How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Rockfall: The Approach

Chamonix 2010

I’m in the Alps for the first time. I’m 19. I’m climbing with another guy just as inexperienced as myself. We’ve been here maybe a week and a half. It’s been a great time so far. I’ve led on L’Index, Cosmiques Arete, Petit Vert, seconded Chéré Couloir, plodded around the Valle Blanche, sprained my ankle and gotten really really drunk. I’m living the dream but we’ve sorta been intimidated by the huge amount of routes on offer. Conor who’s one of the senior lads in the group has been patient the first week with us, he’s taken us out under his tutelage, looked after us but it’s time for us to spread our wings a little. So me being bored and flicking through the guidebook at PD/AD level, stumble across something called the “Whymper Route”. It’s a bit further north near Argentiere, I was there a couple of days ago on Petit Vert.

I don’t know who he is (I do now, thank Christ!) but recognize the name as sorta famous, he’s some sort of climber isn’t he? I bring it to Conor who’s preparing for his own little odyssey and he sorta brusquely says “Just get on with it”. So we look at the whole prep for it, get some food etc and theres a bit of excitement about it all. I’ve stayed up below the Aiguille du Midi before but this is something else. It’ll be the two of us just. I’ve only been lead climbing since maybe March/April and I first used crampons and axes back in January. Darragh’s in the same boat. We’re both experienced hikers but being left off the leash is disconcerting….

Worse is throwing my pack on at the campsite and wincing already. I’m skinny, always have been and still am. Suddenly being weighed down by my sleeping bag, rack, rope, axes, food, water, I’m getting a bit glum.

 

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Packed and ready.

 

Look how hopelessly unaware we are of what’s yet to come. I’m the one on the right, myself and Darragh both figured ourselves quite cool getting a chance to wear shades. And our lovely ghostly Irish complexions meant suncream was a must.

We left that afternoon, traipsing down a kilometre or so into town where we’d catch the bus. I felt a bit like a geriatric, wondering if I was finding it hard now, what would it be like later? A few curious looks but nothing major. Chamonix is a Mecca for climbing and skiing, us tourist or dilettante climbers don’t get a second glance usually. For me it was a bit surreal sitting on the bus with my rucksack and iceaxes, watching kids hop on with their parents or old French mamans with their shopping.

Also buses? They didn’t even seem to care much about tickets, bit of a shock to someone who’s lived in Austria, a place with bureaucracy Kafka would have enjoyed. More on that later.

So its late afternoon, we hop off at Argentiere to get the cable-car up. We’ve read the route description and being teenagers with cheapskate tendencies, put the kibosh on the idea of paying to stay at the hut. Instead we’re going to go up on the  cable-car to Petit Vert, head in a NE direction, descending around 1000m to the Glacier D’Argentiere, cross it and bivvi in the rocks above it, closer to the route and for free. Wake up early, climb the route by ascending up to the right of Aiguille du Chardonnet, descend via Glacier du Mileu, pick up our bivvi stuff, cross the Glacier D’Argentiere again and head for the lower down cable car station. Seems simple right?

It was a pleasant ride up, we were going for the high point so it was a bit eerie heading to the clouds and being on a nearly empty cable car. I attempted some conversation with our attractive young cable car driver but she seemed to have definitely encountered higher quality than us. We weren’t disheartened, we knew she’d see us as conquering heroes on our descent tomorrow.

The top cable station was deserted. Only the staff were left and I felt quite a few butterflies in the stomach as we got off. With an “au revoir” bid to them, we headed for the exit.

Anti-climax. It was locked. Cue me and Darragh running in a panic back to the cable car to grab one of the staff. Enduring day one of our mini epic in a cable car station was not our plan. Thankfully they unlocked it for us though the guy seemed concerned due to our youthful appearance. After assuring him we were heading for the hut and we knew where it was, placated, he bid us farewell. Hearing the door lock shut behind me really rammed it home where we were. Good luck boys, you’re on your own.

 

 

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Leaving the cable car station at Petit Vert.

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Darragh ensuring that we actually go in the correct direction.

The touch of fog and mist outside made it seem much much worse than it actually was. The carrion birds fighting for scraps of food left behind by tourists was less reassuring. Nonetheless we decided to plod on down to the snow, throw on our crampons, harnesses, helmets and bring out the axes. We were mountaineers, what did we need to fear?!

 This apparently…………………………..

 

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The tourist barrier…

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Roping up time for the descent to Glacier d’Argentiere.

So myself and Darragh roped up rather promptly (we were going to do it anyways but the skulls and crossbones markings gave an added impetus!). It actually felt better after we’d being going a few minutes, dropping below the clouds and seeing the sheer majesty of the Alps open before us. Things weren’t as daunting and with the sun still out, it felt pretty good! We skirted a few crevasses, wet glaciers psych you out unnecessarily, you start imagining crevasses opening beneath you like a colder cousin of the Tatoinne Sarlacc pit. They’re still finding bodies from the First World War in glaciers so our concern was understandable. We took it easy, made good time and most importantly, didn’t plunge into a bottomless pit.

 

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The descent.

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Realizing we’re actually making progress!

 

That big block in the background of the last picture, I think that was around halfway down, useful marking even though we saw plenty of yawning chasms opening up around it. We made good time and we felt a bit relieved to hop onto a bit of rock, it was early evening but still bright in Chamonix and we’d warmed up substantially. A quick break for snacks but I was still freaking out a bit thinking about the dry glacier, never been on one before so getting to see a proper crevasse was going to be something. And I was wondering where to sleep…..

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The Aiguille d’Argentiere looming in the distance. Across the glacier near the little patches of snow below the cliffs in the centre, we slept there.

 

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The Glacier d’Argentiere looming above us.

So I’d imagined a little smooth transition from rock to glacier, simple as kiss your hand. Turned out the glacier actually loomed up some 3-4m over us and if we kept on our descent trajectory, we’d end up slipping in underneath it. So a little bit stumped, we beetled up and around hunting for a way onto it. To our left we were being blocked by a massive rock cliff while going too far right and we’d waste time coming back left. We could make out the hut and didn’t want to go there. Light was failing too so we made a move on.

 We found a little ice bridge onto the glacier and decided to go for it. We double-checked our prussiks and kit, having had our break before crossing onto it, we wouldn’t stop till we were on the other side.

It was weird. The two of us didn’t even spend an hour on it but the short distance was exasperated by us constantly back-tracking and trying to find a path through the glacier that wasn’t blocked by crevasses. Going across any bridges was quite disconcerting, me belaying Darragh out while he’d return the favour when I came across. We both heaved a sigh of relief when we’d gotten across. Looking down into the openings was disturbing, the drops seemed to just go on forever and ever. We spoke barely a word to each other, just wanting to get off the glacier as quick as possible.

On the other side we ditched the crampons as it was all scree and loose rock. Little patches of snow but nothing amazing. It was getting darker so we decided to horse on and find a bivvi spot. Everything was at an angle and with rocks more suitable for bashing skulls in than a mattress. Don’t ask me how but I managed to stumble across a patch of sand and grit that for us seemed like feathers. Tilted at a modest 10-15 degrees, we decided to bed down here. Stumbling through the rocks, we got the food on, though not before some quick posing.

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Darragh. Behind him is the way deeper into the heartland of the Alps.

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Me in front of the way down to the Chamonix Valley. Symbolically turning our backs on it!

These photos would come in useful later when we tried to pinpoint where exactly we’d bivvied. We got out the pocket rockets for some noodles cooked with soup. Rations wise we had been very optimistic. We had that, plus chocolate, sweets. I’d brought some pasta and meat pre-cooked and stuffed in a lunchbox to eat cold. For water we boiled snow and we had 2 1l containers each.

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Rocks, rocks everywhere.

Of course if I’d listened in secondary school during geography lessons, I’d have realized something that I’d learn about much later. Bellies full we were lying on our backs, getting into the sleeping bags and enjoying looking down at the lights of the valley. It was blissfully clear, a crisp night with visibility of the stars enhanced a hundred fold. Sleeping in the open air is an unforgettable experience. It’s even more spectacular above 2000m and away from the noise and light pollution of urban areas. I could see constellations I hadn’t known  existed, shooting stars were swarming the sky and we even saw a huge golden one that we dubbed a comet! With the usual bullshit philosophical discussions sorted, we drifted off into an uneasy sleep towards an uncertain morn.

 Part two coming soon!
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About Ropaire

Dia daoibh agus fáilte go dtí mo bhlag! My name's Fearghal and you can find my musings and ramblings split over www.ropaire.wordpress.com and www.ceitherne.wordpress.com. I hope you enjoy it.
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