Find high-performance outdoor clothing, gear, and accessories that make wise and responsible use of resources. See more Mountain Gear Sustainable Pick items.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cursed in Chamonix

John Harlin and I had only three days to get something done in the mountains before we had to fly out of Geneva. We were overloaded with possibilities: back to Grindelwald for the Mittellegi Ridge on the Eiger or the beautiful Schreckhorn; to Zermatt or Zinal for a route on the Matterhorn or the Zinal Rothorn; or to Chamonix for…well, for a hundred different possibilities. In the end, the unmatched convenience of Chamonix climbing, combined with a free lift over to France with Jerry and Daron Robertson, tipped the balance in favor of Chamonix-Mont Blanc.

I hadn’t been to Cham in 20 years, and the last time had been a learning experience. We were there in May, and the weather was iffy. More importantly, we didn’t have skis and we were too broke or cheap to rent them. I remember sleeping at a jam-packed Argentiere Hut, the first stop on the Haute Route, at the beginning of a holiday weekend, and out of at least a 150 people at the hut we were the only ones without skis.

This time, the stars were lining up. The weather was perfect, and Roger Payne, who’d just been guiding on Mont Blanc, had told us conditions were excellent on the high-altitude mixed routes, which is just what we hoped to climb. We were aiming for the Frontier Ridge on Mont Maudit, a 14,648-foot satellite peak of Mont Blanc. The route was No. 50 in Gaston Rebuffat’s Le Massif du Mont Blanc: Les 100 Plus Belles Courses, which placed it right in the middle of the difficulty range for the massif, at least in 1973 when the book was published.

It was midafternoon before we’d arrived in Chamonix, sorted a place to store our bags and computers, bought a bit of food and a fuel cartridge for John’s JetBoil, and made our way to the Aiguille du Midi tram. There was just one problem: When we’d called for reservations at the Refuge des Cosmiques, the hut where we planned to spend the night, we learned that it was full. Well, no matter, we thought: We’ll do the approach in the evening, stay at a bivouac hut right on the Frontier Ridge, and that way we’d do the beautiful three-hour walk across the glacier in daylight instead of the predawn blackness.

After riding the stupendous Aiguille du Midi lift, which gains about 9,000 vertical feet in two stages, we geared up, tiptoed down the frightening snow arête outside the Midi, and set off across the glacier. This was easy going, but it was a long ways, and it was after 7 p.m. when we neared the base of our ridge. We bumped into two Italian guys headed down, and John showed them the map and asked which ice gully led to the hut. Now’s probably the time to say there were actually two huts shown on our map, the Col de la Fourche bivouac hut and a second hut, a bit farther away from the start of the route but still on the ridge, called the Refuge Ghiglione. The Italians had something emphatic to say about one of these huts, but given the language barrier we couldn’t make out which—or what the issue was.

To reach the ridge, you have to climb about 400 feet of moderately steep alpine ice. As we neared the obvious ice slope leading to the Col de la Fourche, we saw at least six climbers above us at the col or finishing the ice. Having done no research on this bivy hut (stupid, stupid!), we weren’t sure how big it was or even whether it had bunks or blankets. Since we had neither pads nor bags, we definitely wanted blankets. So, we opted to shift course and climb a different ice gully to reach the Ghiglione hut.

It was pitch dark by the time we reached the hard-packed snow arête leading to the Ghiglione. John was leading and I was concentrating on moving precisely, since we were roped up but had no gear between us. John paused on top of a big cornice and yelled back, “This doesn’t look good!”

No it didn’t. Turns out the Refuge Ghiglione had been removed in the mid-1990s because its foundation was eroding, but for some reason it was still on the maps. (The photo at right shows the hut's spectacular setting, cantilevered over the Brenva Glacier, sometime in the 1980s.) All that is left now is a steel platform. We were stuck and we began to prepare for a very cold mid-September night. Fortunately, we had a stove and bivy sacks, and even more fortunately the wind stayed calm overnight. John soon discovered that the big white mound beside the platform that we thought was snow was actually old fiberglass insulation, so we stripped off sheets of this and made fluffy mattresses to lie on—good for insulation, bad for the lungs. We knew we’d survive the night, but we also knew we were going to be miserable for the next 8 hours or so.

I sure admire people who can suffer through an unplanned bivy and then snap to it the next morning, climbing hard. I felt like crap in the morning—sleepless, dehydrated, and with a touch of altitude sickness—and once we got under way we quickly made another tactical blunder. We should have rappelled back down the ice we’d climbed the night before and then climbed back to the ridge to get en route. Instead, we tried to traverse along the side of the ridge, which required tedious, moderately difficult mixed climbing, plus a couple of lowers and rappels when we got off route. Had we actually climbed the Frontier Ridge of Mont Maudit, I’m certain we would have done the crux before we had even started the actual route. As it was, we never even made it to the Col de la Fourche. As a hot sun beat down upon us from a windless blue sky, I pulled the plug and we bailed. We rapped to the glacier and began the exhausting Walk of Shame to the Cosmiques Hut.

Mont Maudit, by the way, means "cursed mountain." Next up: Redemption! To read the first of these reports from the Alps, click here .


Lizzie said...

Hey...I found your site through "the blogs of note" archives. Just wanted to say that you've got some great pictures on here.

April's Place said...

Great site!