I always feel slightly melancholy when leaving Chamonix, especially when it's been a good trip.
The contrast between everyday life and the mountain experience when things go to plan, is so vast I have a hard time readjusting. Theres just a buzz about the place that I can't get enough of.
Anyway as you can probably gather, things went well.
The original plan had been to go to Cham to get some acclimatisation, before meeting up with Mark and attempting the Bonatti direct on the Matterhorn, but due to a lack of enthusiasm I ended up staying in Cham for the whole trip and meeting some much needed new alpine partners.
On arriving I decided to stay at the ski chalet gite which I'd recommend as it's reasonably priced and well positioned with a nice little walk up the hill to keep the legs working.
On walking through the entrance, I heard the rattle of climbing gear and English voices coming from the first room, so I poked my head round the door to enquire about conditions and see if anyone needed a climbing partner.
A blonde, curly haired, nineteen year old lad called Tom seemed keen. Well as keen as you would be, when someone you don't know asks if you want to climb, as you never really know what you're getting into, until the climbing starts.
We decided to climb the Frendo Ravenel as a test run before the Ginat on the Droite north face, but things didn't get off to a good start when we got stuck in the queue at the Grand Montets for about two hours, and it wasn't until eleven that we got to the start of the route. The next problem was route finding. I'd been to the start of the route before with someone that had climbed it previously, so I was confident that I knew where I was going, but after about 200m we realised that we were on the next route to the right and with Tom wanting to get the last lift down, we decided to bail.
But the day had served it's purpose, as we'd seen each other climb and felt confident, that as a team, we were ready for the Ginat.
The next day, early afternoon we headed up to the Argentere hut, putting a track across to the start of the route at the same time, including digging through the bergshrund, which turned out to be the right thing to do as it was overhanging and took a good 40minutes.
After a great meal and a few hours sleep we left the hut and made our way across to the face.
It had been snowing in the night and the tracks from the previous day had gone but the hole we had made in the bergshrund was still there, and at 4am we started the route.
In my mind I had broken the day down into sections, as a way of gauging our pace and also keeping the focus narrowed down to the section you're on at the time, rather than the end goal, that always seems a demoralizingly long way away. The sections went as follows: The approach, the section to the gully, the lower gully, the median snow slope, the 5 technical pitches, the gully to the breche, the descent, and the walk to the hut. So 8 sections, 1 down, 7 more to go, and up to the top of the snow slope our time seemed about right, 4 1/2hours off my target of ten for the route.
After so many years thinking about it and the odd previous attempt, it was great to be on the face, and when dawn broke, I was finally able to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the exposure of looking down, and seeing the face sweep away to the glacier below.
The technical climbing started up a steep corner to our left before gaining a right trending mixed ramp for pitch two. I headed up the corner on a narrow, vertical ribbon of ice, when suddenly the ice under both feet broke away. Five metres above the last screw this was not the place to be coming off.
The rest of the pitch eased a bit, to about 75 degrees, but with only one screw left for the belay I had to run it out for the last 15m.
Tom led through on the mixed pitch up some tricky corners and we moved on. The axe placements had to be sought carefully as the cold temperatures were making the ice brittle and it took 4 or 5 swings to get a stick. This slowed things down and after each pitch I would re-estimate the time to finish. Although we were using a single 70m rope and this worked well on the lower face, the ground we were on now was dictating the places to belay and it seemed to be around 50 or 60m per pitch.
So I started up pitch 5 (a beautiful ice ramp at 85 degrees) with one more above to go, before reaching the upper gully. Next Tom led the final pitch, keeping to the left, on the mixed to give some relief to the calves. With about 15m still to go he took a small fall and decided to belay where he was, the time was about 5.30, our target was well out the window.
By the time I had climbed up to Tom, finished the pitch, and we'd moved together up to the breche it had just turned seven, but the route was in the bag, with only two sections remaining to the hut.
After five ab's down the south gully it was getting dark, making it difficult to find the fixed gear, but the ground eased off, so I started down climbing and told Tom to tie the rope to his harness and drag it down. When he arrived by me, the rope was nowhere to be seen, somehow it had detached itself and fallen. We didn't come across it lower down so I'd just have to put it down as bad luck, anyway the route was worth it.
The next plan was to head up to the British route on the Sans Nom, another route I'd wanted to do for ages. But Tom wasn't available for a few days, so I teamed up with Phillip, a 24 year old Austrian lad that was keen as mustard.
I needed something short before the next big route so we headed for Pointe Lachenal and a route called Star Academixte. The climbing started off quite straight forward, for the first 3 pitches, then it kicked in. The fault we were climbing petered out, and I had to traverse left across a steep slab, on exfoliating flakes to reach the next fault, where steep moves gained easier ground below the final chimney.
The route was climbed in about 3 1/2 hours, before the slog back up to the Midi and the lift down.
It's funny how a 250m route seems small, and is dealt with so differently compared to the equivalent in Scotland, although I suppose the approach is a bit shorter from the Midi.
By 2pm the next day Tom and myself were making our way across to the Sans Nom. It was clagged in and snowing lightly, but after wading through deep snow, we got to the top of the coulior that leads to the glacier, and the face.
Conditions didn't look good, with a load of fresh snow plastering the route and bare rock where ice should have been, we decided to head back to the top station and a change of plan.
The station was busy, with about 8 Spanish, 2 Dutch and 4 British climbers all spending the night.
We got talking to Andy Houseman and Dave Evans who were heading up to climb Late To Say I'm Sorry on the Grande Rocheuse. I'd heard the route to it's left, (Bourges-Mizrahi) was in condition so the next morning we headed up at about 3.30 and after a final 40m of neck deep digging we crossed the bergshrund at about 5am.
This time around I was better acclimatised, we were moving well and it wasn't long before we reached the steeper climbing, where we roped up.
Tom decided he needed a crap at this point, so perched on a convenient rock he let loose down the face, fortunately it was off the climbing line, as apposed to the last time, on the Droite, when it had landed all over the place.
Two pitches of ice up to 90 degrees and a snow gully, led to the ridge, and one final tricky pitch, before the spectacular knife edge summit, reached after 9 hours of climbing.
A quick descent down the Whymper coulior and an hours wading through soft snow had us back at the Couvercle hut in time for tea!
If only it went like this every time I went to Cham!
Sunday, 4 April 2010
We met up with Duncan at the north face car park and after a quick pint, bedded down in the car, for a leisurely 6am start in the morning.
It was snowing when we got up, and after persuading Duncan it was worth the walk in we set off on what turned out to be an alright approach, as the ground was well frozen..
It was meant to be busy in the hut but due to the weather everyone was heading down, so we settled in with a coffee to wait and see what the weather was going to do.
After a while the wind seemed to die down a touch. It was all the encouragement we needed and within ten minutes we were ready to go, which was just as the lull ended, but we'd made up our minds and headed out.
back at the hut a guide turned up with two clients. They'd just climbed Italian Left Hand Route and apart from us, must have been the only other people on the mountain.
After dinner we finished of the leftover wine and drank Adams whisky, before hitting the sack for a good nights sleep and another leisurely start in the morning.
The wind had dropped slightly the next day but we still wanted to avoid going on the plateau, so we picked a route on Observatory Buttress, as you can traverse off rightwards from the top of the difficulties towards Good Friday Climb.
Rubicon Wall was in good nick. I ran the first two pitches together and Duncan led through, with a great lead on thin ice, getting two runners in 40m. The top pitch was a lot thicker and I was able to place good screws all the way.
So although my plans of climbing multiple grade sixes and sevens on this trip didnt happen due to the weather, it still felt good to get something done considering the conditions and it at least meant we had one of the UK's best venues virtually to ourselves for two days.
Right, now all I need is a good alpine trip, then I can concentrate on a summer of sport climbing to get me fit for next winter!