I awoke at first light, with the sounds of other mountaineers getting their racks together. The clinking of cams, screws and quick-draws cutting through the French morning air. I stuck my head outside the tent door. Clear skies, a slight breeze and the gorgeous Chamonix valley greeted my senses. At last a weather window had finally opened.
I took great pleasure in waking Mike, my climbing partner, up. The Sasquatch was always lethargic and moody at daybreak, and like the true friend I was, found his suffering hilarious.
He finally emerged whilst I was attaching my helmet to my pack, ice axe in hand, and looking truly like the beast of the mountains.
“We off?” The Sasquatch growled at me.
“Yeah dude.” I responded. “Grab you crampons and boot up, let’s try and push for the 7am lift”
I knew very well we wouldn’t make that lift. Mike always moved like a sloth in the morning, and was always faffing around. Not to mention he had somehow left his camera on all night, which he repeatedly told me whilst he was getting ready.
There were shreds of doubt in my mind, I’d be lying to myself if I said there wasn’t; partly if we would complete the route that I had planned. But, more so if my partner’s non-rated boots would stand up to crampons. Or if his axe from the early 70’s would be adequate. However, in true British fashion, I drowned these negative thoughts with a brew of morning breakfast tea.
The chair lift was packed. It was always packed. I gazed out the window as we ascended in elevation. Trees were replaced by rock and then rock replaced by snow.
Mike and I had positioned ourselves in the corner. Our bags between our legs, rope coiled over the handrail and ice axes over our shoulders. It was easy to tell we weren’t from the continent. The Europeans tend to leave their axes and crampons attached to their bags, the Americans, us Brits and to a greater degree the Canadians had more etiquette than that.
Crampons buried in the bags. Ice axes in ones hand. It’s common sense really, you don’t want to poke the innocent tourists heading up the lift for their selfies or the other alpinists. Speaking of other alpinists, it’s funny in the chair lifts, you can help it but you eye up the other climbers. Seeing what the competition is like. Checking out their kit. Wondering which route or pitches they’d be doing. There Mike and I stood, all the gear and somewhat of an idea, out of our depth. We were always out of our depth. Not that the pair of us would ever tell our girlfriends that.
The Grands Montets is always stunning in the morning. From exiting the cable-car we descended down the step ladder onto the glacier just as the light punched up above the valley to the east. It’s my favorite location in Chamonix.
All the hard-core alpinists tend to head to Du Midi and so for the most part Grands Montets, Glacier des Rognons and routes to the Aiguille Verte are virtually private. We geared up in the cordoned off ‘safe’ section of Grands Montets.
This year lack of snowfall and a mild winter had promoted crevasses. These blighters littered the slopes, Mike and I had been watching them on the way up from the cable car. As a result, whilst we we’re roping up I added a couple of extra alpine butterfly knots between us. It’s a pretty knot, and should one fall into a crevasse it’d provide additional friction to bite into the snow, halting the fall.
I prayed it wasn’t needed, I hadn’t taught Mike how to do a crevasse rescue, maybe a slight oversight on my behalf. I pushed the worry to the back of my mind, checked the Sasquatch’s harnesses. Thank goodness, he had practiced tying in. Checked his crampons, amazingly for unrated booted they were attached rather securely. Similarly to the crevasse thoughts, I pushed the worry of them into the depths. That’s when we set off.
I am no mountain guide. But of my friendship circle I’ve done the most mountaineering; for that reason I guess Mike kinda-sorta trusted me.
We pottered eastward, swinging toward the L’Argentiére Glacier and the sun. The weather was just amazing, there was a slight haze and there were a couple of high altitude clouds forming adding to the drama of the Alps.
About half an hour into our route, we stopped to put on sun-cream. The previous year I had been burnt pretty badly from the albedo on the Midi, this year I wanted to keep my lips, without skin peeling off them. I knew that my partner would burn anyway, he always did, but this should stall the inevitable.
That’s when we heard it. This low hum, reverberating around the valley. Like a monstrously sized hornet approaching. The drone was getting louder, Mike and I looked at each other with perplexed curiosity. I dropped the sun cream into the bag just as a low flying C-160 passed in-front of us. Talk about a personal flyby. I’m not that into aircraft but what an experience. I turned to look at the Sasquatch. He was grinning like the Cheshire cat.
Glaciers are…deceptive. If you’ve ever been on one in a white out or in heavy cloud, you know just how fickle they are and how GPS or map information doesn’t personify their physical characteristics as accurately as you’d like. On top of that I have a personal hatred for sheet ice. And regardless of what mountain glacier you are on, one will eventually encounter sheet ice.
On our descent, the pair of these factors came to bite me in the backside. Sheet ice, running for 50m down an obscene gradient on the slope that wasn’t illustrated on the map. Now I am a lazy individual and backtracking to find a way around this obstruction wasn’t an option cause, I am lazy. My concern was Mike descending with his Mad Max boots and crampon combination, either of which could fail on a descent. I decided to belay him down, in order to ensure he wouldn’t take a bad tumble. I set up an anchor with the pair of ice screws I had on me. Got the pair of us to drop our coils of rope, what a faff. Then proceeded to lower this heavy Sasquatch down the slope.
After Mike had made it down onto powder snow safely I decided to contemplate my situation. I could not be bothered to chip away at the ice to create a retrievable abseil, did I mention I was lazy? Nor did I want to lose my ice screws, they are expensive.
With the philosophy of adventure is risk is a reward, I decided to self-arrest slide down this sheet ice slope. Which, in hindsight wasn’t the safest of ideas.
A deep breath was taken and the slide begun. Everything occurred super-fast. I plunged my axe into the ice, throwing my body on-top of it as I slid down the icy slope. Mike was shouting something. I turned my head to see what the hell he was moaning about. The lad was pointing towards where I was sliding…a crevasse.
I put all my body weight onto the axe and it finally bit into the sheet ice slowing me down enough. I ground to a holt 7 meters away from the chasm. You gotta practice what you preach, and for me in this situation the risk was worth the reward. A fast descent, no gear lost and a great pub story to tell.
After roping up again for the final part of the glacier, we pushed toward our next objective. An exposed descent down a Via Ferrata. Via Ferrata translates as Iron Road or Iron Staircase. They are essentially ladders or runs running up and down exposed rock allowing greater exposure for recreation and additional access to locations. We decided to remove our gear and store it in our packs to make the descent easier.
As I pottered over the edge I called out to Mike, “Please don’t fall dude.” One of us hadn’t brought mountaineering insurance, can you guess which one? If you guessed not me, you are correct.
The descent was fairly easy. One foot, one hand, one foot, one hand. However, the wind had kicked up in the glacial valley, and was pushing me from one side to another. I made it smoothly over the first ladder and proceeded down one of the iron wires. Mike, followed gingerly after me. Once we had made it down onto the safety of the terminal moraine, we looked up at the height of the decent. A solid, 40m. Not bad for a days experience.
Fortunately and unfortunately, the remainder of our escapades proved to be somewhat tame. The pair of us scrambled up onto the L’Argentiére Glacier. Roped back up for dry ice travel, then proceeded to migrate down the glacier towards a trail for the hike out.
L’Argentiére is littered with crevasses ranging in size and is a true maze to wonder across. How I was taught to travel down larger glaciers is to aim for the middle, as that’s where there tends to be less crevasses.
On our journey down the sea of ice, we came across a couple of Chinese tourists from Hong Kong, who joined our party as we made our exit away from the big mountains.
After splitting off from the tourists at a mountain hut, the trip on the trail became a discussion of what drink we would be consuming. Peroni or something local? As we descended closer to Argentiére town it could be said our pallets were suitably ready for the consumption of a hoppy beverage.
Dirt trail was replaced by grit and then by concrete. And nirvana cropped into our vision. The Office, a local climbers bar. We propped our bags down and I headed in to acquire something suitable.
We sat overlooking the stunning Mt. Blanc in the distance beers in hand. The orange sunset casting a magnificent glow across the valley.
“So what are we doing tomorrow?” Mike asked.
“Fancy abseiling into a crevasse?” I replied.
Two smirks appeared across our faces.
Check out Daniel on Instagram @dwailiw for more great adventures!