I think I’m going to have to admit to a woeful lack of ‘alpine stamina’ here. Now, this is not the same as ‘alpine fitness’ which it seems that I do actually possess in somewhat greater quantities than I had anticipated (what with my complete and utter failure to train properly for this trip despite having written a plan and everything…). By ‘alpine stamina’, I simply mean the ability to go up day after day and climb route after route without being rendered a virtual cripple in between. Why do I say this? Well, simply because the number of muscular aches and pains I currently possess mean that moving or walking is a rather unpleasant notion, and all this after doing what was merely meant to be our second warm-up or acclimatisation route – the Midi-Plan Traverse.
The weather here at the moment is unusually and excessively hot, meaning that snow conditions are really not great, the snow pack barely freezes overnight and possibly doesn’t freeze at all some nights. Basically this means that many of the predominantly snow routes we had wanted to climb are seeming like a bad idea right now – an early start may well get you up the route ok, but the heat means that getting down again will be really rather unpleasant and even riskier than normal. That said, we had two options for the traverse – doing the route, and then reversing it back to the Aiguille du Midi and catching the cable car back down to the valley, or descending from the Aiguille du Plan, down the Glacier d’Envers du Plan to the Requin hut, then on down the Mer de Glace to the rack and pinion railway at Montenvers, to then catch the train back down to the valley. Both of these options would involve hot afternoon snow.
We had originally intended to reverse the route back to the Midi as this would be the quickest and probably simplest option, but on crossing some disintegrating snow slopes where I very nearly fell down the gap between snow and rock whilst unroped after an abseil (the snow just collapsed and I was only saved by the way that I fell straddling the snow – one leg down the slope and one leg down the mini bergschrund), I made the statement there and then that there was no way I would be going back this way. We actually pitched 150m of what would normally be very very simple snow traversing because it was falling apart (and this was only 10am) – every step was a lottery as to whether you were just going to end up sliding all the way down onto the glacier. Very, very scary stuff. So we had the decision made for us – we would be descending the glacier.
The route itself was pretty cool, some wonderful views and vantage points (see photos for some highlights), continuously interesting but never really that technical. Thankfully the final snow slopes up to the Aiguille du Plan were still in reasonable condition when we got to them after the terrifying snow traverse, so finishing the route and then descending back to the col Superieur du Plan from where we would descend to the glacier was quite straight forward. We even stopped there for a sandwich before we began the arduous and [for me] nerve-wracking descent.
The descent was horrible. As a general rule there are two aspects of climbing I really don’t get on with – traversing and descending. (So why the hell was I on this route huh?). I’m not good at walking down things, I find myself feeling like a newborn calf – all gangly, off balance and uncoordinated. I harbour a constant dread and fear of slipping and sliding uncontrollably to my death, which then makes me more uncertain of my steps and it all goes round in a vicious circle. Anyway, the descent really was horrible. Steep mushy shitty snow that went on for hours, crevasses with collapsing snow bridges, I even managed to fall in the actual glacier bergschrund when the snow bridge collapsed, although thankfully I managed to get my axe in the other side and kind of belly flop my way out (yes Patrick, I should have jumped the thing, you were right). Ice sections that needed a capability to use the flat footed ‘French Technique’ of crampon work (which I’ve never really done, so that was fun, not), more steep mush that barely held body weight, the sun constantly beating down on you making you sweat and giving you a headache, and of course we didn’t have enough water with us (who does?).
The Requin hut was a very welcome haven after some 2 hours of torturous descending, we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea and a bowl of pasta before then heading down the ladders to the Mer de Glace, where we would then spend another 2+ hours of hacking over glacier (although this time a ‘dry’ glacier, where all the crevasses are open and visible and therefore fairly straightforward to negotiate), including a rather unnerving section of crevasse jumping where the Mer de Glace met the Glacier des Leschaux. The access ladders back up to the Montenvers station complex were one final kick in the teeth, seeming to go on forever (there are something like 4 vertical ladder sections to go up). Happily we did actually manage to get the second to last train back down to Chamonix.
So, in short, it was a naffing long day – the glacier descent is actually a rather long way as well as being an arduous slog. Hence, I’m feeling pretty battered and tired – my ‘alpine stamina’ does need some work…