I set off for my first Summer Alpine trip for 2 years on 12th July & reached the Grand Champ camp site at Les Bossons late afternoon the next day to soon be greeted by Kean & Sandra who were relaxing in the high 20 degree heat. Within hours two accidents put a slight damper on things but thankfully nothing in the league of what curtailed my previous summer visit when a certain rock took out Tim Blakemore’s leg early on our climb on the Aguille Argentiere in 2016. My accidents were self-inflicted first walking into my ice axe & putting a 3 pronged gash into my left foot & second tripping over in the dark after an evening with the Rowland’s putting a deepish cut & bruise into my left palm. Carry on like that & I could knock my plans on their head before I’d even put my crampons on (on that score a theme will develop).
Saturday dawned, Kean & Sandra departed & I went for a traditional altitude run climbing to the lovely Bellachat hut where with €10 on me I could only buy one coke at €5.50, I really did feel like having two. I then extended the run to capture a new summit, the Aguille Les Houches at 2285 metres for some reason not the highest point on the ridge, strange? Any thoughts of climbing the further 28 metres to the ‘true’ summit were dashed by a clap of thunder from the storm building over Mont Blanc so I made a beeline for the valley with spots of rain & the smell of thunder in the air. Relief came as I hit the treeline which coincided with the storm dissipating as quickly as it had developed. A good run of 12 miles & 1,350 metres of ascent.
Three hours later, having collected my mate Dave Ball from his Argentierre camp site & having met up with Tim to make plans for the week ahead, some urgent erection of the tent I’d brought over for Dave was needed as the next & far more severe storm swept in from the West.
Sunday was a more relaxed day after I turned down Dave’s request to climb the Cosmiques Arrete & we settled on a pleasant lunch in Chamonix before I went on an easy 5 miler so as not to overdo it before the main events of the week ahead.
Monday saw Tim & Ali (an aspirant guide) pick us up at 8:00 am, we drove through the tunnel, drank coffee in the sun & then took the Hellbronner Skylift to the Torino hut. My nerves were rising with the altitude but in truth they were pretty high even before leaving the U.K., this trip was all about some big mountain days to get me more ready for Cho Oyu in Spring of next year, basically I needed to remove some rust.
Dumping some gear at the hut our first day would be the Aguille Marbrees a short route with further acclimatisation at the hut for the remainder of the day. We left the hut at 10:30 circled the western & northern flanks of our objective with crampons on to reach the col du Rochefort at 3,387 metres. Here crampons (you’ll see my drift on the coming Friday) were deliberately taken off as we prepared for the rocky ridges ahead. I had been paired with Ali so that Tim could assess Dave (far more adept than me but Tim needed the knowledge). Ali was good at instruction/calming but my initial hour on the exposed ridge was a nervous one as my mind & breathing tried to adapt to my surroundings. Finally Ali’s massage began to get through ‘think of doing a series of one legged squats Paul’, my mind went back to the core training I’d been doing & things got better from here-on. By the time we reached the 3,536 metre summit I was even beginning to enjoy it a little. From here we retraced steps briefly before branching right onto the South ridge traversing most of it before a lowered descent saw us reach the Glacier. A short walk back to the hut was lengthened as Ali decided I needed a lesson on quick descending footwork on Glacier terrain, fair cop. We reached the hut at around 14:15 having had a good re-introduction to the Alps, there followed a relaxed afternoon & evening at the hut, as ever Tim’s easy warm up & acclimatisation plan had gone to plan.
Tuesday saw us rise at 2:00 am for the usual abysmal Alpine hut breakfast, ‘Dave that wind sounds a bit fierce’ I commented with a hint of alarm. By 2:45 we headed out into the dark & the wind initially following yesterday’s track before continuing on a North East line to get to the start of the climb proper at 3,454 metres, our goal being the Rochefort Arrette & Aguille Rochefort. I had suggested this climb after persuading Tim it was too much for me two years ago, a discussion won which ultimately led to Tim’s accident, was this some kind of self-induced guilt punishment, I’ll leave that answer to the Psychologists amongst you.
Shortening the rope (today Tim & I are together with Dave & Ali on a separate rope) we began to front point up a steep snow gully for a couple of hundred metres before moving onto a rocky rib that we would follow towards the ridge. Not long before we topped this rib my stomach came into play, backs were turned or in the case of Ali & Dave a hasty distance gained as the inevitable call of nature was answered, never easy with harness, exposure & a stiff wind to boot, thankfully my stomach would play ball on the days ahead.
We reached the ridge just to the East of the towering Dent du Geant (Giants Tooth) & with me now back in the lead suddenly a testing climb turned into a test of exposure. There simply were no tracks left from the day before, the wind had erased them & I was clearly expected by Tim to make a new track on the very apex of the ridge, my heart plummeted ‘Tim I don’t like this’, did he choose not to show sympathy, clever b……! In truth from here-on he had me on a very tight & short rope.
Initially I could put feet side by side as the axe dangled uselessly to my side but after 10 metres it worsened & became one foot in front of the other to make matters worse the sun was rising & I could see the full extent of the exposure on both sides. Thought processes ‘core strength help me now, could Tim jump right fast enough if I fall left…..’, this was a full on Alpine experience to at least match any I’d taken before. Thankfully after 20/30 metres things improved until I could actually use the tip of my axe to balance if not being able to plant it for security. From here-on the degree of exposure came & went & a few rocky sections brought a degree of relief before the next exposed section revealed itself. At one point Tim moved around me, ‘stay there Paul I’ll set up a belay over on those rocks before you come across’. Now Tim is cool & works very fast but with precision when the pressure is on but come on Tim do I really need to be standing like a statue on a one foot wide ridge, no axe planted, for at least 2 minutes, if I hadn’t of already taken one I would have shit myself. The words ‘come over Paul’ were the sweetest thing a man has ever said to me. Soon after this & back on the snow Tim lowered me to the next ridge where a tricky narrow step downwards (back to one foot in front of the other) was the hardest move of the day. Tim would later say ‘one or two bits were a bit interesting’, this was definitely one of those bits!
Eventually we reached the foot of the final rocky climb the Aguille Rochefort itself. From the exposed ridge it had looked like a safe refuge with easy Grade 1 scrambling but up close it showed it’s truth teeth & was for me at least a proper rock climb. We slowly picked our way up with the occasional ‘tight rope here please Tim’ & reached the Verglass covered summit at 7:15 am (4,001 metres) where we were rewarded with no views, a continued biting wind & a bite to eat.
Shortly after Dave & Ali joined us Tim & I packed up & began what I’d been fearing all along, our descent a ‘simple’ back tracking of our outward traverse. Some lowering speeded our descent off the Aguille & from here we could at least follow our earlier tracks which made for easier & faster progress. At the first rocky section we met two climbers taking a break in the cold wind, their minds about to defeat them, they turned back which in truth helped me further as our track became better laid still, nonetheless a focused mind could not relax at any point.
Finally we were off the ridge & took a well earned & proper break as several other small groups began to arrive on the ridge & ask us about what lay ahead. Our early start had given us the trail breaking but had also given us the delights of a superb ridge in splendid isolation, something special to reflect on.
Dangers still existed, the rib descent was at times very loose, with other climbers above us thoughts returned to 2016, ‘please no dislodged rocks this time’. Eventually we reached the snow gully, it seemed steeper than on the ascent so Tim needed patience as I over kicked in for piece of mind. The weather which had closed in with flakes of snow soon after we’d started to traverse the arrette then broke & our walk out across the glacier became an opportunity to photograph the majesty of the Valley Blanc & it’s surrounding summit bastions above. We reached the hut at 11:20, it had been 8 & a half hours of epic adventure, for me just how my pre-leaving the U.K. nerves allowed me to come through that was hard to fathom, clearly as ever a debt to Tim was a major factor. Dave I think felt a similar accomplishment as he ordered a beer, knowing I’d be driving later I settled happily for a coke.
From here we descended the Hellbronner, drove back into France, ‘see you tomorrow guides at 10:00’. Dave & I enjoyed an outside meal at a friendly restaurant in Les Houches before returning to the camp site for a proper drink & reflection, what a day. Lest I forget Dorina & then Kean were given a brief account by phone, it was a case of needing to sing from the rooftops (actually from the safety of a tent in a valley)!
Now I had planned to cover the whole trip here but the above is enough for anyone, the crampon & other tales will follow in part 2.