As mountains in the Mont Blanc Massif go this is not one of the giants of the range but is in fact one of the best training peaks around.
On arrival in Chamonix for the first time the budding begineer, like myself at the time, has a head full of the names of classic routes and peaks. The Walker Spur, Aiguille Verte, the Central Pillar of Freney and so many more that they have read about or seen inspiring photos of. But all these routes are far too daunting and generally beyond the capabilites of most alpine virgins.
The problem is everything is so much bigger than you expect. My training ground was Scotland and though it prepared my for bitterly cold weather, unpredictable snow conditions and plenty of route finding by head torch light, there is simply no comparisson to the sheer scale of the Alps. So on arrival the beginner is faced with a steep learning curve and may, if not carefull, find oneself out of thier depth.
Not so on the Petite Aiguille Verte.
Being a satelite peak of its more famous neighbour that lends it its name, it immediately conjures up images of something greater. Indeed the location of this peak is not to be sniffed at with the afore mentioned Aiguille Verte towering a further 600m above with the equally impressive Drus on its shoulder and splendid views across to the Chamonix Aiguille's, the Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc itself beyond. To the other side is the Argentiere glacier bearing the 3900m peak of the same name and the Aiguille du Chardonnet standing senital at its head. This truly is an awe inspiring location for the fresh alpinist to start thier climbing career.
Add to this the ease of access and the shortness of the route, it can all be achieved within a short day by catching the very first cable car up in the morning to the Grand s Montets...
...Waiting for the teleiferique to arrive Matt, Helen and I had plenty of time to survey our companions on our journey. All french in origin they had the look of seasoned alpinists, harness in hand, already prepared for a quick start on their choosen route. (This was a tactic we later employed ourselves on the Argentiere and Tour Ronde). The ages differed from mid 50s to children several years younger than ourselves and a whole array of experience in between.
On boarding the "frique" we set of up, my stomach a bag of nerves at both the propossed climb and also the swinging cable car I was now in. Ive far rather preferred having my feet planted fimly on the ground as opposed to dangling from a cable high above the valley. As of yet we had not seen our intended route other than from a photo in the guide book as the cloud base was low, hiding the high peaks of the range. The frique pressed on into the cloud, still swaying to and forth, and i was fairly relived to have a short respite at the middle station. This however, was short lived and before long we were heading up into the cloud again on the second leg of our journey.
At this point we were questioning if the cloud would clear, maybe the forcast wasnt as accurate as we thought. As our fears were being aired we broke through the cloud into the world of soaring snow peaks and steel blue skies, all resting on a sea of light fluffy cloud. Now we were excited.
Disembarking the frique we headed straight outside to get a look at our route. A well trodden path led the way up to the bergshrund and then the ridge could be followed to the summit. Discarding the gear for our intended bivi later we set off down the steps to the glacier with light packs and a desire to get underway. Crampons were quickly fitted to boots, practiced several times in the campsite already, and the harnesses strapped on. We roped up as a three for the first time Matt taking the lead with Helen in the middle whilst i brought up the rear.
We set off up the glacier, practising all the techniques of coils that we had read about and getting used to the feel of our crampons bitting into the early morning neve. The glacier is a simple affair with just the one crevasse crossing, via a snow bridge, before the bergshrund . The bergshrund itself presented little difficulties, also crossed by a snow bridge at its far right hand side. From here a short climb led us to the ridge.
The ridge had the dizzying effect of dropping in a sheer face down to the Nant Blanc glacier, forming the base of the impressive face of the same name on the Verte and also the Drus. The drop on the other side became steadily greater as we picked our way up the ridge over rock terrain and easy angled snow. The first, and only real obstacle came at the rock step. This step is perhaps some six metres high, but not particularly complicated. Matt led up with Helen and I following on to reach the final section of ridge to the summit. This final section is even more exposed than previously with sheer drops on either side to the Nant Blanc and Rognons glaciers some several hundred feet below. I remember dropping to my back side at one point to slither carefully across a sloping granite block, not trusting the points of my crampons to hold me steady. Undignified as it may have been it got the job done and before long we were all sharing our first Alpine summit as the billowing cloud began to fill the valley below.
We stayed for several minutes, resting and taking photos before making our descent. The route was now busy with climbers and guides bringing thier clients up. The rock step was a much busier affair and I led the downclimb through a tangle of ropes. When Helen and Matt joined me at the foot of the rock step we made the collective descion to descend via the apparently short face as opposed to tackling the now overcrowded ridge.
We started our descent from below the step following the curvature of the northern end of the face, initially down climbing with ice axe belays. After a while it became obvious that our style was clumsy and slow so we elected to down climb together as a rope in order to make up time, this despite the steepness of the face at some 60 degrees. The clouds that had been filling the valley now rolled up onto the face we were descending engulfing us in a white out, pelting us with hard snow and ice whipped up by the wind. At its worst the whiteout made it impossible for me to see Matt at the opposite end of the rope which was only some 15m long in any case. We climbed on, down through the cloud despite Helen being a little nervous. On arrival at the bergshrund we found it was a short leap to an easy landing the other side and presented no problem. It was partially filled with snow and had icicles hanging from its lip that we paused to take photos of. The face had been descended, albeit slightly longer than we expected, but now was just the easy glacier descent back the the frique station.
As we crossed the glacier the cloud that had encapsulated us on the face lifted to reveal blue skies once again. The neve that had been crisp that morning was now much softer as the afternoon wore on and Helen found hersely slipping frequently as she realised the true value of anti balling plates! On reaching the station we turned to look at our acheivement and satisfied with our days work we headed back up into the station for a well earned brew.
Who would have thought such a short route could have given us such a variety of experiences. It provided good practice for axe, crampon and rope techniques, stunning ridge exposure, rock climbing in the alpine style, decision making on route finding, poor weather conditions and generally an excellent way to acclimatise.
This surely is one tof the best begineers peaks and i would recommend it unreservedly but would add a note of caution as to the routes popularity.