Photographs, in addition to the ones displayed below, can now be found at http://www.caledoniahilltreks.com/gallery.htm#europe05.Introduction
This trip was planned and organised by one of my regular clients, Janice Shepherd, from the Trossachs area of Scotland.
My recollection of events is that several months ago, while guiding Mrs Shepherd on one of her walks she mentioned her interest in climbing Mount Blanc, a 4,000 metre peak in the Alps. My mistake was to show an interest in accompanying Mrs Shepherd and before I had a chance to consider my options she had been in contact with Martin Moran Mountaineering and had preliminary booked a week’s trip to the Alps. I had little option but to go along with Janice’s plans as the trip was on a two clients to one guide basis and I didn’t want to disappoint a regular client. If you read on, I wish I had.
Day One - 20 August 2005
We caught an early morning flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow and onwards to Geneva. The usual delays were experienced in and out of London Heathrow. We had come prepared as there were no meals available on these flights due to a strike involving BA’s catering staff.
On the arrival at Geneva we collected our baggage and headed for the airport rail station where a very helpful lady booked us on a train journey to Seon and onwards by bus to Evolene. At the end of the transaction she suggested that if we hurried we could catch the next train to Seon which was due to leave in a few minutes time. A rush down the escalators saw us catch the train as predicted and a few minutes later we were leaving Geneva and heading for Seon.
On route to Seon we saw Lake Geneva and some of the lower mountains came into view. This was followed by Lake Lausanne before we arrived in Seon bang on time as is common with transport in Switzerland.
As the train entered the station we spotted the adjoining bus station which was very helpful as we only had a few minutes to spare to catch the bus to Evolene.
Chalet Iris and Aiguille de la TsaThe bus journey of 45 minutes took us up the Val d’Herens to an altitude of around 1400 metres. On alighting from the bus it was raining as we searched for our accommodation, which was the Chalet Iris.
We eventually found the three storey, typical Swiss chalet and settled into our rooms. Dinner was at 7pm in a nearby chalet but we were late as we were still operating on British Summer Time and not Swiss time, which was an hour earlier.
After a quick dinner we met Martin Moran, whom I have met before, who outlined the week ahead for all his guests. There were at least four different groups, some of whom were on their second week. We were introduced to our guide for the week, Andy Teasdale, who is an Englishman residing in North Wales.
We listened to his plan for a successful ascent of Mt Blanc. He thought that acclimatising was very important so for the next two nights we would be sleeping at the Dix Hut which is at a height of just under 3000 metres.
It was still raining when we returned to Chalet Iris to prepare our gear for the following day and head off to bed.
Day Two - 21 August 2005
We were up at 7.30am for breakfast and the other residents of the Chalet pointed out that the snow level had lowered overnight on the nearby mountain, the Aiguille de la Tsa.
After breakfast we walked into Evolene to purchase bread as we required three days worth of sandwiches. Part of the village was cordoned off for a mountain bike race that was in progress.
Andy later arrived and after a gear the inspection he drove us to Les Hauderes, up the Val d’Arolla to Arolla, which is at a height of just over 2000 metres.
Here the walking commenced as we climbed up passed the Grand Hotel Kurhaus. At this time it was dry but cloud covered the higher mountains. We passed through a wooded area before reaching the open hillside. Our guide pointed out a couple of birds, the wheatear and the nutcracker, and showed us some gentians. Higher up there were lots of marmots and some young ones.
Glacier du Mount CollonThe path continued up through the valley to the Fontanesses ski tows where it started to rain and we had to don our waterproof gear. Higher up the rain turned to sleet and then snow before we approached the Pas de Cheores. Here there was a sheer drop of seventy feet down a rock face which was protected by a series of three ladders.
This was out first opportunity to use the climbing equipment that we were carrying as we required to be roped up for this descent. I descended first followed closely behind by Janice as Andy protected any fall, from above. There was no ladder on the final couple of feet so we needed to find footholds on the rock. Once successfully down we were joined by Andy who coiled up the rope before we set off through some boulders. Visibility by this time was reduced and we were now in a white wilderness. It felt like being back home in Scotland in poor weather conditions.
Once we had lost some more height we reached the edge of the Glacier de Cheilon, crossed the glacier and climbed up to the Dix Hut, which is located on the Tete Noire, reaching there around 5pm. The hut is located at a height of 2928 metres so was a good place to acclimatise.
This was our first visit to an Alpine hut, so once we removed our waterproof gear and boots, which we replaced with hut slippers, Andy showed us round the hut which can cater for up to 150 people. It consisted of a large dining/sitting area and gantry. Downstairs was the drying room and toilets with some cold running water to wash in! Upstairs were the dorms. They consisted of large sleeping platforms catering for four people on each one. They were equipped with duvet covers and a pillow so all we needed was our sleep sheet. Our dorm was capable of holding 16 people, but fortunately, due to the bad weather there were very few people staying at the Hut and we had the dorm to ourselves, at least on the first night.
There was already four other residents in the hut so we joined them and discussed what we were doing. No one else arrived at the Hut that day so there were only seven of us to cater for. We were treated to a couple of plates of soup, chicken in a sauce with rice and meringue and cream. A grand meal indeed.
It was still snowing when we retired to our rooms for the night. Lights out in the Hut is at 10pm so to move about after this time you need a torch.
Day Three - 22 August 2005
Andy came in at 6am to tell us that breakfast was delayed until 8am as the weather was still poor so we stayed in bed for another hour before rising and preparing ourselves for the day ahead.
Once breakfast, which consisted of fruit juice, muesli, bread and jams was over, we put on all our winter and waterproof gear and headed outside and into the snow. There was very little to see other than at close quarters a white wilderness, although there were a few choughs flying about on the side of Tete Noire.
We headed uphill following the guide who had to stop frequently to check his map as visibility was poor. It was slow going in deep snow and Andy had to change course several times as the snow was too deep in places to make any satisfactory progress.
At the Glacier La Luette we put on crampons and a harness, were roped up and given instructions on how to keep the rope reasonably taught. With Andy leading, Janice in the middle and me at the rear we headed onto the glacier but due to the volume of snow and the poor visibility, as it was still snowing, we saw very little, other than the occasional large looking crevasse. There was also no general communication as the gap was too great to hold a conversation.
En-route to La LuetteWe eventually reached the south ridge of La Lauette. To gain the summit we had to work our way round several what appeared to be steep pinnacles and this was difficult in the snow. After 4.5 hours, two kilometres of walking and a height gain of only 620 metres we were advised we were at the summit, although there was nothing to confirm this.
The return was by the upward route with me taking the lead and trying to follow the boot prints we had made on the ascent. Sometimes this was difficult in the poor visibility and in the wind they had been covered over. I had to stop occasionally to search for the route.
On the descent of the glacier, Janice fell into a crevasse but only up to her armpits as she was being supported on the rope by Andy and me. Andy shouted instructions to Janice on how to extricate herself from this hole and shortly afterwards we were on the move again being more aware of the hidden traps.
Once beyond the glacier we were able to un-rope and remove our crampons and harness and then head back to the Dix Hut. On my arrival there I met my neighbour from my home in Aberdeen, Scotland. He had just arrived there for three nights as his planned ascent of the Matterhorn was cancelled as the mountain was closed to climbers due to the volume of snow and the subsequent dangers.
There was an outside shower at the Dix Hut but there was no way I was using it and in any case it was covered in snow so we sat about the hut with the other 12 residents or so, drank tea, had another nice meal and chatted till bed time.
Day Four - 23 August 2005
The next morning we awoke to find the Hut engulfed in cloud but at least it had stopped snowing. However the climb over the Pigne d’Arolla, at nearly 3,800 metres, was cancelled due to the snow volume and the high risk of avalanches and we were given another hour or so in bed.
Breakfast was at 7am before we packed our gear and headed out across deep snow to the Glacier de Cheilon as the cloud began to lift. On reaching the Glacier we were again roped up and wore crampons. As the cloud cleared we had spectacular views of the snow covered surroundings and of the snow clad mountains. It was obvious that there had been several small avalanches especially around the Mt Blanc de Cheilon.
We eventually reached the Col de Cheilon at 3243 metres where we took several photographs before returning to the Dix Hut to collect and pack the remainder of our belongings. The Hut Guardian and his assistant were sitting outside the Hut preparing the evening meal as several new residents were expected that day.
Pigne d'ArollaWe left the hut and descended to the lower reaches of the Glacier de Cheilton following the trail of some of last night’s residents of the Dix Hut who had left to return to Arolla earlier in the day. The snow on the Glacier was by now very soft as the temperature had risen significantly due to the sun being out.
On reaching the Pas de Cheores we agreed to free climb the three section ladder we had used a few days earlier to negotiate the seventy foot cliff wall. Once at the top of this ladder we followed the path down to Arolla passing several groups who were en-route to the Dix Hut.
Dix HutOn the arrival at Arolla we were then driven back to Chalet Iris in La Tour, Evolene where we were able to shower and change before our evening meal at the Chalet Les Maures. The other clients were all out on overnight trips so we were joined by Andy and another guide and the couple employed to look after the Chalets.
Day Five - 24 August 2005
We were collected from Chalet Iris at 8.30am by Andy and drivento Chamonix in France and onto the nearby village of Les Houches. Here we tried to cash some traveller cheques but the local bank told us we could only do that in Chamonix so we had to use the cash machine instead.
We visited a local café before heading for the cable car which took us up to Bellevue. After a short walk we reached the tramway station where we waited for the next rack and pinion tram on the Tramway du Mount Blanc.
The tram took us to the Nid d’Aigle, which is the end of the tram line. Here we alighted and headed off uphill following paths through the moraine and to the disused hut at Baraque Forestiere des Rognes. On route we saw several bouquetin and one young one.
This was followed by a rocky climb up towards the Tete Rousse mountain hut. As height was gained we reached the snow level and had to put on crampons before continuing up the ridge before traversing across snow pack to the hut. We were forced to stay here overnight as the higher hut, the Gouter Hut, was fully booked. However the Tete Rousse, at 3167 metres, only opened this year as it had been rebuilt and was in excellent condition. It did not have any running water as it appeared that this had not been connected as yet.
Glacier de Bionnassay
There were great views of the Aiguille de Bionnassay and its glacier from the dining - seating area. After a cup of tea we retired to our dormitory, which consisted of four platforms sleeping four on each platform. We had been allocated a bed number and lay down and tried to sleep. I probably slept for about twenty minutes but after that I was disturbed regularly by people entering the room. We eventually ended up speaking to the Dutch climber next to me.
Later we had dinner before a discussion took place on when we would set out for Mt Blanc. It was decided that we would get up at 11pm so at 8.30pm we went to bed. Most of the other residents were bedded by this time and it was very noisy with snoring and grunting. I did not sleep and rose at 10.40pm and prepared to leave the Hut. Andy had arranged for a breakfast tray to be left out for us but all I had was a drink of juice as I didn’t feel like eating again so soon after dinner.
Day Six - 25 August 2005
Dressed in all our warm gear and wearing crampons and a safety helmet we ventured outside into the cold where we were roped up and set off at 11.30pm. Immediately from the start I didn’t feel good but put it down to the time of day. The skies were clear and there was a slight breeze.
Andy led, followed by Janice and myself. According to references we crossed the Grand Couloir but in the dark I wasn’t aware of this. I was later aware that we were climbing some steep snow covered rock which was the Gouter Ridge. Higher up the ridge became steeper and had wire hawsers fitted to assist in the final section of the ridge to the Gouter Hut. We reached there 3 hours after we had set out. There was a lot of activity and this was the first time we had come across anyone else on the mountain that morning.
Arguille de BionnassayWe were allowed a short break outside the Hut but it was cold and windy. We could see lights in the Chamonix valley but I have to admit I wasn’t very enthusiastic as I didn’t feel good.
It was cold and windy outside the Gouter Hut. After about ten minutes we set off again climbing up onto the ridge where we could see a torch light procession of those that had left the Gouter Hut before our arrival, heading for the summit of Mt Blanc.
We followed this procession and passed several tents dug into the snow. It was now colder and the wind was stronger so it was an unpleasant very slow plod as we headed uphill following the torch light procession. All I saw with my torch were my boots as I placed one foot in front of the other, just. There was no communication as we were separated by a rope so we were left with our own thoughts and mine were I didn’t want to be here. However Janice wanted to go on so I didn’t really have much option. According to route plans we traversed the Dome du Gouter before descending slightly to the Col de Dome. I remember this section because on looking up I saw a line of torchlight rising steeply in the distance and knew that we had to follow.
The climb was steep and slow as we were only able to take very small steps. Some people passed us and we caught up with other groups so we obviously weren’t the slowest on the mountain that morning. At one time it appeared that dawn was breaking away in the distance, as the sky began to brighten up but later the whole area was covered in cloud.
At a point beside the Vallot Refuge, (4362 metres) although we couldn’t see it, we left our walking poles here and took out our ice axes. Had I known that we were close to a refuge I would probably have taken shelter and awaited Andy and Janice’s return. The continuation of the walk I presume was over the Bosses Ridge but I was aware of crossing a narrow arête as here we started meeting climbers on their return. Passing each other, roped up, was a bit awkward as we were to stay on the path though the snow.
Once beyond the arête we were told we were on the summit of Mt Blanc. It was 7.30am and it had taken us eight hours from the Tete Rousse Hut. There was nothing there to indicate this, just a few other climbers. On arrival I lay down in the snow as there was no view, just grey cloud. It was suggested we eat and drink but I didn’t feel like either and after a few minutes it was time to descend.
I led the descent, which was initially difficult on the arête section passing lots of climbers still trying to ascend. As we got lower I felt better and stronger and we stopped at the Vallot Refuge to collect our poles and put away our ice axe. Well we placed them down the back of our rucksacks in case we needed them urgently. Our clothing was covered in what appeared to be hoar frost but was probably blowing snow. We had a bite to eat here before continuing the descent through the deep snow to the Gouter Hut.
Aig du MidiAt the Gouter Hut we stopped to buy hot water for some tea. Compared with the Tete Rousse Hut this was a tip. The whole place was a total mess with climbers coming and going and snow all over the floors. We were probably fortunate that we didn’t stay here.
We probably remained at this hut for around an hour before setting off down the Gouter Ridge holding onto the wire hawsers. The snow was a lot softer now as it had been churned up by fellow climbers. I didn’t find this much of a problem but Janice did. The rope between us frequently became taut as Janice came across some awkward steps and progress became fairly slow. Lower down the ridge was less steep, with no protection and was easier to descend.
Lower down we crossed the Grand Couloir where we were instructed to take great care. On reaching the route to the Tete Rousse Hut we were allowed to un-rope, the first time in over twelve hours, except for the stop on the descent at the Gouter Hut. Well Janice had to un-rope going up as well as she couldn’t go to the loo with Andy and me.
The next section of the descent was down towards the Baraque Forestiere des Rognes where once out of the snow we were able to remove our crampons. Beyond there Andy left us to head to the tram station at the Nid d’Aigle to book our place on the tram, as it is essential at busy times to book in advance.
The next section of the descent took a long time as Janice had slowed down dramatically as she was now very tired. I was also tired but felt a lot better immediately I commenced the descent from the summit of Mt Blanc.
Eventually we reached Nid d’Aigle just as the tram arrived. We boarded it, standing room only, so it was a bit of a crush. At Bellevue we alighted from the tram and walked up a slight incline, which was tiring, to the cable car. Here we took another break and Andy and Janice had some more tea, before we took the cable car down to Les Houches.
During the drive back to Evolene I slept for a while. On our return to the Chalet Iris we had a welcome shower before heading to the Chalet Les Moures for our evening meal, where we were joined by Andy and another guide. Afterwards we returned to our own chalet and went to bed.
Day Seven - 26 August 2005
We had already told Andy that we needed a day off after the exertions of Mt Blanc and I probably wasn’t in the frame of mind to do anything else due to the disappointment of my condition during the ascent of Mt Blanc.
A leisurely late breakfast was taken once I went for some bread. It was a lovely sunny morning, a pity it was 24 hours late. We took a stroll in the morning into the nearby village of Les Hauderes and in the afternoon we had a stroll round Evolene.
In the evening we returned to Evolene, as it was the cook’s night off, and found a reasonable restaurant. It was pleasant sitting outside initially but later became quiet cold. We then had an early night as we were still tired from the exertions and had to catch a bus into Sion first thing in the morning.
Day Eight - 27 August 2005
We caught the bus to Sion around 6.40am and subsequently the train to Geneva in plenty of time to catch the lunchtime flight to Heathrow and an afternoon flight from Heathrow back to Edinburgh and the end of our brief visit to the Mt Blanc region of Switzerland and France.
I don't class the ascent of Mt Blanc as an achievement, more of a nightmare, as each step took so long and I didn't have much else to think about other than how bad I felt. I was kind of obliged to keep going mainly because Janice had also forked out a lot of money to get to the summit.
I have walked at higher altitudes in the Himalayas with very few problems caused by altitude but on that occasion there was no sustained climbing and we had plenty of time to acclimatise.
On this trip we were only there for one week, which in hindsight wasn’t long enough to prepare for what was a sustained eight hours of climbing. The days prior to the ascent were disrupted by bad weather which prevented us from climbing higher to assist with the acclimatisation procedure.
I also did not take on enough liquid on my visit to this area and in particular on the day of the climb as it was rather awkward going frequently to the loo when you are roped up and in a queue of climbers heading to the summit of Mt Blanc. I mainly had bread and cheese for my trip to Mt Blanc and some cake. The food for preparing packed lunches was supplied as part of our package but bread and cheese didn’t appeal to me very much on the climb and it would probably have been better if I had some dates, nuts or something similar to give me some energy.
So if reading this and contemplating climbing Mt Blanc. Go for at least a fortnight so that you have plenty of time to acclimatise. This will give you a choice of several days in the second week where hopefully you can select the best day for an attempt on the summit. In saying this, so will hundreds of other walkers. Also ensure you take on enough liquid and carry food that you will eat even during the middle of the night or when things aren’t going very well.
Finally remember Mt Blanc is a dangerous mountain with several fatalities every year so take care as it is definitely not a walk in the park.