The road from Lauterbrunnen to Chamonix was narrow, by my standards. I kept worrying that I would clip the side mirrors from our rental van as I tried hard to make room for trucks and buses in the oncoming traffic. The land remained magnificent as we curved, climbed, dropped and dove through mountains via the numerous tunnels of Switzerland. In a short while, the local language had become French (from Suisse-Deutsch, a German dialect) and the muscles of my middle back had become knotted. I was glad for a rest in the town of Aigle where we found a sidewalk cafe and had some lunch whilst practicing our Bon Jours.
|Mont Blanc, Chamonix
with Geo Dunn and Dave Hahn of International Mountain Guides
Back on the road, we passed into wine country for a bit before gassing up, crossing the border (a wave from the border guard from inside his office while he talked, facing away from us), and heading toward the big white mountain. Hard then to keep an eye on the road as we neared Chamonix and the granite spires and massive glaciers started popping out from behind every bend. The sky began to fill with tram lines, helicopters and parasails while one mountain began to dominate the view ahead. Mont Blanc, where all those expensive fountain pens come from, big as life. The streets of Chamonix were chock-full of tourists and sportspeople on this fine summer day, and I tried not to run any of them over as I worked that silly clutch a bit more to find a parking space outside the Gustavia Hotel.
Wengen, by contrast, a quiet little set of hotels and stores where cars don't go. Chamonix is Disneyland for mountain people: crowds, rides, and a certain electricity in the air for what will happen next.
There was a bit of talk going around about a recent accident on Mont Blanc, so we made an effort then to get the "beta" on our intended climbing route. It ain't a simple thing to learn route conditions in a foreign land.
So in Chamonix, the folks we questioned about the route options had to size us up without being too obvious about it (being judgmental is rude), and we had to work at guessing what conclusions they'd come to about us so that we could decide if their answers could be taken at face value. Eventually, we determined that our intended route, the Grand Mulet, was in rough shape as far as crevassing was concerned. That suggested a change to the Cosmiques traverse for the ascent while holding out the hope that we could still descend the Grand Mulet as it is slightly less technical (steep-wise) and so a bit safer for downclimbing.
The word was that the Cosmiques was weird this year, which we eventually distilled down to the fact that the Bergschrund crossings were steep enough that rope had been fixed in two places and the resultant bottlenecks had caused climbers to stand waiting in dangerous places where serac-fall threatened, and apparently hit, some folks. Seracs are big chunks of glacier looking for new homes in lower places, it is best not to interfere with their wandering. A Bergschrund is a particular crevasse that forms in the upper limits of a glacier where the moving ice is pulling away from the less mobile ice of the mountain top. On the Cosmiques Traverse, you are climbing over two mountains to get to the final peak and so you deal with the "schrund" on each of these subpeaks.
The tram up the Aguille du Midi is a big deal. It takes one quite high, quite fast and the car is often quite crowded. We didn't want to go all that fast. We got off at mid-station for an afternoon and evening at the Refuge du Plan. It is a hut...but it sounds nicer to stay in a "refuge" and that is what we called it. You get this wild view down the chimneys of Chamonix while being able to turn and drool looking up at the marvelous rock of the Aguilles (needles) up close and personal. Meanwhile, sheep and dayhikers mill around the grass and flowers of the treeless hut area.
Some of our folks went walking, some of us decided to hold down picnic benches in the late afternoon sun and swill beer. The Plan Refuge is my favorite hut because it is very low-key, the hut keeper even remembered George and me from previous trips and made sure we sipped that first one on the house.
In the morning, we crammed onto the tram for the final flight to the Aguille du Midi station. There are no intermediate towers on this span, just a lot of big air over some renowned steep climbing and extreme skiing venues. I kept a wary eye out for low-flying jets, but the ride was without incident. Docking at the station, we clambered out in climbing regalia into a bustling outpost of alpine tourism. Yeah, they do sell those Mont Blanc pens up there, and most other things to. We stayed in the station for a little bit, ogling the glaciers of the big white mountain. Then we just had to get away from the big crowd.
We snuck out a tunnel onto a tight ridgeline. It is a neat trick to go from standing inside a big tourist friendly station to tiptoeing down a steep arete with crampons and ropes on. I suppose one could fall all the way back down to the Refuge du Plan from this arete, but I have to admit that on this particular day there was no good reason to fall. Lots of people had come this way since the last snows and consequently the steps were in good shape.
It was just a little awkward when we'd meet another team coming up the ridge. We solved such awkward moments with hand to hand combat, a little kickboxing and some colorful name calling. This tight little ridge played out quick, and then we enjoyed a mellow 20 minute stroll to our home for the night. The Cosmiques hut, a beautiful building with finely carved beams within. They pack a lot of climbers in on a given night, hundreds of them, but they also serve a heck of a meal to all those people. About that time, a hut staffer walked out into the common area and pinned up a little note that said the Grand Mulet route was now impossible to descend. Not much room for ambiguity in that statement. So now we decided to aim for the planned ascent of the Cosmiques Traverse but with a descent of the Gouter route. We were still working to find a way other than the steep Cosmiques to come down.
Up at 1am for the big day on the biggest mountain in western Europe. Our team was now well practiced at gearing up and getting out. We walked out into a thick fog, and the glacial surface felt warm and mushy instead of crisp and frozen. We went climbing anyway. The first sub-peak to be climbed, Tacul put up the expected resistance. There was a great trail kicked in for the most part, but at the steep bergschrund problem, the trail became something like a vertical tunnel within the glacier. It was truly an odd feature, like climbing up some hamster cage habitrail.
George had Marilyn and Chris on this day, and I was roped to two Mikes and a Tom. We began to make some fine progress to the upper slopes of Tacul. We'd climbed out of the fog, but there was still a good deal of cloud out in the darkness around us. We began the second peak of the day, Maudit. We crossed through a stretch of ice avalanche debris before getting on the steep slopes. These had a pretty helpful, if narrow, track kicked in and we zigzagged up the face without any trouble. The slope actually had a few inches of recent snow on it which meant that an ice axe might find reasonable purchase if need be.
The clouds seemed to be on the increase and there were already a few two many of them. If it socked in and started snowing, the kind little track would be filled in and useless in no time. George and I debated the merits of proceeding as we came to the crux of Maudit. It was another tunnel-like groove up a bergschrund wall, but this one was a bit longer, perhaps a full rope length. We seriously debated spinning before committing to this barrier on the route. Our climbers seemed surprised at our reticence, but we weren't in a good place for democracy.
George and I decided to go a bit farther to see what we'd get, so I hopped up the groove and found it unexpectedly easy for being so steep. Upon topping out the problems of Maudit and getting on easier ground, the weather now seemed to improve. It was daylight now and the clouds had dropped a little and backed away. We rested and started figuring we were going to get lucky. We charged on for another hour and a half to the base of the final 800 foot peak. It seemed in the bag. I was already to count my second ascent of Mont Blanc when the wind sprang up and the clouds swirled over us. George immediately called for a turn-around.
This shocked a few of the team. I knew that we were in a less than desirable situation for descent since our options had been cut down by the "impossible" Grand Mulet route. The Gouter route could be descended only if we first reached the summit, still an hour away at least. A swirling snow storm could make for an epic descent on some of the broad slopes we'd need to negotiate for the Gouter. A swirling snowstorm would be no picnic on the angles we'd just climbed on the Traverse either.
I guess I also was not shocked because I know George goes to the summit whenever he safely can. Back home on Mount Rainier, he has been to the top more than any human being (close to 400 times now). Here on Mont Blanc, he has been out in summit whiteouts that trapped many climbers. I trust his doubts. It is hard for our folks though. I've no doubt they wanted the top badly and were deserving of it, but I also know that they can't indulge themselves in emotion now. They did a good job getting back into the game and we worked on down. George and I lowered the teams back down the Maudit schrund and made good time on the switchbacks of the face below.
By the time we reach Tacul again, it is apparent the weather has not deteriorated as we feared it would. Salt in the wound, I suppose. If one is so inclined to inflict abuse on one's mind, one can now look back toward the summit and say, "we guessed wrong, we would have made the top safely." I hope for my clients sake that they find through experience that such second guessing has limited value. To me, having to return some day to get the summit of such a mountain is, at worst, inconvenient. They accuse me of having the luxury of returning again and again to the mountains, it is my living... they're right. But I've made my sacrifices for such a living and I will try hard not to make the ultimate sacrifice. Our climbers understand the guiding game enough to know its limitations. They do a fine job descending the traffic jams of Tacul and we find ourselves back on the flat at the base of the climb in the early afternoon.
We board the tram and head for town, spend the night in Chamonix, then we'll head for Zermatt a day early to try to get an "extra" mountain in the schedule around that town. That means we have to get to the tram. Which means climbing "up" some more. Shades of the Jungfrau finish as we trudge up for an hour or so under steadily worsening skies. We get in the station as the sky unloads a little hail and rain.
Back down in Chamonix, it poured down buckets of rain as we sprinted to the Gustavia Hotel for showers and some clean cotton clothes. Dinner at Le Impossible (a converted old barn) feels a lot like a victory celebration. We saw a lot of climbing on this day and experienced a fair bit of mountaineering. Now we put down a mess of Fondue and Racalette washed down by good wine among friends. Marie, our laughing hostess checks up on us by whacking whoever is closest to her hard on the back and asking if all is good. What's not to like?
A last morning in bustling Chamonix was enjoyed by all. Geo and I happened to run into some friends (also known as competing American mountain guides) out on the street. We compared notes and recalled the last weird places we'd seen each other and tried to calculate the next places.
At mid-day, we got back in the rental van. We crossed back into Switzerland and headed for Zermatt. Actually, we headed for Tasch, parked the van and hopped on another cog rail train. Zermatt, like Wengen, is a no car town, just a bunch of electric golf cart type rigs operated by the many hotels. We check in and set out wandering about town. I must be getting a little traveled out now as I find myself asking questions and greeting people in the wrong language. We are back to German...at least the folks who speak it are. We get together for some pizza and agree to catch the first tram in the morning for a climb of Castor.
Dave Hahn, International Mountain Guides