Late Summer in the Alps

Early September and we’ve been back in the Chamonix valley. The inescapable mix of a small tent, pasta meals and some cheap plonk signalling an end of summer season hit of alpine climbing.

Other than the buzz of helicopters whizzing overhead everything had the quiet feel of late summer winding down into Autumn when we arrived – the sun taking that little bit longer to grace the campsite, the cooler mornings and the dusting of snow from last weeks storms, unmelted on the higher faces. In short conditions felt just about perfect.

We had toyed with the idea of heading straight up to do the Kuffner route on Mont Maudit but thought better of it. Instead we headed to the easier and slightly lower objective of the Forbes arete on the Aiguille du Chardonnet.

Aiguille du Chardonnet – East Ridge (Forbes Arete)

Tuesday saw early Autumn give way to Summer. It was easily in the high 20’s as we left Le Tour for the short chairlift journey upto the Col de Balme, a steady hour’s walk later and we’d reach the Albert Premier. Tranquil it was not, it is currently a cramped and noisy building site.

Aiguille du Chardonnet and the Glacier du Tour

We left the hut at 340am, heading out across the glacier in pursuit of a number of ENSA teams. By the time we had reached the upper Cwm it was gone 5am and we were out in front, weaving our way through the darkness across some rather sporting crevasses before breaking onto the icy slope that led upto the Bosses. Our unacclimatised lungs were gasping slightly as we broke onto East ridge (forbes arete) just after dawn.

Approaching the 'Bosses' at dawn

Approaching the ‘Bosses’ at dawn

The AC guide gives the impression that there is only one technical section (III) with the rest being straightforward. At no time is it difficult, but in the conditions we encountered it offered sustained mixed climbing, a mix of short cracks and walls, exposed ridge lines on rock and firm snow plus one short abseil mid-way from an in-situ sling and maillon (which may be possible to avoid on the left) – all of which went on for a great deal longer than we’d expected.

Rich Bailey on the Forbes Arete at dawn

Exposed climbing on the Forbes Arete

Despite that we stayed ahead of time and pulled round the last gendarme and onto the summit at 859, 5hrs and 19 minutes since leaving the hut.

Dropping off the summit we followed one of the ENSA teams who’d caught us up again and headed for the descent. Not straightforward at the best of times (having climbed the Chardonnet before via the Migot route) we were greeted with a 45 degree bullet hard icy couloir. As the ENSA boys carefully abseiled and lowered their clients down, we turned in, down-climbing ten metres apart with some hastily buried ice screws for security, a small slip here and we could kiss goodbye to a cold beer.

Rich Talbot and Rich Bailey on the summit of Aiguille du Chardonnet

Rich Bailey abseiling

Eventually we broke onto more amenable mixed ground, sticking left (not right as the guidebook suggests) we abseiled down a short wall and found ourselves at a snowy shoulder. Sucking up the slightly thicker air, we dropped down northwards, once again sticking to the far left of the steep convex slope that hid the vast rimaye until Rich was almost in it. A few careful steps and we were on safer ground, tracking back across the glacier, arriving back at the hut some 3 hrs and 15 minutes since summiting.

Contamines – Grisolle Route (Left Edge Route) Pyramid du Tacul

The weather forecast for the end of week was uncertain. Foehn Winds, high 0c isotherms and a potential breakdown were all mentioned as we scanned the Chamonix meteo forecast. Apart from one day of guaranteed good weather all there was, was uncertainty. Our time on the Forbes the day earlier had shown that despite moving relatively quickly, above 3800m we were not moving super-fast. The guides office spoke of longer than expected climbing times on the Kuffner; that coupled with an imminent breakdown of weather at some point on what would be our main climbing day and two less than acclimatised climbers, we regretfully decided to leave the Kuffner route on Maudit for another time. Instead we decided to head to the Pyramid du Tacul, the vast accessible playground that looms over the vallee blanche.

The Contamines  – Grisolle route is one of the ‘easier’ routes on the Pyramid, less steep than the Chere, which we’d both climbed before but longer and more committing. But it was short enough that it should be possible to do in a day push from the first cable-car. The guy in the Guides Office seemed to think it would be possible, preferable to stay at the Cosmiques Hut and get an early start, but doable nonetheless for a fast team in a day from the valley.

We missed the first cable-car by 3 places. And that was already an hour later than normal since the Aiguille du Midi had switched to its Winter time-table. It was 9am by the time we reached the top-station. Heading straight out the tunnel we tracked across the Vallee Blanche as quickly as our lungs could reasonably muster.

Geared up, we crossed the rimaye, and began daggering up the 55 degree snow-slope. It was scorchingly hot, and we were in the middle of a 200 metre snow-slope that was soaking up every last ray. Soft snow gave way to bullet hard ice and back again. Not a great place to be. Keen to get to the relative safety of the mixed ground above, we ran it out, Rich Bailey taking over the lead on the second half of the slope.

Rich Bailey in a hurry on the Contamines - Grisolle

Squeezing back into the shade, I took over once again as I pulled through a small choke that saw us off the steep snow for the time-being. From here the route weaved its way through intricate mixed ground, bullet-hard plate ice every-where, interspersed by spikes and chimneys of bleached granite.

Mid-way on the Contamines - Grisolle Route

Conscious of time ticking-away, we pushed on upwards, a mixture of simul-climbing and direct belays affording us some security. Reaching the upper snow-field, I was running low on gear, out of extenders, prussiks were looped to the few wires I had left, ice-screws clipped directly, but didn’t want to stop to re-group so in the end I just ran it out.  We pushed on until we had reached the final spur that led up towards the summit of the Tacul Triangle. Here we could re-group, re-sort the rack and climb the last few metres over easier mixed ground.

Crossing the upper snow-field on the Contamines - Grisolle route

Originally we had planned to join to the normal route and continue onto the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul but with it already 1245 and cumulus cloud bubbling up all around us we took the option to descend. A short climb along the snowy ridge brought us to a potential traverse line, from where an exposed traverse brought us down to the Voie Normale.

Hours later, sat in the campsite we read through numerous UKC posts about epics on the route we had just completed, benightments, route choice errors and simply sustained climbing among the list of comments about a route which perhaps isn’t always that straightforward. In that context our 3 1/2 route time from bottom to top didn’t seem so bad.



About Richard Talbot

An accomplished fell-runner as well as being a keen climber and mountaineer. Since 2005 he has worked for the UK based manufacturer Mountain Equipment and is currently Director of Product. He has worked in the outdoor industry for over 15 years.
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