The rocky spike comes out in my hand – easily and without the slightest resistance.
I fall immediately. It doesn’t happen in slow motion like the films – and like the odd bad paraglider moment I have experienced. It is fast and vicious like a snake strike. There is a split second whirl as I somersault – and simultaneously two appalling noises – which are appalling since I know they are from bits of me hitting rock. There is a deafening BANG as my head hits something and at the same time a sort of a whump sound - as you’d expect if a softer but very heavy object fell from a great height onto a very hard surface.
Then things slow down.
I have time, now, to observe that I haven’t continued falling – tumbling on arse over tip, into the bergschrund 20m below. I am instead sprawled in the bottom of the niche, head uppermost and feet downhill, pointing towards where my journey may have continued, had I not been so fortunate.
I go on to consider the two impacts I heard – and as I start to work things out I feel a sense of dread. There has to be some damage... And somehow there is spare thought for the beginnings of self reproach for falling off a mountain like that! In nearly 40 years of mountaineering I have had one slightly pathetic rock-climbing leader fall, straight onto a piece of protection – and a couple of close shaves with crevasses. But I have never actually fallen – as in plummeted. Still, there is a first time for everything – and clearly the age of 51 is not too late.
Back to the head: despite the terrible noise I feel no pain at all - but instinctively I still reach up to feel for blood and displaced skull fragments. My fingers encounter hard plastic –with just a couple of surprisingly trivial gouges. Praise the lord for the helmet! Thankfully we had put our helmets on, down on the glacier and before we crossed the bergschrund to climb the last rocky bit to the top.
I feel a sense of relief about my head. But still unease about the second noise: I’m just wearing the one helmet and all other bits of me are unprotected. That other impact sounded really bad, and as if it should have involved the breaking of bones - at the very least.
I start to feel hot pain centred on my right hip area and the outside of my lower right thigh. It is increasing in intensity as I focus on it. Instinctively I simultaneously reach for the source of the pain and try to move my leg. I note minor tears in my legging – with no bits of shattered femur sticking through. I don’t feel the sticky dampness of blood. Then, with some relief, I find that I can move my leg – both hip and knee – and nothing else moves that shouldn’t do. Having broken ankles twice when paragliding, I can remember the feeling of movement where there shouldn’t be – and I don’t have that feeling right now.
I start to think that I have got away with it – maybe.
The next thought is about my Dutch companion Rob who I met for the first time just 3 days ago. He is out of sight, round the awkward corner, still descending behind me. Whilst I am relieved to find I probably don’t need a helicopter (haven’t tried to stand up yet though), I am still working on the beginnings of embarrassment at having let my guard down so badly. And there is still the possibility that my injuries will be bad enough to put paid to any more climbing in the next two weeks I was to be spending with Rob. I consider that I may end up having to let him down...
A beard with helmet on top appears over the top of the fateful corner. I wonder if Rob even knows that I fell. What I can see of his face is expressionless.
“What happened?” he asks “Are you OK?”
Oh – so he did hear something.
Trying to sound casual and keep the - I just nearly bounced down the mountain into a bloody great crevasse – tone out of my voice, I respond: “Err yeah, I’m OK... hand-hold, came out... took a bit of a fall... just bruised I think”
There isn’t any more to be said. Wincing at the blazing pain in my right hip area and lower thigh, I lever myself carefully off the two narrow spines of rock I landed on – protruding just a few centimetres through the snow in the floor of the niche. I am in Rob’s way as he prepares to tackle the awkward move. So I back off and down to a smaller hollow, just above where it drops away more steeply – towards the yawning abyss of the bergschrund.
I start to burble at Rob – something about him trying to find a different way down and round the awkward corner. But, still shaken, I am not very articulate – and besides the loose rock isn’t there anymore – I had conveniently removed it for him.
Rob reaches across, grasps solid holds and, moving briskly, the rest of him south of beard, swings confidently round and down onto the little level area, of late occupied by my butt. I move my hands out of the way to make room for his booted feet. Without further ado he reaches back into a corner, pulls out his crampons and starts to put them on. After a further moment’s contemplation of the hot pain in my butt, I break through the fog and recognise that I need to do the same.
It is very awkward getting my crampons on – and in the case of my injured leg downright painful – but eventually I manage. Although I have now demonstrated a degree of mobility, at some point Rob enquires as to any injuries I have sustained. I ruefully finger my smarting butt and note that through the slightly torn leggings I can feel a lump, already the size of an orange – and another one half the size further down my leg. It is then that I also notice the palm of my right hand is hurting – and find a tear in my glove, with (yet another) painful bruise growing underneath.
Clearly the newly convened Anglo-New Zealand/Dutch International Alps expedition 2012 has got off to an inauspicious start – well ok – I did anyway.
INTERNATIONAL EXPEDITIONThe expedition was born on the pages of summit post – as are quite a few, I imagine.
I am not sure what possessed me to agree to team up with ‘rgg’ a.k.a. Rob. At 52 he is an old git, like me – but from there we start to diverge: he is a Dutch IT consultant. The man has climbed about 50 alpine peaks – in the last 3 months. I shudder to think how many peaks he has climbed in his climbing career, which has been all in the last decade – but I do know that included are around 12 ‘six thousanders’ in the Andes. As to his level of fitness, I prefer to not even go there – and he claims he doesn’t hurt anywhere – well, apart from a little bit of aching in his knees if he makes too many descents of over 2500m.
As I waited to meet ‘rgg’ for the first time somewhere in the depths of Chamonix Sud, I speculated on what I was about to meet. I presumed he would be some kind of philistine climbing monster – totally obsessed, possessed and committed to a life of prolific ascending. It seemed he wasn’t of infinite means and so I assumed he would have to interrupt this lifestyle for occasional intervals of gainful employment, in order to pay for the next trip.
“But I’m not a philistine” he later said, with a mildly wounded look “I’m... complicated” As well as being a climbing monster, he is also a hard core scientist. But he professes also to be a lover of the arts. He has never been a teacher, but it is clear that nonetheless he’d be a natural – and readily slips into professorial mode instructing and lecturing in his perfect English (despite being Dutch). In addition I would later observe in him an instinctive sympathy for children and small dogs – although he has neither of his own.
So I was slightly disarmed when a threadbare bespectacled bean-pole climbed into my car, a big and slightly roguish grin splitting nearly four months worth of beard as he introduced himself “Hi – I’m Rob”.
What with the huge beard, he looked more like some sort of misplaced biblical prophet, than steely eyed peak-monster. All he needed to complete this illusion would be a robe (for people to touch) and a sturdy staff (to part the odd ocean with).
I was wrong about his eating habits as well. I was never to see him consume trail mix – and had he done, it wouldn’t have been by the occasional mean handful. He did however have to be fed very large amounts and very often – something of a paradox, given his lean frame. I would come to believe this was why he liked alpine huts and wasn’t (initially) that sold on my idea of bivvying. We’d have seriously struggled to carry the amount of food required to keep up with his intake. But as an old hand with alpine huts, he’d become adept at making sure they fed him at least twice at meal times.
Anyway, with my dual nationality (UK and NZ) and Rob being Dutch (and also speaking fluent German and HTML) we decided that was enough to make us an International Expedition.
Here is what we got up to.
INITIAL FORAYSWe spent a couple of days enjoying the company of that wise man of the mountains and also fellow SPer, Eric Vola – who climbed desperately hard routes in the company of a who’s who of climbing celebrities in an earlier era. There is not much Eric doesn’t know about the Chamonix valley. When we outlined grandiose plans of high level Mont Blanc traverses Eric gestured towards the dark clouds still streaming around the tops after recent heavy snowfall...
“But there has been 20cm of new snow down to 2000m. The Bionassay will be very dangerous – you will have big cornices... “
Eric kindly looked up a rather unsettled looking weather forecast on his PC and raked around his prodigious collection of maps and guidebooks. Initially his suggestions were rather in the direction of his own instinctive sympathy towards vertical granite and worse. Chamonix does after all teem with things called ‘Aiguilles’ (‘needles’). But eventually he accepted that not even Rob was a rock athlete – and my modest forays onto anything approaching the vertical were firmly consigned to more than 20 years in the past. Eric considered for a while and then pronounced judgement in his rumbling French accented English.
“I think maybe the Aiguille de Tour – should be in condition when the weather improves on Tuesday...” (It being yet another Aiguille, I had to seek assurance that it wasn’t one of those Aiguilles)
With it still only being Sunday the expedition planning committee turned to the matter of gainful activity for the interim. I was acutely aware that Rob was well acclimatised to altitude and I, fresh out from England, had just come from near sea level. Thus we parted for the day. Rob went to have a brisk 1500m stroll up Le Brevant. I took a brisk 3000m cable car ride to go breathe thin air for a few hours, up on the top of Aiguille du Midi, at 3800m.
Next day we packed light rucksacks, said farewell and thanks to Eric and Esther Vola and drove a few miles up the valley to Le Tour, where we left the car near to a little cable car station. I adjusted the straps of my pack, gripped my walking poles and pointed myself determinedly in the direction of uphill – ready to show my new companion that a fat English old git could keep up with a Dutch thin one.
“I think I could do with a bit more breakfast... Omelette et Frites would be good I think“. Rob had seen a little restaurant just at the start.
Still somewhat distended from bowls of granola and coffee just an hour before, I nonetheless forced down an Omelette et Frites.
Belching slightly, I finally set off, following Rob – who set a brisk pace. Quarter of an hour later he examined his watch critically, peering over the top of his glasses.
“We are ascending at about 480m per hour” he announced “That is quite OK I think – although we will probably slow down – particularly you!” The directness of this latter observation was softened by the roguish grin.
But we did slow down a bit – especially me. Nonetheless we reached the Albert Premiere Hut at 2702m, in a reasonable time, which Rob pronounced acceptable.
The weather was still vaguely menacing looking, but in deference to the favourable forecast, we decided that it was a ‘bad weather going away’ sky, rather than the other way round. One good spin-off for the troubled sky was a somewhat magnificent sunset.
AIGUILLE DU TOUR 3542m
Despite Rob’s copious breakfast needs we were not that far behind other parties leaving the hut – and were on the road just before dawn, picking our way over rocky terrain by head-torch light. For twenty minutes or so we blundered from cairn to cairn until, just as dawn was breaking, we reached the icy snow of the Tour Glacier.
The mountain we had come to climb looked somewhat impregnable from this angle – a sharp craggy spire silhouetted against the dawn sky – but we were given to understand that our route somehow went round the back of it, to an easy way up, graded II/F.
There was new snow on the glacier, but we didn’t feel there was enough to make hidden crevasses a danger. We decided to stay unfettered by rope, although we observed other parties were roping up. We did put on crampons though – and as the light slowly increased, we crunched our way up steepish slopes leading up to and around the rocky rognon of the Signal Reilly, at 2883m.
Although some of the tops were now turning golden, we remained in shadow and there was a chill in the air. We continued ascending the big glacier eastwards, across the base of the Aiguille du Tour, until we encountered a narrow tributary of the main glacier descending more steeply from the north, and at right angles to our initial direction of travel.
This glacier side-arm ascended to the Col Superior du Tour at 3289m – our way to the other side of the mountain and the, still unseen, route to the top. We paused briefly to admire the dawn, illuminating the top of the Chardonnet and even distant Mont Blanc – but also for Rob to have his 2nd breakfast.
Half an hour or so later we reached the col and for the first time emerged from grim, cold shadow, into brilliant early morning sunlight, on the other side. We paused again to apply sunblock, put on sunglasses, for me to fix a polarising filter on my camera – and for Rob to have a bite to eat (by now a sort of preliminary pre-lunch).
We perched on the rocks beside the vast open glacial plain of the Plateau du Trient. Abruptly and unexpectedly we received a telling off from a young, slightly oriental looking, man who seemed to be the leader of a party of half a dozen other youngsters.
“I’m sorry” he said with emphasis “but you should be roped up... it is very dangerous!” with even more emphasis. He looked at us severely for a moment – and even Rob stopped munching briefly, startled by the vehemence of the tongue lashing. The young man and his party continued on their way.
We barely had time to reflect before a much larger party swarmed over the rocks, coming from the direction of the Aiguille du Tour. I noticed one of them was moving around with especial vigour, brandishing a huge camera, shutter going like machine gun-fire, photographing the team from every conceivable angle.
“Hang-on!” he said – and the party came to a shuddering halt – “I’ve got to change my memory card!”
It occurred to me that memory cards hold thousands of shots. I haven’t yet changed the one on my camera, which I have used for several years. This guy was clearly doing some serious photographing...
I looked at the objects of his attention with increased interest: all the party seemed to have little UK Union Flags displayed on their jacket shoulders, like some kind of a team – and then my gaze fell on the familiar shaggy blond locks and clipped beard of Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin magnate. Oh – that’s why...
They didn’t speak to us and we had no idea what they were doing up there. Perhaps Sir Richard was on a scouting mission prior to either ballooning over, or purchasing Mont Blanc - as yet another acquisition for the Virgin Group. I later found out that Mont Blanc was indeed in his sights: but merely to climb it, on a fund raising quest for a charity.
The big party, who seemed to be supported by a little team of guides, soon clattered off back into the shadows of the other side of the col. We made ready to do the same – but in deference to the severe young man considered:
“Do you think we should put the rope on then?”
“No” was the decisive Dutch reply “There is a good track and it is still well frozen – and any crevasses round here will just be small ones”
I tended to agree, but nonetheless looked around slightly guiltily as we cast off, half expecting the severe young man to pop up from behind a rock to start chastising us again. As it happened he would pop up again, 2 days later, as we descended from Gran Paradiso.
We crunched off over sparkling snow. Our objective was now ahead and to our left as we moved towards completing a rough half orbit of it. A spur descending across our front still concealed from us the way we would reach the summit. But I noted that from this angle the mountain still looked suspiciously ‘Aiguille-like’ – in fact more so if anything, since from this angle the mountain terminated in a distinct point, which looked painful even to just sit on. I presumed a more comfortable actual top was out of sight still, along with our ascent route – which was supposed to be F for ‘facile’ after all.
Actually our research on this route suggested that the crux was a large bergschrund, said to be getting wider each year what with global warming and receding glaciers. Eric hadn’t seemed to think this would be a problem though.
And indeed it was not.
Twenty or so minutes later we had rounded the spur in a rising traverse – and there before us was the hitherto concealed northern aspect of our objective. To my discomfiture it was still a pointy spike. But the good news was that the bergschrund was not going to be a problem.
Ant-like people swarmed up on the rocks above. In fact quite a few seemed to be clinging precariously to the sides of the top, with there being insufficient room for more than about one at a time. And most seemed to be in a log jam of more ant-like figures trying to descend the 100m or so of steep snowy rocks to get back down to the bergschrund and thence the glacier.
“Some of them seem to be making heavy weather of it” observed Rob, casting an experienced eye on things. He continued “But I still think we could manage without the rope – you OK with that?”
I was OK with that, but we sat basking in the sun for a bit longer, waiting for the congestion to ease a little. One thing we did do though was to put on our helmets – a fortunate move as it transpired.
By the time we set off again, very few were left on the summit rocks. The bergschrund was certainly quite wide – but it was spanned by a large steeply rising snow bridge, which could be expected to stay intact, even as temperatures continued to rise, with the approaching afternoon. Nonetheless I found myself instinctively probing with my ice-axe and treating the safe looking snow with suspicion, given the gaping chasms to my left.
Above the big crevasse we now headed left in a rising traverse to join the increasingly spiky looking summit pyramid. As we joined the rocks we could initially keep to runnels of crampon-friendly snow in between. But with a clattering and scraping, this became progressively less easy. I can climb rock in crampons if I have to, but don’t especially like it. I am not in the remotest bit attracted to this new technique of ‘dry-tooling’. And Rob apparently felt similarly, a few meters up ahead of me...
“I’m just going to leave my crampons and ice axe here” he said from a small ledge – more of a niche. It had been evident that some other parties had been doing the same, the last of whom we were still passing us – on their way down.
It would be a relief to apply rubber as opposed to sharp metal to the rough rock. When I reached Rob’s niche, he had already moved on and the last remaining party on the peak had moved below me, heading down towards the steep snow slopes above the bergschrund. I flipped off my crampons and pushed them, along with ice-axe into a crevice. I noted that the move to get out of the niche was an actual climbing move – more than scrambling. But there were plenty of solid holds to grasp. I didn’t ‘clock’ the loose one though, which would later come out in my hand...
Back to scrambling again and round the corner, there was Rob momentarily paused on a snowy ledge. We carried on angled upwards and to the right, towards what looked like the crest of the north-east ridge.
And the ridge it was – with a big drop of hundreds of metres dropping down the other side onto the Glacier du Tour – which we had been labouring up a few hours earlier, on the opposite site of the mountain.
Mindful of the now not insignificant exposure, I climbed and scrambled after the happy Dutchman ahead of me. Although he professed not to be a serious rock-climber, he did seem to be demonstrating an appetite for the exposure – as well as for his endless food supply. It had been a long time since I had climbed anything remotely as airy...
We reached the place where the Laroche/LeLong guidebook says there is ‘a little mantelshelf’. I looked up to see how my companion would manage this – and forgot my worrying about the drop for a moment. The philistine used his knee! Generously I put this inelegance down to his obvious summit fever as, tail wagging; he swarmed enthusiastically onwards towards the final pointy bit, where it met the cobalt blue sky.
As a member of the British Alpine club, I tackled the move as a gentleman should – without use of a knee – and thus demonstrated a degree of elegance that would be shattered, less than an hour in the future.
Ah – the summit!
I find myself perched ridiculously on a pinnacle every bit as un-accommodating as it looked from all angles from below. I haven’t been on so tiny a summit in years. Horrible voids yawn in all directions. Stopping at what I perceive to be the highest point; I wedge myself into a little hollow for security. Meanwhile my companion prances delightedly about and settles, perched like some oversized bird on another pinnacle he has found – just in case it is higher. Smiling indulgently he gestures for me to join him.
“No Sir! I am not coming across over there – THIS is the summit right here!” I jab my finger into the piece of rock that I have decided is the highest point, for emphasis. He looks like an eagle perched on his eyrie, but I tell him how he looks like a dirty great vulture sat over there – just so he doesn’t get too full of himself. But he just beams benignly – clearly he minds that accolade less than the philistine one: “actually vultures are very beautiful birds in flight” he says.
Eventually Rob returns from his eyrie and joins me back on what I have decreed to be the actual top.
“Berg-heil Sir!” I say as we shake hands (in my case, not too vigorously, mindful of the drop...) – and remembering a summit salutation I have heard Teutonic types use.
He returns the compliment, less mindful of the drop - and offering also his roguish grin.
Still with my knee jammed in a crevice, I snap a few more summit photos with my big SLR. Rob settles down to the matter of his lunch. He’d left his backpack down in the glacier – but is sporting a capricious waist-bag to keep up his calorie intake.
It is quite pleasant as well as expedient having the summit to ourselves – anyone else would be dangling over the edge, or perforating their behind on Rob’s pinnacle. But I am mindful that we are on our own because we are the last on the mountain. The sun is rising ever higher as midday approaches – and in my mind’s eye, I start visualising the very solid snow bridge over the bergschrund melting like candle wax. And I start to see the fairly un-crevassed glacier below abruptly becoming riddled with holes like Swiss cheese – but with paper-thin lids of softened snow over the top.
I put my camera away and am soon in going down mode. The summit is now in the past and the words of my old mentor coming to mind: “most accidents are on the descent...” along with repeated nagging to “concentrate!”
I set off down intending to do just that. Rob – less anxious about the glacier melting follows more slowly. He is reluctant to leave his new found eyrie. With the dirty great drop below it isn’t difficult to concentrate at first. I reverse the ‘little mantelshelf’. In no time I am moving away from the crest and the awful abyss. Some more scrambling and then along the snowy ledge – and then I am at the awkward little corner above where we left our crampons. The rock everywhere is shattered and spiky looking – but thus far as solid as – well – rock. Nothing has been loose and I see no reason for that pointy rocky projection over there to be any different. A bit off-balance I reach for it, confident stability will be restored soon as I am holding it.
The rocky spike comes out in my hand – easily and without the slightest resistance...
The story has now run full circle. I fall and suffer the heavy and noisy landing. I find myself lying in the bottom of the niche and start to take an injury inventory – and fortunately the most severe injury appears to be a bruised butt and embarrassment. I have been saved from worse by my helmet and by having the good fortune not to continue my journey onwards into the waiting crevasse below.
Now Rob has re-joined me, observed that there is no visible blood, shattered bone and misplaced brain material on the rocks – so has turned to the matter of getting his crampons back on. I pass a moment or two in silent contemplation of the emotional fall-out from my experience. This will not, of course, get me down the mountain. Meanwhile Rob has nearly finished putting his crampons on and finally I decide that there is nothing for it but for me to do the same.
Thus spike-footed and ice-axe back in hand I negotiate the last bit of rock scramble downwards – and thence to the snow bridge, which is every bit as solid as when we came up. It hurts to move, but surprisingly my right leg still seems to work OK. Nevertheless once back down on the glacier, where Rob left his rucksack, I am pleased to sit down and apply my blazing butt to the soft cold snowy surface.
Back down at the hut, I inspect the damage more closely. There is a big red/purple bruise bulging in the upper outer quadrant of my R buttock and another smaller one further down my leg – where there is a small wound, which is painfully stuck to a little patch on my inner legging – which seems to have melted – presumably from some kind of friction produced by the impact.
I am stiffening up by the time we set off from the hut to walk back down to the valley. As such I am still able to go at a reasonable speed, but am limping a bit. What I don’t notice, distracted by the other pain, is that my awkward gait results in the jamming my big toe into the end of my right boot – and in addition I fail to note and act on blisters forming on both heals.
With me mildly incapacitated, we agree we’ll hitch a ride on the gondola which descends the last 300m to the valley bottom. We just catch one – before it closes for the day.
Back down in the valley, we find the car, load up and head for Chamonix – where Eric and Esther kindly put us up again. I am sore, but am relieved to find that the injuries are not going to put a stop to further activities.
What may stop to things though are the conditions. Aiguille de la Tour was OK, but Eric warns that the higher peaks will be afflicted by the two extremes of hard ice in some places but too much powder snow persisting in others. We no longer have hopes for Mont Blanc – at least not via the grand-slam ‘Royal Traverse’ over the Domes de Miage and Bionassay. At this stage we still presume that the Italian Val Veni/Aiguille Grises route should be in condition. Of my five previous ascents of Mont Blanc but by 3 different routes, this is one route I haven’t done. It would be a very worthy consolation prize.
“You had better go and talk to the guys at the Maison de la Montagne” Eric advises having spoken to some people he knows “They will have the most up to date information”
We do – and even the Aiguille Grises route has a big question mark over it at the moment – although we hope things may yet improve.
I am harbouring another thought: for reasons I can’t explain I would like to bivouac on top of Mont Blanc. Twice now, conditions have frustrated me – including on my last and solo ascent of the mountain in 2009. I have been working on Rob to convert him to this particular brand of lunacy.
Surprisingly he has been coming round to the idea. Inevitably he raised the issue of his getting fed adequately on such a venture. I tried to dismiss his concerns pointing out that the altitude would reduce his appetite up at 4810m. This happens to most normal people at this kind of elevation and has always happened to me. But Rob says that actually this doesn’t happen to him and from his Andes experiences he will expect to be just as hungry if not more so. Eventually he concedes that maybe he’ll just have to tighten his belt – we can’t go lugging the means to create a 3 course meal with 2nd helpings up there.
One thing is for sure though: with just the Aiguille du Tour under my belt, I am not yet acclimatised enough for climbing Mont Blanc, let alone bivvying on the summit. Rob had recently had nights at over 3000m before we met – and has climbed a few times to near 4000m. I am sure he’d be fine. But he is happy for us to go for another acclimatisation climb. He suggests Gran Paradiso – just across the border and highest summit that is all in Italy, at 4061m.
I’m up for it.
I had already been having thoughts about Gran Paradiso, before this trip and before I was in touch with Rob. It is one of the ‘stand-alone’ four thousanders and I had thought of it as a potential peak to be able to solo – in a corner of the Alps I don’t know very well.
GRAN PARADISO 4061m
Less than 24 hours later I am walking up an attractive pine scented track high above the little hamlet of Pont, in Italy. The weather is good and the light softening as sunset approaches. The only thing wrong is that I am in pain. And surprisingly the worst of it isn’t just my now impressively bruised looking butt.
The blisters I had my attention distracted away from on Aiguille du Tour have ended up maturing into deep two Euro piece sized craters, one on each heal – and each full of blood by the time I looked at them properly. And my poor right big toe ended up being crushed in the toe of my boot such that it looks as if the nail is barely attached – and it hurts like the devil. I am surprised and annoyed – I haven’t worn these particular boots for a long time, but I had no problems with them before, including a time when I wore them over a period of 2 weeks. I haven’t suffered like this with my feet since I wore my first pair of double plastic boots for an alpine season back in 1984.
I had to puncture and drain the blisters in order to get my boots back on. And now despite Compeed dressings, they are still very sore. My big toe I have just taped up – but I can’t understand why it hurts so much.
Of Rob there is no sign. We agreed he would go off at his own pace, anticipating my slow speed today. So I am ambling along, listening to something cheery on my podule, pausing every so often to admire the expanding vista – or to curse my painful feet. But there is just 700m of ascent today, up to the Vittorio Emanuele II Rifugio at 2732m. Even going slowly I should easily make it by sunset – or even more importantly by the evening meal. We are in Italy now – and hut meals are not to be missed.
Somewhere above the tree line I am startled to find myself over-run by a surging tide of those great huge alpine goat things I have christened ‘can-openers’ on account of their huge horns. I hope the brutes are friendly – I am in no shape to have to run away if they are not. Three of them pose rather engagingly on top of a rock close by and I photograph them.
I reach the Rifugio about an hour later. I find evidence that Rob also got by the can-openers safely, in that he has checked us both in – but he is still nowhere to be seen. I do the usual hut arrival routine, sorting out equipment for the next day – the only addition being having to re-Compeed my heels. You are supposed to be able to put such very expensive dressings on and forget about them, until whatever they are covering has healed. But mine have both filled up with blood.
I pass some time studying the Refugio notice board: due to shrinkage of the little Gran Paradiso Glacier it is no longer advisable to follow the old route, which went up that way starting from about half a kilometre from the hut. Instead a red dotted line on a photo shows that it is recommended to keep traversing for a further half a click before a steep ascent up a spur of lateral moraine, which in due course leads up to a main ridge; the Eselsrucken. Some way up this there is a choice: to drop down on to the large Lavecieu Glacier, so joining the rather tedious looking approach from the Chabod Hut – or to keep following the ridge above Eselsrucken and thence to join the large glacier somewhat further up. When considering soloing Gran Paradiso the latter was the way I envisaged going, the upper glacier being reputed just to have ‘one or two small crevasses’ opening in late season.
Rob as it happens has been scouting out the intricacies of the very early part of the route – which chances are we will be doing by head-torch light. He gets so carried away that he ascends a good 200m up the rocky trail of cairns, forgets the time – and is uncharacteristically late for the evening meal.
But he soon makes up for lost time and takes full advantage of the fact that the Italians believe in two main courses after the soup, one of pasta and the other a meat and potato dish. I am a little peckish myself – but one of each course is enough for me. Once again Rob somehow accommodates two helpings of everything.
And he is ravenous again by 5am when breakfast is served – and once again, we are off at the back of the pack.
“At least we can follow the head-torches” he observes as we stumble out into a notorious boulder field, which we have to cross before ascending the moraine.
There is about 600m of height to gain before we reach the Eselsrucken. I am pleased that my feet seem not too bad at first – and I enjoy the approach of dawn, shedding light first of all on the just visible crown of Mont Blanc – or, I should say Monte Bianco, since we are now in Italy.
But this doesn’t last. By the time I am tramping the hard boulders of the ridge; my heels and big toe are beginning to blaze again.
At around 3400m, having now ascended 700m – same as yesterday – we reach the point where there is a choice of lower Lavecieu Glacier - or on up the ridge, which bypasses the most crevassed zone. It doesn’t take long to opt for the glacier, crevasses and all. One party is stolidly battling on up the ridge: it is clearly do-able, and I’d go that way if solo – but it is all boulders and undulating - and looks a pain, especially with persisting powder snow around from the recent heavy snowfall.
So glacier it is. Despite crevasses and a slightly tortuous route, it can just be plodded – and will be quicker than scrambling around on snowy boulders. This glacier looks somewhat more menacing than the relatively benign ones we encountered on Aiguille du Tour the day before yesterday.
“You want to rope up?”
“Yes – definitely!”
“The trail is still well frozen of course”: noting that the sun will not hit this bit of the glacier for quite a few hours yet.
“Yeah – but I still think we better rope up”
Half an hour later we are crunching up steepish snow, crampon booted, harnessed and roped. Most of the crevasses are solidly bridged, but there are a few suspicious little dimples in the frozen surface – and I make a mental note that some bridges may be thought-provoking once a bit of sun gets to them.
Gaining height quite steeply, the vista behind is opening up quite nicely – especially the bit of the horizon with Monte Bianco. But I’m now finding it hard to forget the hot pain in both feet. And my butt is quite sore as well – the big muscles of my traumatised right buttock, having rhythmically propelled me uphill for some hours now, are starting to protest.
The pain makes me feel slightly irritable and I try not to be short with Rob, who is burbling away cheerfully, wandering from one anecdote to the next from a prodigious reservoir, as he strides easily up the icy slopes.
Every so often I interrupt him, pointing out there is another bottomless chasm – just to make sure he remembers where he is and doesn’t walk into one. Roped or not – he is the crevasse rescue expert and I prefer not to have my outdated dinosaur technique put to the test.
What with the state of my feet, I find the lower glacier a trial – and I am glad when after an hour or so we emerge into bright sunlight – to move off the glacier briefly and re-join the now very snowy ridge. It is time for a belated (2nd) breakfast – and I am nearly as hungry as Rob, despite throbbing feet.
Views of Monte Bianco are better still. But now the elusive summit of our own mountain has for the first time come into view. It looks strange – and not at all like any other summit I have visited. Our route follows the snowy ridge for a little way before bending to the left, as it re-joins the upper glacier. Then, climbing much more steeply than I expected, it angles up to a bizarre almost horizontal seeming crest composed of blocky little buttresses, a bit like molar teeth. One of these squared off teeth is evidently the top – by no means the highest looking – but the presence of the minute specs of people up there seem to identify it as the summit. There is still about 400m of ascent to go – and we are already about 200m higher than Aiguille du Tour.
“About an hour to the top I think” Rob ventures optimistically. But I am aware that I will be slowing down, as the altitude starts to bite from here on.
The upper section of the mountain is beautiful. Despite the pain in my feet I find I am appreciating it – even enjoying it. Pictures I have seen of this section made it look rather flat – and with old late season snow, rather drab. But with the new snow, even nearly a week old now, it looks pristine sparkling white, against the rich ochre of the rocks – and dark blue of the sky. And we are now climbing above the clouds – which always makes me feel as if I am approaching the roof of the world.
Step by step we labour upwards. Every now and then I glance up and see that the minute dots of people up on the top are in fact getting larger. At some point they reach ant-like. Sometime later they have distinct arms and legs. A bit like on Aiguille du Tour; there seems to be some congestion – as if there is a queue to stand on the top. We know this is another mountain which has a rocky sting in the tail. But that is as far as the similarity goes. The scenery is quite different up here, with our goal being the top of one of the peculiar shaped little buttresses adorning the skyline, rather than a sharp point of a peak – as on Aiguille du Tour.
At some point Rob expresses concern about my laboured breathing. I suppose I do sound a bit like a steam engine. But actually I feel fairly comfortable up here at close to 4000m now. I try to explain to him that the way I am breathing is normal for a fat bastard breathing air of a thinness not experienced for over 18 months.
Up quite close and from sideways on, the summit block has now taken the form of the prow of a giant ship. The final rocks are probably a mere 50m high, but look quite impressive from this angle. As we have been labouring upwards we have passed quite a few parties heading down, but there are still a few up there, a handful apparently awaiting a turn to stand on the top – identifiable by the Madonna statue.
We cross a little bergschrund. It is steeper now, scrambling up over snowy rocks, but not quite as steep as it looked from below. There is soon a modest drop to the left. But then, on reaching the crest there is a positively huge one, down the east face to the right.
One team seems still to be up ahead. We find it is a large party from Czech Republic. They have fixed a rope along a few meters of exposed traverse across ice crusted rocks – up to the Madonna summit, which is at 4058m. Generously they allow us to clip into their rope and join them on the rather cramped top.
The views are superb in all directions – save one – and that is in the direction of the next bump on the ridge. It appears to be very slightly higher (it is all of 3 metres higher). The guidebook says it is a 20 minute climb to get there – if on dry snow-free rock. But today the rocks are part plastered in snow and ice. Nobody has been going over there today – there are no tracks. But predictably Rob is examining the terrain... Madonna summit not good enough – he wants to go there...
“No Sir! I am not going over there!”
“Well in that case you shouldn’t tick the little box on the SP climbing log that says you have summited! I don’t think I will be.”
“Well I am going to. This is good enough for government work getting up here. And I haven’t suffered all the way up just for you to tell me I didn’t reach the top. Besides I hereby declare that today this IS the top – I mean why stick that great statue up here if it isn’t?” referring to the Madonna. By a dubious process of triangulation involving the sun, the good Lady Madonna and a 3rd point as yet undetermined I can scienterrifically prove this important point.
We agree to differ – and the banter dwindles as we lose ourselves in the vista of peaks and clouds around and below our lofty position. Only distant Mont Blanc and a handful of close satellites are higher – well, apart from our immediate neighbour.
It is time to leave our lofty little platform in the sky. Generously our Czech friends let us go first, since with their large mixed ability party, they will be slow all getting across the airy traverse. Rob scrapes and clatters his crampon footed way across and then, as quickly as I can, I follow – trying not to pay too much attention to the empty void to my left.
We make a rapid descent, catching up and passing a few of the groups who had been ahead of us.
The lower glacier is now in sun as we reach it. I am wary – wondering how the snow bridges are faring. But it is fine. The air temperature is still cold and things are still frozen. No sign of any melting yet.
My feet are relatively OK cramponing down the snow. But eventually we are off the glacier, back on the mix of boulders and soft snow of the Eselsrucken. I am tired now and the irregularities of the descent make for hard work – with frequent jarring and grinding soon becoming murder on my poor abused feet.
“Only another 1200m to go” Rob points out helpfully. I am not sure I find the thought amusing.
There is an annoying bit of steep rock to descend to get from the ridge to the lateral moraine crest. It was a lot easier coming up and we blunder around trying to find the best line on loose terrain, where a slip could have serious consequences. Mindful of events of just 2 days before, I am extra careful – and feel relief when I finally step onto the easy moraine.
The hut is in sight, but still quite a long way away and quite a lot below.
But bit by bit it gets nearer, until finally we are there. Of course there is still another 700m to go to get back down to the valley. But I am going to have a rest and rehydrate first. I don’t feel hungry – but Rob is – and has another meal.
Leaving Rob to finish eating and drinking I set off down the easy, but unwelcome path towards the valley bottom. It hurts, but I go at a fast hobble – not least to be able to get it over with as quickly as possible.
About a third of the way down, round about where I met the can-openers yesterday, I encounter a large party with a familiar vaguely oriental looking young man walking at point. It is our severe acquaintance from the day before yesterday. I instinctively feel guilty, looking about me to see if I am doing anything he will disapprove of. He speaks to me, but I don’t really understand what he says and just nod and smile vacuously. I feel like telling him that we did rope up today...
We go our separate ways. I am soon back in the tree-line, walking the pine scented lower trails. The deep valley is already in shadow, with sunset approaching.
Rob catches me up just before the bottom – and then we are simultaneously passed by and pass members of the Czech expedition we shared the summit with some hours earlier – and 2100m above.
It is good to get back the car. It is even better to drive down the road and find a 2 star hotel Rob had discovered just before we met. My heels are a bloody mess under disintegrating Compeeds – my big toe throbs to such an extent I fancy I can hear it – and the purple bruise on my butt has doubled in extent since I last inspected it. I bundle all these woes into the bath – then it is clean dressings and clothes and a rather fine dinner, which makes it all seem worthwhile.
Rob is magnanimous when I say that I think I need a rest day tomorrow...
TOE SURGERYThe rest day accomplishes a few things. My suffering heels get a break from more grinding and benefit from being under light dressings to dry out a little. I get to inspect my big toe properly to see why it still hurts so much and discover that the nail is afloat on top of a tense little pocket of blood. It is called a subungual haematoma – and I missed it since normally these present as an obvious crescent of dark red discolouration at root of the nail. But the entire nail has gone a peculiar sickly pale colour, which I had assumed was it starting to detach from the nail bed – except that I’d have expected the pain to get less with that, not more as has been happening. What gives the game away is that there is a tense red bulge coming out from under the front end of the nail.
I have got the biggest subungual haematoma I have ever seen and I realise I am going to have to do something about it. Back a couple of decades in a former life, I was a casualty officer and dealt with hundreds of these. I dealt with quite a few after that as a GP, up to about 15 years ago. Actually it was my least favourite surgical procedure, involving drilling through the nail to relieve the pressure. In Accident & Emergency there was a mini Black & Decker to do this with. As a GP I used a straightened out paper clip, heated to red heat and then plunged into the root of the nail amid smoke and consternation from the patient – until blood squirted out, relieving both the pressure and the accompanying pain.
The good news about my subungual haematoma is that it is so big it is bulging out from under the nail and I don’t have to do any scary nail-drilling to reach it. I find a suitable needle, expecting to make a slit for blood to ooze out. But I’ve forgotten how much pressure there can be in these things. As I insert the needle tip I am startled to see a little jet of blood squirt back out of the hub of the hollow injection needle. The pain is of course relieved and as I tape the nail back down I reflect that I could have saved myself a significant part of yesterdays discomfort had I recognised what had happened a little sooner.
After a little bit of post op toe elevation I cautiously venture off to Courmeyeur in the car. Rob is lurking somewhere with my entire book collection – and reads at least 3 books during the course of the rest day. Like meals, I think he can manage more than one at a time. Having known him for a week now, I am no longer surprised by these kinds of revelations.
My trip into town enables me to track down the local mountain advisory centre. The bad news is that the Gonella route on Mont Blanc is in poor condition, to the point that the hut has closed early for the season. This is the third time I have been disappointed – first time too early in the season, second time hut was being re-built and they had ‘closed’ the entire route and this time too late. But the good news is the weather forecast is looking favourable for the next few days.
I go back to share the news with Rob, but cannot find the particular place where he is devouring my books. He reappears at dinner time, bored since he hasn’t anything left to read. I promise him the one book I have left – which I have just finished reading.
Over another excellent meal and despite the distraction of an incredibly charming eastern European waitress, we come up with a new game-plan.
Despite a successful operation my feet would benefit from another 24 hours respite. We agree to nip across to Switzerland, to the Saas Fee valley, to have a go at the Lagginhorn. At 4010m it is just a ‘four thousander’ and I had considered it 3 years ago when I climbed the slightly higher neighbour; the Weissmies. But the good news is that it has a hut that is reachable by cable car – up at Hohsaas, at just over 3100m.If we go up there tomorrow, I don’t even have to try to get my boots back on until the day after – and then there is a shortish summit day with just 1000m of height gain – and then cable car again, to get out of another foot grinding descent to the valley.
And after that, we think we may still have the weather to climb Mont Blanc by the last reasonable route option. This has to be the Gouter route, which I have climbed 4 times, including solo. Hopefully a bivvy at the highest point in Europe will be justification to go up there a fifth time.
And then Swiss mountain huts: those charming rustic but immaculate mountain houses, with the quaint red and white window shutters...
But, in the event, we experience none of these things. My philistine companion isn’t excited about Schwienschnizel and actually doesn’t like Bratwurst – and has never even heard of Thomy salad dressing. We will end up launching a surgical strike at the Lagginhorn: in and out in 24 hours – and back to Chamonix. Instead of stopping for a meal, Rob is content to feed his face with an entire loaf he bought in France and turned into one massive sandwich with some dog-food smelling processed turkey slices he found – all as we drive along the Rhone valley, passing restaurant after fragrant restaurant...
There is a brief glimpse of the chocolate box beauty glimpsed from the cable car window as we hurtle up above the stunning Saas valley; with pine forests, meadows of a special lush grass that I think grows only in Switzerland – and all those neatly laid out little chalets with floral window boxes. But then we are way up above the tree line again and breathing the cold thin air of 3100m – and here is the hut at Hohsaas. Or rather where is the hut at Hohsaas? Not a red and white shutter in sight. Instead there is something like the kind of canteen you’d expect to find on a Ski field. This is apparently it – but the hut bit is somehow buried underneath it. And it costs 70 Euros to stay the night. And if that isn’t bad enough; they charge a staggering 8 Euros for 1 litre of water – and in the rush to get here, I forgot to fill up my water bottles...
With a very cross expression on my face I slowly count out the money for one miserable litre of water. But the young girl at the till is quite shameless and looks me straight in the eye before she, just as pointedly, counts my coins into her bulging cash drawer. From then on I get my water from the taps at the sinks in the toilets – where signs say the water isn’t fit for drinking. Ha! But this is antiseptic Switzerland! Rob agrees that the signs must be a lie. (But before this advice precipitates a flurry of cases of gastroenteritis amongst SP readers, let me confess that I did slip a water sterilising tablet into each litre I misappropriated in this way).
Early next morning there is actually an excuse (apart from breakfast) to leave late: the route across to the lower part of the Lagginhorn is far from clear. We plan to climb the west ridge, an allegedly mainly rock ridge at PD standard, up to what is described as a ‘surprisingly airy finish’. This hut also services the 4023m Weissmies, whose snowy ramparts are visible from here. But the Lagginhorn with its west ridge is out of sight and the route to get to it seems to necessarily involve losing several hundred metres of height, to join a more frequented route up from the Weissmies Hut, 400m below and over 1km distant (and actually closer to the Lagginhorn than the Weissmies).
The problem with getting from the Hohsaas Hut to the Lagginhorn is that between the hut and the lower west ridge is a little ice field called the Hohlaub Glacier followed by a tricky looking spur – then another small glacier, the Lagginhorn Glacier – before you can finally set foot on the Lagginhorn. Wary of further damage to my feet I hobble carefully up above the hut to where I can see our objective.
I can see from my viewpoint that it is easier to gain access from the Weissmies Hut which is right at the foot of the west ridge. From there all you have to do is go upwards. There is an extra 400m of height gain however, which in theory you don’t have if you leave from the 3100m Hohsaas Hut. But my searching inspection fails to pick out a plausible looking route, despite what it says in the guidebook. It looks as if we’ll be forced to lose most of the extra 400m height advantage and descend almost all the way down to the Weissmies Hut, in order to get round all the obstacles – most notably the rocky buttresses of that west pointing spur, between the two small glaciers.
So we leave at dawn at around 7am, when we can just about see what we are doing, even though we are still in deep shadow. At the moment, only the extraordinary back drop of summits on the other side of the valley, are catching the golden light of sunrise.
Although the hut was apparently full to bursting only one other party is headed our way – and they leave at the same time. The distant procession of little dots crawling up the undulating whiteness of the Weissmies north-west face indicates where all the other parties have gone.
I needn’t have worried about route finding.
Having lost a mere 50m of height we pick up a trail of cairns passing improbably across boulders and slabs below the tongue of the tiny Hohlaub Glacier. And then, at close quarters, the impregnable looking buttress of the spur turns out to be breeched by a convenient ramp rising from right to left. I now realise what the rather brief guide book description is on about. The book also mentions ‘pitches of II’ hereabouts. But it is all pretty easy and I tend to agree with Rob when he decrees the climbing as mere grade I. Even the few bits of fixed cable we encounter seem superfluous - other than to show the way – and there is no talk of roping up.
In no time we are over the other side and on the 2nd glacier. It is slippery and although not that steep I elect to put on crampons. I have had enough woaaargh moments on this trip and I am aware that my sense of balance is not what it once was. More sure footed Rob just gets on with it – crosses the few hundred meters of ice and starts scrambling up a snowy gangway, which joins another ramp also angling up to the left, but leading onto the rocks of the crest of the Lagginhorn west ridge.
I am pleased that thus far, having had 2 full days off, my feet are much better than on Gran Paradiso. My big toe has definitely responded to the surgical intervention. My heels are still very tender and were still oozing, when I changed the dressings again this morning, but I feel that I am not causing more damage at the moment.
Our mountain dominates the skyline now, still somewhat in shadow against a still brightening early morning sky. It will be a few hours yet before we greet the sun – still rising on the other side of our objective.
From this angle the Lagginhorn looks incredibly foreshortened – the summit barely seeming higher than the point at which we will join the crest. It is a disappointing mountain to look at. Even from high up on the opposite side of the valley it doesn’t look a very attractive mountain. Its slightly higher sibling Weissmies just gets away with it having that snowy north-west face, but even that is hidden from view from most directions - such that both peaks look somewhat bleak and devoid of snow, to the point that it is hard to appreciate they are both four thousanders. They don’t feature on any chocolate boxes or jigsaw puzzles that I have seen.
But if the Lagginhorn isn’t one to stand and look at, it more than makes up for its short comings by definitely being one to actually be on. A couple of hours later we are high up on the west ridge, still mostly in shadow, but there is now the feeling of ascending a ladder climbing right up into the sky. The Saas valley is in view far below – and there above is the shining crest of the Tasch-Dom traverse, the finest alpine route I ever did, way back in 1986. I have climbed most of the summits over there at one time or other, the Dom and Alphubel twice, and including the distant Dufourspitze – 2nd highest in all the Alps and highest peak in Switzerland.
It is enjoyable scrambling up the west ridge. Initially it is very rocky and my crampons are off again. We reach a steepening, where the guidebook says there is a ‘pitch of II on a slab’. It is a little harder than the ‘II’ we encountered earlier, but we still don’t feel the need for the rope. Shortly after we encounter the ‘notch’, where there is a suitable little pinnacle for Rob to perch on and enjoy a little more breakfast. The steeper slopes of the summit block are in front now. It looks very close until I see the ant-like figures that are way up there close to the summit. We are encountering other parties now – who have presumably come from the Weissmies Hut.
From here it is snowy as well as steeper. We both agree on crampons now – and I get out my ice-axe. We climb in companionable silence, meandering up around rocky outcrops towards our rendezvous with the sky. I am less breathless than I was on Gran Paradiso.
Occasionally there is a bit of a scramble and gradually the gradient increases. At some point Rob gets his ice-axe out. At some point the route takes us towards the northern side of the still quite broad ridge – and there is some exposure, with the large drop down onto the Fletschhorn Glacier.
Not infrequently now we are passing groups from the other hut, who have already summited and are going down. High above, others are still arriving. Like on Gran Paradiso 2 days ago, I am gratified to see that the initially antlike specs above are slowly resolving into figures with limbs. We are getting perceptibly closer to the summit now.
There comes a more prolonged section of scramble, which a couple of parties are making heavy weather of coming down. Surmounting this we emerge in full sunlight for the first time. Now there is an attractive bit of snow crest rising steadily over a distance of maybe 100m. The trail ascends parallel to and just below the crest. Then the summit rocks are right there – that must be the ‘surprisingly airy finish’ referred to in the guidebook.
I photograph Rob on the snow crest – as he plods upwards into the sun. He is soon tackling the final steep section and will be on top in just a moment.
The summit rocks are indeed airy. Without being downright vertiginous it is a spectacular and impressive bit of mountain to be on – and I actually enjoy the exposure. I am less nervous of it than I was on the Aiguille du Tour so perhaps I am re-gaining my old head for heights. I take a photograph looking up, just as Rob joins the little cluster of people perched on the top.
It is another small summit. I take good care not to trip as I step over legs and circumnavigate the summit cross to find somewhere to perch. Rob is already tucking into a peach.
MOST BEAUTIFUL SUMMIT
On 9th September 2009 I looked down from Weissmies across a sea of cloud far below and only to the east, over Italy. There were no clouds on the western Swiss side or around the high summits. But today 3km away on the Lagginhorn there are a few puffs of fair weather cumulus playing around the summit, again on the Italian side – and limiting views towards the Bernese Oberland.
As on this day 3 years ago, views to the west are clear; across Saas Fee to the wall of 4000m peaks stretching from mighty Dufourspitze, to the summits of the Allalin group, then the 7 four thousanders of the spectacular Mischabel group – which includes my old friends the Taschhorn and Dom. And some four thousanders from across the other side of the Zermatt valley are peaking through gaps in that great wall: there is Liskamm to the south and just visible the triple summits of the Breithorn – and furthest to the north the proud white pyramid of the Weisshorn.
I have stood on the summits of most of the mountains I can see over there: 3 of the Monte Rosa summits including Dufourspitze, the Breithorn 5 times, the Alphubel and Dom both twice... There are also two mountains over there that I failed on: Rimpfischhorn and the Weisshorn, which I lucked out on 3 times.
I take out my mobile phone and find there is reception up here. I try to phone my wife who is on her way to Spain today, to go on a week’s horse ride across the Pyrenees. She is probably in transit and unable to answer, so I leave a voicemail.
The time comes to start the long descent.
A young woman is struggling with her descent of the summit rocks, played on a tight rope by the leader of their party of four. Generously they let us pass and we quickly scramble down and along the ridge to the snow.
We descend very quickly catching up and passing several other slower roped parties negotiating the steep slopes of the summit block.
A little over 300m below the summit we reach the grade II slab. We had climbed this without crampons coming up, but elect to keep crampons on to descend, since we will be more secure on the still snowy terrain beyond.
“Do you want the rope?” Rob asks, aware I am not quite as confident as he is on the more technical bits.
“No, it’s OK”
Keeping 3 points in contact at all times and carefully testing each hold before trusting a hand or a crampon spike, I clamber down after the receding form of my Dutch companion. I feel a slight nervousness, aware a fall from here would be very serious. But I’m just within my comfort zone and manage the necessary sequence of moves safely.
We pause at the little pinnacle where we stopped on the way up and have a drink and a bite to eat. A lone German speaking climber we had met on the summit arrives. He engages Rob in conversation – and Rob later tells me the man always climbs solo and intends to go on to attempt the Rimpfischhorn and Strahlhorn – both of which I’d have thought too glaciated to be advisable for an un-roped climber.
Perhaps unsurprisingly my still raw feet are starting to communicate with me again. It is too much to expect that they will stay OK with the jarring movements of walking in crampons over uneven mixed terrain. But they are still not as bad as on Gran Paradiso. The bruised areas on my butt and thigh are also making themselves known. And of course there are the usual crop of old git aches and pains in my lower back and knees. Only my carefully taped big toe still remains relatively pain free. As usual the barbarian Dutchman lopes over the irregular surface like a woolly bearded young gazelle. I slightly struggle to keep up with him now – but we are still catching up and passing other groups – so I can’t be doing too badly.
At some point we decide we have gone as far as we need to in crampons. I flip mine off with relief, aware that my feet will get less of a grinding now. But it means being extra careful descending the snowy ramp back down to the slippery Lagginhorn Glacier. A slip here will not have major consequences – other than I will likely land on my butt – and that will hurt.
Rob has a 100m lead on me. The gap is soon even wider since I am accosted by a party of elderly gents my age and older who have forgotten the way to the Weissmies hut. They are confused seeing us following the route towards Hohsaas and I direct them in what I think is the right direction. I don’t know what made them descend off the side of the ridge – all they had to do was keep following it and they would eventually have reached their goal.
We round the spur again and descend the ramp with the bits of grade II, which we think are easier – plus superfluous via ferrata. Except that now, with my sore feet I admit I am happy to hold the fixed cable as I go down.
The bouldery slabs of below the snout of the tiny glacier are also a little awkward with sore feet and there is now the occasional stream to cross. Finally there is that 50m of height we lost from Hohsaas, which we now have to gain again. It is all the easier for the knowledge that after that there is no long painful plod down to the valley 1200m below – whatever we decide to do.
The weather is still fine and Rob would quite like to stay up here and climb the Weissmies, which he hasn’t done before. I have – but not from this side – and have to admit that the route via the north-west face and west ridge is tempting. One thing that is not so tempting is paying another 70E for the privilege of staying up here. But in any case we have agreed if the weather forecast is good for further ahead than tomorrow, we should get back to Chamonix and our plans for Mont Blanc. Neither of us would want to do the Weissmies if it meant missing out on that. We get a forecast from one of the staff at the hut and we think it sounds as if we should return to Chamonix.
After a quick reorganise we catch a Gondola ride all the way down to the valley, where I hope to at least score a Schwienschnizel and a few bottles of Thomy salad dressing, before hightailing it back into France.
But back down in the warm pine-scented air of the little town of Saas Grund I discover it is Sunday. Everything is closed. There will be no Schwienschnizel - and no bottles of Thomy salad dressing to put in the car boot either.
Three hours later we reach Chamonix. Having had an early start, climbed a 4000m summit and then driven for 140km across two mountain passes I am feeling decidedly weary and ready to follow the path of least resistance to find somewhere to stay. Predictably, my companion is not and has the energy to keep looking until midnight if necessary. And the weather is looking decidedly dodgy – in fact as we crossed the pass of Les Montets and started descending towards Argentiere, there were a few bursts of rain. Mont Blanc is hidden behind a wall of dark cloud.
It takes some time to find somewhere to spend the night. In theory I have the technology for us to camp, albeit in an oversized family tent which I haven’t erected in years and is missing its bag of pegs (so we’d have to use the few from my one man tent and improvise for the rest). But it is getting dark, there is still some rain around, we haven’t camped thus far – and I really just can’t be arsed. We end up in a 2 star Hotel in Le Praz de Chamonix but paying a little more than Rob thought we should, had I been prepared to be more persistent.
AIGUILLE DU BELVEDERE 2965m
With still weeping blisters on both heals I am quite tempted to call it a day and be content with the 3 summits we have climbed.
My companion clearly feels differently. The force which propelled him up over 50 summits in three months is gathering strength again. He starts to look at maps and guidebooks for the Aiguille Rouges – and talks at length to one of the advisers in the Maison de la Montagne. My lack of enthusiasm has not the slightest effect.
I’d have been prepared to put up with a bit more damage to my feet towards the cause of a bivvy on top of Mont Blanc. I don’t feel inclined to do so, just to climb a mountain of probably not even 3000m, which is towered over by the 4810m summit, which we had intended to climb.
But the peak monster is not going to return to Amsterdam without one more summit. Cheerfully ignoring my display of negative vibes, he sets about wearing down my resistance. Switching to university lecturer mode he patiently explains to me the options – which don’t include not climbing a mountain.
All of a sudden it appears that I am going to climb the Aiguille du Belvedere. It will be good for me and I will like it apparently. Although just a poxy 2965m it still manages to be the highest summit of the Aiguille Rouges - which I suppose is something.
The proposed ascent route is the south ridge via Col des Dards, from a hut at Lac Blanc at 2300m. The grade is F+/II-III. Rob thinks that an F grade is not consistent with the II/III and I have to agree – PD seems more realistic. Anyway, we’ll take the rope and I for one expect we may use it this time.
Later in the day I recognise I have done the Aiguille Rouges an injustice. Although far smaller than the neighbours on the other side of the valley, up close they are big enough. I ought to have remembered that from the early 1990’s when I flew amongst them by paraglider. And the Lac Blanc is beautiful, even with a nearly overcast sky. Finally, the hut is far pleasanter than the one we have just been in and not much more than half the price.
To save my feet I catch a cable car up to La Flegere and walk the remaining 400m up to the hut, whilst Rob, thirsting for exercise, is walking up from the bottom. So I am here first and have time to check in and wander around a bit. I take a good look at our objective. Belvedere is certainly a nice looking mountain – a conical looking rock peak towering above the little lake. I imagine it may look even better in the early morning in still conditions, when it will be reflected in the waters.
Back at the hut I find Rob has arrived and is in the process of exasperating the lady hut warden. She is trying to explain to him that he cannot come in with his trainers on - because of the risk of bringing in bedbugs. Although Rob can speak quite good French they are trying to converse in English – and the lady is finding the situation something of a challenge. Rob is speaking in tones of sweet reasonableness saying he can come in because he isn’t wearing climbing boots.
Looking at Rob’s trainers I quite understand the reasons for concern. They look unsanitary at best and in danger of getting a little over-powering in a confined space. But aside from that, not only might they bring bed-bugs in, they would also bring in Rob who, with even more beard now plus having just ascended 1000m in less than 2 hours, is looking a bit on the ripe side himself.
“Quite right Madame” I say, starting to contribute to the proceedings “You shouldn’t let him in!”
She turns to me in some surprise – but then relief. Clearly she remembers that I was much more compliant with her bedbug lecture, when I arrived an hour earlier. Not that my French was a great help, but I had heard about bed-bugs getting in foot-ware and rucksacks before and half understood the issue anyway (but having said that I had used alpine huts for over 30 years before I did hear).
“You explain heem!” she says, making a Gallic gesture I think I interpret as either; over to you – or – take him away before I strangle him!
Moving swiftly I guide Rob out of harm’s way and towards the correct door of the hut. I try to tell him all I know about the life cycle of bed bugs and how that is the explanation as to why mountain huts have rooms for leaving boots and rucksacks... but that it should mean all outside foot-ware, not just climbing boots. The scientist in him is interested and intrigued: he didn’t know the boot issue was about bed bugs and thirsts to know more. My understanding of parasitology is rudimentary and I am unable answer all his questions.
We set out on our last climb together at the very un-alpine hour of 8 o’clock in the morning. The Lac Blanc hut caters mostly for walkers of the Tour du Mont Blanc, who are altogether a more civilised clientele than climbers and prefer a later start. Thus breakfast is somewhat later than other huts we have stayed in. Naturally it would be out of the question to leave before breakfast.
I had reconnoitred the lower part of the route the previous day. This has enabled me to show my companion how we have to negotiate not just one, but two tiny lakes – crossing an ‘isthmus’ between them. In keeping with his biblical appearance he has designs on walking across the first lake, but there isn’t time to start mucking around – and I suggest he experiment first in the safety of his own bathroom back at home. We also consider the possibility of dividing the waters, but he hasn’t got his robe and staff so decide to put this one ‘on ice’ as well.
Having successfully negotiated the isthmus between the two lakes we follow what appears to be bits of a track and a line of ornate cairns directly ascending the slopes above before angling off on a tortuous route heading to the right and roughly in the direction of Cols des Dards. Interestingly we will descend on a similarly plausible but totally different track and cairn sequence. Clearly there is more than one way to reach the Col des Dards.
Also interestingly it appears that whoever designed most of the cairns had an eye for the female form: the majority of the cairns being strikingly mammary in shape – compared to rather phallic ones we found on Gran Paradiso and to a lesser extent the Lagginhorn.
Despite a somewhat rambling route we steadily gain height above the hut and the Lake(s). The weather is distinctly threatening with bands of dark cloud swirling around and lenticular cloud caps appearing on a number of mountain tops on the other side of the valley. It looks as if the promised weather front is well on the way. Hopefully we will have enough time to climb Belvedere and get down, before the worst of it arrives.
After about 300m of ascent we emerge from the rocks onto a tiny glacier. It is more of an ice-field really – and clearly receding. The observation prompts Rob to launch into a scienterrific discourse on global warming. He has a number of theories on the event as well as the solution and we discuss how he will share them with grateful world leaders, at the next G8 summit.
Simultaneously concentrating on Robs proposals for saving the planet, as well as on avoiding slipping on my still painful butt, I negotiate a crossing of the bouldery lower end of the ice-field. But we leave it - before reaching the Col - to angle to the right up towards the lower rocks of Belvedere south ridge.
Looking upwards towards the crest of the ridge we can see there is a distinct V notch, which is angled slightly left, to the point that the right ‘arm’ is vertical. I suspect this is something to do with the crux of the route, where there is said to be a ‘chimney’ graded II/III. There is also a bizarre rock formation which looks as if it has a ‘head’ sticking out at the top end of the right ‘arm’ of the V.
A little while later, up at approaching 2900m, I discover that the left ‘arm’ of this V notch is composed of a slightly descending traverse across a grade I/II slab. Rob is behind somewhere having taken longer than me to finish his second breakfast. I cross the slab easily enough but a cold wind has sprung up and threatening clouds are starting to swirl around, hiding the summit block from view. It is a little exposed now with drops on both sides – and I am startled by the sudden appearance of a helicopter, bursting up from round a buttress in the void to my right.
Rather close to the rocks for comfort the noisy machine soars upwards and then in a somewhat radical turn falls sideways before plummeting downwards and out of sight. We will later learn that this helicopter was on an exercise and inadvertently clipped the rock with its rotor, to the point it was forced to abandon a party of rescue workers high on the other side of Belvedere. I can only presume that they were less than pleased to be forced to climb and then walk down.
Feeling slightly unnerved by this encounter I inspect the next bit: it is indeed the infamous chimney and rises up vertical for about 15 meters. The bizarre figure constitutes a flake of rock in the outer right wall of the chimney; with the ‘head’ forming a narrow overhang right at the top. Actually it isn’t so much a chimney as a corner, with a deep crack in the back.
Mindful of the exposure and the wind blowing around me, I cautiously approach the obstacle. Could we solo this?
Although vertical there are good holds visible. I move experimentally, pulling on the top of a large rectangular block of rock, over a meter high.
With a soft grating sound the huge block moves.
My right butt cheek twitches in painful memory and, un-nerving process complete now, I scuttle back across the grade I/II slab back onto easy terrain, where I find Rob just arriving.
“I think we should use the rope!” I declare breathlessly “The chimney is just round the corner. I’ve just been up to it and it’s a bit exposed – but there is a bloody great loose block right at the bottom!” I mention the disconcerting vision of the helicopter as well.
Re-negotiating the slab for a third time, I lead Rob across to inspect the route. He is less bothered by the loose block than I am and probably would have soloed the pitch if I’d said.
Magnanimously he invites me to lead the pitch. I haven’t led a proper rock climb for a decade and just as magnanimously I return the favour.
“Nah – you go for it if you like!”
Rob sets about the pitch in a workmanlike fashion, fixing slings as runners as he goes. I body belay him from below, confident that my 95kg will stop his 70kg travelling far if put to the test. I can’t find anything to tie on too – apart from the loose block. At the top Rob appears to fling together a far more state of the art belay than he’d have got from me, had I led the pitch – perhaps courtesy of his recent Dutch Alpine Club advanced alpine skills course, as well as his opinion as to how much I weigh.
Still very leery of that huge loose block, I follow up the corner, removing the occasional sling as I go. Nothing else is loose and I am soon able to join Rob at his airy perch, alongside the bizarre ‘head’. Sure enough the belay is state of the art. My 95kg would have been evenly shared between about 3 rock solid anchors in perfect tension had I come adrift.
Rob swiftly dismantles his hippo proof belay and then we set off upwards again, moving together, still roped up. But there are no more tricky bits and the rope is not really necessary. There is pleasant scrambling following the very crest of the ridge, up towards the odd shaped summit cap – which from certain angles below looks mushroom-like.
As we gain height we are intermittently enveloped in clouds swirling around the mountain top. In due course we reach the ‘mushroom’ and recognise the shaley rock terrace which traverses across underneath it. Sure enough there is another cairn confirming the change of direction as the route departs from the crest of the south ridge. It isn’t like one of the female body-form ones that grace the route below. Nonetheless Rob supplements it with a slender ‘nipple’ , which he says will make it even more identifiable, in the event that the mist really sets in.
The clouds around the top are getting quite thick and heavy and the light correspondingly dims from time to time. As such I have half an ear open for a rumble of thunder - which might dictate a hasty retreat. This would be a bad place to be if there was lightning.
It doesn’t take long to traverse the top of the peak and then scratch marks as well as more cairns show the way onto the upper northeast ridge and a totally different side of the mountain. A little more scrambling – and we are there.
“Berg Heil Sir!” I say offering my hand for yet another summit hand-shake. Rob responds in kind, before we enter into a debate as to which of about three rounded shaley prominences actually is the very top of the Aiguille Rouges. Trailing rope we visit each one.
Remarkably the clouds swirling around us seem to be clearing. We keep getting snatches of a view. But the clouds far on the other side of the valley still look as threatening as ever. Lady Mont Blanc is intermittently showing her ‘donkey’ – the ominous lenticular cloud cap which notoriously precedes a storm.
We start our descent, scrambling down boulders and shale to reach the traverse. A little later Rob is pleased to find his augmented cairn on the other side of the shaley ledge, but it is clearer now than when we came up. Route finding will not be a problem.
We descend the chimney without dislodging the huge loose block at the bottom. Rob belays me down from his reinstated hippo-proof belay - and I re-place slings as runners, to be able to belay him down as he reverse-leads the pitch. Finally I re-cross the slab below for the fourth and last time. Then it is off with the rope.
We pick our way down the complicated lower slopes below the little glacier, pausing only to exchange words with a young American couple – the only people we have come across on this route – but who are just bound for the Col des Dards, not the summit.
Far away across the valley we can see our 1st climb; the Aiguille de Tour. It emerges from the boiling clouds of the approaching front for a short interval before making a final disappearance.
With less than 300m of height to lose to reach the lake we determinedly follow the feminine body-form cairns – or we think we do. But we emerge at the lakeside at the bottom of a completely different scree-shoot on the other side of a buttress we had ascended beside. No matter – we have reached the lake. We disturb a big fat marmot, slumbering on a rock – and we are surprised he doesn’t immediately run for cover, as all other marmots do – but this one is not built for speed.
Mindful of the anti bedbug laws we enter the hut to collect the few items we had left behind. As we emerge again, ready to descend to the valley, clouds are again swirling round the top of our last mountain, but this time they are here to stay.
My feet are feeling it again and back at La Flegere I am pleased to take the cable car back down the final 600m to the valley. Rob however is determined to extract every last bit from his prolonged alpine furlough. He elects to walk down and we agree to meet at the Hotel in La Praz de Chamonix, where we stayed the night before last.
When I reach the bottom I find that the Hotel like many others we have seen has now closed for the season. Still feeling uninspired to camp – especially with bad weather on the way – I pass the hour it will take Rob to get down, searching for alternative accommodation – and find another little hotel up at La Lavanche.
That night, as we head out to get a meal, the heavens finally open. Cold torrential rain starts bucketing down.
Next day grey curtains of rain are still descending from low clouds and there is an end of summer feel. The autumn feels to be well underway although only just mid September. I drive Rob to Geneva Airport to catch a flight to Amsterdam. It rains pretty well all the way out of the mountains.
I bid my new friend farewell. In just a few days he will be beardless again and ready to adopt his other identity as IT consultant. But we will keep in touch – and who knows, maybe we will get in that summit of Europe bivvy one day.
It is understood I will write this trip report. With approaching 4 months and over 50 summits Rob has a bit of catching up to do – and I think he still hasn’t written up a few of his last Andes peaks.
In the mean time I still have 2 full days before I have to start the long drive back to England...
Without consciously knowing where I am headed I point the car along the southern shores of Lake Geneva and eventually re-enter Switzerland and the Rhone Valley. The rain intensifies as I drive back into the mountains and eventually I wind up in Kandersteg, the bit of heaven on earth where I climbed my first alpine peaks back in 1973.
Now totally de-conditioned from camping I check into yet another hotel, which costs a fortune – but my excuse is that it is still chucking it down with rain and it is easier to change the dressings on my feet in the comfort of a hotel bathroom. I also get to score a Schwienschnizel Panierts and a few bottles of Thomy salad dressing to take back home – which I missed out on a few days ago, on the lightning visit to the Lagginhorn.
On the day I must start my journey home the weather clears – and Kandersteg resumes identity as arguably the most beautiful place on earth. Before leaving I am drawn to ascend to the Lake Oeschinensee, which is tucked away at the very foot of the first 3 alpine summits I climbed. Sadly the old chairlift is gone and there is now a more modern gondola lift up to the start of the walk to the lakeside.
I follow a path to about 300m above the Lake. With dazzling new snow on the mountains above the turquoise waters it is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Immediately below is the old matrazen-lager where I stayed between summits all those years ago – in a loft above the pigs. I remember that the earthy aroma coming up through the floor boards as being spiced with the scent of home-made cheese and fresh coffee - this coming from the shepherd’s quarters, just alongside those belonging to the pigs.
Way up above and on the other side of the Lake is the little trinity of peaks I climbed: in the middle is the Frundenhorn, my first summit – to the right the Doldenhorn – and to the left, the star prize; the Blumlisalphorn, which was particularly exciting to me at the time since it just topped the magic 12,000ft.
At the age of 12, during 2 glorious weeks, I was guided up those mountains by my old mentor Dave Challis. Dave died tragically in the 1990’s and as I look on the scene he was the first to show me, I remember him with some sadness – but also gratitude.
Thanks Dave – you gave me the mountains – and no gift can be more special than that.
Years later I was to guide others up the same mountains – and so pass his gift on.
I descend to the lake-side. As if the scene isn’t heavenly enough already, a lone elderly man standing at the water’s edge starts to play an Alphorn.
An hour or so later I have to leave and start the long journey home.
I will be back...