Chamonix - Mont Blanc Massif - 2015

Alpine Climbing Trip Report

After a gap of 13 years away from Alpine climbing (how did we let that happen) Mark Salter and I were back in Chamonix. All plans of being super fit had already gone out of the window for various reasons and the whole area seemed to be in the middle of a heat wave. In fact the drive towards the mountains from Geneva in our non-air-conditioned hire car had been guided by masses of forked lightning and loud thunder claps. But we were finally there in the hub of all things Alpine in Europe.

Les Lepidopteres - Aiguille Du PeigneAfter a trip to the Bureau Des Guides for a weather forecast we knew that freezing levels were as high as 4600m, that crippling heat was the forecast for the next week and that late afternoon thunderstorms were highly likely. Neither of us are sun worshippers so getting as high as possible would be the only way to keep cool, however, we felt that lower rocky routes to start with would give us an idea of our fitness, ability and speed whilst enabling us to get a good look at hit routes a bit higher up.

Like the mad dogs (in the midday sun) we are we took a lunchtime cable car up to the Plan D'Aiguille to do Lepidopteres (D 5a) on the Aiguille Du Peigne. (Note: All grades stated in the Mont Blanc Massif are those given by the excellent Mont Blanc: Classic & Plaisir.) An excellent climb which we felt was around VS 4c with a tricky slippery delicate crux at the start of the second pitch (see photo of Mark just above the crux to the left). The second pitch is fairly sustained but has a good number of bolts/pegs on it to keep confidence high. The guidebook crux fourth pitch was a bit more positive and followed the quality of the lower pitches. After this the route eased to the top of the Papillons Ridge from where we abseiled back down. The down climbing below the meat of the route was more straighforward than on the way up and we were soon back at our packs where we feasted on cherries which enabled us to speak again after running out of water many hours earlier.

Our need for water was huge by this time, so we collapsed by our bivi kit which we had dragged close to the start of the Papillons Ridge. The only water here was snow patches so we began melting this, after a pan or two we were revived enough to decide that we should descent to the Lac Bleu to eat, drink and sleep. Following our relocation we feasted on Expedition Foods dehydrated meals which I have to admit were very tasty (spag. bol. being particularly good) and at 800KCalories per meal filled us up and we still didn't feel hungry the following morning, a great achievement.

Eperon des Minettes - Aiguille Du PeigneGiven our late finish and general exhaustion from such a short route and lack of speed we decided to start earlier, hunt out shade and stick to another shortish route the next morning so we plumped for the Minettes Ridge again on the Aiguille Du Peigne. Graded D 5b and with a backdrop of the North Face of the Aiguille Du Midi and one of our hit routes the Frendo Spur it seemed the perfect option.

As we started a couple of Brits wandered past on the Peigne Voie Normal and commented "thats a brilliant VS that is" and we wholeheartedly concur with that. Whilst graded harder than Lepidopteres we felt it easier and with better mountaineering style climbing. You can leave the route after about 400m of climbing via an abseil into the Papillons Couloir which most guidebooks recommend but we opted for about another 180m worth of ridge climbing to complete the ridge and finish back down the Voie Normal.

Varied climbing with, grooves, cracks, flakes, slabs and ridges this is a lovely little route for anyone competent at long UK mountain HS/VS routes, with only a short snow field at the start and finish and some low grade moving together terrain to reach the route and get back into the Papillons Couloir.

The walkout to the Plan D'Aiguille and the telepherique was much harder than it needed to be as once again we had run out of water hours earlier and were completely drained. A tap at the car station in Chamonix gradually revived enough for us to stagger into the bar directly across the road much to the amusement of the fit, healthy continental clients and staff.

Revived by the delights of Chamonix and a chance meeting with some friends from South Wales at the gorgeous L'Ile Des Barrats campsite we heading into the Aiguilles Rouges as there was reports of thunder storms in the offing.

Tour Des Crochues - Voie Escande de GalbertWe took a tent with us due to the bad forecast but planned that if it looked really bad we'd do a runner for the valley. First up was the Tour Des Crochues. From the top of the Index Telepherique we walked as if going to do the Traverse of the Aiguille Des Crochues in order to get a good view of the area and to approach the route by traversing snow slopes rather than slogging up a boulder field (in the end the lower path and boulderfield would have been quicker and easier). From a distance and from closer inspection the Tour Des Crochues is steep, imposing and looks unlikely for the grade of our chosen route -  (D+ 5a). After getting to grips with the rock we quickly realized that yes the route is steep, but the holds are super positive, the rock very good and highly reminiscent of that found in Langdale on crags like Raven Crag Buttress and White Ghyll. With confidence bubbling up we fairly raced up the route (for us) in time to get caught by a short thunder storm in the descent gully. From the base of the route we picked up our overnight kit and went round to a secluded spot near the Lac Blanc where we spent the night with the plan forming to do a route on the Aiguille de la Perseverence the next day. We feasted on Expedition Foods and Battle Oats whilst watching some amazing giant Cumulo Nimbus grow over the Aiguille Verte (fortunately for us they stayed on that side of the valley and we only had wind, showers and a bit of thunder and lightning in the night).

The next day dawned drizzly with a thick clag hanging around so we decided to make sure we got something done but didn't get caught out on the peaks by heading downhill to Les Chezerys Slabs (A.K.A. Dalles de Ramuaz). We fancied something fairly restful so did Voie Jaune D- 4b, a 6 pitch slabby clip-up which was nice enough but considering what had gone before and later on this trip at around Difficile this was far far too easy for the grade. For grades of routes in the Aiguilles Rouges I am using the excellent guidebook The Aiguilles Rouges 1 (Brevent to Chezerys) English Version by Michel Piola.

Couvercle Refuge Ladders with Grandes Jorasses behindAfter this the weather forecast was getting hotter again so we decided to go a bit higher but to stick with rock routes so headed up the Montenvers Fenicular. The ladders down onto the Mer De Glace have been re-routed since we last visited and now have karabiners at regular interval so you can travel them roped up safely if you want. We were heading for the Couvercle Hut and relatively soon had the ladders up to that hut to contend with. These ladders also looked fairly new and had karabiners which we happily clipped as some sections were quite long and steep. The abraisive granite, red hot ladders and my soft hands meant that by now I was really appreciating my Black Diamond Crag gloves. The view from the Couvercle across to Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses and Les Courtes is superb and the fun approach and stupendous views make a visit to the hut well worthwhile without even climbing a route from it. The welcome from the hut guardian and his staff and the awesome evening meals and breakfast they provided really impressed and made this hut a must return to place for us, we can't recommend them highly enough.

Mont Blanc and Mer Du Glace from Aiguille Du Moine South RidgeAfter a 4am wake up and a cracking breakfast we headed out to the South Ridge of the Aiguille Du Moine D 5+. A classic in my much thumbed Gaston Rebuffat 100 Finest Routes in the Mont Blanc Massif, sowe were both really looking forward to it. The route at 4 1/2hrs ascent time and graded AD- in our Alpine Club guidebook we thought would be a pleasant stroll. Having spent 9 hours attaining the summit we thought we were going really badly, but the weather whilst super hot was gorgeous so we were pretty happy although completely out of water again. We also got off route a couple of times on the descent so we finally arrived back at the hut 16 hours after setting out and with a much reduced amount of abseil tat. We were well after dinner-time but the helpful guardian produced several bowls of gorgeous soup, bread and cheese followed by a huge hearty main course of pork and chicken casserole and rice, all washed down by a slice of Tarte Au Pomme and a couple of beers - awesome. There weren't too many jokes about slow Brit's to cope with either. On returning home after this our last and most memorable route we were surprised to see topo guides showing that after reaching the South Ridge you don't actually follow the ridge all the way to the summit with a couple of minor deviations for seriously desperate chimneys. You are actually supposed to wander along some ledges on the far side of the ridge before some tricky sections close to the summit. Instead we spent time laybacking up steep cracks and hanging from wooden wedges in awesome situations and perhaps this was the reason that we felt the route was much longer and harder than the grades given in the Alpine Club Guide. Whatever the grade and correct route we loved it and felt that wandering along the ledge system would make you miss out on some real quality climbing elsewhere.

All in all we felt that we had packed a lot into such a short trip and are desperate to go back, but we will try to avoid heatwaves next time, or make sure we carry more water.

Thanks very much to Mark Salter for a great trip and for all images above (excluding photo of Mark on Lepidopteres by me - Chris).

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