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Following the miserable performance on Aconcagua this year, not to mention the subsequent 3 months required to get anything like full lung function back, we decide to try our luck on something a little more manageable, like the highest peak in the Alps. At 4808 m, Mont Blanc is not even as high as Bonete peak, and we’ve scrambled up that several times. So we should be able to knock off MB before tiffin (and we take tiffin pretty darned early round here).

Once again the small but perfectly formed master of ceremonies, chief whip, big cheese, head honcho and keeper of the rolls (baguettes) is Dean James of Cloudwalker Expeditions. Following in his footsteps and trying to run before he can walk we find the enigmatic Nathan, he of Aconcagua no-show fame. Erstwhile lawyer and Everest hopeful. Next in line are Paul and Julie, and if they’re walking strangely it’s because they’ve adopted the ’icelandic’ crampon technique (never more than one point in contact with the ground at any one time).

In penultimate position is Clare, that’s if she hasn’t unroped and slipped into the nearest tea-shop for a tiramisu cake and some jasmin tea. And bringing up the rear, except when travelling downhill at speed, is the lanky Andy.

Victims once again of Dean’s sadistic travel agents we meet up at the EasyJet desk at Gatwick (where?) airport, yes even Nathan is there, albeit 45 minutes after everyone else. The ultra-efficient EasyJet machine swiftly processes us and spits us out in Geneva airport where we board our waiting taxi for the trip to Chamonix. On the journey we find that our proposed campsite has been closed for the last 2 years due to rockfall, fortunately an alternative is available and provides a typical warm french welcome ’Where is your number?’

Never mind, we swiftly settle in to our tents before heading off into the town in search of nourishment. The only problem with Chamonix is the incredible choice of eateries, very difficult to decide, so we opt for the first one we stumble across, which turns out to be a good choice. We’re on our best pre-acclimatization behaviour, so there’s no alcohol for us, much to Paul and Julie’s disappointment. But ommlettes and salads abound and Clare does battle with an old goat. Back at the campsite we find that the Spanish are moving in next door and revving up for a long and noisy night - brought to a swift end at midnight by some choice English expressions.

Day 2

Nathan admires the view from the Brevent cable station.
Names that we’ve only seen in magazines suddenly come to life, here are Les Drus against a moody background of cloud.
In an ideal world this would be a view of Mont Blanc, alas we are destined never to see the mountain that is our ultimate objective, for the entire week it will remain hidden behind a sea of cloud.
We shun, in some case reluctantly, the cable car and walk all the way down to Chamonix. All the better to appreciate what civilisation has to offer in the form of more caffeine and apricot juice. This is why we choose to climb, not because it’s there but because of what’s there when you get back!

Day 2 finds us staggering up the steep hill to the Brevant cable car station, wait a minute, this is hard work and we haven’t even left the ground yet.

From the top cable car station we take the track that contours around the side of the mountain, frequently surounded by cloud and with the occasional rumble of thunder to speed us on our way.

After some fun scrambling we arrive at the second cable car station but the weather is not on our side and we opt to take refuge in the cafe. What the hell, the coffee is excellent (especially after starting the day with Dean’s decaff) and the staff don’t seem to mind when we surreptitiously tuck into our baguettes while Nathan carboloads a plate of chips.

Day 3

And after a leisurely breakfast of weetabix we ride the bus to Le Tour to board the telecabine that will carry us to Charamillon at 1853 m.

The telecabine station at Le Tour.
Paul and Julie aboard the telecabine, a very civilised and sociable way to travel.
Leaving the telecabine we take the path less travelled and start the uphill walk to the Albert 1er hut.
Dean, Nathan and Clare on the trail above the Charamillon station.
Dean, Clare and Nathan.
One man in search of publicity, Dean never misses an opportunity to strike a ’man of the mountains’ pose.
In the foothills of the Alps, the sun is being kind and the factor 30 is out…
… meanwhile down in the valley, something is stirring…
… and heading our way.
Our path takes us up beside the Bosson glacier. Once a favourite place to practice ice-skills, due to global warming it’s now receding and highly dangerous.
Lanky and the glacier, Andy studies the Bosson glacier under a rapidly lowering cloud.
Not every step is up on the trail to the Albert 1er hut, sometimes you have to lose a little altitude too. But if it feels too easy you can always try jogging to remind you that you’re at 2500 m.
We’re passing the half way point and the cloud is closing in from all sides, the inevitability of a Goretex moment hangs heavy in the air.
Finally, an easy scramble up a snow slope brings us to the hut and a chilly stop for a snack and to expose ourselves to the rarified air at 2700 m.
The Albert 1er hut, not much to look at but, then again, any port in a storm. Alas no cafe though.
Reciprocal photo opportunities below the hut.
It’s a dog’s life at the Albert 1er, where the local stair lift is out of action.
Above the Bosson glacier.
On the glacier several groups are practicing their ice-climbing techniques. At this level the glacier is safer but still not something you’d want to try at home.
One of the great things about coming down a soft snow slope is how fast you can do it, even in thick mist. Clare demonstrates the technique through a break in the clouds…
… with Dean in hot pursuit.
Day 4

Nathan looks like a real cool mountaineering dude during a brief interlude between the gusts.

Today we aim is to climb the Petit Aiguille Verte and take the cable car to the dizzy height 3300m. Along with several other groups we climb down the long, iron stairway onto the glacier. Inside the ’safe area’ we don our crampons, rope up and prepare to move off. Julie has her crampons on backwards a la icelandic method. All the better for coming downhill, but we’re going up. A quick sort out and we’re on our way, but wait... Paul’s crampons have fallen off. Dean knuckles down for a quick roadside repair while the rest of us try to find some shelter from the horizontal hail that’s being driven by the gale force wind.

Too warm in the sunshine, Clare relaxes in the shade at the campsite.
The only reminder of our epic escape from the mountain is the rapidly drying gear spread out around our tents.
Quasar - strongest tent in the world and a pretty handy clothes line.

No time for any more mountain photographs today, for a start the weather makes it impossible to get a camera out. Then, just as we’re starting to make some upward progress we hear a yell from the cable car station - it’s closing due to the weather. The choice is ours, catch the last car down or face a long slow decent down the glacier. Given the speed that we’re travelling there’s a serious possibility that we wouldn’t make it down under our own steam and we’re not equipped for a night on the glacier. The choice is clear and ’down’ is the word.

It’s damn the torpedoes and every one for themselves as we sprint for the cable car. Woe betide anyone who loses their footing ’cos they’re just going to get pulled along on their arse. The rope is tight, Lanky’s in the lead and Dean is not sympathetic to the pleading looks from the slow ones. Sprinting up the stairs (relatively speaking, due to the altitude) we make it in time for the last car and we’re soon drying out in the campsite. The contrast between what’s happening in the mountains and in the valley is unreal.

Day 5

And we’re off to the mountain today. The mood in the group varies from excited anticipation to apprehension, but Paul and Julie still think they’re out for a walk in the Lakes and it will be a walkover, if you’ll pardon the pun. Nathan has ditched his hip-flask to save weight and his mind is full of images from the brochures - blue sky, crisp snow, easy slopes and no apparent effort. He’s on a learning curve. Clare thinks she’s in with a chance, she’s been going well and feels fit. Andy thinks the whole group is moving slower than a Saga coach tour and will need a Stanner stairlift to make the summit. Dean’s final decision when we reach the Gouter hut will be interesting to say the least. As for Dean, he’s playing the diplomatic cards with consummate skill while secretly hoping that the weather gods will make final decision.

Here we are waiting for the bus to Les Houches... same procedure as every morning… baguette buying followed by waiting for the bus.
What to wear? That is the question, whether ’tis nobler in the mind to bear the unpleasant heat of Goretex in the valley or risk the icy winds of chance in the mountains? In Dean’s case it’s an easy choice, he’s going ’commando’ under his overtrousers. Unaware of his modesty, most of the others follow his example.
At Les Houches we start as we mean to go on by avoiding the queues for the cable car and heading across the road for a quick caffeine infusion. Suitably fortified we take the mid-morning cable car to Bellevue where more eager comrades from the bus are still waiting for the train. Nice one Dean - ’Cloudwalker Expeditions - The relaxed way to travel’.
We board the funnicular for the last stage of its journey to Nid d’Aigle - The Eagle’s Nest. The train is crowded and there’s standing room only, but with plastic boots it’s not a problem because it’s simply not possible to fall over. Just relax and let the boots take the strain. At Nid d’Aigle the tourists, sporting their shorts and sunglasses, disembark into warm sunshine... for about 10 minutes before the cloud sweeps in and winter arrives with avengeance.
After quickly taking in the view the less hardy folk queue to board the train for the return journey. The clouds are already obscuring the mountains.
From Nid d’Aigle we start the easy 800 m hike up to the Tete Rousse hut. The track is well defined and snow free for the most part. The wind is getting up but we are sweating under our Goretex layers. Too cold to take them off, too hot to keep them on. Life is like that. On the trail we come across a chamois.
Obviously this is a particularly tasty piece of moss because it’s possible to get within a few feet of the chamois and use flash photography without disturbing it. In fact we can’t even get it to look at the camera, maybe it’s a plant by the Chamonix tourist board?
With about 200 vertical metres still to climb there are rumblings of discontent from the group. Despite the deteriorating weather it’s time to unleash the chicken baguettes. There’s not much shelter but pulling up a suitable rock and getting your back to the wind helps. Clare and Dean make the best of the situation, although Clare is now convinced she’s picked up a bug from Andy. Couldn’t be anything to do with the altitude could it? Meanwhile, since the next part of the walk-in is a bit steeper Andy is downing one of his secret ’energy potions’. Prepare to be amazed.
Nathan, Paul and Julie are deciding whether to sit it out and wait for summer… wait a minute it is July isn’t it?
The Tete Rousse hut comes into view. The old hut is infront, the new, ultra-luxurious hut is behind it. Yet to be opened, this promises to raise the standard of Alpine hut life to a new level.
The facilities are pretty spartan; no heating, communal matresses, bowls of instant coffee and a toilet with a serious view. However, looking at the rapidly deteriorating weather outside noone is complaining. In fact, Paul, Julie and Nathan are catching a few z’s. Clare and Dean are enjoying the ambience and getting to know the fellow inhabitants.
Day 6

Ideally we would have been up and on the trail at midnight. Staying at the Tete Rousse instead of the Gouter hut means that we have even further to go than most people. Unfortunately it’s been blowing a full storm all night and there’s half a metre of fresh snow on the ground. Seems like the weather gods have smiled on Dean this time round, there’s no discussion about continuing up the mountain. The wind is still too strong and the avalanche risk is high (infact we later hear that an avalanche has claimed the lives of two people on the mountain).

After a leisurely breakfast and a mad scramble to find our gear amongst everyone elses we prepare to move off down the mountain and hopefully the train will still be running despite the weather.

Outside the hut Dean is contemplating the conditions while waiting for the others to join him.
Several other groups are preparing too, most are planning to head for the Gouter hut to see if the weather improves. We have no more days left so we have to go down - the speed of the group gives us no option for a lightning raid on the summit should the conditions improve.
Dean, Clare (hidden), Nathan, Julie and Paul breaking trail through the fresh snow on the way down. Dean is leading, Andy is bringing up the rear and cursing the cold air which is rendering his camera battery almost useless.
Clare looking the part during one of the frequent pauses on the way down. Amazingly the sun is breaking through from time to time but we are being sandblasted by the spindrift.
A wintery July scene on the slopes below the Tete Rousse.
The fresh snow makes parts of the decent a little tricky, and the cloud is coming in again.
A momentary ray of sunshine through a break in the cloud reveals a scene worthy of Dr. Zhivago. Clare negotiates a bend in the trail against a backdrop of angry clouds.
Chatting in the snow.
A monument to a French climber set against a background of cloud blown off the ridge.
While we descend, back on the mountain a couple of climbers are killed in an avalanche. Monument to them too?
Heading ever downwards we’re entering a new band of cloud.
An encouraging sign, this many people on the way up means that the train must be running. These people are in for an interesting couple of days if the weather forecast is correct, but the long term forecast is for a return to more normal conditions for the time of year.
Caught in a contra-flow system on the trail, we snack and wait for the traffic to clear before continuing on down to Nid d’Aigle.
At the Nid d’Aigle we have 25 minutes to wait for the train. There cafe is still being rebuilt but they offer us minute cups of instant coffee.
The coffee may not what we’ve come to expect in France, but we don’t mind - the tea shops of Chamonix are already beckoning us.
Boarding the train is something of a bizarre experience, even the dog seems a little bemused.
Boarding the train is something of a bizarre experience, even the dog seems a little bemused.
Back at the Bellevue station the clouds are still boiling up from the valley but it’s a staggering transition from the icy remoteness of the Tete Rousse hut to the grassy alpine meadows.
Back at the Bellevue station the clouds are still boiling up from the valley but it’s a staggering transition from the icy remoteness of the Tete Rousse hut to the grassy alpine meadows.
Walking the short distance over the ridge from the railway halt to the cable car station.
The cable car down to Les Houches.
Green scenery from the cable car station.
An amazing contrast to what we've just left.
A particularly bad photograph (but not the worst) of Andy, waiting for the cable car.
Arriving back in Chamonix there is little discussion about what to do next... food is what we want and lots of it. Where better to go then than our favourite pizza restaurant for the best Calzones in town. Sitting outside could be a mistake though, it’s not exactly warm. Never mind, prohibition is lifted and beer is on the menu.
After some minutes the awning over the restaurant tables is rolled away and we are treated to excellent views of the mountains. There’s a lot of unseasonal snow but it certainly looks inviting from the comfort of a chair in the valley.
After some minutes the awning over the restaurant tables is rolled away and we are treated to excellent views of the mountains.
There’s a lot of unseasonal snow but it certainly looks inviting from the comfort of a chair in the valley.
Dean and Clare are soaking up the view from the restaurant...
... but the clouds have not gone completely yet.
Day 7
The ultimate ordeal; Clare has decided to go shopping for new boots and she’s taking Andy and Dean along for technical advice. Snell’s is the place to go for gear in Chamonix, and Dean is particularly smitten by the selection of One-Sport boots on offer but somehow resists the temptation. After sometime the boys are getting restless but Clare still hasn’t tried on everything in the shop and it’s shaping up to be a long morning. Fortunately she is distracted by the timely arrival an expat Brit. shop assistant enabling them to make their escape to the nearest tea shop for a much needed caffeine infusion.

Several cups of coffee later we are feeling much refreshed and are able to head off to the local crag to revise our rope skills. Dean leads us up some easy climbs and we practice belaying and abseiling and generally messing around.
Clare abseiling (1).
Clare abseiling (2).
Clare abseiling (3).
Clare abseiling (4).
Dean is in full climbing instructor mode.
While Clare ascends another route.
While Clare ascends another route.
While Clare ascends another route.
We are amazed at the number of young children being top-roped up the crag by their parents. Starting this young gives them a huge head start, no wonder some of the best free climbers in the world are French.
Meanwhile, back to normality on the british side, Dean has caught something and it looks like a whopper...
... Nope, it’s only Clare.
Day 8

And we’re out of film. Our taxi takes us back to Geneva airport where we are completely unable to locate a decent cup of coffee. However, the EasyJet flight is once again surprisingly painless and deposits us at Gatwick where we say goodbye. So, all that remains is to say ’thanks’ to Dean for an excellent trip, and let’s hope for better weather for Mont Blanc 2005.

©Terranova 2009 ©AndyClark.eu 2009
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