Monday, September 20, 2021

Perfect late season climbing conditions.

September [generally] never disappoints from an alpine weather point of view.  This year due to the bad weather in July and therefore no "thermo nuclear heated summer". The mountains and glaciers were in an  excellent condition.  

Charles Sherwood joined me for our annual summer climbing adventure.

Not for the first time we were presented with a poor forecast, at least for the first couple of days. We started with some valley rock climbing in Les Contamines at the La Duchere crag. We climbed a variety of different grade pitches , linked them all together and finished on the strangely named" Le Nain Jaune attends."  The Yellow Gnome Awaits.  Sure enough, bolted to the  top of the crag was a yellow gnome.  Just as we got to the top it started to rain heavily.

The next day the forecast  was again poor, but with a significantly improving out look.  We decided to use the day to get into position and headed off to the Bernese Oberland for a project we had discussed many times before , but had never had the right conditions at the right time.

We stayed the night in Murren which was a nod to a bit of acclimatisation because the village is at 1600meters.  Murren amongst other things is famed for its glorious views across to the Eiger Monch and Jungfrau.  Non of them revealed themselves to us because it was raining hard and thinking about snowing.

The next morning was different . It was beautiful.  We took the train to Kliene Schiedegg.  By chance the last time we had been here together was exactly 14 years to the day we climbed the North Face of the Eiger together.

11th September 2007 .

Our ambitions were  more modest this time around .  We were going to walk down the Aletsch glacier and spend the night in the Konkordia Hutte.

  This is excatly what we did, arriving for beers on the finely situated terrace with its view over the Konkordia Platz and far beyond.   There is a strangely placed parking meter just below the terrace:

 We were also able to book a private room, complete with fresh sheets , bed side tables and lamps and complimentory bottles of water.  Probably no bad thing to do in post Covid times , especially because the hut was very busy.

The next day proved to be a big day.  We awoke at 3.30hrs had breakfast and then carefully descended the many many metal steps back down to the glacier.  Our goal for the day was the Grosses Grunhorn 4044meters. Once at the foot of the stairs, the next challange was to thread our way through the endless moraine which was just like a quarry.  It was pitch black and there were no cairns to help us.  Next it was onto a dry glacier , so once again no track to follow.  There was no way to dress this up it was extremely tedious navigation. Neither were there any other parties to share the tedium with.  Yet bit by bit we pieced the route together and it became slightly easier when we had a bit of day light.

It then became absolutely fantastic.  Blue skies a good temperature and just a light breeze.  There was no one around and we had the sense we were somewhere very special.  

We climbed up on to the ridge which forms the Grunegghorn 3862 meters before descending a further tricky [ish] ridge down to the col which seperates the Grosse Grunhorn. From the col the climb to the summit of the Grosses Grunhorn was technically easier.  We arrived on the top just before 11.30hrs.  There was one other mountaineer- a man who's primary aim seemed to be in the search of solitude. He did say hello but then  he immediately descended. After a bite to eat and some photos we too headed on down too.  We arrived at the col from where our plan was to turn left and rappel down the cliffs which would lead to the glacier and from there to our bed for the night at the Finnsterahorn Hutte.  All quite simple in theory, but not for the first time the reality was not that simple.

Locating the first rappel point was a relief.  A big solid metal ring.  Perfect .  Then 20 meters later there was another. This is going to be quick I naively thought. The next ring was no where to be seen.   I had to build an anchor, leave some gear and make a mighty swing to the left [looking down]. The problem was that each anchor instead of being below the next anchor was in fact 10 meters to the the left of the previous one.  In effect it was a rappel traverse.    This clearly would have been good to know beforehand and we lost time working it all out.  Eventually we landed on the glacier and walked down and down until the snow turned to hard glacier ice and then a maze of open crevasses.  Once across the glacier it was a short but unwanted climb up the moraine to the welcome beers at the Finsteraarhorn Hutte.  Pretty much a twelve hour day.  Hard work but magnificient. 

The next day we were up at 3.30hrs and away by 4.15hrs.  The days objective was the highest mountain in the Bernese Oberland the Finsteraarhorn 4274 metres. 

Finsteraarhorn 4274m seen from the summit of the Grosses Grunhorn.

 Although higher than the previous day, the climb is much more straight forward and the conditions were excellent.  We were once again on our own.  Our lone climber from the previous day was ahead of us, but he was the only person we got a glimpse of in the last two days. The ascent is straight forward until you arrive at the  prominent shoulder .  From there you follow a rocky ridge for about an hour until you eventually reach an "overbuilt" giant cross which marks the summit.  Mr Solitude was sitting there clearly  taking it all in and having his momment.

Charles just about to arrive on the summit.

We left Mr Solitude to continue his contemplations and reversed the ridge.  It was quite windy and cold.  Back at the snowy shoulder we strapped our crampons on and had a bite to eat.  We then retraced our line of ascent arriving back at the Hutte for about 13.30hrs.   A shorter day than the previous one , but that probably wasn't such a bad thing.

Now the challange of a visit to the Finnsteraarhorn Hutte is leaving it.  There are no simple routes to the valley.  For a variety of reasons we wanted  not just the quickest route to the road head but the quickest route back to Chamonix.  I especially wanted to be back for dinner with my daughter Florence who was celebrating her 21st birthday.  

 The quickest route to the road head was out to the Grimsel Pass.  The problem is that, at the road there is no onward transport.  I had taken this route a couple of times before once in summer and once on skis in the spring. Next there is the option of descending the Fiescher glacier "eventually" arriving in Fiesch.  The guardian and his wife went through the whole descent with us tracing the route out on the map.  Global warming has devastated the glacier and the final bit of the journey sounded very complicated.  They said it was possible, but it was very long.  They didn't exactly sell it to us as a good option, especially since I had never been down this route.  Then on overhearing our conversation, a local guide from Feisch said he a come up the Aletch glacier from Fiesch in 7 hours and that we should go back the way he had walked up.  Reasonably I thought that if he had come up in 7 hours we could get down a lot in less time. I had done this route on skis in a total white out, so thought this might be our best option.  This was what we opted to do.  We would walk back over the Grunhornlucke col and descended the glacier until we reached the Alteschglacier. We would then turn left and follow the glacier towards Fiesch.

It was when we arrived at the junction of the Altesch glacier just below the Konkordia Hutte that we had an inkling that our timing was a little awry.  Doing everthing right and keeping to a good pace it had already taken us 4 hours and our day was only just starting.  A head of us was a labyrinth of crevasses as far as the eye could see.  I reflected on the conversation with the Fiesch guide.  Either something got lost in translation or he was full of bullshit because it was impossible to see how he had got from Fiesch to the Hutte in 7 hours.

We considered all options - there being the option of walking back up to the Jungfraujoch railway station but Charles was adament he did not want to do that.  The estimate for a return would have been at least 4 hours of up hill slog.

So we set off down the glacier.  Or to start with, at ninety degrees to straight down because we had to circum-navigate a huge crevasse which blocked our way:
Setting off at right angles to where we wanted to go.

It was then back in the opposite direction. After an hour we had probably made about 200 meters progress in the direction we actually wanted to go.

Crevasse after crevasse.

And so it went on hour after hour.

A glacier table.  A glaciologist paradise.


Eventually after several hours we came to the exit point from the glacier to the path, where in the space of a few minutes we saw more people than we had in the entire previous 4 days.  The path climbs up to a lake, where there is a tunnel through the mounatin side which takes you into the ski resort of Fiesch. 

The tunnel to Fiesch complete with illuminated  shrine.

 From there there is a murderous dusty stoney path which leads to the cable car station.  The gondola arrives in the railway staion where you can travel all the way back to Lauterbrunnen.  Did we make it back for Florences birthday ?  Just.

The next day it chucked it down with a dusting of snow in the trees just above our house.   The forecast wasn't great for the next day, but after that it was again looking very good.  We decided to again use the bad day to walk to a hut.  Our plan was to climb the arête de Saille on the Grande Muveran.  The first part of the approach uses a chair lift.  Sitting on it in the pouring rain, I couldnt help thinking that I had made a bad decision.  Yet it stopped raining and the walk to the hut was dry.  Delicious food, artisanal beer and good wine, plus our own dormitory was waiting for us.

We left the hut in the dark at about 5.30hrs.  The first twenty minutes is on the path and descends the way we had come up the previous afternoon.  But it then veers off to the right and is  impossible to find the track in the dark.  We decided to stop a bit and wait for some proper day light.  We were treated to a beautiful sunrise looking over the Rhone valley.

Followed by more spectacular scenes.

 After about an hour since leaving the Cabane we arrived at the foot of the climb.

Arete de Saille
The first few pitches were very wet after the previous two days of rain.  But as the sun dried out the rock and the climbing was good.  The higher up you go the better it becomes and the pitch which preceeds the final one is as spectacular any.

The positions and views are marvellous.

Once the hard climbing is over there is still a considerable distance a long the ridge, which is far from simple, with huge exposure especially on the western side.  

We gained the summit at about 13.00hrs.  Again there was only one other person on the summit but this time he was with his Scotty dog.  They had come up via the normal route.

Summit of Le Grand Muveran.

The descent back to the Cabane  took about an hour and quarter.  As an ascent it is unremarkable other than a fabulous view.  A quick drink and then we walked back to the top of the chair lift.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Aguille de Rochfort 4013meters.

The Iconic Arête de Rochfort.

Peter Collins and `I have been climbing together for well over 20 years .  Nowadays not so regularly  as we did in the past, but when he turns up we generally manage to do something  interesting and he leaves feeling "well climbed."  This short trip was no exception.

His brief was he wanted to feel well challanged and climb something of significance.  He invited a friend along too. Matt.  

My suggestion was to firstly traverse the Aiguille Entreves, then stay the night in the Torino Refugio inorder to get an early start for the Aiguille de Rochfort.

We rode the Sky Way lift up to Pointe Helbronner and then traveresed the ridge in complete solitude and perfect weather.

Matt & Pete on the narrow bit.

After a night in the Torino we left at about 5.00am and headed up the glacier which gets progressively steeper at which point you have to transition to broken rocky ground.  It is imperative that you can find the right route, which is not simple especially in the dark.  The ground is made up of lots of loose blocks.

Eventually day light appeared revealing marvellous views of Mt Blanc behind us.

Mt Blanc at sunrise.

Now the thing about climbing the Aiguille de Rochfort is not the actual summit , but the knife edge, corniced ridge which proceeds it. Once you have negociated the ridge the summit is comparitively simple to conquer.

We found the ridge in good condition apart from a short icy section which I had to lower Pete and Matt down.  Then on the way back we had to front point up bolier plate ice.  Added to which it was cold and windy.

We arrived on the top at about 9.00hrs.  Huddled behind a rock out of the wind and eat some food and took the obligatory photos.

The summit of Aiguille de Rochfort looking towards  Monte Rosa


From there we elected to make 3 short rappels back to the arête. Rappelling is not always the best solution because it is significantly slower than down climbing , but in the conditions we found it was a better option.  We then retraced our steps along the ridge before down climbing the broken ground and then back across the glacier to the Torino Refugio.  A fabulous two days.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Mont Blanc 4810m


Mt Blanc seen from Col de Dome 6.20hrs.

It must have been twenty something years ago since Turi and Agust had climbed Mt Blanc.  They subsequently fell in love with Chamonix eventually becoming my neighbours.  They first asked me to climb Mt Blanc again in 2007. For a variety of reasons we never managed it.  Finally in early September we did climb Mt Blanc.  Below is how we set about it:

Firstly it is crucial to be well acclimatised.  Most people gain their acclimatistion by staying in mountain huts and climbing mountians around Chamonix.    This clearly works for a lot of people, but  a far better alternative is to go to the Monte Rosa region and go up to the Gniffetti Refugio.  The refugio is brilliantly run by the extremely delightful and competent Erika and her team.  The food is of restaurant standard and they have a wine list which would not be out of place in the Cipriani.  

Of course a refugio like this gets booked up quickly, especially at the weekends. And yes Agust and Turi's very tight schedule meant we needed a reservation at the weekend and the it was full.  Yet there was a solution because it is possible to book "a hut within a hut." There is the  little known room called :

Here you have your own room and all meals are served with in.  To cap it all the refugio is high at 3647 meters which makes it perfect for acclimatisation. [Plus its quite sensible to have some isolation during these times.]

We drove around to Gressoney in about two and a half hours.  We then took the series of cable cars which catapults you up to Punta Indren. This then leaves you with about an hour and a halfs walk to the Refugio Gnifetti.  

The next morning we had breakfast at the relaxed time of 6.00hrs.  Agust was complaining of a bad altitude related headache.  Or that is what he said.  There being no correlation between the several beers and  two bottles of Gaja we consumed the previous evening.

Anyway off we went and headed up the glacier to climb Pyramid Vincent at a very respecatble 4200meters. The view from the summit is spectacular looking towards the Italian lakes and Milan beyond.

Summit of Vincent Pyramid.

We had timed it well because we had the summit to ourselves. Next we climbed Coro Nero another simple 4000 meter peak - infact probably the easiest 4000meter peak there is. After which we descended back to the Gnifetti Refugio for a late lunch and more acclimatisation.

The next day we set off an hour earlier and climbed up to the col de Lys at 4300meters.  This is the divide between Italy and Switzerland . If you were to continue down the other side, eventually you would arrive in Zermatt. From our high point we got a glimpse of the Matterhorn.

With Mt Blanc as the main goal it is vitally important to take a "big picture view."  With our acclimatissation plan completed we choose to descend rather than climb more mountains and end up  getting  unnecessarily tired.   This is a constant mistake I see people make. That is to say their training climbs are too ambitious.  We descended back down to the cable car .

This was not before we were passed by a guy on a mountain bike slaloming through the crevasses.

man on bike at over 3700meters.

We drove back to Chamonix for a good rest and plenty of food.  So far our preperation had been perfect.  In addition the weather forecast was excellent. 

We reconvened the next day at about noon.  We took the cable car from Les Houches to Bellevue from where we caught the train to Nid Aigle.  We then walked to the Tete Rousse Hut where we had a reservation.

Aiguille du Bionnassay seen from out side the Tete Rousse hut.

A reservation in the Tete Rousse  is not ideal for climbing Mt Blanc, but its better than nothing.  Ideally a reservation in the Gouter Hut is optimum.  But that had proved impossible.  The net result is you have to start with an extra 800 meters ascent in the morning.  That  translates to a very early breakfast : 1.30hrs.

2.00hrs getting ready to go.
At 2.15 we were off .  We crossed the notorious Gouter couloir without incident and steadily climbed up to the old Gouter Hut.  Our previous acclimatisation plan was working well because Turi and Agust were zooming along.

4.20hrs The Old Gouter Hut with the demolition order nailed to the wall.

At the old hut we stopped to put on crampons and warm clothing , grabbed a drink and some food.  It was still well dark.

We continued onto the ridge which is the Aguille du Gouter. From there it is up to the the shoulder of the  Dome de Gouter.  This ascent is long and monotonous especially in the dark. After about 2 hours we arrived on the shoulder of the Dome de Gouter.  We again stopped to have a drink and put our head torches away.

col du Dome.

Next it was onto the Vallot Emergency Hut.

Conditions were perfect .  It is normally about 2 hours from the Vallot hut to the summit.  We made it in just under 2 hours.  On the summit there was no wind you could light a match.  This was good for us but not ideal for the people with para-pentes who planned to fly down. They need a head wind to inflate their shoots ] otherwise they have to run like mad inorder to inflate.  That is fraught at 4810 meters.
Parapentists attempting to fly from the summit of Mt Blanc.

9.00hrs Turi&Agust on the summit of Mt Blanc.

From the summit it is "just" a matter of retracing the route back to the Tete Rousse Hut , grabbing a quick drink and then continuing back down to the train.  A mere 2000 vertical meters and 14 hours of non stop effort.