A Needle in a French Snowstack
Peter at Mt. Blanc
Peter and Anouchka at Refuge d'Argentiere
On July 20-21 Anouchka Gaillard and myself went climbing in the French Alps near Chamonix. The alps are very steep and almost any climb involves pretty hefty elevation gains and losses. Even with the benefit of the many telepheriques there, many thousands of feet are involved (all elevations are in meters in Europe, but I'll convert everything to feet to enable comparisons to be made).
We wanted to bag a peak in the Mt Blanc Massif, and chose Aiguille d'Argentiere, a peak in the northern part (aiguille is French for needle, which aptly describes the craggy skyline). At 12900 feet it's higher than many in the immediate vicinity and well into heavily glaciated areas (the Glacier d'Argentiere descends down to about 6000 feet).
We hired ourselves a guide as we didn't know the route or conditions and didn't have time to check it out properly, quite apart from our reluctance to head out amongst crevasses with just the two of us.
Day 1 was really easy. We had a telepherique to help us, which took us straight up to 10900 feet. Glancing around the cabin on the way up, which was full of people bound for the same general area, we noticed we were the ONLY people not wearing plastic boots. Visions of my soggy feet on the July 4 Palisades trip flashed across my mind and I mentally prepared myself for a repeat.
The final station was much higher than the refuge in which we were staying that night, so to start with we descended 2200 feet down to the glacier, on very soft snow. There was almost a heat wave on at the time and freezing level was up near 15000 feet (no doubt it dropped overnight, but I don't know how far).
A short walk involving a 400 foot climb saw us at the refuge a little over an hour after we started.
The refuge, oddly enough, has a flat roof. We discovered that one use for this is as a helicopter landing area. We were treated to a few such episodes because there were some professional photographers and sophisticated women (definitely non-climbers) modelling next season's ski wear. They would get into some colorful garb, then be whisked off by the helicopter to some imposing peak, no doubt, for the catalog photos. So much for that part of our wilderness experience.
Said experience started very early the next day - 3 am to be precise. To my surprise, when I staggered in to the dining room, it was almost full. True alpine starts like this are the rule rather than the exception. Everyone wants to be on summits around 7 or 8 am and descend the steepest parts before the snow softens. We started walking at 3:45, needless to say using our headlamps.
We weren't the first, by any means, and we could see many lights bobbing in the distance. The snow was sufficiently soft that we didn't even need crampons and at the start we were getting decidedly warm. This soft snow did the expected to our leather boots, despite gaiters and a fresh coat of snow seal (waterproof? ha,ha!).
Then, the wet boots and the cold snow started making at least our feet feel pretty cold. I was glad of the effort in climbing to keep circulation going.
Still, we were faster without crampons and passed many people encumbered by them. We headed up the glacier which runs almost all the way to the peak, the Glacier du Milieu. This is a small glacier and crossing the bergschrund posed no problems other than taking a large step while pulling on the planted ice axe.
The snow was very crusty by this stage and the axe gave good support. By now the slope had increased to about 40 degrees and remained that for the last 1000 feet or so. The slope wasn't so bad, just the duration. It was very hard to get enough variation of angle of the feet to prevent my muscles from screaming out from being constantly hammered the same way. Jane Fonda's burn had nothing on this - I had a veritable inferno!
We made good progress, though, and ended up passing everyone who had been in front of us with the exception of two and were the second party to summit. This was about 7:15 am, so we had climbed the 3800 feet in 3.5 hours. The sun was still fairly low and provided interesting shadows and colors on everything. It was difficult to get good summit photos with us in them as the true summit is on a small mound of snow which is overhung on one side, so caution was of the day. There was no lingering around, as our guide wanted to get down the steep portion before it softened up and started balling in our crampons. He was wearing anti-balling devices (plastic plates which fit underneath the crampon and prevent the snow from sticking) and thought everyone should have them. It turns out this guy's main employment is in mountain rescue and he said by far the majority of accidents are caused by people slipping with balled up crampons.
The swift descent seems to be the case with all guides there: they're keen to get back as soon as possible, even if it means running down the slopes, and aren't interested in leisurely descents soaking in the surroundings.
Ours seemed to want to gallop down to break all records. We glissaded where possible: this guy could glissade on his boots faster than we could sitting (with no rain pants on so we got thoroughly wet and frozen backsides) and was even pulling us down some slopes!
Back down on the main glacier it was much flatter, with numerous small (2 ) crevasses that we jumped over. Just before we reached the point where the trail from the telepherique middle station joins the glacier, we had a delicate path to find through much larger crevasses.
I managed to half fall into one when I stepped a little too close to the edge and the snow on which I was walking gave way and it, together with one leg, went into the crevasse. Fortunately this was as far as I went and was able to scramble back out, with injured pride.
After getting onto rock and being told that this was the end of the snow, we took off our polypro and parkas and set off in t-shirt and shorts. However, in 5 minutes we were back on the glacier again. They had had a very high snowfall winter like us and this enabled bypassing a considerable section of the trail, which had its good points in that it was easier and faster, but left us on snow in mid-morning with lots of exposed skin to get abraded if we fell, or to get burnt by the sun. Luckily neither occurred and we were back at the middle station of the telepherique shortly before noon 8 hours after starting. The elevation here was 6500 feet so we'd descended 6400 feet after ascending 3800 feet, all at a rate twice that with which I'd have been comfortable - no wonder we were tired.