Friday, 9 September 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 1-2: Chamonix to the Cabane d'Orny

"All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small."
Lao Tzu

Changes in the life paths we take can be characterised as beginning with small but pivotal moments dotted in a morass of banality. Recognising those moments when they arrive takes, it appears to me, more luck than judgment. Evolution does not occur overnight - it takes thought, planning, preparation and starting small - or put another way, said Lao Tzu, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The photograph below was taken on 29th August 2010 at 13.03hrs. I was perched on a rocky outcrop at 2,700m, the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc, gazing at this scene with something approaching pure joy, and munching lazily on a truly wonderful sandwich made by a somewhat grumpy Swiss Gîte owner from Champex. The photograph shows the Glacier du Trient and I was sat just above the Fenêtre d'Arpette. Behind the glacier, the Aiguilles du Midi, du Pissoir and du Tour can be seen. It was at this moment that my life changed. Not a fundamental volte face, more a subtle shift in the hierarchy of Important Things. I resolved then, without much deliberation or hesitation, that it would not be long before I was on that glacier instead of staring up at it.

On 23rd August 2011, at 09.37hrs, almost exactly a year later, I was on the Glacier du Trient and by 10.00hrs, I was passing within five hundred metres of my perch above the Fenêtre the year before. It was a moment, at the start of our trek, that I well appreciated and which gave me no small satisfaction. It followed the birth of my son, months of preparation in the gym, the conclusion of matters at work that I wanted well to see the back of and led me into a new personal era - it was a moment, although fleeting and ephemeral, which sent shockwaves of revelation through my psyche. Crossroads are rare and travelling the correct path is rarely easy but sometimes a little courage and determination reaps great rewards. Sometimes, despite the naysayers, it's ok to dream.

The story does not, however, begin on the Glacier du Trient. The story worth telling (that is to say ignoring the hours, weeks and months in the gym, the nights spent poring over kit lists and the packing of cavernous kit bags the evening before) begins in Argentiére, Chamonix, France on 21st August 2011. As usual, we set foot off the plane in Geneva and take a bus transfer to our hotel - Le Dahu, in Argentiére. It is here we will meet our Guide and the rest of our group before, the next day, ascending to the Albert 1er Hut on the Glacier du Tour. I've waxed lyrical already on my reasons for being guided, but I intend to post at some length on the history and philosophy of Mountain Guides in the Alps and my feelings on the subject so I'll not divert your attention away from the trek by dealing with that here. Suffice to say, it is not the last time I'll be guided in the Alps and my respect and admiration for Alpine Guides is significant.

In the hotel, we laid out our kit on the beds and made final selections, placing unwanted items in our kit bags. The weather was warm and sunny - a bountiful gift which would continue right to the end of our trek. Never has there been an Alpine adventure blessed with more sunshine. Lady Luck smiled on us for two solid weeks, barring one short incident. I was keen to keep my rucksack as light as possible - I knew we'd be carrying rope between us as well, and I did not want to be making technical and tiring ascents with a heavy pack. Ultralight philosophy works equally well in the Alps as it does elsewhere.

We met Nigel Shepherd, our IFMGA Guide, that night as well as the other members of our small team. We numbered seven in total - some with trekking experience, some with Alpine experience, some with Himalayan experience. All with enthusiasm and resolve. After a pleasant dinner, we retired to bed. As was the way with the trek to come, an early start was essential.

Day One: Argentiére to Albert 1er Hut (CAF)
Ascent: 675m
Descent: 27m
Highest Point: 2,702m Albert 1er Hut (CAF)
Distance: 4.1km
Time: 1hr 47mins

We take the cable car up to the Col de Balme in the warm, sharp early morning sun. I had been here before, on the TMB last year, but there was a lot more snow then - partnered with a bitter, frigid arctic wind slashing at my cheeks. Today, it is a balmy, clear day and I have the rope. It is an easy ascent and I am moving quickly, without hindrance despite the additional encumbrance. I feel good and thankful for my preparation. We stop from time to time to capture the images swirling around us but in reality, our priority is to get to the hut, grab a bed and head for the Glacier du Tour for crampon and rope work. We had the afternoon to get re-acquainted with our heavy metal and we all want as much time on the glacier as possible.

The approach to the glacier, and onto the moraine leading to the Albert 1er hut, is a craggy but straightforward path with chains sporadically punctuating the hillside. To the right, off the path a matter of metres, is the heavily crevassed snout of the Glacier du Tour. Above, before the stark drop into the snout, lies the upper part of the glacier on which we would be practising our crampon work and crevasse rescue that afternoon and, tomorrow, making our way to our first summit - the Tête Blanche at 3,421m. We stumble across rocky, bouldery bedlam (which, unbeknownst to us, is to characterise the coming two weeks of trekking), picking as solid a line as we are able to. So much of the mountainside in the Alps is loose scree and bouldery danger that the energy and stamina required to traverse a hillside compares little to the UK. 'Gnarly' is a word I hate. However, it fits like a glove.

It is not long that we negotiate the sharp ridge of the moraine beside the glacier before we come upon another steep ascent. The hut appears out of nowhere and we rejoice. We're hungry, despite a good breakfast, and we do not quite have our mountain legs yet. Just under 2 hours of steady ascent has taken its toll and we look forward to dumping our gear, eating and getting ready for some glacier work. Ascent in the Alps is a different proposition to the UK. 1200-1300m in the UK takes in the largest mountain. The same distance in the Alps, at least on the Haute Route, is a mundane daily essential. On our 'rest day' we climbed 1000m.

I wish I could say that the Albert 1er hut was a joy but the single tea bag for 3 litres of water gives you a sense of the attitude of the staff. We devoured a huge omelette with all the trimmings, but even that was served with a dismissive curl of the lips. I don't expect silver service in an alpine hut, but a smile seems feasible. Dinner is in two sittings, it is so busy, but there is nowhere to sit afterwards. It's a manic place with little in the way of solitude and peace. So many groups depart from here each day that finding kit in the morning is a mêlée. Sleep comes only to those who are extremely tired or, as I did, remember to bring earplugs. I found a quite corner in the dortoir and managed to snatch a good night's sleep before our 5am way-up call the next day.

The afternoon was spent on the glacier, roped up, crampons on, tying knots and falling down crevasses. We drill in ice screws, front-point into the bulletproof ice, all the while placing faith in the French and the Americans, driving our crampon points in with determined precision. By 5pm, we are back in the hut, excitement tinged with apprehension. Tomorrow, it begins...

Day Two: Albert 1er Hut (CAF) to the Orny Hut (CAS)
Ascent: 1192m
Descent: 806m
Highest Point: 3,421m Tête Blanche
Distance: 11.6km
Time: 7hr 31mins

We awake at the same time as the rest of our dortoir - somewhere around 5am. Our sacks are packed from the night before, with our clothes for the day shoved under a pillow for easy access. Harnesses go on, crabs clipped in, and the rope again finds its way onto my pack - but only for a short distance this time. As I move around in the darkness outside, head torch strobes slashing the dark, early morning air, I am keen to ensure no mistakes. I am a perfectionist - more out of a desire to avoid embarrassment than anything else - so I place my feet with care on the rock. It will be cold on the glacier - something we experienced yesterday - a palpable drop in temperature when setting foot onto the cool, ancient ice. Like opening the door of a freezer. Yet, I know we have a mountain to ascend today - at 3,421m, the Tête Blanche will be the highest I have ever been on foot. It will be a salutary moment I know for I live for summits. Not so much a tick, as a vista. The views make me feel alive - nothing worthwhile is easy - my father drummed that into me from a young age and I shall tell my son the same. A free lunch tastes nowhere near as good as one hard earned.

We scramble down sandy, brown rock for about half an hour in the half-light perhaps even more cautious than usual. This is the beginning of things and no one wants to look foolish. As the light improves, the sun still dipped well below the mountains, a polarised crimson hue veils everything in sight. Chardonnet, or more properly the Aiguille du Chardonnet, at 3,353m stands resplendent and majestic overlooking the glacier. It is a constant companion for much of the morning and I find it hard to tear my eyes away from this regal figure. We stoop, ditch our packs and begin to strap on crampons and retrieve ice-axes. The glacier is bullet-hard and it takes some force of will to trust in my crampons despite yesterday's preparations. I gaze down to the hut, and the complex, crevasse ridden mess next to it - ice-axes arrest is pointless here. The answer is a simple one: don't slip.

As the glacier is not wet - that is to say, there is no snow which might disguise crevasses - we are not roped up. We progress slowly - after all, it is still early both in the morning and in the trek itself. Mountain legs are a day away at least. Focus on each step, I tell myself - everything counts here. I listen to the rhythmic crunch of crampon into ice accompanying each footfall. The sound brings me solace - a sensation of perceived composure. 

We are not alone - many groups accompany us towards the various cols and aiguilles that comprise the head of the Glacier du Tour. Specks in the distance lend scale and perspective. We cross the glacier, heading for the base of the Col Superior du Tour. We do not intend to ascend the Col (at 3,288m) - instead we will traverse its base and head for the Tête Blanche whereupon we will rope down off the edge between the Tête Blanche and the Petite Fourche. If our rope is long enough - we only have two 30m half ropes.

As we pass under the gaping maw of the Col Superior du Tour, it looks steep and long. I am immediately thankful we are going nowhere near it. It's not even a Scottish Winter Grade I, not even a couloir or gully, but it looks like a slog. Instead we continue on and, within what seems a blissfully short time, we find ourselves ascending the Tête Blanche. Nothing is easy in snow and crampons and I recall now that the ascent took some little time. Snow has a way of sucking the vigour from the marrow of your bones and my muscles begin to burn. Yet that pain has paled into a distant, poorly recalled memory alongside the moment we reached the rocky outcrop of the summit. Again ditching packs, we scramble up to the top, another 50m, thrilled at what awaits us.

There is nothing that moves me quite like an alpine peak. The views in Scotland and the UK national parks are one thing but seeing into infinity on a clear day at 3,421m is unlike anything I have experienced. It was to get even better on this trek but, at that moment, I am smitten; speechless to describe to the sublime snowscape around me. The wind is minimal and the sun, although not yet high in the sky, bathes everything in an intense, crisp radiance. I chew on a snickers and tug down some water. I am engulfed in a bewildering, awesome world that is alien to me. I suspect I cannot stop smiling. Soon we have to move again - alpinism is all about time-keeping as the conditions degrade over the course of the day. We descend to our packs, strap on crampons and head for the snow-cliff face. Nigel has a back-up plan but tells us only now what it is - if we do not have enough rope to descend here, we will need to go back to the Col Superior du Tour, ascend there and come down the other side to the Trient Glacier. I am, of course, not surprised by this - as we passed the Col Superior du Tour, a small part of me just knew I'd be back here having to trudge up it.

As if by design, no safe protection can be found, no ice-screw will be left, the rope is not long enough - it all means a kilometre back to the Col Superior du Tour and that exhausting toil. I lead this time at the front of the rope and we descend quickly and without fuss. Ditching a layer for the ascent, we set off. I cross-over-step, French technique being my preference on a steep gradient, and make good, if arduous, progress. At the top, I gaze down wistfully at the sweat I have left in the snow. At least my crampon-work has improved - every moment on difficult terrain is a lesson learned.

We scramble, crampons on, still roped, over the rocky carapace of the mountain and emerge the other side for another snickers break, greedily gulping down hydration. The sun is hot on our faces as we find a rocky perch on which to rest. It is a simple descent from here to the Trient glacier and then another snowy trek to Orny. I pass the the Aiguilles du Midi, du Pissoir and du Tour before moving under the Trient Hut. It is not far to the Fenêtre d'Arpette, I know, and a smile crosses my face. I am at the back of the rope-team, so know one sees and it is a private moment of pride and satisfaction - an indulgence I feel I've earned.

Before long, we reach the edge of the Trient glacier and take off our crampons. It is a rocky path that leads to the Orny hut but we are hungry now and we move quickly and with practised steps. Soon we spy the glacial lake that sits just before the hut and within seconds, the Orny hut itself is visible. I take a moment to enjoy the sight of my bed for the night before we descend to the hut. On the baked rock outside, as the midday sun sears our brows, we lie for a moment, catching our breath. Nigel sorts out our beds and we move inside for the first of many forays into a staple of Swiss mountain diets - rösti, fried eggs, bacon and cheese. We sort out kit and then sit and chat happily, discussing the day's events and the trek to come. I read voraciously. After dinner, I am 'invited' to help wash up. It is an honour, in fact, and afterwards we share an apricot schnapps with the hut guardian. It's a magical, tiny moment - one which caps the day. We retire to bed early - a big descent ahead of us tomorrow.


  1. Wonderful. Just,... Wonderful!
    Really looking forward to what comes next!

  2. Maz, just echoing Alan's comment - even better than last year's trip report. I look forward to the next installment.

  3. Great write up Maz, looking forward to next part (as is everyone else!).

  4. Thanks Simon - coming soon - as soon as I have time to write it. The Chanrion hut to the Shönbielhutte - 4 days in total - is the highlight of the trek with the Pigne d'Arolla taking centre stage followed closely by the Tête Blanche from the Bertol hut and the descent of the Stockji glacier beneath the Matterhorn. Some real weather that day!

  5. Thanks Mark and Alan - really nice comments. As I said to Simon, the Chanrion hut to the Shönbielhutte was excellent stuff. Next year's plan is "The Italian Job" - the Monta Rosa 4000ers.

  6. Wow you are really getting into the realms of mountaineering.  Looking forwards to the rest of the trip.

  7. Slightly random question for you but do you have any personal recommendations regarding travel insurance? (for both UK and abroad).  Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!


  8. Now that are real mountains! Splendid stuff, Maz.

  9. BMC do various levels. We are both members so used them.


  10. fantastic read, I can hear you smiling all the way through the text!  what a blast...

  11. Hi Maz. A great post and photos - your writing is evocative and thought-provoking. So much to comment on in the post.

    I've bivvied behind the Albert Premier Hut as a precursor to climbing the Aiguille du Tour. I was never a fan of Alpine huts for the reasons you describe so we used to bivvy every time. Your descriptions of the detail of alpine climbing brought all my memories flooding back. I've had to give up Alpine climbing for a few years while my kids grow up but I will definitely be going back when the time is right.

    I spent a few days in Chamonix on my way home from Provence a few weeks ago and was able to introduce my kids to the joys of some simple high level walks on a cloudless day (Lac Blanc and the Croix de Fer near the Col de Balme) - they were captivated! I'll post some photos on my blog shortly.

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

  12. Thanks. It was a good start. Your HRP was rather special too!


  13. Andy - it's proving a real pleasure to read your comments on my posts! The Albert 1er hut was the only poor one to be honest - all the others have something to behove them. On balance I like staying in huts as I feel fresher for a hard day than bivy or camping overnight. That said, wild camping has always attracted me as you've probably seen! I know what you mean about the impact children has and I'm glad yours seem to be about to follow your dream. I cannot think of anything better than the day I take my son into the hills or mountains. The Lac Blanc was a sneaky choice - amazing views and the best hot chocolate ever - who wouldn't be smitten?!

  14. If you ever get chance do try a high level Alpine bivvy. Watching the sunset, spending the night under a carpet of stars, watching the shooting stars, watching the sun rise again. Magical. Mind you I don't miss the 3am starts - they never agreed with me! Both me and the better half keep looking at our photo's from a couple of weeks back (and yours!) and saying we MUST go back

  15. Hi Maz, just finally making the time to sit down and read through your latest trip. As usual quality writing and great images.