September 1-10, 2018
Once again Carly and I traveled to Chamonix, France in September. This time we hoped for better weather than our last trip. We learned last year that the middle of September is the beginning of the end of much of the tourism and climbing–at least the easy stuff. We moved to the first week of September this time to keep in the prime season. We nailed it on the weather, with only one afternoon of rain. However many of the routes in the high mountains were out of condition due to the very hot summer and increased rockfall with the lack of snow on many approaches, routes, and descents.
We arrived in Chamonix on a slightly cloudy day with not much of the high mountains in view, but the weather improved in the afternoon and we had some decent views. With the weather forecast looking pretty good for Sunday we scrambled to repack our gear from our airline luggage.
Heading up the L’Index side, the mid-elevation mountains on the north side of the valley, we went for one of the classic ridgeline traverses, the South-Southeast Arete of the Chappell de la Gliere. There were periodic sunny spells, but much of the time we were in the clouds. This made for some interesting approaching and descending. Route finding was fairly easy at the start since there was a train of people in front of us.
I lead the first two pitches to a comfortable ridgeline ledge where we waited for quite a while due to a party of 5 that would periodically climb as 2 and 3 people. The P3-4 were a bit more difficult and they had some trouble as they were in mountain boots. Matt was able to scoot around the side and link two pitches together. Since we were much faster in rock shoes there wasn’t much of an issue with them. After that we had smooth sailing other than being in a time crunch to get back to the lift before it closed at 4:30.
Matt linked another couple pitches and got us to the base of the Razor pitch. This one is pretty photogenic for the followers. It is a tilted slab with no major apparent holds on it. Once establishing yourself on it though, it is rather easy and protects sufficiently. The leader also gets the camera duty for the followers with the backdrop of Mont Blanc.
Because of the slow party we were a bit unsure if we should bail or finish the route. Ultimately we decided it would be quicker to finish because the descent would be more obvious that way. We opted for that and motored through the remaining pitches, except for the last two. This is unfortunate as these two sound pretty exciting and exposed and a bit harder than much of the rest of the route. I guess we’ll save for another day since we had a lift to catch. We got pretty badly off route on the descent due to the clouds and ended up losing some time. We luckily made the last lift down though.
With the weather still looking good for Sunday through Tuesday Carly and I headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to the Italian side so we could take a lift up into the mountains. We needed to go to the Italian side because the upper section of the Aiguille du Midi lift was close because of maintenance problems.
Taking the lift up we go great views through the clouds of the mountains. After getting to the top of the Skyway to get to the Torino hut you take an elevator and then walk through a long tunnel. Opening the doors for the tunnel you see the gruelling 20 meter approach to the doors of the hut. All at 11,000′.
As we had plenty of time from our approach to the hut we opted for a quick walk around and a short little climb. There is a protrusion of rocks, called the Petit Flambeau not far from the hut which we did. It was quite easy, but a little icy to get onto the rocks. We had nice views in and out of clouds of the range.
At the hut we met some rather nice Englishmen who we sat with and had dinner. Dinner was quite good and plenty of it. The wine, unfortunately, was not and may have contributed to a less than restful night’s sleep. The Englishmen, however, were jolly and had lots of stories of climbing in both Chamonix and in their home turf which were entertaining. After some conditions reports they had seen we decided to opt away from our main objective the Dent du Geant and go for the more modest Marbrees Traverse.
The next morning we got up and had the “late” breakfast at 6am. They have 2am and 4am as the other breakfast alternatives. Our objective was pretty close to the hut and since it wasn’t very long we didn’t need to start very early. Our wake up time was well timed for the sunrise and we had a great view of Mont Blanc as the sun just started to hit it. Our day dawned beautifly clear as we approached the back side of the Marbrees Ridge from the hut. Along the way we were roped up to avoid falling in a crevasse, but the likelihood of this was small since there wasn’t much snow on the glacier.
The climb is basically a ridge climb. At the recommendation of one of our English friends we decided to do it backwards from the description in our guidebook. This would avoid a difficult and rockfall prone section on the typical direction. Later in the week when we talked to Max, he said that he prefers it in the direction we did it so perhaps we got the most of it. The climb wanders up the ridgeline around, over, and through some mildly loose boulders and rocks, but nothing terrible. To gain the summit there is a short section of 5.7+ climbing which we protected. I think we were the first on the summit for the day. The weather was clear and warm and no other parties were near so we stayed for nearly an hour on the summit enjoying the views. Continuing on I think we did OK in route finding, though we did find the less used anchors for rappelling back to the glacier. All told we were back on the patio of the hut around 11am sipping cappuccino and eating almond tort.
With the approach to the Dent du Geant in less than ideal conditions we decided that we might wait for another time to do that classic climb. Since much of the other routes in the area had similar issues we thought we’d cut our hut time down by a day an leave early. I’m a little disappointed we didn’t go for more climbing, but between the approach and the crowds focused just on the Italian side, we didn’t think we’d have a great experience on the Dent.
Matt had a free day from his work at the Blue Ice office on Thursday. Unfortunately there was weather predicted around noon that day as well. We decided that if we get to the Brevent lift when they open, we can probably get down to the start of the Frison-Roche (6a), which is a 6 pitch classic route. The approach is quick, perhaps 15 minutes, and it is all bolted. We figured we wouldn’t be the only ones with the “get there early before the rain” plan and we weren’t. Luckily the parties in front and the one or two behind weren’t moving too slowly. We got in line and got friendly with our English speaking friends in front of us. This was a great route for Matt, Carly and I since it had pitches within all of our leading abilities. We each lead two pitches. Aside from the second pitch I lead, which was merely a ledge traverse, all the climb was quite good. We mostly beat the rain. Matt topped out just as it started to mist heavily. Carly and I were able to finish before it was too wet. The nice thing about the route is that you finish nearly at the platform for the lift so the return is only a minute or two.
The remainder of the week we had some friends, Eric and Penny, come stay with us from Zurich. They are in Zurich for Penny’s post-grad work. We did a bit of hiking, Chamonix to Les Houches, and some cragging. Carly and I did try to get a big last day on Sunday in, but the route we chose was suspect and didn’t have hangers on all the bolts and nonsense like that. We ended up not even getting to the top of the first pitch before going down. It was a bit of a downer for the last day of climbing before leaving, but with the weather being nice we couldn’t complain that much. We had much better weather than 2017 and got more pitches in so it was a win anyway. I’m looking forward to the next trip over there, regardless of season.