– Solo attempt on Les Droites & Mont Blanc on Skis.
(I hope that you enjoy the photos, I feel that they are among the most stunning that I have ever taken… I’m talking about scenery not photo skills!)
I wanted to go climbing. My aim this winter was to learn to ski properly, become confident on all kinds of terrain, learn about snow, glaciers and alpine ski travel. After 6 weeks filling my ski boots with all that stuff, something inside of me was burning to climb. Just one alpine route would be enough. A nice bit of technical climbing (not too technical, I have ski bum arms at the moment), a summit hopefully, a simple life striving away on a mountain for a day or two, then I could go back to having a powder hungry laugh with my mates.
Monday 7th April – I phoned the hut guardian on the Argentiére Glacier. Nick Draper, Matt Robinson and I wanted to stay the night up there for an early (4am) start on Petit Viking a route on the North Face of Pointe du Domino – “No Mr., you can’t possibly climb Petit Viking, today you can’t see 2 metres in front of your face, with the affect the wind has had on the new snow there will be no Alpinism until Friday”. A big call from that guy, but hut guardians know their stuff right?
Weather is one thing that stops you from climbing. I’ve found that other factors include unreliable partners, forgotten or broken kit, fatigue, fear, injury, time, lack of psyche and gut feelings. Rationally, these factors can add up and lead to creating a bad gut feeling about starting or continuing a climb, but sometimes a gut feeling alone is enough to call it a day. Some people are superstitious enough that if a few things go wrong on the morning of a climb – they drop an egg (or 12 as I did) or fall over on the ski in (as I always do) or drop their belay plate down a face (as I did 100m up on the NF Aiguille Verte) then they go home to fight another day. After all, it can be “just one of those days” I guess.
So, completely ignoring the wisdom of the hut guardian and armed with our super psyche, Nick and I caught the 1st bus to Grands Montets on Tues AM. John McCune showed up an hour after us having forgotten his SKIS! I grumbled internally until I realized I had forgotten my skins (also a deal breaker). Meanwhile John magiced up some skis with skins, the skins for his forgotten skis luckily fit mine so by 11am (not 4) we were ready to start the ski up to the back of the glacier. Bumbling Alpinists.
We cut through the new snow, determined to prove the hut guardian wrong. When we arrived just below the bergschrund, we decided the approach slopes looked iffy (avalanche prone, laden with new snow and still falling spindrift) and decided to bail. The final straw that broke the camel’s back on a day that had already had its fair share of warning signs. Nick and I still had a really nice powder session on the south facing slopes above the glacier, but I STILL hadn’t been climbing.
No alpinism till Friday huh? I, self righteously, still had Thursday to prove the hut guardian wrong. I’m fascinated by the Argentiére Glacier. The ski traverse under such towering north faces overwhelms me every time. Skiing around crazy crevasses that you could drive a truck into and dodging seracs the size of houses will never get boring. Having climbed 2 of these 3 big north faces, I have been keen to “get the set” for a while. So on Thursday I set out to solo the Legarde route on the North East Face of Les Droites.
I was tired when I woke. I dropped the 12 eggs. Anna, Heidi Gregory and Lukas Volkwein lifted my psyche by kindly offering to valet park me at the bottom of the route and then take my skis away so I could descend the south face and walk back to Chamonix in my mountaineering boots. Moments after leaving them that feeling struck me, a simple life, I looked at my shadow, just me, my pack and an ice axe swinging in the sun. It felt real. Alone, I had time to take it in. There was no one ahead of me to keep up with, no one behind to keep pace with. Simple.
A gut feeling on the way up the approach slope made me change the start of the route. I had an underlying fatigue from 2 months in the mountains that had never been rested properly. So instead of the 2 x 80 degree ice pitches on the direct start, I opted for the longer but, as I thought at the time, less tiring mixed rising traverse.
Thunk. My first axe hit perfect neve on a short near vertical step. Then a longer, steeper step. Then a snowfield laden with deep stamina sapping powder. Man I was tired. No tracks. The Wakeford route through the mixed ice, snow and rocky ground over three or four rock buttresses felt intimidating, where do I go? Up, over, oops not that way, back down, how did the first ascensionists work this out? My dodgy shoulder popped slightly at one point. I slipped slightly once but my arms held. Man this was mentally draining.
Eventually I saddled a snow spine and saw the Legarde Couloir just below and to the left of me. Then BOOM, rumble, GRRRRRRRR, the noise was so intense as I realized a serac was falling from the glacier a few hundred metres above and one couloir over from me. The dust cloud filled the air as blocks of ice the size of engines tumbled down metres away from me. I concentrated on my footing and nothing else. I thought back, if my gut feeling hadn’t made me change my route at the beginning, could I have still been below this? I doubt it, but from my vantage point it was difficult to judge the exact path of the falling debris. A similar thing happened last year on a first attempt of the North Face of Les Courtes. We retreated that time due to conditions and the fact that we had started too late in the day, 2 days later we went back much better prepared for the route. It was a good call. Ignoring superstition, this time I wanted to continue, I found a crack, placed a peg, took out my 60metre abseil rope and 70metre tagline that I had bought from Snell Sports the day before. Started to rappel into the couloir (as it was easier to do this than traverse over more of the mentally knackering and slippery mixed ground that I had had enough of grappling by myself). Bugger! My tagline is too short! It must only be 45 metres! What the!?!? Mr. Snell had not measured it properly. This would mean that rappelling the south face after the summit would be a bit of a pain. Each of my rappels with the tagline system needed a maillon… I didn’t have enough.
The straw that broke the camel’s back. One of those days. I decided to rappel down to safety (45metres at a time!). No alpinism till Friday. At least not the summiting, all smiles kind. Having said that I had climbed 600metres of a 1200metre route (from my skis). I had learned a lot. Mainly about how I cope with the mental challenge of soloing alpine routes. More so than ever I value the future at the moment. The fatigue, the serac fall, the rope…… Going down was a good idea.
I decided to rest properly. For days. 5 in fact. All be it that 2 of these were spent waiting for weather. My tip had changed…. Bob Nicholson wanted to summit Mont Blanc and ski off the top. Anna and Lukas were keen as well. It meant more skinning and alpine walking than technical climbing, but the idea of a big summit and an adventure with good friends sucked me in. We met Matt Robinson for a breakfast meeting of maps and guidebooks. Matt had summited recently, but in the cloud, we really wanted the views. A 2 day window appeared so we went for it.
Day 1, Aiguille du Midi cable car to the mid station. Then 825m of ski ascent under the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi and across the Glacier des Bossons to the Grands Mulets (big German hairdos) hut.
Day 2, 1699m of ascent to the summit, split into 1300 of skinning to a bivouac hut, then 400m of climbing (steep walking) up a snow ridge with skis on our back to the summit, then 2500m of descent back to the mid station by 5pm for the last bin down.
What transpired –
Weds 16th April – Day 1, Bob lost a ski down a snow slope and over a cliff. We scrambled down below the cliff and got it back. Anna’s binding then exploded in the middle of a crevasse field just metres from the hut. With the broken binding in my hands, I let out an almighty shout of frustration, pent up from keeping my cool over Bob’s lost ski, this time it was a deal breaker. “The straw that broke?” Or was it? Martin Grannäs Brännsrtöm brought spare parts in the form of my old skis to the mid station. I went back to retrieve the parts. I helped a Norwegian that I found hanging upside down in a crevasse. After 1868metres of ascent and 1142 descent I finally arrived at the hut at 930pm. I then received some seriously thoughtful hospitality from the already stretched hut guardians (15 people were short of beds in the hut that night) in the form of extra food and a good old chin wag, we went to bed at 1130pm. Thanks so much guys.
Between the 4 of us we enjoyed a combined sleep total of 6 hours.
Thurs 18th April – Day 2, I was tired, I wanted to try and rest, the snow for the descent would be better later on in the day and we could descend down to the tunnel if we couldn’t make the last bin from the mid station. Couldn’t we? This was still possible. No gut feeling yet. With everyone else ahead of us, we left the hut at 530am. Most people had left at 2. As 2 rope teams of 2, we skinned quickly up through the most stunning ski touring scenery I have ever ventured into. The lights of Chamonix twinkled far below. Seracs hung all around us. The sun rose. We started to creep up higher than the top of the Aiguille du Midi the highest point in the range that is accessible by motorized transportation. This was different. Higher than the midi!!! Seracs fell from Mont Blanc du Tacul out to our left, a reminder to pass quickly across the Petit Plateau. We unroped and crossed as fast as we could. The ominous ice cliffs leaned towards us from above. Just as we had made it, I told Anna to cover her mouth as a dust cloud came towards us from a falling serac behind. At 4100m I ate a massive sandwich. The next 50m were the hardest as the blood rushed to my stomach. I stopped every 5 steps. The wind kicked in. 50kph. We switched to crampons for the ice slope below the bivouac hut. The hut was so welcome. At 4350m, Anna and Lukas decided to make camp. This was Anna’s 2nd ski tour of the year and Lukas had just arrived, unacclimatised, from England. They were quite rightly very stoked. Sitting up high, they laughed, fueled with psyche for the immense ski down and surrounded by stunning 360-degree views. Bob and I pushed on, but not with skis. We were tired, the wind on the ridge with skis on our back would be annoying, the ski off the north face was a big no fall zone which we both felt we needed more experience for. Today was not the day. I suffered badly from altitude on the ridge. I had to sit whilst Bob gave me a good talking to, we sorted my breathing, I had an energy gel and pushed on. At 3pm Bob and I summited. Today was the day. It was Thursday, a week late for alpinism, but who cares.
All 4 of us enjoyed the most amazing ski descent of my life. The pictures will tell part of this story. It’s silly that I’ve been looking at the entire run from my balcony in Chamonix for weeks without even realizing it. We picked up 2 straggling Austrians; we followed fresh tracks down towards the tunnel. The tracks stopped at the end of the glacier just above an ice cliff. Damn it! There was a boot track back up. The team had different solutions and fatigued opinions. Bob pulled us together and we founded a plan. We skinned back up for 200metres. Physical exercise is good for you but at this stage it actually felt like I was doing my body damage. We climbed moraines. Mud banks in the dark. We skied bushes. We stumbled down a path for 800m. Expecting to hitch at the tunnel we found it to be shut. We sat bemused for an hour. Eyes wired. We pulled packs back on and started to walk the road. A maintenance vehicle arrived and scraped us up. We fell into Chamonix at 1am. These events were all warning signs not to continue, but on the descent you have to. We had done 2559m of ascent and 3867m of descent in a day.
During these 2 days, not everything aligned but at no point did I want to call it a day.
I don’t even consider myself an alpinist. I don’t really have a title. If I did I’d call myself a bumbler…. Constantly coming up with ideas and working out if I can make them happen or if I’m capable of realising them at some point. I seem to have a lot of epics, especially this season. I like that. If it were all perfect then it wouldn’t be an adventure would it? After all adventure is one of the main aims of bumbling out into the mountains isn’t it?
There’s probably no rhyme or reason to following gut feelings, especially in the mountains, but it seems to work for me. I’m super happy with my experiences this winter. Long may they continue. Long past Friday.
So you can see the entire route that we took just by looking up from town towards Mont Blanc.
Traversing across from the mid station of the cable car…
…underneath the north face of the Aiguille du Midi. This is the exit couloir of the Mallory Porter ski descent…. maybe one day!
The path ahead over the Glacier des Bossons.
Final slope up to the hut which sits on the large rocky outcrop just to the left of middle.
Anna make’s her first move across the crevasse filled glacier junction, moments before her ski exploded.
Me picking up the pieces…. many a thought was spinning through my head at this point.
I start the journey back to the mid station and help a Norwegian that I found hanging upside down in a crevasse along the way.
Scrambling over the moraines is kind of like walking on marbles at times.
Pano of most of the route.
A small avalanche falls off the north face of the midi just as I have passed underneath and am about to again for the third time in the day.
Martin’s famous “skinning hat” came off on the ski back, i didn’t stop as I knew the lack of wind would mean I could collect it on the skin back up.
Alpen glow starts to kick in.
A bear basks in the sunset.
Anna, Bob and Lukas watched sunset from the hut having helped the hut guardians construct some make shift beds for the overflow of people. It wasn’t the greatest news I had ever heard when on my journey back Anna texted me to say that I may not have a bed for the night. She sorted it though, thankfully!
Such good friends!
Being out on the glacier as the sun went down was a pretty humbling experience.
View from the back of the hut to the Cunningham Couloir.
Me scrambling up the rock face to the hut. The route up is so bloomin french, grade 3 scrambling with a bit of tat to hold on to.
A good old chin wag, whispering away in the kitchen with the hut guardians whilst everyone else in the hut slept.
Kitting up at 5am after everyone else had left and the hut guardians had gone back to bed.
The moon and other parties starting up the route early in the morning.
2 ropes – Me and Anna, Bob and Lukas.
Anna the alpinist.
Sunrise over Chamonix.
A fairly steep skin at this point with the midi still above us.
Anna checks out the view.
We start to creep up above the midi.
The ominous leaning seracs above the Petit Plateau.
Moving as quickly as we could through this bit.
The route around some of the larger crevasses…
….and over some of the smaller ones.
Just before our first rest stop.
Looking back to the east over the midi, the Aiguille Verte, Les Droites, Les Courtes, Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit.
Man i’m hungry. The summit of Mont Blanc, still a bit above my head.
It was on this easy skin that I was really starting to feel the affects of altitude…. and my sandwich!
The ridge up to the summit on the right with the bivouac hut sitting on the rocks.
A Norwegian lady was choppered out to safety.
Bob and Lukas booting up the ice below the bivouac hut.
Anna looks out to the west over Les Domes de Miage ridge that I had climbed with Martin and Björn a few weeks beforehand.
Bob brought caramel latte.
Out of the wind but still bloomin freezing.
I’m not even going to ask. But if you are wondering then yes, Lukas did bring a whole jar of peanut butter with him.
The summit ridge ahead.
Bob and the hut below.
Bob and Chamonix.
Italy on the left France on the right.
Bob looks happy! I was suffering a bit at this point.
The final ridge to the summit. The wind was fierce on one side of this ridge and you could hear a pin drop on the other.
Note to self, remember to take towel off face for photos.
A few paces below the summit.
The view down the north face and the ski descent below.
Italy from the top of Europe.
Italy and France
Meanwhile, back at the hut.
Anna the alpinist 2.0
Bob and I on the beach.
Skiing down! Across the Grand Plateau.
Lukas, Anna and Bob happy to be on skis in downhill mode!
Marvelling at the petit plateau. Briefly!
View down to Chamoix past the Grands Mulets hut.
Anna crosses back over the glacier junction.
Skinning again! After going the wrong way.
Sunset on a long day.
Anna boots up the last moraine.
Mont Blanc tunnel maintenance man scrapes us off the road.
Motorised transportation at last.