Friday, 29 August 2014

The Aiguille de Bionnassay (4052m)

Its been a few weeks since I got back from the Alps now and in retrospect it was certainly not Mont Blanc that I am most proud of. The South ridge of the Aiguille de Bionnassay was a route that I identified as being within my soloing ability and that would likely be in passable condition, two qualities that were rare given the large volume of snow high up and the fact that I climb in the lower echelons of technical grades. however it was certainly not an easy proposition. The ridge is located high in one of the remotest parts of the massif, forming the border between France and Italy to the west of Mont blanc. Even getting to the Col du Miage at 3358m would take a massive amount of effort and the Technical section of the route was located well above this just below the summit which sits at 4052m.
Aiguille du Bionnassay from Bellevue
I decided to leave late and get the train to Les Houches and then the cablecar to Bellevue, this got me up to Bellevue at around 1730. I went the wrong way at first, which seems to be a habitual thing, just ask John! I was soon on the right track upwards to the Col du Tricot. I really enjoyed this part of the approach, walking through a quiet (at that time) alpine meadow with my objective towering above. After the Col Du Tricot I was in the mist and could have easily been back in the Scottish Highlands as I travelled the high traverse path to the Plan du Glacier hut. This all took some time, mainly due to the distances involved and me not wanting to wreak myself completely on the approach! I Broke through the Cloud layer just below the Plan du Glacier hut just in time for sunset. It was stunning, the red sun bathed the Northern flanks of the Domes du Miage which rose above an ocean of cloud.

From here it was not far to the Plan du Glacier hut beyond which the route got interesting. The small hut sits at 2730m and appears to be built into the mountainside. There was no one about as I passed below and up some snow to the start of some fixed wire. The wire went up some easy scrambly ground then traversed a spur. After some snow fields and another spur I descended to the edge of the glacier where I geared up. I could see the point on the spur at the other side of the Glacier that I need to reach and moved quickly across. Glaciers and seracs have an unpredictability that makes me feel a bit uneasy, it's a positive fear as it spurs me on to travel over sections that I deem more dangerous with caution and speed. I Crossed the Glacier without event and reached the bottom of the spur that would take me up to the Col du Miage.

The prominent spur centre right would take me  up to the col. also, spot the hut!
The Spur is long, Indistinct and loose. By the time I started upwards it was dark. I stopped quite a few times and my moral was helped by the quality of the night. An Endless enigma of stars filled the sky and I was reasonably warm. About a third of the way up I heard a stream and down climbed to fill up with water, I had been worrying about my low supply and this helped me relax a bit more. The top 50m of the spur was broken up by snow fields so I put crampons on and headed up, finding a gap in the cornice that finally granted me passage on to the col.

At around 0200 I stood in front of the Druier hut in a strong southerly breeze. It Is a small hut that used to be unmanned but now has a guardian. I didn't try to enter as there would likely be people inside sleeping so I continued past and towards the start of the ridge. Sadly there was around 20cm of soft snow and despite attempting upwards progress on 3 separate occasions I was simply too exhausted to break a trail. I had some food and thought about my options. Every now and again a sudden flash of light would light up the snow fields and clouds beyond, this turned out to be lightning storms in the north of Italy. After some thought I pretty much decided I was done but would spend the night on the col until at least first light. I could decide what to do then. This plan did however leave me with a bit of a problem. With the exception of a thin pull out mat that forms the backrest of my rucksack, I had no bivouac equipment! So putting on every thread of clothing I had and stuffing my feet into a gear sack, a dry sack and my rucksack I lay down in a slightly sheltered part of the col and slept.

Around 0400 I woke. It was still dark and clouds now covered the stars. Still lying down I peered over some rocks down to the hut. To my surprise there were head torches moving about. I felt a lot better and rested so decided to get ready to begin moving again. I was almost ready when a pair reached me. One of them spoke to me, he seemed like a guide and he asked me a few questions probably trying to work out what the hell I was doing there but he was friendly enough. They continued on and I finished off sorting out my existence. I followed them up about 15 minutes after they had passed me. I felt good and they had broken trail which saved me untold volumes of effort. After about an hour I felt a bit of hot aches in my foot, I had not felt cold but my extremities could easily have frozen up while I slept and the result could be some frostnip. The experienced pain lacked the usual severity of blood recirculation which worried me, while hot aches are not nice they at least prove that you still have feeling where you should! The lower part of the ridge is quite broad but much of it was corniced. Around 0500 more head torches appeared at the col and headed towards the Domes du Miages at the west end. The ridge begins to narrow about halfway up and contains some easy rocky sections before a beautiful snow arete is crossed. The snow was still soft so this felt quite delicate but I was in no rush as the sun was not even up yet. Soon I found myself at the foot of a towering rock buttress.
A climber on the Crux move of the rock section
The Lower section was not difficult but it was awkward wearing crampons and I took my time. It was also very exposed, a factor that increased with height. I came to the crux where I had two options. Make a technical and bold move to reach the crest or make an easier but even bolder traverse to a corner where easy climbing would also lead me up to the crest. Luckily there was an old jammed cam in a crack that I attached a sling to. While this would not stop me from falling it could potentially mitigate the consequences of said fall. After trying the hard move upwards I elected for the traverse and eventually my efforts matched the required commitment and I gained the corner. I tried to retrieve my sling but the way in which I had threaded it had jammed it somehow, The cam was also out of sight so I left the sling and climbed upwards on steep broken flakes to reach the top of the corner where it met the crest. I passed a fixed anchor, beyond which the ground was far easier. in a few minutes I was at the top of the buttress and could see the pair ahead of me descending from the summit.

the Miage side of Mont Blanc
From here it was just a Struggle up a steep snow ridge to reach the summit. At around 0700 I stood alone on the narrow Arete that forms the summit. The mist was in and I could see nothing. I did not feel particularly joyful, more just passing a milestone of this venture that had become a physical and mental grind. The fact that I knew how long the descent would take me probably contributed to this. Before long I started downwards, Had I felt fresher I could have continued onto Mont Blanc like the pair in front had done. The connecting ridge is one of the narrowest snow ridges in the Alps and in all honesty given how long my decent was going to be, it could even be faster to go back via the Dome du Gouter anyway.

Looking down the South Ridge from the abseil point
I soon Reached the anchor and decided to abseil from it. I retrieved the sling I had left, turns out I had managed to form a cows tail on the cam simply by trying to retrieve it through itself. As I descended the world began to brighten up and the cloud began to lift. the view to Mont Blanc ended any glimmer of hope that I was holding for an ascent of the Tournette spur on this trip, it was plastered. The snow on the ridge was effort consuming, if it was more consolidated I would have been able to run down it but every step saw me sink above my knees. I eventually reached the col around 0830 and went into the hut where I bought some water and had a chat with the guardian.
Me at the Col du Miage after summiting
The rest of the descent passed without much incident, it was however tortuously long and I didn't get back to Bellevue until 1600 making it over 22 hours return. The sides of my big toes were numb for a few days but I avoided any actual damage. It was certainly not an experience where like on the Weisshorn and Mont Blanc I felt incredible happiness and joy. However as a whole it is without a doubt the most committing and serious thing I have done. It depends what mood I'm in whether I think I would have summited had the other climbers not broke trail, even speaking for a few seconds to people helps reality sink in a little bit and can lift spirits in these remote and often hostile places where solitude, tiredness and long periods of darkness dismantle confidence and resolve. In any case I'm glad I done it and I was even happier when I seen how beautiful and impressive a peak it is when viewed from the flanks of the Dome du Gouter .

Aiguille de Bionnassay from the Dome Du Gouter

The Rock buttress on the South Ridge
looking down on the Glacier below the rib
The South Ridge of the Aig. de Bionnassay and Mont Blanc

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Mont Blanc 4810m

Back in 1786 Jaques Balmat and Micheal Paccard sparked the birth of modern mountaineering with the first recorded ascent of Mont Blanc, the Highest mountain in the Alps, 228 years later to the day I recorded my own ascent by the most common route, the Gouter and Bosses ridges. Mont Blanc is a massive and incredibly diverse mountain with long glacier chains and some of the wildest and remotest faces in the Alps. Before the trip I had planned to look at the Tournette spur, a long eccentric ridge hidden away on the remotest part of the mountain however snow conditions had meant that I gave up on the idea.

Mont Blanc

I had been in the Chamonix valley for almost two weeks. There had been mixed weather and conditions but the good spells had been sufficient to keep me busy and get me feeling fit and acclimatized. A couple of days before we were due to leave for home there was a good forecast and I seen an opportunity to get a crack at Mont Blanc. It would mean making an ascent in the morning of the day I was due to leave but we had a late flight so decided to go for it.

My Dad came up with me on the Cablecar to Bellevue and then the Tramway to Nid d'Aigle arriving around 1820. He walked down to the valley from here while I started up to the Tete Rousse hut which sits at the foot of the spur where the route heads up to the Aiguille du Gouter. I arrived at the hut some time after 1900, this is the last spot it is legal to camp or bivouac on the route. They have started to enforce the restrictions due to the sheer numbers of people using the route. It started to rain a bit so I took shelter behind a shack, this was forecast and it wasn't a problem with the exception of some of my gear getting damp.

Camping area near the Tete Rousse hut

Relaxing at the Tete Rousse

By 2200 I was getting ready to start up the rib. I could see the head torches high above me of a small party that had got off the same train as me and had just kept going. Ideally I could have waited longer before I went up but I was getting a bit cold and wanted to get moving. After the snow slope above the 'camp site' I reached the infamous Grand Couloir. To my knowledge this is the biggest accident hotspot in the Alps due to rockfall. It was quite safe at this time and under the current conditions though. I seen the other party take around five minutes to cross it which seems completely unnecessary considering that it is no more than 50 yards long, is horizontal and has been tracked into a substantial ledge by the passing of thousands of climbers. I crossed it quickly and reached the bottom of the ridge.

The showers were still blowing through so I saved my inner gloves and just wore my outers, this way I would have a dry inner layer later on when my damp outers would likely freeze up. Not ideal but far better than my inners freezing up too or climbing the rib with bare hands. I took my time going up the rib and by the time I was nearing the top the sky had cleared to reveal an almost full moon which made me able to turn off my Head torch. A little higher sometime after midnight I came across the now disused Gouter hut. It had a very eerie feel about it especially since it was in darkness and there was snow backed up against its walls. Passing huts in the dark is something I seem to be making a habit of! Up behind the hut I climbed a short snow slope and reached the crest that forms the summit of the Aig. du Gouter. I then followed this towards the new hut where I had a short break. the tracks ended here telling me that the party I that had left before me had went no further.

Beyond that upwards towards the Dome du Gouter I was breaking a trail, there was evidence of the previous days efforts but fresh snow had fallen and drifted to cover it, there was not enough new snow however to make progress a hardship and I moved at a good pace. It felt special to be climbing the highest mountain in the Alps by its busiest route alone and under a strong moonlight. The Aig. de Bionnassay was clear now. I had climbed it the previous week. It had taken a massive amount of effort. probably the hardest thing I have done solo in the mountains, certainly a step up from the Weisshorn last year in both effort and difficulty. When viewed from the Dome's NW flank it is a very beautiful peak, a steep, sharp and graceful snow pyramid.

I continued upwards and around 0230 I reached the Vallot hut at 4362m, a shelter meant for emergency's, I remember reading of its use by Bonatti where he pushed over the Summit of Mont Blanc to reach it in a storm. I decided not to go any further as my extremities were cold in the now strong wind and I was fearful of frostnip. I expected it to be empty, I could see no real benefit to anyone attempting Mont Blanc to stay there. Perhaps those on their way down that had summited from the longer and harder climbs on the Italian flanks but not for the majority of those who climb the route I was on, how wrong was I! upon entering my Headtorch lit up a nest of bodies and sleeping bags taking up all the floor space available! I thought about continuing up again but ended up sitting on the stairs. after a while some parties began to stir and sometime after 0300 I got a small corner to take a rest in, I think I feel asleep for 30 mins or so but I felt a little sick and delirious to be honest, probably a mixture of Sleep deprivation with coldness, effort and altitude. Deciding that I was not going to feel much better I knew it was time to leave, at least I had got warmed up a bit.
upper section of the Bosses ridge, Weisshorn Visible on the left

On the Summit

Motivating myself I elected to have a shot at upwards progress and left the hut around 0500. It was busy outside now with parties arriving from the huts. As I moved on up the Bosses ridge I felt better, I was glad to have people ahead of me as it stopped me pushing too hard and made controlling my breathing easy. As parties stopped for breaks I overtook them and sat behind then next one upwards. It was cloudy now and the ridge seemed to last forever. Finally I knew I was close. light colours on the horizon began to appear above a break in the clouds, upon looking at the photos I realise now that the Weisshorn was visible soaring out the cloud some 45 miles away but I didn't notice it until well into the descent. Eventually the endless ended and I was on the summit. I got someone to take my photo and started the descent pretty much straight away.
People approaching the summit

The View west from the Bosses ridge

I pretty much ran down the whole thing and passed a lot of people coming up, I also overtook all that were going down. I had summited around 6am and I reached the gouter hut a little over an hour later appearing to be the first down by some margin. Even at 0730 there were still groups topping out by the old hut. The decent of the Dome was where I came out of the cloud and got some fantastic Views. It was here I noticed the staggering pyramid of the Weisshorn plastered with snow and incredibility vivid. The Clarity in all directions was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Looking down the Bosses ridge

The Aiguille de Bionnassay
I was down at the Tete Rousse hut by 0830 and I stopped there for a bit before heading down to catch the tram. I ended up having to walk From Les Houches to Chamonix after missing the train by 30 seconds. For some reason there are big 2 hour gaps in the valley train schedule throughout the day.

Me with the Bionnassay

The Veiw East from the Aig du Gouter

The Gouter route of Mont Blanc gets a lot of bad press. Most of this is simply due to the busyness of it rather than the quality of the route which I found to be very fine. It does come across as a circus at times and people seem to have there own idea's about how Mont Blanc should be climbed and who am I to judge. I done it my way and as far as I'm concerned it could hardly have been better. Carrying pretty much the bare minimum and with an open plan depending on how I felt and things went. All in all it took around 15 hours return from Nid d'Aigle. I was lucky to have both solitude and the experience of the the crowds as well as moonlight and Sunlight.

Aig. Verte on the left, Midi in the foreground and the Weisshorn on the right in the distance

The old hut

The New Hut and the Aig de Bionnassay

Back down at Tete Rousse

The Tete Rouse hut