After my epic in the Karakorum in the summer of 2022 my plan for this year was simply ‘back to basics’ in the form of booking Tim Blakemore (‘my’ IFMGA Guide) for 6 days in the Alps. Tim has guided me most years in The Alps since 2013 except 2017 (when I climbed Pik Lenin) & the dreaded Covid years of 2020/21. My pre-trip thoughts were a mix of ‘I need something easy’ & ‘how would I cope mentally after the scare of GII’.
To help settle my nerves I persuaded Judy to come out with me (for the third time), her concerns on ‘would she hold us back’ met by my retort ‘honestly Judy, I’m not looking to do anything fast or demanding’, Tim (un-beknown to me) would have a slightly different take on things.
I’ll split the blog into two parts which suits what actually happened on the ground, so here goes – Part 1:-
I set off from the Cafe shortly after 12:00 pm on Wednesday 5th July with Ady having taken the normal ‘lucky’ photo of Me & Dorina saying goodbye to each other outside my car (actually Dorina’s car which I was borrowing). By 1:00 pm I’d picked up Judy & 6 hours or so later we checked into the Ashford Travelodge for an overnight stop. I’d booked the tunnel later than normal so in order to avoid a high charge of £320 each way I went for an early crossing, 4:20am, for just £160. This meant alarms set for 2:30 am or thereabouts, note to self: next year book well in advance.
The 540 mile drive through France to Morzine went generally well, circa 8 hours including a couple of stops but at the second of these I began to realise I had a problem, my right leg, more specifically the buttock & quad were seizing up with a degree of pain chucked in for good measure. By the time we hit Morzine I was limping like a cripple.
After un-packing we decided a short walk might ease things which indeed it did a little but later I would spend the night sleeping fitfully. I was in a serious amount of pain right through the right hip & could only find one lying position that gave me fleeting relief before tossing & turning were necessitated again, it was a long night.
At breakfast I announced a plan to Judith, Ibuprofen (Judy’s thoughts were clearly ‘at last you idiot’), rest & if that doesn’t work you’ll be climbing with Tim without me. The first of these lasted a day (Friday) leading to a better night’s sleep & a mountain walk with Judy on Saturday. Well is was more of a climb as we summitted a 2,170 metre peak above Morzine with several Eagles circling overhead having clearly heard there was a bloke with a dodgy hip to be fed upon. The climb itself was often ridiculously steep but led to a wonderfully airy summit ridge steeped with Alpine Flowers, Judy’s assured footing putting my tentative steps in their place. Thankfully the hip stood up to the huge descent better than I had any right to hope for. We’d winged it & got away with it. Later that afternoon we drove (well Judy did having added her to my insurance policy to allow my hip some respite from ‘Dorina’s car seat revenge’) over to Les Houches to meet up with Tim to plan our week, hip allowing. Tim & I settled on a plan to suit both him & me ‘I didn’t realise Paul that you’re outdated enough to still be bagging 4,000ers’ whilst I look for something more aesthetic these days’ was roughly his gist, I took the point but stuck to my guns (Part 2 to come). Judy & I then returned to Morzine where she prepared another excellent meal, her kitchen, not mine.
In for a penny, in for a pound, Sunday dawned after a good night’s sleep, Judy planned a food shop whilst I planned a run but kept stum on my plans in fear of receiving ‘you’re going to do what!’. The run started with a bit of tight pain in the buttock so of course I ignored it & carried on running soon passing Judy coming the other way loaded up with our supper. I ran in 30 degree heat for four & a half hours covering nearly 18 miles with 4,400 feet of ascent & descent. Remarkably the hip played ball or was it merely a change in focus from ‘that hurts’ to ‘I’m dying of dehydration’ (despite carrying a litre & buying a Pepsi Max half way through), thankfully a couple of miles from home I found a water trough where I took on an extra litre. Despite this I would remain pretty dehydrated throughout the next day when in the mountains proper. Judy’s welcome upon my return no doubt ‘hid’ an underlying feeling ‘it’s Paul, I should have known better’. We ate well & I had a relatively low alcohol night, well after all tomorrow the main events would begin.
We met up with Tim at 8:00 am on Monday & were soon aboard the train which would take us up to the Montenvers station above the famous Mer de Glace glacier. The infamous ladders that descend to this shockingly fast shrinking glacier have now been replaced by a rocky path that leads to a man made walkway which descends by way of 500 steps to the glacier itself. Markers show where the ice used to be in 1985, 2000 & 2015, it felt truly tragic to see the 2015 one which was not long after I first climbed in the Alps, global warming at it’s most alarming reality.
Once on the glacier we had a long walk up & across it to reach the bolted ladders that would lead us to the Couvercle hut, our base for Part 1. During this walk we bumped into a good friend & Mountain Leader, Rob Johnson, coming down from whence we were heading. Ironically Tim had trained Rob some 20 years or so ago & Rob had led me on both a Nav course & then a ML course 13 & 12 years ago respectively, big glacier, small world. Once at the foot of the ladders Tim roped us up & led with Judy following & me bringing up the rear. The main ladder sections rose circa 200 metres (roughly 800 rungs) with just the occasional ledge for a respite, all very daunting at first but easing as rhythm & familiarity came to the fore. Above these an airy path with more come & go ladders & bolted plates kept the mind active until some 5 hours after leaving Montenvers we reached the hut having climbed 4,600 feet, we were now at 2,687 metres.
The hut guardian was a bit of a typically French Alpinist but if you ignored him & focused on the majestic surroundings you could only think ‘how lucky we are to be in a place like this’. It felt (because we were) that we were in the middle of the Mont Blanc Massif, we were completely surrounded by peaks of 3,500 to 4,800 metres, it was like being in the middle of a Volcanic Caldera, what a spot!
Our objective for Day 2 was the remote ‘Point Isabelle’ which stands at 3,761 metres, we rose at 4:00 am to a poor breakfast & were underway well before 5:00. Only a French couple (Father & Daughter) would be on our route but they had set off 2 hours earlier, basically we had the approach to ourselves, well done Tim, I’m getting where you are coming from. After an initially frustratingly long & steep descent to get onto the Glacier de Talefre (200 metres) there followed a long shallow slog back up to 2,800 metres or so. Here Judy who had been showing signs of being a bit off colour announced she wanted to turn back, a good call at a point where Tim confirmed that this was the last spot that’d he’d be happy with her returning to the hut alone. She would later message us both that she’d got back safely where she would enjoy a day in the hut.
It was now daylight & getting increasingly warm (30 degrees was forecasted). Tim & I continued onto increasingly steep snow slopes in good condition before a small vertical climb up a crevasse headwall led to a short traverse to the first rocky rib. This was a loose & disconcerting place, wary of rockfall I was glad we were alone with no one immediately above us. Soon we broke out onto a lovely snow arête where my pre-climb fears were thankfully subdued by the reality of careful focus. Another rocky rib, stable & reliable this time led to a final steep climb on firm snow which brought us both to the base of the summit rocks as well as alongside the French duo. Tim then led us through & onto the rock ahead of them fixing a couple of slings into protection for me to climb behind. Halfway up Tim pointed to the abseil fixings for use later & asked me to point them out to the Frenchman which I did. Soon the climb lessened to a scramble & after nearly 6 hours we popped out onto the summit. The views were magnificent, the isolation my reward for Tim’s aesthetic, camera & phone (mine & Tim’s respectively) clicked before a quick re-fuel preceded our descent.
We soon passed the French couple & were a bit surprised that the guy didn’t seem to re-call the abseil point, most odd, or language? Anyhow we moved on & were soon at the abseil point where mine & Tim’s banter about me taking my figure of eight against Tim’s wishes (well I’d lost one on GII & would prefer not to be without one again) led to me conceding ‘O.K. Tim lets do it your way, I won’t abseil, lower me instead’. The lower was out over overhanging rocks & was probably 25 metres or so, Tim then abseiled down to me, he even had the audacity to stop to look for Crystals at one point before remembering it’s time to get away from the summit block before the Frenchies follow.
Our descent back to the hut was a long one with various difficulties to retrace but I became increasingly aware that my moves & progress felt good, it felt like (because indeed I was) putting my post GII fears behind me. Even the 200 metre re-ascent to the seemingly never nearing hut in the heat of the afternoon sun failed to take anything away from the sense of achievement.
We reached the hut after an excursion of circa nine & a half hours having ascended/descended 6,400′. The afternoon was spent increasingly looking out for the French guys, the girl had looked tired on the summit rocks. Finally they came into view, spotted by Tim who’d borrowed some binoculars. From this siting they took a further 3 hours to reach the hut (they had abandoned their plan of a return to Montenvers that same day). In all they had been on the route for well over sixteen hours, the girl was distraught, burst into tears at Tim’s kind words, leaving the room, before returning for the evening meal where her vibrancy from the evening before slowly returned. Had Dad pushed her too hard, probably, but the mutual love & respect were clear to see. It had been a warm up climb for them for Mont Blanc via the Pope Route (up) & the Three Mont’s route (down), personally I hope they consider an easier route than that.
Judy had had a pleasant day at the hut talking to various other groups, little did I know that she was more hesitant about the ladders on tomorrow’s retreat back to Montenvers than I was about the airy path. We all though were worried about the storm’s forecast, airy traverse’s on wet slippery ground, metal ladders attracting lightning, what’s not to like about the day ahead?
Thankfully only one storm & that was kind enough to pass whilst we were still in bed, the descent got underway earlier than planned a little before mid-morning. I sweated buckets on the airy traverse with it’s mix of short ladders & big exposures (a mixture of the heat & nerves) whilst Judy seemed to take each rocky step in her stride. At least my nemesis was over first whilst Judy’s (the ladders) were still to come. Once again Tim’s attention to detail came to the fore as he took on board a chance remark from Judy about her forthcoming trepidation, ‘O.K. Judy tie-on you’ll go first, Paul will follow you & clip in at each anchor & I’ll lead from the back’. It worked more-or-less perfectly & I thoroughly enjoyed the responsibility given to me as I felt I was controlling the climb with shouts of ‘wait’, ‘O.K. move on’ at every fixing point (roughly every 10 rungs or so). I missed clipping into the very last fixing & apologised to Tim who took it in his stride (think he was pretty pleased with the rest of our performance) Then I slipped on the shoddy moraine immediately at the base of the ladders grazing my right arm from wrist to elbow. Once again pride had come before a fall albeit it a small & safe one at that.
From here we headed back down the Mer de Glace turning at one point to see the French couple begin their descent of the ladders, it’d be the last we saw of them, good luck for Mont Blanc guys.
Back at the man made steps & platforms that link the ice grotto to the Montenvers station we re-joined the Tourists & my thought processes were taken over with ‘they’ve made a tourist attraction out of a receding glacier, they’ve used concrete, steel, global warming materials, to spell out global warming, oxy’bloody’moron. Next, like the tourists, I made the long climb up the concrete & metal back to the train station.
Judy & I would stay in the Rocky Pop Hostel in Les Houches that night having a lovely meal of La Tartiflette in a favored local restaurant. We had had a great ‘Tim’s’ Part One, ‘My’ Part Two would follow in the day’s ahead but Tim had a little twist in store for the Allenlinhorn, supposedly the 2nd easiest of the Alp’s 4,000 metre peaks, not when Tim gets his way.