Trekking towards the NE face of Mont Blanc du Tacal with Dent du Géant in the distance
I had slept badly. It was my first night at altitude and I had a headache. Neither of us had an alarm which meant I was constantly checking my watch throughout the night in paranoia of oversleeping. My water bottle, which I was using as a pillow, also leaked shortly after midnight wetting my sleeping bag and my gloves. All-in-all it had not been a great night for me.
We were camped beneath the northwest face of Mont Blanc du Tacal in anticipation of climbing the 55° steep, 600m long Jager couloir. We did not rise until 5am and were slow preparing. Luckily my gloves had dried else I may have declined to climb today for fear of my fingers, which have poor circulation following a frostbite injury, being poorly insulated from the conditions.
Camping spot below Jager Couloir
The sun had long since risen by the time we were at the bottom of the couloir. It was a beautiful morning with barely a cloud in the sky and we were looking forward to bagging our first Alpine route of the summer. Both of us were confident to move together without the need for pitches. Ben led the way over the bergshrund and started up the couloir over well consolidated frozen snow. Climbing was easy and enjoyable. After a winter of mixed climbing I was happy to be back on a snow and ice route. We knocked off the lower third of the climb fairly rapidly, Ben tackling a slightly steeper section without problems.
The couloir was exposed to the early sunrays and as the morning warmed up the snow quickly started to lose stability and climbing became harder. My feet were more prone to slipping and my axes were not finding sufficiently firm holds. While I never feared an accident the snow proved particularly tiring to climb especially since I wasn’t properly acclimatised. The deteriorating snow conditions forced us to regularly change us ascent line in order to find better ground which wasted precious time.
The couloir was proving deceptively long. From the campsite it appeared that when it started to bend right we were nearly at the top. The reality was that we were only half way there. I was feeling the altitude and breathing heavily in response. Ben who was already acclimatised was looking better.
Gervasutti (left), Jager (middle) and Albinoni-Gabarrou (right) Couloirs
On Ben’s second lead he opted to take a left turn into a mixed gully hoping to find easier climbing. The snow conditions were becoming frustrating for both of us and I was beginning to get bored of the repetitive climbing nature of the snow couloir. I lead one pitch of rope but decided to back-off and abseil down as the way was cutting on to a buttress, the grade was increasing and I could not see a clear route. Having abseiled off I was unable to pull the rope through and Ben had to ascend the rope to free it. As I waited at the bottom I took stock of the situation. The weather forecast for the Mont Blanc area was sunshine for days. After the beautiful early morning the conditions now seemed to be slowly deteriorating with cloud slowly filling the couloir top down. We should have been at the top by now and on our descent. Instead we still had 200m to go with weather closing in. In hindsight we maybe should have abseiled back down the couloir. Being in reach of the top and having put so much effort in to get to where we were we decided to push on, optimistic that we could make a quick descent upon topping out.
Ben soon abseiled back down to join me - minus one sling. Our attempted detour had cost us time but at least it had given me the chance to get my breath back. I now felt revived and keen to push on. With a sense of urgency I lead the remainder of the couloir to the top adapting my technique to suit the conditions. Rather than plant my axes and feet I lifted them higher then drove them more heavily in to the snow to find a harder layer of icy snow beneath. While this expended more energy I was no longer slipping and could climb more efficiently without the frustration at slipping every other step.
At the top of the couloir there was a small step that was straight-forward to climb and the cornice was easy to detour around. The weather had continued to deteriorate and it was total white-out on topping out and a strong wind from the north was now blowing in our faces. My concerns about how I was going to get off the mountain immediately heightened. We checked the map. Ben was confident that we would find the way off if we walked parallel to the ridge until we met footprints heading down the regular descent route on the NW flank. This was the Mont Blanc Massif after all which attracts vast numbers of climbers. Surely the descent route would be easy to spot we optimistically thought.
Within seconds of starting our descent route I promptly put my foot in a crevasse which was almost invisible. I cursed at how I had no chance of picking it out. Just as the crevasses were covered so were any footprints, the exposed wind having blown powder snow in to any depressions. With neither of us having set foot on top of Mont Blanc du Tacal before it quickly became apparent that there was little chance of us finding the way down the mountain’s heavily crevassed eastern face with no visibility. Our surroundings were a uniform white with no divide between the sky and the ground and both of us were nervous about what lay invisible beneath our feet. We decided to descend using abseils. Building a snow bollard Ben down cautiously down climbed in to the whiteness. He soon backed off however feeling he had no idea where he was in space and whether there was a big drop right ahead of him.
Ben midway up Jager Couloir
We made a decision to go to Plan B and dig in for the night then descend in the morning when the weather would hopefully be better. We climbed back towards the summit ridge where there was enough snow to dig a trench out. I put on all the clothes I had in anticipation for a cold night ahead. Using our axes we dug a trench four foot deep, three foot wide and six foot long. It took a lot of time and effort as the snow was powdery so the trench kept collapsing inwards. The digging kept me warm however and we had nothing better to do that evening! Once it was dug we promptly took cover from the chilling wind. Neither of us had our bivi bags so we lied as close together as possible in a vain effort to retain heat. We both lay shivering. The sun had not yet set but we knew we were going nowhere for the present. Snow was being whipped in to the trench and into my eyes making them water. I buried my head close to the snow and pulled my hood over my face in a vain attempt to shelter myself from the conditions. With all the powder blowing in to the trench I feared it would need redigging at some point in the night which didn’t enthral me. I was relatively calm however as I knew it could be far worse. Only the previous summer I had spent a night at around 6300m on Khan Tengri in a snow storm with no shelter in freezing temperatures that had left me with frostbitten fingers and toes. That night had been desperate but I had come through and the experience had toughened me up. I knew that I could see this night through without a problem. Ben found a small bag of dried apricots in his rucksack. It was the only food we had for the evening and we both ate them quickly.
Before sunset the skies momentarily cleared enough for us to see the Cosmeques hut below and Ben was eager to try and make a descent. I was not enthusiastic at the prospect as we foolishly had not bought our torches and were we to turn back then we would not be able to find our trench. I knew that we could see the night out if we stayed put - albeit with little sleep! It seemed like a gamble to move that probably wouldn’t pay off. Ben’s enthusiasm to try a descent however eventually rubbed off on me and we decided to give it a go. Before we were even packed however the cloud had returned making a descent impossible. We returned to the trench.
View up Jager couloir from approximately halfway up
We spent much of the night trying to keep warm. The fingers on my right hand, which were frostbitten the year before, were getting cold and I was continually kick-starting the circulation by placing them under my armpit. Ben was also getting chilblains in his fingers. Ben and I were both shivering continuously but not enough to overly concern me. I knew it was our bodies’ way of trying to stay warm. The weather eased after midnight however and the night was not as drawn out as I had expected. Although I do not remember, I must have slept at some point in the early hours.
At sunrise we were greeted by an approaching ski mountaineer and we promptly started preparing for a descent. Unfortunately, having laid out the ropes in the bottom of the trench hoping they would provide minor insulation, they were now frozen beneath the powder snow that had blown in to the trench throughout the night. We both spent ages tugging at the ropes trying to free them, my fingers freezing again in the process, in particular the middle finger which took about ten minutes to get the blood flowing again. I managed to get circulation back but it felt weak and I was keen to descend to a warmer climate.
With cold fingers we both struggled to put on our crampons and harnesses and rope up. The way down was easy in daylight although there was a lot of weaving in and out of crevasses and seracs. My right crampon fell off a short distance from the trench having been unable to tighten properly with my injured right hand. I opted to carry it the rest of the way. Ben also dropped a glove towards the bottom of the descent. The glove tumbled down the hill never to be seen again. Having already lost his altimeter this trip was becoming an expensive one.
The Cosmeques hut where we ate the menu after the climb!
The final climb to the Cosmeques hut was an exhausting one under the circumstances. On arrival I promptly asked for some warm water to heat my fingers up. I was charged 3.5 Euros for the privilege! I won’t be leaving my mittens at home in favour of my gauntlets again though!
We celebrated getting off the mountains by taking lunch at the Cosmeques hut. We had of course not eaten dinner last night nor had breakfast this morning so were both extremely hungry after our ordeals. Having long since run out of water we were also both very thirsty. I even drank the hot water that I had been bathing my fingers in.
In hindsight I totally underestimated the route. Having climbed much bigger routes in the high mountains of Asia at a higher grade I did not take it seriously enough. There was never any consideration that it would take so long however leaving my torch behind was pure disorganisation. Our biggest error though was setting off so late. An extra day would have allowed me to acclimatise properly and I would have been in better condition to make a predawn start. I also underestimated the conditions having left my mittens behind as well as my fleece. After a long winter of Scottish climbing I expected conditions to be comparatively moderate. Finally, the climb also taught me a valuable lesson about familiarising myself with the route off the mountain!
The Walk out from our campsite below the NE face of Mont Blanc du Tacul
On returning to our tent we slept for a couple of hours before preparing a couple more meals to regain strength. My flight home was only a couple of days away and there was no time for me to climb any more routes. My face was crisp burnt and at some point I had clearly forgotten to apply the sun cream. It looked like it needed a break from the sun!| Ben went on to successfully climb Mont Blanc only a few days after our ordeal on Mont Blanc du Tacal. He had to run down most of the mountain in order to catch his bus to Geneva airport. This proved not to be running that day and he had to pay a three figure sum for a taxi to the airport.
All-in-all it was a memorable trip!
… and an expensive one for Ben.