Chamonix….what a place!
John and I decided to take a trip to the Alps this year with the ultimate goal of trying to get up Mont Blanc. We knew it was going to be a big ask as we had two weeks to acclimatize and then hope for a weather window to get up there. We were up for the challenge!
I’ve been up at altitude in the past completing the Annapurna circuit but I had suffered a little. Looking back we probably ascended a little too quickly the day before summit day so I was quite apprehensive about this trip. Equally, I have never worn crampons before, used ices axes and the more I read the more I started to panic about crevasses, crevasse rescue and self arrest with ice axes!! Needless to say, John spent the weeks before going through as much as he could with me, we spent weekends in his back garden practicing how I’d get him out a crevasse (worst case scenario!) and how I would try and save myself. With the practice along with homework in the form of watching the BMC Alpine Essentials DVD, I started to feel slightly better. What made me slightly concerned was that I had come to the decision that if someone was going to fall down a crevasse I just hoped it would be me!!
Top tips for newbies to Mountaineering:
1. Practice self arrest with ice axes….BMC have some fab videos
2. Crevasse rescue….practice, practice and more practice
3. Rope work….
4. Practice wearing crampons where possible…..walking and particularly climbing on rock….a favourite of mine!!!!
We drove to Chamonix and on arrival we got straight in to it. Day one, we would climb Cosmiques ridge! John pointed up to the climb from the valley…my response ‘really? My first climb?’. I’m pretty open to new challenges, the full extent of this challenge however I massively underestimated!
Apprehension doesn’t quite cover the way I felt waiting at the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. The altitude, the height, the crampons/axes, crevasses, the climbing….I was just about holding it together and keeping the nerves under wraps.
Aiguille du Midi = Needle of the Midday
In to the lift and up we went to 3,842m. On arrival to the top station I decided to nip to the loo before we started and jogged over. I instantly had to slow down as the altitude suddenly hit me. I had temporarily forgotten how high I had just come and I think many of the tourists up there on day trips also forget as you see them all lying down with their feet in the air! Then, the crampons went on and on to the midi arête. ‘Oh dear god that’s steep!’ I steadily went down the arête with John behind me…..one step at a time.
‘Crampon advice: high, purposeful steps with your legs slightly further apart than normal!’ advice from John Mason!
The relief to get to the bottom of the arête was something else….I’m not sure I took a breath coming down. What I didn’t know until much later was that John was equally as petrified….if I went, its was John’s job to stop me…..I’m just so glad I didn’t know this before!!!
To get to the bottom of Cosmiques ridge you take a steady plod through the mountain range and I thoroughly enjoyed this bit. The scenery was something else….simply breathtaking. You get a little gentle reminder though of the enormity and power of the mountains as every now and then a rock falls some where and all you can hear is it bellowing down the side of the mountain!
Cosmiques ridge is a classic climb with relatively low difficulty, something I had initially felt achievable for me until I saw it and got up there! My nerves were slightly heightened as a few days earlier a couple had slipped and fallen off….there were constant reminders of the dangers of the mountains, something I think is really important to always keep in the back of your mind.
If you become complacent in the mountains….it’s then time to be worried!
It was a steady day and I was doing ok except for the bits on rock. Trying to climb in crampons on rocks is not something I have found to enjoy. I felt like Bambi on ice and not trusting my feet was driving me crazy and intensifying the fear I already had. Keeping a level head was hard! We did well and John was really encouraging all the time, he has the patience of a saint!
We got to the crux and over that with little difficulty but then for whatever reason my nerves started to surface and I started to lose my composure….it had been a long day facing a lot of fears so whether I was starting to fatigue I don’t know. I ended up banging my head (I had a helmet on so all was ok) but this was all that was required to push me over the edge and I had a moment, stood there on this exposed ledge looking out in to the Valley.
There isn’t much to be said, what can you do as you have to keep going, I certainly couldn’t stay there forever so I basically had to get a grip and get myself together again. I’m proud of myself as this is exactly what I did and completed the climb in good time with no further melt downs. I think John was secretly relieved too!
I don’t think I have ever had such a sense of achievement. Cosmiques ridge pushed me way over and above my comfort level and challenged me in every way possible. It is an epic climb and I totally see why it’s a classic. And the altitude….no problem…I definitely hadn’t needed to worry!
I keep being told these experiences make you a stronger person…..I’m starting to see why!
After Cosmiques we then decided to go for an easier day but to still head high to keep working at altitude.
We went rock climbing on L’index and climbed the South East Ridge. It was a beautiful day and I was feeling marginally confident for the first time ever I think. I guess your perception of fear changes as you challenge yourself more and more and this holiday, with the way we did everything, certainly did this. After Cosmiques this felt, dare I say, almost easy and it was a great idea to come back to something more familiar before heading back out on the snow again.
Top tip: gradual exposure to the mountains really helps with confidence and understanding of alpinism for beginners. Having these ‘less epic’ days allows your nerves and fears to be more manageable.
Next on the agenda was the Petite Aiguille Verte. Same grade of climb as Cosmiques but with supposedly slightly a less ‘out there’ element! I needed to get back out there to face my fears again and after L’index I was feeling ready to have another go. The Petite Verte stands at 3,512m therefore allowed us to continue to work on our acclimatization.
On arriving at the base of the Petite Verte I was feeling slightly more confident. Yes it was still high and all the risky elements still featured but, as I knew what to expect now it just didn’t seem as daunting. We got our kit on and started the climb up. The first section just involved switch backs of steady plodding up until we reached a bergstraunde. It was at this point John set up a belay (first proper use of an ice screw!) and I completed my first proper ice climb. It wasn’t steep but for me it was steep enough to allow me to get used to using the crampons and ice axes. I actually quite enjoyed this bit, woke my triceps up that’s for sure!!
At the top of the climb it then went on to more mixed rock and ice to the top…great!! Unfortunately it felt like the world had decided to go up that day too and I was getting immensely frustrated with French guides insisting they stand on me or climb over me. Less than ideal when your trying to manage your fear and then it feels like some French guide is going to push you off the edge!!
Apparently this is common in the Alps!
Top tip: Watch out for those pesky French guides and don’t be surprised if they decide to climb on top/over you!!!
Over all my experience on the Petite Verte was a far more enjoyable one but given the grade was the same as the Cosmiques it could be that I now knew what to expect. It was a steady day and although I still had to try and climb on rock with crampons I felt marginally more confident. Johns plan was working.
We then had another easier day doing something I was more familiar with and went cragging. We went sport climbing at the Brévent Crags. However we didn’t get a huge amount done as the weather came in and we had to get down. It was interesting up there as there was still a significant amount of snow on the ground….so much so that the first bolt for the climb was at your feet!! Although we didn’t get a huge amount of climbing in it was a fun day. Just to note in case you consider going, we did find the routes slightly tricky to work out but that might have been because the snow came so high up.
The weather is Chamonix decided to go slightly downhill at this point limiting what we could do. We decided therefore to take a trip to Italy, after all, we didn’t have a huge amount of time to get everything done we wanted too and the weather in Italy looked much better. The Mont Blanc tunnel was somewhat frustrating though taking us 3 hours to get through. It was however definitely worth the trip.
Top tip: The weather can be better towards the Grand Paradiso National Park when the weather in Chamonix looks a bit iffy.
Driving through the Grand Paradiso National Park we came across this tiny local restaurant. As it had taken us so long to get through the Mont Blanc tunnel we stopped for some food in Degioz on route to Pont. Wow, the lasagna from this place was something else, the restaurant was called Ris’Orante Pannoteca. It was about 40 minutes before we reached the car park in Pont to start the climb.
We arrived at the car park around 3pm and at the time I was a little annoyed we had arrived so late but in hindsight this was quite a good time to start the 3 mile walk up to the Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele hut.
Doing that walk in mid day sun would have been horrendous, it was bad enough at that time. We arrived around 5ish which meant we had time to get settled in our room and head off to recce the start of the walk the following day. This was something I’d definitely recommend as it would be dark starting the walk so it was good to know what to expect as the first part is across a massive boulder field. There are little cairns to follow which John initially totally missed and came across loads of massive spiders so if you have a fear of spiders, stick to the cairns! We then headed back for our evening meal which was provided by the hut and considering where we were the food was amazing and there was so much of it I could barely finish my dessert! Early to bed after dinner ready for the 3.30am start!
My alarm went off and we went and joined the hustle and bustle for breakfast, everyone looking a little dazed given the time but excitement was in the air for a day out in the mountains. John and I got going pretty quickly to miss any chance of being in a group and set quite a speedy pace for the day. The first part of the walk I barely remember as I think I was still half asleep but then we hit the snow and the crampons went on and we really stated to gain some height. It was at the point the sun started to rise across the mountains and this is probably up there as a highlight of the trip, it was simply breath taking and made that early get up totally worth it.
From then on in it was a steady plod with lots of switch backs steadily climbing higher and higher. The views were amazing and there was actually quite an obvious trod up the mountain, I absolutely loved this climb! John was in front of me for the majority of this and on the final climb up to the the base of the rocky section of Grand Paradiso it got significantly steeper. John made me laugh as I had my head down plodding up and all of a sudden I was greeted by 3 jelly babies looking up at me in the snow ha ha!
John was leaving me a trail of jelly babies to help keep up my energy…..it didn’t half make me laugh!
We then hit a small section of rock to climb up to get to the summit to be greeted by a statue of Madonna, I was thankful John and I are relatively fit as we got up there quite quickly and missed the crowds which meant no one trying to climb over me and we got to appreciate how awesome the views were up there.
The descent as always was pretty rapid arriving back at the hut just before mid day. We celebrated our efforts with a beer and some awesome apple strudel before then continuing down the rest of the mountain to get back to the van.
All in all Grand Paradiso is up there as a favourite achievement of mine out of everything I have done, I just enjoyed every minute of it, it is a must for anyone.
On arriving back in Chamonix that evening we started to make a plan as next on the agenda would be Mont blanc….I was super excited. However, we slowly started to realise that it possibly wasn’t going to happen. The weather was due to close in again and if we were going to make the attempt it meant no rest day and a summit day from the lower hut, the Tete Rouse Hut as we couldn’t reserve a space in the higher hut, the Gouter Hut. It meant an epic summit day with the risk of the weather changing and no rest day. As much as it frustrated me we definitely made the right decision as the warnings about the weather weren’t wrong and it came in quicker than I think anyone had expected. After all, Mont Blanc will be there again and it just means we have to go back.
Top tip: Book the Gouter Hut well in advance to your trip!
So we had a rest day and planned to go rock climbing the following day up Papillon Ridge.
The day started early as we decided to go para gliding off the Brevent back into Chamonix.
When we finished paragliding we then went to get the lift up to the half way station on the Midi where we were to start the climb, only to find that we then had a two hour wait to get up there with the lift as there was so many tourists. It meant that we didn’t get to start the climb until about mid day.
It was an easy climb but the exposure was pretty out there. We were having a lovely day although we got stuck behind some other climbers and the woman was having a bit of a nightmare. We asked nicely if we could pass them but she started to freak out a little so we thought it best to just wait, after all the weather was good and we didn’t have any major plans to get back for. However, it started to get a bit ridiculous and we realised time was ticking on and actually, we did have something to get down for…the last lift down in to the valley. So we took the decision and speed climbed straight past them much to her horror. Her partner was pretty relaxed and we explained to him that it was getting quite late.
We powered on then and we were making great progress until we got to part of the climb called the ‘letter box’. It was at this point I looked up to see this dark, thundery cloud moving towards us at quite a fast rate. Then all of a sudden the biggest rain drops ever started to come down and all of a sudden our lovely day in the mountains started to become quite scary. This weather front wasn’t due for at least another couple of hours and as a result we had climbed straight past what the guide book described as a ‘possible’ evacuation point. John wasn’t keen to use this anyway as the word ‘possible’ hadn’t filled him with much confidence. However it was no use, we needed to get down and quick so we down climbed back to this ‘possible’ evacuation point which involved about 6 of the quickest abseils I have ever done. I don’t think I have ever been so scared but I did everything that was asked of me and we got to the bottom of the abseils and onto a boulder field to then see the last lift coming down with the staff on that work in the lift station.
We had missed the last official lift down by an hour. It was raining hard by this point so we both just ran as fast as we could to the station hoping they would let us on otherwise, we had a very long walk back down in the valley in less than ideal weather. The storm had really come in by this point. John got there before me and a lady refused us on, I arrived and pleaded too and eventually a bearded angel took pity on us and let us on. He has obviously been in that situation before and I could of kissed him!
The storm that came was the biggest I had seen and I was happy watching it in the safety of a pub with a beer in hand to settle my nerves!! That storm came from no where and it came quickly and I think we weren’t the only ones to get caught up in it that day. It was another reminder to always be prepared for anything and that things change quickly in the mountains!
This trip was epic and I loved every bit of it. I am keen to get back out there and learn more as I feel I have barely scraped the surface on the possibilities and adventures out there.
Not making a definite plan for this trip really worked so we could work round the weather. We just had an idea in our heads of the kind of height gain we needed to achieve at certain times to make sure we were acclimatizing ready for Mont Blanc. The one thing that would of been of benefit looking back was booking the Gouter hut as you can book and then all you need to do is confirm 3 days before you go to guarantee you have a spot. That being said, with the storm that came I’m glad we hadn’t gone for it that day, I guess they say things happen for a reason! Mixing the rock days with mountain days really helped ease me in to the mountains and I would highly recommend this for anyone thinking of going out there who hasn’t done much high altitude, alpine type walking and climbing.