Tuesday, July 16: Chamonix
Petite Aiguille Vert
I just came back from a very successful day. I was really happy with how it turned out. This actually followed a fairly good night.
Particularly with my lack of sleep earlier, I had no trouble falling asleep, despite the noise. I woke up around midnight (and once or twice after that) and got a drink of water (and visited the bath room) as I was rather thirsty, but I didn’t have much trouble falling asleep. I found that the town got a lot quieter by midnight.
The only fly in the ointment was the temperature. The beds here don’t have sheets or blankets, they have more of a thin comforter/duvet. My problem was that it was a little too cool to sleep under nothing, but it was too warm to sleep under the duvet. I ended up trying to lie half under it and half outside, but it wasn’t ideal. But still all in all, I slept not bad, and better than I had been back home (when I was stressed out).
Today we climbed Petite Aiguille Vert (which apparently means literally “Small Green Needle”. This was the small peak in front of Aiguille Vert.) In one sense, it wasn’t that big of climb. We took the cable car up to around 10,000-10,500 feet. Then we climbed up to 11,000. So we didn’t even go up 1,000 feet; but it was still a good trip.
I nearly made a catastrophic mistake. I had packed up my day pack the previous night, but I had a few minutes available in the morning, so I thought I would double check it. I found that I had forgotten to pack my crampons! That would have been bad.
We left around 8:30 in the morning, and stopped by a bakery so that I could buy a sandwich. Then we took the cable car up to the top, although in reality we took one car halfway up, switched to a different line, and then went the rest of the way up.
I was really wondering how I would deal with the altitude and the new boots. When we got off the cable car and I saw the route, I was also concerted with the steepness (i.e. exposure) of it.
We hiked down about a hundred feet maybe to the snow, and then put on our harness, crampons, helmet, etc. I had worn my long sleeved fleece shirt, but I found it too hot, so I took it off and just hiked in a tee shirt and my soft-shell pants. That was almost perfect. A few times when we stopped, I got a little cool, and other times (particularly hiking up) I was almost a little warm.
I was worried that the “pro” who just came off of Elbrus would leave me in the dust, but that proved to not be the case. I think I was as fast if not faster than him, and definitely better on the more technical areas.
At first we just traversed slowly up a snow slope using a hiking stick/ski pole. Then when it became a bit steeper, we dug out our ice axes. I was at the bottom of the rope, with the guide at the front, and the other client (Kelvin) in the middle.
After a while, we left our hiking poles next to the trail in the snow. Then we got to a stretch that traversed over a fairly steep slope. The guide warned us not to trip. I kept my eyes on where I was planting my feet and where I was planting my ice axe, and I didn’t have a problem. I tried not to think about the descent.
At the end of this stretch, we pulled out onto a little flat area to have some water and rest a moment. I actually found these rest stops more unnerving than the climbing. I could just picture the drops around me and tried not to think about climbing down.
After this rest, we tackled the next section which was much worse than the traverse that we just did. Some of it was over rocks (which reminded quite a bit of Mt Monadnock) and some was on the snow just below the rocks. We basically used this to climb along the ridge line and stay off the very steep snow next to us.
A few places Luke would hook the rope around a point of rock as an anchor as we passed through a particularly difficult/exposed portion. I found going up there wasn’t bad at all (unlike the rest stops), but once again I tried hard not to think about the climb down.
I tried to get a number of pictures while we were stopped, e.g. when our rope was hooked around a rock outcrop and the guide climbed higher to belay us up. I was paranoid about dropping the camera, and I wasn’t usually in the most stable of places. In some cases I just pointed the camera in the general direction, and hoped for the best.
It turns out that despite my talking about my fear of heights, it seems that Kelvin has more issues with that than I did. He particularly didn’t care for the rocks, but he also seemed more uneasy than I on some of the exposed snow slopes.
We pulled out onto a small semi-enclosed rocky nub just below the true summit and called that our summit. Neither of us clients complained. I actually would have preferred to head back immediately rather than sitting around, but since we were sitting, I ate part of my sandwich and took a few pictures (although I forgot to get one of me), and once again tried to not think about the climb down.
There was a big group coming down from the true summit, and we tried to get out in front of them, but we didn’t make it. So we ended up with a big traffic jam, with some climbers coming up, a few batches going down, and us just waiting for the mess to clear. That was the worst of several “traffic jams” that occurred at various spots. It gave me a greater appreciation for some of the backups on Everest, e.g. the Hillary Step. (Although interestingly the guide told us that what we just did to get to the lunch stop was harder than the Hillary Step. How he would know this I have no idea. Maybe he was just saying that to make us feel good. Who knows...)
Eventually the jam cleared, and we started down. Since the guide is always on the top of the rope, that meant that I led the way. At that altitude, particularly on snow, going down is a lot easier than going up. The only concern was the exposure.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it didn’t really bother me. I was more stressed out while we were sitting, on the way up. I could look down the fairly steep snow slope and not be unduly bothered. That was a big relief.
On the way up, I found that I could have probably gone faster, but I was limited by those in front of me (although I can’t say whether the pace was due to Kelvin or to Luke, the guide). I certainly wasn’t complaining about the pace. On the way down, where things were more exposed, I found that I tended to be limited in how fast I could go by the rope behind me to Kelvin, although when we got down to the less steep portions our speed more equalized.
Just above the col below the tram station, we took off our crampons, gave our ice axes to the guide (no pointy stuff), and did a sitting glissade down that stretch. Halfway down I got a good head of steam up. At one point I was putting my right hand down for stability, but the snow was bashing my hurt thumb painfully, and I figured that was a bad idea and raised my arm again. I got snow everywhere, and the tush on my pants was rather wet, but it was fun and we got down a lot faster than if we had walked (although in reality the distance was short enough that it wouldn’t make a big difference either way).
I was very happy to find that:
I was dealing with the altitude (at least a mere 11,000 feet) OK
The exposure wasn’t being that much of a problem
I didn’t seem to be the slowest or most-afraid person
I was also happy that my new boots seem to be working OK.
On the other hand, I got a taste of hubris hiking up the stairs to get to the tramway (remember that 100 foot descent at the beginning?) I had felt fine on the way down, but once I started going up again, the altitude hit me and I found I had to slow down (although not as slow as another in our group).
At this point, it looks very iffy if we summit Mont Blanc. First of all, the weather makes it rather dicey, even if we were in top form. Also, the guide said that we were going fairly slowly today, and this was a short hike. Doing Mont Blanc would be a lot longer. So we’ll see what happens, but my guess is that if the weather didn’t scuttle the summit attempt outright, it would be marginal enough that with a pair of strong climbers an attempt might be made, but with more mediocre climbers, it would also be scuttled.
We sat around at the tram area for a while. I finished most of my sandwich. It was pretty warm. We had a bright blue sky, and I felt like I was really baking in the sun. We watched a pair of paragliders take off, and saw a bunch more come through and set up before we took the tram back down (I am *really really* glad it was a tram and not a chair lift).
We got back to Chamonix around 3:30. We’re meeting for dinner (pizza) at 6:30, so I had a couple of hours to kill (getting things sorted out to dry, uploading pix from the camera, and writing this).
Tomorrow we’re going to check out of the hotel (leaving a good amount of stuff in storage) and go up to a hut. That isn’t that far, so we’ll probably do a “day hike” from the hut and back, and then spend the night at the hut. The next day we’ll return to Chamonix, but I don’t know the details of that day. We’ll find out more at dinner. Part of the planning involves looking at the weather.
Overall, I would summarize today as such: it wasn’t such a long hike, but it was definitely the most technical mountaineering that I’ve done (i.e. more so than Bolivia or Rainier). I’ve done a steeper section on Huayna Potosi, but that only for about 10-20 feet, not this longer stretch that we did today. The weather was good, I was performing well, and I enjoyed the experience. I was surprised to find that the trip down was less stressful than the way up, as on the way up I was not looking down and trying not to think of the hike down—my imagination was worse than the reality.
One “casualty” of today (or more likely this trip) is my pack. The zipper on the flap pocket has been getting harder and harder to use. As of today it seems to have totally given up the ghost. The net is that I can’t really use the flap pocket at all.
I just spent about an hour walking around Chamonix. I found the Catholic Church, but my knowledge of French defeated me in trying to figure out what time the Mass were. I got close, but it looks like perhaps there were three churches in the parish, and this bulletin covered all of them, but I wasn’t sure. It could be 9, 10:30, or 11, but I don’t know which one.
Later I ran across a woman singing on the side of the street in an operatic style. She sounded really good. Just after I passed her, she ended one song and started another. It was rather a shock to hear her belting out “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Not only was it familiar, but it was also in English!
It is strange. Walking around I can’t help the feeling that I’m a little short of breath, due to the altitude. This must be in my mind, however, as we are only around 3-4,000 feet up (down here in the valley). Maybe it is due to the Diamox?
Now we are going out to dinner and will find out more details (particularly packing) for the next two days. Right now, I just opened all of my windows/doors (I have a small balcony). Hopefully the place will cool off a bit while I’m away at dinner.
It is now just after 8pm. We had a decent dinner at an upscale pizza place right next to the river/canal.
The upcoming plan is that tomorrow we’ll head out and drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy (Bonus! Another “life country”!) and head up one of the trams there. Then we’ll do a day-hike up a small peak (roughly as high as today’s hike) and crash at the hut. If the weather cooperates, we’ll get up at 4am, have breakfast and do a slightly larger peak before returning to the hut and descending. If the weather is miserable, we’ll just descent and do something down here.
On the walk back from the pizza place, I could feel it spitting lightly. There is a solid overcast, and the tops of the peaks are wreathed with clouds. Thus ends our good weather. The rest of my stay in Chamonix is going to be like this—the main question is whether it will be overcast and threatening rain or actually raining (with a bonus of possible thunder storms!).
It is too early to hit the sack, and so I thought that I might take a hike around the town for an hour or so, but looking out of the balcony here, I can see that it has started to rain in earnest now (we lucked out with dinner. We didn’t have any rain gear, and if dinner had lasted another 10-15 minutes, we’d be walking back in this rain.) It isn’t a downpour, but without rain gear you would get rather wet.
It’s really cut down on the crowds milling around outside.
Bonus! I just heard some thunder! Hopefully it is an evening thing and won’t be during the day.
So my tasks for tonight are to pack up my pack for tomorrow, and then pack up everything else as I’ll be checking out and storing my bags for one night (before I check in again).
I just nearly had a heart attack. Earlier, I had told the story of almost leaving my headlamp at the low camp on Huayna Potosi, which would have scuttled my summit climb. I remembered packing my headlamp back home (or at least meaning to), but I could not recall exactly where I put it. So I’ve just been looking for it.
The more places I looked without finding it, the more frantic I was becoming. I had visions of not finding it, and concluding that I had meant to bring it, but back home had put it some odd place (maybe when I replaced the batteries), not getting it into my bag, but thinking “I remember getting my headlamp” and so not noticing. I was beginning to wonder if the myriad of outdoor shops would be open this late, and whether I would have to make a late-evening run to try to buy one.
But then I found it, and I could relax a little. I guess I wouldn’t want life to be *too* boring...
Packing will probably take me a half hour or so, but 9pm is still a bit early to call it a night. It isn’t raining *that* hard, but I’m not too keen on wandering around in the rain to kill time. I’m not sure what I’ll do until bed time. Maybe I’ll just find somewhere nearby where I can sit out of the rain and watch people go by.
I just saw a bright flash outside. My first thought was lightning, but it seemed too bright. I figured that it had to be someone taking a flash picture in my direction. But almost immediately there was a loud boom followed by rolling thunder. There have been several flash booms since then. Definitely not a good night to go wandering around. OTOH, it might be good for sitting around and watching the storm...
I hate Windows! It was asking to install updates, so just before going to bed, I shut the netbook down, which triggered the installation. It took *forever* (I’m guessing an hour). By the time I was ready to go to bed, it was still working on update 15 of 31. I lay in bed and waited. After a long wait, it was up to 18 of 31. That’s when I went to sleep. I got up around midnight, and by that time it had finally finished, so I unplugged it.
But Windows was not yet through with me! When next I booted it (Thu, after returning from the hut), it took forever to boot as it was installing yet more of the updates. When it finally finished and I could log in, it installed (actually “configured”) yet more updates. Good thing I didn’t need access quickly...
Some stats on today's hike:
Start Time: 8:35 At Summit: 11:03 Finish Time: 1:39 Time Up: 2:28 Time Down: 2:36 Total Time: 5:04