Before I begin going on about the to and fro that took place on this trip, I will state in a phrase that I have read I the past, “… we humans often experience happiness without recognizing it, later we realize that at such and such a moment we were happy”, Re reading this recently has made me more aware to be happier in the moment rather than in reflection and this trip had many elements of being in the moment and realizing that happiness (and a little suffering). All to often in my life this phrase has been the case, even writing this journal/blog of sorts has continued the trend, however I will hopefully live the moment more from now on in.
We have a little list of routes that we plan to climb with our remaining time and lift passes in the Mont Blanc Range, and the most recent one to attempt was the Aiguille Purtscheller. This had been a goal of mine since climbing the Aiguille du Tour a couple of years ago, which walks past this climb, and I’ve always had jealousy pangs for those on that route whilst I just walk on by.
This trip started in Le Tour, after a busy day running around town, Jess working and just the usual day to day admin that seems to take an age. Once ready we took one of the last lifts up and made a two hour ascent to the Refuge Albert 1er . On the way we were treated to fantastic views that spread all the way down the Chamonix valley, also they take in the edge of the Glacier du Tour and the streaming water that rushes down the face where the glacier once was. As well as this, part way up a violinist came down and starting ringing out some tunes, which was most random!
Once we past the hut, we set about trying to find a decent bivouac spot, and after finding one that I had used a few years ago (which was a bit of an epic, with wind, thunder, lightening, rain, snow and hail), and made a beeline up the hill where I knew there was a really flat and comfortable one, and it was free. We set about rebuilding some of the walls to make it a little more comfortable. We set up our sleeping bags, and after eating and brewing up, got our heads down for an early night, ready for a 04.00 start.
Not such a bad nights sleep led to the alarm ringing in my ears and scaring the hell out of me, with so little ambient noise around it was pretty loud! We got up and got ready, it was cold and the wind was cutting across the mountain making life a little less comfortable, however once up and about, I got busy collapsing the bivi and brewing up some coffee so the day could get started!
We set out and soon found ourselves at the foot of the glacier where a few teams were already gearing up; we found our own patch and did the same. Light from the sun was beginning to shine and gave a lovely red cap to the mountain and the skyline. We set off up the glacier to join the rest of the teams that were already on the way, and were followed by a fair few behind, it was Saturday and it was going to be a busy day. We made good time across the glacier and stuck to the trails cut in the snow as we sneaked our way across and through a few crevasses. Following this, we worked our way up to the Col Superior du Tour, where the ground steepened considerably, all this was relatively easy to navigate, as we had done the same approach before, although Jess was starting to tire after the early morning and small amount of food that we had for breakfast. At the top of the Col we made a short scramble to the other side, and where all the other teams we could see pushed on to the Tour or off towards the Haute route. We turned off and made our way up the slope to a fairly obvious V shaped gap in the rocks above.
This ground comprised of loose scree and stone, with the occasional sizable loose rock thrown in for good measure. Some of this was inevitably worked loose and was thrown of the bottom of the slope; I was seriously thinking that if the route was of the same quality, we were in for a bad day! We had a decent rest at the foot of the climb, where the red rope was tangled and we split our kit into one bag that would stay to be collected later (we had all our bivi kit with us), and one with boots, crampons etc, so we could make our way back to the start after the climb.
We set out and I took the first lead, a 5a pitch up a crack. This was in the shade and no sooner had I started, the cold rock started to suck the life out of my hands, I was often holding and wedging my hands without the proper sensation of whether the holds were any good or not. The pitch was a little harder than I expected, with lots of wedging of my shoes and standing, with the same for my hands, just wedge and move, however it had lots of good placements for protection, and soon I was at the belay in the sun. It took a good few minutes to work some life back into my hands and once I started to feel the stinging pain of heat returning, I began the belay.
Jess joined shortly after and set off up the next pitch that was easier in the grade, but was good fun and the direction of travel was obvious, as it traversed slightly and then gained the ridge crest again. We only had a few photos of the route on my phone, so route finding took a little time at each stop, this was to prove a little ill fated as the climb went on. The next pitch for me was pretty easy, a minor traverse that took the opposite face of the ridge before climbing back over, and again traversing up to a belay. I actually put no gear placements for the whole pitch, as the route wound its way over lots of natural protection and the climbing was relatively easy, if not a little exposed on the traverse.
Again, I belayed Jess and once we changed over the gear she quickly set off up a chimney filled with giant flakes and boulders. The pitch looked aggressive and was the second of two 5a pitches on the route. This was for both Jess and me, one of the hardest traditional routes that we had been on, although she took her time, she overcame each difficulty in turn. We also had a problem with the red rope that managed to get wedged and could not be freed, so mid route, Jess untied this one rope and continued with the blue rope to the belay. This meant that I had to bag the remaining red rope and then as I climbed take in the slack until it was dislodged, and I put it all in the bag. This was fine until I came to a small hole that Jess had climbed through and I could not fit through with the bag. This part of the route had already taxed me somewhat with the heavy bag, as it involved a lot of leaning back and using flakes, so I was weighted through my arms and upper body rather than legs. I had to descend slightly and then I used all the spare slings I had collected en-route and larks footed them together and attached these to the bag. I climbed through the hole and then pulled the bag hand over hand until it was with me, this would have been a great time to have two ropes, however the red rope was not playing ball today. I was a little exhausted by this point and continued a little slower than normal to where jess was belaying, at this time there was another pair closing in behind.
We sorted out the red rope at the next belay, and guess what it was in all kinds of self made knots, and after a while this was sorted and I could continue. However this continued delay had slowed us even more and the next pair had caught up. I was already feeling a little tired and stressed out, and the climb was taking longer than it should have done without the added hassles of the rope. I moved off and again, found myself traversing across easier ground, until I stopped and took a long check of the route guide on my phone, as there are two towers at the finish and I was unsure which was the final one? After I made my choice I made safe on a couple of shards of rock and brought Jess over. I was relieved that the pitch was so short and easy after the minor epic with the red rope and the bag on the previous pitch.
Jess took the next lead and after working up to a boulder ledge seemed to have trouble locating the finish of the route. I could not clearly see the route ahead and just re-read the guidebook description until the phone died, and then took guesses at the route direction. I was sat for quite a while, so much so, that the next pair had both joined me at the belay. After chatting with them, we agreed that they should climb on and maybe help Jess with the route finding.
Just as the other climber reached the ledge, my rope started to move and I could see Jess going up and eventually she was at the top and safe. I now had to wait for the other pair to ascend, as their rope was on top of ours and would be a nightmare to climb under with the bag and ice axes, so again I waited. I’m not sure how long I spent at this belay but it felt a lifetime, especially as I could see that the weather had changed for the worse and cloud had started to settle in on the mountain. Eventually the other pair had climbed clear of my rope and I started to ascend. This was pretty easy to begin with, as there were plenty of holds, although once past the ledge the route became a little tougher until you entered a chimney section and finally reached the summit. The other pair were already building their abseil, so me and Jess had more time to wait, so sorted the ropes again, and while we watched a pair on the table, (a climb opposite, with a table shaped rock, that silhouetted against the sky behind) we just waited for the abseil to be clear.
The decent consisted of three belays across loose ground with plenty of spikes, so I was on edge throughout. We had been on the go for hours and, added to this we had only eaten a snickers and had about 250ml of water each, I was starting to feel the tension of it all. Thankfully the ropes came down clean after each rappel and we even assisted in freeing the rope of the pair who had overtaken us, as theirs had got stuck. As usual the red rope was being a dick and before the last abseil it got itself coiled into a right mess and again we had to sort it. I was blabbering and basically telling off the red rope so much that the other pair questioned whether our rope was stuck, before pointing out a solid bridge over the bergschrund that they had just used.
Once we were down, the cloud had well and truly took hold and we found ourselves in a white out. Luckily the route was easy enough with no huge dangers, unluckily we still had to re-find the start of the route, climb the crappy scree field and retrieve our bag. We found the prominent V shape on the horizon in the break of the cloud and I set off trying a new more direct route up the snow and then the scree than we had took on the ascent. Unfortunately, a rock did fall and struck jess on the hand at the bottom, which did not cause any major damage just pain and bruising, although it could have been worse. I got the bag and started to down climb.
Once back, we sorted out the red rope, which again was a tangled mess, I literally hated that rope so much by now. We began to descend the steep snow and Jess took a fall and was able to put into practice an ice axe arrest to stop her fall, this actually happened twice as she slipped whilst trying to get up! So the skills do work! Although, this was another thing to go wrong, and it was about 15.30, so it was past time to get off the mountain, as we had still not eaten we shared a Cliff bar with some water and set off down the slope.
As visibility was low, and the cloud created a white out effect we had to keep our eyes peeled for obvious features and changes in terrain. The track in the snow to the Aiguille du Tour is quite defined and once we found this we followed it all the way, until we finally found ourselves below the cloud line and with our bivi site in the field of vision. The rest of the descent went without any major incident, a couple of slips here and there, as we were both getting tired. We stopped at the foot of the glacier and took off our crampons and finally ate our lunch at about 17.00. We rested before moving on and resetting up our bivi in the same spot, and again brewed up and got more food inside.
It’s safe to say that even though the bivi was not the Ritz, I managed to sleep as if it were. We did have a plan to do an easier second day, however, after what had been a 13 hour long day on the go, with little or no food and drink, its safe to say we could not be bothered and had a lie in untill 08.30 before starting down the approach route and back to our lovely van.
I’m not sure what there is to learn from this apart from the fact that the red rope was just being a dick all day, and needs to start acting more like the blue rope who pretty much behaved admirably for the most part. We were slow for a few reasons, but this whole day did allow for a lot of the skills learnt, to really be implemented, from navigating in low visibility and route finding on rock, to ice axe arrests.
So back to the beginning, although some parts of the day were a blur of activity, there were so many others where I really took appreciation for where I was and what I was doing, walking above the clouds that were resting above the valley on the way up, the fantastic views across the glacier that lead into Switzerland on belay and feeling bloody cold whilst working my way up the first crack! All great memories that no photo can replace, even the summit, where we were so consumed with tiredness, time, speed (or lack of) and what was coming next that we even forgot to get the obligatory photo! Safe to say I had a great day and so did Jess, and I have a new found hatred for red rope!