|The Full Story (cont.) Part 3.|
very nice spot
An evening in town
Climbing, at last.
Our trip to the Refuge du Requin, or, Carry on up the Glacier
A splendid view
No ecologists here.
"You need a proper breakfast dear!"
More porridge, but the white kind.
War and piece
Born to fester
"It's known as the Chalet Austria."
The dreaded Nantillons Glacier
"I promise, Mummy, I won't do it again!"
Success at last, but "there's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all."
"You just mark my words!"
The Couvercle Caper.
To Croz or not to Croz?
My special hut slog technique.
A vivid memory, and it was not a "virile pleasure."
An early start, we were learning.
The tubby climber, and the lessons I drew.
Don't get your ropes in a twist
The curious case of the forgotten bishop.
Ironmongery, a climber's lament.
rutted access track was blocked by a pair of rusting iron gates, but we
could see a number of other vehicles in the grassy clearings so we
“persuaded” them to open as the others must have done and we were
soon looking for a spot to set up camp. The first open grassy areas had
already been claimed so we followed the curving track up for a couple of
hundred yards to a slight rise at the start of the pine trees. Behind
this were several little shaded clearings, which suited us perfectly,
and the motley collection of Climbing Club tents were soon set up. They
received little sun, but on hot sunny days this proved an advantage, and
when it rained, as it often did, obviously being in the shade didn’t
matter. There were plenty of rocks to set up areas to sit, cook, drink,
read, moan, bicker, play cards and all the other essential activities of
a climbing holiday.
was a problem, it had to brought from the tap at the terminus of the
station half a mile, away, but it was only needed for cooking, washing
was not a major preoccupation, we went swimming in the Municipal pool at
least once a week, which seemed a sufficient concession to hygiene. The
relative seclusion also reduced undesirable visits from other tourists
or representatives of law and order. We returned to the same spot many
summers thereafter and, although we left our tents unattended while
climbing, never had any problems with theft or damage.
the horror stories told by the “old hands” about the price of food,
especially meat, in France we had all brought enough tins to get us
through the month. Campbell’s Meat Balls, in their many variations
were firm favourites, though if they should really be referred to as
“meat”, I’m not sure. Spread on enormous quantities of spaghetti
they kept us going all the same.
diet was, of course, liberally supplemented with liquid refreshment
consumed in the town. The Bar National, the traditional, but perhaps
over rated, favourite for British climbers was often replaced by the
Alpenstock, a rather more up market “Pub” style bar-come-restaurant,
just opposite the CAF offices, and quite near the Biolay. It was more
expensive but less in-bred than the Bar Nat, there were even ordinary
people to meet and local lasses to fantasize over, but what really made
the difference were the splendid sanitary facilities, hot water was a
luxury which even we appreciated from time to time.
evening in town invariably meant a trip to admire the photographs in
Tairraz’s shop, the climbing gear at Snell’s and various other
emporiums where window shopping was the cheapest way of passing the time
until a visit to a suitable watering spot could be economically
envisaged. After a successful climb, extravagance was sometimes
stretched from “demies” to “sérieux” and even some “last of
the big spenders” reached for the Alpenstock’s
ice cream menu and ordered delights that cost more than a
week’s supply of meatballs, the others looked on like gipsy children
staring into a sweetshop window. It may sound as if I’m harping on a
lot about our “poverty”, but in fact we were fine, the waiting and
rationing really did mean we appreciated the odd little luxury so much
more. These days, with a freezer full of ice cream the taste has all but
disappeared, there can be no real pleasure without suffering, which is
really what climbing is all about. This brings me back to the subject at
last, the mountains.
time had come to get started and as even the notoriously poor Chamonix
weather seemed to have decided to continue showing us it’s better
side, we really had to pack our rucksacks and do something. The “old
hands” proposed the ascent of the Tour Ronde as a good first climb,
technically easy, it promised excellent views of the Mont Blanc range
and a good training walk both physically and to acclimatize ourselves to
the altitude. These arguments seemed logical and we were soon slogging
up the track which starts just where we were camping.
path through the woods was pleasant at first, with grassy meadows full
of alpine flowers alternating with cooler pine woods. There were even
little wooden chalets to admire, but as the day wore on the heat and
mosquitoes began to dominate the bucolic aspects. We were not, needless
to say, at a particularly high level of physical fitness and our sacks
were doubtlessly overcharged. Later we would learn to keep things down
to the minimum, but the first trog up to Montenvers was quite a
struggle. Later on this path became familiar and some even turned it
into a race, I was better downhill than up, but for the moment I was
wondering if I would get there at all, never mind set a record.
about a couple of hours we arrived in Montenvers, anyone who had had the
good sense to take the rack railway would have been here long enough to
have taken their photos of the Petit
Dru, just opposite, the Mer de
Glace and have finished their lunch. We staggered to the observation
platform but it was some time before we had a look at what was before
us. The Mer de Glace stretched into the distance, with the Grandes
Jorasses towering above the other peaks, this one viewpoint must
contribute considerably to the bonheur of Kodak’s shareholders, and we
did our bit as much as any.
next stage led down past the postcard vendors and the station to a
series of iron ladders leading to the glacier below. Then a long easy
angled trog along the dry glacier, weaving between the crevasses, the
first time most of us had seen anything of the like. The most impressive
are the swallow holes where the surface melt streams disappear
dramatically into smooth sided tunnels, nightmares are made of such
sights. For the more touristically minded, there is a whole series of
tunnels dug out of the ice just below Montenvers, where all kinds of
rooms and sculpture await the shivering spectator, but such relaxing
pleasures were not for us.
day wore on and soon we approached the Géant icefall
and found the path
off to the right up to the Refuge du Requin, visible on the shoulder
above. Above being the operative word, and the last slog up was at a
pace like old films of Everest expeditions. The arrival at the hut was announced
pleasantly by the sight of a long, multi-coloured streak of rubbish
below it, ecology had not yet reared its ugly head in these parts.
is often the case, the hut was highly overcrowded and sleep between the
snoring, coughing and other even more disturbing nocturnal noises was
long in coming, at least the promiscuity means sleeping bags are not
required. Later that night we were further irritated by climbers getting
off at what seemed a ridiculous hour, didn’t they ever sleep? At dawn
we set about the usual performance with reluctant primus stoves, getting
the porridge or eggs and bacon on the go, wondering where the dozens of
others who had been packed in with us like sardines had got to. The last
ones to leave gave us a funny despairing look, shrugged their shoulders
in true gallic fashion and headed off. Eventually we got going and it
was pleasant crossing the snow towards the icefall, warming up under the
sun, which was already high in the clear blue sky.
took a photo of us all roping up at the start of the wide expanse of
rapidly softening snow which stretched between us and our objective, the
Tour Ronde, on the horizon. We ambled along, trying to remember the
correct ice-axe technique should one of us go through a snow bridge and
admiring the views of the Dent du Géant, the Grand Capucin and all the
other legendary peaks we had, until then, only admired in photos. The
attentive reader will have by now realised why everyone else had left
the refuge long before dawn, and, as we struggled through the knee deep
white mush, we began to understand too. We eventually reached the base
of the Tour Ronde and the Italian frontier ridge and were rewarded with
splendid views of the Brenva Face of Mont
Blanc, the Tour de l’Angle
was particularly impressive, opposite us was the Aiguille
Noire de Peuterey. The air was so clear that it was difficult
to judge distance and scale, and as always, the only colours were blue,
white and black with just a little grey or yellow added by the granite.
now it was obviously far too late to climb anything at all and we
started back across the porridgy glacier. We got back without further
mishap, except a varying degree of stinging on any skin that the heat
had encouraged us to expose during the many hours we had spent between
the blazing yellow disk high above the equally bright white of the snow.
We had at least the sense to smother ourselves with glacier cream, which
probably helped a bit, although few had thought of the effect of the
light reflected by the snow on the underside of our noses. Also, glad to
say, we had all been careful to wear snow goggles all day, and, apart
from one or two who had that sand-in-the-eyes feeling, we suffered
nothing that a few days in Chamonix wouldn’t fix. The next morning saw
a sorry crew heading back to the valley with no thought of any other
climbing in the immediate future. The worst affected resorted to brown
paper bags with eye holes torn out to protect their already peeling
suppose we had been luckier than some as I later read of another group
of young British climbers who attempted the same mountain and lost their
lives in a fall, I wouldn’t be surprised if the circumstances were not
similar. Anyway, we had learnt our lessons;
ice climbs can only really been done safely before dawn, stone and ice
fall becoming more or less continuous once the sun gets up. Whether
there is a great deal of interest in doing such a climb, totally in the
dark, is another question. The answer was, for us in
our present condition, altogether academic, what we needed was a few
days recovering in the luxury of the Biolay, the Municipal swimming pool
and the Alpenstock.
first thing to say to anyone envisaging a climbing holiday in Chamonix
is to come prepared to spend a lot of time sitting in the valley, the
weather really is very unstable. In North Wales or the Lakes this means
you have the choice between staying dry in the pub or putting on a caggy
and going climbing all the same. This option doesn’t exist in the
Alps, unless you have a built in lightning conductor and a Faraday cage
sown into your underpants. Some may still climb in bad weather, but I
doubt that they survive to do it for many seasons. So if survival is one
of your objectives, a good book and a lot of patience are required
items. The Lord of the Rings, all three volumes was in fashion that
year, but War and Peace would do instead. We had a word for this, which,
although inelegant, summed up those dank, dripping days quite well; we
called it “festering”. It may be said that being a competent
festerer is just as important as being a good climber if one wishes to
reach retirement age in this particular branch of the "sport".
next outing was to demonstrate another aspect of climatic considerations
quite pertinently. The plan was to do the traverse of the Aiguilles
Grepon and Charmoz, a well known route in the Chamonix
bivouac would economize a night in a refuge, a pricey luxury even though
we had all taken the precaution of joining the Austrian Alpine club to
profit from a lower tariff. The chosen location was a half ruined chalet
a little way along the path from Montenvers to Plan de l’Aiguille
known as the Chalet Austria. Having finished our convalescence, we set
off back up the track, this time even heavier laden with sleeping bags
and bivouac gear. The hut wasn’t big enough for all of us but with
plastic bivi bags for some, we had a reasonable night.
dawn was cold and grey, which matched my sentiments as I plodded up the
path then onto the screes and moraines leading to the foot of the
infamous Nantillons glacier. This had a bad very reputation due to the
lines of seracs half way up. There isn’t much choice except to try to
get up smartly before the sun falls on them, and they fall on you. Of
course the return is a different matter and although a rognon in the
middle gives some protection for part of the time, speed of descent is
the only real safety measure possible.
usual, we were slow in getting off, we had given up the porridge but
were not yet fully into the swing of things. We climbed the glacier with
a wary eye on the seracs looming through the clouds above us, it
hadn’t been a clear night so the temperature was a bit high for
safety, and we were thankful to reach the rock, out of reach of the
tottering ice blocks.
route now led up a couloir and we had a bit of difficulty identifying
the right one, which added to the delay. Our group was large and slow
moving, and this meant spending a lot of time standing around on belays.
Although it is true to say the snow was soft, I was beginning to feel
distinctly cool. We started to experience a little rock fall, in a
narrow couloir this was disturbing and time was getting on. At one point
we were all clustered round a single piton, below an overhang, when we
heard a noise from above. We had just enough time to huddle close into
the back of the gully before an avalanche of wet snow whooshed down over
our heads. By now we were wet and miserable, my hands were so cold that I
swore to myself, and any one else who bothered to listen to my whining,
that I would give up climbing altogether as soon as we got
back to the valley.
finally did the only sensible thing and headed back down as quickly as
we could, back across to the rognon and, with many a backward look at
the seracs, glissaded down to the safety of the moraines. That made
two tries and two failures, things were not going too well, but it was
next objective was a more modest one, in fact just about the most modest
in the range, the Aiguille de l’M. This marks the start of the ridge
leading up to the site of our previous misadventures. The advantage is
that there is no glacier approach, a bit like a larger version of a
British crag. The descent is by a gully at the back, safe and easy too.
This was clearly more compatible with our level of incompetence. Some of
us attacked (to use the traditional term) the NNE ridge, a justly well
frequented training climb on good solid granite. The climb is spoilt a
little by the fact that it is possible to avoid any difficulties on the
left, but given our track record, this was probably not a bad thing! We
finally had a good days climbing, with good views across the Mer de
Glace to the Drus, the Petit and the Grand, with the Bonatti Pillar
clearly in view, not quite for us just yet though.
of the others did the more difficult Menagaux route on the NW face.
There are two other routes on this face in the British guide book of
the time, and a good many more in the French Vallot guides. We had at
last climbed our first, albeit minor, Alpine peak and returned happily
to the valley for what we considered a well earned rest.
each period of climbing there were inevitably periods of loafing about
in the valley, either through downright sloth, we were supposed to be on
holiday after all, or, more usually, due to either bad weather, the rain
at Chamonix is by no means mainly in the plain, or a poor weather
forecast. Every morning someone nipped down to the CAF (Club Alpin Français)
office to read the “Metéo”, which is regularly posted in the
window. If ever the forecast was good, even for a day, the campsite emptied in no time. What is remarkable about the weather in Chamonix is
how quickly a brilliant blue sky in the morning can become a violent
thunder storm, with lightening crashing from summit to summit by
lunchtime. This is another reason for getting off to an early start,
sometimes a short rock climb can be safely finished before the
“orage” strikes. This requires detailed knowledge of the route,
quite a few are escapable by ledges at various points, but for many rock
routes an emergency descent by abseiling is the only solution. In the
rain or snow, surrounded by flashes of lightening, this gains a new
dimension. For more serious rock and nearly all mixed climbs, even on
the “aiguilles”, it’s best to wait for a clear spell, unless you
have an overwhelming desire to add to the rescue statistics.
such a good spell
was now upon us, and, flushed by our success (!), we
split up into smaller groups and set off to various areas. Rich and I
headed for the Couvercle hut, one of the biggest in the area. Obviously,
it hadn’t been built where it was for nothing as it is the gateway to
a huge cirque of mountains, starting with the Aiguille du Moine, a
granite pyramid rising up to the left of the Mer de Glace and which is
in fact a satellite of the 4000 metre Aiguille Verte, one of the more
serious peaks in the range. The Drus are its other major satellites,
then a long ridge swings round, les Droites, les Courtes and many other
lesser peaks until another hub is formed by the Aiguille de Triolet.
From here the cirque continues its sweep to another serious mountain,
les Grandes Jorasses, whose famous North face towers grimly up opposite
the refuge. But it’s not finished here, the ridge continues to the
Aiguille de Rochefort and the splendid Dent du Géant, witness of our
first comic blunders towards the Tour Ronde, the latter is itself on a
continuation of the same ridge. It’s a little like all roads leading
to Rome, obviously the peaks of any range are connected, but at Chamonix
there are really no low, easy cols, from Mont Blanc to the Aiguille
d’Argentière and beyond. Doubtless some hard soul has traversed the
whole lot on nothing but a tins of sardines, but it must have taken a
good many tins.
ambitions were somewhat more modest, secretly each of us was probably
weighing up the respective merits of the Walker or the Croz spurs for
some hypothetical future, but for the moment we aimed to climb the
Aiguille du Moine by the normal route, a very reasonable AD rock climb.
way to the refuge was once again by Montenvers, the path was familiar by
now and each of us had developed his technique, mine was simple. I
finally realized that whatever suffering was involved, I would
eventually get to the hut. The method was just to keep on plodding, head
down, and not too fast, without too much thinking or worrying about
progress, and everything became much easier. It’s a little like
falling asleep in a train, all of a sudden you wake up and you have
arrived. Well, perhaps I exaggerate just a little how much easier it
becomes, but that one realization that, like all things, even a hut slog
comes to an end, it’s just a “mauvais moment à passer”, and that
you will definitely get there, sooner or later, makes the whole thing
much more bearable.
more to the breach, or rather down the ladders to the Mer de Glace,
along the dry glacier (which in the Alpine sense means very wet, but
without snow cover), walking easily on the course grained, gritty ice,
past the crevasses, melt water streams and their gurgling swallow holes,
picking a way through the moraines littering the surface and which
provide numerous warm granite benches whenever a rest is required, until
a left turn, this time, brings one onto the rocky path leading up,
eventually, to the Couvercle hut. This last part tried my method to the
limit, but, once again, it worked, I lifted by head and there it was,
the “Show piece hut” of the Mont Blanc range, a massive stone, hotel
like building. A little higher up, tucked under the natural shelter of
the huge tilted granite slab, which gave it its name, the original, much
simpler refuge is still there. Sometimes, despite the new refuge’s
nominal capacity of 150 and a real one considerably higher, the old hut
is brought into use to lodge the ever-increasing numbers of visitors.
booked in with the guardian, then got the petrol stove roaring for the
traditional “spag-bog”, our staple diet. This brings to mind a
moment of enduring shame, which is engraved in my memory far more
vividly than all the glorious moments of “virile pleasure” on the
mountainside, so often referred to by Gaston Rebuffat in his excellent
“Les 100 Plus Belles Courses du Massif du Mont Blanc”. To save
weight, all our cooking was done in small billies with flimsy folding
handles, boiling a double helping of spag was a tricky operation. It
then had to be drained, using the lid to hold the slippery mass in the
billy. Draining was done, as one would expect, down a drain, and, due to
a fatal moment’s inattention, that’s exactly where our dinner went,
a good three feet down the evil hole. Even I could not bring myself to
attempt a recovery operation. This was our second night at the hut, and
was all the food we had left. I remember vividly the grey granite stones
round the drain, the blue sky and horror with which it had happened, a
sort of unstoppable slow motion like a B movie, or a nightmare. I just
stood there, paralyzed by the enormity of the event, for several
seconds. Rich was very good, he didn’t even get annoyed, but the shame
of that moment lingers on along with a few other truly regrettable
incidents in my life.
the morning, we got off to an early start, we really were getting
better, crossed the crisp snow under the South face of the Aiguille du
Moine and we were soon on the easy rocks leading to the climb itself. We
were amply rewarded for our early rise by the most photogenic dawn I had
seen up to then. The sky was clear and the pink light lit the Mont
Blanc, the Grandes Jorasses and all the other peaks one after the other,
it was pretty well impossible not to take good photos. Gradually the
blood warmed up and the climbing became a real pleasure, something I
rarely confess to feeling at this time of day.
were other parties on the mountain, the one I remember best was a young,
slightly overweight man with a tough even younger guide who virtually
pulled his client, hand over hand, up the steep bits. We heard his
coughing all the way up the ridge and they caught us up on the summit.
The first thing he did, when he got his breath back, was to light up a
cigarette. This convinced me of two things, the first that smoking
doesn’t go with climbing, and the second that climbing with a guide
makes no sense at all. Apart from the financial aspect, climbing with no
responsibility, leaving the risk and all the decisions to a
professional, however competent, friendly, and generally
“sympathetic”, is not really climbing at all. Far better to build up
gradually on easy routes, and perhaps never move onto the more famous
ones, than to be dragged up like a huge plum pudding just for the
dubious pleasure of saying you have “done” such and such a climb,
you haven’t really done it at all, the guide has. Vanity, vanity, all
was still early and the summit view was ..., I’m running out of
adjectives, take a look at the photographs instead. The curve of the Mer
de Glace, like an enormous sea serpent winding up to the granite fangs
of the Dent du Requin, du Géant and all the others, is enough to make
one believe that all this must have been created by other than the blind
forces of nature. Well, nearly enough, but not quite, but it is easy to
see why so many generations found, and many still find, it necessary to
invent the notion of a supreme being, creator of such splendours.
thoughts, at the time were doubtlessly more mundane, and it was time to
be off. We were well on
schedule and feeling fit, so we decided to traverse the mountain by
descending the North ridge. This involved mostly easy scrambling, with
some moving together roped, an Alpine technique which, once mastered,
saves a lot of time. On rocky ridges, flipping the rope alternatively
left and right over rock spikes gives quite reasonable safety. The text
book suggestion that if one should fall to one side, the other should
immediately leap over the precipice to the other, does in fact work,
best to make sure you are both well tied on to the rope though and that
you have no difficulties telling left from right. Today nothing so
dramatic occurred and we were soon abseiling down the dark, cold gully
which led to the snow slope below and back to the hut. A good day’s
climbing, pity about the spaghetti that evening!
next day, once more under a perfect blue sky, we headed a little further
up into the cirque and climbed a pleasant rock route on the Aigulle de
l’Eveque, the South Face (AD). It is curious, but although my memories
of the Aiguille du Moine, the coughing climber and his guide, not to
mention the spag down the drain are vivid in my mind, try as I will, I
can recall absolutely nothing of this day, and yet there it is, noted in
my guide book. Memory is a truly a peculiar thing.
followed a fairly protracted period of poor weather, with generous
helpings of the rain for which Chamonix is so justly famous, afternoons
in the Bar Nat, evenings in the Alpenstock, with many a visit to the CAF
office to scrutinize the “Metéo”. At one point we went to the
training crag a little down the valley from “Cham”, very much like a
British cliff, but with more pegs. I dread to think what it must be like
today if other training cliffs I have seen in France, in Burgundy for
example, are anything to go by. There, every route is littered with
enormous stainless steel bolts, chains and rings, all cemented into
holes drilled all over the place, the safety lobby gone mad, and sad to
say, aided and abetted by climbing club bureaucrats and other
busy-bodies who should know better. One is tempted to go along in the
dead of the night and smash them all off, but, if a recent jurisprudence
is anything to go by, you would probably find yourself in prison if, at
a later date, any one so much as twisted their ankle through lack, or
supposed lack, of iron-mongery to protect the “irresponsible” from
themselves. At least this particular madness hasn’t hit the mountains
themselves yet. I have been told that in the National Parks of the USA
the Rangers do actually check you and your equipment before they let you
onto a climb, let’s hope that future generations in Europe don’t
suffer the same fate.
The Biolay was even starting to empty as some parties packed their bags to head home or South to the coast and the legendary Calanques. We were told many stories of these sun-drenched limestone cliffs rising out of the azure Mediterranean, not to mention the topless bathing beauties clustering all around to admire the prowess of the rock climbers... Either we were made of sterner stuff or we lacked the necessary imagination, as we resisted the sirens’ calls and stoically sat it out.