Saturday, July 20: Chamonix
Mont Blanc du Tacul
This morning started as a repeat of yesterday. The only difference was that I gathered all of my stuff into my duffle and suitcase so that they could move them to the new room, and I turned in my room key.
Once again Kelvin bagged. On one hand, I felt sorry for him with a cold or something pretty much killing his Alps trip. On the other hand, I was glad that he was bagging, as it is much more reassuring on the scary parts to be the only client with the guide, and it would also allow us to do more. (Later on the trip, Luke confided that if Kelvin had joined us, not only would it have been slower, but we might have had to turn back before the summit, which would have been frustrating.)
If we could turn back the clock and know that Kelvin was going to bag the last three climbs of the trip, I should have been heading for the summit if not already reached it, but c’est la vie.
As was typical on the French side, we had a clear blue sky for most of the morning.
The scary ridge down from Aiguille du Midi was scary as always, but I just kept staring at where I was planting my feet and not enjoying the view, and so I got past it. We blasted down to the flats (le Col du Midi?). On the way down I had worn my green soft-shell over my gray fleece, over my tee. That was too much for the upcoming ascent, and so I was going to take the green soft-shell off. Luke suggested instead (and it turned out to be a good idea) to take off the fleece and leave the soft-shell on, as it was more wind-proof.
We couldn’t see the Torino Hut, as it was behind a mound, but we could see the peaks that we climbed from that side. It felt like that was a totally different part of the massif, but Luke said that if Kelvin was a stronger climber, and there hadn’t been a danger of lightning storms, we might have gone up to Midi instead of going up the Italian side, and then hiked over to Torino (climbing Le Toule on the way).
Luke met a guide friend of his who asked him something that I didn’t catch. Luke replied that he had some nuts at the bottom of his pack. I was wondering what this was about. Was the other guide (or his client) hungry and didn’t pack food? But then Luke pulled out some metal climbing nuts, and it made more sense.
Then we started slogging up Mont Blanc du Tacul. This was our final destination, and most of the way is also the route to Mont Blanc.
We ground up the slope. In places it was steep, and I tried not to think about the way down. I also kept my gaze on the route in front of me, to avoid inadvertently freaking myself out. Given the pace we were going at, I really needed to focus on where I was planting my feet. My heart was going a mile a minute, and at one point I had to ask Luke to slow slightly. We also took a couple of short stops (e.g. 15 seconds) to let me catch my breath. I was thinking that I guess I’m not as strong of climber as I thought I was.
At one point, the route crossed over the ever-present bergschrund. Here, it was maybe 3-4 feet wide, with the far side 5-6 feet higher than the near side. The trail split into two just below it, and I asked Luke about it. Our path led to a snow bridge, where you could climb up to the other side. The other path was used (sometimes?) by people coming down. There was a spot where you could jump from the high side, across the crevasse, to the lower side, but obviously you couldn’t go up that route.
At one point, we somewhat coincidentally passed (they were going down) our friends Chris, Victor, and Stephanie from the Torino hut. They had summited (like I should have), and were on their way down. For future reference, Chris was working for Mountain Spirit Guides.
We continued grinding up the slope, sometimes steeply, with no significant pauses. We finally topped out on the shoulder ridge and were met with a significant wind, which was rather cold. However, I wasn’t about to start digging clothes out of my pack and changing.
It was at this point that the route to Mont Blanc, and the route to Tacul diverge. The route to Tacul hangs a left and goes up the shoulder to the summit of Tacul. The route to Mont Blanc crosses over the shoulder to then cross over a col on the shoulder of Mont Maudit, and then up Mont Blanc proper.
It was certainly easier grinding up the shoulder, as it was not as steep as what we had been ascending. At first it was broad and mellow. But nearer the top, it got narrower and steeper, with the required drops and cliffs on the side, to a rock scrabble at the top. By this point, I should realize that it was “required” that all of the peaks in the area had these, but it hadn’t dawned on me until then. It hadn’t looked this bad from below.
We actually passed another pair of climbers (probably a guide and a client). It was odd to think that we were actually climbing faster than another group.
The final technical piece was that there was a vertical or overhanging icy chute between two rocks that was maybe about 6 feet high. This time, there were no good holds on the rocks. I had to dig the pick of my ice axe in and pull on that, in order to climb the chute. The leash, which had been clipped to my harness, didn’t allow me enough slack to reach far enough, so I had to unclip it and then climb the chute. Then there was the requisite scary trip around a large rock (not looking down), and then we got up to the summit.
Fortunately for me, just on the other side of the summit there was a large flat area, with some convenient rocks for sitting.
Luke suggested that I eat something, so I had a granola bar that I had bought at a local grocery store a few days previous. I took some pictures and then Luke took some pictures of me and of some scenery (including a scary slope that went on to a neighboring peak).
Then it was time for the required half of the hike, and we headed down. That icy chute was still scary, and I think I half down-climbed it and half was lowered by Luke. There was that other pair waiting to come up, so Luke wanted us to be speedy. For obvious reasons, they could not go up until we had finished going down.
Then it was an easy run down the shoulder. It still amazes me how much faster going down is than going up.
Shortly before we came to the junction with the Mont Blanc route, Luke told me to hang a right (I was in the lead) and to “bushwhack” (“snowwhack”?) over to the other trail. I don’t know what this is called, but the snow was very uneven with these one to two foot blobs and holes randomly scattered around (i.e. there was nothing that was flat). It was rather challenging to keep my balance (I didn’t always). Luke told me it was good experience for me. :-)
After a few minutes, we hit the main route, hooked a right, and started descending. Again, it was amazing how much faster it was than grinding up. The slope was rather steep in places, but we traversed as we went down, so the route itself wasn’t that steep (except in a few isolated places). That steep slope dropping away for a long long distance that might have freaked me out before, but compared with what I had already done, it was only some background stress.
We came to the bergschrund, where we fortunately didn’t take the “jump across” approach. (That might have been fun, but it probably would have in reality scared the crap out of me, and possibly damaged something on the landing.)
I had been using the hiking pole and the ice axe (without an attached leash) on the way down. There was that steep slope to down climb above the snow bridge, where the pole would just be a hindrance. Luke asked me for my pole, and I thought he was going to put it in his pack or something. Instead, he suddenly went “fling!” and both of our poles were flying through the air to land on the other side (which was relatively level). I then down-climbed the wall and crossed the snow bridge, with Luke paying out the line as I went. Then I slowly proceeded as he climbed down, so as to keep the rope reasonably taut without pulling him off of the slope.
At one point on the way down, Luke remarked to me, “Remember when you asked me to slow a little on the way up? Well, at that point we were going up F***ing fast.” He had no reason to just say that to encourage me, so I have to assume that he meant it. I took it as a compliment and appreciated the comment.
We continued to grind down the slope, which wasn’t as scary as I had imagined on the way up. At one point I wanted to stop and take some pictures (so it couldn’t have been very scary :-), but Luke said no. He said that we were under some large seracs, and a number of years ago, one had toppled, started an avalanche, and several people were killed. The snow was not conducive to avalanching today, but he still didn’t want to spend more time than was necessary under the seracs.
Eventually we got to a more gradual slope and then to the floor of the col (the “flat”). We plodded along there for a while, which suddenly required more effort than the downhill that we had just finished.
Coincidentally, just when we joined the route to yesterday’s adventure, we met up with Luke’s friend from this morning, who was returning from the same route we had taken yesterday. So he was able to give Luke back his nuts on the same day. Weird.
Just before the slog up to the tram station, we took a short break. Then we began “le slog” up to the tram.
I felt like it was just the route being mean to us. You really don’t need a significant uphill at the end, when you’ve been climbing for a few hours. We ground up the slope at a good pace, and I was again soon winded. Obviously our pace slowed to the standard uphill crawl. We could see other groups slogging up along a different route to our right, and various groups crossing the flat towards the way up (looking like little ants, all heading towards the same destination).
For the crossing of the flat and the slog up, I put my ice axe away and just used my pole. Partway up the slog, I collapsed the lower section to shorten the pole (to something more like my ice axe in length). It was a tiring slog, particularly at the end of the hike. It was fairly warm, and the top layer of snow was more like slush. We didn’t bother changing our clothes, and so we were fairly warm on the trudge up, particularly when the sun was out. It was partly cloudy, and we rejoiced when the sun went behind the clouds or when a wind came up to cool us off.
I had been looking forward to a short break at the last wide area before the scary ridge, but when we got there, Luke just turned and continued onto the scary ridge. I had thought about asking for a break to rest a bit before the ridge, but I suspect that Luke would have said no. I think he just wanted me to climb it and not sit there worrying about it. (“What, me, worry???” :-)
As I expected, going up was definitely easier (on my nerves) than going down, as I was facing into the slope and not outward). Still I kept my attention to where I was planting my feet. I was tempted to look right down the slope towards the valley a mile below us, just to see how it affected me, but I didn’t for fear that it would in fact freak me out.
In short order we passed through the gate to the platform, and my Alpine climbing was officially over. We got our gear off (the last time I would wear crampons on this trip), and we took the tram down. There are lots of tourists at this spot, because there is a museum, and you can take a stair up to a high viewing platform. Interestingly, as we were walking the labyrinth to the tram (which was rather convoluted, and which had a number of stairs up and stairs down, just as a final challenge), we were handed a ticket which apparently gave us preferred access to the tram. It seems that preference is given on the tram down to “alpinists” over the tourists.
(I guess I now qualify as an official alpinist. :-)
They are somewhat paranoid (probably with good reason) for sharp things like ice axes hanging off of packs. They want you to carry the pack in your hands rather than on your back, and to control where the pointy bits are. Luke suggested (now that it was almost too late) that it might be better to not put my ice axe on my pack, but rather carry it in my hand. (He had a smaller axe, and he stowed his (with protectors) inside his pack.) Holding it in my hand worked a lot better.
We got on the tram in short order, and lucky for us got to the second tram just as it was about to load, so we had almost no wait. Finally, we were back in the valley, where it was rather warm. It struck me that the tram was like a magic portal, which moved you from the “rough” world of ice and snow and exposure, to the “civilized” world. Once again, I had a cafe au lait and a croissant-like thing to celebrate.
On the way out of the tram, through the gift shop, Luke found a little stuffed goat, which he decided to buy for his daughter. I looked and noticed a cute little bear, which was rather different from any of our other bears, so I bought one for Mike.
Luke drove us back to the hotel. When I went to check in, I found that they had decided to leave me in the old room (201). I guess it was available, and they decided that it would be easier to give me that room (presumably at the price of the other room) rather than move my stuff to the new room.
I dropped my stuff off in the room and invited Kelvin to come down to say good-bye to Luke. Luke told me about a “secret shortcut” to get to Grindelwald. Rather than go up to Geneva and cross over there, it was better to head south east-ish from here and take the train tunnel. It seems to be a tunnel where you drive your car onto a train, go about 20 minutes through the tunnel, and then drive off. It sounds like a neat experience, and it apparently saves maybe an hour over the route that I was expecting to take.
If I took that route (which was his upcoming route), I would come out of the train tunnel not too far from where he would be staying, after meeting up with his wife and daughter, who had been visiting friends in Barcelona, and who were coming in to join Luke in Switzerland, his summer home base. He invited me to give him a call when I came out of the tunnel, and maybe we could get together for a coffee, and I could meet his wife and daughter. Of course, the main sticking point will be calling him, since I don’t have a cell phone that works in Europe.
Luke headed out, and I was now officially “just a tourist”. My first priority was to take a shower and change into clean clothes. I bought some posters/pictures of Mont Blanc du Tacul, and then I set off in search of food. Along the way I ran into some French Mimes (of the pseudo-statue variety). I also saw a dog (leashed to its owner) happily standing in a town fountain cooling off.
It was getting close to 4pm, so I didn’t want a big lunch, so I decided to see what French crepes were like, along with another cafe au lait. It was somewhat confusing. Apparently there were about 4-5 (somewhat narrow) restaurants right next to each other. There was a large collection of tables in front of them all. It wasn’t easy to figure out which tables belonged to which restaurant. In fact, I ended up sitting at the wrong table, and when I asked if they served crepes, the waiter directed me to another set of tables.
It wasn’t helped by the custom here of just walking in and sitting down, rather than being seated by a staff person.
I bought a tee-shirt for Amy, and then went back to the hotel to write this up.
I saw Kelvin off, and then I set out for dinner. I saw a bunch of people with umbrellas, and the sky was overcast, so I went back and got my magic umbrella—so far it has never rained when I was out carrying it!
I eventually settled on a place for dinner. It was the same bloc as where I had the crepes earlier, but it was a different restaurant/set of tables.
The couple at the table in front of me got something strange. The waiter brought out a little side table and a platter of various raw meats (and some sliced onions). Then he lit a little sterno-like heater and put something that looked like a preheated stone slab on a stand over the heater. Apparently the diners cooked their own food by putting the chunks of meat onto the slab, cooking them to the desired amount, then removing them to eat them, and putting the next batch on. I haven’t seen that before.
I have to say that I like the way they handle credit cards here, by running them through a machine at your table, rather than carrying off your card for processing like back home. The only thing I couldn’t figure out is how to leave a tip on the credit card. So I ended up using all of my spare Euros (except for some small change) for a tip. I didn’t want to get more, as I expect to be leaving the Euro-zone tomorrow.
I found that when I got up from the chair at the end of dinner, I was *very* stiff, particularly my legs. I think my calves were mooing. They got quite a workout over the past few days.
Walking back to the hotel, I ran across a very nice string quartet playing on the plaza. I stopped to listen until the end of the song. I wanted to give them something, but I had no spare Euros left, so I gave them a US dollar.
This was a later dinner than I have been having (roughly between 8 and 9pm), but I didn’t mind as I don’t have to get up early tomorrow morning!
I went out to the car and found that it did in fact have a built-in GPS system. Eventually, I was even able to convince it to speak English. The bad news is that it doesn’t even recognize the street that my hotel in Grindelwald is on. Even more ominously, there is a car parked behind mine, blocking me in. I thought that was extremely rude of him. I really hope that he is just there temporarily and will be gone by tomorrow.
When I first got to Chamonix, I found it a strange and scary place. Now it is much more comfortable, even if there are many more smokers than I am used to. One thing that took me a while to adjust to is the way people write “1”. We write it as just a single stroke, or perhaps we add a little flag at the top. Here, their flag goes almost all the way to the base, so it looks like an upside down “V”, twisted slightly so that the right side is vertical. At first it took me rather some time to figure out that this thing was actually a “1”. I thought it was just someone’s peculiar personal style, but I’ve since seen it many places.
Some stats on today's hike:
Start at Aiguille du Midi: 7:33 Start of Flat: 8:05 Start of Tacul 8:20 At Shoulder: 9:45 At Summit: 10:21 Start Down 10:27 At Base 11:46 At Tram 12:40 Time Up 2:01 Time Down 1:19 Total Time 5:07 Elevation Gain (Tacul) 2,500