The cirque of mountains from the Drus (L) to the Petites Jorasses.

The Full Story (cont.) Part 3.
A very nice spot












A free ad, but do they still make the famous balls?








An evening in town









Climbing, at last.

Click for Map.




Our trip to the  Refuge du Requin, or, Carry on up the Glacier

(Click for photo page and short account.)





A splendid view







No ecologists here.





"You need a proper breakfast dear!"









More porridge, but the white kind.








Three lessons
















War and piece





Born to fester


(Click for photo page and short account.)

"It's known as the Chalet Austria."




The dreaded Nantillons Glacier


Some more views (taken in 1973) :
- République, Charmoz
- L'Aiguille de  Blatière
- Le Petit Dru
- Close up
- Mer de Glace
- Les Grandes Jorasses (Point Walker)



Feeling cool




"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.

(Click for photo page and short account.)










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.








Metaphysical ponderings





Don't get your ropes in a twist





The curious case of the forgotten bishop.





Ironmongery, a climber's lament.








Topless beauties


The 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.

Water was a problem, it had to brought from the tap at the terminus of the Chamonix-Montenvers railway 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.

Following 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.

The 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.

An 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.

The 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.

The 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.

After 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.

The 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.

The 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.

As 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.

I 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.

By 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 faces.

I 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;

  • don’t start the season with a long glacier walk (especially if you have the lily white skin of northerners),

  • don’t have a cooked breakfast (I know for many this sacrifice is a major problem, but you can get used to it by living in France for a few years), it’s best to get off with just a cup of coffee and have a snack when the sun comes up,

  • and, above all, set off early enough in the night, by torch-light, to be on the climb itself before the sun rises. The difference between a pleasant walk on a well frozen snow crust and slogging through two feet of wet mush also means an enormous difference in time and effort, not to mention the safety aspect, the snow bridges over crevasses are much more reliable with a good frost on them.

Some 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.

The 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".

Our 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 Aiguilles. A 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.

The 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.

As 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.

The 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.

We 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 all experience.

The 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.

Some 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.

Between 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.

Just 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.

Our 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.

The 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.

Once 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.

We 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.

In 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.

There 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 is vanity....

It 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.

Our 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!

The 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.

There 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.