It’s Monday, the first real day of the trip, and today was a day we’d allocated to doing an ‘acclimatisation route’, i.e. a route that was short, straight forward and with easy access. The ‘Normal Route’ of the Petite Aiguille Verte, also known as the ‘North-West Ridge’ is a very short (I was actually heard to exclaim “is that IT?!” upon first sighting the route from the Telepherique station), and relatively simple PD graded route at a moderate altitude – so perfect for us today.
Normally we are quite strict with our timings and general Alpine discipline (honest guv’), but because the route had a guidebook time of only 2 hours, and a 1 hour descent, we decided that the ridiculously early start required to catch the bus to then catch an early bin*, perhaps wasn’t strictly necessary, and so we had a civilised breakfast before setting out, eventually getting geared up at the base of the route, just outside the telepherique station of Les Grandes Montets, at around 10:30am.
Before I continue, I really should note one genuine point of safety and sensibility for anyone thinking of doing this route, or just thinking of starting out in the Alps generally: snow gets soft, soggy, smushy and really unstable after it’s been in the sun for a while. This is why the ‘Alpine Start’ is often so essential – so you have time to climb the route and get the bulk of the often snowy or glacier based descent out of the way before the early afternoon heat causes the snow to become the stuff of nightmares. Starting your approach or even your climb before dawn is often the only option you have for bigger routes, but with a short, easy access route such as the Normal Route of the Petite Verte, it is all too tempting to just do it ‘whenever’. I genuinely think the parties just starting up the route as we were finishing the descent at about 1pm were bonkers. The snow was in a really bad state by that point and we’d spent a deal of time in the descent either wallowing or sliding through stuff roughly the consistency of cold porridge…you get my point.
The route itself is quite a simple affair, with a slog up a steep snow slope to begin with, that steepens just before you reach the ridge line. Once you reach the ridge you basically follow it over a few rock ‘steps’ until you reach the false summit, where a very scary and awkward downclimb then allows you access to the final part of the ridge to the actual summit. We didn’t do the final few metres of the route after the gnarly downclimb, preferring to choose a more leisurely descent than would have been possible had we continued behind the few guided groups at that point in front of us (by turning round where we did, only a few metres from the true summit, we essentially ‘overtook’ them).
For a route graded PD, it does have a couple of ‘interesting’ sections on the rock ridge, with some moves perhaps a touch harder than you’d necessarily expect. The downclimb after the false summit is especially unnerving. The views over to Mont Blanc, and of Les Drus (the big triangular double peak behind me in the last picture above) are absolutely spectacular, and the route is well worth doing as long as you can cope with crowds – it is a very popular outing and you will often get beginners learning basic skills on the lower parts of the slopes you climb to begin with.
Arriving back at the bottom of the stairs up to the telepherique station (those bloody stairs feel tougher than the route I swear, I was huffing and puffing going back up those, flipping hundreds of them!), we de-geared and basically assumed it was all over and time to go and grab a drink from the cafe, but one more challenge presented itself – suddenly we were plunged into a game of life and death, where every second suddenly counted as a life hung in the balance…
A Hummingbird Moth had somehow gotten itself into a bit of trouble - when I found it the poor thing was lying on its back feebly trying to move as its wings were stuck to the snow. I freely admit to having a bit of a thing about butterflies and moths, I think they are wonderful creatures, and Hummingbird Moths are particularly special (they get their name because they do actually look just like a small hummingbird, and they do hum as they fly), so obviously I took it upon myself to do what I could, and happily, after picking it up very carefully and letting it warm up on my hand in the sun for a few minutes, the moth stopped shivering (really shivering, quite bizarre!), perked up and flew away. Brought a big smile to my face that did, knowing that I’d saved the poor thing’s life!
*bin: abbreviated form of the French telecabine, another term for the telepherique, or cable car to you and me. An oddly appropriate term for the small boxes you get thrown about inside of as you stand shoulder to shoulder with people of all sorts, battling for simple breathing room…