The clock ticked slowly by as Friday refused to yield to the inevitable. Ten minutes to five, my trainers were on, my bag was packed and it would be fair to say I wasn’t exactly hiding the fact that I was keen to leave work. The plane didn’t leave until 10:20 Saturday but ahead of me lay an evening of drinks with friends (the best possible preparation for altitude I’m told) and the prospect of sun kissed mountains and no work for two weeks.
The following morning I was out of the door early loaded down with a 23kg duffle bag and a rucksack which I was dubiously calling “hand luggage”. Fortunately we were flying British Airways so I checked in with no problems and met Dan and Wendy in departures for coffee and breakfast. The flight and transfer to Chamonix was smooth and we had a few hours before we had to meet our guides to start our “Alpine Techniques” course with Jagged Globe so we decided to dump gear and run down the road to Les Gaillands where we climbed L’arête des bûcherons (5C) before heading back to the hotel.
Leading it out on L’arête des bûcherons
The weather forecast for the following day looked grim to start but clearing up so the guides, Greg and Richard, decided to do a skills day on the crag at Servoz. Most of the morning was spent learning tips and tricks for being slick on multi pitch routes including a variety of ways to belay and tricks for climbing using minimum gear. This finished up with a chance to lead a great overhung pitch of 6a followed by setting up a hanging belay to bring up Dan. In the afternoon we practised crevasse rescue techniques and learnt a few handy tips for glacier travel including Kiwi coils, essentially a way to have all the gear in place for self rescue while you travel.
Monday was our first foray into the mountains and we got the Charamillon-Balme cable car up from Le Tour and walked to the Albert Premiere hut. The afternoon was spent practising crampon technique and crevasse rescue before an early night in preparation for the 4am start the following morning. Our aim was the North Face of the Tete Blanche (PD) a mixed route of mainly 50-55 degree snow and ice flanked by sporadic rock. The crux of the route was getting established by overcoming the bergschrund at the foot of the face (a bergschrund is a cravasse formed by the parting of a glacier from a the stagnant ice above) which gave a good photo opportunity.
Heading over the Bergschrund at the foot of the North Face of the Tete Blanche
Dan and I shared a rope for the whole route which was made trickier by less than ideal snow conditions (patchy ice and some delicate sections) this made it tough at the grade (maybe more like PD+). Nevertheless is was a great day out and a good way to get back into the groove on snow. After topping out we headed back to the hut and then the lifts and spent the night in the valley.
Topping out on Tete Blanche
Following our first successful summit we were keen to get back out so Wednesday we got the cable car up to the Aguille du Midi where we targeted the traverse du Point Lachenal a great trip across three smaller summits with a mix of styles. Dan and I stayed paired up and swapped leads throughout. The first summit was mixed, much like the Tete Blanche but with better conditions. The second was mixed but mainly rock and the third and final summit provided the crux of the route.
Looking up the crux pitch on Point Lachenal
Fortunately I got to lead the excellent final pitch and we were soon at the top of the final summit looking across the Col du Midi towards the Cosmiques hut where we would be spending the night.
About to top out on the Point Lachenal
The evening in the Cosmiques hut was great and we introduced Richard and Greg to the wonders of Jungle Speed though Greg did seem to prefer reading Glamour magazine (we were obviously sterling company!). As always in alpine huts we had an early night, though we had a relatively leisurely 7am start as we targeted the Cosmiques Ridge (AD) a short classic leading up from the hut to the cable car station at the Aguille du Midi. Unfortunately the winds were very high (up to 120km/h) which meant that Greg lead the entire route with Dan and I seconding for safety.
Greg throwing shapes on the Cosmiques Arete
The ridge provided some great climbing including a classic crux pitch ascending a diagonal crack through perfect granite with small crampon holes for feet. It’s definitely one to go back and do on our own one day.
Richard showing Wendy and Dom how to climb with style
Unfortunately this was where our day took a turn for the worse. The high winds meant that the cable car was closed which left us with two options;
a) Wait it out until the following day, hope the cable car reopens and miss out on the last day’s climbing
b) Take a rather epic walk across the Vallee Blanche to Italy, descend from the Torino hut and find a car back to France
Needless to say we took option b and after some dicey crevasse jumping and a long plod we found ourselves eating ice cream in Italy awaiting a taxi back to Chamonix.
Wendy happy to be in Italy after a long walk
The last day of the course came far too quickly but promised to be a suitable end to a fantastic week. The plan was to head up to the Aguille Rouge and do the three star classic route Chapelle de la Gliere (D). In order to complete such a long rock route and make it back for the last cable car we were seconding again but it didn’t matter as the route was incredible.
Dan using all the available friction on the Razor’s Edge pitch
All in all there were 14 pitches with a great mixture of clean corners, delicate slabs and steep technical climbing. The last two pitches were a perfect finish climbing two steep pinnacles, the last being the toughest at 6a.
Me (black) and Dan (red) on the penultimate pitch
We finished off with an airy abseil framed by a perfect alpine backdrop across the valley before heading back down in plenty of time before the lift closed.
With that the course was over apart from a celebratory beer to round things off. Thanks to Greg, Richard and Eric for keeping us alive and allowing us try so many great routes.
Fortunately, while the course had finished, the holiday had just begun and Saturday morning we hit the train station, destination Zermatt. You can hear all about it in the next blog post, coming soon…