Alps - August 20th - September 7th 2000

 Mont Blanc du Tacul from the Cosmiques Arete

After 26 hours on a coach from Keighley to Chamonix I was itching to get going and decided that a forest walk to Chamonix Les Praz and the Mer de Glace campsite was going to be more interesting than walking along the valley road ...half an hour later I was cursing the makers of maps who detail deteriorating indistinct paths which fade into the undergrowth...a 'good start' I was thinking... A chap I'd met on the coach was with me, no doubt beginning to wonder if it had been a good idea to accompany me...

- Not to be put off we forced a way downhill through the undergrowth and quite by chance (good navigation guv'nor - honest!) found ourselves walking in the back door of the very campsite we were seeking!

On the Mer de Glace campsite

It was sixteen years since my first and only visit to Chamonix, I'd been climbing less than two years (only hill-walking about four) and the magnificent towering alps were overwhelming... A day of walking gave me grave doubts about my fitness, followed by four days of torrential rain on the tent and finally the poor forecast sent me hurrying back to England and its more comfortably sized hills!

And now, sixteen years on, having gained a little experience and a bit more confidence in my abilities... the mountains were still awesomely huge!

THE PLAN:
1. Get myself fit and confident by climbing a few of the rock routes in the Aiguilles Rouges,
2. Get acclimatised by spending a few days up above 3400m - perhaps at the Aiguille Du Midi - doing a few mixed routes.
3. Test my fitness and acclimatisation by doing a few classic routes, maybe even Mt.Blanc and the Hornli Route.
4. Do the Italian Ridge of the Matterhorn.

Now I try to climb ethically, spurning chalk and feeling uneasy with 'friends', (I have come to accept that sticky boots are okay...) - However 16 years ago I'd felt that using telepheriques was decidedly unethical, and that was no doubt a factor in the feeling that made the towering mountains feel insurmountable!

The Index in the Aiguilles Rouge from the campsite

- Next morning I headed straight for the Index telepherique but typically the wind was blowing too strongly and I had to walk up... "Oh well" I thought, "it will help the fitness campaign!". Two hours later I was up at the Flegere station taking a ride up the final stretch to the Index station.

The route of the Aiguille de l'Index (South-East Ridge,AD-,100m,3+) was obvious...a bit like Hellvelyn on a sunny day! I could pick out every stance from the clusters of people! Only the start was vacant... Thus I started up at the wrong point thinking that if 3+ was this hard then I was going to have difficulty with the 4+'s!

Looking down to my right from the first stance I saw the obvious corner of the first pitch...how could I have missed it? (Later I realised I'd started some 30m lower down the path than I should've - I did find a 'figure of 8' descendeur on the path however).

The route was a delight! A splendid Severe in a superb position with magnificent views over the snowy range across the valley! An hour after starting I had passed a couple of parties and was talking a frenchman into allowing me to use his guides' ropes for the 50m final abseil.

With most of the afternoon left I decided to reconnoiter the start of the Chapelle de la Gliere (South Ridge, AD+,400m,4+) I saw several parties on the first few pitches and decided that perhaps it wasn't too late to do it.

The saddle shaped final pitch of the Chapelle de Gliere viewed from the Index

'A bit harder this'  I thought as I laybacked up the polished first pitch, but excellent holds soon had me up with the next party at the start of the fourth pitch, pausing to chat and catch my breath.

At the top of this pitch I found that the four parties ahead of me were seeking ways to escape from the route, having decided that time was too short. Looking at where two of the groups (French) were heading I felt it was safer to stick to the route - a decision finally also reached by the other two (English) groups.

I went up the next pitch to meet a very thin polished wall and so set up my self-belay system... climbed the 6m wall, abseiled for the gear, reclimbed it (now with a prussik knot on the rope), and hauled up my sack.

Ahead of me was the infamous 'Razor Passage' and after two intimidating (though quite easy) moves I was tiptoeing delightfully across it to a large pillar. A quick glance at the topo and 2 pitches up (rather loose) rock and I was at the top, inspecting the abseil slings and harbouring a slight suspicion that I was off route....

The Razor passage (photo from 2001 trip)

A quick abseil and I was back at the top of the Razor, now convinced I was off route but unable to decide where it should go...(The buttress I'd climbed was missing from the topo)...

An awareness of a drop in temperature made me look around and inspect the dark clouds across the valley...were they getting closer? - was the cold breeze now blowing them towards me? Should I escape this route and head down? Looking at my watch (4pm) I decided that since I was a bit tired and couldn't spot the way forward a prudent retreat was in order...especially since there were four pitches left!

Round the back of the pillar I found a faint downward heading path which led me to abseil slings and after a great deal of downclimbing I found myself back at the start of the route. A few hours later I was back in the campsite enjoying a hot shower.

Next day I took the telepherique all the way up to the Index station and set off following Michel Piolas' directions to reach my next route: Not a good decision as it turned out, there is a much more direct approach without the exhausting haul over the scree of the Combe des Crochures.

The Aiguilles Rouge looking NE from the Index station

Spotting the delightful traverse start of the East Face of the Petite Crochue (AD,130m,4) I set off across it to reach a chimney and rib. Three pitches of excellent climbing up this it suddenly got much harder and as I recovered a shiny new hex someone had left for me I realised the next couple of moves were quite challenging! - overcoming these I found a number of abseil slings and an awareness that the way forward looked a bit hard for the grade...

No sign of the 'ramp' which was on the topo...until I looked back down the chimney and saw it one pitch below! (not easy to spot from the route though). A quick abseil and I'm grinning like an idiot as I head up this beautiful slab/crack liberating more abandoned gear! I can't believe it as I find a nice shiny flexible friend!

At the top of the ramp I find a steep little wall in a very exposed position and set up the self-belay system, but in the event the moves seem straightforward, a few more metres and I'm on the crest of the ridge.

A short rest and then along the ridge on the Traverse of the Aiguilles Crochues (PD) keeping a wary eye on the dull looking clouds approaching slowly. A few drops of rain as I top the final summit encourage me to head downwards, wondering why a large party ahead of me are crossing an obviously icy snowfield instead of sensibly detouring around it the way I was doing.

Twenty minutes later and the rain is pelting down, but I'm nearly down to the plateau level and heading for Lac Blanc. Cloud sweeps in as I reach the lake cutting visibility to a few metres but I follow the lakeside to the refuge and head off down the well marked path to the valley.

The rain petered out but it became increasingly humid until a spectacular thunderstorm at 7pm lit up the night sky and made me glad I wasn't high up on some snow capped mountain!

Sleeping late I woke to a fantastically clear sky and brilliant sunshine! Rushing to the telepherique without breakfast I was quite unaware that I'd taken my uneaten yesterdays lunch out of my sack... Up to the Lac Blanc hut and onto the South Ridge of the Aiguille de la Perseverance (AD,170m,4+)

I reached it in an hour and headed up the first two pitches of 4 & 4+, using the rope for the 4+. The next two pitches were 4 & 4+ too and I realised that these were really the first two pitches! ... I'd put an extra two pitches on the start (thought they were hard...) the next seven pitches were brilliant, most of them pitched right on the crest of the ridge, despite the rock needing care in places!

Looking at the "10m" abseil I was thinking it looked more like 25m...it turned out to be 26m... (isn't it wonderful how climbing ropes stretch under load!) Following the description I headed up the ridge to do the East Ridge of the Aiguille des Chamois (PD) via the interesting and intricate route and then the rather more difficult descent to the combe des Chamois, Lac Blanc and the valley.

Back at the campsite I meet a couple of friends just out from England who are keen to do the Cosmiques Arete (AD,200m,4/mixed) on the Aiguile du Midi (3800m) and we agree to do it on the next day.

Early morning and I'm horrified by the crowds all heading up the Midi telepherique and shocked by the £20 return fare... But there are fantastic views from the very exposed walk down to the start of the route. Good practice climbing in crampons and some challenging moves up the steep polished wall near the end in big boots and a sack. It's a classic route at altitude and I'm not surprised at my friends tiredness and slowness.

South Face of the Aiguille de Midi

Back at the campsite my friends announce that they want to "do Mont Blanc tomorrow" and I'm alarmed but unable to persuade them that they need to be a lot fitter and need more time to acclimatise.

Seeing that they're set on going whether I join them or not I agree to go. I know I'm not fit or acclimatised enough to do such a long high route in comfort, but feel that the attempt will prove to be good training for "the route". I'm also concerned that my friends may need my help if things turn difficult.

Mont Blanc & the Dome de Gouter from the Cosmiques Arete

Midday telepherique to Bellevue only to discover the tram was fully booked... luckily the friendly conductor squeezed us on and we start our walk from the Nid d'Aigle in brilliant sunshine. A pleasant hike to the Tete Rousse hut and a cup of coffee. Crossing the Grand Couloir without incident we discover the route is up a brilliant scrambling ridge which quickly gains us height and the Gouter hut.

No room we are told, but they give us floor space in the dining room and at 2.30am we head off at the tail of a very long line of glowworms ...
I start off in the lead at a very slow but steady pace and we still overtake several parties! However it's not long before one of my friends needs to stop for a rest, complaining that I'm going too fast. The same complaint is repeated several times and we stop for rests, so I put my friend in the lead to set the pace.

It turns out that 'more frequent stops' are what are really wanted and when it gets to a stop every few paces I find myself unable to get into a walking/breathing rhythm and begin to feel extremely cold... My headtorch fails but despite this I realise I cannot carry on at this pace.

I discuss this with the others and we decide to carry on separately. I set off and begin to warm up a little straightaway, but I'm very concerned about feeling so tired and cold so soon after leaving the hut.

After a lot of uphill and a careful approach up the final ridge with strong sidewinds I reach the top at 8am. Mont Blanc 4807m A couple of dozen people are gathered there but the bitter wind is too much for me and after a quick look around I head off back down the hill. I'm not disappointed by the summit, I'd read that it was a rounded bump and I didn't really have any real ambition to go up there... a bit like the Carneddu or Cairngorm on a snowy day!

I descend and meet up with two of the others as I approach the Vallot hut, (the third had turned back at the Dome do Gouter), they'd stopped there for a brew and a rest. I chat to them for a while and they seem in good spirits and are determined to carry on up.

My descent to the Gouter hut is quite leisurely, it's a beautiful day but I'm so tired that when I stop to rest on my stick for a moment I fall asleep and doze until I lose my balance! (a sleepless night and my non-stop efforts of the first 5 days was catching up with me).

My friends finally reach the summit but are so wiped out by the effort that they descend very slowly and have to stay another night in the hut - after persuading the hut guardians that they don't need a helicopter ride...just lots of rest...

The next day we have a celebratory meal with people from the Exodus/Explore empire of which my friends were members. My friends tell me they are now going to go off to do the Hornli route on the Matterhorn the next day... and I agree to go with them. However the next day I wake up feeling extremely unwell and realise that there was goats cheese in the meal - to which I seem to have an adverse reaction....

Feeling much better the next day I take the train to Martigny/Brig/Zermatt and get there at 4.30pm Up the top of the telepherique by 5.20pm and a quick walk up to the Hornli hut after a guide tells me they stop taking orders for food at about 7pm. I get there at 6.50pm and get the last place in the hut.

The Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn

Off at 5.10am, one of the last to leave and a very tricky route to follow in the dark. As dawn breaks the route becomes more testing and interesting, especially as descending parties make it more dangerous. Perhaps due to tiredness or inexperience many seem to have no consideration for the safety of ascending parties...

Steve Venables dressed for the part!

Many hawser sized fixed ropes up very steep sections and with the icy/snowy conditions I'm pleased to make use of them. Crampons and ice-axe up the final steep snowfield and then I come across a strange fellow dressed in tweeds just standing around as if waiting for me... as I get nearer it becomes clear he is waiting for me as he explains that he's with there with the BBC filming the 'Mountain Men' series and they're waiting for me to 'get out of shot'! ... I carry on up to the top! (29th August 2000)

The summits of the Matterhorn 4478m

A Real summit (i.e. pointy), and I'm really pleased to get there, in contrast to my feelings on Mont Blanc a few days earlier. I spend quite a while on the top, having some food, taking photographs and talking to two guides and their clients who have just come up the Italian Route.

Looking down the Italian Ridge

The Dente Blanche from the summit of the Matterhorn

Descending carefully I realise that almost all of the parties I'd set off in front of or had overtaken have turned back, I was almost the last person on the mountain! Descending to Zermatt I check into the Zermatt Hostel and find myself in a dormitory of mainly teenage girls. I'm to bed well before any of them (9pm) and sleep solidly through to 8am.

Telepherique to the Kleine Matterhorn, intending to do a quick ascent of the Breithorn on my way into Italy, but thick cloud and light snow persuade me to leave it for another day.

I quickly realise that my little 'half-hour walk' at 3500m across to the Testa Griggia hut in Italy was taking on a more serious aspect....Already I was worried about crossing the snowfield alone (I was aware people have fallen into crevasses on this path) but now the thick cloud was obscuring almost everything - although this was not putting off the trendy thrill-seeking skiers hurtling down the piste and out of the cloud past me!

I decided to head out to find where the path I wanted crossed the piste and followed the drag-line counting paces, but despite several attempts I couldn't locate it. After waiting half an hour for a break in the cloud I decide on a longer route following the drag-lines around.

All was fine until the final leg where I had to walk on a bearing to find the final drag-line. 'Bearing-off' to be sure of turning in the right direction after 300m I found myself needing to walk down a very steep snowslope in a near 'white-out' which I was extremely unhappy about.

To cut a long story short I managed to avoid walking over the edge of a cliff and located the drag-line I was seeking to reach the safety of the hut after 3.5hrs! Three more hours and I was down in Breuil-Cervinia having a lovely hot shower in the Hotel Joli.

Breuil Cervinia & the Matterhorn after heavy snowfall

It rained all the next day, I was told by the guides that there was too much snow on the Italian Ridge and to give it a few days to clear. All the day before it had snowed up there too.

A bright sunny day saw me heading down paths #107 & #5 to the Refugio Rivolta. An excellent 'bivvy' hut, mattresses, pillows, blankets and even gas there. 8.30am start up the Cresta Rey of the Punta de Cian 3320m and after a few false paths up to the final summit I reach it at 12pm.

Punta de la Cian from the east on the approach

Lunch and photos and then a 5 abseil descent of the North facing snow-covered rock to the col, an easy traverse and descent of the col de Cian and then retracing my route back to Breuil.

Looking North from the summit of the Punta Cian

At 10am I start to my approach to the Italian Ridge but its very cold in the bitter north wind and what looked suspiciously like snowflakes occasionally reach me in the sunshine as I ascend. Two hours to the Abbruzzi hut but then higher up I met several parties who had spent the night at the Carrel hut but not attempted the route.

At about 3200m I had a quick chat with a descending guide who told me that it had snowed heavily during the night and that there was too much (10cm) new snow on this predominantly rock route to contemplate attempting it. Not only that but the forecasts are not good enough to clear the new snow off of the route, let alone the old stuff beneath it. In his opinion the route was unlikely to be possible for a while...

Bitterly disappointed I have lunch and reluctantly head down.

Bus--> Chatillon--> Aosta--> Orsierres, train--> Martigny--> Chamonix Les Praz....

Next day I walked into Chamonix and changed my Italian & Swiss money into French and altered my return coach ticket for 3 days later.

Telepherique to the Index and seeing a load of people the ridge north of the Index I followed them up to do a route which I was told was: Voie Michel Piola (AD,180m,4+) - This is a nice route and it put me high up the ridge in position to traverse across to complete my ascent of the Chapelle de la Gliere.

The Index with the Chamonix Aiguilles beyond (viewed from the North)

The almost horizontal traverse turned into a quite respectable scramble as I homed in on the 'Razor Passage' and I began to wonder if it wouldn't have been easier to go to the start of the route and climb the first eight pitches again!

Finally I reached the Razor but still couldn't identify the next pitch. Having lunch I studied the topo and finally decided to head for the imposingly steep corner I could see despite the lack of worn rock on the way. As I got closer to it I saw a peg and an abandoned friend, and that the corner was not quite as steep as it looked - back on route!

The friend was ruined so I happily left it, I had too much to carry and had been giving away all the gear I'd found so far anyway! The corner was a good pitch and soon I was at the base of the final two very exposed pitches.

The penultimate pitch was lovely but for the second I got the rope out. It looked like the alpine equivalent of Napes Needle and was very polished. The holds looked quite small and I was suspicious of the fact that it had two pegs and no old sling over an obvious and vital spike...

Indeed it was difficult, and the spike was loose - yet I had to pull on it and then stand on it to reach the summit of the Chapelle de La Gliere AD 2663m (More like a British 5a,VS) Abseil back down and an obvious and straightforward descent.

I walked to and stayed in the palatial (and expensive) Lac Blanc hut - it even has showers! - There are advantages in travelling alone, I got the last bunk again! - Excellent food!

Waking to thick cloud and drizzle thwarted my plans to tick off two more Aiguilles and at 9.30am I headed down to the Aiguillette d'Argentiere. Descending the many steel ladders into a bank of cloud just before I reached it was surrealistic!

Shrouded in cloud the Aiguillettte looked disappointedly small compared with my memories and disappointed that it was too damp to climb it I headed on down to Argentiere for some croissants.

Walking along the Petit Balcony I discovered La Joux - a small bolted climbing area where I soloed nine routes and led one with a 5b/c move courtesy of some french climbers before I continued on my way to Les Praz.

Next day I walked into Chamonix and caught the coach to England at 1.20pm

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