Paul’s Blog – The Alps – Posted 03/09/15

No painting today so a second blog to catch up on the summer.

Only read this if you have a genuine interest in what I got up to, you have been warned, I accept no liability for your self-harming. I know at least one person who has been waiting to see this & that is all the justification I need.

The plan was: arrive in Chamonix a few days ahead of Kean (he had a Wedding to attend to & I had to fit in with Tim’s availability), do some acclimatisation runs & then spend two days somewhere on Mont Blanc acclimatising with Tim before Kean joined us on Day 3 where we drive over to the Swiss Oberland & tackle the Aletschorn, the Aletz Glacier (biggest in the Alps) & finish off on the Jungfrau.

This was a stretegic plan of such cunning that the last time a better plan had been put so thoroughly together it was by General Haig & led to the infamous Battle of the Somme. In fairness to us Haig continued to come up with such blinders for a further 3 years, we plan to learn from experience.

Before I go any further I look back on the trip now with a lot of pride & satisfaction & am sure Kean feels the same, if he doesn’t he needs to very much indeed.

It all went to plan early on, I arrived as planned, went for a great repeat run up to La Bellachat hut on the Saturday (as in 2014), a 1,000m plus climb & this time learnt that for Sunday’s run it would be better not to over-do it so kept to an 11 miler with less climb. Earlier on Sunday morning I had rendezvoused with Tim again as planned & despite being joined by a second guide who had been on the Aguille di Plan days earlier & had ‘felt the whole mountain move’, this being due to 5 persistently hot weeks leading to Mont Blanc’s permafrost beginning to melt. Despite this we kept to our plan of something on Mont Blanc with Tim agreeing to my suggestion of The Comiques route on the Aguille du Midi for starters.

Plans can be adapted & ours had to, Monday morning arrived, clear blue skies but 70 kph winds, the Aguille du Midi’s lift closed, do we wait or head into Italy & look for something on that side of Mont Blanc. Italy, correctly called & we were soon heading up the magnificent & newly opened Sky Train to the Torino Hut. A small Nav. error in the mists led to another decision, do we carry on & look at the Bivouac de la Fourche (easy but chance of rockfall) or head back to Tim’s revised target of the Aguille d’Entreves, a climb. I hoped the former, Tim hesitated & then chose the latter & we were soon heading past a huge earlier rockfall under the North face of the Tour Ronde & clambering over a rather scary crevasse.

At last we were back on track & re-fuelling at the Col between the Tour Ronde & our target. A rocky scramble was soon underway until an early look up revealed the full scale of what we were clambering onto, thoughts turned to I only wanted to acclimatise & we’re heading for THAT!

The ‘that’ was the crux of the climb, classed as AD (meaning ‘some difficulty’, not to this non-climber more like ‘extreme extreme’) had 7 dots on it (actually 3 groups making slow progress down it towards us). The following hour or so was full on but a wonderful mountain experience spent on edge both literally & physically only concluding with an abseil off with double handed no brake technique being another first. Trapsing back across the glacier to the Torino hut left us both panting & hoping that tomorrow acclimatisation would begin to kick in.

Tuesday was more of the same if not worse as we set off to the Tour Ronde, should I protest or simply resign myself to Tim has a plan let him do his worst. On an out & back route the first surprise was a 40 degree front point climb up an iced slope, hairy, ‘thought we were gaining the ridge further left Tim?’ The second was a nice little move hanging by fingertips from an Arrete whilst trying to put my swinging large plastic boot on a foothold with Tim’s encouragement, this particular foothold was a few millimetres wide & at full strech knowing all the while that I would have to repeat the move on the return. The rest of the climb seemed a comparitive doddle despite loose rock everywhere & the terrain being far above anything I would have wanted to be on a couple of years ago. Thankfully after Tim had set up the belay for the return over the arrete he said ‘if you want to Paul you could just straddle it & pull yourself over it’, I did just that & actually rather enjoyed having one foot dangling North over a 600′ drop & the other dangling South over a 2,000′ drop, the things you can get used to!

So that was Days one & two, simple acclimatisation, as planned?

Things continued as planned as I rendezvoued with Kean back at the Camp site & next day we drove two cars (Bertie the van being one of them) into Switzerland leaving one in the Rhone valley & one at Blatten where we caught a ski lift up to Belap. From here an increasingly wet 4 hour walk in to the Oberaletschhutte during which we were all mightily relieved to be told through Tim’s phonecall to the hut Manageress that the closed path was now open after being closed by recent rockfall. Had he not made the call we would have had a significantly harder glacial approach. During this walk in the un-acclimatised ‘Rowlands’ did well.

Can’t praise this hut enough, it’s guardian & his staff were, friendly, knowledgeable & gave great service including even erecting way-mark reflectors to guide those early riser’s as well as path repairing to boot!

Un-be known to me after I had informed Tim & Kean that the clouds had begun to disperse they took a sneaky preview of tomorrow’s goal The Aletschorn. At 4,195 metres this is the highest mountain of the Swiss Oberland standing proudly above it’s more famous neighbours the Jungfrau, the Monch & the Eiger.

An early night saw me up at 2:00 am to be told by Kean ‘sorry lads I’m not up for it’. There was surprise but no anger clearly he had made his decision the previous evening & had kindly allowed us a relatively good night’s sleep by not telling us until now. I could see it had been hard & he might take time to come to terms with it but that sneak preview of the mountain combined with his lack of acclimatisation & the reality that day 5 on the Aletz Glacier would follow our planned summit day led Kean to make a perfect call, thus avoiding our own Somme in the days ahead. O.K. Kean that’s the good bit, I still blame you from distracting me from remembering to put on my sun creme & lip salve. In the 12 hours that followed I got fried from the sun & glacial glare loss 2 layers of skin 4/5 days later & was nursing the lips for weeks until a wasp took my mind of it, thanks mate!

With Kean bidding us farewell the long summit day began, descending ladders & ropes onto the glacier below, headlights then searched out the reflectors until we reached the main 1,700 metre climb. With frozen snow from yesterday’s fresh fall this was a fantastic mixed route climbing at near my limits the length of it being as much a test as the grade (AD in better conditions). We reached the summit after 7.5 hours, respectable to the guidebooks, perhaps I am now moving more like an Alpinist? In truth Tim led me with his usual skill & his plans from Day 1 & 2 had paid off. We were alone on a 4,000 metre mountain in the Alps, not often you can say that in summer, it felt very good.

Summit photographs taken, time to descend the other side, shit that’s a bit steeper than it looks on the map, better descend the North West ridge & then swing onto the North East ridge. North West was hairy, North West was something else. Soon after moving onto it we came to a 45 degree snow slope, plan A was to traverse across it onto a rocky rib beyond. It didn’t take long for me to come up with Plan B but not until I had made a little drama out of a crisis. Stepping out across the face it was iced, clearly yesterday’s fresh snow had failed to hold. My natural dislike of traversing re-appeared from no-where before I knew it my footing was lost, this is serious. Thankfully I was with a seriously good guide he already had me belayed on a rock, the rope went tight immediately, I was sprawled across the North East Face but was Safe & soon clambering back to my feet. Very good work Tim you saved us both from my lack of skill, the fall would have been over 2,000′ & possibly much more, as Tim later commented I would have been ‘Brown Bread’, (dead). Looking back my most inept moment was followed by my best, ‘Tim I can’t traverse this but reckon I could front point down it if you belay me’ a look of consideration, agreement, belay set & I was on my way. 50 metres later I just reached the ‘safety’ of the Bergstrund before the rope came tight (probably why Tim considered my only partly thought out plan). He soon joined me & commented that the terrain had been very difficult & that there was no way we could have moved safely together over it. I had made a good call even if I hadn’t considered all the scenario’s before making it but at least I am making more & more calls these days, the only way to learn.

The remaining descent was long & frequently taxing but eventually we reached the un-staffed Mittelatschhbivouac hut after an incredible 12 hours, this may not have been the highest summit I’ve reached but it was by some distance the biggest summit day of my life & with no friend to share the un-certainty & nerves with, it will stay with me for a long, long time.

To cap the satisfaction we were greeted by 3 Germans who had watched in awe at much of our descent, they congratulated us & made us a very welcome cup of tea as we began to answer their questions (two of them were planning their ascent via our descent route the next day).

On meagre rations cooked on my stove Tim & I both slept surprisingly well before rising at 4:15 am & heading off at 5:00 leaving the two Germans seemingly less than in a rush to get started.

Day 5 was always going to be a big ask, 22 kilometres or so starting off on the Mitteletsch Glacier before a slog up virtually the whole of the Aletsch Glacier with a vertical ascent of 1,650 metres. Big asks are what I like but I didn’t expect having to be lowered 80′ off a cliff within the first hour just to get onto the Mitteletsch having looked on for 20 minutes whilst Tim endeavored to make a good belay point out of a crap one. After an initial frosted & slippery descent over rocky moraines atop the glacier we finally moved into Alpine meadow type territory, still tricky but a blessed relief.

After some 3.5 hours we clambered onto the Aletsch glacier only to be met by a pretty full on ice-fall with huge seracs & gaping crevasses. Crampons on led to no relief as it just got harder & harder for my nerves to settle so within minutes I was being lowered back off the side of the glacier onto the rocky sides. This temporary retreat led to easier ground but some moves still needed a foot on Tim’s bended knee to get up rather than using time eating belays. An hour later we were back on the Glacier proper & beginning to make good progress.

What a place it is, flanked by the Dreieckhorn to the West & the Walliser Fiescherhorner massif on the East you are seemingly sucked up it towards the Konkordiaplatz where four glaciers meet. We were moving well feeling confident but Tim’s earlier words ‘they’ll be a tricky crevasse field somewhere to cross so expect the worse’ finally came to fruition agonisingly close to the Knokordia Hut which would signal we were past halfway.

The next hour was exasperating, every which way we were thwarted & had to re-treat, Crevasse jumping started at 3 feet & regularly reached 5 with me slamming my ice axe in at each crouched landing. Sometimes our retreats meant jumping from down to up adding to the nerves, this was a lesson, never be complacent on a glacier they don’t like it! Eventually we found away off the glacier to the left, traversed some loose & dangerous slopes with care before arriving back on the glacier at the beginning of the Konkordiaplatz & easier ground. During all of this I had visions of customers at the Konkordia hut (it stands aloof some 100 metres above the glacier at a level where the glacier was at 100 years ago, the glacier is a ‘mere’ 800 metres deep today) looking down on our wretched souls & failed attempts at progress, my biggest regret is that it was so full on my camera stayed well & truly in it’s case!

A deserved third rest in the centre of the ‘square’ allowed relaxation & a chance to marvel at our surroundings including the Aletschorn, before moving on, we were by now more than 9 hours in but hadn’t achieved even half the day’s climb. A route march followed where we both showed our strengths, I would surge ahead on the non-technical terrain but as the rope came out Tim took the lead, made easy work of the less but still too frequent crevasses whilst I did my best to make hard work of them twice slipping & almost falling back into their hungry jaws.

Eventually a final annoying but easier climb led us from the top of the glacier to the Monchsjochhutte, Tim’s knee was by now playing up, I was tired & turning my thoughts to tomorrow, another day?? We had been out for 13 hours, a massive day only to be rewarded with the infamously moody oaf at the hut. Thankfully we enjoyed the company of Erica & Vern two rather more pleasant Swiss who had climbed the Monch earlier in the day. With it’s easier summit day we had already changed our aim, Saturday, our 6th & final day would be the shorter Monch & not the Jungfrau, with the weather due to close in & the physical beating we’d given ourselves it made a lot of sense.

As I awoke early, trepidation loomed, I’d mis-understood Erica thinking the death black spot was on the Monch (actually she was talking about the Jungfrau), a blizzard was due by midday, Tim’s knee & it was the anniversary of Ian’s death, this felt like a mountain too far at the wrong time, I should ask to pull out. It was with some relief that we awoke to the blizzard, it was ahead of schedule, a foot of fresh snow already, ‘Tim I think I’ve had enough, don’t really fancy it’, good call, we could relax & were going home safe & sound.

A casual walk to the Jungfraujoch station felt very relaxed, as did our isolated carriage back down the mountain before 3 changes took us back to a smiling Kean who had come back to greet us & help us retrieve Tim’s car from Blatten.

So what of Kean, he had retreated alone back to Belap not exactly a walk in the park, driven to Tache where he’d been when I phoned him after we’d got down from the Aletschorn summit. At that point he sounded like he was still at odds with the call he’d made despite knowing it was correct. What a difference a day makes, whilst we were battling the glacier he’d gone up from Zermatt & double summitted the Breithorn, the very mountain we’d by-passed at the start of our 2014 sojourn. I wouldn’t have done this on my own, what a fabulous & positive way to respond to dissappointment.

3 Hours later with Kean driving Bertie we were back at the camp site where I made another mistake, wanting to make it 8 days back to back I said ‘come on Kean, get off your ass & come for a run’, he did. The planned trot soon turned to a canter, what’s this about Kean, the first hill I blasted it (mistake number two on this day alone), Kean purred alongside after his initial scare & I was soon hanging on for grim reputation. Common sense almost prevailed when Kean appeared to listen to ‘O.K. Kean I need to ease off now’ only for him to soon re-start his little game. I was barely hanging on for most of the last 3 miles. Kean who did this to someone who had just done 12 & 13 hour days back to back at least had the decency to say ‘well Hodges up that last hill I knew you were cooked but I was grimacing too’.

My last two days in the Alps included a 1,500 metre climb (walking) up to the Brevant where I finally got the classic view of Mont Blanc after my third attempt (the first two being my 2014/15 runs to La Bellachat) before jogging down & next day a jog up to Chamonix to the cashpoint to get money to pay for the camp site. 10 Days activity with plenty of variety, a first failed goal, but these things happen in the Alps, sometimes failure is success & in our different ways Kean & I achieved both.

Once again Dorina supported, our tearful farewell felt harder than normal for me & looked it for her too, but the re-union was all the more sweet for it.

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