Late in the Day in the Grand Couloir
Photos from this trip report: HERE
After years of wishing followed by a face to face encounter with Mont Blanc back in February of 2006, and after 3 months of prep, we finally had our gear packed and on our backs as we walked from the Les Houches parking lot to the Les Houches telepherique. We expected to take the Telepherique to Belleviue and the tram to Nid Aigle. Because the tram to Nid Aigle was stopped by rockfall, we had to hoof it an extra 2.5 steep, steep hours with full packs to the beginning of the route up Mont Blanc. That 2.5 hours really messed us up. The valley was green and lush and beautiful. It was a very warm day. After climbing to Nid Aigle and stopping for a brief bite to eat, we continued on what should have been the beginning of our climb. It was very steep going involving a lot of switchbacks up steep rock with uneasy footing. Finally we saw the Tete Rousse hut above us. Eventually, we got to the biggest objective danger on the route, where the trail runs below near constant rockfall in an area known as the "Bowling Alley" (a steep couloir - think the steep curving wall inside of a soup bowl - known in France as the Rue Du Mort - street of death) at about 4:30 pm - at a time when the sun had warmed the snow and ice holding the rockfall above the route in place. This of course was not good. We stood on the edge of the ledge in a protected spot watching the big and small rocks tumble down every few seconds (we had a very large piece of granite speed down within about 5 feet of us on a lower portion of this section). The only option here is to literally sprint across the couloir (bowling alley) and keep your eyes peeled for falling rock and be prepared to hit the deck. The "deck" as it turns out, was not the wide dirt path I had seen in photos, but was a mushy snow ledge about 3 feet wide. One side was a 55 degree slope up with the rocks hurtling down and the other was the same slope down to a crevasse field. Get hit by a rock or lose your footing as you're trying to sprint slightly uphill with crampons and a full 35 lb pack on your back (and my 10lbs of camera gear on my front) and it's a grand tour of the Grand Couloir and a trip into the abyss of a gaping crevasse. To add to the fun, a rescue helicopter kept hovering right above the couloir, its blades stirring up the air and causing vibration that loosened even more rocks. That sort of objective danger was beyond Mimi's level of acceptability, though Don and I were planning on doing it this morning as the rocks would have frozen into place by then, thereby allowing us time to carefully cross the couloir without having to sprint.
As the last cable car back to Les Houches left at 6pm and we were about 5 hours above it (our starting point) our only option was a careful climb down and back into the other rcokfall zone down to the Tete Rousse Hut. It was full, but for about $75 each, we could have a pad and a blanket and a space on the dining room floor (and dinner and breakfast). Luckily a few people who had reservations didn't make it up, so we got a bunk bed. We were still 2.5 hours from the Gouter Hut (our original destination) and another 6 hours after that to the summit. Mimi planned on climbing back down herself as Don and I continued up the route this morning, but after the trauma of seeing the rock falling so close to us, seeing Mimi's panicked state, the prospect of climbing alone for the first time with a new partner, and really just not feeling mentally "with" this mountain, I opted to keep the team together and we all came down today.
I am disappointed to not have been able to climb such a beautiful mountain (above the Gouter Hut). I used to think to myself if I didn't summit a mountain "Oh Well, it will be there next time I want to try", but with Global Warming, I am less confident that that is the case.... as far as this trip goes, here's the kicker:
Don's cell phone rang as we were entering the first rockfall zone above the Tete Rouse hut. He commented to us that he can't imagine who's calling and that he was SURE he had powered his phone down. It rang again about 5 minutes later. Don's wife, Ilana, NEVER calls him when he's on a climb and never worries about him when he's climbing. They had an agreement to talk 1 time per night when he wasn't climbing. When we got through the trauma and got down to the hut last night, Don checked his phone. Ilana had called both times to leave 2 desperate messages saying that she had a dream that something bad had happened on this mountain to him and that he shouldn't climb. Don says he visually remembered turning the phone completely off right before we started climbing and he showed me that the power switch was recessed and couldn't be accidentally turned on in his pack.....spooky.