BackgroundIt was Thursday evening in Geneva when our group met to discuss the weekend's excursion in the Alps. Our discussion centered on the South-East Arete of the Tour Ronde (3792m), a II/PD mixed route that allowed for our main objective: an overnight bivouac at altitude. It didn't take long for the conversation to turn toward the weather forecast. Concerns were raised about severe thunderstorms in the forecast, typically prudent warnings often issued in late spring and early summer by the Chamonix meteo office to discourage climbers like us from getting caught in bad weather at high altitude. The final call would be made on Friday evening with two traverses in the Aiguilles Rouges as the next best alternative. When the forecast didn't improve, it was sealed: our weekend would be spent on the two traverses in the Aiguilles Rouges.
Traverse of the CrochuesOn Saturday morning, we assembled at the usual car pool spot and after the short drive from Geneva we arrived in Les Praz / Chamonix. Given the fact we were carrying tents and a few bottles of wine, nobody argued with the suggestion of taking the Flegere cable car up to shave 800m off our elevation gain to Lac Blanc. Somewhere along the way to the lake, we stashed our overnight provisions away from the trail and headed up toward the Col des Aiguilles Crochues (2700m), our starting point for the traverse of the day.
The weather had been more or less as forecast: cloudy with a chance of precipitation. We were fortunate enough that the precipitation turned out to be a mixture of mist and drizzle rather than heavy rain. This allowed for a pleasantly cool ascent without too much of the added risk of climbing on wet rocks. While not ideal, these conditions were manageable.
Crossing to the west side of the col, we quickly reached a chimney. Roland took the lead with his partner and I followed with Marc on our line. This section, roughly 40m, lead to a belay next to a rock horn. Continuing up a short slope of scree, we found ourselves at a platform. From here, we found an exit on the left that rounded a rock over to the north-west side. After negotiation past a few boulders, we kept to the crest of the ridge and soon came upon a small dihedral; somewhat exposed with a pin near the base for protection. We then followed the ridge crest across a few boulders, past a gendarme and up some scree slopes to put us on the summit of the Aiguilles Crochues (2800m) around lunch time. Supposedly, views from the summit are superb (on a clear day) but our views mostly consisted of the baguettes and chocolate bars at arm’s length. While the climbing itself was never more than 3+, finding our route in such visibility made this little traverse more interesting than ususal. Kudos go to Roland for leading the way in such soup!
It didn’t take long after heading down to the Col des Dards to reach our cache and hike over to Lac Blanc where we would spend the night in good position for the next day’s objective: traverse of the Aiguille de Belvedere. We even managed to spot some signs of life along the way up to Lac Blanc.
In the evening, we spent time practicing crevasse rescue techniques at the cliffs east of the lake. As the evening progressed, weather conditions began to improve. The cloud cover that had been hovering around the area all day began to break up. And as the sun was approaching its final hour, it was clear the next morning would offer much more favorable visibility.
Traverse of the BelvedereOn Sunday morning, we awoke to a gloriously cloudless sky and a sunrise that lit up the Mont Blanc massif and painted the classic reflection of the range from Lac Blanc. It didn’t take long for the group to gather and start our ascent. After about an hour, we stopped at a col for a short break. Originally, we had intended to reach the Col de Dards and ascend the South Arête. However, after a bit of discussion and topo consultation, we concluded that we had in fact reached the Col de Belvedere! So this was how the north-south traverse became the spontaneous objective of the day.
Ascending the North Arête from the col involved scrambling southwest over mostly low to moderate 3/4 often loose rock with a few short steps of more solid rock. Eventually, we gained the summit after passing around or over whatever obstacles were in the way. From the top of the Aiguille du Belvedere (2965m), we were treated to a superb panorama that included the entire Mont Blanc massif and the surrounding peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges. We lingered all alone on the summit, eating lunch and pondering a lifetime of climbing possibilities in the region.
Continuing our traverse, we connected with the South Arête and began to meet up with parties on their way up. After a short pause due to a bottleneck above the chimney, we made the short rappel and down climbed to the Col de Dards (2790m) and returned to Lac Blanc (2352m) before racing back to La Flegere (1890m) for drinks. By the time we arrived back at the Flegere parking lot, we could see the cumulus clouds beginning to build for what would turn out to be some major thunderstorms later that day.
ConclusionsAll things considered, our two traverses in the Aiguilles Rouges turned out to be quite enjoyable and we accomplished what we set out to do: bivouac at altitude; even though this condition was somewhat relaxed, nobody seemed to mind. Weather conditions over the two days made for two very different experiences; one planned traverse on a relatively solid ridge but with more routefinding due to thick clouds, and another unplanned traverse with some section of loose rock but sun soaking beautiful views.
Despite a bit of soup, it was more like the best of times. The weather provided just the window we needed and we all enjoyed the experience. In retrospective, it seems we made a good decision to spend the weekend doing two traverses in the Aiguilles Rouges. While an ascent of the Tour Ronde would have been perhaps a more impressive feat with a much higher bivouac, conditions up high would have been not as good as what we experienced and certainly would not have allowed for a tale of two traverses!