Friday, August 28, 2020

Cabane Covid proofed...

A very good view.

 Finally, finally, after quite a few false starts the mountain guiding season started for me.  A lot of things needed to come together, not least John Young's super human determination to actually get here.

John and I had been due earlier in the year,  to ski together , yet it wasn't Covid that stopped this but a broken arm.  Although it had healed well, John had had no opportunity to "road test' it.

We decided that we should do this as conservatively as we could and chose to climb the Pic Janvier route at Flegere.  This delightful ridge runs parallel with the Index chair lift, meaning that once you have finished you merely stroll over to the chair and ride it down.   It would be the ideal first ever route in the alps because,  if you were to make a complete hash of it, or get  or lost, fall off it, or take hours and hours, then you would know not to progress with bigger alpine adventures like any of the peaks behind the photo.  

Pic Janvier our warm up day.


Anyway I think that in almost 30 years of knowing John it is the easiest route we have ever climbed together, yet it is still excellent and it served its purpose- John's arm was just fine.

So we ratcheted up our ambitions stratospherically  and headed off to climb the Arete du Saille on the Grand Muveran.  We walked up to the delightful Cabane du Rambert to experience our first Covid Cabane education.   This involved giant pieces of perspex dividing the tables. 

strange times  Covid  screens


Plus door size sheets of wood hung  horizontally from the ceiling  to create a sort of labyrinth.  Then we were informed that there would be two dinner services so that everyone could be more socially distanced.  

With a little imagination you could see how the Swiss Alpine Club had conjured up such a plan.  But as far as the sleeping arrangements- then  there was no plan.  Everyone was stuffed in the same dormitory as if Covid was not a problem up stairs.

The Cabanne Rambert doesn't get many climbers - mainly walkers and so there is no early breakfast .  The guardian said she would leave breakfast out for us.  We settled down in a couple of deck chairs on the sunny terrace and supped several beers each.  Then, I thought I  recognised someone working in the kitchen but dismissed it as unlikely to be who I thought it was.  But we caught each others eye and he recognised me .  It was Vincent one of the original guardians of the Gouter Refuge.  He and his great friend Guy Bochatet had run the Gouter incredibly well through some unbelievably difficult times.  They were absolute legends.  Vincent and Guy retired from the Gouter 19 years ago. The Gouter carried on but it was was never the same again. Guy's father had been the Gouter guardian before him.  Legend has it that Guy was actually born on the train coming down from the Nid Aigle because his mother had gone into labour before she could reach the hospital in Sallanches.  Long before helicopters were common place.

Vincent started working at the Gouter at roughly the same time I qualified as a Guide.  Like many Guides starting out I used to climb Mt Blanc once or twice a week  and Vincent and I became good friends. We had been involved in some dramatic rescues together too.  He was also wonderfully helpful and kind when I guided Don Planner to the summit of Mt Blanc.  Don was the first blind man to reach the summit.  When he left we lost contact and so to meet him unexpectedly in another Refuge in another country was just fantastic and frankly quite emotional because these had been special time in our lives.

Vincent insisted that he should get up to give us breakfast, after all,  a man who for 17 years got up every night  at 1.30 am to serve breakfast to over 200 people this was not a challenge.

John and I struggled down to breakfast at the comparatively civilised time of 5.00am.  Vincent had laid the breakfast table in the guardians private quarters.  Everything was perfect and he said rather nostalgically " It just like old times?" which of course it wasn't, not least because we were minus about 200 other fighting pushing wannabes.

We left the Cabane  just before dawn.The approach to the Arete de Saille starts by walking down hill for rather longer than you would want.  It then involves walking back up a hillside on a vague path for a lot longer than anyone would want.  

Locating the start of the route is not simple.  One of the reasons is that the route was, until 2016, a well bolted sports-route .  Then some "Eco-Guides" decided to "desequippée" the climb.  What this means is that they removed most of the bolts and cut the main belay stations.  The idea was to return it to a feeling of a  more traditional big mountain rock climb.   Imagine if they decided to do the same thing on the Matterhorn?

This is all very well as long as you know this, otherwise you can turn up equipped entirely with quick- draws with nothing to clip them into. Precisely  what happened to me last year and this led to a very scary fraught ascent well out side my comfort zone.  

This time I came with a traditional rack of protection but it was hard to remember exactly where the start was without seeing a big shiny belay chain which is code for start here and go exactly there and then  there and so on and so forth.

What's more the start is not on the most inviting rock.  It is very loose and serious.  Yet once properly established on the route it all starts to flow beautifully.

John on one of the many draw dropping pitches.

Then came the stunning stand out pitch . followed by the last pitch which has an awkward rather lung busting move to actually reach the end of the sustained rock climbing.

The stunning atmospheric penultimate pitch 

John belaying while I climb the awkward last pitch


Yet like all true big alpine rock climbs just when you think its over it continues to lay down various challenges.  After several pitches of moving together you are confronted by a steep difficult wall which is as hard as anything on the route.  Then there was the challenge of finding the best line over some very complicated ridges.  Finally we made the summit and the beautiful views all around.  Lake Geneva to the north and all the Swiss giant mountains to the south.

John on summit 


The descent from the summit is down the normal route.  It must be said that its not the most interesting route- lots of loose rock and a lot of it close up resembles a quarry.  We saw no one all day which again just adds to the wilderness experience.

Nevertheless it took just over an hour back at the Cabane , say our good byes to Vincent and the promise we would not wait another 19 years before we saw each other again

All that was left was to walk down, but not before getting a traditional drenching in an afternoon thunderstorm.

Sunset on the Arete de Saille

And this was only day three of our time together . More to follow.



2 comments:

Alan Kimber said...

A great story Mark. Well told as usual. I remember those old Gouter refuge visits very well. People sleeping on and under the dining room tables, when the dorms were full.I even bivvied outside with clients to avoid the crush. Deliberately taking sleeping bags, stoves and food. We used a sheltered platform, which is now the site for the new hut. Happy days matey. Best to Jane and the girls.

Peter Little said...

Hi Mark,
I never did get to stay overnight in the Gouter Hut!
It's a great account.
The route on the Grand Muveran was wonderful/brilliant in 2013 when you guided me up it!
Best Regards,
Peter Little