Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 5-6: Bourg St Pierre to the Cabane FXB Panossière

New beginnings. Solace. A swindle.

Staying in a hotel, or gîte, in the middle of a long trek makes perfect, practical sense. We had access to kit bags and therefore an evening in normal clothes. We could ditch kit we didn't need and get new kit if we wanted. We could have rested base layers and replaced them with fresh ones. We could retire items we now knew we wouldn't use and pick up anything we'd forgotten or realised we would need. In short - it felt like cheating. So I didn't do it. My kit bag stayed shut, I didn't ditch anything and the only thing I picked up were a few new batteries, which I could have bought in the shop downstairs anyway. As I said in a previous post, the cold beer and hot shower were both welcome, but anything other than that felt wrong. Nice, helpful, but wrong. Perhaps I'm short-sighted, or unrealistic, but I wanted to do this traverse with the kit I had on my back. So I did.

Day Five: Bourg St Pierre to the Brunet Hut
Ascent: 1,483m
Descent: 1,063m
Highest Point: Col de Lâne (3,033m)
Distance: 15.3km
Time: 7hr 41mins

The morning begins with a sedate stroll up an easy path. We gain height steadily, easily and without feeling much in the way of inertia. Crossing a seething, violent surge of water, the path suddenly drifts into non-existence replaced instead with grass punctuated by rocky detritus deposited by the mountains. It is as if the river is a palisade between the pastoral valley below and the unyielding, exigent mountains above, and the bridge simultaneously both a passage and warning. We press on, our destination the Col de Lâne just above 3,000m. We know the ground leading up the col will be poor and the route will not be an easy one - another example of the fragmenting, decaying state of the ancient rock above us. As we climb, we are able to gaze back into the valley at the dammed Lac des Toules and not the for the first time we are aware of the dark, tumultuous clouds heading our way. The wind has already picked up - we hope, as we have done so far, we will be able to stay ahead of the weather and it will hit after we've reached the relative sanctuary of the hut.

Each step carries us upwards and we maintain our slow, deliberate pace revelling in the beautiful unfolding vista. The wind begins to grow ever more fierce threatening a crescendo at the col. It is not long before we have reached a small depression in the land, and taken refuge from the turbulence, the col ahead of us and plainly visible in what seems to me to be too far in the distance to genuinely consider taking it on today. Except, it is not the only col. There are three and we are not sure which of the three is actually the Col de Lâne. It is a sublimely surreal Houdini moment - a street magician's trick - under which cup do we find the real col? Whichever, we think darkly to ourselves, the approach to each is as unforgiving as anything I could imagine which would not require ropes and protection. None of us seemed enamoured with the prospect of selecting the wrong approach. We sit and eat, taking on precious calories and hydration. In the lee of the wind, I consider where I am and what I am doing here. My working life seems so far away - a distant and pastel phantom, otherworldly and disconnected from me. I know, somewhere in the cobwebbed depths of my mind, that I'll have to go back but for now I can ignore that future and concentrate on a different one.

Eventually, we rise and begin to move again. We scramble across slate and boulder, picking lines through the morass of scree and granite. Often is it easy, B2 boots blessed with a stiffness that permits fast movement across the sharp, steepled rock. Just as often, the ground is a loose, shifting nightmare - each step attenuates energy as we struggle to maintain footing. Hands shoot out to steady feet and nerves as the ground gets steeper. Sweat pours off me despite my layering being virtually perfect - I am wearing a short-sleeved merino wool top alone. It is pure exertion and come the apex of the col, I am grateful for a break. Another of those blue alpine signs appears - dire warnings "particularly dangerous path", "mountaineering equipment essential" and "only for experienced hikers without vertigo" resonate in my psyche - the ground from here on in is going to be tougher than that which we've just traversed. I am intrigued. Honest.

Yet the view from the col is breathtaking. We stop for a moment to enjoy the overpowering sense of freedom and to admire the visceral majesty of the high-level alps. The grey, stony ground below us gives the area a lunar appeal. But we have more to do. We cannot descend here - there is no route down - we need to ascend another 30m or so and down the other side of a rocky scramble. I inhale deeply, and not really because I require oxygen. In a script, the line would say 'gasp'. It must be done, so I get on with it. Hands, feet, elbows - anything will do. I tighten the straps on my pack - I want it tight and unshifting. The ground, however, is anything but unshifting and it takes far longer than it ought to, to reach the summit of this unnamed, unsung and undesired peak. We are at 3,054m and it means so little - we want off this ridiculous craggy tosh - but in order to do so, we'll need some guts.

Below us, another group is donning harnesses and roping up. I find it hard to understand what may have spooked them - I envisage a path, a blue one perhaps, but a path nonetheless. I am not wrong, of course - there is a path. It simply requires a vertical descent on bolts fixed into the rock - ladder rungs spaced apart for giants. The gap between each seems unconscionable. A chain is bolted into the rock leading downwards, disappearing behind a vicious crag. The drop is a sheer one, hundreds of metres onto loose scree and crap. The exposure is disconcerting and committing. Even Nigel utters some choice profanity. We descend individually - the chain a pointless affectation it is so loose. Several of the bolted rungs are themselves unsteady, geriatric charades. I can see the whiteness of my knuckles as I move from one to the other - it is a curious gratification this, it's fun I'll appreciate later. When I have a beer in my hand and feet on terrra firma instead of rusting iron.

We clear the 'ladders' without incident and begin to traverse a rocky ridge line to the apex of the path. Frequent blue and white reminders of the seriousness of the exposure are dotted along the path - they can be seen from some distance - never far from our reckoning. Besides us are small tarns of the strangest, almost radioactive colour - yellows and greens that would be alien to an artist's easel. At the culmination of the ridge is the ubiquitous alpine signpost - I almost smile. We begin to descend - it is long but easy now. A grassy heaven by comparison to ridgeline. By the time the Brunet hut finally comes into view, I am spent. There are jubilant cries - this is a hut for the discerning alpinist - it even has hot showers (€6 for 6 minutes - I weep as I pay, but split the time with my friend to get back at them - 3 minutes each is more than enough) and good food. The wine is, however, somewhat expensive (€35 a bottle). We drop packs, stow boots and pull on hut shoes before heading inside and ordering coke and cake. Beers will come afterwards. And a bloody good sleep.

Day Six: The Brunet Hut to the FXB Panossière Hut
Ascent: 914m
Descent: 347m
Highest Point: Col des Avouillons (2,649m)
Distance: 8.5km
Time: 4hr 29mins

This is supposed to be our 'rest day' - a short, undemanding day after which we will reach the Panossière hut with sufficient time to laze about, recovering for the crux days ahead. I am unpersuaded. There is no such thing as a rest day on this trek. And after two long days covering something approaching 37km, nearly 3,000m of ascent and roughly 2,400m of descent on steep, difficult ground, a rest day is something that might well appear to be welcome - yet I am not feeling the pinch. In fact, I feel good. The muscles in my legs are loose and warm and my lungs feel huge. I know the hardest part of the traverse is yet to come and a rest day - or rather a short day - makes sense. I just don't feel I need it.

The cool morning brings with it a pristine dusting of snow. We are not very high - Brunet is just 2103m above sea level which is by no means a record for us on this high-level traverse - but the snow line is pretty low. I won't be digging into my pack for crampons, but it's beautiful nonetheless. I have slept well as we benefit from a dortoir to ourselves. I shrug my pack out on the patio area and cross to the tiny tarn to enjoy the surroundings. Although the clouds are still in evidence, the sun looks to be ready to burn them away. There are two routes to Panossière and we have elected the blue route. It would be wrong to say we will, in time, regret this decision, but our 'rest day' is about to turn into anything but.

We start quickly, buoyed by a restful night and a pleasant, if expensive, hut. We move across the simple ground with practised efficiency and eat up the first couple of kilometres with almost contemptuous ease. The sky is the cool blue of a fresh new morning and a gentle mist drifts along the mountainside. We traverse the valley wall along a flat path and the mood is again buoyant. The conversation flows like last night's beer and we fairly run along. We soon reach a bridge cutting across the deep chasm at the bottom of which a river thunders down the valley towards Verbier. We cross the bridge and back again for nothing more than the thrill of it - giddy schoolchildren playing truant rather than serious mountaineers. We are under no pressure of time today. In the distance, an ever-present companion, is the Petit Combin - initially obscured by cloud apart from its summit, but as the morning wears on, the cloud dissipates and the poorly-named giant is revealed in all its splendour. The views across the Val de Bagnes, the mountains swathed in cloud, are wonderful.

As we round an abrupt dog-leg crag, we come upon another bridge - a diminutive undertaking this one, with the river but a few metres below it. As we cross, we begin to see the ascent to the Col des Avouillons. As with most things on this trek, it would appear to be at the toes of the Gods and will be made all the more arduous by the wet snow underfoot, slathering rocks and boulders with a thin sheen of greasy-slick treachery. As we begin to ascend, it quickly becomes clear that purchase on the mud and rock beneath the snow is almost impossible - even when placing feet flat on the ground to get as much grip as possible. Often, I shift to the grassy banks of the path, but there is a drop beyond these - a short, but not insignificant declivity onto menacing boulders below. It makes the going involved and hairy - each step, yet again, a carefully placed process - and hands become necessary as the ascent becomes steadily steeper, the levels out, only to become steeper again. Taunting us is the ubiquitous signpost to mark the col. It never seems to get closer each time I look up.

Of course, we eventually crest the top of the col following a short, bitter scramble and when we do the sight to greet us is simply awe-inspiring. The Panossière glacier, framed by Grand Tavé, Becca de la Lia, Tournelon Blanc and, at the southern end of the glacier, the glacier du Grand Combin and the Grand Combin itself. On the other side of the glacier, a speck on a ridge above a moraine, the FXB Panossière hut can be seen. I am conscious I am staring - and not moving - others behind nudge me and I move quickly to a perch to shrug off my pack, dig out a snickers, and savour every morsel - both of the view and the nutty chocolate in equal measure. I could not tell you which delights me more.

The descent is steep and exposed but relatively easy. The path is narrow but the sun has hit this side of the mountain so there is little in the way of snow or ice. It is at the bottom that we will realise just how much dross a glacier deposits as it carves a path through the mountainside - none of it stable. We reach the moraine and begin to understand the true nature of what we need to do. It is an exposed ridge, initially, which then leads to a sheer, vicious descent on grey, shifting mud. Each step digs deep and the ground falls away beneath a boot, sending rocks careering down the slope. No amount of care or circumspection rescues this situation and we know that as the slope gives way, we risk sliding not only down the keen, baleful rocks on the moraine but, if not checked, onto the glacier too. Given the slope of the glacier, that would be fatal. Again, each step is measured caution, riding the slide if it happens, curbing where possible. Mud cakes our boots, our gaiters and, truth be known, backsides. Yet, eventually, we find the snow covered glacier and, for perhaps the first time, I feel safer here than on the grey mud of the moraine. We don't put on crampons - the ground is relatively flat as easy - in fact, I doubt I will ever cross a glacier as easy as this one. Tripod poles, striped blue and white, stand sentinel across the glacier, marking the path. Some have fallen and we stop to pick them up from time to time to maintain the marking of the path. The sun is high in the sky now and we begin to see the beauty of the Glacier du Grand Combin and the Grand Combin itself. As the western buttress of the Panossière glacier begins to come into view - the Maisons Blanches, the Combin de Boveire, the Combin de Corbassière and the Petit Combin - we realise we are surrounded. We walk in the shadow of Methuselah and it is awe-inspiring.

We carefully pick our way around crevasses and glacial rivers, but in truth, it is simple stuff. We are relaxed and enjoying ourselves. We eventually reach the edge of the glacier and find ourselves on yet more shifting, grey glacial moraine. However, the hut is well within view and a perfunctory ascent leads to an easy path up to the front door. It's a modern hut and as we're unpacking we are looking forward to good food and perhaps, just perhaps, a cold beer.


  1. Wow, even from the comfort of my couch that descent on the chain looks beyond tricky.  Great photos and well written as well!  

  2. ladder?  that's not a ladder!  2nd to last photo is something else...

  3. Thanks, both of you. Tricky is certainly the right word...

  4. Some fantastic vistas, again well photographed. That descent on the 'ladder' looks unbelievably hair-raising, especially the view from above.

  5. Hi Maz, great story-telling. I don't remember the "blue" signs from my time in the alps. Have to admit I love the steep scrambly, metally routes. One day I'd love to go to the Dolomites and try the Via Ferrata

  6. Andy,

    I enjoyed them in truth but they were quite a surprise to begin with. Wait until the ascent to the Bertol Hut! The ladders there were very cool. It's all about confidence which you gain from doing. Just been to the Rab Outlet Factory shop in Alfreton - very cool. Picked up a new (sample) Baltoro Jacket for £50. Not sure it'll replace the Vapour-Rise but it's really nice.

  7. Second up from bottom photo sums up the scale and majestic views you had - sunning photo.  Getting into this Maz.  Off to read the rest tomorrow