IntroductionThis is the second installment of the Midweek Mountain Moments series, a chronicle of alpine exploits performed outside the realm of traditional weekend warrior timeframes. The aim of the series is to inspire its readers by offering a lighthearted look at the possibilities that present themselves to those willing and able to head for the hills on a weekday.
What’s up with Weekend Weather?My good friend Marc spent the better part of April in Nepal attempting an alpine-style ascent of Cho Oyu and he returned eager to put the extra red blood cells to good use, so we set aside a four-day holiday weekend in June for the possibility of ascending a route that had been on his mind for some time: Mallory-Porter on the Aiguille du Midi. As we got closer to the start of the first holiday weekend, it became quite clear that we would have to postpone our plans. A massive storm system came in the day before and dumped a pile of fresh snow on the upper slopes of the Mont Blanc massif. The Refuge du Gouter dialed in a meter of snow and large amounts were recorded at the Refuge du Cosmiques and Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille. Undeterred, we set aside the following three-day holiday weekend with fresh hopes for better conditions on at least one of the days, but another system moved in that completely blew up all possibilities of making the ascent that weekend as well. It was as if we had upset the weather gods! Somewhat battered, but still not beaten, we began to consider the possibility of carving a day out of our work schedules and just go for it. The midweek weather forecast seemed to provide just the window we needed so we called it in to the office and marked our calendars. It was on!
The Plan, Plan de l’Aiguille and Refuge du Plan de l’AiguilleOur plan was simple. We would take off Tuesday afternoon, catch the last lift from Chamonix to the Plan de l’Aiguille, sleep at the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille and climb the face on Wednesday. However, things didn’t get off to an auspicious start. When I arrived to pick up Marc at his place, he was nowhere to be found! And what’s more, his wife told me that she thought he was coming over to my place. If that was the case, there would be no way for us to catch the last lift and the climb would be put off yet again. Fortunately, I was able to reach Marc on his mobile phone and learned he was on his way home. Our first possible crisis was averted, but we were running behind and needed to make up some time on the drive to Chamonix in order to catch the last lift. Putting the kilometers behind us as fast as we could, we sped along the highway, especially during the sections between radar cameras. We arrived at the parking lot in a light rain with about fifteen minutes before the last lift departed. Things were not looking good at all. After quickly changing into our mountain gear, we ran to the ticked counter, bought the “Alpinist” pass and got on the tram. We made it, but just barely!
There were two other climbers going up with us on the last lift. When we all walked out at the intermediate station and stared up at the wall, it didn’t take us long to strike up a conversation about what we were all going to climb the next day. Our cable car companions were planning to tackle the Frendo Spur, a more difficult route to the left of the Mallory. We were all looking at our routes and wondering about the conditions. Would there not be enough snow or would there be too much? Oddly enough, Marc and I were thinking the former while the other guys were thinking the latter! The rain stopped somewhere along the ten minute walk downhill to the refuge and the skies began to clear above Mont Blanc. Things improved a bit more when we arrived at the refuge. The guardian welcomed us heartily and showed us to our room. The refuge had been recently renovated and everything was in great condition. And since it was a weekday, we had a room for four to ourselves. We enjoyed an excellent dinner and watched the sun light up the sky behind the Aiguilles Rouges.
Face to Face with the North FaceAfter a good night’s sleep, we tore through breakfast and headed out the door with headlamps blazing. After an hour of following the moraine to a point where it met the Glacier des Pelerins, we roped up and put on the crampons. We noticed a couple of headlamps, lighting the way at the base of the Frendo Spur and sent positive vibes to our partners on the route next door. Traversing the glacier to the base of our first couloir took about half an hour from where we roped up and somewhere along the way Marc stepped into a small crevasse. Fortunately, he managed to keep his balance and avoid any mishaps. After a few checks, we were ready to start heading up the face.
I led up the first couloir for about a hundred meters. It was in perfect condition and I felt great to be swinging the ice tools again, hearing the familiar “thwack, thwack” with each strike. Despite being showered by ice fragments from above, Marc was also in good spirits. He even managed to flash a smile. At the exit ramp off to the right, Marc took the lead and brought us to the first rock band. I could tell he was really enjoying this route. At one point, he stopped and shouted “This is mountaineering!”
Around this point, I noticed the cable car for the first time cruising up and over us. This was mostly a nuisance to me and I did my best to block it out of my mind and focus on the task at hand. Marc, on the other hand, told me later that he would occasionally smile and wave at the passengers. He really must have been enjoying this route! I suppose some climbers may find reassurance by the proximity of the tram, but there is little the operator could do in most situations besides call for help.
From an anchor, I belayed Marc up through the first rock band for one rope length. The section was rated 4b (5.5 YDS), but it felt well below this grade, perhaps because we spent the past two weekends of bad weather on multi-pitch routes up to 6b. Marc continued to lead through the second snow ramp, traversing up and to the left. This was a somewhat delicate section with little opportunity to place protection. The ramp consisted of a thin layer of snow interspersed with ice covered rocks. The ramp gave way to sheer cliffs below. I thought if there was ever a place where “you fall, you die” this was it.
The sun was hitting us now and the snow was starting to soften. By the time we arrived at the top of the second snow slope, things were getting downright sloppy. Turning the corner at the base of the second rock band proved to be nothing short of swimming lessons. At this point, while checking our time and elevation, we realized that we had been climbing for three hours and still had over half of the route ahead of us. We needed to get rocking and fast before the rest of the route turned into a melted mess!
After turning the corner, we picked our way through the rock band for a rope length to the crest of a beautiful snow ridge. The snow ridge looked as if it would crumble on its own weight, but it was absolutely solid. Boot tracks from a prior party were clearly visible and offered some reassurance that it would hold. From here, we could see the final snow slopes leading to the Aiguille du Midi upper station. It appeared well within reach and helped to put aside any anxiety about our time on the route. The cable car was also whizzing directly overhead now, making me wonder if any of the passengers inside would be able to see us.
From the crest of the snow ridge, we headed up the final snow slopes more or less vertically, staying to the right of the ridge crest and dodging the occasional outcrop of rock. Despite having the sun shining on this last section for some time, snow conditions remained solid. However, it was here that we began getting pelted by fragments coming down on us from up above. Were these chunks or ice falling off the Aiguille du Midi or some trash being thrown by unruly tourists at the observation deck? It wasn’t clear and neither of us felt like stopping to analyze the situation, so we picked up the pace and made quick work of the snow field by alternating leads. Marc was the first to gain the final snow ridge by traversing below the line of seracs that presented the last barrier.
Immediately upon passing the serac band, Marc collapsed as if completely exhausted. Was he okay or just enjoying a moment of rest after just finishing the last of the difficulties? It was clearly the latter because he was smiling when I met up with him a few seconds later. From here, we had only a few hundred meters of easy walking along the ridge to reach the upper station.
A Hero’s WelcomeAs we continued along the snow ridge to the upper station, we noticed that a crowd was gathered around the gate. This wasn’t out of the ordinary considering the fine weather and the fact that we were on the cusp of the summer tourist season, but as we approached, our onlookers rather unexpectedly erupted into cheers. It felt like a hero’s welcome, as if returning from the front. Marc and I exchanged high fives and I felt relieved that we had accomplished what we set out to do without incident.
Later at the café, we bumped into the guys that were climbing the Frendo Spur. We exchanged congratulations and wished each other all the best in future endeavors. It was a relief for me to see them since their chosen route was a few pay grades higher than what we had done. It also made me wonder if they had received such a warm welcome from the spectators. They climbed a harder route but it was not as visible from the cable car. If anyone deserved a hero’s welcome, it was these guys.
Moment of ReflectionConsidering the beautiful weather of the day and with no obligations to rush home, we enjoyed a drink at the observation deck and admired our tracks in the snow hundreds of meters below. Our footprints dotted the upper slopes that fell away for a vertical kilometer right down to the first couloir where we started five hours earlier. It was quite a sight and gave us an appreciation for the scale of the route.
Despite the cable car, there were times throughout the morning that I felt like we had the mountain to ourselves, making the whole experience significantly more enjoyable. This is something that would not likely have happened if we made an attempt on the weekend. We were also pleased with ourselves for exercising the patience to wait for our route to be “in condition” and for taking action when the weather window presented itself, even if it meant going midweek. Understandably, this can only be done with routes that are relatively close to home. However, there are countless opportunities within a short distance for many of us. If there is a takeaway from this installment, it is that as with many things in life, timing is everything.