An Alpine adventure, well, miss-adventure from my early days
I arrived on Sunday at around 14:30h local time in Geneva, on my way for an alpine adventure. Everything seemed to work efficiently as you’d expect in Switzerland. The stairs and buses were already there waiting to unload us from the plane. Within 10 minutes I had gone through passport control and picked up my luggage. I had 1.5 hours to kill before Dave arrived. He was coming in on a different plane. To pass the time, the game was to spot anyone who had more luggage than me. Usually I pack light, but this time I brought the kitchen sink and all. As the airline staff had pointed out to me that my luggage was 3 times over the limit, I thought there may be very few matching this. After an hour, this became very boring, and came to the conclusion that only a few families had more luggage than me.
Anyway, Dave arrived, we found the Alpybus service and they took us to our campsite. We set up tents, got settled in, and went straight into town for food.
After a horrendous and an uncomfortable night sleep on a rollmat, the thickness of a beermat, we were fresh as a daisy and ready to tackle anything Chamonix could throw at us. Well, that is apart from the dark gloomy rainy weather that had awaken us from our beauty sleep. Think the both of us could have used a little more, one of us more so, but I wont say who, as Dave may get upset.
We were not going to let a little rain dampen our outlook & checked the weather, which stated dry in the afternoon, and Tuesday dry all day, with a very small possibility of rain, which in my books means that the weather men/women are trying to cover themselves in case of a few rain drops. Wednesday morning on the other hand was predicted to have a storm coming in with torrential rain. So with the small window of opportunity we decided (Dave) to tackle a route known as an Alpine classic, & known for its not so straight forward route finding and descent.
Not being acclimatized we set off on the Montevers train, on our alpine adventure, and arrived at the station overlooking the Mer de Glace glacier at around 13:00h. We got kitted up, and walked down a small path that would lead us to the via ferrata for the Mer de Glace. Within minutes it started to rain, heavily, so ended up taking shelter under a gigantic boulder. As a past time we decided to make tea, as the rain got so heavy streams of water were running underneath the boulder, so to save precious drinking water, we collected this in a plastic cup.
Around 14:00h the rain had subsided, and we carried on. Carefully down climbing these metal ladders that were anchored in to the rock many years ago. Every step we took, every hand movement was steady, firm and carefully placed, as it was a long way down.
Once down from the ladders, we walked down a muddy path, around boulders up to the glacier. There we put on crampons and got our axes out, and climbed the slope up to the middle of the glacier. Just to our right was someone struggling up the slope on all fours without crampons, obviously very aware that he could slide back down into a crevasse. He obviously didn’t think ice would be slippery…
As we progressed to walk up the Mer de Glace, we saw heavy rockfall coming off the Glacier de Thendra. At one point a slab came tumbling down the side, the size of a small house, well, maybe a square bungalow, and it sped up coming down the slope, heading in our direction. My @sshole contracted with fear, and at a moment’s notice I was ready to push Dave out of the way, and run for MY life, but as we looked further down, there was a bank of ice (side of the Mer de Glace) which stopped this rock from progressing towards us. Then my body relaxed, I wish I had brought a spare pair of boxers, we then walked on.
Just before the Mer de Glace veers of right and joins the Glacier du Tacul, we had to climb the via ferrata (metal ladders) to a path which would lead us in the direction of the Envers hut.
We weren’t acclimatized yet, so the what-should-have-been a gentle walk felt more like a struggle, and the legs felt like lead. But it does not help that I do not like the long approach walks in. I personally struggle with the continuous concentration of where each foot is going to be placed, staring at the slow progress of ground moving past, and the occasional stumble that takes a lot of energy to recorrect and rebalance.
3 hours from when we set off at our tea stop, we arrived at the boulder field underneath the Glacier de Trelaporte, where Dave pointed out the Grépon bivi spot. A giant opening underneath a boulder with comfortable ledges, to house 6 straggling and weary climbers. So we decided to walk on slightly to have a look at the glacier underneath the climb we were looking to attempt the next day. Once we arrived at the top of the boulder field, we looked for a bivi spot, unable to find something suitable we decided to go and have a look at the Bergschund, as sometimes this can be problematic to cross, due to its size this late in the season. As we approached the Bergschund, Dave leading, he managed to climb into it and traversed out right through a waterfall onto the rock, and onto a rocky ledge, perfect for a bivi. I followed. We then looked at one another, and thought, why stop here… so we shimmied across the snow slope above the bergschund towards the rock and the start up the route. Dave then placed an amazingly strong anchor of ice axe into the snow, he brought me up to him, then I found a way onto the rock, and started to climb the soaking wet system of cracks and corners, with a waterfall running down it (its like being in Wales).
Well, I had climbed on wet/damp rock before, but nothing like this. Surprisingly enough, the rock was still grippy, as long as the holds were not sloping. There were a few sketchy foot-to-hand movements, but slowly and surely we progressed to our bivi spot. As dusk fell, we arrived at our 4* ledge, the size of a large postage stamp. We set up our luxurious mats, that would have trouble masking up any blemishes in the rock, and make our stay just that little bit more comfortable. We laid out the bivi bag, cooker and food, and settled in for the night. As we had a stream of water coming down the gulley, we took advantage of this, and filled each and every container we had with water.
I had a lovely extreme freeze dried meal that consisted of 7% chicken, it also had vegetables and pasta, whilst Dave had tagiatelli, a tomato and some ham. A warm meal always lifts spirits. Finally, as dessert we had a few chocolate Princes’ biscuits, which is a chocolate filling sandwiched between two crispy crunchy biscuits, very European.
After a cold and sleepless night of staring at the full moon, and fog blowing over into the valleys below, we slowly decided to creek into action, make breakfast, drink tea and coffee.
Once emerged from the dead, the mixture of porridge and coffee had encouraged bowel movement. So, we lightened our loads, decorated with paper in a pile as to warn other climbers of the immediate and imminent danger (I know, disgusting. I have now learnt to take this with me).
We set off climbing, and our muscles felt stiff at first, but soon flew up the beautifully shaped granite corners, ledges and cracks, with the sun warming our skin. Throughout the day we were leapfrogging with another climbing duo (a Brit and a Korean guy), who felt slightly amateurish in their ability, as they kept dislodging rocks, and were climbing off route at times.
We finally approached the ledges higher up, after 7 hours of climbing. We decided to make a cup of tea, for Dave to replenish his lack of acclimatization. As we set off to climb the last 3 pitches, it started to rain/snow. These were the most difficult ones from the chosen route, and we were 700m up. Which meant the only way out of the situation was to keep going. Very soon the rain became very heavy, and the corner/crack system up to the brèche had been transformed into a waterfall. Dave led the first pitch, aiding (climbing with the use of pulling up on the protection placed), freeing and hauling any way possible to get up. The last two pitches I led, with only a small section of aid. The pressure of having to climb quickly and safely became apparent, as we needed to get down to the valley, to safety and dryness. There was no hesitation, we both knew we were not in a great position.
Once up on the brèche, both wet through, freezing cold, numb hand and feet, bordering on the first signs of hyperthermia, we abseiled down the Chamonix face of the Grépon until the corner before the chockstone by CP terrace. There we were met by the Korean and British duo in trouble. The Korean guy had abseiled down a gulley, which would have taken him onto a 600m blank face above the glacier, with no straight forward way down. They may have been able to abseil down a substantial part of it, leaving their gear behind on each abseil, till they ran out, then possibly dangling there till a slow death caught up with them. Dave knew the way, told them to come back up and climb the 3m headwall by the chockstone.
As darkness fell upon us, there was an urgency to get over the headwall by the chockstone, the alternative was grim (overexposure to wind, snow and sleet, whilst being wet through). So, Dave took charge (this is where Dave blossomed), and told me to get over on the chockstone, slowly abseil down a sloping face with 400-500m drops either side. So, no time to think about the position one is in, just get the job done. I arrived on the chockstone, brought Dave across, and set up a very poor belay as Dave had most of the gear on his harness. A directional sling had to do. As Dave tried to join me, something happened where the rope was unbalanced and he fell off and rolled off the rock spinning in mid-air above the ominous gulley, with a 400-500m drop.
I pulled Dave back up, he got settled on the chockstone, we pulled the rope through, and put me on belay. It was my job to climb the overexposed 3m headwall onto a ledge. I stood up, turned my headtorch on, saw two handholds, focused on them (the feeling of overexposure seemed to diminish as I concentrated on these two holds). Then without hesitation I dyno-ed from one hold to the other and held on for dear life, and pulled with all my might over the edge, as 3 other people were relying on me.
Once over the top, pulled Dave onto the ledge. He then disappeared into the darkness without a headtorch, on a mission to find the next abseil station. A few minutes of silence, and lack of rope movement were soon followed by a conviction in the statement of ‘Safe’. Before joining up with Dave, I had left a cam (piece of protection) with sling dangling over the edge for the Korean and Brit to aid them over the tricky wall. We then abseiled down to a broken up snowy slope, to an area that would be called home for the next 7 hours (Dave’s idea to bivi, very sensible).
We set up our bivi bags and roll mats, took our soaking wet kit off, looking forward to the premise of warm tea all night to keep our spirits up. To our preveil, we had our first cup of tea, then the gas ran out, SH!T. No more tea, just a few mouth fulls of water left in my water bottle. Was this night going to get any worse… Well, our food count was a freeze-dried meal, which was as useless as a chocolate fire guard if you have no means of heating/melting water/snow. We had a few biscuits left, 16 gummy bear sweets, and a half eating drenched flapjack, which would be our life line. We had finished our tea and biscuit each at around 12 O’clock, when finally the Korean guy and Brit passed our very comfy bivi spot (well, comfy, I was forced to sit on my @ss, with my feet tucked up, and a rock poking me in the bum hole, and Dave was squeezed in between two rocks on a sloping ledge). In some ways I was glad to finally hear the voices of the Korean and Brit, as I did not want to witness anyone dying, and I wanted my came back.
Dave suggested to them to bivi along side us, sit out the bad weather, and descend in the morning once light would clearly show us the way. Against their better judgement, they kept going. So now, all that was on my mind was keeping warm. The only dry item of clothing I had with me were my spare gloves. I had lost sensation in my feet, as my socks were soaking wet, so thought of innovative ways to keep them warm. Massaging them, taking wet socks off and putting gloves on my feet, warming wet sock up by putting inside my base layer, and replacing them on my feet once warmed up. Then putting the dry gloves on my hands to warm them. Swapping every 20-30 minutes throughout the night.
A few hours went by, I was very thirsty, so had a small swig of water followed by 2 gummy bear sweets, Dave had the same. Usually I find it hard to suck on sweets and not chew them, but on this special occasion I managed to suck them to hopefully produce some saliva, and keep my spirits up. My lowest point was at 2 O’clock in the morning as it felt we had been there for ages, and still had 4.5 hours to go, before sunrise. When 5.45h arrived we both had enough, and couldn’t bear the sitting still and fending off hyperthermia anymore, so we decided to get up, and change back into our wet clothes, finish off the last of the water, and have 2 gummy bears each.
As the surrounding landscape lit up by the rising sun, our spirits became more positive, and the realisation of the end in sight became more real. So we had both decided that there was no rush. We just had to get down safely, at a slower pace, we descended by abseils, rocky scrambles, and down climbing of the snowy/icy slopes of the Nantillion glacier. When we finally arrived at the Plan de l’Aiguille téléphérique station it was 3pm in the afternoon, and both exhausted. The journey of endurance was finally over.
Upon reflection of our alpine adventure, so many bad decisions were made. A big learning curve with luckily no casualties. One thing I have taken from this, apart from being more prepared, not taking unnecessary risks, better planning, taking extra food and gas in case and an extra pair of gloves, is that the human body can be pushed way beyond what we think it is capable of. I am in no way suggesting to go and have epics. Be safe, plan well, and enjoy the journey.