No Room, but What a View!

July 2004

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I'd "booked" myself a couple of days in Chamonix during a family holiday near Lac Annecy. The weather had been unsettled most of the time, but the forecast for the next two days was good, so I was off. The question was - where? Perhaps an explore of the Aiguille Rouge? Or perhaps a bivvi somewhere near the Couvercle Refuge?

I'd decide when I got to Chamonix.

My indecision was neatly matched by my lack of organisation - no food. This was sorted by a classic alpine lie-in (7am) and an openning time visit to the Shoppi in Megeve.

The resultant late arrival in Chamonix prompted a decisive abandonment of the car in a layby near the Midi 'frique station with a plan to wander along the Grand Balcon Nord, cross the Mer de Glace and take the ladder-strewn Balcon de Mer de Glace towards the Couvercle Refuge. The Aiguille Rouge still had some cloud around most of the peaks.

10:30am on the first sunny day for weeks is not a good time to try and catch a quick Midi 'frique. Queues all over the car park. Bummer. Suddenly the propect of an unassisted version seemed curiously attractive - first trip to Chamonix; I should do it "properly" just this once. Just to get a sense of scale. Anyway, I'd got a pair trekking poles and I wanted to see if they made 1500 metres of climb any easier.

Actually, they did. Two hours got me up to the Plan d'Aiguille and wondering whether the popularity of the Grand Balcon Nord had been overstated. Where was everyone? Two minutes later a cable car did a dump and I hid behind a boulder with my sachet of tuna and pasta salad till the rush had passed.

Another couple of hours got me pleasantly to Signal Forbes and the classic views of the Mer de Glace, Grandes Jorasse and the Dru. Well, two out of three's not bad - the Dru was in cloud.

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Studiously pretending the crowds at Montenvers didn't exist, I nipped down the ladders to the Mer de Glace. Where now? A chat with some folks just off the glacier suggested that crampons would be a good idea and that this late in the day, the devious "echelles" route to the Couvercle Refuge was a bad one. Always ready to learn, I decides to not bother with crampons and go for the echelles. Actually, my exemplary preparation for this trip meant that I'd carried my crampons all this way just to find that thay were still adjusted for my climbing boot and not the presently worn walking ones. Who needs them anyway.

A bit of vague wandering up the glacier didn't uncover any echelles on the other side. Then I spotted the subtle signs - a six foot square of white paint high on the rocks. Just like the one above the Montenvers side ladders. Could this be a hint? A quick flurry over the moraines and there they were. Just like on the map. Its easy when you know what to look for.

Another couple of hours of ladder climbing and wandering got me to the "Don't hang around under the Charpoua Glacier seracs" bit and the realisation that I wasn't going to get to the Couvercle Refuge before dark. The prospect of trying to find a bivvi spot in the dark amongst the ladders and slabs of the Aiguille du Moine shoulder wasn't very attractive, so it was back to a niftily spotted bivvi spot behind a boulder just out of earshot of the Charpoua glacier runoff.

Obviously a prime spot - not long after settling down, there were half a dozen marmots with 20 metres and some chamois not much further away. No wind, sky clearing, ground almost horizontal, and the setting sun on the Grandes Jorasses.

No Room - but What a View!

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Managed not to have another alpine lie-in and woke just as the first light was painting the North face again.

Grandes Jorasses - First Light of Dawn

Being lazy and not in any great hurry, I didn't get packed and moving till 7am. The rest of the route up and down the ladders and round the shoulder was knocked off quickly. Curiously, there were more good bivvi spots on this section that on the "easier" first part. Just for the record.

I had promised to be back at Lac Annecy for tea time and there was nowhere further I could reasonably go, so it was back the same way and see if I can dodge the Refuge-bound traffic on the ladders.

There was one section of ladders I found odd - fifty feet straight down, six feet across and then fifty feet back up again to end up a short traverse from where I started. Perhaps they just ordered too may ladders.

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The "be prepared" theme continued with the spare camera batteries being largely flat.

With no more photographic distractions, I was back over the Mer de Glace in quick time, back up the ladders to Montenvers (most knackering bit) and down the Rocher de Montets path back to a sweltering and gridlocked Chamonix.

Warming up the batteries squeezed out one last shot of the now clear Petit Dru from the glacier. A parting shot.