We arrived at the telephreque to the Grand Montets in the drizzling rain and hopped onto the first available car accompanied, surprisingly, only by 3 tourists. The cablecar took us up into the clouds, where the rain turned to sleet and then snow. We exited the top station into a world of complete whiteness. The ground, sky and exterior of the station wore a coat of snow and visibility was down to around a hundred metres. Great hoarfrost icicles were growing horizontally into the wind from the station’s hand railing and our gloves froze to the steelwork as we descended the stairs. At the base of the steps we fitted crampons, helmets and then roped up. Dean Roberts and I roped up together and John Swinglehurst with Steve Rowett. After a few concise instructions on arresting a fall into a crevasse we made our way out of the cordoned area and onto the small glacier. It was 11.00am, which gave a maximum round trip of six hours if we were to return to the station for the last ride home. We couldn’t afford to waste any time.
The wind was blowing and fresh snow was falling, covering any tracks of previous parties, but feint voices could be heard in the distance as we headed up, weaving between the obvious crevasse depressions. Eventually we met two English guys returning from the upper slopes, one confessed to being an incompetent mediocre who had a novice in tow. The pair had turned back at the rimaye (a great split in the glacier, one side being displaced from the other). They stressed that the climb over the rimaye was too steep to ascend with single ice axes and had decided to back off. We pressed on protecting our faces from the stinging spindrift, following the fresh tracks until we arrived at the gash. The rimaye stretched the whole width of the glacier, with the occasional gaping holes into empty space. I inserted an ice screw in the ice wall, clipped into the karrabina. Whilst Dean belayed the rope, I made a move onto the unstable ramp of snow and sugary ice. Both axe placements tore through the crust as I gave them a slight pull, which wasn’t a good sign, but a good kick with the cramponed boot soon made good footholds to enable upward progress. Twenty metres higher and I reached the saddle. I quickly dug a big bucket seat, planted my feet firmly, then took in the rope and called for Dean to follow. Once we were all at the top of the rimaye the NW Ridge could be seen just over to the right of the icy headwall. More voices could be heard coming from the ridge and from their accents they were British. We headed for the ridge and met them at the base.
“Have you been to the top?” I asked
“No, the wind was too strong on the ridge, so we decided it was too dangerous to continue”
We moved on up the ridge, keeping low, just above the snow line, scrambling over the rocks, crampons scratching and squeaking. To save time and move swiftly, belays were taken alpine style around huge flakes of rock or boulders, until we reached a long rising traverse on the top of the upper ice slope. Here I clipped into some old in situ pieces of tat and climbed up, belaying just below the summit ridge. Descending from this point was a French guide and surprise, surprise his two British clients, one of which was a lady, her hair encrusted with frost. At last it had stopped snowing and the clouds opened briefly which enabled us to catch a glimpse back down the fifteen hundred feet to the cable car station. It was a winter wonderland in the middle of summer.
We crossed over to the right hand side of the ridge and arrived at a belay stance below the crux rock step. The time was 12:45. John and Steve were now out of sight, some way behind so Dean and I got on with the crux in order to avoid any bottleneck.
We removed our rucksacks and I quickly made a start, climbing up slightly to the right and fitted a thread runner, then traverse a few steps left on a sloping ledge where I fitted another sling. A few more delicate moves to some fixed slings and I was on top of the summit block. Fleeting glimpses of the Dru came through the drifting clouds. The great monolith of granite was so close, standing white like a gigantic canine tooth. Seconds later it had disappeared, covered again by the swirling clouds. I called for Dean to follow who gasped with every move until he appeared with a beaming smile. We shook hands and took the usual summit photos before I ushered him quickly back down the way he came and I swiftly followed, leaving the gear in place for John to clip into. John was poised ready to climb the final section as I arrived back at the stance and with a quick reminder that we were already past the halfway mark, time wise he made a start on the wall. Once up Steve followed. Dean and I waited until they were both returned safely and we made haste retracing our way back down the mountain. Although care was needed, I was also concerned by the time factor involved and hurried the crew along where I thought it was safe to do so.
Dean and I arrived back at the saddle above the rimaye. Dean set off and climbed back down the steep rimaye face while I belayed from a big bucket seat, my feet securely planted in the firm snow. I dreaded the thought of getting the old “Duke of Argyll’s” (piles) while belaying from this cold position and I couldn’t wait to stand up and squeeze some warmth back into my cold buttocks. Once down Dean untied and I retrieved the rope to enable both John and Steve to have the safety of a top rope on there descent. I then stood and waited for John and Steve to arrive and when they did I allowed John utilised my old bucket seat to lower Steve off and in turn I to lower John off. I then carefully climbed back down protected by an ice screw lower down. Coiling the rope at this stage had become very difficult. The snow conditions and sub zero temperatures had turned the characteristics of the rope to the likes of a steel cable. Knots were difficult to tie and untie and handling had become awkward. The time was now 3:45pm and we had made good time on the descent, which would give us some margin if anything problematical happened, like a fall down a crevasse. Luckily feint footprints could still be seen over to the right so the way was clear for a safe descent back through the ice field. We arrived at the Grand Montets station with 40 minutes to spare and joined the queue among a dozen or so elite French UIAA guides for the ride back to the rainy Chamonix valley.