Chamonix 2002 - 1       
20th July









21st July








22nd July


















































23rd July

We set off with the trailer fully loaded at about 11o’clock and had a pleasant journey except for a traffic jam on the impressive motorway as we neared Geneva. We arrived at La Mer de Glace campsite at Les Praz at about 5 in the afternoon. Paul had already arrived but was not in camp. We pulled the trailer to our pitch with a little help from two English climbers camping nearby.

That evening, we had a little walk round Chamonix. Alice spied a walking guide in Tairraz’s window. The town had changed a lot in 30 years - all pedestrian precincts, the Bar Nat now a tarty restaurant and, worst of all, the Alpenstock a MacDonald’s! Where climbers go for a drink these days I don’t know, or perhaps they don’t.

That night there was an impressive thunderstorm. We lay in our sleeping bags listening to the crash of lightning on the Aiguilles - virtually no delay between the flash and the crack. Heavy rain - many grumblings from Alice, but the children didn’t seem worried. Angela was sleeping in her own little tent and got a bit damp with no flysheet.

Still cloudy with intermittent rain. We all went for a walk up behind the campsite trying to find a way to the snout of the Mer de Glace. Followed a track that finished at a tunnel, barred with a heavy grill. An icy wind blew out of it so it must have lead to some hydroelectric installation deep within the mountain, or possibly the glacier itself. The way ahead was too difficult:  Paul gave it a try but returned a few minutes later pronouncing it impracticable - I could now see why there is no path directly to the foot of the glacier and one is forced to climb up to Montenvers before dropping back down by the ladders. Returned to camp in the rain - Alice was not a very happy camper. There were quite a few bolets on the path, but they were all wormy.

We went into town and were surprised to find all the shops open. I bought two walking guides at Tairraz’s.

Good weather. So we decided to set off to the Aiguille de Bionnassay. After a bit of shopping we all drove down to Les Houches and took the téléphérique up to Bellevue. The weather was splendid and the views equally so, rolling meadows to the West and the snowy mass of Mont Blanc to the Southeast. Alice and the children headed off to walk back down to Les Houches. With Angela in the lead, they took a long route and reached the car exhausted.

Paul and I, rashly not deigning to take the rack railway to the Nid d’Aigle, set off up the easy, but precipitous, path on the valley side of the ridge. In the shade, amongst the flowers, it was reasonable walking, but I was already feeling overloaded and Paul soon strode ahead. We had the rather ambitious plan of doing the NW face of the Bionnassay, a supposedly AD ice climb. I had my doubts, remembering my last ice climb on the N buttress of the Chardonnet, but Paul was confident in his two modern ice axes and, as his alternative proposition was the Frendo spur, I acquiesced. In Rebuffat’s book the route is described followed by the complete traverse of Mont Blanc, Mont Maudit etc. right over to the Aiguille du Midi, and amazingly this seemed a reasonable proposition.... For now, the first problem was to get to the Tête Rousse refuge.  

We soon left the path and got back onto the railway track at a col by an abandoned station, from here on it was a constant angle slog along the track. The piggish attitude of descending walkers gave a hint of horrors to come. By the time I reached the Nid d’Aigle I was beginning to realize that Fontainebleau is no substitute for mountain training. At the Nid d’Aigle, the railway terminus, the refuge was just a heap of ashes, charred wood and twisted metal - I remembered that I had seen a message about it on a newsgroup - we hadn’t intended to stay there but we had expected to find water on the way up, the little we had taken from the valley was finished.

There was no water, but there were a lot of tourists, and to our surprise a whole group of Chamois or some other sort of mountain goat (in fact they were bouquetins, not Chamois as I have recently been informed). They were not at all shy and came right up to be photographed - probably generations had been fed here by the visiting masses. Feeding the animals was the least of my preoccupations, and as Paul disappeared into the distance, I began to have serious difficulty in walking. We were now above 2500m and I had to stop every few paces to get my breath. The path wound easily up the stony slope, but I began to wonder if I would make it at all; in previous trips to Chamonix I had developed a method for hut slogs in which essentially you put your head down and plod, firm in the certainty of arriving - this certainty no longer existed and I realized just how unfit I still was, despite six months of preparation, and also of the error of setting straight off to such a high refuge (3167m) with no prior acclimatization.

After an age I could see Paul at an abandoned hut (marked as a forestry hut
 on the IGN map), talking to some Belgian climbers who were biviing there; he had been waiting for me for an hour and announced that there was no water to be had. There was a stream a little lower but it looked particularly dubious - the presence of so many animals didn’t encourage the idea of drinking it either. After a discussion, given that we had no sleeping bags and that the last trains had long gone so returning to the valley meant a very long walk, we decided to try to carry on. Above a relatively gentle slope led on to a much steeper buttress - I looked at it with dismay. Even the gentle slope proved very hard, my legs were like putty and my head fuzzy - my first ever experience of altitude sickness, must be age I suppose, plus having come up from sea level too quickly.

It’s no good, I said, I’ll never make it. Another long discussion, the problem with bivouacking was not having any water, apart from the comfort aspect. Finally Paul offered to carry my rucksack if we continued to the refuge. Such heroism could not be ignored and, without the load, I plodded on, Paul in front with my sack on top of his - he must have had a good 40 kgs! The path soon steepened and zigzagged up the rock buttress. After a bit, I took the ropes and Paul got my sack in front, with his behind and slowly we made our way to the hut, which we finally reached after crossing some slushy snow just as the sun was going down.

We had, as one must do systematically these days, reserved our places by phone and, fortunately, the guardian had not given them up to anyone else despite our late arrival. This was the one positive point - he was, like the hut, a gruff, unfriendly edifice and to our dismay there was no running water available - only mineral water at 4E50 a bottle, or hot water at 2E50 a litre. The welcome was as glacial as the night that was falling, and, along with one or two French climbers who had also had the affront to decline the meal proposed by the establishment, Paul struggled to heat our tin of cassoulet where he could in the windy, dusty night. I had recovered a bit, but my hands were frozen and I was shivering all over. The lights had been switched off and we sat chatting in whispers, as everyone else was asleep, to another climber who had just arrived from the valley and who planned to rest an hour or so before continuing to the summit of Mont Blanc that night. He was very laid back about being up there on his own, his partner hadn’t turned up, but just a little apprehensive about last part of the summit ridge as the wind was rising a bit.

At 10h30 we bade him goodnight, found the places reserved for us, and went to sleep. It was clear that the Aiguille de Bionnassay was out of the question given my state, even Paul was not feeling that good. We had not had time to suss out the route to take in the dark next morning either. If we couldn’t get up, reversing an ice climb did not seem a very attractive proposition. The idea of traversing Mont Blanc to the Midi was also quite obviously ridiculously ambitious - we were brought back down to reality with a crunch. We had decided to see how we felt in the morning, and perhaps go up to the Aiguille de Goûter with the lightest of sacks along with the crowd headed for Mont Blanc at 2 in the morning - at least we would get to the top of something. The guardian had been grumpily negative; saying the best thing we could do was go back down to the valley.

It was nice to be warm under blankets on the collective wooden bunk typical of alpine huts, much better than shivering in a windy bivouac lower down - I certainly owed Paul for that, and despite the grunting and snoring I was soon asleep. I was woken by the headlights of the other climbers getting ready to leave for Mont Blanc by the Aiguille de Goûter route. I looked at my watch: 2 o’clock. I felt wide-awake and a lot better, strangely keen to get going. Paul was less enthusiastic, but I wanted to be off early to have enough time spare in case I was going as slowly as the day before - besides, there was a brilliant full moon and climbing by it’s light appealed. I bought a litre of hot water from the guardian, and paid the bill. He was as gruff as before and when I announced our plans to head off up, just tutted in a scornful way, “dangerous up there” he grunted with a look that made clear his view of our competence, or, rather, the lack of it - normal communication was impossible. I got Paul out of his slumbers with promises of coffee and we had breakfast amidst the bustle of the excited preparations of the other groups.

We were soon left alone; we weren’t really in a hurry as we only intended to do the Aiguille de Goûter and not Mont Blanc. The guardian asked if we had lamps, to which we replied in the affirmative, puzzled by what seemed an uncharacteristic concern on his part. The reason was soon obvious as he switched off all the lights and went back to bed. By the time we realized that the hut worked to a preordained program - lights on at 2 for Mont Blanc, then off again till 7 for the next session - he had disappeared into his lair and we realized that we had not purchased water for the day. Light could still be seen under the door so I knocked gently to ask for a bottle of the pricey commodity. The only result was a click as he turned off his light and then silence - he knew what we wanted - my French is not that bad - but he had clearly decided we were not worth bothering about.

I later spoke to a young French climber about this surly attitude and he replied that it was like that on Mont Blanc; the route is so frequented and the huts so full that attitudes are far less friendly than elsewhere. I am sure that unguided climbers who don’t pay for meals are looked down upon too - not a nice mentality and quite different to that of my last visit, admittedly 30 years before. I was later to meet a French climber, even older than me, though he certainly didn’t look it, who confirmed that there had indeed been a change of attitudes over the last 10 or 15 years - of which more anon.

Well, coming back to this other representative of Gallic hospitality, I just thought, “sod him”, we packed light day sacks, with practically no gear and just a single rope, which, in fact, we didn’t need, and I went out the door into the moonlight. I sat there waiting for Paul, warm as toast in a duvet and anorak, and in a semi-somnolent state admired the dark mass of the West side of the Aiguille de Goûter above us. It is in fact a huge heap of rubble; several slightly pronounced dark buttresses separated by lighter couloirs - normally snow filled, but this year nearly dry in their lower reaches - perfect stone shoots. Little lights twinkled all the way up as the early risers climbed steadily up, the wind had dropped and it seemed all very peaceful; more like fairy land than one of the most deadly spots in the range. This deadliness is due to the sheer number of people and the attraction the mountain has on relatively inexperienced climbers, plus the infamous crossing of the Grand Couloir we were soon to come to.

We got off by about 3 o’clock, taking our time plodding up the snow slope below the face in crampons. The torches were hardly necessary on the snow as the moon was nearly full. We used them more when we reached the rocks and the first of the fixed cables. Soon we reached the Grand Couloir; in fact we had just been following the others and had not realized where we were exactly. Paul had done the climb alone 18 years before but hadn’t recognized the way up at all, apart from the bit along the railway track. The couloir is crossed by a cable that normally one can clip into for protection, but the cable was about 15 feet above our heads, completely out of reach. The reason is that although it was still only July, the weather had been relatively hot and dry and the snow couloir was now just a scoop of gravel, snow higher up, a few patches of ice amongst the rocks lower down, with a stream running down the middle. The danger is the frequent stone fall caused partly by melting snow higher up, partly by the water, but also by the numerous parties clambering up the loose buttress which leads to the Goûter Refuge.

The trick is to wait for the next stone fall, then as soon as it’s finished, nip across smartly. We weren’t roped up and had already taken our crampons off, it probably would have been best to keep them on as there were ice patches where the water was coming down, but with ice-axe in hand we crossed one by one without mishap. The quandary, discussed in great length in newsgroups, is whether to rope up, the problem being that the couloir is wider than a rope length, and so a belay is not possible. Moving together is equally problematic as anything that slows one down increases the danger, and it’s doubtful if one could hold a fall on such ground - as has often, alas, been proved in the past.

On the other side the way was steeper, but still well marked and well endowed with cables. In the dark we clipped into these on occasions, thus avoiding roping up. The situation was superb; in the darkness the chossy nature of the face was hidden and below us the valley was full of lights. During our frequent stops we amused ourselves by picking out forms in the street lights, a bit like making up constellations in the stars above; even if the climbing was just a scramble the situation was magnificent, it had certainly been well worth getting up for. I mused about the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population never experienced moments like this, so peaceful and calm, not at all the popular image of what mountaineering is all about, but, for me, so important. As the moon went down the sun came up and the weather promised to be perfect. Soon the refuge was in sight and, admittedly puffing a bit, we clambered onto the metal platform surrounding it. At 3817 m, this is the highest real refuge in the French Alps, with all the normal facilities, and is the best starting point for the normal route on Mont Blanc. The Vallot Refuge is higher still, but is an emergency refuge for anyone in difficulty on the climb, or caught out by bad weather. It was about 7.30 when we plonked ourselves down in the dining room - we had not exactly been quick, but at least we had arrived. We had promised ourselves breakfast, and needed drinking water, so we were glad of the excuse to doze at the table while we waited for the service to start at 8 o’clock. Most of the night’s guests would have been served and left much earlier as even from here the summit of Mont Blanc is still a long way off.

Breakfast tasted good, and the view was excellent. The hut is only 50 metres below the summit of the Aiguille du Goûter (3863m), which was all we wanted to do, so we took our time before going out into the sunshine, putting our crampons back on, and walking up the easy snow track behind the hut and along the ridge to the summit. Before us the track stretched along the brilliant snow to the Dome de Goûter and hence to the highest summit of the Alps. The path was easy and dotted with numerous groups, many of whom were coming down by this time. Fit looking ones strolling nonchalantly, guided parties looking haggard behind their well-groomed, debonair leader. Japanese, East Europeans, British, German and Dutch, it felt like a modern day Tower of Babel. Proof of the overcrowding was a tent city between the summit of the Aiguille and the refuge, I wondered what would happen if a storm came along, not to mention the sanitary situation - you’d have to be careful about digging snow to melt!

We just dawdled along taking photos and admiring the views, really pleased not to have heeded the grumpy guardian’s advice. Finally, we thought we had better be off as we didn’t fancy another night in a refuge, and, anyway, we hadn’t booked. On the subject of reservation, the Goûter hut is apparently permanently fully booked; you have to phone days or even weeks in advance - in an area renowned for its unstable weather. This must in itself lead to accidents, as parties who have managed to book a place are probably loath to turn back even if the weather is doubtful. Quite what the solution is, I don’t know, building larger refuges might get rid of the tent village at the Goûter and the Tête Rousse refuges but it would also encourage more people onto an already overcrowded mountain... The problem is that this is really the only reliable, easy approach: things are unlikely to get any better.

We were soon headed for the valley, past the hut and down the buttress, continually passing people coming up or down or being passed by others who didn’t exactly push but weren’t far off. We soon arrived above the Grand Couloir where we had an illustration of the danger. Some parties really took there time crossing; only hurrying when the cry of “pierres!” went up from those watching. One group of three, Ukrainians or Russians judging by their accents, crossed closely roped together when a whole load of rubble came down. Hindered by their ropes they only just managed to escape, the last one took quite a blow on his rucksack. We didn’t hang about, and nipped across as nimbly as we could. Just in front of me, a climber slowed down by his huge back-pack, chose the most dangerous spot, in the middle of the stream, to stop and ask his companions for guidance, I managed to jump past quickly, cursing myself for not having waited till he was completely clear before starting. We stopped to watch the spectacle on the other side till a volley of stones came too close for comfort and we decided to abridge our somewhat morbid curiosity.

At the Tête Rousse refuge we picked up the gear we had left, bade farewell to the miserable guardian and his equally dour crew, one of whom took evident pleasure in confirming that there were no dustbins and we had to take “our” rubbish, as opposed to “their” rubbish if we had purchased their own wares, down to the valley - what an unpleasant lot they were! The path seemed easier going down than up, the air was getting tangibly thicker all the time, but it was still a long trog. The monotony was broken by stopping for mackerel sandwiches and chatting to those on the way up. One young couple were particularly refreshing; they had had to walk up from Bellevue, like us, as the train had broken down, they hadn’t been able to book into a hut - already full - and, though they had no tent, weren’t a bit worried, they’d sort something out.

We dropped down past the abandoned hut and its unhygienic surroundings - clearly many had slept there but few had thought about the long-term results of their nocturnal excretions! The path was easy but tiring, going down doesn’t strain the same muscles as going up and we began to wonder about train times - hoping they were running again and that we wouldn’t have to wait too long. There were even more bouquetins to be seen than the day before - the plaintive cries of a young one calling it’s mother was particularly eerie.

We saw a train pulling into the station when we were still quite a long way off and somehow found the energy to speed up in the hope of getting on; the closer we got the tenser I felt, surely it would pull out before we got there. It’s strange how tiredness and lack of oxygen make the minor inconvenience of having to wait a little for the next train seem a real anguish... When I could actually see the train, two coaches in fact, my heart dropped - they were already bursting with passengers - surely we wouldn’t get on. We actually ran the last hundred yards and anxiously begged the rather attractive young employee if we could get on. After shouting to the driver she said there was room for two more, but we would have to go down to the office to buy tickets. Paul valiantly busied himself with this while I tried to adopt a position half on the train that would prevent other ticket holders taking our places - how selfish one becomes in such conditions. Paul came back with the tickets and we pushed in the already crowded carriage, spiky axes and crampons strapped to the rucksacks helping and, along with a few other late comers, gained standing room just as the whole creaking mass juddered off down towards the valley.

The next stop was Les Houches, a short stagger uphill to the téléphérique station, more completely futile anxiety while buying tickets, it wasn’t late and if you miss one there’s another a few minutes later. Lack of sleep made me worry about everything, but we were soon down in Les Houches and that oft felt relief of being off the mountain came at last, spreading through the body like hot soup on a cold day. A beer, or two, in a café finished the transition while waiting for the free bus back to Chamonix: things had finally worked out as well as we could have hoped, and certainly a lot better than I might have supposed the evening before!

Once in Chamonix, a quick phone call and Alice came from Les Praz to pick us up and we were back at camp for dinner. The others had been up to the Brevent by téléphérique, followed by a long walk, with Angela guiding the party and William running ahead to scout the path. I slept well that night.

Revised 24/04/2014