This was our third climb of the week and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Earlier in the week we had met Jack, on his own, on the Aiguille du Tour and had enjoyed several lazy lunches with him over the following days. He had climbed and skied extensively in the area and was an interesting source of info. We though it would be good to do a route together so over another lazy lunch we made plans to meet up at the télépherique station the following morning in time to get the first cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi.
Adrian and myself managed to get ourselves up and out of the campsite on time. The weather for the day was forecast to be ok for the morning with storms in the afternoon. Our plan was to traverse from the Aiguille du Midi across to the Aiguille du Plan and then return on the same route being back down in Chamonix in the middle of the afternoon enjoying a beer or two. We met Jack, bought our tickets and then waited, with a ton of other climbers, eating breakfast of oranges, muesli bars and chocolate.
The ride up was the usual squash and once at the top we went in search of loos and then got kitted up in the cold damp rocky tunnels of the Midi station complex. Outside the wind was blowing coldly and strongly. I put on plenty of clothing and felt a bit apprehensive. By the time we got going for real it was about 7:15. We plodded out of the tunnel entrance onto the snow. There were many parties heading out and down the ridge, some going our way and some heading down the ridge and breaking off to the right. The initial descent was pretty steep but the snow was good and the steps large. On our left the ridge fell away steeply down to Chamonix. Our route soon flattened off and we plodded along with Jack at the front and myself at the rear. The route rose and fell keeping to the snowy crest of the ridge. At times we had the odd awkward step down to contend with but generally it was easy going. We then started a steep descent down onto the Col du Plan.
From here the route got more interesting. We left the ridge and skirted off to the left onto a dirty steep snow face. After going a short distance, Jack gave the order to turn around. He was having problems with one of his crampons and wasn’t too keen on reversing the section later in the day. Back on the col he said he’d leave us and head back to the Midi station. We then went back onto the steep ground with Adrian in the lead. We front pointed our way round and below some crumbly rock. Above us was an English youth anchored to the rock. We waited for him to move on. Time ticked away so Adrian put in a screw while we waited. Eventually we gave up waiting and climbed up to the rock and carefully traversed along it before front pointing back up on to the ridge. It was a good section despite the dithering English youths. We left the screw in place with the intention of using and collecting it on our return.
We continued along the snowy ridge for a short distance before descending onto another col. It was then a scramble up some loose rocky terrain to regain more snowy ridge. We then came to a cliff section. As we only had one rope we needed two abseils to get down. I decided to leave my crampons on and on the first ab slipped sideways banging my bare elbow on the warm brown granite. A nice bloody gash appeared, not liking the sight of blood I successfully did my best to block it out of my mind. The second ab deposited us onto a steep snow slope, which really didn’t feel too secure. We got ourselves roped up and then carefully headed across the steep slope. After a few steps Adrian stopped briefly. There was then a loud soft thud behind me. My immediate thought was someone had fallen but on turning around I saw a large flat rock tumbling quickly down the slope taking plenty of soft snow with it. Looking up at the cliff, we thought where the hell did that come from. It had fallen a long way out from the secure looking cliff above. We didn’t dwell on our close call and moved carefully and swiftly across the slope, thinking that at any moment it might avalanche. Thoughts of returning were not filling me with joy.
I felt some relief once we got back on the crest of the ridge. The rocky summit was now very close. We slowly plodded up to the base of the rock. We met another party of four who had just abseiled down and had caught their rope whilst pulling it down. We had a quick search for the easiest line up and then Adrian took the lead and shot up. The climbing was easy and fun. The next pitch I took the lead and stopped just below the summit to avoid rope drag. Adrian finished the last 10ft off with an elegant mantle move and we were then on the small flat rocky summit. As usual the views were awesome. We had the usual photo shoot and then took a good break and discussed how to return. We decided the snow was now too soft to safely return the way we’d come and that the safest option was to descend the steep crevasse ridden Envers du Plan glacier down to the Requin hut, plod along and down the Mer de Glace and then take the train from Montenvers back down to Chamonix. As we sat there some small birds joined us. They had their heads back, beaks open and were calling out for food. I found the situation a little unsettling.
We sorted the rope and abed off. Not learning from the party we saw earlier, we also got our rope jammed as we pulled it down. Adrian did a nifty little climb to retrieve it.
At the top of the steep snow slope, on the Col Sup du Plan, the adrenaline started flowing. I set off in front, at first facing out, and then opted to face in kicking good steps as we slowly descended. As we neared the bottom we came to a steep rimaye with snow covered crevasse below. Foolishly I tried to front point down it and swung my ax in to the soft snow for some support. Not surprisingly the head just slipped through the snow and I fell a couple of feet before Adrian held me on the rope. He then slowly lowered me on to the snow bridge where my left leg instantly sank up to my groin. Panicking like mad I tried to scramble out and off the snow bridge. It was hard work but eventually I got out and slumped down onto more solid snow breathing heavily with my heart thumping. I then belayed Adrian down and across while he made short and easy work of the obstacle. We took a short break. As we sat there soft slushy snow was pouring down the slope across to our right.
We quickly got going and enjoyed some flat terrain before the glacier started to drop steeply down. Our route took as around some huge gaping crevasses, often on steep narrow bridges around and across them. At times we had to descend steeply between large yawning drops. I found the descent mentally taxing and was happy to get out of the thick of the crevasses and onto easier terrain. As we neared the hut cloud was rolling in and rain was looking very likely. It had taken us 2 hrs to get down. We took our packs off and sorted out the rope and our gear. The guardian came out to us to find out where we’d come from. We downed a couple of cokes while the guardian explained how we should descend the Mer de Glace to return to Montenvers. We had an hour and half to get down if we were to catch the last train.
We set off at pace in some light drizzle and descended down onto the large flat dry glacier. We took a line heading down and across to the right. This was what I thought the guardian had instructed. After skirting round a heavily crevassed section we found ourselves on the rubbley moraine on the wrong side. It soon became apparent we were way off course. We slowly plodded up and down the moraine trying to find evidence of a track, occasionally spotting the odd cairn. It was miserable hard work, we were both tired and the chances of making the train were quickly disappearing. Eventually we left the rubble and headed back on to the glacier. We crossed some fast flowing streams, falling in to one would have been curtains, and carried on heading down and across. Adrian slowly pulled away from me. I felt totally beat. We had missed the last train and I really didn’t want to hike all the way back down to Chamonix. A few times I stopped and bent down to drink from small pools on the glacier. The water was beautifully refreshing and chilled. As we neared the end of the glacier we found route markers. It was then a steep climb up some metal ladders onto a well worn track above.
The hike back down to Chamonix took about an hour and a half. It was quite pleasant being back in the trees and off the snow. I regretted not filling my water bottle whilst on the glacier. As we neared Chamonix it was nearly dark. Once back on the tarmac roads we headed for the station and stopped at a café for a couple of cans of cold coke. They tasted great. It was then a quick march back to the campsite before the shower room closed at 9:30. It had been a long day, we had climbed only a few hundred metres but descended close on 3000m and covered about 17km. It was also the first peak I had climbed where my start point was higher than the summit. After a clean a shower and a change of clothes we headed back into town for a mighty feed but when the food arrived we discovered we really didn’t have an appetite and only managed to force down a plate of pasta. All in all it was a fine day on a route that seemed to have a bit of everything.