A Quote...“Thanks to that long spell of good weather (and by disregarding the thunderstorm warnings) we sure accomplished something very special this summer!” The Peak Monster – 2nd Aug 2013.
Mont Blanc summit 4810m 10th July
We had set ourselves 3 objectives for Mont Blanc: an ascent of the remote Italian ‘Pope’ route; a bivouac on the summit; and finally visiting the Italian summit of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur.
Having laboured all the way up the Val Veni and Miage Glaciers yesterday and Gonella route to the summit today, we have ticked off the first. We are about to tick off the second – that of spending the night on the top, which I dreamed up over a decade ago, and of which I convinced my sceptical companion it would be a good idea about a year ago.
But here, things have started to go pear shaped. The snow cave, which we have spent most of the afternoon trying to dig, is more of a pit than a cave. We hit very hard snow less than a meter down and the snow blocks we have been carving out are too crumbly to effectively complete the roof.
And now it looks as if we have not just one, but two bloody great thunderstorms heading our way. After 3 hours of digging, we had conceded defeat in terms of tunnelling any further into Mont Blanc’s summit. As I straightened my aching back for the last time I took in that we no longer had a view looking out over Mont Blanc de Courmayeur into Italy. Cumulus clouds had been bubbling up from the depths for a number of hours. But now, the magnificent Wagner overture of a sunset we have come to see from the highest point in Europe is apparently going to be blocked by a great wall of cloud, which is towering up above our heads. That is a cumulonimbus cloud a.k.a. ‘cu-nimb’ – or thunder-cloud.
A short while ago, I remembered that I had promised to try and phone my wife - and I also wanted to try and phone my eldest son, whose birthday it was that day. I had walked slightly breathlessly the short distance back up to the summit, intending to drop back over the other side, back into France. I fancied I’d be able to phone from there without there being the disturbing mutter of thunder in the background.
But there is another even bigger cu-nimb over there, rising up from France. I decide I’d better leave any phoning until morning – when it will be after what is to come. ..
My Dutch companion Rob is unimpressed at the situation. He is a very experienced alpinist, but I am supposed to be the snow-cave expert. My credentials for this are that I spent a total of two weeks living in a snow-cave on Broad Peak. This was 26 years ago. But then I had revised my ancient skills as recently as April, when I dug a very successful snow-cave on the summit of the 3rd highest mountain in England, with my youngest son – after the exceptional spring snowfall.
I scrabble to find something positive to say in response - perhaps to highlight some other feature of our new temporary home, which could in some way compensate... The floor for instance is very nice – very flat, free of lumps and large enough for the two of us to lie down on. But there is no escaping the fact that a third of this attractive feature is well, open to the sky.
“We should at least be safe from lightning here, right?”
“Hmmm...” I respond ambiguously. Actually, now that we are faced with it, I can’t remember if a snow cave (or our apology for one) is a good thing to be in during a lightning storm - or the complete opposite. I have a nagging sense that really the best option, is to be a very, very long way away...
When I saw the French cu-nimb it occurred to me that we should make the effort to quickly pack everything up, go back over the summit and descend the 500m of undulating ridge to reach the Vallot Shelter. But I soon dismissed the idea. We didn’t have time - and it would surely be worse to be caught out on a ridge.
We have managed to have a meal and a brew. A short while ago, operating in a sheltered, level area, a by-product from carving out snow blocks, I fired up the stove and attended to the tedious business of melting snow. Eventually we had enough hot water to have soup, a freeze dried meal, another drink – and some left over to fill a couple of our bottles.
So now, all there is to do is get ready for a very long night.
We place metallic things, like our ice-axes and crampons, 10 meters away from us, in the levelled out cooking area. I still feel a vague unease – I don’t think I like the thought of a lightning strike coming that close, even if our prudent action means it doesn’t score a direct hit.
All non essential items go into our rucksacks, which in turn go inside their rain-covers, at the entrance to our home. My boots are sopping wet. Despite repeated spraying with water repellent, all this trip they have tended to absorb water, especially in late afternoon snow. Wet boots doesn’t bode well for the morning, when they will be frozen. But distracted by the approaching storm all I can do, as I struggle into my sleeping bag, is to turn them upside down and wrap them in my gortex jacket.
Rob is already cocooned in his sleeping and bivvy bag. In the limited confines of the Mont Blanc Hilton, it was a major struggle getting his lanky frame ensconced.
At last I am cocooned myself. I am actually reasonably comfortable and warm – apart from my wet feet. And I hope those will dry out overnight. I try to position myself in such a way to let fresh air penetrate the unfamiliar folds of my new bivvy bag. At nearly 5000m, the air is thin enough already, without adding suffocation to the challenge of breathing.
All there is to do now is lie and wait until morning. I recognise I am actually exhausted now from the day’s exertions. Even though it is so early I could fall asleep. But the thunder is getting louder and more frequent and there is a nagging anxiety to keep me awake.
With a soft eerie hissing sound, as it lands on our sleeping bag covers, it has stated to snow...
INTRODUCTIONThe origins of this trip lie in Alps International Expedition 2012, last September. I had met Rob a.k.a. rgg through Summit Post – and despite indifferent weather we had squeezed out 4 summits across France, Italy and Switzerland. We had called ourselves an International Expedition, since I am half each British and Kiwi. Rob is Dutch, and speaks 4 different languages including HTML. In this year’s 2013 expedition I am pleased to say we became even more international in that we picked up a mislaid Welsh Hitchhiker in the middle of an Italian glacier – but more about him later...
When Rob suggested we might join up again in 2013 I wasn’t entirely sure about it. His other alias apart from rgg, is that of Peak Monster. I gave him his title when I learned that in the 3 months before I met him last year, he had already climbed over 50 summits across the Alps – nearly as many as I had climbed over 40 years. The weather in September 2012 constrained him somewhat, but keeping up with him still resulted in bodily injury on my part: my right buttock had stayed a slightly different shape after what took place on the Aiguille du Tour – and there persisted still visible evidence of other bodily harm in the misshapen appearance of my right big toe-nail.
Another thing is that Rob is also a Hut-Monster. He has stayed in millions of alpine huts, despite the cost. This is largely about his vast appetite: he needs constant re-fuelling to propel his lanky frame up all those mountains. Using huts, he doesn’t have to carry so much – and as an old hand, he has acquired the knack of making sure he always gets fed at least twice at meal times. I’m not keen on huts. Most of my alpine climbing has been from camps or bivouacs. After paying 8 Euro’s for a miserable litre of water in a Swiss Mountain Hut last September (plus experienced my wife’s response to the total cost of that trip) I vowed I would not be dragged around anymore alpine huts if I joined with Rob this year...
But there was one common objective drawing us together for Alps 2013.
We both wanted to climb Mont Blanc via the Gonella route, up from Italy. In addition, despite his Hut-Monster tendencies, I had persuaded him that above all, he really needed to experience a bivouac on the summit of Europe. You don’t get many who either want, or see the need, to do that – so... Peak Monster, Hut Monster – whatever – I was going to the Alps with Rob again, in July 2013. And I wouldn't come to regret it.
CIMA DI JAZZI 3803mOn Friday 28th June 2013 I did a morning clinic at the Drugs & Alcohol service where I work in Leeds, set my e-mail and mobile phone holiday messages and drove to Switzerland. It poured with rain all the way – so I experienced my first bivvy of the trip, cramped uncomfortably in a front seat of my car.
Mid afternoon on the Saturday, I found the Peak Monster lurking at Visp railway station. It was hard to recognise him at first, since he had brought a different beard – much smaller than the one he had 9 months before, which had made him look like either an escaped prophet, or some kind of alcoholic vagrant. He had been in the Alps for just over a week – and already ticked off at least eight new summits around Domodossola, in Italy, just to the southeast of Visp.
In (temporary) deference to my Hotels and Huts embargo we camped up the valley at Randa, just a few kilometres from Zermatt.
I had brought out fuel and freeze dried food and Rob had plenty of extra food, so without further ado we high-tailed it for Zermatt on the Sunday, briefly checked out conditions – and by midday were alighting from the train at Rotenboden, the penultimate stop on the Gornergrat mountain railway, at around 2800m.
Despite pouring rain over the previous 36 hours, the weather was glorious. Monte Rosa and the other four thousanders of the frontier ridge all shone in the sun, pristine with their new coats of dazzling white snow. But the first indication that Plan A might not be ‘go’ came from a couple we met, who had just come from the Monte Rosa Hut. They told us that of the few trying at the moment; most were failing on both Dufourspitze and Nordend due to deep snow. The most successful forays had been people on skis...
We didn’t have skis.
Nonetheless, with rucksacks heavy on our backs, we strode onwards – and presently found ourselves standing on ice, at the edge of the vast glacial amphitheatre at the foot of Monte Rosa. Having walked in a long descending traverse from Rotenboden, we had dropped down to around 2400m. But now, we were going to re-gain all the height we had lost and then some, since our objective was a level area at 3000m on the Gorner glacier, tucked up underneath the long ridge of the Gornergrat. We had identified this possible camp site on Google Earth some months before.
There was no sign of any trail, but we found a route up a narrow ablation valley at the edge of the glacier. We laboured upwards for a couple of hours, laden under 25kg packs – and in due course, Rob’s mountain tent was up and my was stove going – boiling water from a small stream we had found, a short awkward scramble away from our camp. That evening we were treated to a fine display of alpenglow on the stunning array of four thousand metre peaks before us – including the famous Matterhorn.
At 5am next day I was up and raring to go. But I made a discovery: Rob was even less of a morning person in a tent than in a hut.
“We don’t need to be up this early!” he grumbled with uncharacteristic grumpiness.
With all the talk of deep soft snow, I thought we did – and fed him strong coffee and hot water for his morning bucket of granola until he finally consented to move.
But once his feet were planted on the glacier outside the tent, as I knew it would, all traces of Rob’s morning sloth evaporated. The peaks were shining with morning alpenglow now.
“Seeing a sight like that” I said “It makes you understand why the Swiss Yodel, doesn’t it?”
But the Peak Monster wasn’t prepared to go that far. “No – I will never understand that” he replied.
Nevertheless, the sight was compelling and with a text-book display of rope untangling Rob, as most up to date glacier travel expert, had us roped up – and with those funny little knots in the rope to provide drag, if one of us fell down a crevasse. I'd noticed the odd guide adopting this practice in recent years and speculated as to whether they had either mislaid members of their party - or couldn't count and tied too many knots... However, Rob had been on an advanced Alpine Skills course the previous year and explained all.
We left our little camp and were soon just a pair of tiny dots, in the mind bending hugeness of the vast frozen white desert of the Gorner Glacier. I've always had a fascination for polar travel and imagined crossing this great expanse to be as close to the feeling of being on a polar icecap as I am likely to get.
Unencumbered by the heavy packs of the day before, we made steady progress over the shining white undulations of the glacier. There were no signs of anyone else – and the only boot-prints in the snow were ours. But with the vast scale and undulations we could also see no sign of our objective, which, from the Swiss side, is not much more than a snowy ‘hump’. Here, I was feeling increasing disquiet and even irritation.
“Err Rob” I said for the umpteenth time “We are heading the wrong way – Cima di Jazzi is way off to the left!”
He paused, peered over the tops of his spectacles at the map – and launched into an incomprehensible spiel of justification. With his fluency in four languages, I wondered if he had picked the wrong one – and was about to remind him not to address me in either German or HTML... But then I remembered he is a hard core scientist. Perhaps what he was trying to explain was something to do with the space-time continuum. I never understood any of that stuff – but it is something to do with how there can be no such thing as travel in a straight line - Ergo though we appeared to be travelling at right angles to the direction of Cima di Jazzi, scienterrifically speaking; we were in actual fact headed straight for it, due to this distortion in the space-time continuum...
But then I got it: right there up in front of us, was the only summit we could see at that moment; the comely snow-dome of Grosse Fillarhorn (3674m). Damn, I thought to myself, he wants to climb it...
I started to launch into an irritable tirade about ‘keeping to the plan’ and ‘at least climbing the right mountain’ and so forth. But then I felt it too: Peak-Monsterness began to course through me. If I couldn’t beat Rob, perhaps I could at least join him.
In the event we climbed those two – plus another little top that Rob decreed to be a possible summit. Hours later, in the early afternoon, I found myself blearily eyeing the mountain we had actually come to climb. We had been up and down over our three little summits like on a roller-coaster and, my first climbing day, I was getting very tired. But we now faced a sharp ascent of over 250m to reach the final summit.
Summoning up my last reserves, I gritted my teeth, put my head down – and plodded – and just under an hour later, we emerged on the delightful little