Mont Blanc 2014 day 3 – Friday 18th July

I really don’t like getting up at 3.45am, and try to avoid it whenever possible. I do however make exceptions where staying in mountain huts is concerned, as that is what you are there for. The very early start in most mountain huts is dictated by one thing, which is how long it will take to summit and get back down allowing for ‘usual’ conditions on the glacier.

In the summer months the snow conditions on ‘wet’ (i.e snow covered) glaciers tend to be frozen until about mid-morning (depending upon what time the glacier gets the sun and what direction it is facing). What you need when walking up them, is for the snow not to be soft, as your crampons don’t get good purchase and you can sink into the snow, which at best just saps the energy. It’s hard enough as it is without that!

So anyway, this morning I find myself waking up in the Chabon hut near Gran Paradiso at exactly the above time. Breakfast, a hurried affair of dry (and that’s an understatement) bread and some cornflakes with luke warm milk, is just not very appetising, but it goes down, and within about 20 minutes or so everyone is outside getting into harnesses and getting crampons and helmets and the like sorted. There are 80 people in the hut altogether, and everyone is there for one thing – to summit what is effectively Italy’s highest mountain, Gran Paradiso.

It is about 4.45 in the end by the time we set off, due to a number of people faffing with their kit, including me. It’s made harder by the fact that it is still very dark, and headtorches are the order of the day. When we set off we follow a string of other headtorch-bedecked individuals who are already snaking their way towards the glacier.

The hut is at 2,700m (just shy of 9,000 feet , and our objective is at 4,061m, or 13,400 feet. The walk is steady at first, over rocky moraine mainly, but pitches up quite steeply in places, which very much gets the heart going.

First light over the mountains, and we are on the glacier already.....

First light over the mountains, and we are on the glacier already…..

....with crampons on and all well wrapped up - it was very cold!

….with crampons on and all well wrapped up – it was very cold!

By probably 6am or so, it is light, and there are magnificent views already over the French and Italian Alps. There is not a single cloud to be seen in the morning sky. We reach ‘crampon point’, a figurative spot where travel is much easier with them in place, and we get ready. We also rope up, with the team set in a group of 3 and 4 with a guide leading each group. I am roped up with Marco, our Italian guide, and grouped with Katya and Jonas. Neil, the main group guide, has Rich, Stuart, Mick and Colin.

It is cold, much colder than I had anticipated, and as we meander up the glacier, which is steep, the wind picks up, and before long I am grateful that I packed my rucksack well. I am now wearing two pairs of gloves, a buff, a woolly hat, and three layers, including a fleece and a light down jacket. I wonder for a while if I even have enough with me.

By the time we reach the top of the glacier, at probably around 8am, it is freezing cold. And I mean cold so you can’t hardly feel your fingers cold. I make a mental note to buy some better gloves for when I go to Russia in a month or so’s time. At this point we turn an abrupt left onto a much steeper incline towards the summit, which now becomes visible for the first time.

Thankfully at this point the sun came up and it warmed things up immeasurably. The last quarter mile or so to the summit is fairly hard work, as a.) you are now at 4,000m, and b.) it is probably the steepest part of the whole mountain. But like most mountains you ever get close to the top of, the adrenaline (or summit fever!) kicks in, and you just push on.

Getting up to the summit ridge itself proved fine until the very last 5 or 6 metres.

Approaching the summit ridge and the bottleneck at the top of Gran Paradiso

Approaching the summit ridge and the bottleneck at the top of Gran Paradiso

The problem was twofold – firstly the summit ridge is a narrow band of rock, which is basically one person wide at best, and the summit held about three people at best, so it was “one on one off” when you got there. Secondly it was, as our guide put it “very airy”, aka it had precipitous drops on two sides, so your heart was in your mouth to actually get the final few steps.

Looking back down (the trail in the distance) from the summit to where the previous photograph was taken from.

Looking back down (the trail in the distance) from the summit to where the previous photograph was taken from.

After a few moments when I doubted whether I wanted to go the last few steps at all (the bottleneck took about 20 minutes or so to wait for people to get off the summit), the last piece was somewhat nervously executed via ferrata style on a ledge no wider than one boot width, and a 1,000m drop below you. It is not for the vertigo suffers amongst us, that’s all I’m saying!

Thankfully the summit moment itself was glorious, and here I am clinging on to the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top:

And made it :)

And made it 🙂

The views from the top were fabulous, and with such clear skies there was a view of mountains in every direction, spanning Switzerland, France and Italy too. Mont Blanc stood sublime in the distance, taunting us and tempting us at the same time. It would only be two days now until we would be at her base to begin the big climb!

The descent following another frustrating wait to get back over the via ferrata bit to safety (there was now about 30 people waiting to get onto the summit behind us) was a really warm one. Now in bright sunshine all the way (it was about 9.30am by the time we left the summit ridge) the snow was beginning to get soft, and so crampon placement was all important. Here are some pictures on the way down:

On our way down finally...

On our way down finally…

....still above the clouds in the distance.....

….still above the clouds in the distance…..

...and trails of roped up climbers ahead of us meander down the glacier.

…and trails of roped up climbers ahead of us meander down the glacier.

 

And Mont Blanc appears again in the distance. Memo to self - don't stand on the rope!

And Mont Blanc appears again in the distance. Memo to self – don’t stand on the rope!

And finally upon reaching the bottom of the glacier, our hut appears a long way in the distance, middle of picture.

And finally upon reaching the bottom of the glacier, our hut appears a long way in the distance, middle of picture.

After we got back to the Chabon hut, it was about 1pm, and everyone was exhausted but happy. There was time for a quick celebration photograph with our little group:

Happy at our return to the hut!

Happy at our return to the hut!

The return trip to the summit had taken just under 9 hours altogether, of which the moving time was about half of that:

http://www.strava.com/activities/167844429

Everyone was so beat that a well earned lie down ensued for all, and then time to pack everything up again for the trek down the mountain the next day, as we’d stay another night in the Chabon hut.

After we’d all had dinner, the news that we didn’t have to get up until 6.45 the next morning came as a huge relief. An extremely pleasant couple of glasses of wine then followed to round off a really memorable day.

The guides told us after dinner that the weather forecast for the weekend was looking a bit dodgy, but that they’d know more when we got back to France the next day. They quite rightly pointed out that Mont Blanc wasn’t a mountain to take chances on, but that no decisions would be taken until we got a better picture.

For now we looked forward to a bit of bouldering which would follow on the way down the mountain the next morning. We had conquered Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain – time to be very happy for now 🙂

Mont Blanc 2014 Day 2

Day 2 began in very relaxed style, with a lie in until a ridiculously pleasant 7.30, and breakfast at 8. We would be heading into Italy for a three day trip to attempt Gran Paradiso, the highest mountain entirely within Italy, at 4,061m, which would be great preparation and acclimatisation for our attempt at Mont Blanc later in the week.

The chalet we are staying in also doubles as skiing accommodation in the winter, and has a view of both sides of the Chamonix valley, so it was such a nice start to the trip.

View from the chalet of the western side of the Chamonix valley.......

View from the chalet of the western side of the Chamonix valley…….

....and the view to the Eastern side, the far end of Mont Blanc peering into view.

….and the view to the Eastern side, the far end of Mont Blanc peering into view.

Following breakfast our guides arrived to do a full kit inspection. We had to lie everything out on our beds so as to make sure that we had all that we needed for the trips ahead of us. I had previously made the decision to hire mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axe, helmet and harness from them, and so apart for those all I didn’t ‘pass’ on where my sunglasses. As we’d be doing a fair bit of glacier work the guide advised me to have Cat 4 glasses (mine are of unknown classification, but certainly aren’t Cat 4).

The guides then took us into town prior to getting our hire equipment, so we could buy what we needed, and also to pick up some food for the next two days whilst we were away in Italy. Once we’d shopped (I picked up a rather nice, if rather expensive, pair of folding carbon poles while I was shopping too :)) we headed back to leave for Italy on the minibus. I think pretty much everyone else had everything they needed too, other than Katya, who needed a bigger rucksack, and she picked up a really nice Millet one.

After a drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel and then a gorgeous winding run around hairpin bends across and over the Aosta valley (oh and a cheeky spot of pasta lunch too at a campsite restaurant) we began a very hot ascent up to our ultimate destination for the night, the Chabon hut in the Gran Paradiso national park.

We set off from quite high up, at about 1,800m, and it was already noticeable that the air was thinner than I am used to, and so it took a little while to adjust to it, but it was fine really, the main problem being the heat, even at this altitude.

Taking a breather early on the path up to the Chabon Hut

Taking a breather early on the path up to the Chabon Hut

Apart from the heat the main problem I had though was my boots. The guides wanted us to walk up in our mountaineering boots so as to make sure they didn’t give us blisters etc. Now me and borrowed boots don’t really get on very well it has to be said. Or moreover I have crap feet. When boots fit me I’m great and don’t have any problems, but if something isn’t quite right then it can be horrible, and here I just couldn’t get comfortable. Mountaineering boots are fairly unforgiving anyway being so stiff in the sole, but mine were just tight across the mid foot and I also had heel lift, a bad combination.

The walk was a two and a half hour trek to the hut at 2,700m. It was always really hot but really picturesque. I was so glad to arrive and my boots came off within seconds! I was horrified to find that I had failed to pack Compeed in my rucksack (it was down the valley in my bag in Chamonix), but thankfully I managed to borrow some from one of the others, and so was hopefully going to be good to go for the following morning.

The Chabon hut was my first in Italy (I’ve been in huts in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria before though, and they are all slightly different). It was a nice hut, with plenty of room in the dormitory, and a decent bathroom too. We were of course in Italy so that meant lashings of pasta for dinner which I couldn’t wait for 🙂 The hut sleeps about 80 people, and they are building an extension to increase capacity. Everyone else was there to climb Gran Paradiso too.

The Chabon hut, Gran Paradiso national park.

The Chabon hut, Gran Paradiso national park.

There was also a good view up from the hut of our objective the next morning, Gran Paradiso itself! Although we couldn’t quite see the summit, most of the mountain and the glacier were in view, and it looked a long way up – the ascent would be about 1,400m in fact.

Looking up the glacier from the Chabon hut - the summit is hidden at the back right of the picture.

Looking up the glacier from the Chabon hut – the summit is hidden at the back middle of the picture.

Once settled in, we had a practice session putting on crampons and ropes and the like ready for the morning, as our next time doing this would be in the dark on the glacier in the  morning. Following this we all tucked in to a massive dinner of spaghetti bolognaise, followed by a big plate of stew, then chocolate mousse. It would have been rude to say no! Then it was an early night with lights out at about 9, with a quick bit of rucksack preparation ready for a 3.30 alarm call…..

We would leave for the summit at 4am the next day………