Paul’s Blog – The Alps July 2019 – Part 1 – The Climbs – Part 2

Apologies for the confusing title but basically this covers Days 3 to 5 of my climbing with Judy & Tim.

Day 3 – The day dawned with me in the now over familiar toilet block but thankfully my stomach was beginning to settle down & the worse of the heatstroke was behind me. There was no need for an early start so Judy & I had a pleasant breakfast before Tim arrived & we bundled heavy bags which included our climbing boots because we were anticipating a pleasant walk into the Refuge des Conscrits in shorts & trainers.

There was time for a coffee stop in St. Gervais, a pleasant Spa Town (note to self I need to come back & explore it at leisure), before parking up at les Contamines-Montjoie, strapping on our bags & heading into a steep forest climb. As we gained height the forest thinned giving way to Alpine plants with their vivid flowers, frequent stops to click the camera became the order of my morning. After some two & a half hours we reached the Rufuge de Tre-la-Tete, it was time to re-fuel, take in the views to the West & re-fill water bottles from the trough’s water pipe.

Moving on it was soon clear that the Glacier de Tre la Tete was no longer as the map showed, in fact it is sadly in serious retreat, global warmings impact un-deniably obvious. Whilst the scenery was awesomely brutal with the glacier now out of sight up the valley we were ‘treated’ to a less than pleasant & often distinctly un-obvious plod over a messy moraine. At one point we saw a group descending apparently heading for a wrong turn abyss we literally had our hearts in our mouths, thankfully they escaped the glaciers Eastern jaws but only just.

We finally reached the Glaciers Eastern front proper & were jolted into Long Trosers, Boots, Crampons, Ropes & Ice Axes drawn. As ever Tim led the way up the 45 degree ice wall & soon had an Ice Screw fixed to belay us as we followed. This was repeated a 2nd time & we were soon safe on a flatter section giving a sigh of relief (well I was, not sure about Judy).

From here we soon left the Glacier to it’s North & began the final steep climb on a better than hoped for path to our base for the next two nights, the Refuge des Conscrits. The ‘walk’ in had taken the best part of six & a half hours, was far from restful but had been arguably my most varied & interesting approach to a hut yet. The Refuge itself was pleasant & welcoming, the food was excellent with three courses including a veggie main course & a finale sideshow of a large family of Chamoix coming over to graze for a photoshoot. If I had a niggle having arrived after another couple Judy & I got the top bunks in the 4 bunk dormitory. Top bunks are not usually a problem with me but the ladders were designed by Acrobats & in the middle of the night with a call of nature I slipped from the ‘ladder’ & almost ended up on top of the girl below. Despite her being somewhat attractive this near miss (for her) was anything but deliberate. Over breakfast I confessed to Judy who tertly replied ‘yes you woke me up!’

Day 4 – There was an option for breakfast, 3:30 am or no breakfast, we took the former before slowly gearing up for the day ahead before setting off at 4:30 in pleasant warmth.

Early navigation was a bit tricky for Tim over mixed terrain of rock & snow fields before we reached the glacier proper where we stopped briefly to put on Crampons & rope-up. A group of early starters could be seen ahead, it was clear a steep stomp awaited us. This was made easier by the arrival of dawn giving me opportunities to request ‘Tim, can we stop for a Photograph’ on more than one occasion. With the steepest sections behind us we crossed a gaping crevasse on a thankfully firm snow-bridge before making the final climb up to Col des Domes at 3,564 metres some 1,000 metres above our starting point. With the group heading left towards the Domes de Miage (our main goal), we stached our bags & headed right for the understated high point of our day simply titled ‘Point 3,704’. This was a steepening snow arrete leading to a rocky summit with quite simply stunning views over the Aguille di Bionnassay & Mont Blancs looming South East flanks, it felt like a very worthy tick to be here.

Of course what you go up you must come down & it was my turn to nervously lead it, the icy stretch I remembered from the ascent was playing more than a little on my mind but was thankfully soon behind us.

With a re-fuel & bags re-strapped we headed East for the Domes de Miage & it’s fine Castor like (as in Castor on the Monte Rosa massif) snow arrete. The exposure was particularly high to our right but in truth the ridge was well trodden & wide enough to feel almost comfortable. During it’s traverse we only saw two groups of two, Tim really had led us to a quiet side of Mont Blanc. With the fine ridge behind us I began to lead a descent that quickly steepened. As it did so the exposure right became increasingly obvious what began as a simple descent towards our final objective was all of a sudden a serious undertaking. I chose a line, Judy had a minor slip ‘slow down Paul’ I think I thought & Judy said.

We reached the safety of the Col de la Berangere & took a rest to look back at the severity of the terrain, later back at the hut Tim would advise both it’s Guardian & others that the route was at the limit of being in condition to descend safely. I felt I’d led it well but Judy might have other ideas.

From here Tim took the lead, we were soon on ice so he corrected left & up to reach the safety of rock at the foot of the Aguille Berangere. Taking a line to it’s right soon saw us pass the couple ahead who were struggling over to our left. From here things got loose with only the centre line having any stability, evidence of recent rock falls were numorous. Despite this it was an exhillerating scramble to our third & final summit of the day.

After a brief rest Tim suggested his ‘normal’ descent line to the right to which I replied ‘seems to be a path to our left’, he gave me my head & let me lead left, it felt good to have some input. We were soon to leave the rocks behind & headed onto soft snow, as I knew I would I slipped twice early on & much to Tim’s frustration said ‘I’m putting on my crampons’. Soon Tim was glissading into the distance with Judy slipping in his slipstream, who cares my crampons are on, I feel safe & comfortable. The descent from here was long but by it’s end I felt vilified, Judy by now had crampons on too & I’d almost caught Tim up but to be fair to him he wasn’t exactly going at full pelt.

Back at the refuge we soon met up with a mate of Tim’s & his party of four & exchanged notes as they had just come from our objective for Day 5 & we had likewise just done their plan for tomorrow. These exchanges are the very useful assets to being with a guide.

Judy & I took time to consider our Day 5, we’d had a long 4 days could we really face a big Day 5, a little rest soon saw us agree on the only answer possible, Yes!

Another good meal & Chamoix show led to an early night this time we’d bagged the lower bunks so I don’t think I woke Judy up in the night ahead.

Day 5 – Again we took the option of the early breakfast it fitted better this time as we had a very long day ahead but I’ll try to keep things briefer. Basically our day would start with a descent of 200 metres onto the Tre la Tete glacier then cross it heading South East before turning South West to climb Mont Tondu, 3,196 metres. From there we were to descend back the way we’d come & once regaining the glacier head East to descend the route we come up on Day 3 back to the car. It was in truth a routine climb that required more effort than technicality until we topped out snow & glacial sections to reach the final ridge to Mont Tondu’s summit described by Tim’s mate the evening before as a fine ridge scramble. For that also read Crib Goch on Steroids, at least the rock was solid. Tim led us at breakneck speed, Judy followed with ease & I was dragged along thinking ‘what the f… is the rush, perhaps we could slow down a little’. We took the direct line, also known as straight over the top with massive exposure on either side, an early section being the crux & yes I knew we’d becoming back the same way, I was far from comfortable, Judy was loving it.

At least the summit was worth it & left me thinking why a French guide had earlier turned his client around at the start of the ‘fun’. Our position was airily aloft the end of Mont Blanc South Easterly tentacles with phenomenal views both back into the Massif as well as South over sections of the Tour du Mont Blanc where I would be with Steve in 3 days time.

Re-tracing our steps Tim took a more pleasant line, still high but to the left of the arrete’s apex, this, I would read later back at the campsite, is the normal line & it felt a lot better. Despite that I managed to snag my camera case zip (not properly closed in the first place) & saw my camera tumble out & 30 feet down the rocky slopes. Tim secured us & then went in search & found it where I’d predicted, I feel a piss take of the future has been sown.

On the descent to the glacier I tried my best to recover my dignity by pointing out to Tim he was on the wrong line, he was man enough to submit to my better judgement & we were soon heading towards the glaciers headwall the crux of our remaining descent.

Before re-descending this 45 degree wall of ice Tim showed me how to fix an ice screw. Basically use the axe to remove the crud (rotten ice) to get a circle of firm ice strong enough to fix the screw into. ‘Paul, you’ll lead, Judy you follow, Paul you’ll fix the second Ice Screw whilst I’m belaying you on the first’. In truth I was nervous but looking forward to it. 

The initial descent was accompanied by several ‘slow down Paul’ from Judy, was I subconsciously getting my own back for dragging me over that scramble, no, just horses for courses. ‘Tim, I’ve got a good crack to stand on I’m going for the screw’. The next few minutes saw me hacking away at copious amounts of crud (the sun was impacting on the ice) before putting in the screw, ‘Safe Tim’. Tim joined us like a wippet & said ‘Paul I thought you’d never stop hacking’, ‘well look at my handiwork’ I proffered ‘deserves a photo, don’t you think?’, Tim agreed & my first Ice Screw placement ever got recorded for posterity.

From here we first exchanged crampons etc. for shorts & trainers before a long, long descent back to the car again stopping at the Refuge de Tre-la Tete to refuel & fill water bottles. After a 10 hour plus day having ascended 800 metres & more importantly descended 2,300 metres we wearily reached the car feeling very proud about hanging in there for Mont Tondu our 6th summit of a great week.

My thanks to Judy for being cheery & enthusiastic despite many trials & tribulations where we both conquered demons to see it through & of course my thanks to Tim for leading us as ever & pushing both Judy & I to fulfil our goals.

The first half of the Alps 2019 came to an end, the next week would be a very different experience.

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