The Discreet Charm of Chamonix

The Discreet Charm of Chamonix

In late June I spent eight days in Chamonix climbing with Dave Keogh. He had been there for the previous two and a half weeks with Niall and Ken.

Ace-of-clubs
Cocher Cochon – Aiguilles Rouge

I was at a disadvantage with Dave being fully acclimatised having already spent two and a half weeks in Chamonix so we went for a low level start with a route near the Plan-Praz, the halfway station on the Brévant. The 30 minute walk-in to this also suited me fine. The route was bolted and the climbing increased in quality and difficulty the higher we went, finishing with an exhilarating 40m pitch up an airy arête to the summit. it was a perfect introduction to the local rock.

Cocher Cochon
Cocher Cochon
Chamonix from the Brevant
Chamonix from the Brevant

2-of-clubsVoie Rébuffat & Cosmiques Arête – Éperon des Cosmiques
An early start the next day had us at the Midi station before seven am in the queue for the first gondola of the day. For a first day up high we went for the Cosmiques area just adjacent to the Midi. Climbing was straightforward apart from one very awkward roof which Dave managed to do clean. We had decided to climb with our bags rather than abseil, so having finished the route, this allowed us to scramble out over the Cosmiques Arête directly to the Midi. There was lots of rubbernecking on the platform with a chopper rescue in progress as we topped out.

Dave on the Cosmiques Arete
Dave on the Cosmiques Arête
Tourists at the Midi
Tourists at the Midi
Helicopter Rescue
Helicopter Rescue

3-of-clubsPyramide du Tacul
Next morning we were back to the Midi queue. Having geared up at the Midi we than had a long downhill walk to the base of the Tacul (makes you wish for a pair of skis). We then circled around a dodgy looking glacier/bergschrund to get to the base of the climb. There was one english party ahead but we passed them on pitch 4 after they took a wrong turn. Dave climbed a nice crack with a rather airy approach while freestyling on pitch 3. The english team and the french behind them both retired under time pressure to get back to the Midi before closing. With the luxury of staying in the Torino Hut we were under little pressure and continued to the top of what was a fantastic sun-baked route. Re-crossing the bergschrund and glacier in the heat of the afternoon happily went without incident and then we had a long pull up the slope to Italy, finally getting to the hut just before six.

Pyramide de Tacul
Pyramide du Tacul
View from the Torino Hut
View from the Torino Hut

4-of-clubsDent du Géant
The giant’s tooth is an iconic peak visible from all parts of the Valleé Blanche. After an early morning walk from the Torino, we had quite a long scramble up rough ground to reach the base of the climb. Facing west it was cold in the early morning, maybe we should have first warmed up on the Rochefort ridge. Also swapping boots for rock shoes was a mistake in retrospect, comfort and warmth were at more of a premium. What is a super route is spoiled by the huge white rope dangling the length of it, and given the bitter cold, it was hard to resist as speed was the order of the day. We finally found some sunshine at the top and could then relax and enjoy the situation.
After abbing back to our gear we made a cautious descent back to the snowfields, conscious of the route’s recent tragic history. Back on the glacier the morning’s firm crust had now melted into soft mush as we tramped back to the Torino.

The Dent du Geant from across the Vallee Blanche
The Dent du Géant from across the Vallée Blanche
The tooth up close.
The tooth up close.

5-of-clubsAiguille d’Entrèves Traverse
With a long slog back to the Midi ahead, and conscious of time constraints, we decided to have a short day and go for the traverse of the Entrèves. The approach was about an hour from the Torino and we got there just before the Sunday crowds. The route is mainly rocky scrambling and some down-climbing, and while very easy, the situations are fantastic with Italy on one side and the Vallée Blanche on the other. It was a long hike back to the Midi, but having decided not to hire a guide for this incredible challenge, we could now look forward to spending the money saved back in the bright lights of Chamonix. Wandering across the glacier in the midday sun is not textbook alpinism but it was quite busy so presumably it doesn’t eat that many people up.

The Entrevers
The Entrevers
The Entrevers
Looking back at The Entrevers
Crevasses in the Vallee Blanche
Crevasses in the Vallee Blanche

6-of-clubsL’An d’Emile – Aiguilles Rouge
After 4 days of big boots, axes and crampons we decided to go lightweight and headed for the Aiguille L’Index, handily located just above the Index chairlift. Although we carried trad gear, the route was completely equipped. Climbing was fantastic throughout, hot rock basking in the sunshine. We made a mistake in leaving a bag at the bottom (as the descent was over the top and down the far side). Dave drew the short straw to go back the long way, but he came back from the road less travelled with quite a collection of swag.

L'an d'Emile
L’An d’Emile
L'an d'Emile
L’An d’Emile

7-of-clubsNabot Léon – Aiguille de Blaitiére
For our next day we went for the Blaitiére which is approached from the Plan station (half way to the Midi). This involved a bit of a slog over glacial rubble and then a short snow slope followed by a scramble up to the ridge. Although still in sight of the Plan the walk-in took the best part of two hours. The climbing here was really good if somewhat hard for the grade. After three superb pitches we were in a quandary as to where the fourth went. After a few false starts Dave eventually climbed something and after taking the fifth we decided to bail as time was out of joint, just getting back to the Plan before closing time.

Blatiere
Blatiere
Dave happy to be back on solid ground.
Dave happy to be back on solid ground.

8-of-clubsVoie Gaspard 1’er – Aiguilles Rouge
After seven days climbing something handy was needed so we headed back to La Flégère gondola & L’Index chairlift to go bolt-clipping. A 45 minute approach across some snowpatches brought us to the foot of this route where we met a scottish pair roping up ahead of us. Climbing was straightforward with some nice jamming on pitch 3. The crux on pitch 6 was easy and overgraded but it was super climbing throughout. There was an option to continue with a traverse of the Aiguille Crochues but we decided to cash in our chips. After topping out, a scramble down the back of the crag brought us back to the chair lift by lunch time.

The Aiguile Vert, Dru and the Grandes Jorasses from the Index
The Aiguile Vert, Dru and the Grandes Jorasses from the Index

Eight consecutive days of sunshine alpine climbing was hard to beat. Obviously the sun always shines here so we decided to return in August and focus on rock routes.

9-of-clubsLa Fin de Babylone – Aiguilles Rouge
Originally with three good days forecasted we had hoped to go straight to the Envers hut, but it was booked out the first night so instead we stayed in Chamonix and went for a warm-up on the Brévant where our plan was to do ‘Poème à Lou’. Having taken the gondola to the top station we then scrambled down to the base of the crag where it was rather unnerving to see base jumpers pass by from above. It’s hard to appreciate just how fast they are actually falling until you see them pass you.
We started up the route and made good progress although it was not quite what we expected from the guidebook. We then came to a delicate traverse under a roof where there should be a fixed rope but none was to be found. Unperturbed Dave continued on and managed to send what was a 6c pitch in fine style. While I was dogging across afterwards, we met a german party on the route next to us. “After the pitch you’ve just done the rest is straightforward” one of them encouraged us. I mentioned that we had expected to find a fixed rope under the roof but she replied that there was never one there…strange! The guide then came up to Dave’s stance and told us that in fact they were on ‘Poème à Lou’, and we were on ‘La Fin de Babylon’ (a grade harder), a route their party had done the week before!. Having done the crux Dave decided to finish out ‘La Fin de Babylone’ for an impressive if somewhat unplanned tick.

BASE jumper on the Brevant
BASE jumper on the Brevant
Golf mats and a little cord to get you started!
Dave getting ready to tee off
No sign of a fixed rope!
No sign of a fixed rope!

10-of-clubsLe Piège – Aiguille d’Envers
Having secured lodgings for the next two nights in the Envers hut, we set off on the first train to Montenvers the next morning. This is a rather quaint and scenic cog wheel train that brings you from Chamonix to a little station high above the Mer de Glace and opposite the Dru. The path then drops down to the glacier which is apparently getting lower every year. After about walking 2km on the glacier it was then back on the ladders back up to the Envers path which continued up the valley high above the glacier until we finally reached the hut. After stopping for a brew and sorting our gear it was just a five minute walk to the Tour Verte where we went for ‘Le Piège’. Dave had to work hard on the first two pitches, all that Fair Head jamming practice standing him in good stead. The difficulties eased somewhat above and we had spectacular views over the hut, the glacier and across to the Géant and the Rochefort arête.

Climbing directly above the Envers Hut
Climbing directly above the Envers Hut
The view over the Mer de Glace to the Géant and the Vallée Blanche
The view over the Mer de Glace to the Géant and the Vallée Blanche

Jack-of-clubsGuy Anne – Aiguille d’Envers
The next day we went for the classic “Guy Anne” on the Pointe Des Nantillions referred to as “Little Yosemite”. You can see why as it is a sea of pristine granite in a fantastic situation. It took a while to find the start of the route as we wanted to make sure not to do another ‘Poème a Lou’ on it. After two handy pitches Dave took the lead for two 6a pitches which were sustained and probably more difficult that anything else he’s climbed. The grades at the Envers seemed a lot harder than on the Aiguilles Rouge. After a strenuous battle the pace then relented and we had some handy pitches to the top. There was an option to do a variation with another six easier pitches to the very top of the mountain but we were more than happy to retire to the hut at that stage.

The Diagonal Crack
The Diagonal Crack
Sunset on the Verte/Dru
Sunset on the Verte/Dru

Black-JokerEarly Retirement
The forecast for the next day was deteriorating and while there was some thought of doing some single/double pitch routes under the hut the next morning, the early arrival of the alpine mist made our decision for us, and we beat a retreat to Montenvers and the train home.

Red-JokerIl pleut comme vache qui pisse
The next day’s weather was poor to start with and it got worse as the day went on. It was just like an Irish summer’s day. By afternoon it was a downpour so the chances of even climbing the next morning seemed slim, although the option of a rest day was not unwelcome after the efforts of the previous four days.

Queen-of-clubsNez Rouge – Aiguilles Rouge
The next morning we needed to give the rock a chance to dry out so we decided to take the morning off and then go up to the Index and do a route in the afternoon. We brought our gear to camp out so we could then make an alpine start the following day for the Aiguille de Pouce. We dumped our gear and provisions at the top of the Index chairlift and went for ‘Nez Rouge’, something handy given the conditions and time. The climb was scrappy and disappointing, more of a scramble. At 5pm the lifts shut down and we had the mountain to ourselves.

Top of the Nez Rouge
Top of the Nez Rouge
Camping above the clouds!
Camping above the clouds!

King-of-clubsVoie des Dalles – Aiguille de Pouce
We were up at four am for a candlelight breakfast on the Index picnic tables. It was a perfectly clear, still and relatively warm night, perfect conditions to camp out. We were on our way by 5am for a rough scramble up over the back of the Glière and then down to the foot of the Pouce where we were geared up and ready to climb at seven. We scrambled the first pitch and then Dave led the second. I then took over starting the third pitch and set off towards a shiny bolt ahead. Ignoring the guidebook warning, I was off route and before long I suddenly passed by a startled looking Dave as gravity had got the better of me. A bit shaken but unstirred I retired from the pointy end of proceedings and Dave was more successful in finding the correct line. It was a lucky escape. The rest of the route went without incident and was followed by a long scramble across the summit arête and then a descent back to the Index.

Aiguille de Pouce
Aiguille de Pouce
Summit Arete
Summit Arete

Black-JokerGame Over
After taking airtime on the Pouce I wasn’t fit for much climbing the next day so we first joined the tourists up at the Midi and then went for a most pleasant hike from the Plan to Montevers, and then a train home to end the week. Our plan to do ‘Poème a Lou’ will have to wait till next year.

The Mer de Glace from Montenvers
The Mer de Glace from Montenvers

Guidebooks:Selected Climbs: Mont Blanc & the Aiguilles Rouges: 60 Rock Routes from F4 to F6a+ – Jean-Louis Laroche & Florence LeLong

Mont Blanc Massif Envers des Aiguilles – Michel Piola

Opposite Mont Blanc The Aiguilles Rouge – Michel Piola

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