Thursday, July 17: Chamonix
I had been wondering how I would know when it was time to get up. It turns out that it was blindingly obvious.
They actually sounded a chime and turned the lights on at 1:45am. Breakfast begins at 2am. I hadnít slept in the slightest, so it was very easy for me to “wake up” and start getting ready. We got dressed, packed night things in our pack, and headed downstairs. I got down at 1:55, but they were already serving.
I couldnít quite figure out how things were working, and since we wanted a speedy start, I just had a bowl of granola and a couple of cups of juice. I didnít have much of an appetite for anything else, and given that I was a slow eater, I didnít want to delay things further.
I figured that it would be about freezing, and when Iíve hiked that way on Monadnock, I just need a fleece shirt and my soft-shell. So, for fear of overheating, I wore that. Big mistake.
For one thing, it was colder than freezing. I blew the water out of my camelbak hose, but the residual water quickly froze, which meant that I was carrying about a liter or liter and a half of dead weight water up and down the mountain for no good reason.
For another, when I was hiking Monadnock, I was moving at a good pace and generating a lot of heat. At 13,000 feet, you donít move quickly, and you donít generate nearly as much heat.
Finally, on Monadnock, it is sunny, whereas on Mont Blanc it was dark and windy.
Breakfast was at 2:00 and Chris had wanted us to leave at 2:30. I think, due to my slowness (and a line at the bathroom) that we didnít start until between 2:45 and 2:55.
After about a half hour of hiking, we stopped to adjust clothing. I didnít have much extra. (In the past, I hadnít needed much warm clothing, and I was trying to keep my pack light.)
I put a pair of long underwear tops on (over my shirt, as it was too cold to take my shirt off) and then put my soft-shell back on. Still, by the time I got it back on, I was terribly cold and shaking violently. It was a bit better when we were moving. That was the first time that night that I had the thought “Iím not going to be able to spend the next 7 hours like this. I wonít be able to make it. I should just call the whole thing off.”
We went over the Dome du Gouter, and then lost a bit of altitude on the far side. At the time, it was greatly appreciated. Then we went up a ways, where Chris directed me off to the side where there was a shelter. This was the Refuge Vallot, at 14311 feet, just 100 feet lower than Rainier.
Interestingly, it didnít have a normal door. The doorway was elevated about 5 feet, and you had to duck under an overhang, and then climb a small ladder/steep stair (without catching your pack on the overhang), step through the door, and then climb down a similar ladder to get to the inside. This was the place to do a major wardrobe change out of the wind.
I removed my undershirt (which was on top, once I removed my soft-shell), and decided to go for the max and put on my down jacket. I figured that I needed something to break the wind, so I put on my hard-shell (Gore-Tex raincoat) over the down jacket. I didnít pack my long underwear bottoms, so I figured that my legs would have to make due with just my soft-shell pants, but then noticing my hard-shell top, I dug out my hard-shell bottom (Gore-Tex rain pants), and put them on over my soft shell. They have full side zips, so I could get them on without removing my boots/crampons, but I did have to take my harness off.
My balaclava would have been nice, but I didnít back that. In the end, what I had was mostly fine. My face got a bit cold, and I could have used warmer gloves, but in the end it was OK.
It was really nice having that shelter to change in. I canít imagine trying to do that sort of extensive change on the snow with the wind whipping around.
While we were inside, I had some Orange GU energy gel. I figured that at that point, I needed all the help I could get.
So we continued up. We had about 1500 vertical feet to go. The route goes mostly up, although there are a few short downgrades as we went over a few bumps. I found going up, even at what seemed a snailís pace, to be very taxing. It was very difficult on the medium upgrades, but when it got steeper, it was really killing me. I was breathing out of my mouth, which really dried it out (and has given me a mild cough). Several times, I had to ask Chris to stop and take a short break, while I tried to catch my breath. This was despite going up slower than just about everyone else.
Again I thought that there was no way I was going to be able to sustain this for hours, and that perhaps I should call the whole thing off and head back down (and thus avoid a lot of needless pain and suffering). But I would have felt silly suggesting that to Chris without a good reason. So I resolved to wait until either we reached a scary ridge that I didnít think I could manage (particularly in an exhausted state), or something more concrete to indicate that I couldnít hack the level of exertion.
Strangely, the disturbing ridges never materialized. Even though there was at least one that bore a passing similarity to the ridge of Midi, none of them caused me any problems at all. I donít know if it was different geometry, the lack of nearby multi-thousand foot cliffs, the fact that these ridges werenít as steep, or whether I was just too exhausted to care. I did spend the vast amount of time staring at the snow in front of me looking to where I was about to plant each foot, so I consciously avoided looking off to the sides of the ridges.
As the hours rolled on, we continued up. The only thing that saved me was that the steep sections were not *that* long, and then they were followed by either a flat or a downhill, or at worst a more moderate climb. Still, every time I got to a steep uphill, I thought it was going to kill me. I started trying to take two breaths for every step, and then later three, to slow down further.
It is hard to put into words how hard the climbing was. The guides all say that one should keep to a steady pace and not keep starting and stopping, but when youíre panting for air and your legs are feeling almost rubbery, it is very hard to take a step...then another step...and another...and keep going. To be fair, I did have to stop and take breaks occasionally, but I tried really hard not to.
It was really depressing to ask Chris how far it was to the summit, only to have him say that he wasnít sure, but maybe another two hours.
Speaking of which, I really have to hand it to Chris. He offered suggestions on technique that should make me waste less energy. He also tried various attempts to slow me down further so that I wouldnít exhaust myself.
Eventually, it got bright enough that we could turn off our headlamps, although the sun was not yet up. Eventually, the sun did rise, and the view of the rising sun illuminating the mountains was spectacular (although I could only enjoy it when we were taking a brief break for me to catch my breath).
I think it was about here that I first saw the real summit, and I began to think that perhaps, just perhaps, I was going to make it after all.
At some point, we met Anine and Sam coming down from their summit success, and they were full of excitement and encouragement.
We plodded up to the summit in the sun, and then took a bunch of pictures. Then, without a lot of fanfare, we turned and headed back down.
I hadnít set the contour camera (helmet cam) up, and it wouldnít have worked well in the dark. I had my hood on over my helmet, so the camera couldnít have gone there, but I stopped and put it on my shoulder attachment. It made a funny beep a while later, so Iím not sure if it was taking pictures or if it was turning itself off because the batteries were too weak/cold.
Not surprisingly, going down is a lot faster (and a lot easier) than going up. We passed a number of ropes of people trudging up, and it was almost scary to see how slowly they were coming up, and knowing that I had probably been slower than them. Originally I figured that they were slower than I had been, but then I decided that they had probably stayed at the lower refuge, so they had to first climb that 800 meter rock wall in the middle of the night, to get to where we had started.
While going down was much easier than going up, it was still taxing, particularly when Chris had us bypass some switchbacks and just head straight down the slope. On that run, my quads really got a workout.
Of course, eventually we got to some of those downhill stretches we hit going up. While they were most appreciated on the way up, they seemed very unfair on the way “down”. It was amazing at how quickly I slowed to a crawl again on these stretches.
When I finally got to the Gouter Refuge (hut), it felt like I had finally made it back down. Of course, the truth was that I was only roughly halfway down. But I wanted to stop, get some hot chocolate (to hopefully soothe my parched and dried out throat), and something to eat. (Eating would also be an excuse for a short rest.) Another reason to stop was to take off a lot of the layers that were now much too hot.
As we were entering the hut and doffing our gear, we met Anine and Sam, who were putting theirs on, in preparation to head out and down. I broached the idea of getting together for a celebration dinner that evening to Anine, and she was interested, but the problem was how to sync up. I couldnít find my notebook and pen (probably buried at the bottom of my pack somewhere). Eventually, she dug out her phone, and I gave her my cell number.
When I went upstairs to order some hot chocolate and lunch, I was surprised to find that it was only about 9:30 or so (if I can recall correctly). It seemed much later, although I guess that would be expected when youíve been doing strenuous climbing for the past 7 hours. I honestly thought that it must have been around lunch time.
The other reason I wanted to take a break there was to sit for a period of time, and give my body a break, before starting down the steep rocky face.
Eventually I ate about 3/4 of an omelet, and I finished my hot chocolate, so it was time to remember that we were still a long way from the end. I steeled my resolve, got up, got my gear on (slowly), and we started down. This time, I made sure to wear gloves. :-)
The top portion is very steep rock, with lots of steel cables to hold on to. It wasnít that difficult, but I went fairly slowly.
We passed the point where I had stood there bleeding into the snow on the way up, but you couldnít see anything in the snow now. Going down was much easier than going up, but we still had a lot of height to lose, and it took time. We passed the rock-fall filled couloir, although this time Chris opted not to clip in to the cable. The trade-off was that if we were hit by falling rock, there would be little holding us from going down the slope, but on the other hand we could cross more quickly and be in the sights of rock fall for that much less time.
I was really looking forward to getting to the lower shelter, where we could lose the gear and the trail would become a normal one.
I was half right. At that point, we could take off our climbing gear and change into just tee shirts, but the trail was still steep and rocky, which eventually changed to being less steep but more rocky as it descended a large scree field.
I think it was this descent, on top of the earlier descent, that made my knees ache afterwards.
We were aiming for the 2:05 (?) train, but we realized that we were going to be about 5 minutes too late.
I had been going at my best possible speed. I had had a few near falls on the rocks, so since we were not going to make it, I suggested that we slow down slightly. The next train was around 3:20, so we had over an hour to kill.
We took a small detour over to a hut about a 4-5 minute walk from the train station at the base of the valley. I donít think that this “hut” was one where people slept, but rather it was just a food establishment. We got a soda each. They have this “Schweppeís Agrum”, which was a grapefruit/citrus soda that was pretty good, and which we donít have back home.
Unlike in the US, here when you buy a can of soda, they also give you a cup with it.
I got tired of baking in the sun, so I moved inside where it was shady. I sort of debated whether I should try to doze while sitting on the bench, or just sit back and stay awake people watching.
Eventually, it was time to head down to the train station. Unfortunately, it turns out that the train which was shortly leaving did not stop at the tram station, but that there would be another in another 15-20 minutes that would. So we just sat on a bench and waited. Eventually, we flashed our passes, got in the people corral, and when the train pulled in, we got on board (getting seats this time).
Since I was in a chair, I could actually see out the windows, enjoy the view, and look how far up we were from the valley floor.
On the train ride, we got one bit of adventure. Just inside of a tunnel, near the start of our descent, there was a bright flash from overhead (outside of the train), accompanied by a bit of a bang. Immediately, the train stopped, and the emergency lights came on.
Iím guessing that something shorted the overhead power line. I was wondering if the train was dead or not, and whether we would have to wait for a rescue train to come up. But in a few minutes, the lights returned to normal, and the train started down again. The passengers (and myself) were quite relieved at this result.
The cog railroad went steeply down, similar to the train in Switzerland from Kleine Schideg to Gridelwald. I was glad we were not hiking down that part, particularly with the pounding my knees had taken on the way down.
After 20-30 minutes, we got to the tram stop, and there was the final uphill stretch of the climb. Then we could take the tram down. Chris had successfully kept me alive to the top and bottom. I figured that a summit climb wasnít “official” until you make it safely to the bottom, so I could now consider my Mont Blanc ascent “official”.
Iím guessing that we didnít get back to Chamonix until almost 5 or so. It had been a very long and tiring day.
My first action was to take a shower and get into clean clothes. Then I checked my phone, and there was still no message from Anine, concerning a possible dinner plan. What followed next was almost a comedy of telecommunication follies.
I was writing up the recent events on my laptop, and for a change, I had an internet connection. Then I remembered that back in the refuge, I had gotten everyoneís email address, so I could send out pictures after the trip. They had my home email address, which did no one any good, but their addresses were gmail and hotmail, which they might potentially be able to read over here.
So I sent Anine an email message trying to connect for dinner, although I suggested that it would be better to contact me over the phone, as my email connection was spotty.
To my delight, a while later I got a reply from her saying that she had tried calling my phone, but it hadnít worked. She gave me her phone number, and said that her internet connection was also unreliable.
I sent her an email with potential plans to meet for dinner, but I had no idea if she got it or not (apparently she didnít). So I set about trying to send a text message to her phone, figuring that she could then just reply. I knew that my phone was connecting, as I had exchanged texts with Chris.
His had been easy. I gave him my phone number, and he called me. Then I just had to reply to get him. But when I tried calling Anine, it didnít work. Fortunately, I still had an internet connection, so I could google how to make an international phone call on the iPhone. It took some work, but I eventually figured out how to do that.
About ten minutes later, I got a message from Sam! Apparently Anine couldnít even get “reply” to work, but Sam could enter my phone number on her phone and it would work. So we made plans to meet near my apartment at 8:30 (Chris was in a French class from 6 to 8).
I wrote up more of the trip, and then headed down to meet them just before 8:30. Just after 8:30, I got a text message saying that they had gotten there a few minutes early, so they were about a half block down at a small bar. I went up and joined them. A few minutes later, I got a text from Chris saying that he was on his way, and I replied with where we were. A short while later Chris showed up.
We deferred to the recommendation of Chris as to where we should eat, as none of the rest of us knew what was good or not. On the way, Chris stopped by his apartment to see if Nikkos was there. I didnít realize that it wasnít just chance that our two groups had met. Both guides were working for Mountain Spirit Guides, and in fact they were currently roommates. But the other guide was not in.
So we continued up the street a bit further than I usually go, and then turned down almost a small alley to a place called “Moustache”. It was not a place that I would have chosen just walking by, but it turns out that the food was good.
When we ordered, no one else wanted a starter (appetizer), but I ordered some French Onion soup. I was rather hungry, and I wanted to see how they did it in France. After I did, two of the three others also decided to get some.
It was served very differently than in the US. We each got a small tray with a small crock of onion soup, a small bowl with some shredded cheese in it, and small bowl with two pieces of bread in it.
It was sort of a “do it yourself” project. We sprinkled the cheese into the soup, where it quickly melted. Then I alternated between eating the soup and dipping my bread in and then biting off a mouthful.
Halfway through dinner, the other guide showed up, but only had a beer. I guess he had had dinner earlier.
Not surprisingly, as a slow eater, I was the last one finished. I made a run to their bathroom, which was interesting. The wall of the staircase, and the room at the bottom was literally covered with lots of old skis and bindings. It almost was like one had mistakenly gone from a restaurant to some sort of ski shop.
After dinner, we meandered back through the rather quiet streets of Chamonix. The others were still interesting in partying, so we made our way to a small bar that was coincidentally near where I was staying. I wasnít interesting in more drinking (I had had some wine with dinner), and the bar was very noisy anyways. It was about 11, so I bade them all good night, returned to my apartment, hit the pillow, and promptly fell asleep.