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Tuesday, July 16: Chamonix

Thursday, July 18: Torino / Chamonix

Wednesday, July 17: Torino Hut Italy

Aiguille de Toule
It’s Only a Knife’s Edge


I can now say that I have hiked in the Italian Alps.

I slept well last night, and got up and out with no problem. It was a little scary, though, in the packing, as I’m thinking “what will I need for the next two days, and what can I leave behind?” The left-behind stuff we put into the “ski room”, which is actually a little shed out behind the hotel (with a locked door).

We crossed through the Mont Blanc tunnel, and right at the other side is the tram to the Torino Hut. There was no customs or anything as we crossed the border (similar to the French-Swiss border.) They are building a new cable car system there, but it is not nearly finished (we could see the construction stuff), so we took the old one. Again, it was two different trams to get to the top.

Tram to Torino Hut
Alps from Base of Tram

There is apparently a cable car system from there to Chamonix, but Luke was afraid that if we got thunderstorms tomorrow, they would shut that line down (as it crosses over the top of the mountain), and then we would be stuck going down the Italian side and taking a taxi back. Also, he heard that the Chamonix line wasn’t running, but when we got to Torino, it seemed to be running to us. On that line, there are two trams to reach the top of the mountain, and then two more trams to traverse across it to Torno. The last tram at least actually consists of a “train” of three gondolas hooked together.

What was also interesting was that as a “tower” in the middle, they actually strung some strong cables from a crag on one side to one on the other, and the “tower” is the middle of these cables.

“Tower” in Middle of Cables

The hut is a hundred or two feet above the tramway. Once again Luke and I left the other client in our dust. That definitely didn’t bode well.

I had been psyched in the morning to wake up and see sun shining (after the thunderstorms of the previous night). Throughout the day we would alternate between sun and clouds. I put on my gray fleece shirt. In the sun it was a bit warm, but when the sun went away I was fine.

The “hut” or refuge is much bigger than any I’ve been in before, particularly bigger than the ones in Bolivia. On the other hand, it probably gets a lot more clients. The Torino hut was also a lot more civilized (espresso bar/sandwich shop/bar) with one exception. The toilets were “squatters”. There were two little pedestals on which to put your feet. Otherwise it was a pan with a hole in it. Unlike the squat toilets in Tanzania (which I managed to avoid), these were flush squat toilets. Apparently these are not that uncommon in Italy, although they seem somewhat barbaric and uncivilized to me.

Torino “Hut”

We dropped off some stuff into a bin (e.g. extra water, so that we wouldn’t have to pay to put bottled water into our packs) and put on our harnesses. We then walked out into the snow.

Unlike a big “pointy” mountain, there were some big semi-flat or gently sloped areas up there. We were unroped on the Sno-Cat track, but where the track made a switchback up to the Chamonix tram, we stopped to rope up. Even though the snow was not steep, it was still a glacier with a potential for crevasses.

Gently Sloping Glaciers

We slogged down a slope through loose snow and then across a flat. The storms from last night dropped new snow up here, and it was annoyingly loose and fluffy. I really regretted not having a basket on my pole.

Our Path Down the Slope

Our destination was a large rocky crag call “Aiguille de Toule”.

Aiguille de Toule
Aiguille de Toule From Chamonix Side

The pace slowed noticeably when we started going up, and personally I found the pace slightly frustrating.

The front face was a large rocky mess. We crossed around to the back side where there was a semi-steep snow slope. When we reached the steep part, we stopped and put on our crampons. On the slope, there was one pair of climbers blasting straight up the right side of the slope, which our guide thought was potentially not that stable. Further to the left, a large group was traversing the slope under some large semi-vertical rocks, while another pair traversed above the rocks. That also looked dangerous.

Slope on Backside of Aiguille de Toule

We crossed below all of them to a rocky edge, and then went up the slope there. We crossed a steep slope, but it didn’t bother me. We reached the ridge, and then turned right to follow it up. It dropped off steeply enough to get my attention. Throughout this ascent, I had to really slow down to avoid too much slack in the rope (I was at the end of the rope after the guide and Kelvin).

Ridge on Aiguille de Toule

From our vantage point on the ridge, we could see our final destination, nestled above some fairly dramatic, high, and vertical cliffs. My pulse increased, although it was not due to exertion. :-)

When we got to the top of the ridge, the rest was just a “walk” across an essentially level rock pile. There was a narrow ridge between us and the summit proper, which was edged with those scary cliffs. Kelvin volunteered that stopping here and calling this the summit would be fine with him, but Luke responded that we needed to go to the real summit as we were doing a traverse and would be heading down the other side. That bit of info did not help my stress level.

Looking Back at Narrow Ridge from Summit

Luke described that ridge as flat and wide. I described it as a knife’s edge. To be fair, you would have to try really hard to fall off of it, but I still used lots of expletives along the way. At the real top, we stopped for a rest. As usual, I found the rest anything but restful.

For this hike, I had used my hydration bladder rather than a Nalgene, and so I had been drinking water constantly along the way. I would have been more than happy to leave immediately, but I’m sure that Kelvin appreciated the rest. This time, I remembered to have Luke take a picture of me at the summit.

Jim and Kelvin on Top of Aiguille de Toule
Tomorrow’s Climb

I was not reassured when Luke told us to take off our crampons and put away our ice axes. Once again, as we left, I took the lead. It turned out that we were going down the “front side”, which was a big rock scrabble to the base. It wasn’t as steep as it looked from a distance, which makes sense considering that a large amount of it was loose rock. It really wasn’t that bad.

There was another group a ways behind us. At the bottom, when we came out on the snow, I wanted to take some pictures, but Luke said, “No, let’s go. I don’t want them dropping rocks on our heads.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but I think he was serious. I did manage to get one quick one off before we set out, however.

View up Front Face of Aiguille de Toule

I think that one of the main advantages of coming down the rocks was that it avoided slogging back up that slope that we had descended earlier.

When we got to the Sno-Cat track and unroped, we ran into this crazy babushka. She only spoke Russian, and wanted us to take her picture with different backgrounds. She spoke at great length to us, despite the fact that we didn’t have the slightest idea of what she was saying.

We got back to the hut maybe around 2:00, and took our gear out to dry in the sun. It was cool out in the wind, but next to the hut with no wind, in the sun, it was warm to hot (I took off my fleece so I just had on a tee-shirt). I sat there for about a half hour, then as the sun was disappearing behind clouds, I brought my stuff in. I found Luke and Kelvin and got a Panini and an herbal tea for a late lunch.

They don’t allow boots upstairs, but the hut has a large rack of “hut shoes”, which were loaner sandals, that you can borrow and wear around when you don’t have your boots on.

We got our bunk assignments, moved our stuff there (other than the “pointy things” that we left in the bin, and then I went to the cafe/bar to write this (on paper, not the netbook). There is about 2-1/2 hours until dinner, so maybe I’ll go lay down a bit. Earlier, I had a slight headache.


Shortly after I laid down for a nap, I could hear it start to rain or sleet. I didn’t really fall asleep, but my pseudo-dreams tended more towards falling and exposed heights, which doesn’t bode well. Despite having just had a cappuccino, Kelvin promptly fell asleep. Turns out that he is a snorer. He snored loud enough to shake the building down.


Just had dinner with a nice couple and their guide. He is German and she is English, although they are currently living in Australia. Their guide was Austrian.

We had some pasta and sauce, a slice of beef, some veggies in some sort of tomato thing, the ever-present bread, and pudding for dessert. To drink we had bottled water.

The current plan is that Luke will get up at 4am (the time that breakfast starts) and check on the weather. If it is lousy, we get to sleep in. Otherwise we get breakfast and head out.

It is strange: so far it has been pretty easy, and I have not freaked out over the exposure, but I’m still full of doubts. I keep thinking that tomorrow will be different, and I’ll be cold, tired, freak out over the exposure, etc.

The mountain is very different than I pictured. I imagined a big broad sheet of ice, sort of like Rainier or Huayna Potosi. Instead there are lots of jagged crags and ridges. There is a lot more exposure than I expected. Mont Blanc is a lot more technical and at least in that respect more difficult than Rainier (not to mention 1,400 feet higher). It is a good thing that I didn’t know this earlier. If I had known what it would be like before the trip, then I would have been freaking out twice as much as I actually did (which was quite a bit).

I survived my very first time fully using in a squat toilet. It is really terribly uncivilized in my opinion. Now for a very interesting night.

Some stats on today’s hike:
Start Time:9:33
At Summit:11:55
Finish Time:1:34
Time Up:2:22
Time Down:1:39
Total Time:4:01

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Tuesday, July 16: Chamonix

Thursday, July 18: Torino / Chamonix