to the Breche du galcier Carré. From here its back on rock where you follow a vague line up some rock terrain which is not simple nor does it allow for any significant belays. Eventually we reached the "Cheval Rouge" where you find your self straddling a rocky ridge with La Grave several thousand meters below.
Soon after we arrived on the summit of the Grand Pic or what is known as the Pic Occidental 3983m.
Now there was the small matter of making the traverse of the entire ridge. The first thing to do is negotiate a couple of rappels. We joined forces with Neil and Roger , so that neither of us had to unpack our "pulls" ropes.
There is a real need to be efficient and "alpine quick" because it is still along way. The route drops onto the cold chilly north face where the snow had changed to boiler plate ice. In 2007 the local Guides decided to fix a cable around the la Dent Zygmondy.
Still even with the cable it has a very remote serious feel.
After roughly eight hours Charles and I arrived on the final summit the Doigt de Dieu.3973meters.
The view back down to the Promontoire Refuge would be a BASE jumpers dream.
From the top we climbed down some broken ground to a fixed rappel point. We made the rappel , then walked along the ridge for 20 meters to the next [not obvious] rappel point. According to the guide book this second rappel should dump us on the glacier. Yet any guide book which mentions glaciers in their descriptions are nearly always out of date due to the devastating effect of global warming And so it was. We needed a third rappel to avoid going into a giant 30m high rimaye.
As often is the case the last rappel was the most complicated because it involved a big swing to the right to gain some indifferent DIY anchors. Which then meant pulling the rope through on the diagonal with the real possibility of getting the ropes jammed. Always what you fear and made worse at the end of a long day when you can practically touch the terrace of the hut and the awaiting beer.
Finally we were at the Aigle Refuge which is still at 3400meters and second only to the Gouter Hut in French mountain Huts height awards.
We arrived at about 4 O'clock glad to stop.
Another wonderful hut which had recently been refurbished. It was run by a guardian who was perfectly delightful. But the true vocation he yearned after was that of a DJ in a Rave. Because he shared his already modest kitchen with a giant concert sized music speaker the size of council wheelie bin.
Despite this we were pleased we did not have to walk the 1750 meters down to La Grave that evening. Instead we awoke to a laser-blast of a sunrise:
Before "sauntering" down the next morning still in perfect weather.
Part 2 Of our week to follow.