I’ve never much fancied myself as an Alpinist, in fact I’m still very much just toying with the idea. However, with the prospect of splitting my time between Chamonix and the Highlands increasingly looming, I thought I might as well give the whole thing a bash. That, and the fact that Team 14 Peaks were determined to start getting some international meets under their belt – the obvious first choice was the Alps.
One of the reasons I’ve put off ‘becoming’ an Alpinist previously is the early starts – I’m not a morning person. I don’t like getting up early, I don’t like rushing my breakfast, I like a nice shower to wake me up, I like to lounge around for a bit and wait for my green tea to kick in before I even bother speaking to anyone. Another reason is the long days with all that walking – I have a short attention span and this is precisely why I love single pitch climbs that you can literally pack the car at the bottom of – I’ve never been a fan of long, arduous routes – of course, I’ve loved most of them, but after an hour or so I’m wondering when we can move on to the next activity for the day. Then, there’s the food – oh, how I would love to sustain myself on packaged snacks, bread, cheese and some meaty evening meal. I hate to turn my nose up at food, especially when it does taste good, but it’s just so hard to stomach for more than a day or so, and that makes me weak, tired and eventually grouchy. I need my smoothies, berries and big chunks of watermelon. Finally, there’s the altitude – I just don’t seem to fare so well at altitude, I’m sure it’s got something to do with my ears – I’m partially deaf – but it does seem to get easier every time, perhaps it will just take more exposure to get used to.
Hopefully I haven’t put you off completely – which isn’t my intention, since it’s best to be prepared for the aforementioned! This summer, I discovered the key to overcoming all the things I don’t really like about Alpinism – good company. Obviously, I was still bothered by all the usual issues, but they didn’t seem so bad since I was in the company of two great girls.
We started our two day trip at La Tour and took the uplift to the top of the ski area before starting the couple of hour walk towards the Albert 1er Refuge. The walk is an enjoyable Alpine hike, along a good path with great views – it eventually opens out at the foot of the Glacier du Tour before rising steeply on the approach to the hut, finishing off with a short, easy scramble to the front door.
The Albert 1er is a nice hut – modern and well equipped. Because it’s often used as a base for the Mont Blanc acclimatisation trips, it’s generally busy in peak season. It’s all very social and communal – the food is great, even the breakfast but the cakes and drinks are as expensive as at any of the Alpine refuges.
We arrived just after lunch so were able to spend the afternoon on the Glacier du Tour refreshing crampon skills and looking at crevasse rescues. The Glacier du Tour is relatively flat, but is littered with substantial crevasses, some of which are absolutely heart stopping to navigate! Our afternoon finished with a cold wind sweeping in, and likely bringing bad weather with it, but we held out for a bit of ice climbing on the sidewall of a crevasse – easy climbing, but good fun – it was Laraine’s first time and she was in her element!
On the short walk back to the hut, we found a casualty – some poor guy had tripped over the toe of his crampon and potentially broken his ankle. The efficiency with which the mountain rescue arrived was super-impressive – it was a seriously well-oiled routine.
The next day we woke early to find an overnight snowstorm still hanging around and were forced to delay our departure for a while. Once it was deemed safe to set off, we were away into the darkness, mist and snow – other parties set off at the same time, and the mood was heavy and tense. Once on the Glacier du Tour we roped up and started the ascent to the Col – initially gentle, then getting much steeper and into deepish snow.
As we crossed over the Col the landscape opened out across the spectacular Glacier du Trient with 360 views back into the Chamonix Valley, over towards Trient and the Swiss frontier, and across the Aiguilles Dorées to the right. We began our ascent to the left and towards the Aiguille du Tour – our intended summit for the day. The weather had settled and even though still early in the day it was amazingly sunny and hot.
The approach to, and the peak itself, was exceptionally busy and at times we were uncomfortably close to other climbers. The climb though, is really nice – very easy and the route is obvious, there are a couple of exposed sections but nothing off-putting. In different conditions we would have climbed without our crampons, but there was so much snow that we climbed with them – I enjoy this and didn’t think it made anything more difficult or complicated. The only part of the climb that I half felt like I was about to take an unwanted and speedy exit out of there was the lower part of the descent just above the Glacier – it was so churned up and loose with other people walking on it that it was hard to get my crampon spikes stuck into anything solid. Apart from that, it was over too soon.
Our next bed for the night was at the Trient Refuge, a traditional Swiss mountain hut about an hours walk from the Aiguille du Tour, serving delicious Swiss edibles such as rosti and cakes. The views from the Trient are so, so, so spectacular and even more so when the sun starts to set – perhaps we got lucky, but it was literally like being on top of the world and watching the coloured lights fade into night time. There’s also lots of little Donnie Darko style rabbit statues, they look amazing as the light disappears. Again, the hut was full, but there was something so much more homely about the Trient in comparison to the Albert 1er.
Next day, we started off early, I felt ok but had been waking during the night struggling to get a breath – I put it down to being in a stuffy dorm – I’d definitely had a more settled sleep in the absence of a snoring wildebeest and generally felt not too bad. Minutes after leaving the hut I started tripping over my crampons – on flat glacier. I did feel a bit weak, but just put it down to tiredness – I’ve had Lyme disease for two years now, and sometimes I just get really exhausted. Then we started the ascent to towards the Tete Blanche, we need to cross a snow-bridge over a deep crevasse – the last place we wanted to stop was anywhere near it – I took one more step towards it onto steeper ground and went blind with dizziness – all I can really remember is my crampon slipping and having to steady myself. I shouted to stop and nausea washed over me – one of the scariest moments of my life, and I’m sure the others weren’t feeling too confident standing so close to the crevasse waiting to see what might happen next!
We decided to turn back, even though I’ve wanted to do the Tete Blanche climb for some time, I knew it would be silly and potentially dangerous to keep going. Instead we took a different, and easier return route towards the Col du Tour – Laraine and Rosie were able to solo scramble a smaller peak from here, and assure me they had just as much fun!
The descent into the Col wasn’t so straightforward, we had to down climb into a steep, loose gully – everyone was behaving very ‘girl-like’, I got pulled off, and there were rocks flying all over the place – thank goodness for ropes! We eventually, and by eventually I mean after a few minutes, landed on a fresh snowy ridge – completely untouched by any other human feet, or anything for that matter – it was pristine. Of course, we weren’t out of the woods – there was plenty of excitement navigating a safe route along the ridge, down the ridge, up the ridge, through rocks and across crevasses. It was interesting. But, after not much time at all we were back on the Glacier du Tour and making our descent back towards the Albert 1er and on towards La Tour.
It was strange walking out of the crisp, white dream and back towards lush, green valleys and rocky terrain – for all the hardships and things you have to go without at altitude I was definitely sad to leave, and for sure, looking forward to my next Alpinist adventure – something I’ve not thought before!
- Return lift pass from La Tour: £21
- Huts: £25 per night plus food £20-40 – book in advance by phone, confirm (by phone) about three days before your trip
- Crampon and ice axe hire: £20-40 per day
- Insurance: AAC £40 per year – basic rescue cover and discounts at many of the huts
- Guide: £250+ per day
- Crampon compatible Alpine boots
- 30-40L bag
- Ice axe
- Windproof shell – top and bottom
- Fleece layer
- Merino t-shirt
- Alpine trousers
- Merino socks
- Merino arm warmers
- Cat 4 sunglasses
- Packaged food – nuts, seeds, gels, bars etc
- Water bottle – 1L should suffice, some of the huts don’t provide drinking water – you’ll pay about €10 a bottle, and you’ll need to rehydrate so bring cash for this purpose
- Merino underwear
- Merino hat
- Alpine gloves
- Insulating layer
- Emergency duvet jacket
- Emergency merino mitts
- Storm shelter
- Head torch
- Belay plate
- Sleeping clothing – merino top and bottom or silk sleeping bag liner
- Small bag of toiletries
- Phone with waterproof case