I'm in the Alps for the first time. I'm 19. I'm climbing with another guy just as inexperienced as myself. We've been here maybe a week and a half. It's been a great time so far. I've led on L'Index, Cosmiques Arete, Petit Vert, seconded Chéré Couloir, plodded around the Valle Blanche, sprained my ankle and gotten really really drunk. I'm living the dream but we've sorta been intimidated by the huge amount of routes on offer. Conor who's one of the senior lads in the group has been patient the first week with us, he's taken us out under his tutelage, looked after us but it's time for us to spread our wings a little. So me being bored and flicking through the guidebook at PD/AD level, stumble across something called the "Whymper Route". It's a bit further north near Argentiere, I was there a couple of days ago on Petit Vert.
I don't know who he is (I do now, thank Christ!) but recognize the name as sorta famous, he's some sort of climber isn't he? I bring it to Conor who's preparing for his own little odyssey and he sorta brusquely says "Just get on with it". So we look at the whole prep for it, get some food etc and theres a bit of excitement about it all. I've stayed up below the Aiguille du Midi before but this is something else. It'll be the two of us just. I've only been lead climbing since maybe March/April and I first used crampons and axes back in January. Darragh's in the same boat. We're both experienced hikers but being left off the leash is disconcerting....
Worse is throwing my pack on at the campsite and wincing already. I'm skinny, always have been and still am. Suddenly being weighed down by my sleeping bag, rack, rope, axes, food, water, I'm getting a bit glum.
Packing ourselves up for an overnight in the hills, Chamonix 2010
Look how hopelessly unaware we are of what's yet to come. I'm the one on the right, myself and Darragh both figured ourselves quite cool getting a chance to wear shades. And our lovely ghostly Irish complexions meant suncream was a must.
We left that afternoon, traipsing down a kilometre or so into town where we'd catch the bus. I felt a bit like a geriatric, wondering if I was finding it hard now, what would it be like later? A few curious looks but nothing major. Chamonix is a Mecca for climbing and skiing, us tourist or dilettante climbers don't get a second glance usually. For me it was a bit surreal sitting on the bus with my rucksack and iceaxes, watching kids hop on with their parents or old French mamans with their shopping.
Also buses? They didn't even seem to care much about tickets, bit of a shock to someone who's lived in Austria, a place with bureaucracy Kafka would have enjoyed. More on that later.
So its late afternoon, we hop off at Argentiere to get the cable-car up. We've read the route description and being teenagers with cheapskate tendencies, put the kibosh on the idea of paying to stay at the hut. Instead we're going to go up on the cable-car to Petit Vert, head in a NE direction, descending around 1000m to the Glacier D'Argentiere, cross it and bivvi in the rocks above it, closer to the route and for free. Wake up early, climb the route by ascending up to the right of Aiguille du Chardonnet, descend via Glacier du Mileu, pick up our bivvi stuff, cross the Glacier D'Argentiere again and head for the lower down cable car station. Seems simple right?
It was a pleasant ride up, we were going for the high point so it was a bit eerie heading to the clouds and being on a nearly empty cable car. I attempted some conversation with our attractive young cable car driver but she seemed to have definitely encountered higher quality than us. We weren't disheartened, we knew she'd see us as conquering heroes on our descent tomorrow.
The top cable station was deserted. Only the staff were left and I felt quite a few butterflies in the stomach as we got off. With an "au revoir" bid to them, we headed for the exit.
Anti-climax. It was locked. Cue me and Darragh running in a panic back to the cable car to grab one of the staff. Enduring day one of our mini epic in a cable car station was not our plan. Thankfully they unlocked it for us though the guy seemed concerned due to our youthful appearance. After assuring him we were heading for the hut and we knew where it was, placated, he bid us farewell. Hearing the door lock shut behind me really rammed it home where we were. Good luck boys, you're on your own.
Leaving the cable-car station at Petit Vert.
Darragh ensuring we're going to go the right way.
The touch of fog and mist outside made it seem much much worse than it actually was. The carrion birds fighting for scraps of food left behind by tourists was less reassuring. Nonetheless we decided to plod on down to the snow, throw on our crampons, harnesses, helmets and bring out the axes. We were mountaineers, what did we need to fear?!
The tourist barrier at Petit Vert, aka don't go beyond this unless you know what you're doing.
Roping up time, descending to Glacier D'Argentiere 2010.
So myself and Darragh roped up rather promptly (we were going to do it anyways but the skulls and crossbones markings gave an added impetus!). It actually felt better after we'd being going a few minutes, dropping below the clouds and seeing the sheer majesty of the Alps open before us. Things weren't as daunting and with the sun still out, it felt pretty good! We skirted a few crevasses, wet glaciers psych you out unnecessarily, you start imagining crevasses opening beneath you like a colder cousin of the Tatoinne Sarlacc pit. We took it easy, made good time and most importantly, didn't plunge into a bottomless pit.
Descending to Glacier D'Argentiere
Realizing we were actually making progress. Nice.
That big block in the background of the right-hand picture, I think that was around halfway down, useful marking even though we saw plenty of yawning chasms opening up around it. We made good time and we felt a bit relieved to hop onto a bit of rock, it was early evening but still bright in Chamonix and we'd warmed up substantially. A quick break for snacks but I was still freaking out a bit thinking about the dry glacier, never been on one before so getting to see a proper crevasse was going to be something. And I was wondering where to sleep.....
Aiguille D'Argentiere viewed from our descent. Across from the glacier in that little patch of snow below those cliffs, we slept there.
The Glacier D'Argentiere
So I'd imagined a little smooth transition from rock to glacier, simple as kiss your hand. Turned out the glacier actually loomed up some 3-4m over us and if we kept on our descent trajectory, we'd end up slipping in underneath it. So a little bit stumped, we beetled up and around hunting for a way onto it. To our left we were being blocked by a massive rock cliff while going too far right and we'd waste time coming back left. We could make out the hut and didn't want to go there. Light was failing too so we made a move on.
We found a little ice bridge onto the glacier and decided to go for it. We double-checked our prussiks and kit, having had our break before crossing onto it, we wouldnt stop till we were on the other side.
It was weird. The two of us didn't even spend an hour on it but the short distance was exasperated by us constantly back-tracking and trying to find a path through the glacier that wasn't blocked by crevasses. Going across any bridges was quite disconcerting, me belaying Darragh out while he'd return the favour when I came across. We both heaved a sigh of relief when we'd gotten across. Looking down into the openings was disturbing, the drops seemed to just go on forever and ever. We spoke barely a word to each other, just wanting to get off the glacier as quick as possible.
On the other side we ditched the crampons as it was all scree and loose rock. Little patches of snow but nothing amazing. It was getting darker so we decided to horse on and find a bivvi spot. Everything was at an angle and with rocks more suitable for bashing skulls in than a mattress. Don't ask me how but I managed to stumble across a patch of sand and grit that for us seemed like feathers. Tilted at a modest 10-15 degrees, we decided to bed down here. Stumbling through the rocks, we got the food on, though not before some quick posing.
Darragh hamming it up for the camera
It got dark fast.
These photos would come in useful later when we tried to pinpoint where exactly we'd bivvied. We got out the pocket rockets for some noodles cooked with soup. Rations wise we had been very optimistic. We had that, plus chocolate, sweets. I'd brought some pasta and meat pre-cooked and stuffed in a lunchbox to eat cold. For water we boiled snow and we had 2 1l containers each.
Me preparing some much needed sustenance for the pair of us.
Between rocks and a hard place.
Of course if I'd listened in secondary school during geography lessons, I'd have realized something that I'd learn about much later. Bellies full we were lying on our backs, getting into the sleeping bags and enjoying looking down at the lights of the valley. It was blissfully clear, a crisp night with visibility of the stars enhanced a hundred fold. I could see constellations I hadn't known existed, shooting stars were swarming the sky and we even saw a huge golden one that we dubbed a comet! With the usual bullshit philosophical discussions sorted, we drifted off.
Except to be awoken again and again by the lovely sound of rocks moving and rockfall further off. I don't think we slept much, just curled up in the sleeping bags and tried to ignore the prospect of the mountain gods dumping a metric shit tonne of geological marvels atop us. It was a long bloody night and we were quite cranky come 4am.
Being knackered, we dozed off again and I'm not sure what time it was exactly when we did get a move on but it was a grey dawn, the sun still not fully up. Stumbling over boulders and rocks, we forged our path onwards, striving to aim for our "shortcut" to the base of the route. It wasn't.
That patch of snow below those massive rock slabs. Yep thats where we slept.
There was a reason the route description said come from the direction of the hut. It was so you don't have to go through shitty icy slabs, lots of loose rock and terrible grey brittle ice that was more pebbly than solid. We scrambled a good bit and did three terrible pitches of ice climbing where I said probably three deckets of Hail Mary's in an effort to stave off bad luck. That picture above does it justice. It was like going on rock. If I'd known Darragh was taking the photo while belaying me, I'd have been a bit more nervous! Being the gentlemen we were, we swapped leads and both exhausted our extensive vocabulary of swearing.
We probably spent 2-3 hours negotiating through this absolute....well....shite is the only word to describe it. Then we got onto the snow slope. And that just went up and up. Taking in coils, we headed on up. Zig to the zag to the zig zig zag. Christ it was long. Sun was beating down on us and I was panting like a near dead dog. Being an Alpine novice I'd gotten lovely and sunburnt on the roof of my mouth and inside my nostrils from my brief forays on the Valle Blanche. The morning was us just slogging up, treading across snow bridges and trying to ignore burning calves. Feeling it was unseasonably hot, we weren't disappointed in our assumptions. We witnessed quite a bit of rockfall and got caught in it a few times, amen for helmets. Progress was anything but rapid. I still remember one lovely little rock giving me a nice dead arm. It made route-finding suddenly become a lot more important. And had us worry about the condition further up where the sun was already shining.
Part of the long slog up.
That snow slope is deceptively gentle in that photograph. Viewed from across the valley it looks absolutely beatific. All I can recall is slogslogslog, gasping for air, forcing food down my gullet. It just got hotter and hotter, I was grateful I'd a lighter pack on my back (having dumped half our kit at the bivvi). Still it was rough. Nearing the top, we were reduced to stomping up some twenty steps, pausing, stomping up some twenty more. I think Darragh was in a bit worse shape than me. I'd been cramming in food so I was making it a bit. He seemed to be suffering. The frequent rockfall and soft snow had us both very frayed. But earlier on, I'd been the one down in the dumps while he'd powered through!
Making it to the base of the climb, it was after midday. We'd spent six hours negotiating the slabs and snow slope. And now in the heat of the day, the climb was weeping. It was absolutely crap. We went to see about putting in protection, it was just going to come right out. No way were we going to go up that. Like wildlings on the Wall, we'd have plummeted down. We were knackered but more pissed off now that we'd come this far only to be halted at the last 100-150m because of a unearthly hot day. Worse was looking at the tramp down to camp.
The Way Down
The crevasses had opened up now and it was very uncomfortable for us treading our way through them, trying to avoid looking down. We glissaded a bit but getting wet arses and legs was dispiriting. As was panic strewn braking when we realized that might be a drop in front of us. It was nightmarish. We were dehydrated, neither of us had eaten much but with our main experience in days like this being in Ireland or Scotland, we just didn't recognize the signs.
The View back to Glacier D'Argentiere
The long slog up Aiguille D'Argentiere
It wasn't fun. I just remember being so bollocksed at one point that even our reactions were dulled. Traversing the ridge in another zigzag (we saw what looked like a more gentle ramp down), I watched Darragh in front of me catch his crampon on a sling that had worked it's way loose from his harness. He tumbled and started sliding down the slope while I just gawked as the rope fed out. About three seconds after this had started, sense kicked in and I flattened myself on the ice axe, bracing. I felt a tug and started sliding slowly but the momentum stopped as Darragh arrested as well. A big wake-up for both of us!
Now the choosing of our route came to kick us in the ass. Having bailed off we were retracing our steps and there was no way we could ab down to our bivvi site. We aimed left on the way down, hoping we'd come across a track but it just seemed to terminate in slabs. Since it was getting late and were both broken men at this stage, we negotiated a good few of them on our derrieres, the rock surprisingly grippy. I'd go first, working my way down to a suitable spot whereas Darragh would come past me in a sort of reverse climb. Eventually we were able to downclimb properly onto the scree though not before a bloody terrifying slip and slide on some of the wet slabs. The last made me ponder my life choices and how that had led me up to this moment. Why go climbing? Why?
The fact Darragh snapped a pic of this means it was probably the easiest part. And that he wasn't fervently praying I'd avoid tumbling. Terrible, terrible terrain.
It was just coming to 1800 when we made it back to the bivvi. We'd blundered around a while trying to get our bearings and while a little shell-shocked, were glad to get back to "home". We sprawled out, drank water, took off our drenched boots, socks and trousers to dry them. Packing our bags, we enjoyed the sun and tried to brace ourselves for the next part. At 1900, we rolled out, both aware we weren't fully right in the head. The extra weight in the bags had us both groaning like old women.
I was dopey as anything crossing the Glacier D'Argentiere. I'm not sure whether it was from dehydration or what but I just was following Darragh like he had me on a leash. My memory is very vague here, I just dumbly followed him. Reassuring to have a mate who know's what he's doing! Getting off this glacier was much harder than last time since we'd both decided not to try and do the 1000m ascent to the Grand Montets and go for the lower down one that was midway up from Argentiere. Problem was that the rocks we'd skirted on our way down, now obstructed us. We spent a good half hour looking for ways off and trying to scramble onto the cliff face. So fucked were we that this was our conversation when scrambling.
Darragh: "Wheres the rack?"
Me: "Bottom of my bag"
Both: "Fuck it"
Still roped together, it was like some warped version of "If I go, you go with me". We managed to spot a via ferrata maybe 4-5m atop us but we couldn't get to it. You'd scramble up a few feet, then it was too steep so you'd traverse, downclimb, all to gain a little bit more on it. We were so tired that it was our one goal and we couldn't abide time wasting. I think I kissed the metal when we made it. We ditched the rope and coiled it. Using our cowstails, we just followed along it for maybe half a klick till we found a ladder. This was a bloody long thing. I don't know why but I felt more afraid on it than I had been downclimbing and scrambling across the slabs earlier. My arms shook on it and I was very grateful to get onto solid ground. We descended some 20m to the glacier again and found ourselves on a track. "Féarghal me lad" I thought "Ye've made it".
It was getting dark now and we moved fairly fast. So fast that we somehow blundered off the track (classic us) and were wondering where the hell did we go now? Finding a pair of abandoned skis and a camera wasn't too reassuring either. At first we thought we were grand till morbidity had us imagine this place as some sort of Purgatory for outdoorsmen, we felt like rats in a maze at the time. It seemed everytime we aimed for something, we'd find ourselves traversing left, right, up, down around it in order to get that little bit closer. Hoping the skier hadn't taken a plunge, we continued on.
Looking up the Glacier D'Argentiere.
With night falling and us getting the headtorches out, we decided to take one last risk and scramble up these immense boulders blocking us on our left. To the right was the glacier and somewhere to our front was Argentiere, a few thousand feet lower. Darragh went first but the loose rock was unnerving, he came back off it and was all for bivving there. The rock just seemed to move as soon as you touched it. Me being stubborn, crazy or just downright ignorant decided I'd chance it. It was to be our last gamble, after this was headtorches and us bedding down. It was maybe 5-6m up but requiring care in choosing holds. I let out a whoop as I crested it and found a sign. I didn't care what it was for, a sign meant a path and a path meant an easier way down. I belayed Darragh up and we savoured knowing we were below 3000m. Gritting our teeth, we pressed onto the track and began a painful descent, wet fully rigids never being fun.
Just as I'd hit my slump earlier crossing the glacier, Darragh hit his now. He wanted to bivvi on a flat patch but I was a bit sleep-deprived and grouchy now. I don't sleep well at altitude and in my sleep-addled, dehydrated brain I'd figured that if we got to the line where we could see green things like grass and trees, I could sleep. We kept going though it was a mostly silent trudge. Up high to our left were lights and we argued over which station that was, Darragh being convinced it was the one were aiming for and we should bed down again. I'd been like that earlier, just wanting to stop and worry about everything the next day. Darragh had bullied me through it and now it was my turn to make sure we got further down.
Being an absolute dickhead, I held onto the map and was fairly certain that the intersection we'd reached was just about 4km from the lower station. Naturally I didn't tell Darragh this and lied that it was one and a half (friendship entails this sometimes!). We slogged in silence till we saw the lights whereupon we both perked up and resisted the urge to sprint for the station (a broken ankle was all we needed now).
I spent about ten futile minutes attempting to break into the station (fantasizing about such luxuries like a roof over my head, a bench to sleep on etc) but in the end we found a corner with walls on two sides under a boardwalk. Bedding down there, we cooked up the last of our miserable rations, just delighted to have made it. it was after 2300 and we'd been on the go since 0500/0600.
Hunger is the best sauce.
We lacked the gourmet dining facilities at our second bivvi that the first offered.
There was one little bit of drama left. While dozing off that night, it began to piss rain with the boardwalk above not really acting as a roof, it just channelled the dripping to several locations. I was already in my sleeping bag with the bivvi bag over it but the Chinese Water torture had me frayed. Tossing my jacket over my face, I dozed off again.
But I couldn't sleep. I could hear the avalanches and rockfall going off but that didn't worry me. What did was the constant flash of light. Convinced it was Darragh flashing his headtorch at me for arcane reasons, I was rising with the intent of strangling him when I saw the sheet lightning. The thunderstorm had broken all out over Chamonix and it was lashing rain. The lightning was flashing all over the valley with the variance in the thunder making me think it was just avalanches. Delighted not to be out on the glacier or via ferrata, I dozed off again.
We got woken at 0700 by the first cable car crew, their dog deciding our faces needed some attention. Grumbling and ignoring the comments in French (no doubt hilarious judging by their laughs) we packed our kit and stumbled for the entrance, feeling like we'd entered civilisation again.
Saying farewell to our home at the cable car station
A reminder of ugly, ugly terrain.
The French wan got short shrift from us. We settled for slumping on the floor after a muttered "ca va". Having lost our bus tickets we risked hopping on for free, figuring the way our luck was going, we'd probably get caught. We stumbled back to camp, chowed down on a baquette, throw our kit out to dry and I gratefully slept under a tree.
So to sum it up, what I learned was
1. Don't try and take shortcuts in unfamiliar terrain. Half the time we made mistakes, it was us assuming we knew better than the guidebook or advice of others since we were clearly such hotshot climbers.
2. Drink and eat. Getting hunger pangs and dehydrated wasn't fun. It was a new country, new conditions, we should have been guzzling down sustenance in liquid and solid format. Instead we tried playing the hard man and suffered for it, we were lucky to not get hit worse by it. Or make worse calls in our messed up state.
3. Be patient. Even with a mate like Darragh, I got riled up easy. Being hungry, tired, cold, frustrated, all that will do it to you. We both had our ups and downs but thankfully at different times.
4. Don't take stupid risks. Writing this appalled me but it was good to see where I'd come from and whats changed since then. If I can learn from it, so can others. And bloody hell, does yours truly have a lot yet to learn!
I'll be back on that route in 2015 I hope and I'll conquer it. You truly do learn more by failing on a route than completing it. It was an amazing experience and it helped knock some cockiness out of me. 4 years on, I'm improved but there's a long way to go yet. Just goes to show, even on little disasters of trips, you can have a good time!