Saturday, 26 February 2011

Chamonix 25th – 31st July 2007

This is an old article i wrote a while ago and recently came across but since i have nothing new to put up, I thought Id post it up with some photos.


By March my Dad had decided that he wasn’t going to the Alps this year. I then decided that I didn’t want to stay at home for the whole summer. After any chance of a holiday with my mates dissolved, I decided that I would go to the Alps. I had two choices, the Bernese Oberland or Chamonix. I had recently finished reading Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless, and I had seen the Mont Blanc Massif from the Helbroner so I decided to go to Chamonix, the self proclaimed mountaineering capital of the world. A few weeks before I left, I had also finished Walter Bonatti’s book, The Mountains of My Life and I had a few ideas of what I wanted to see and do when over there. I bought a map before I went and after a few minutes of thought I decided to go to Les Drus campsite in Les Bois, about 50 minutes walk North-East from Chamonix near where the Mer de glace would have once graced the valley floor. A few of the things I wanted to do were: go onto the Mer de Glace, take the Telepherique up the Aiguille du Midi, see the Walker Spur and get some climbing gear.

After getting up at 4 in the morning, being chauffeured down to Edinburgh airport by my Dad and then almost missing the bus from the airport to Chamonix because I didn’t know I needed a ticket (thankfully the driver was nice enough to wait a couple of minutes), I began the bus journey to Chamonix. The bus runs 3 times a day and goes through the centre of Geneva past the famous fountain. An hour or so later I found myself looking out the large front window on to the fantastic snow peak of the Aiguille De Bionnassay. In turn the rest of the famous skyline revealed itself.

Getting off the bus to place which appeared to be in no way similar to the pleasantly busy Zermatt, I headed up the valley straight for the campsite. It was only a little after noon so the best of the day was in front of me (in my opinion anyway) and it was a brilliant day (the best weather I had actually). After about an hour of walking and 40 minutes of searching for a campsite which had closed since the map was made, I chose the nearby camping Mer de Glace. The owner was very friendly and helpful and although I never once used it (I’d rather walk than wait) he gave me a card that enabled me to get free bus travel within the valley. He also asked me “shade or view?” I thought for a minute then answered “view”. Two minutes later I was busying myself pitching a one-man tent looking up at the awesome spire of the Dru. After getting half organised at the campsite I headed to Chamonix now much lighter in search of food. During the walk I was gifted with glimpses of the rugged Aiguilles through the trees, The snow fields of Mont Blanc’s massive bulk shinning beautifully made me want to get higher up, so I decided I’d go up the Aiguille du Midi in the morning, this would also allow me to see the Aiguilles Rouges on the North side of the valley to see how accessible they were. I got some supplies out of the first supermarket I came across then looked to getting gas. After trying a few places I found a small shop on the street that led to the bus and rail station where I had arrived. Across the road I noticed a small shop with a sign advertising take away pizzas. I ceased this opportunity to save me cooking for the night and indulged in an enjoyable margarita. I then headed back to the campsite, passing on the way the breed of paragliders that I had read about in Krakauers’s Eiger Dreams, finished setting up my pitch for the next 6 nights and retired. I had brought 2 books with me, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and Bonington’s I Chose to climb. I read the first few chapters of the former and then went to sleep.




The next day I awoke to a day almost as good as the one before. I stuck to the routine I had learned from my Dad in Randa last year. Stay in the tent until the sun is shining on it (although my uncle had a lot of trouble adhering to this) other wise, you get wet, your tent gets wet inside and it’s usually uncomfortably cold. I had a shower and then applied sun cream (yet another lesson I’d learned but this time from the Val Veni where you could see my sock marks for the better half of a year after!) and then headed off for Chamonix. I arrived at the Midi cable car station to find enormous queues and without hesitation I turned around and headed for the train to Montenvers. The queue although still quite big wasn’t as bad, and in any case I was going to have to wait. About an hour later I was at Montenvers. The fantastic pinnacle of the Dru towering above, the jagged Grand Charmoz on my right at the end of the Aiguilles, and in front of me was the upper half of the famous north face of the Grande Jorasses with the Walker rising vertically straight to the highest point. I had hoped to and enquired about getting to the Leschaux hut, but with my nil experience on glaciers and lack of crampons and ice axe I decided against it. After a couple of photos I followed the signs down to the ladders onto the Mer de Glace.

I didn’t feel very confident on the ladders (I think I would have felt a lot better going down the rock to be honest) but I eventually got down them, watching people getting geared up before the initial incline onto the glacier I contemplated whether or not to go on. After a few minutes I was heading up the ice. It was surprisingly grippy, It was still reasonable early so the sun hadn’t liquefied the top surface and it felt much like the hard frost we get here on old snow, the satisfying crunch with every step. I continued with ease up the glacier on avoiding the shallow crevasses until I got to the inner end of the first corner. The ice bellow me was starting to melt so I decided to go back. Picking my way back I didn’t have any trouble until I got half way down the initial incline. I stopped to think which way was best, while a French guy on the other side on a rest between ladders found it necessary to shout I was in trouble and telling the people below to come up and help me. Thankfully they ignored him completely and in a few minutes time I had picked my way down without much bother and was heading towards the start of the ladders. Going up the ladders was a lot easier than going down and as I reached the Frenchman he explained to me that I shouldn’t have been on the glacier because I could have needed to be rescued from a crevasse, even though I had watched a young family with 2 kids younger than 10 with no more gear than I had pass me coming off the glacier as I was about the head up the initial incline, I chose to ignore him and continue up the ladder behind him overtaking him on the next platform and continuing back to the path.





From the top of the ladders I headed back to Montenvers and then on past the Hotel. I glanced at the map and decided to go up to Signal Forbes. Upon reaching there I then left the path and headed up the ridge that would eventually develop into the Grand Charmoz. I got a fair bit up then I decided that it was getting too cold for my attire and took a shortcut which ended me up heading down very Scottish like terrain (a steep slope with wild vegetation and scree). I eventually found my way onto the path that connects the Signal Forbes with Le Grande Balcon Sud. This path was very busy, I worked out it was people getting the cable car up to the midi then halfway down to walk to Montenvers. I was heading to the Plan de L’aiguille hut, which is about a 100 feet below the mid station that goes up to the Aiguille du Midi. After reaching there I indulged in a much needed coke (I’d ran out of liquid) and then descended down through the wooded valley side into Chamonix. I had a look through a few shops and bought some more juice then headed back to the campsite.



The next day I decided I would go up to the Midi. The weather was as good as it had been the day before so I appeared at the station in Chamonix wearing a Scotland top and a pair of Inter Milan shorts with a fleece in my bag. The queue was a bit longer than it had been the day before and the people in front of me, who were English tourists, discovered at the turnstiles that a ticket needed to be purchased at the ticket office round the corner. During the trip up, a more posh spoken English family spend the whole way up complaining about the smell of BO in the lift. The mid-station boasted a fantastic view of the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, and had an information board showing some of the routes. I recognised the name of the Frendo spur, which was the most obvious of the rocky ribs on the face. The cable car took us up almost directly over it and footprints over the ice field that connects the top of the spur with the Midi Plan ArĂȘte could be picked out. I emerged from the top station to a cold wind that made me instantly put my fleece on. I wished I had had the foresight to bring my trousers, but with temperatures reaching the mid thirties in the valley, it’s easy to overlook. I pottered about for a while before I decided to pay the extra 3 euros to take the lift to the summit. From the upper platform fantastic views where granted, scores of climbers heading up and down the initial snow slope on Mont Blanc Du Tactul, the fantastic tooth of the Dent Du Geant, the towering Walker spur on the skyline, the complex south west face of the Aiguille Verte and in the far distance the famous peaks of Valais, The Matterhorn, The Dom, The Weisshorn and the Grand Combin. After a closer look the famous spire of the Grand capuchin which I had read so much about in Bonatti’s book became obvious. I was getting cold so I decided I’d go down and have a look about the lower level. Upon leaving the lift I wandered about a bit and then took the car back down to Chamonix. When I go back to valley level I went to buy some of the gear I needed then went back to the campsite.


The next day I went up the other side of the valley, snubbing the cable car I headed up the path. The other side of the valley was quite misty, although during occasional clear intervals I seen the beautiful rocky spire of the Aiguille du Chardonnet which I hadn’t seen before, I was also gifted with some more fantastic views of the Dru. Although not as busy this side was still bustling with people and the Lac Blanc was quite crowded. I wanted to at least attempt to climb something and I had looked at these peaks from the other side on the previous days. The highest peak was the Aiguille du Belvedere. Had it not been so windy and had I been on the right side of the Lac Blanc I would have at least tried to climb it but It wasn’t until I was about 200 meters above Lac Blanc on the wrong side that I finally worked out from the less than useful map what one was in fact the Aiguille du Belvedere which really hit home how lucky we are in this country at the standard of mapping we have. When I got back to the Lac Blanc I got a Crepe with Sugar then headed down. I came down pretty fast and retired to the tent for the night.

The next day I lay in my sleeping bag as long as I could but at about 10:30 the thermometer on my handy alarm clock type thing read 36 degrees, a figure which I had watch rise from 25, I really couldn’t take the humid heat anymore and was forced to the showers. I didn’t do much this day; I walked into Chamonix and pottered about then headed back to the campsite. I had finished the final chapters of into thin air the night before so I started the other book I had and also discovered how good the hot chocolate was out the machine in the campsite’s social hut.

I got up earlier than the previous day but still quite late the following day, this being my final day I had one or two things to do. I first of all headed into Chamonix and found out the Bus times for the bus the next morning. I was shocked to find out that the 7:00 bus didn’t run through July for some reason so I had to plan for the 7:45 bus that was scheduled to get to the airport at 9:50, 20 minutes before my check in closes. I also withdrew enough cash to pay for the campsite and also had another Pizza from the same place, which I enjoyed sitting in the small square where the War Memorial is situated. When I got back to the Campsite I squared up with the site then finished my second book followed by a walk up towards the Mer de Glace. When I returned I set up my stuff to make life easier in the morning as I knew everything would be wet and then went to sleep.





Setting my alarm for around 6:30 I got up in the numbing cold and packed up all my wet stuff and began the walk to Chamonix. It was very clear and as I walked the sun could be seen shining on the other sides of the Aiguilles and Mont Blanc creating a very beautiful effect. The bus got going about the time it was scheduled to and made its first stop at Les Houches, a couple of miles down the valley from Chamonix’s centre. Here the local police decided on a random passport check. A bit further down the road and out of the Chamonix valley, an old French man felt ill and we waited over half an hour on him feeling well enough to continue the journey. When we reached the Swiss border we again passport checked and they took about 10 minutes to check a certain individuals. Upon reaching Geneva’s central bus station a man sitting behind me took the opportunity to go to the toilet, adding a few more precious minutes onto the time. We seemed to actually be doing well considering the delays but by any of my calculations I wasn’t going to make the check in, Id also given up on worrying as I decided that it wasn’t going to get me anywhere. After getting off the bus and then getting my luggage, I made it the electronic check out with a few minutes to spare as well as to find my flight had a short delay on it.

Sitting on the plane I found my self beside two sunburnt men in there late twenties. I had noticed they had winter boots on but didn’t enquire as the one sitting beside me was sleeping for the first part of the journey. Later on I brought out my book that I had bought in Chamonix (a book by the Alpine club listing the 4000’ders of the Alps with several routes up them), before realising that the guy opposite me had the same book. Back to the people beside me, the one that wasn’t sleeping started to peer over on the page I was reading which randomly happened to be on the Rimpfiscalhorn. He then said that he and his mate had climbed that a few days ago and if he could have a look. Talking to them took up the later half of the journey as well as some of the horrendous (almost equalled with Stansted) queues for the passport control. I met my Uncle Jim and Cousin Alan in the terminal building after getting my luggage as my parents were on holiday.

On going to the Alps although I had an enjoyable experience, I found the same problem as I discovered in Zermatt, seeing the mountains makes you want to climb them.

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