After a couple of day’s downtime, we finally struck up a plan to get back up in the mountains for a day. We chose this route, as the North West Ridge is in nearly every guidebook for the area, so it must be worth a spin! We then looked into the Rockfax guidebook and found that there is a ridge that leads up to the North West Ridge, the Integrale, that is graded AD, which is more the ball park we want to be climbing in. The guidebook said it should take 2 hours… oh, how I laugh in the face of guidebook times!
We parked over night in the Col de Montets car park, with the plan for an early-ish night and more of a lie in for the morning, as we only have to walk ten metres to the cable car. This went to plan from our side, although we were queuing up and ready to go at 7.30 am, the lift and its staff were not! So we ended up waiting for twenty minutes, ruing missed sleeping time, before we got on board!
Again, I was feeling a little under the weather, always after the bloody mince that we buy here, so that has been struck from the menu for the foreseeable future! There are two cable cars to get to the top, and once there, we made our way down some stairs and started kitting up in the snow. A quick guidebook check and we were off, actually, that’s not quite the case, a quick guidebook check and we were thinking more along the lines of ‘fuck that for a barrel of laughs’, however we pressed on, cutting a diagonal line from the station, rightwards across the snow, which was tough, often stepping in up to my knees, before having to dig myself out. If I knew it was like this I would have brought gaiters. We got a little off route, but soon found a way to get on the ridge, which looked looser than a wizard’s sleeve!
Once on the ridge, and my fears were confirmed, loose chossy shit everywhere! For the next 4-6 hours I was checking every handhold, foothold and piece of rock in between. This ridge seems as though it is literally falling to bits. Once we gained the ridge we started to work our way up following a logical line, although this was hard, as there seemed to be spires of rock stuck out in all directions to obscure the view ahead, so more often than not, we had to retrace the route and start again.
On one section we had lost some height, and we were climbing up the more solid looking blocks of granite, when after testing one huge flake, I put my weight on it and it reared up, and nearly popped off before I let go, and it sat back in position! Heart in my bloody mouth! Things like this were going to happen time and again over the next few hours!
For the initial sections we moved together and made good time, until be started up the main face/buttress of the ridge. Up to this point we had seen a couple of hastily made anchors, of tat and rope and footsteps in the snow, at the foot of the rock of previous parties who have retreated from the route. I could certainly appreciate this decision, and had even questioned it myself a couple of times up to this point, and would do a couple more times on the route ahead. It was clear that this was a harder section of climbing so we stripped the rope off and started to pitch the route. I did a lead, of about 4a, until I had reached my limit of rope and brought Jess up. I’m sure the book states that there was only one pitch of 4a climbing, however after 50 metres I was in the middle of the face, with an undefined route ahead of me.
This is the first route that a) is not defined in anyway, and b) we were the only people on it, that I have done in the alps. I felt that this was a test piece and the few hours it took, definitively defined this, although the rock climbing was not biblical in grade, it was a tough call every time, to decide what path to take to wind our way up the route. I was working hard to pick the lines that looked like solid rock and also that I could protect, and finally where I could belay. Each time not knowing if I had taken the right way, even after I’d done it, the route ahead would be blocked from sight, so each pass of a section of rock, was a discovery of the route going forward. We were definitely off route, and although I’m now safe on the ground, I feel happy to have found a route over the ridge, although at the time, it was a huge strain on my psyche, especially when the loose rock, choss and exposure were added in for good measure!
The following pitch was harder than the last, and again, I used 40-50 metres of rope. Although this was not a direct line, as each shard of rock that protruded needed to be rounded and therefore me and the rope had zig zagged up a really fine crack line, followed by a couple of blocks and finally a spire. Some of the moves were very bold, moving up with half a foot hold covered in snow, before moving higher to better holds, this was not inspiring confidence! My belay was epic though, sat atop a flat spike, with a drop below me all the way to the glacier, with a great view of the route that we had already covered below. Again, Jess worked her way up to me, although even this was riddled with problems as the rope was zig zagged, we could not send signals through the rope, and had to go back to shouting so loud that Chamonix could hear me, but Jess could not. If you know what I mean by this, you will know!
The next pitch was a beast, proper old school, the first problem was a large off width crack that I had to wedge my whole body and backpack into, smearing the walls either side, inching my way up piece by piece, also a lot of grunts and groaning as each cm was gained! Eventually after this there was a nice flake to pull out on, although the route rounded another corner, so again the rope started to drag! I eventually gave up and started to bring up Jess after only 20 metres or so of climbing. Again, we could not hear or feel anything through the rope, so a slow belay proceeded! The one great thing about this route is the amount of flakes and rock to use for natural or placed protection, if the rest of the route was testing, then this was its saving grace!
The next pitch was simple enough as we had pretty much finished the climbing part, although as we were somewhat off route and just making our own way, we had pitched 4 parts of the route, which was way more than we bargained for. The previous route before this, we pitched just once and the climbing was far easier, all at the same grade?
Next we set up abseil, as we were looking at 15.30 on the watch and the last lift was at 16.40, the North West Ridge itself will have to wait for another day! The guidebook said 2 hours, we were at 5. I don’t know how wrong we got it, but we seemed to be moving all day, making good speed, but time does not lie! I could not believe that this could be done in 2 hours!
The abseil helped us get past the ice bergschrund that was a little less stable due to the time of day. I had also started to notice some ominous clouds on the horizon, and felt the need to hurry, not only for the lift, but also to avoid an oncoming storm. We moved down the snow slope, which is 50 deg at some points, as quickly as we could, although, every now and then I would be in the snow, up to my waist, slowing down the pace as I dug myself out. I was checking my watch regularly and it seemed no matter how fast we were, time was quicker. Once we were at the base of the stairs where we stared, we removed the crampons and just held them, and made like the wind up the stairs. It might just be me, but I’m sure they put a few more stairs in while we were climbing, they went on and on, maybe it was the rush or just being tired, either way they went on forever! We got to the lift station just before half past and stared stripping our gear and eating some snacks. It had been a couple of hours since our last sneak and water break! On the way down, on the second lift we were treated to a serenade from an eager guide who seemed to have a larger than life personality, you would never hear me belting out songs at the top of my voice in a public place of any kind. It’s fair to say he got the standing ovation (as we could not sit) and cheers from the cartridge!
This had been a bloody long day, at the top of the stairs I took a last look at the ridge and snapped some photos as the cloud rolled in behind, the rain did catch us, just as we entered the station. That final look gave me an appreciation of just how long the ridge was, I think we made good time on the route we cut across it. It also means that one day, I can go back and have a shorter, easier day to finish the adventure. I am proud that we completed this route, as at times I was thinking of retreating and heading for safer ground, as well as this I believe we were as safe as we could be within the circumstances. For now, I’m happy my mind is at ease, after a day of being permanently switched on, I feel somewhat mentally exhausted. After facing; exposure, loose rocks, scree, chossy mess, back to back leading all day and an unknown outcome at every move, I’m happy to just chill for a couple of days and allow for recovery of mind more than body! However, by the seems of things I have no choice, as the weather is breaking again, maybe what hit us as we left the mountain was the beginning of the change in the weather.
(Edit. When we got back to the van, we were looking at the ridge in our photos and still miffed at how this could be done in 2 hours, only to realise that we had done a whole extra section of the ridge that was out of picture in the guide. We started at the foot, where the boulder fields were, and worked up from there, so therefore we doubled the distance to travel, which make our timings more reasonable. The picture is dark in the guidebook, and the description, although relevant, a tooth shaped rock on a ridge full of tooth shaped rocks is easy to misplace. Next time I will study the route more before setting off, another lesson learnt!)