Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Traverse of Meije by the Enfetchores : One of the worlds finest alpine climbs.
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.