I was in Chamonix recently with my friend Erwin to do some mixed routes and classic north faces. We got to Chamonix valley on the 5th of October and stayed for the week.
In general conditions on the routes were good. However, a lot of snow made approaches and descents physically demanding and somewhat dangerous in regards to avalanches and crevasses. The summer had not been too warm and the fall brought some snow and cold temps. There was a lot of snow at the upper elevations, between 70cm to a meter of snow from the end of September to the beginning of October.
We were on the Glacier d’Argentière, Glacier du Gèant and on the north side of the Aiguille du Midi (Glacier des Pèlerins / Glacier de Blaitière).
The amount of relatively fresh snow kept us from doing any of the north face routes in the Argentière basin on Les Courtes, Les Droites or Aiguille Verte. We hiked up from the village of Argentière and up to the glacier to get a feel for conditions (Les Grands Montets Téléphérique was closed until winter ski season). There was just too much snow.
The following day we went up to the Triangle du Tacul and did the classic Chèré couloir to the top of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The descent turned out to be complicated due to crevasses, seracs (this past summer an Austrian guide and his clients were killed here by collapsing seracs and an ice avalanche on the standard Mont Blanc traverse route from the Cosmique hut) and deep snow. I broke into a number of crevasses and fell in over my head once. There was one particularly nerve racking snow bridge crossing over a huge crevasse and a lot of steep down climbing on slopes that were at times blank with hard ice and at other times wind loaded with snow up to our waists.
Our warm up climb turned into a long hard day. We got into the Refuge des Cosmiques at dark at about 20:00. We were the only guests. We greatly appreciated the warm hut and great food. The next day would be a rest day – down to Chamonix to sleep in a pension.
Riding up and down the Midi cable car gave us ample opportunity to check out all the mixed lines under the Aiguilles de Chamonix. We decided that we would do some reconnaissance under the Aiguille du Plan, Aiguille du Peigne and Rognon du Plan.
It was a great surprise to find out after stopping in at the guide’s office in Chamonix that the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille was still open and manned. We got the first cable car up to the Midi middle station and hiked into three different glacier basins to evaluate the conditions and see which routes would match up with our capabilities and motivation.
We climbed over verglassed boulders to get onto the Nantillons, Blaitière and Pélerins glaciers. The cold shadows and looming seracs reinforced the reputation of this area as being at the forefront of modern mixed climbing since the 1990’s. It was very interesting to see the routes up close that previously I had only read about. The ice looked particularly good under the Col de Blaitière, Aiguille des Pélerins and Rognon du Plan.
Once on the Glacier des Pélerins, we decided to make our way through the crevasses to establish an approach route over the glacier that we could use for our early morning starts. We settled on doing the route “Le Fil à Plomb” and the Col du Plan Couloir. We then would traverse the easy ridge from the Col du Plan over to the Midi cable car station for our descents. In the back of our minds was also the thought that we could do the Réuffat-Terray route on the Pélerins if all went well with us and the weather.
There was enough day light and sun left by the time we got to the Plan de l’Aiguille hut that we could dry out or clothes and gear. The hut was wonderful; again we were alone. We edited out all unnecessary stuff, sharpened our picks and front points and packed. We ate a great and plentiful dinner and were in bed before 21:00.
We were up at 02:00 and out the door by 03:00. We got to the beginning of our chosen route by 05:00. On the way I spotted a shooting star. I took this as a good omen. With the light from our headlamps, we got the ropes and gear ready under the protection of a slightly overhanging rock wall and waited to there was a little day light. I led through a mixed rock and snow pitch to what I thought would be the start of the steep snow slope at the beginning of the Col du Plan couloir. Surprise! There was a huge gapping bergschrund bordered on the left by smooth 50 meter granite slabs and stretching all the way across the glacier to underneath the huge hanging serac to the right of the Col du Plan. We could not see anyway to cross. We thought that trying to work our way through this problem would take at least a couple of hours. This would cause us to be at the exit of the couloir at a dangerously late time for the upper snow slopes below the Midi-Plan ridge. We rappelled and retraced our steps down the Glacier des Pélerins. The routes would have to wait for another day.
We had some time left, at the most a day and a half, The desire was not strong enough to work out another glacier approach, do a midnight start, complete a demanding route and also drive for nine hours on the same day back to Salzburg. We decided to go down to Chamonix and drive back to Austria after lunch. Accepting this was a bit difficult.
All in all the weather was okay; cold and winter like. The routes seemed to be filled in nicely with ice. North side routes would not see the sun until spring. There were not many people around and a lot of the lifts and huts were closed. I really like this time of year in the Western as well as the Eastern Alps. However, to climb you have to be willing to sleep in winter rooms or bivouac, carry heavier packs, undertake longer approaches, and deal with the dangers of route finding on glaciers.
Tactics need to be much more thoroughly planned – approach skis or snow shoes, taking extra time to establish approaches through complex glaciers, bivouacs on the approach and/or descent, short days, the cold, etc., etc.