Chamonix 2002 -       
26th July

Next morning we did a bit of shopping then Alice dropped us off at the midi téléphérique station and we were off towards the Torino refuge. The peaks were surrounded by cloud and they would not sell us tickets right over to Italy in case the wind was too strong for the extremely long middle section to the Pointe Helbronner to run - would they refund us if it didn’t, as it was no use to us if we could only go as far as the Midi? The reply was evasive but we decided to chance it and were soon jostling amongst the crowds of Japanese tourists. It is odd to be dressed for the high mountains while standing in the sun in Chamonix surrounded by people in sandals and shorts, but a few minutes later, in the clouds and wind at 3800 metres the roles were reversed and they were the odd ones out!

The station in (not on) the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, is a bit like a Father Christmas’s grotto, except the granite tunnels really are rock and the ice is not plastic, the temperature is a little lower too, even if the bustle is much the same. The Helbrooner section was in fact running and, having bought the tickets, we were soon aboard one of the tiny four seater “eggs” that cross the Vallée Blanche three by three. We were still in the clouds, I wondered what the tourists must have been saying as they weren’t getting many views for their money. As we swung through space, the visibility gradually improved and we could soon see groups of climbers in lines like the seven gnomes, plodding along numerous tracks all across the vast snow basin stretching from the Chamonix Aiguilles to Mont Blanc and its satellites, the Tour Ronde, then across to the Dent du Géant, our objective.

The trip is truly splendid, even in poor visibility, the pillars of Mony Blanc de Tacul seem so close you could touch them, hardly like real mountains at all, the whole scale seems reduced, perhaps because of this lack of horizon which put everything into an enormous cocoon of cotton. The effect is enhanced by the total silence of this means of transport which adds to the unreality of it all - well worth the visit.

At Pointe Helbronner we clumped up the steps to the spacious “scenic platform” built onto the roof and having had a good ogle at all the familiar peaks around us we sat on a bench and tucked into lunch. The crows provided  a floor show for our meal and further entertainment came from an Italian family; their adolescent daughter was having a crisis about something and no amount of pleading or cajoling from the mother could calm her down. There is also an interesting crystal museum which tells the tale of the “chasseurs de crystaux” who operate in the area - many of the crystals came from the Dent du Géant itself.

After a bit of going round in circles in the slightly sinister maze of galvanized stairs we found the way out onto the snow, for some reason diametrically opposed to the direction of the refuge itself, then round the base of the rock the station was built on, and onto the stone terrace of the Torino Refuge. By now the sun had come out, though the peaks were still shrouded in cloud, once again the views were magnificent.  

After a rest, we decided to have a look at the way up to the Dent du Géant, which is also the approach for the Rochefort ridge, another route we were considering. We roped up for the walk up the glacier, though this seemed hardly necessary as the way was well trodden and there were few crevasses on the slightly convex snow plateau South of the refuge. The angle was easy and the broken clouds occasioned some interesting photos, the Chamonix Aiguilles poking out of a sea of white. We came across a tent just below a minor granite peak (les Aiguilles Marbrées) on the frontier ridge to our right. In the calm evening sunlight it looked a pleasant spot, certainly a workable alternative to crowded refuges - whether it would seem the same in a thunder storm is another question. The access from the Helbronner téléphérique, a few hundred yards away would make it possible to bring up the gear and provisions with little physical effort, certainly worth thinking about.

A little further along we cut off to the right onto the ridge itself at a low col (Col de Rochefort), the drop down to Courmayeur was impressive. While we were admiring the view a group of large, bearded (the men, at least) climbers came up to us. They had established a camp on the flat snow plateau just to the North. When we asked them if they didn’t find it a little cool at night, they replied that they were well equipped and being Finns were used to the cold. They were planning to do the Aiguille de Rochefort next morning. We left them at the col and walked back down past their tents, they certainly were set up comfortably, with carefully dug latrines and brand new tents. I was amused to see them hurrying back across the snow, perhaps they thought we might take a fancy to their snow shovels!

Just then a break in the clouds gave us a clear look at the route up to the famous “Salle à manger” below the rocky horn of the Dent du Géant; straight along the easy angled snow before climbing a short snow gully on the left,  scrambling diagonally up to the right to regain the ridge below the large triangular gendarmes mentioned in the guide book. Above is the “tooth”, fang would be a better word, of yellow granite, only two hundred metres of climbing but a summit of 4013 metres all the same. We had seen all we needed for the morrow and headed back to the refuge.

After sitting around for a bit on the terrace, we thought we had better book in as, although we had phoned ahead to reserve beds, there seemed to be a lot of people milling about and it was Friday night after all. This took half an hour and seemed more long and complicated than it should have been. This time we had decided to change tactics and opted for dinner, bed and breakfast - if you can’t beat ‘em.... As I hadn’t got round to joining an alpine club, it cost me 50 euros, but the price of the téléphérique had already shaken my miserly resolve and, as it would turn out, we hadn’t finished paying on this trip. Such sordid considerations were soon forgotten over a beer, cheaper than in Chamonix itself, and an interesting chat with a French climber who happened to be at the same table as us.

He confirmed our impression that things had changed since our visits in the seventies; there were more people in the mountains and the attitude in the refuges was more commercial. Even so, it seemed to him that our experience at the Tête Rousse was worse than average, but the lack of free drinking water and consideration for impecunious climbers who preferred to do their own cooking had become common many years ago.

He was climbing with his twelve year old son, who, as he told us with more than a little pride in his voice, was at ease both on ice and rock up to an impressive level. He explained that he did most of the leading himself, but, as he agreed, given the difference in size, he couldn’t allow himself a fall. We asked if they also planned to do the Dent du Géant, but they had already done this the year before and had their sights set on the Rochefort Ridge. We had a pleasant chat before time for dinner came round; it was turning out decidedly more pleasant than our previous refuge.

And it was to get better; the dinner was up to true Italian standards, the service was friendly, the food copious and only the prospect of the next day’s climbing prevented us from washing it all down with the wine which was on offer, but which we resisted manfully. Once again, our ambitions were in free flight; clearly we would try to do both the Rochefort Ridge and the Dent du Géant, as glibly described in Rebufat’s book, but in what order....How quickly one can swing from desperation to delire! We decided on an early start and got off to bed.


27th July

The Torino refuge is one of the larger ones, certainly the biggest I have been in; on four floors, five if you count the basement, I suspect it was built as a hotel but has now replaced the old refuge lower down. The three floors of dormitories hold 300 guests, but even so, like all the refuges in the region, it is nearly always full. The decor is pine, pine and more pine and the dormitories have the usual long (pine) shelves, one up, one down, where the snorers snore and the sleepers try to sleep. An early night had the Italian feel to it with lights on and off, doors creaking and much rummaging and rustling in rucksacks to the dazzling glare of the new multi-LED head lamps which everyone seemed to have. However, the mattresses were comfortable, the blankets warm and, in the dream like atmosphere it was hard to say if one was asleep or awake.

The increased level of activity and a fuzzy look at the watch confirmed it was time to get up. Breakfast is an odd, hazy affair and the girls serving, the same ones as the night before, were more awake than we were. One, who stuck in my mind particularly, had a brace on her teeth, but it didn’t stop her smiling pleasantly all the time. It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere; imagine a world which is slightly out of focus, your head in a balaclava with cotton wool in your ears. Put on a pair of glasses with a smear of vaseline on the lenses under bares electric lights and you have an idea... better still, go yourself and live the experience.

Getting packed is a slow motion, fumbly affair, followed by the sharp shock as one steps out into the cold night air, lamp on the head and we were off across the glacier towards the Dent du Géant. The snow was crisp and the night clear, it looked like the weather forecast was going to be accurate. We didn’t really need torches, the moon had gone down but the the signs of the dawn were already in the sky. Even if we hadn’t checked things out the day before, the line of lights twinkling up the mountain side showed the direction.

Just before the gully we put our crampons on, crossed the bergschrund and made our way up onto the rubbly slopes, still unroped but glad of our helmets. The scrambling was easy but finding the route more tricky; there were tracks everywhere. We wandered about, left and right, admiring bands of crystals here and there, the best had already gone but the battered remnants could still be seen : the exhibition in the téléphérique station had said that many of the exhibits came from the Dent du Géant. We got to the gendarmes and kicked steps up a snow gully to reach the crest. Here we saw by the tracks in the snow ridge that we should have kept further right on the crest itself - the father and son we had met in the refuge had overtaken us by taking the right path.

The former seemed in fine form but his son was much less so and was in the process of tastefully spreading his dinner over the snow - I pretended not to notice. It was a fine morning by now, Mont Blanc was bathed in sun, to the right, fine snow crest of the Rochefort ridge, with climbers all along it, wound off towards the Grandes Jorasses, above us the ordinary route on the Dent du Géant was still in shadow. Directly above the Dent rose vertically, overhanging in fact as we would discover in the descent, a warm orange granite reminiscent of the best Cornwall could offer except that here there nothing but blue sky to the left and right. Several harder rock routes climb this side but we were to take the normal route on the S W face : any ideas of doing both the Rochefort ridge and the Dent du Géant had been blown away by the hard light of reality this morning, we weren’t feeling too bad but it was clear that realism indicated a choice and the 200 metres of solid granite above seemed a safer bet than a long corniced, and already crowded snow ridge warming in the sun.

We bade farewell to father and son and crossed a snow slope to the stony platform known as the “salle à manger”. Here we did just that, then left our crampons and ice axes before roping up and going further round the corner into the shade of the face. I lead off the first pitch clipping into the numerous bits of iron-ware littered over the rock. It was pleasant climbing on good rock, but cold on the fingers. There followed a horizontal traverse and then a chimney to a belay. Paul joined me after sorting out the ropes which were in a bit of a tangle, and lead on through. This pitch seemed harder to me, often the case when one is seconding, too much rush and not enough thought.

Above us stretched the highlight of the climb ; the famous Burgener slabs - first climbed by the Maquignaz brothers in 1882. They spent four days fixing rope cables up the face for their clients to use on the first ascent a few days later ; quite an effort for the time. The climbing is not hard, good jamming cracks and holds abound, the inch and a half diameter ropes, descendents no doubt of those fixed a century before, are an intrusion which it is difficult to ignore. The exposure is dramatic, the slabs are like climbing the roof of a house, a very high one at that. I avoided temptation till nearly at the end of my own ropes and twenty feet above the last runner, I gave in and pulled myself hand over hand up the last few feet to a good, but exceedingly airy, belay.

By now we were no longer alone on the climb, Saturday is certainly not a good day for this route. Some were going up, faster than us, others were already on their way down, either abseiling down the slabs or sliding down the ropes with leather gloves - the method favoured by guides once they have protected their clients who abseil down first. There were some French but mostly Italian parties and soon the whole face was covered in perlon knitting. The guides were often pushy, and given our rather slow progress it was difficult not to let them by. The result was a very tedious rate of progress on what would otherwise be a splendid climb.

Paul lead the next pitch; the slabs lead into a wall of rather more crumbly rock, with large flaky holds. This is followed by varied cracks and chimneys near the crest of the ridge until I found myself, surprised, just a few metres from the S W, and slightly lower (4009m), summit. As the mountain narrowed all those doing other routes were funneled onto the ridge, ropes were everywhere. Paul was starting to get a bit of cramp in the hands; fixed ropes are in fact more tiring than normal climbing, but he soon got up and I carried on to the tiny and amazingly unstable summit, all loose flakes and blocks, how it hasn’t all crashed down under the onslaught of so many parties, I don’t know.

Here we were held up again by those ahead and those overtaking from behind, nearly all guided parties. Usually one guide would be taking two clients who seconded up together, both protected simultaneously with a little aluminium gadget. The use of belay plates was new to me, I still preferred wrapping the ropes round my body to the bemused looks of more modern climbers. I had bought myself a figure of eight descender, but hadn’t yet discovered its usefulness for belaying; I still wonder how you give someone a helping tug when using one though..., but I digress.

While sitting in the sun waiting for those ahead to drop down to the gap between the two summits, I had a pleasant chat with an Italian guide about the merits of his new Trango boots - much lighter and cheaper according to him. “Aren’t they a bit fragile?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I’ve had them for over a month and they are still fine!” Different time scales to mine, he probably got through several pairs per season. We watched as various parties clambered up the N E summit just ahead of us; there was barely enough room for all of them on the top. Once again there is a fixed rope to help you up and down the thirty or so feet to the slightly higher point (4013m), it was more like Sennen Cove (apart from the fixed rope) than the Alps.

Finally, it was our turn to continue, Paul dropped down the few feet to the notch and I followed him by rigging up a back rope over a block. The proper route goes down a short bottomless chimney on the left but everyone was just lowering themselves down  the crest and we just copied them, we were both starting to feel a bit tired, in spite of all the sitting around, and spaced out by the sun and heat - I really should have taken my jacket and pullover off ! It was beginning to look a bit tight for the last téléphérique back over the Aiguille du Midi to Chamonix, and Paul’s plane left at lunch time the next day. The decision not to bother with the second summit was obvious.

Our tribulations were not over as we now discovered the queue at the abseil point. The quickest way down, in theory at least, is by three long, airy abseils on the overhanging South face. A double 50 metre rope is required, which is why many guides prefer going back down the ascent route where a shorter rope is sufficient. The other reason is perhaps the rather testing nature of the abseils - I soon developed the suspicion that perhaps a climbing harness would be a good buy as I struggled to keep upright, thankful for my gloves but struggling a bit with the figure of eight which didn’t seem to give enough friction hanging free on Paul’s 8mm ropes. When my anorak got dragged into it while I was hanging several metres free of the rock, spinning slowly like a turkey on a spit, roasting in the afternoon sun, this suspicion became conviction. But we survived, the belays were a bit cosy as we clipped into the solid looking double bolt abseil points with the last of party in front, all hanging there trying to remember which colour rope to pull. It all came back to me, like a moment from a previous existence - “Right Bruce, don’t forget, pull on the blue, OK?” The same rituals that used to be familiar but I had long forgotten.

Each time the rope was just long enough, especially the last one which needed the stretch to reach, and so, back on to snow at last, a memorable finale to a memorable day. Paul’s nearly new ropes seemed to be noticeably stiffer than when we had started, it occurred to me that the heat of abseiling with a most gadgets can’t be good for them, but I dread to imagine what would have become of me if I had tried to come down using my traditional method - doesn’t bear even thinking about. Paul was more familiar with the more recent gear but even he decided to buy himself a “shunt “ abseil protection device after this descent.

And so back to the “Salle à manger” and quickly off in a desperate attempt to get the last ‘frique. The sun was still hot as we scrambled down the rubble, down the gully, over the bergschrund and across the glacier - dispensing with the rope all the way as, although the snow was slush by now, there were no crevasses to worry about. I reckon I lost at least three kilos on this one route - it certainly beats dieting. We plodded down in the scorching sun, it was already nearly five so we didn’t have much hope for getting the last ride back. By now I was in that peculiar condition so familiar after a long hot day in the mountains, muzzy head and aching legs that just seem go on automatically downhill, but any level or uphill bits  and progress slowed to a snail’s pace.

We had to go by the hut as we’d left some gear and I’d even managed to lose Angela’s mobile phone somewhere; I hoped I had left it in the dormitory. When we got back, our fears where confirmed, we couldn’t use our return tickets that evening. We couldn’t stay in the refuge either; it was Saturday and they were chock-a-block - clearly the thing to do is book a second night anyway just in case you get delayed, you can always cancel, especially when there’s a crowd waiting to get a bed. Walking down the Vallée Blanche to the Requin hut and then Montenvers simply wasn’t on given our state - it would have been epic even for really fit climbers. We thought of bivvying in the doorway and taking the first téléphérique in the morning but it would have cut things very tight for Paul’s lunchtime flight from Geneva back to Scotland, not to mention the likely effect on Alice as we hadn’t been able to contact her, “Cherche reseau” was all the sense we could get out of the mobile phone. Most of all, we both really felt like getting back to Chamonix for a last drink in town.

For the telephone, we were lucky, they had found it when they tidied up the dormitory, but as for getting a place in the hut, it was out of the question. Then we came across the friendly Italian guide I had been chatting to on the summit and he reckoned that if we ran we might get the last cable car down to Courmayeur and perhaps from there a bus back to France... We looked at each other and, with no further hesitation, grabbed our sacks and staggered off down the strange concrete staircase tunnel which leads to the old hut and téléphérique station. The guide was running down just in front, he wanted to be home for Saturday night too! Needless to say, we couldn’t exchange our return tickets to Cham for ones down to Courmayeur... “not the same company, sir” and we had to fork out again; this was turning into an expensive trip, but soon we were swooping down to the Valley, looking with awe at the horrendous steep, 2000 metre, grassy slopes that you’d have to climb up to get to the Torino hut on foot. Unlike Chamonix, the valley side above the Val d’Aosta rises straight up with little respite, savage, impressive, and undoubtedly hard work..

It wasn’t over yet though; we soon found that the last bus had long gone. We thought of phoning Alice and getting her to drive through the tunnel but we couldn’t find a phone that worked on credit cards or coins. We decided to try hitching, so, with the renewed energy that the drop in height had given us, we stomped off to the road leading to tunnel and hung our thumbs out, trying to look as respectable as we could. Time went by and no one stopped. We saw our friendly guide again but he was driving in the opposite direction, he stopped and wished us luck though. More time went by and all the cars were packed with families, no climbers and, being a Saturday evening, few commercial drivers. We decided to give up and, after dismissing the idea of staying in a hotel for the night, decided to look for a taxi. We were sitting on a bench, outside a souvenir shop, eating the last of our bread and sardines, why not ask in the shop, they might know a taxi driver? After a tricky bit of communication, unusually for the Val d’Aoste the shopkeeper didn’t speak French, he let us phone a driver he knew, I negotiated the price - 50 Euros - this was turning out to be the dearest climb of my life, and within minutes we were pleasantly installed and heading off to France.

And so back to the campsite, what a day!

After a pleasant meal everyone was game for an evening in town, we found the energy from somewhere and we were soon sitting on the terrace of a café, ice creams for the children, coffee for Alice and beers for Paul and I. A fine end to a packed holiday.


28th July

Next morning Paul and I went into town to try and sort out his boots. Snell’s were very helpful and promised to press out the tight spot and send them on to him in Aberdeen. I had my doubts but I was proved wrong when as promised they were adjusted and arrived in Scotland some time later. After our abseil experience of the day before, which had apparently impressed Paul as much as me, he did in fact buy himself a “shunt” device, but I haven’t heard since if it works.


Mont Blanc by moonlight.

We then got packed up and headed down the valley to Geneva. This turned out to be a bit of an epic too, as, when we got to the Swiss border, a plump and officious border guard demanded 40 Euros for a vignette for the Swiss motorways, 20 for the car and another 20 for the trailer We tried to explain that we only wanted to drop someone off at the airport, but he wouldn’t have it and got quite stroppy - it put us all off the Swiss for good. We then set off on a breakneck burn round the border to get to Geneva airport, a joint Franco-Swiss affair on the other side of the Geneva conurbation. We just got there in time and Paul disappeared into the bowels of the terminus with a few minutes to spare.

We later learnt that we had left him at the wrong gate and it was only by the help of a friendly security guard, who took pity on him and gave him an express guided tour to the right place, that he managed to get on his plane. We also learnt that the border guard had been messing us about too, the vignette is only for the motorways and he could easily have pointed out an alternative route, which would have seen us easily to the airport in minutes. He was just being an a pain, so much for the myth of Swiss politesse!

The rest of the journey went without notable incident and we were home in Noisiel by nine o’clock. It had certainly been a full week; my determination to get back into climbing had become a certainty.