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Chamonix 1999

July 12, 1999

The phone rarely rings here in Dublin, and when it does itís usually Melony so I was surprised to hear a male voice on the other end of the receiver. "Mike, is that you? Where are you at?"

"Shag is that you, Iím still at home. Youíre not in Geneva are you?"

"Iím at the airport. Donít you come in today?"

"No tomorrow the thirteenth."

The receiver went momentarily silent as Jeff realized that heíd driven from Chamonix to the Geneva airport a day early.

"Well now I know the way to the airport, Iíll see you tomorrow," Jeff finally said without a hint of remorse or disappointment.

Silas had suggested that I join Jeff for his last hurrah in Europe, a four week climbing trip to the Alps above Chamonix, France. Melony was acceptable to the idea so I emailed Shag asking if I could be a third wheel on his vacation. He accepted without hesitation, and when I asked about details he simply replied, "get your tickets and everything will work out."

Parties of three are slower and less efficient than rope teams of two so I sent out invitations to Bill, Scott and Brian, optimistically hoping that one of them would be willing to spend $1000 on a last minute plane ticket to Europe. Bill jumped on the opportunity and began scouring the net for affordable airfares. The Tour de France and upcoming tourist season had skyrocketed prices, but Bill dropped $980 for a non-refundable ticket. This trip was going to be better than I could have reasonably hoped for.

 

July 13, 1999

I arrived at the Dublin airport with 50 kilos of climbing gear stuffed into two large bags only to find out that Iím only allowed twenty kilos for flights inside of the EU. Twenty kilos is ridiculously low, about one third the U.S. allowance. At first the lady at the ticket counter told me that I would have to leave thirty kilos in Dublin, explaining that my excess baggage would overload the plane. I knew that she didnít know what she was talking about and explained that I was going on a mountaineering trip and that I needed everything in my bags. After several iterations we settled on a $100 fine, a sum nearly half my original ticket price.

Jeff was waiting at the Geneva airport where I immediately stripped off my long-sleeve Irish garb; anything above seventy five Fahrenheit seems tropical after two months in Dublin. An hour later we were in Chamonix where we met Kean at the town-side crag. Scattered showers accompanied our arrival and the crowded cliffs quickly thinned out. Keanís warm enthusiastic personality made me feel immediately at ease, this was going to be a successful trip despite the wet weather.

We immediately went to the climbing information room, the Haute du Montague, where the weather forecast was calling for one more day of rain followed by an indefinite spell of sunny mild weather. This bodes well for the trip, we wonít waste good weather in town, tomorrow Iíll pick up Bill and the following morning weíll be in the mountains.

We took a tour of the climbing shops, where I immediately noticed a wealth of technical climbing gear but a near absence of overnight gear, things like sleeping bags, tents and stoves. Chamonix is a town built on alpinism, itís not uncommon to see a group of climbers in full regalia marching down main street, their plastic boots pounding out an almost military cadence. Walking to the outskirts of town we visited the famous Chamonix cemetery, the resting place of alpinists such as Lionel Terray and Lois Lachenal. The rain had stopped and I was getting my first glimpses of the Alps in ten years.

At the local grocery store we bought eggs, vegetables and cheese for our campground dinner, Keanís famous Spanish omelets. The cheese and sausage counters were irresistible and I invested in some stinky hard cheese and fatty sausage, little did I know that these two ingredients would be the bulk of my diet for the next ten days.

The Mer du Glace campground is a family place, the few climbers present only provide color and examples of bad caravaning. The husband and wife owners regularly patrol the grounds and keep the showers, toilets, urinals, covered cooking area and social rooms spotless. All communal areas are framed in pastel flowers meticulously trimmed every morning with sewing shears.

Keanís omelets rose to their reputation, four years in Italy had taught him the value of copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil. The Petit Dru rose above our camp like a sentinel as the sun set on a clear sky. Fireworks preambling tomorrows Bastille Day celebrations rocketed into the sky as we drank a final beer before crawling into our individual tents.

 

July 14, 1999

We woke up to a steady downpour, my new bivy tent was dry and cozy, but the constant beating of the raindrops on the single-wall fabric made me feel as though I was trapped inside of a snare drum. The draw of the bathroom lured us out of our tents and soon the three of us were awake are ready for breakfast. Cold musli and hot coffee are the fare of the day. Weíre in now hurry so we relax beneath the shelter waiting for the rain to stop. Late in the morning we drive into town looking to buy five days of backcountry food.

At the grocery store Shag and Kean hit the ground running, but since I brought most of the food for Bill and I from Dublin I wander the shelves looking for some appetizing lunch items and French delicacies. Weíre light on breakfast items and need to buy our own lunches, but I figure Iíll wait until Bill arrives so he can have a voice in our menus. At twelve noon the store lights flash and employees start pushing me towards the door. Today is July 14th, Bastille Day, the store is closing for French Independence Day. We wonít have time to go shopping tomorrow, now Iím running through the isles grabbing candy bars, cereal all the while dreading Billís reaction to my thin menus.

The entire town appeared to be shutting down and I still didnít have enough food for breakfast and lunch. These things seem to always work themselves out given enough faith, Iíll simply go pick up Bill and then weíll check out our options.

I left the campground at two o-clock, Iím now used to driving on the left side of the road and it takes a surprising amount of concentration to switch back to the right. Shagís GTI is dangerously low on fuel so I stop at a station outside of town, itís closed for Bastille Day. Now I begin to run through the scenario of me running out of gas halfway to Geneva with Bill waiting at the airport and Shag and Kean hanging around the campground as night falls with no sign of us or the car. I wondered if hitchhiking is allowed, or even understood, here in France. Luckily the next service station was open and I fill the thirsty car with fifty dollars of regular.

I was running late as I crossed the Swiss border, I think that the border guard told me to go on through, but since I only speak about four words of French I simply looked at him puzzled. Now the guard gets suspicious, hereís an American, driving an Italian car from France to Switzerland, he took my passport and pulled me over. I sat a full ten minutes before a second guard emerged from the kiosk, he said something in French to which I shrugged and returned a goofy grin. He then took a deep breath before saying " Where you going?"

"Airport" I replied

"Then where?"

"Chamonix."

He handed me my passport and waved me on, he never once looked directly at me.

Bill was waiting outside the airport so we loaded him up and didnít even have to pay for parking. Despite the thirteen hour flight Bill was charged and full of questions, I had few answers. "Letís just get to Cham and figure things out," I said. I hadnít done near enough research for this trip, but I was confident that we were going to have a successful time, good friends a beautiful mountain setting, we couldnít go wrong.

We stopped in Chamonix where Bill bought a metal backpacking cup and spoon. Bill envisioned us living in huts the entire trip and didnít even bring water bottles. He took the news that we were gearing up for a five day mini-expedition with characteristic nonchalance. We found a quaint sausage and cheese shop open despite the holiday and loaded up on cheese and several types of sausage. We had to rely on our smell because we couldnít read the ingredients. Bill thought that our selections smelt like dirty feet, but I thought they smelled quite tasty. Maybe I shouldnít admit to that.

Back at the campground we had a big reunion and feasted on pasta with homemade tomato sauce. Bill encouraged Keanís olive oil habit saying that he needed a good dose to keep his hair shiny and soft. Shag and Kean had already spent three days up on the glacier and suggested several routes, Billís only steadfast input was that he wanted to "experience hut life" for at least one night. I resolutely agreed. We decided that we would begin the trip by camping below the Cosmique hut near the Aguille du Midi, spend several days climbing local routes and then move over near the Torino Hut and climb near the Italian border. Bill and I agreed to spend at least one night in the Torino Hut.

July 15, 1999 Ė Mt. Blanc du Tacul

Woke up at half past five, finished packing, ate and drove to the Aguille du Midi tram station on the outskirts of Chamonix. The tram runs from three to nearly twelve thousand feet, with a round trip costing about forty five dollars, well worth the price of admission I thought. We were on the tram by eight o-clock and walked out of the Midi station onto the glacier at nine. Alpinists go through a special tunnel which leads past a flashing yellow warning light before exiting through a ice tunnel. Once outside we were in a full whiteout with winds at approximately twenty knots.

The first two hundred yards out of the Midi station follow along a precarious ridge where a fall would be nearly impossible to arrest. Iím sure more than one client found themselves in over their head from the first step. The number of guided parties was staggering, those of us going it alone were certainly a small minority. The guides were easy to identify, most wear flashy colors, have poorly maintained teeth and lead their clients around on a section of rope shorter than most dog leashes. Obviously the guides are more worried about their clientís falling on steep terrain than they are about crevasses. This is different from the philosophy I am used to where you trust your partnerís footwork and rope up on glaciers as a precaution against plunging into a crevasse. One guide even told Bill and I that the fifty feet of rope between us was unsafe.

We set up camp beneath the Cosmique Hut. I tried clearing an existing tent platform, but after repeatedly hitting teabags and turds I gave up and started digging in a less trodden area. Camping is not allowed on the glacier, but single night bivouacking is, I guess weíll be pushing the limits by camping here three days.

A steady stream of climbers descending the ridge and running for routes followed the arrival of each tram. Most of the climbers seemed to be heading for either the standard route on Mt. Blanc du Tacul or the Cosmique Hut. The hut folks are more than likely planning an ascent of Mt. Blanc in the morning, an incredibly long slog that is one of the most popular guided routes.

After setting up camp, Bill cut his thumb slicing cheese. The serrated blade cut deep causing a disproportionate amount of blood loss. By the time he managed to turn off the flow and bandage the wound the snow in front of our tent looked at though we had been butchering seals. It was getting late in the day so Bill and I decided to acclimatize by following the well-worn path up the standard route on Mt. Blanc du Tacul.

The standard route is very much like the Emmons Glacier on Mt Rainier, wonderful scenery, up close views of crevasses and ice falls, a little moderately steep terrian, but entirely non-technical. Clouds obscured the spectacular views of Mt. Maudit and Mt. Blanc from the summit plateau. The final one hundred feet up to the summit involved several surprisingly exposed and difficult moves over rock and steep snow. Many of the climbers weíd seen descending the mountain appeared less than capable on the moderate snow let alone on terrain of this difficulty and exposure. I had half expected to see a fixed line here.

The descent involved wading through afternoon slush wherein our crampons continually balled up. Kean had shown us the anti-balling plates he had bought for his Grivel G12 crampons. The plates were nothing more than a section of flexible rubber clipped to the crampon rails, but he claimed that this simple device eliminated the curse of balled-up crampons. I had the more disconcerting problem of my crampons falling off.

I had yet to replace the step-in crampons I broke in Patagonia, so I was using some old strap-ons. Totally uncool here in the land of high-tech gear. The step-ins fit my leather boots well, but on my plastics they tended to slip off the heal. This doesnít bode well for our ambition to climb more difficult committing routes where a thrown crampon can be disastrous.

Near the summit Bill began complaining of a severe headache, thankfully I felt fine. As we descended back to camp I began feeling nauseous and hungover, by the time we reached the tents it was all I could do to simply lay in the fetal position while Bill boiled tea and cooked dinner. I knew that Bill wasnít feeling any better but each time I moved to help my head went light then came the spins. It seemed as though our tent was on a turntable; peak after peak swirled past the open door.

I began to feel better after a short nap and a dinner of ravioli, and when Shag and Kean returned from their climb of Pyramid du Tacul I was nearing normal. Shag and Kean wholeheartedly endorsed the solid .granite and excellent climbing found on the east ridge of Pyramid du Tacul, Shag compared it to a condensed version of Mt. Stuartís north ridge. The guidebook describes the route as seven pitches of classic Chamonix granite, Bill and I decided to make this our next objective.

 

July 16, 1999 Ė Pyramid du Tacul

The valley suddenly became more crowded today, perhaps this is a precursor to the weekend rush. We woke up at six o-clock failing to get that alpine start, and by the time we were fed, watered and moving the glacier and surrounding mountains were crawling with early risers. A continuous dotted line of brightly colored climber flowed from the Midi station.

Before leaving I fashioned a heel bail for my crampons out of some wire that Bill had wisely packed.

Pyramid du Tacul lies midway between the Midi station and the Torino Hut involving an hour long glacier slog in which we descended over one thousand feet. The summit of our objective is actually lower than our camp. The evening was cold and clear and despite our late start we were able to easily walk atop the frozen snow. The return trip, however, would be less enjoyable.

We reached the base of the eastern ridge by climbing through a small icefall, then over a moat and finally onto the rocks. Several other parties were on route and a French husband and wife arrived as we were changing into rock shoes and assembling the rack. The route started up an easy sloping gully before trending right and onto the ridge. Once on the ridge the route appeared straightforward and blocky. The sunny sky was already warming the white granite so we stripped of our shells and tied in for the first pitch. We intended to rappel the route so we only carried a single one backpack containing coats and water.

Bill led out the first pitch moving straight up the face before trending left about ten feet where he set an anchor. I followed and continued up the second pitch now trending excessively left. The difficulty was increasing and I continually searched for a rightward traverse back to the ridge; I ran out of rope before finding one. I set an anchor at the end of a new nine millimeter rope, I figured that we must have been on the rappel route and the rope had become stuck and was abandoned. When Bill arrived we noticed that the French couple was already on the ridge and undoubtedly we were off-route. We both decided to rappel to a ledge from where we could gain the ridge and rejoin the route. We may have been able to continue, but why risk a dead end on only the third pitch.

The French couple was moving slowly. Even though they were using two seventy meter ropes the husband, who was doing all of the leading, was setting anchors at about thirty meter intervals. Admittedly he appeared to be setting belays from established anchor points. On the third pitch Bill led around a corner and out of sight, and while he was working overhead an Italian climber came up from behind. I motioned for the Italian to set an anchor next to mine using the horn and crack utilized by the French couple. Evidently my motion was mistaken as an invitation to pass me, and since both he and Bill were clipping into several fixed pins our ropes were now a tangled mess.

Bill didnít realize what kind of mess we were in when he yelled down that the belay was set. I yelled back that we had been passed and that I had to wait until the follow-on climber came by, little did I know that there would be two followers. The lead Italian climber, Flavio, was trailing two nine millimeter ropes, each of which was attached to another climber, he reeled both of them in simultaneously. What a mess, I waited for approximately ten minutes wondering if Bill understood the cause of my delay.

Once around the corner I no longer saw the Italians, they must have taken an alternate route which was fine by me. The fourth pitch contained a tricky more, but the ideal protection gave me enough confidence to move through it without any problems. Bill led out on the fifth pitch which seemed to me to be the crux of the route even though the guidebook described the following pitch which traverses beneath an overhang to be the most difficult portion.

Pitch six passed over perfect granite, now we were getting some air beneath our feet. At the anchor station I ran into the French couple, since the husband was beginning his lead out I settled in for a considerable wait. Bill followed quickly with the Italians immediately behind. The anchor station was getting crowded so Bill led out in front of the French wife and despite his efforts to climb off to the side of their rope we soon had overlapping lines. I held our rope away from the rock allowing the wife to easily pass beneath it. In the Cascades such a mess would be intolerable, here everyone seems to take the crowds in stride. I followed on the wifeís heels and when I caught up with Bill we were half a rope of easy climbing beneath the summit.

The summit consisted of a pyramid-shaped stone onto which Bill climbed for a photo. Everyone else congregated at the moderately flat ground five feet below. Now there were two French, three Italians and two Americans on top of Pyramid du Tacul. We had climbed the route in slightly over four hours. The first rappel anchors were half a pitch lower so we down climbed a few tricky moves and once again reunited at the anchors.

Shag and Kean said that they had rappelled the route, but the French and Italians seemed to be joining forces to descend directly down the southern face. The lure of their four ropes as opposed to our single line convinced me to ask if we could come along for the ride. Everyone agreed that we would be welcome so I coiled our rope and tied it over my shoulders ready for a fast descent and an early dinner.

Bill and I were along for the ride so when the French husband seemed to be making a mess out of the ropes on the second rappel we kept quiet. After he dropped over the edge to join two of the Italians I settled in for a wait, little did I know that weíd be waiting for over twenty minutes. When I finally started down the ropes I found five of our companions at a hanging anchor, they yelled for me to stop, which I did. We were descending a nearly overhanging wall and my brake hand was beginning to shake as Flavio and the French husband worked the ropes. As it turned out the French had to cut two meters off the end of their rope, I still really donít understand why. One of our major problems with the rappels was that they were so steep and both the French and Italians were using figure eights which badly twisted the ropes.

We spent over three hours descending, nearly the same amount of time spent climbing. Despite all of the problems, however, I was glad to be on the double ropes as the bolted anchors were set at fifty meter intervals. Had we elected to descend this way on our single rope we would have been left dangling in midair.

Shag and Kean were waiting for us back at camp with Gatoraid and stories of their day spent on a mixed route on the north face of Mt. Blanc du Tacul. Seen from our campsite below the Midi station the north side of Mt. Blanc du Tacul puts on an imposing face, appearing as steep rock crisscrossed with ice gullies. Both Shag and Kean agreed that the ice was perfect plastic and the rock obstacles were manageable, all in all they rated it as a wonderful single-day mixed route.

That evening the red rescue helicopter made a low pass and then hovered over the tent camping area. We figured that they were counting the number of multi-day campers who were violating the one night rule. Shag recounted a story he had heard about two climbers who returned to their campsite only to find a note stating where they could go pick up their equipment. We figured that we had overstayed our welcome and decided to bug out tomorrow afternoon.

 

July 17, 1999 Ė Cosmique Arete

 

One of the most popular routes near the Midi station is the Cosmique Arete. The route begins at the Cosmique Hut, about four hundred meters from our tent, and ends at the tourist balconies attached to the Midi tram station. Kean and Shag did this route during their first foray onto the glacier and recommended it highly, although Saturday morning may not have been the best timing.

The Cosmique Arete is a fairly technical mixed climb and includes a short section of 5.7 rock climbing, traditionally done in stiff boots and crampons. Despite the difficulty the ease of access and challenging terrain make this route extremely popular among guided parties, many of whom have no business being anywhere near a route of this difficulty.

Once again Bill and I got a late start and followed several teams up the snow slope leading the base of the arete. We were immediately behind two British climbers who occasionally switched leads, the only team we would encounter during our entire trip who did so. The beginning of the route was fairly straightforward, typically one foot would be on rock and the other on snow. The granite was well worn from the thousands of steel points which pass this way every year. When my crampons would slip across the rock the scent of gunpowder would instantaneously pass through my nostrils.

At a rappel station we encountered a backup of approximately eight climbers. When we were cueing up to thread our rope a white-haired guide tapped Billís shoulder saying, "You speak English yes? I put on my rope and you go down. OK?" Bill nodded letting the man who has probably climbed this route over hundred times show us a way out of this mess.

Bill immediately dropped out of sight as I continued to pay out our climbing rope, by the time I finished the rappel Bill had already begun the next pitch. The route led around an overhanging corner where I waited for a guide to bring up what appeared to be a husband and wife team. Though out of shape the husband appeared to have some climbing experience, the wife on the other hand was definitely on alien ground. Climbing this route I began to appreciate the professionalism of the guides, while at first glance they may appear to be pushy and reckless under close examination they are constantly working to keep the client motivated and head off disaster before it strikes.

I caught up with Bill at another bottleneck, a three-move chimney coated with about a pint of fresh blood. Bill followed closely behind a Swedish couple, placing his hands inches away from crampons mounted onto telemark boots. Once up the chimney we could see that the rocks ahead of us were literally crawling with climbers, the 5.7 section had everyone backed up, we were obviously were going to be moving slowly from here on out.

At the base of the 5.7 portion where a client was dangling helplessly from a horizontal crack the guide who was leading the overweight husband and inept wife told us about an alternate route.

"I think itís grade IV (5.8-5.9)" I replied.

"Oh this is no problem for you." He returned smiling through yellow teeth.

I turned to Bill and whispered, "I think heís just trying to get rid of us."

"Letís try it." Bill replied, so we did.

I led out on across a patch of fairly steep snow and set an anchor below and overhanging chimney. Bill scratched his way past and after deeming the chimney too steep set a stopper and began following a finger seam between two monolithic slabs. After several minutes of scratching and cussing Bill yelled down Iím through it.

The finger crack looked better from below, up close it was a dotted line of small pockets barely big enough for two fingers. The lower slab would have provided perfect smearing had I been wearing rock shoes, here and now I struggled to find small features and nubs onto which I could attach my crampons. Working to free a stopper my right foot skidded and I caught myself dangling on two fingers, had I been on lead I think I would have come off completely. A few moves later I was safely off of the slab, but was now faced with a ten foot ice filled chimney. With one foot on the ice and the other on rock I inched over a mantle block and joined up with Bill. "Good lead man, that sucked," I managed between gasps.

Bill said that he had met up with the guide who had directed over to the alternate route. He was impressed that we actually did it, he was even more impressed that we did the wrong route, according to him we were supposed to climb directly up the overhanging chimney.

We waited behind two parties in order to set a fixed belay at the start of a rock traverse followed by some low fifth class rock climbing. Bill and rested on a rock, not wanting to invade the space of the other climbers which turned out to be a mistake as a French guy and his wife who were pulling up their nine and ten year old daughters simply butted in front of us. We were obviously waiting to continue the route as there was no where else to go, but this guy figured that heíd take advantage of the fact that we probably wouldnít say anything in order to improve the position of his circus act.

The girls truly cried and moaned all the up the following pitch, the father pulled on the rope as the mom pushed each of them over the difficult sections. Eager to be underway I would occasionally get too close to one of the daughter only to recoil behind the nearest rock as crampon points furiously attacked the rock I intended to use for the next handhold. A final stem move, which the girls were too short to execute, led to the final ridge, I could now see the tourists crowding the observation balcony, a thin metal ladder extended down to the snowy ridge.

I anchored into some mammoth bolts and tried to belay Bill while struggling to get exhume my camera in order to shoot a solitary climber standing atop a nearby spire. When Bill reached the anchors we packed up the rope and climbed up the ladder and onto the crowded tourist platform. A Japanese tour group met me as I swung my crampons over the guardrail, they were all offering congratulations and wanting to shake my hand. Ten minutes later Bill and I were eating frites at the concession stand in the Midi station, a fitting ending to a weird day in the mountains.

Back at the tent Bill and I packed up and started the midday slog over to the Torino Hut. Thinking that we were going to be staying in huts the entire time Bill and only brought along his small alpine pack, which he stuffed to overflowing. He managed to fit half of his gear into the pack, the other half he leashed onto the outside. Bill said that it felt like he was carrying a barrel.

The sun attacked us relentlessly as we waded through the soft snow, we felt every step of the two thousand foot climb up to the hut. We stopped at the col beneath the hut to watch a glider silently spiraling upwards. The graceful aircraft soared like a raptor, its delicate wings looked too delicate to trust. We were close enough to see the pilot, how often is it that one can actually look down as see a glider.

We set up camp about two hundred yards beneath the Torino hut aiming our tent into the morning sun. The Dent du Gient dominated the horizon and we watched at least ten climbers returning from the peak. Shag and Kean arrived about two hours later, they had climbed a mixed route on a spur of Mt. Blanc du Tacul.

 

July 18, 1999 Ė Tour Ronde

An hour-long hail storm pelted the tent during the night, followed by heavy rain. The single-wall tent remained dry, but the beating of the hailstones was so loud that Bill and I had to shout at one another even though we were only separated by twenty inches. We woke up to undecided skies and elected to climb the standard route up Tour Ronde in hopes of glimpsing some of the promised spectacular summit views. Bill and I went up to the Torino Hut in order to make reservations for the night, where we met the French couple from Pyramid du Tacul. They had climbed the Dent du Gient yesterday and were now leaving for home. They described the Dent as being very crowded, "like New York City."

As neither Bill nor I spoke Italian we left the hut only fairly confident that our reservation had been taken. As we were leaving, the attendant held up four fingers, which we assumed meant the check-in time. The hut was warm and comfortable, and we especially looked forward to the full service bar.

Back at the tents, Shag and Kean had decided to join us on Tour Ronde, and while reluctant to spend the money on a hut the prospect of a second wet night convinced them to make reservations. Both Shag and Kean speak Italian and they managed to book in under our reservation of "Guffin."

New snow speckled the belay ledges on the Dent du Gient and it appeared that most, if not all, of the parties that had departed to climb it were now returning. Our decision to take on an easier snow route now seemed validated.

We started up the east side of Tour Ronde late in the morning and were immediately sinking in to mid-calf. I was having trouble kicking steps in the unconsolidated snow, and finally abandoned my efforts to follow down tracks and began climbing a glissade trough. The butt-packed snow made the going easier despite the fact that I was making new steps. Shag took over step construction at the bergshrund and didnít look back until he reached the summit. I justified my comparative laziness by saying that Jeff needed to train for his upcoming trip to Dhalaghiri.

We passed through two eye-opening rock bands, a few weeks ago these rocks probably werenít even visible, but today the wet gravel posed a minor, though safe, challenge. After trending left through a rock band we exited onto a spectacular ridge leading to the granite summit block. Bill shot a few photos while I unearthed my SLR, which was once again buried in by pack. From now on Iím gong to bring a point and shoot for technical climbs.

The summit block involved a few tricky low fifth class moves, which were belayed from a Madonna statue bolted to the summit, a gift from the Italian Alpine Club. The weather had cleared and we enjoyed classic alpine scenery as we casually ate our lunch and talked of climbs to come.

The descent went faster than expected and we elected to set a double rope rappel fifty meters above the bergshrund. I was the last one down and by that time the ropes were too swollen to pass through my belay device, so I simply descended the rope hand over hand. During the hike up to the hut Bill suddenly decided to elevate his heart rate and practically ran up the thousand vertical foot slope. I committed to being dragged before Iíd request a slower pace, luckily the past three months of training paid off and I arrived at the hut gasping but proud.

Once in the hut we went directly to the drying room where we shed our wet boots, slid into rubber slippers and hung our wet gear. Shag squeezed his size thirteen feet into a pair of size nine slippers and we headed for the bar. Beer cost about four dollars a glass, but we justified the expenditure by noting that beer was cheaper than bottled water. Rain and hail began to pelt the hut windows as we entered our second round, we unanimously agreed that the hut had been the correct decision.

We were given a four-bed room, which although tight was big enough to contain the four of us and our exploded gear. Each bed was equipped with a pillow, clean sheet and two wool blankets, luxury compared to the previous four nights. Dinner was served promptly at seven thirty; we dinned on bread, pasta, a meat and tomato dish and what I think was flan. Bill supplemented our water allotment with a carafe of red wine. Altitude and dehydration rushed the alcohol to my head and soon I was trying hard to conceal my intoxication.

We ate with two guys from New Zealand who were also planning a morning attempt on the Dent. The older Kiwi seemed quite experienced and told us about different routes on Mt. Cook, and a particularly funny story about a route he had done on the Eiger with his wife. Evidently the rail tunnel through the Eiger makes a U-turn where the train stops in order to allow climbers to get off. He said that after he and his wife jumped off the train the conductor pointed down a corridor and told them to turn off the lights when they left. They went to the end of the hallway, kicked open a heavy wooden door, switched off the lights and rappelled (absailed as they said) down to the glacier. The division between the civilian and alpine world was a single wooden door, this narrow link seems typical here in the Alps.

 

July 19, 1999

We woke up at four thirty planning to eat breakfast at five and then beat the crowds to the Dent. A whiteout drifted past our roomís solitary window, but we optimistically dressed and went down to breakfast. We arrived at the dining hall at three minutes past five to find the doors locked, evidently if there is no line outside the door before five they donít even bother turning on the lights. Never mind that we had reserved a five AM breakfast.

The next breakfast serving was at seven, this was all impetus Bill needed to go back to bed. Shag, Kean and I debated and overanalyzed our options, my Cascade experience told me that if you wake up to crap, the day will be crap, but Shag predicted that we would see some late morning sun and afternoon clouds, possibly even a thunderstorm. Because our route on the Dent doesnít see morning sun anyway we decided to go back to bed and make our decision over seven o-clock coffee. Bill was already asleep back in the room.

At seven the weather was suspect, but Shagís prediction was coming to pass, the clouds were separating and the morning sun washed the glacier in warm light. The Dent however was swirling in clouds. The Dent du Gient is a four thousand meter peak, the highest in the surrounding area making it a perfect lightening rod. The peak rises from the Rochefort ridge like an incisor and while the actual rock climbing appeared straightforward getting to the base of the route appeared arduous and circuitous. We were all sunburned and tired, we had climbed the equivalent of a Cascade summer in four days, so we decided to descend to Chamonix in order to dry out and recharge our batteries. None of us wanted to risk making the long approach to the Dent only to have to then turn around because of an impending storm.

The Helbroner cable car stretches on two lengths of free-hanging cable across the glacial plateau. For roughly nine dollars we could comfortably ride over the terrain which two days ago had taken us two and a half hours to cross. Bill and I gladly reached for our wallets while Shag and Kean began the long walk across.

The aerial view from the cable car afforded priceless glimpses of the routes and mountains we had climbed, Bill and I clicked away photographs and unfortunately I ran out of film well before running out of subject. We spotted our companions crossing an icefall - they were moving slow and had a long way to go. The red rescue helicopter was circling between Pyramid du Tacul and Point Lachenal, we figured that there must be stranded climbers on one of the routes. The red helicopter was a near constant presence during our time in the mountains. Evidently waving one hand signals that all is well, waving both hands means "drop me a line."

Less than an hour after leaving the Torino Hut, Bill and I were soaking in the warm air and summer aromas of Chamonix. We drove back to the campground, shaved the scrub on our faces into goatees and set up camp. We had to stuff all of our gear, including everything that Kean and Shag had left behind into my bivouac tent, when we drove away we estimated that that our one tent contained over twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment. Luckily our fellow campers proved trustworthy.

Back at the tram station Bill and I settled in behind two large Heiniken steins and waited for the return of our hearty friends. The weather in the mountains was worsening, as Shag had predicted, but down in town we enjoyed intermittent sunshine and warm temperatures. Shag and Kean arrived before we finished our second beer and we all drove back to the campground where we fashioned several clotheslines from perlon and climbing rope and hung our putrid clothes to dry.

Clean and freshly clothed we pilled into Shagís GTI and drove into town where we headed to what would become our favorite haunt, the Santa Fe Cafť. The Santa Fe has three computers with Internet access so we drank beer while communicating back home. More attractive than the Internet however was the Guiness.

The rain came late in the afternoon and we figured that a good soaking could only help the dirty clothes left hanging at the campground. I hated the thought of the downpour filling my boots, but what to do.

 

July 20, 1999

We woke up to rain and dedicate the day to rest. We spent the morning in the cooking shelter behind cups of coffee and prowled the climbing shops in the afternoon. Both Bill and I were disappointed with our crampons and decided to do some shopping. We found the Grivel G12ís for $75, about half the U.S. price so we each bought a pair, complete with the anti-bot (anti-balling) plates. The weather forecast stated with forty percent certainty that the weather should improve the day after tomorrow so Bill and I decided to take a second rest day then head back for a final two days.

Shag and Kean recommended the mixed route they had done on Mt. Blanc du Tacul so we decided to attempt that route followed by the Dent du Gient. I was eager to test out the new crampons so I voted that we do the mixed route first. We decided to go French, meaning that we would spend the night in the Torino Hut and therefore didnít need to bring sleeping bags, pads, a tent, stove, or breakfast and dinner food. Traveling fast and light we could easily climb Mt. Blanc du Tacul and traverse the glacier to the hut in one day. Following that we would get and early start at the Dent du Gient and then catch the Helbroner cable which would put us back in Chamonix before dinner.

Shag and Kean had four more days so they decided to wait until better weather in order to attempt the more committing Frontier Ridge on Mt. Blanc. They estimated that the route would take three to four days and they planed to carry-over the summit, this would be a perfect ending to their nearly month-long climbing trip.

 

July 21, 1999

The weather in town was partly cloudy, but clouds remained in the mountains. The weather forecast was predicting a brief spell of partly cloudy weather tomorrow deteriorating to thundershowers late in the afternoon. The most recent forecast hadnít been translated to English so Kean and I tried to decipher the important details. One word seemed to dominate the page, when Kean pointed the mystery word while looking inquisitively at a French woman she smiled and started making thunder noises.

We hung around town most of the day and spent the early evening bouldering at a roadside area about ten miles out of town. Bill did a good impersonation of a rally driver whipping Shagís GTI along the curving mountain roads. Dusk rendered perfect warm light on the Petit Dru, which overlooked our camp. Bill and started a camera stampede when we started shooting.

 

July 22, 1999 Ė North Face Mt. Blanc du Tacul

Shag dropped Bill and I off at the tram station at six o-clock where a Disneyland-sized ticket line had already formed. This was midweek and the mountain weather was dubious at best, why were so many climbers flocking to the early tram. We loaded into the third tram of the day and were roping up at the Midi station within what seemed to be minutes. We started down the ridge in moderate winds and nearly a full whiteout. Once down on the glacier we headed off in the approximate direction of our objective. Every few minutes we would glimpse the peak and adjust our course.

We were carrying rock shoes and a second nine millimeter rope for our planned ascent of the Dent, they were simply extra weight today so we cached them in a plastic bag near a large blue wand. We had decided to totally go European for the Dent and had left the ten five rope behind in favor of double nines.

During one of the cloud breaks we noticed two teams moving up our route, they had a good head start so neither Bill nor I thought that weíd run into congestion on route. The evening clouds had retained yesterdayís warmth and the snow was mashed potatoes. We waded across the glacier not looking forward to the lower snow slopes.

We started up the snow slope, which seemed quite steep even though Shag said that he would have been comfortable skiing it. It was probably between forty five and fifty degrees. I kicked steps until the route began angling right, I brought Bill up and we discussed our options. We were both nervous about the weather but decided to continue on. Bill led out for a rope length where he set an anchor and I continued up and into a narrow chimney. We were now on mixed ground and all of my rock and ice protection was still inside my pack. Luckily I found a piton and a nearly worn through sling, each of which I clipped with the few carabiners on my harness. I left my glacier pulley dangling from one piton, my Ropeman from another. This was my first crack at dry-tooling, it worked well and I continued to use it throughout the day. I brought Bill up and he continued over snow and blocky rocks to a good belay stance. Now we had to decide whether to continue on, I felt that we were already committed to the route and that descending was less preferable than going up. Bill wasnít so convinced and wisely didnít trust my opinion that we could easily find the trail down the standard route even in a whiteout, but neither was he willing to go down.

I got out the rack and said that I would just go around the corner to have a look, we both knew this meant we were going to the top.

The next four pitches were glorious mixed climbing, the ice was plastic, the rocks chunky. I felt focused and totally under control. This would be one of my most memorable days in the mountains. After struggling a bit to find our mountain legs Bill and I were now in full stride.

The weather was in and out as we occasionally climbed above the cloud ceiling only to become enveloped moments later. The wind was picking up and by the time we reached the final corniced ridge we were working against a forty knot side wind. The lower portion of the ridge was moderately angled solid water ice; my new crampons were biting like a rabid tiger, but I still had to concentrate as we were on unprotected running belays now.

On the upper plateau we decided to forego the thirty foot summit block in favor of a hasty exit. A crevasse separating the upper plateau from the side slopes had opened up dramatically and we had to make a substantial leap across. The broken snow bridge spanning the crevasse was severely undercut on the downhill side rendering those coming up blissfully ignorant of the underlying danger. This is a fairly standard route and it seemed only a matter of time before a guide and short-roped client shared a cold fate.

I must admit that while on non-technical terrain Bill and I were now roping up closer than we normally would have, we were maybe forty feet apart. This distance seemed totally comfortable given our circumstances. In the past Iíve always thrown the extra rope into my pack, we were now following the lead of the French guides and were using guide coils thrown over one shoulder and worn beneath our packs. The bowline on a coil knot seemed bulky so I typically used a simple overhand knot to secure the coil to my harness; this method seemed perfectly secure.

Further down the mountain we encountered the remnants of an immense icefall. The standard route passed beneath a fifty foot icecliff which had collapsed the day before completely obliterating the trail. Bill descended down through the blocks, once out of sight he asked for some tension so I put him on a hip belay. After about five minutes I heard him pounding in his second tool for an anchor, I then followed. Within four steps I was in a totally precarious situation, I was downclimbing onto an icy downsloping catwalk above a vertical ice wall, so much for our mindless descent. A guide would have to be suicidal to bring a tourist through such exposure without fixing the route, but earlier we had seen streams of climbers flowing up and down the mountain. Once on safe ground I realized that we had taken the difficult route, most of the tracks simply scrambled over the top of the jumbled ice on less exposed ground.

Back down on the glacier we were once again swallowed by the clouds and wandered about for awhile trying to find our morning tracks. Luckily Billís sense of direction saved the day, and once he took over the lead we sighted the blue wand in short order. Our plastic bag had a hole in it, our rock shoes were filled with the water and the second rope was sodden. We discussed our options.

The Helborner cable car had not run all day, probably due to the high winds, the weather was worsening and our prospects of actually climbing the four thousand meter Dent du Gient were minimal at best. Bill noted that if we decided to end our trip on todayís success we could pack up and dry out before flying home; if we decided to go on only a remarkable and completely unforecasted change in the weather would overt simply slogging across the glacier today and then back again tomorrow. Our bleak prospects were coupled with a night in the expensive Torino Hut. I agreed that we shouldnít be greedy and that we should relish the good and skip the bad so we turned toward the Midi station and headed for Chamonix.

The seven hundred foot elevation gain up to the station was Sisyphean, Bill said that the uphill whiteout trudge like being on treadmill, his feet were moving but he didnít seem to be going anywhere. Once at the station bill spotted me coin for an espresso americano from the vending machine, my head was pounding, and we boarded the tram. We shared the ride with four Americans, two of whom were AAI guides, they planned to be in Chamonix through September. Bill and I figured that they must have been guiding the older guy who was decked out in new Marmot GoreTex. Whatever their situation was they must have been flush. The guides shook off my two attempts to drum up conversation so I shut up and enjoyed the ride.

Back in Chamonix we were faced with the question of how to find Shag and Kean. These problems are best solved at the bar so we set ourselves behind two pints and stuck our plastic boots into the isleway. The little cho-cho train-looking bus cruising around town wouldnít get us far, hiking five paved miles to the campground in our plastic boots was immediately rejected, maybe a bus or taxi. We didnít want to rush to any decision so instead we took a walk through town, we inched through the crowd ever vigilant not to stab any tourists with our ice tools.

Passing by the Santa Fe I took a hopeful second glance, there was Shag pulled up at the bar drinking a 1664 beer and writing postcards. The three of us pulled up at a table along the sidewalk and Bill and I recounted our successful day. Soon Kean arrived with a bag of peanuts; we ate like kings.

Bill and I decided to eat in town so we cleaned up and headed for green and meat. After eating a much-need salad, a pizza each and ice cream we walked the town, we were each still a little hungry. The restaurants were closing down so we dived into a small pizzeria and placed the last order of the evening. Our waitress was a budding Italian actress who said that she was living in Chamonix in order to prove that she could live without her fatherís money. She was friendly and though English was her third language she spoke it fluently.

 

July 23, 1999

Our last day in Chamonix, the lowland weather was overcast and warm, but the mountains were hidden behind clouds. Our decision to come down turned out to be prudent. After a relaxing breakfast we went to the urban crag, I led up an easy gully, Kean continued through an overhanging open book. Here the rock was slimy gneiss, not the grippy granite we were so used to, I skidded and struggled to follow the route.

The crags were crowded with families, scout troops and foreign climbers. A six year old was climbing next to us, he showed up his whimpering older sister. An accident must have occurred around the corner because a helicopter made a low pass before speeding off, a few minutes later an ambulance arrived. Soon after the arrival of the ambulance the helicopter returned and landed in a clearing a few yards away and out jumped two official looking guys in dressed and loaded for mountain travel. The two guys ran over to the scene and the helicopter took off. The French have set up an amazing infrastructure centered around alpinism.