After our first taste of Alpine Climbing on the Petite Verte Matt and i had retired back to our base camp in the town of Argentiere. Eager for our next challange we looked through our array of guide books, "why dont you try the Argentiere?" suggested Iain, one of our trip companions. He and two friends had ascended it two days prior via the Y-couloir and descended by the easier normal route on the Milieu Glacier.
Matt and i turned to the page in our trusty "Gaston Rebuffat" book to read about our proposed route. Standing at 3900m this was not a small mountain by our standards, the highest point climbed by us previously being the 3508m of the Petite Verte. However, the route description encouraged us - "An easy glacier walk on crampons to the bergshrund; higher up the last steeper slope presents no problem if it is snow". We knew the route was in condition so we set our challange and began our preperations.
The weather kept us grounded in the Chamonix Valley for a few days but we eventually got the window we required to do the route. Along with us on this journey was Helen a friend of ours from Portsmouth who had climbed the Petite Verte with us and was coming along with us on this expedition, albeit just as far as our camp as she did not want to climb the mountain.
We approached the route by taking the telepherique up to the Aiguille des Grands Montets late in the morning and descending from the col down the Rognons Glacier to the Argentiere Glacier. In Daylight finding a way down to the main valley glacier presents few problems. In the dark however it is a different case as we found out on an earlier jaunt to ascend the Col du Chardonnet...
Having returned to the telepherique station from our climb on the Petite Verte we were standing on the top viewing platform watching the sun set over the Aiguille Rouges when a young chap named Rodger came up and introduced himself. He was up there with two friends who were going down to the valley the following morning but he wanted to stay up in the mountains. We talked for a while and eventually let him join us on a plod to the Col du Chardonnet to watch the sunrise over the Matterhorn, that was the plan. So at 1am Matt and i join Rodger at the Col des Grands Montets and rope up for what should be a fairly easy expedition. Rodger insists on taking the lead based on the fact that he had attended an alpine course and knew what he was doing. To cut a long story short he got us totally lost on the moraines and we ended up retracing our steps on several occasions to follow his whims of directional sense! After several hours Matt had had enough and decided to take the lead. We climbed directly the rock butress at the base of the Moraines by the light of our headtorches to regain the Rognon Glacier. We had decided it was no longer worth the effort of trying to reach our intended goal as the sun was now rising which would soften the snow and turn our walking into a labour. With that we headed back to the Telepherique and the valley where our locationally challenged friend Rodger could not even find his way back to the camp site! Matt and I later learned that although Rodger had been on an Alpine course he had actually been advised by an instructor not to go back on the mountain without an experienced guide! Matt and i decided it would be the last time we invited a stranger to join us, a lesson well learned.
...anyway, i digress. We did find the Argentiere Glacier this time and we crossed it to reach the foot of the mountain by mid afternoon. We took a tent but on arrival at the moraines we found a couple of 5star bivvy spots so elected to sleep rough there that night. During the afternoon Matt and I reconnoitred the path up the moraine ridge to the point at which we would gain the glacier. We were alerted by some fellow climbers when a roch the size of a VCR came tumbling down the glacier from one of the rock ridges crossing the path we had been standing on not 30 seconds before. We stood for a while at the base of the route and talked to the other climbers who were also from England and planning the same route. Happy we had got our bearings we headed down over the rock and moraine to find some fresh water to take back to our bivvy. We cooked our evening meal of pasta and watched the sunset over the base of the valley before turning in at about 9.30pm.
By 12.30am we were up again gearing up ready to start the climb. We left our crampons off and scambled up the moraine ridge in the dark to the point we had been to earlier. Matt was a little ahead of me and i did not see him fall when he unknowingly slipped on some verglas at the snout of the glacier. By the time i rounded the corner he was on his feet again nursing a gashed hand but otherwise ok, we both paid more attention to our surroundings after that. We put on our crampons took out our axes and walked up onto the Milieu Glacier, 950m of climbing ahead of us.
Now perhaps the darkness had confused us but we were unknowingly already on the wrong path! The route takes a line first up the left of the glacier to avoid the main crevasses and then moves right into the snow field below the bergshrund before directly ascending the upper snow slope. We didnt go far enough left and before we knew it we were surrounded by crevasses which on the most part were not to difficult to deal with. The narrow ones we could just about safely stride over, some required a jump. After half an hour of tedium we knew we had gone wrong but thought it better to continue forging a path up the centre of the glacier as opposed to retracing our steps. We were looking for an exit to the left as that was where we wanted to be but the glacier there looked just as broken as the area we were on. We continued to weave our way between crevases, now becoming quite large, until we got to the point where the only obvious way to cross a 3.5m wide crevasse was to down climb into it then cross a questionable snow bridge before climbing the other side wich was about 2.5m of vertical ice. Matt was the first to cross as i belayed him from a stance not much safer than burying my elbow! Once he safely reached the other side he set up a better belay to bring me accross. I climbed down into it and gently walked accross the bridge, a bottomless black on either side of me. I reached the opposite wall and as i only had one axe, (the route was not a technical one so only a mountaineering axe was required), started to chip a hold for my left hand in the ice. Happy i swung my pick to gain purchase with me axe in the right hand but as i did so part of the bridge gave way beneath my feet leaving me temporaraly hanging by my left hand, my axe and the rope. Afterthe initial shock i regained my composure and began to front point up the ice, chipping further holds for my left hand in doing so. On reaching the lip i performed one last act of heroism as i heel hooked my way over the edge onto firmer ground!
Drama over we rounded a few more crevasses before finally reaching the lower snow field. From there it was an easy walk on excellent snow up to the bergshrund. Occasionally we were bashed by small shards of snow and ice as it rolled down the glacier in the form of spindrift avalanches. It was 3.30am and there was still no sign of any other climbing parties on the route below us. Directly opposite however we could see the head torches of some climbers half way up the Couturier Couloir on the Verte. They hadn't moved for some time and seemed to be flashing thier headtorches in our direction. We stood and watched for a few minutes and flashed back but we could make out no signal or pattern to the flashes so assumed they were ok and continued up our route. We stopped breifly for me to change the batteries in my fading headtorch and then made steady progress up the steeper slope of the upper snow field. We were climbing ahead of ourselves and were suprised to find ourselves just 50m or so short of the summit ridge. Rewarding ourselves with a rest we turned to see perhaps 25 climbers all in the lower snow field some 350m below us, happy we had such a head start on them we pressed on and before long came to the summit ridge. We followed the crest along the frontier of France and Switzerland and reached the main summit at about 6.15am.
We had it all to ourselves with the exception of a few birds who had came to see what we were up to! We looked over the cornices into Switzerland and Italy where we could make out the shapes of Mont Rosa and in the distance the Matterhorn (poor old rodger never did get to see it!). Behind us back into France we cast our mighty shadow over the Argentiere glacier and onto the base of the North Face of the Verte. The moderately strong and bitter wind could not dampen our elation and we sat for a while to eat some chocolate and take in the splendour of our highest summit yet attained at 3900m. After a while the wind did get the better of us and we decided to retreat down while the snow conditions remained good.
We descended the ridge back to the top of the glacier finding to our delight not less than 50 climbers following our tracks up the mountain. We made a fast and easy descent soon meeting up with the first group of the camel train who happened to be the other english men we met the day before. We had a brief exchange and continued down with a polite "bonjour" to all the climbers we passed.
On descent the route was that much clearer than it had been the night before and the area that had seemed so frightfully crevassed looked even worse! We followed the now well trodden path down the right side of the glacier with ease. We stopped just the once so Matt could peer over into the depths of a crevasse only to beat a hasty retreat at the sound of a crack beneath his feet. The crack actually occured where i was standing and was only an inch wide, though laterally extensive - we had just witnessed the birth of a crevasse!
Happy we continued down to the moraines, Matt sliping once again on some hard water ice leaving me to arrest his fall (which i done more successfully than i arrested my own fall coming down off the Tour Ronde!). After that we descended incident free to the moraines where Helen was standing to greet us on our successful return. She told us how she had seen some people get helicopter rescued from the side of the Verte, the same people we had seen flashing head torches in our general direction. It later turned out it was a group of 3 Spanish climbers who had found themselves considerabley out of thier depth.
After some food and water we set off on our return to the Grand Montets telepherique. The ascent back up the Rognon Glacier was hard on weary limbs, the sun had melted the snow making walking arduous. So much so that when we had a rest stop i simply passed out and slept for fifteen minutes before Matt decided he had to wake me if we were to make the last cable car. I could have slept for hours! On we went however and after a torrid time finally made our way up the steps of the station to return to the valley.
We celebrated our fine ascent with pizza and wine down in Chamonix before returning to camp for a well deserved rest!