Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Alpine trip review

Ok so it’s about time I actually wrote something about my trip to the Alps (other than how much my head hurts).

I’m a bit sad and disappointed really, that in such a length of trip we only actually managed to complete two routes. These route were the Arete des Cosmiques (Aiguille du Midi) and the Gouter Ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc.

The Arete des Cosmiques was our first route of the trip (and my first ever Alpine route), and was chosen because of its shortness and relative simplicity, being a route that actually finishes at the Aiguille du Midi Telepherique station and also having a very short approach. The guidebooks tell us this route should be completed in 2-3 hours and is pretty simple technically. So how did we end up on the route for close to 8 hours and feel the need to bypass the crux pitch via a heinous and even harder ice chimney (scottish IV or V)? Simple – the queues. I won’t go into this any more right now as my rant on how insanely slow and incompetent certain parties (sadly mainly British) and how rude and discourteous other parties (mainly continental) really are could take up many many pages and simply wouldn’t be worth reading. All I will say is we chose the ice chimney after waiting, stood totally still, for over half an hour (!) whilst a guy hung from slings on the aid pegs on the 5m high crux crack (which is only 4b free apparently), seemingly incapable of getting up the thing. Half an hour! And we were in a queue!


Ok so that could have been a better experience. I can see how the route earns its ‘classic’ status – if it hadn’t been for the interminable nausea of the waiting around I’m sure I would have really enjoyed it.

After I’d recovered from my first ever altitude induced headache, on Tuesday we set off for the Gouter hut where we were going to be staying to start our summit bid early on Wednesday morning. A lovely day, nice weather, sunshine. Wearing approach shoes and carrying our heavy rigid mountain boots in our bags we set out from the train station at the Nid D’aigle, on a long but initially simple walk. All was good until we reached the short glacier crossing to reach the Tete Rousse hut. Short it may have been, but what we neglected to realise was that it was virtually a river in the middle…so picture the scene, both of us tip-toeing across the snow in our entirely insubstantial trainers, big rucksacks on, seemingly in complete control. All good so until suddenly…”sploooshhh!” What are essentially just lightweight trainers are clearly no match for several inches of icy water. We reached the Tete Rousse hut swearing profusely with very wet, cold feet. Still, at least I’d remembered my thick mountain socks (poor Patrick had tragically left his drying back in the apartment).

From the Tete Rousse hut (now wearing big boots, with sopping wet shoes in bags, destined not to dry out properly until the end of the trip), another glacier crossing (complete with fixed cable) and a long(ish) ridge scramble led us up to the hovel that is the high mountain Gouter hut. Now, I say hovel, simply due to the state of the toilets. Honest to goodness I’ve never experienced anything quite so hellish in my life (bearing in mind I spent time wading through blood and wreckage in the aftermath of the 7/7 tube bombings). There simply is no way to describe just how dire they were.*

Now, my idea of a good night’s sleep involves a large, warm, comfy bed with nice crisp, clean sheets and a gorgeous man to snuggle up to. This wasn’t quite the experience I was going to get at the Gouter hut. Ok so there wasn’t exactly a shortage of men – I was sharing a mattress with about 10 of them! The room itself may have contained a further 20 or 30, all smelly, snoring, self-obsessed and not in the least bit considerate of the fairer gender. Oh, and lord only knows when those sheets get changed or cleaned…still, I wasn’t in there long – everyone was up by 1:50am for breakfast.

And what a breakfast it was! Two tiny pieces of stale bread and an old crepe, complete with a mini portion of jam, a shot glass of orange juice and a small bowl of tea (no milk). Awesome. Just what you need when you’re about to spend 14 hours or so climbing Europe’s highest mountain.


Anyway, we summitted at around 9am, having left the hut at about 3:15. Not particularly fast, but I’d been going strong all the way, strangely not seeming to suffer with the altitude much at all (I’d been the slow one, puffing and panting my way up to the hut the day before, but on the mountain I was the one having to slow my pace and wait for Patrick). Unfortunately for both of us, I am officially, a COMPLETE IDIOT.

For any of you thinking of heading up Mont Blanc any time soon – may I offer one very simple tip. Don’t be an idiot. Wear warm technical clothing, not lightweight summer trekking trousers (I have no idea what I was thinking – I never wear anything other than my heavy duty thick winter climbing troos in snow normally – what the hell went through my mind when I left them behind? Honestly I don’t know). Also, TAKE A FLEECE, some kind of MIDLAYER. All I had was a baselayer and a T-shirt under my softshell jacket (and then my belay jacket on top, without which I would simply never have made it). I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand what caused my ridiculous and dangerous errors of judgement in packing…

Long story short, I got to the summit feeling strong but dangerously cold. The higher we had gotten, the slower we had needed to go (Patrick was struggling to breathe a little and so we needed to stop every few paces). This should not have been a problem, but as we reached the Bosses ridge, the wind came in over the mountains, ravenously cold, biting hard through my highly inadequate trousers and seeming to drain all the warmth from my body. If I’d have been able to keep moving at my own pace, and not keep stopping (sorry Patrick, honestly I am not blaming you in the slightest), I may have been ok, but as it was, by the time we got back down to the Vallot emergency refuge I was cold beyond sanity. My coordination and balance had gone and I simply fell into the snow. It was all I could do to get inside and into Patrick’s bivi bag where I would sit and shiver for an hour before we decided that I either had to get myself down or we were calling the helicopter. We made our way slowly back down to the hut (although I can’t remember most of the descent, I think I must have been in some kind of semi-hypothermic stupor). Once down Patrick presented me with a bowl of steaming hot Spaghetti bolognese, a can of drink and a hot chocolate. It was the best meal I’ve had in a fair old while I can tell you! (Up at the refuge I had been unable to eat or drink because of the altitude, but once back down to a sensible height felt ravenous!). After eating we made our way slowly back down the ridge to the Tete Rousse hut where we were to spend the night (we had originally intended to get back down to the train that day, but had taken too long and so had to spend another night on the mountain), where we had another meal and watched the wind and snow outside! The Tete Rousse hut was an altogether more civilised place that, despite still not having any running water, at least had a CLEAN toilet and some pleasant comfy dormitory beds.

The following morning we made it down to catch the first train back to the valley, despite the walk/scramble down now having a blanket of some 2 inches of fresh snow and some very variable visibility. We stumbled back into the apartment at something like 11:30am, then slept.

The next couple of days were spent ‘chilling’, the first because I really needed it, the second because I proved myself to be a true coward and bottling out of heading up the Frendo Spur to the bivi. We did meet an interesting couple up near the Telepherique station, but they are another story…

Saturday was to be our single day attempt at the Frendo Spur after I’d wimped out of the bivi’ing option. Sadly this attempt wasn’t to be, as I was struck on the back of the head by a rock roughly the size of half a brick (see a previous posting).

*One particularly grim experience with these toilets went thus: Me (in desperation), going to do the necessary (in this instance a VERY necessary number 2 I had been holding out against for hours), eventually managing to get the job done into the eco-toilet that may well NEVER HAVE BEEN CLEANED (picture it, caked on splattered excrement, pretty much everywhere, me battling to stay upright and not touch the seat, slippered feet sliding around on the FROZEN PEE all over the floor). The next phase, wiping and disposing of the by now somewhat corrupted paper. Should be simple no? Ok firstly, you’re not meant to throw much paper down these water-less eco toilets so most of it is deposited into a small plastic bin inside the cubicle, but obviously the worst bits can’t go in those bins (that would be just too nasty!) so the very worst goes down the hole to join the main bulk of offending sludge. Again a very obvious and simple concept yes? Well the critical detail I haven’t yet mentioned was the snow falling and the rather strong wind blowing outside (we’d just made it back down from the summit and the weather was turning a touch unpleasant). Ok. Eco-toilet – where the stuff simply falls into a big pile that is fully exposed to the elements – you can see daylight shining back up at you. Strong wind. Very lightweight flappy paper being deposited through the open air poo portal…

I’m sure it would have been utterly hilarious to anyone who could have seen (although they would have needed to have been pretty perverted to have even been there) – the toilet paper is dropped down the hole and then almost immediately proceeds to fly BACK UP, rising some 4 feet into the air, right towards MY FACE. Lots of panicked flailing as I desperately tried to grab the unsoiled edges as the stuff was flapping and floating in the breeze like some kind of sordid phantom then occurred, several times (as it took some 3 or 4 attempts to catch enough of a lull in the wind for the stuff to actually drop down and stick to something).


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