This is long as I am also using it as a personal diary for the experiences I went through on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Massif over two & a bit days, please forgive me.
After a relaxed evening & a bit of a lie in, Wednesday was planned to be an easier day. Tim & Ali picked us up from the camp site at 10:00, we again headed through the tunnel & into Italy, I do like Italy! This time we turned left at Entreves & headed North East up the Val Ferret for reasons that I’ll soon make apparent I was glad to be sitting behind the driver giving a restricted view to any mountains on my left. We were soon parked up at Plampincieux, stepping out into warm sunshine there she stood, our targeted peak, the Gran Jorasses & it’s high point the Point Walker. O.K. clearly we were not to be climbing on one of the Alps most iconic North faces but for someone like me this was going to be a very substantial test, the route from valley to summit is 2,650 metres & it looked massive, ‘don’t dwell Paul it’ll look easier once you are on it’ I tried to convince myself.
But first things first an Italian coffee.at
Then we geared up lightening our loads where possible & at 11:15 we began a steady ascent to today’s target, the remote Boccalette hut, situated at 2,804 metres this still a 1,250 metre climb on a warm day with heavy packs. That said it was enjoyable, early on I frequently fell behind to take photo’s of the Alpine flowers along the way. As we climbed higher I could cherish memories of September last year by looking South to the Monte della Saxe ridge which Dorina & I had walked over as part of our Tour du Mont Blanc. The pleasant walk took on a more rugged guize as we crossed over the Torrent Marguera, several sections had beefy fixed ropes to cling to, never hairy but time to focus & keep the camera zipped in it’s case. The final barriers to the hut were an awkward snow patch with Tim kicking in to ease my progress & a further fixed rope which brought us to the huts veranda.
Tim had known that the hut guardian had a bit of a reputation for climbing a bit in his day but we were not prepared fully for his pedigree. Franco Perlotto can only be described as an Italian & in the best possible sense, soon we were seeing photo’s of him with Cassin, Bonatti, hearing tales of him dossing down with Alex McIntyre in Sheffield, meeting Doug Scott in a bookshop in Penrith………… all with an excited but self-deprecating way with shrugs & smiles & a, ‘well I’m nearly dead now’ nonchalance. Well done Franco, a pedigree like yours & yet you’ve repaid your debt to the mountains by re-opening a once closed hut on the flanks of one of the Alps great mountains. Of course all this meant that this small hut was going to be very busy, apart from us, Franco, Chiara (a Spanish girl working with Franco, well he is an Italian Male) there would also be 2 other people staying the night. Now that is an Alpine hut experience worth having!
Good Italian food inevitably followed as did some wine & a spirit on the house, time for a few sunset photo’s of some Anvil storm clouds far to the South & then early to bed, the forecast was good & beckoned an early start.
We breakfasted at 1:15 am in recognition of a big day ahead but the plan soon lay in tatters, thunder rolled, the rain came moments later, where the hell has that come from. The storm which only appeared on the weather forecasts after it had actually started lasted until well after 4:00 am by which time Tim had finally decided ‘not today guys’, but we were lucky, Kean would later tell me that 3 people had to be lifted off the Mountain whilst we simply tossed in the safety of our beds. The other pair did set off for the summit, probably a French guide for you, the Dutch client did well but was looking pretty tired after an 11 hour climb that was successful, good effort but I was glad for an un-planned rest day at this wonderful hut where we occasionally greeted climbers from the North face routes who were passing through on their descent.
Thursday evening the hut was again packed with just the four of us, simply doesn’t get better than that, oh & there was Polenta & Beef too!
Friday saw another 1:15 breakfast but this time the weather gods were with us & by 2:00 am our climb began.
After about two hours trudging up easy but gradually steepening glacial slopes Ali called from behind ‘Tim I think we should have bared left by now’, he came up to consult with Tim & as he passed me I heard his fateful Scottish drawl ‘dude where’s your crampon?’ ‘What the f…, no, no, that’s it, it’s all over, what a f…… idiot’ I thought, quite what the others were thinking I dared not guess!
Initially there was hope, maybe we’d find it as we retrace our steps to pick up the correct track, but this retrace was short, there would be no crampon, it was over & I was devastated by my error & it’s consequenses.
What? not only have I lost a crampon I’m now hearing things, no it was real, Tim did actually utter ‘We’ll give it a go Paul, we can turn back if necessary’, I didn’t argue, I was in shock, ‘I, yes me Paul Hodges, am going to have a go at a huge 4,000 metre summit on one bloody crampon, shit’. I won’t go into the full details of exactly what I was thinking but it’s fair to say I was extremely un-happy with myself for landing me in such a short future.
Life sometimes moves on & after some steepening of the glacier we came to our first rocky rib, the Rognon de la Boutille, here my cunning plan began to work for me, one crampon was faster to remove than two, I decided not to brag ‘come on guys hurry up’.
This rib was long & technical, indeed just the lower sections would require 5 lowers on our descent, reaching the top with daylight now upon us we stopped at the start of a short snow arrete to refix crampons or crampon. The crux of the climb lay in sight, the traverse of the Glacier del Gran Jorasses. Now traversing glaciers is my weakest skill, if you ignore my in-ability to fix a crampon (a slip thankfully held by Tim on the Aletzschorn in 2015 proves this fact), the one ahead was left to right & I would have no crampon on my outer right boot. At this point I did whymper & Ali, bless him, took control by switching the crampon bar around thereby allowing me to wear my left crampon on my more important right foot, I was impressed by that Ali but for the record I was still shitting myself. We had already been warned by Franco ‘don’t traverse the lower track it is iced, go higher & then drop back down to it once across’, in truth the higher track was also iced, at 45 degrees ‘this is the hardest traverse of my life & I’ve got one crampon’.
Here we got what you pay for, Ali led Dave, cut step after step, fixed ice screw after ice screw but I knew that until Tim managed to reach & clip into that first ice screw one slip from me & we’d fall down the glacier which was seriously crevassed 100 metres or so below us, you just don’t come back from that type of fall. Tim clipped in, logic tried to work but all I could think off was that this was beyond me, of course I knew it was now too late to retreat & that I just had to get on with it. Our slow traverse seemed to take an hour for what was less than 50 metres, clinging to a wall of death one by one I removed the ice screws & finally we got to a point where I could front point down to the track below whilst Tim belayed me from above, relief of sorts but we’d be coming back the same way.
Soon we were onto our next rib, crampon off as we began the ascent of Tour des Jorasses, this got us to 3,813 metres where we would refix crampon/s. For Tim & I only one option to traverse on relatively easy glacial terrain but under an infamous serac which thankfully looked pretty benign & therefore relatively safe. Ali & Dave decided to avoid the serac & head up a long steep gully to it’s left which would bring them to Point Whymper, I had had enough Whympering so was more than happy not to target that.
Our traverse went well as we passed some small fallen serac debris & after 10 minutes or so we were out of the line of fire. From here on the final ascent was on a mixture of snow & rock, after nearly 7 & a half hours Tim led us onto Point Walker’s summit at 4,206 metres, what a climb it had been. We were soon joined by 4 gnarly Ukranians who had come up the North face on the distinctly more impressive Rolling Stones route, if they noticed my boot they kept quiet & we took turns to take each others photographs. Moving away from the summit to a gentle cul we stopped for a well earned bite to eat, take in the stunning 360 degree vista’s including Mont Blanc & it’s incredible northern aguille from an angle I’d never seen before. We also watched Ali & Dave making slow progress up their 50 degree gully, glad we’d avoided that.
Before our descent began Tim adjusted the crampon back to fit my left boot which would now be predominantly on the Outside of the face.
In truth despite needing extreme care the descent felt easier than I’d feared, the crux traverse was easier as we took a lower line allowing us to soon turn more front on where I could make better use of my axe. This said following into one of Tim’s cut steps I was swinging my axe wildly to make the step bigger, Tim’s frustration spilled ‘Paul that’s pointless’, ‘Tim if I put my right boot on that it’ll come straight off’, he nonchalantly stuck out his right boot so that it rested below the step ‘step onto that then’ which I did.
Once onto the final glacier, the gradient eased, the wet snow failed to support my right foot, with Tim’s encouragement I did what all the greats have done at some point & bum slid to safety.
On a small scree section 20 minutes above the hut ‘there’s your crampon Paul’, ‘we could take the rocky line Paul’, ‘Tim I’ve got two crampons I’m sticking to the snow’. This allowed me to prove to Tim that I can descend on crap snow quite well with 2 crampons on (Ali’s training on day 1 had clearly helped).
Our descent had taken a little over 5 hours, I enjoyed a beer & coke before congratulating Dave & Ali on their climb as they joined us, they’d bagged both the Whymper & Walker to boot.
As for Franco ‘One crampon?’ slapped his head, smiled & gave me a hug. We soon said our goodbyes to Franco & Chiara & began our 2 hour descent to the car. For once despite the easier ground I didn’t charge ahead, Tim had weighted me with the rope but I had no inclination of trying to go at his or Ali (who would soon hang back to check Dave over the trickier bits) pace, my climb was done, ‘just take it easy’.
Just as we reached the tunnel I borrowed Dave’s phone, ‘Hi Angel, plenty to tell you, later, for now we’ve done it, I’m down & I’m safe!
Farewells soon said Dave & I spent an evening comparing notes on a very big day.
Saturday saw a relaxed day with me getting out for a short 5 miler, Dave clearly thinking ‘how can the old git do that’. Sunday much the same but this time I did an 11 miler which took me to Le Junction a climb of over 1,500 metres, some fell runner whom I won’t name has been known to take a cable car on it’s lower section & then keep it a secret for a year or so but in fairness Kean was almost 60 at the time. As for Dave when I got back into camp he almost had me certified. Both nights saw us again enjoy a good meal in Les Houches as we plotted our final climb an un-guided ascent of The Nordend, the Alps 3rd highest summit.
Enough for now I hear you say, Part 3 (shorter) in due course.
Finally: Tim was risking his reputation by allowing a client to attempt this climb with such a shortage of kit, I can take it as a compliment that he felt I still had a chance but the biggest factor I am sure was that he knew his skill set could get me off one way or the other, as ever I am indebted to him for pushing my boundaries. Only 3 days earlier I had welled up & almost cried when we got off the Rochefort arrete in pure relief & gratitude to Tim. There was no such sensation after the Gran Jorasses, the physicality & harsh realities had drained me of even those emotions or should I put it down to experience gained over a fabulous week, who knows?