Thursday, July 18: Torino / Chamonix
Does it Always Snow on Me in the Mountains?
We went to bed shortly after dinner, maybe around 8pm. Perhaps due to the short “nap” I took in the afternoon, I couldn’t fall asleep. (But at least I wasn’t thinking about/dreaming about heights and falling.) At first I was a bit cool, and I figured that the temperature would drop overnight. The bedding consisted of a mattress, two wool blankets, and a pillow. When I had laid down in the afternoon, I found it easy for my feet to stick out, so I sort of arranged one (doubled) blanket folded over at the bottom to keep my feet snug, and then the other doubled blanket across my top.
I tossed and turned for a while, and eventually decided that I was too hot. Also, when I sleep on my side, my legs tend to be bent, so they are not as long as when I was laying on my back earlier. So I ditched the scheme I had and went with a single doubled blanket (and my silk bag liner). I still couldn’t sleep. I got up and hit the bathroom once again, and still couldn’t sleep.
Eventually I decided that I was still too hot and rearranged things to put a single layer over me. I think it was probably between 10 and 11. At that point I finally fell asleep. At first I didn’t realize that I had fallen asleep, but at one point I rolled over and realized that my thoughts had been a dream, and hence I must have been sleeping.
At one point, after rolling over, I discovered that with one half of the blanket over me, and the other half hanging over the edge, the weight had pulled the whole thing off of me and dumped it on the floor (I was on a top bunk). Fortunately, I had a second blanket, so I could spread that over me, this time with the unused half scrunched against the wall.
The plan was that Luke would get up just before 4am and check the weather. If it was promising, he would get us up, otherwise we would sleep in.
All during this time, and when I woke up to roll over, I could hear the shush of rain/sleet/snow hitting the side of the building. I figured that we had a snowball’s chance of making it out at 4. On one hand, I was a bit disappointed that we wouldn’t get that day’s climb in. On the other, I didn’t mind the chance to get a bit extra sleep and sleep in.
At one point, I heard Luke get up, and a few minutes later I felt him shaking my leg and telling me it was time to get up. I figured it was probably around 8:00, although it was strangely dark for that time. I put my clothes back on, crammed by liner bag in its little sack, grabbed my pack, and went down to the equipment room. I was surprised to find that it was 4am, and people were already gearing up (breakfast starts at 4am).
This was the first morning since I got here that I did not take Diamox. The people we were talking with seemed to think that the side-effects (in particular frequent urination, which could lead to dehydration) were not worth it, and that with a good program of acclimatization, you didn’t need it.
We got some breakfast: bread and marmalade, cereal, and tea. They also had yogurt, but I passed on that. I could have had coffee, but that often gets my bowels going, and I definitely didn’t want that. As usual, I was the last to finish eating.
I made one final pit stop, and got my gear on. I nearly had a heart attack when I couldn’t find my gloves, but they had just migrated to the bottom of my pack. Being as it was before sunrise and hence colder, I put on my green soft-shell jacket. So I hiked with a tee-shirt, my gray fleece shirt, and my soft-shell jacket. That was just about right for the day.
We started out between 4:45 and 5. There was a dense fog, which made the headlamps a real pain. Luke carefully and diplomatically said that we were not a very strong group, and that with the weather conditions, we would not be doing Mont Blanc. If the weather conditions were good we might have tried, or if we were a really strong pair, we might have tried, but that as things were, it was a no-go. This was not an unexpected announcement.
We got as far as the end of the snow-cat track (the “road” from the hut up to the tram to Chamonix), where we rope up.
Kelvin announced that his stomach was not doing good things, and rather than keep going, where if he had to return he would take out the hike for me as well, he was turning back at that point, as that was the last point from which he could safely return alone.
I was secretly glad, as this would allow us to travel at a faster pace. Not only would this give us a better chance of success (due to the weather), but it would also give me a chance to measure myself more objectively.
At this point, the fog had cleared out, so it was easier to see things.
So it was just Luke and I who roped up, and we proceeded to barrel down the slope like we did the previous day. In this case, if anything, it was faster. Unfortunately, having a pole with no basket made it harder for me to keep my balance, and we really went down the slope faster than I was comfortable with. I could maintain that pace, but not easily, so I didn’t say anything.
Below us, I could see our friends from the previous night. They were coincidentally going on the same route that we were, but they had gotten out a bit earlier than we did (they geared up before breakfast). It is definitely neat to see the lines of lights off in the darkness.
At the bottom of the slope as we started going across the flat, I noticed that I was starting to be able to see the peaks/crags around us. We started up the slope similarly to the previous day, but this time making much better time. Halfway up, I found that I could turn my headlamp off.
Luke announced that the turn-around time would be 8:00, due to the weather. No matter where we were at that point, at 8:00 we would turn back.
The snow conditions were not the greatest. With the recent storms, there was a bunch of loose crud that didn’t give a good foothold. I would have preferred some nice hard ice.
Rather than turning left towards the Aiguille de Toule, we kept heading up the valley. We crossed a small crevasse, but it was only about six inches wide. We turned right, and a short distance later we put on our crampons. A bit later, as the slope steepened, we left our poles in the snow.
That morning, I had neglected to take my antihistamine, as I figured that there wouldn’t be a lot allergens out in the snow, and I just didn’t want to bother digging it out. But for the first hour or so, I found I had a rather drippy nose, so I took it when we stopped to put our crampons on.
I noticed that all of the other poles were planted handles down and points up. I asked Luke why they didn’t plant them point downward, as that would keep the handles drier. He replied that their poles had baskets on them, so they couldn’t plant them point down. Since I had been fighting with my basketless pole, the thought had never occurred to me.
The slope continued to steepen, until we came to the bergschrund. This was a bigger crevasse, maybe 2-4 feet wide, and with the far side a bit higher, although it was hard to say as the far side was not that far from vertical. There was a snow bridge across that we took. First Luke went across, went up the really steep section, found a stable spot, and then belayed me as I crossed.
After this, the slope continued to steepen. I’m guessing it was 45-50 degrees, but I wasn’t taking careful notes. Once again, I was focused on getting up and not thinking about going down. There were a few patches that were steeper, and some rock bands that we had to climb through. Particularly with the lousy snow, I would say that this was the most challenging climb yet.
I asked Luke whether I was at the end of the rope (back when there were three of us on the rope) because I was the lightest. He paid me a complement by saying that you put the lightest or the strongest climber at the end, which in my case was the same. On one hand, I didn’t think I had much competition for that honor. But on the other, at some point he also complimented me by saying that I was climbing very strongly.
We eventually came out on top of the ridge, and then followed the ridge up to the summit. Just before the summit, we passed our friends (I never did learn their names) on their way down. At the top, there was bit of rock scrabbling, and then we were at the summit. According to Luke’s altimeter, it was about 300m or 1000ft higher than the previous day’s peak.
Given my unfondness for “resting” on an airy perch (I would make a lousy bird), and the incoming weather, we spent very little time there. Luke asked if I wanted a summit picture of me, but we decided that rather than dig out the camera, we would just head down and take one later.
Not surprisingly, I found going down over the rocks more of a pain than going up, and as a result slower. I trust my crampons on ice, but I still don’t trust them that much on rock.
Fortunately, as on previous climbs, the exposure did not bother me much (although I could definitely feel an undercurrent of stress, and perhaps adrenaline). I certainly felt more at ease when the steep stuff was over.
Going down was a lot faster than going up. At one point we passed some ropes tied around a boulder, an obvious fixed anchor spot. I asked if we would clip in there and have him belay me down, but he said that he thought it was OK and that we would just down climb it. However, just above the bergschrund (with its almost vertical steep section), we did stop to tie into a fixed anchor. In this case, it was a much longer belay with me down climbing maybe 50 feet or more to get to the crevasse and over it.
Then after he had unclipped from the protection, he directed me to slowly continue down the slope as he descended, but not to go so fast that I would pull him off the slope. The idea was to keep the rope reasonably tight. I had wanted to get some pictures of him coming down that stretch, but c’est la vie.
At some point near the bottom of the slope, Luke confided in me that he had never climbed these two particular crags before, but that he hadn’t wanted to tell us until after it was over.
I got my pole and continued down the slope. It was probably around 8:00 at that point, so we made much better progress than the “turnaround time” had suggested. However, about this time it started snowing/sleeting on us. The day’s storm had begun. (At least it was frozen and not rain!) Near where we had put on our crampons, we took them off. Not to waste time, we didn’t take off our packs, and Luke just crammed both mine and his into my pack.
Luke wanted to push the pace due to the weather, so rather than have me lead, now that it wasn’t very steep, he took the lead, and we had one of my unfavorite high-speed (relatively to what I would have preferred) dashes down the slope. The speed would have been fine on a normal path, but the track was somewhat narrow and uneven, and I had a lot of difficulty keeping my balance, particularly with my basketless pole.
At that smaller crevasse, we passed our friends again (this time going in the same direction). I think they were taking their crampons off there, but I wasn’t certain as we blasted past them, and I had to keep most of attention focused on staying upright.
At this point, I was having “fond” memories of Huayna Potosi, where we also climbed in the snow; particularly as my glasses started collecting snow.
I was very happy when we got to the bottom of the slope and on to the flat, as the pace slowed down slightly. Then it got even slower when we hit the big slog up (on the track where we careened down earlier). This was harder work on my lungs and heart, but easier for keeping balance. We slogged up the hill at all available speed and eventually came out to the Snow-Cat track, which was the local high point. There we unroped, and the rest of the way back was slightly downhill.
At one point on the way down, I broached an idea to Luke that had been percolating in my mind for a day or so. During dinner on the previous day, Luke told our friends that his recommendation would be to make a summit attempt on Mont Blanc on Sunday. The worst of the storm would be Friday, and on Saturday the snow conditions would be much worse.
First I asked him if he thought I was up to a Mont Blanc climb, and he thought that I certainly was. I had been thinking that I had planned to go to the Eiger for a few days after Mont Blanc, so I was wondering if it would be feasible to stay in Chamonix and to arrange for a local guide to take me up on Sunday. He said that he would be certainly happy to guide me up there, but that unfortunately he had another client immediately after our group. It would be easy to hire a guide in Chamonix, but the biggest problem would be finding a hut vacancy.
At this point, such a plan is up in the air. I figure that I’ll see how tomorrow goes, and then perhaps look into it. Interestingly during our mad dash down that slope, he asked me when I was flying out. I told him Tuesday. He asked what time. I’m wondering if he is planning to look into this on my behalf.
One thing that I noticed as we came up that last hill and returned to the hut was that I had a bit of a cough. I don’t know if this was a mild form of the “Khombu cough”, i.e. a cough due to breathing hard in dry, cold mountain air, although I doubt the air was very dry where we were. Perhaps it was the effects of my drippy nose augmented by protracted breathing hard (I had made reasonable time going up the steep stuff, but I was definitely breathing hard, and once or twice Luke waiting a short while for my breathing to slow down before proceeding). Another thought that just came to me as I’m typing this is that perhaps it is just a form of exercise-induced asthma, similar to after I run in a race. In any event, I hoped that going down to Chamonix would fix the problem.
We met up with Kelvin, and Luke and I celebrated by having a latte. Then we collected our gear and headed down to the tram station. On the way up, we had taken the road, but particularly with the rain/sleet outside on the way down we took the stairs. This was a *very* long continuous flight of stairs. Periodically there were little barriers sticking out of first one side and then a bit later the other, so that in a sense you had to slalom down the stairs. These were to stop you from falling the whole length of the staircase if you slipped.
We took the trams down, and drove back through the tunnel. It is interesting that one thing they explicitly warn you is to keep your distance from the vehicle in front of you. I think that this was in response to the fatal accident/fire that they had a few years back. On the Chamonix side it wasn’t raining, although it looked like it had done so earlier.
We got to the hotel maybe around 11am. It was strange to be done climbing so early in the day. As I was checking in, I enquired as to whether I could change my reservation for a room/nothing/room for a room for three days. She replied that she was sorry but that they were booked, so I would have to check at another hotel for the middle day. I had had one room scheduled for that first night, and a different room scheduled for the third night. The first was a larger/more-expensive room, but it had been all that was available when I was making the reservations.
When she found that Kelvin and I were together, she said that they had a larger room, which had two “rooms” in it, one with a pair of twin beds and one with a pair of bunk beds. Did we want to get that room for the middle night and share it? I figured that it was better than packing up our stuff and dragging across town, so we agreed to do that.
I asked if I would have to dump my stuff in the ski room (really a small out-building) while I was changing rooms, as checkout was much earlier than when the rooms were available. She said that I could just pack up my stuff and leave it in my old room
Kelvin tried to check in, but it turns out that he didn’t have a reservation for that night. He had assumed that once we got up to the huts, we would stay there until we finished the trip and came down. Unfortunately for him, they were full this night as well, as nothing was available. She then went to check my in for tonight’s room, and she was surprised to find that it was the room that we had just booked for the second night. So she asked if we wanted to share the room for two nights rather than one. We did.
So we arranged that I would rent the room (as I already had) for the first night. Kelvin would rent it for the second night. Then he would run off for his plane, and I would move to a different room for the third night. So as I am typing this, I have a roomie. Fortunately, there are the two sub-rooms, with a door between, so I can close it at night. Based on Kelvin’s actions in the hut, he can snore loud enough to shake the walls. Actually, a few times last night when I was trying to sleep but couldn’t, I would hear him snore and break into some giggles as it sounded so bad.
I had been debating what I wanted first: to take a shower and get cleaned up, or to get some lunch. Our room was not available, however, so that made the question moot. We went off, but my first stop was at an outdoor store to buy some baskets for the pole. This is redundant to the baskets waiting back home, but it was cheaper than buying a pair of new poles.
We then stopped at a restaurant for lunch, where we ended up getting a hamburger each.
Back at the hotel, our room was still not available (the official check-in time was 3pm), so we went out again and I bought an umbrella (for use around town if it was raining). I also viewed it as insurance that it would not rain in town again. :-)
Back at the hotel, we waited in the lobby for 15-30 minutes until our room was available, and then we moved in. My first actions were to unpack all of my wet stuff and lay them out to dry. I volunteered for the bunk bed room. Unfortunately, even though the lobby and my previous room (which was 301 just above our current 201) had internet access, it didn’t seem to reach our room. So Kelvin went down to the lobby to try to connect, and I took a shower.
My room upstairs (301) had had a strange half-curved bath tub, and a shower stall that had three walls and a curtain. There was nothing separating the shower stall from the rest of the bathroom (which was all tiled and had a floor drain), but a towel across the floor outside of the shower kept the rest of the bathroom reasonably dry.
In this room, the shower “stall” is just a corner of the smaller bathroom. It is right next to the toilet, so that when you sit on the toilet, your knees are almost brushing the shower curtain. As a result, it is just about impossible to take a shower without flooding three-quarters or more of the bathroom floor.
Afterwards, I started writing up today’s activities. Halfway through this, Kelvin came back and took a shower. Now he is just doing something with his iPad, and I’m typing this.
It isn’t as convenient having a room-mate, but it was necessary and it does save me some money. Now I think I’ll head down to the lobby and see if I can connect up. Then I’ll have to try to transcribe my hen scratching in my notebook from last night. We’re once again getting together with Luke for dinner at 6:30. It is still only 3:30, so I have three hours to kill. I don’t dare take a nap, for fear I won’t sleep tonight again, but it gives me plenty of time to check my email/Facebook, and write up yesterday (and then probably wander a bit through town).
Unfortunately, while I had excellent signal strength downstairs, I still couldn’t connect to the network. I’m guessing that their wireless router is maxed out on connections, so it can’t accept any new ones. I’ll have to try again later.
I wandered around for about an hour before dinner and did some gift shopping. Then we met up with Luke and had dinner. When I got back to the hotel, I could connect to the internet, so I spent about 45 minutes doing email and Facebook. Now it is time to head upstairs, pack for tomorrow, and then hit the sack.
Some stats on today’s hike:
Start Time: 4:55 Finish Time: 8:13 Total Time: 3:18