Chamonix 2002 - 2        

24th July




















































25th July


As usual, we planned our day after checking the weather forecast. The next couple of days were less than perfect, with risks of storms in the afternoons, but good climbing weather predicted for Saturday. Our next project was the Dent du Géant, one of Paul’s original aims for the holiday. This involved first reaching the Torino Refuge, either on foot up the Mer de Glace or by mechanical (and expensive) means by the téléphérique du Midi. It was by now clear that as we all had to leave by midday on Sunday, there was only time for one more high altitude route. Even if we could have done something on Friday, the best chance was to go up to the refuge on Friday and do the route on Saturday, returning to camp the same evening. It was also clear that the only sensible scheme was to go up over by téléphérique - we had fallen into the logic of all those who climb within a limited time period - it’s really difficult not to take advantage of artificial aids.

So what to do today? Something original to please everyone... a trip through the newly reopened Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur seemed a good choice - promises of pizzas for some and a look at the Italian side of Mont Blanc for others clinched the decision - reserves about going through the tunnel and thoughts of the recent particularly horrible fire (30 deaths) were brushed aside and off we went. Unsurprisingly, we got through safe and sound, the safety measure seemed very thorough, even if some of the lorry drivers don’t seem particularly intelligent in view of the general reticence to letting them back into the tunnel - some of them gaily disregard the prescribed distance to respect between vehicles; it added a little spice to an otherwise distinctly unexciting passage.

Coming out into Italy made up for it, straight onto a balcony on the mountainside with the heaving mass of the Brenva Glacier on the same level to the right and the Aosta Valley, stretching like an enormous building site below. The sun was brilliant, the sky clear and the crags rising directly above so vast that it was difficult to appreciate the true scale. Just opposite, next to a white chapel (Notre Dame de la Guérison), a road climbing the green hillside beckoned - it looked the perfect place to view the whole range from. We were soon driving steeply up, through picture book pastures and pine forests, stone and wood chalets, a different world to the concrete and glass of the French side.

From the road head at Le Pra, we carried on up the track on foot. The others soon left me behind, draped as I was with cameras like an American tourist, telephoto and video camera clicking and whirring away. The whole Italian side of Mont Blanc soared (for once the word is really merited) above, glaciers raked by rock and ice fall, every moment the clouds rolling over the summits gave glimpses that I couldn’t resist photographing. The Dent du Géant and the Grandes Jorasses kept poking through but never clear enough to get the shot I wanted. The others were now out of sight, and I was getting more and more in a tangle with binoculars to add to the confusion of straps and bags - I eventually had to carry on up, muttering about what was all the hurry for, can’t even take a few snaps, etc...

We reached a col and a little complex of wooden buildings near a teleski, a kind of multi-level snack bar system, but probably only fully active in winter for skiers. We had some water but nothing to eat, and the pressure was on for food - a Pizza in Courmayeur seemed the answer. After boring the kids by even more ogling of the cliffs, speculating about what looked like horrendous hut approaches and admiring a small triangular limestone peak (Les Pyramides Calcaires) with splendid looking slabs high up the valley (Val Veni) stretching away to the East, we set off down.

Paul had noticed a tiny restaurant in the meadows on the way up, about 500 yards below the Refuge Monte Bianco, and insisted on inviting us all to lunch: years in the oil industry leave their mark! Despite my misgivings we stopped while he stomped off into the undergrowth to check it out - he liked the look of what he saw, but alas there were no pizzas. We decided to stop there anyway, despite an underlying mumbling from the pro-pizza faction.

It turned out to have been a excellent choice. The building was an old stone chalet with a roof of flat slabs, typical of the area. It was built on the hillside, just below the road, right on the TMB path (Tour de Mont Blanc): on one side stood a huge gnarled pine and on the other a meadow ran down to the track which gave car access. On this same side a wooden terrace had been built to take advantage of the sun and this is where we all sat down. It was past 3 o’clock and the only other customers were a group of Italian children eating ice creams with their elegant mothers. It turned out that the restaurant was run by an old couple, the wife serving while the husband did the cooking, and, despite the time of day, we were soon started on what turned out to be a marathon meal, starting with pasta and cepes, through various beef, or veal, dishes washed down with pitchers of wine and finished off with ice-creams and local wild bilberries.

Although the terrace faced the sun, the wind blowing down the valley kept us at an ideal temperature for eating. To further stimulate the appetite, the Italian flank of Mont Blanc rose above in an endless, intricate mass of granite crags, slabs and overhangs, glaciers and pillars. The vertical difference seemed much greater than the Chamonix side as it rose straight up with no intermediary alps to break the slope. Between mouthfuls we tried to pick out the approach routes to the Morino and Borelli-Pivano refuges - seen face on they appeared even steeper than they really are, which is already steep enough!

After several hours, we dragged ourselves to our feet and, feeling an overwhelming need for a digestive walk, clambered back into the car to head Eastwards up the Val Veni, into the wind and the setting sun. This valley, wild and sparsely populated, just a few widely spaced campsites and holiday chalets, was more like Canada, or even some Afghan valley than one just a few miles from the supermarkets and hotels of Chamonix and Courmayeur. The road was a well built concrete one, but the edges dropped abruptly to the valley floor, only a metre or so below but you wouldn’t have wanted to put a wheel off. It reminded me of Russian army built military roads I had seen in Afghanistan and sure enough we soon came to an army camp - this road lead up to the frontier, had it been built in the Mussolini period?

We soon came to a barrier and continued on foot, the Doire torrent on the left, the huge terminal moraine of the Miage glacier on the right, and the low, cold sun and even colder wind head on. The angle was steady but reasonable and we sobered up rapidly. The views up to the towering cliffs of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and the distant Freney Pillars, and all the other legendary crags produces an unreal hallucinatory effect, helped by the meal and the wine: even the yellow light seemed denser than usual, which reminded us that time was getting on. We stopped at a place where the road had been covered by a huge landslide from the other side of the river, a mixture of white mud and boulders which must have dammed the river when it happened. High above what looked like the original solitary pine looked down on us  The wind swirled the dust in our eyes while Angela and William scrambled up the bank looking for fossils and Paul continued on up a little to take a few more photos.  

It was then time to head for home, cameras clicking all the way - certainly a place to return to, but on foot with a tent. Back through the tunnel and half an hour later we were in the Chamonix Valley, confronted with demonstrating “ecologists” demanding that lorries be banned from the tunnel, or to be exact “their tunnel” as the traffic would only be diverted to someone else’s valley. Such pettiness seemed incongruous, coming from another world, even though it was just a few miles away, and so back to the campsite after another very full day.

The next day we decided to all go for a walk from Le Tour to the Col de Balme at the head of the valley and the Swiss frontier. The weather forecast was fairly mediocre, clouds and light rain in the afternoon. To equalize things, Alice, William and Sonia would take the téléphérique for the first half while Paul, Angela and I walked the whole way.

This first part is the way up to The Albert 1er refuge, familiar from many years before. It is not a hard one, and the wild flowers are as plentiful as ever. We soon met the others and continued together, admiring the views and taking photos and video. We began to hear the chiming of cow bells and were soon surrounded by these photogenic beasts. There is a rugged looking restaurant at the col and we picnicked there watching the slow build up of clouds over the mountains. Angela, William and I plodded up to a minor grassy summit to the left, La Tête de Balme, while the others skirted across towards Le Bechat where we rejoined them. On the way to the top, I was relieved to see that Angela was starting to puff a bit - William seemed to be as full of energy as ever though. I was not exactly going like a bomb but it was nowhere like as bad as going up to the Tête Rousse, which bade well for the future.

We got back to Le Tour just as it started to rain; all together and pleased by the days efforts.