Friday, 3 October 2014

Alpine Interlude

In August I took a two week trip to Chamonix to attempt a long term ambition of trying the Grand Capucin, an immaculate spire of golden granite near Mont Blanc rising above the Glacier du Geant to a height of 3,838m. Ever since I went to Chamonix on trips as a student in 1997, 98 and 99, I had a dream of climbing the Grand Capucin. A trip out in the summer of 2010 with friends from Jersey was blighted by poor weather and another chance slipped by. So maybe fifth time lucky! This trip, the dream team comprised of my good friends John, Ryan and Duncan.

After a few sessions at Stoney, Millstone and Gogarth dusting down the wires following a lengthy absence from traditional climbing, we began to get a bit of the trad flow back and it was time to practise these skills on the larger canvas that the mountain routes on the granite peaks around Chamonix offer. For me, while I had been doing a lot of sport climbing lately, I have been on a fair few alpine trips in the past, including a successful trip to the Dolomites in the summer of 2009 when Ben Heason and I managed to free climb Attraverso il Pesce or 'The Fish', a classic 14 pitch E6 on the south Face of the Marmolada. Big peaks like the Grand Capucin don't climb themselves and I realised that if I was ever to achieve my goal, it had better be right now!

                                                      Pre-alpine training - London Wall E5 6b at Millstone                      
                                                                                                                                                                                                  The Cruise E5 E5 Gogarth Upper Tier
After a solid 18 hour journey from Nottingham (nice one for driving us all there non-stop John!), we set up base camp in the Ile des Barrats campsite just outside Cham. The next morning we caught the first 'phrique up to the Midi Plan intent on bagging the Aigulle du Peigne via its famous slabby north face. Unfortunately the first day up in the hills brought it home how wet the summer had been. The slabs were completely soaked and we had to abandon this plan in favour of the Red Pillar of the Aiguille de Blatiere. John and I bagged 'Deux Goals' 7a, a cracking, short 5 pitch line that involved plenty of jamming in wet, strenuous cracks!

 Deux Goals 7a, (pitch 1), Aiguille de Blatiere

Next up was an expedition up to the Envers Hut above the Mer de Glace. This was the only time we stayed in an alpine hut and it was a true pleasure to spend 3 nights in such a remote shelter perched precariously on a little rock shoulder under the towering granite needles of the Aiguille de Roc and the Pointes des Nantillons. I suffered mightily on the 3.5 hour walk in up endless iron ladders with my sport climbers pigeon legs! Routes bagged here by John and I were 'L'Age de Homme', an 11 pitch 6c ending on the 1st Pointe des Nantillons which was a warmup to the distinctly stiffer 'Pyramide' 7a, a more well known Michel Piola classic on an asthetic buttress right of the seminal route 'Children of the Moon', which Ryan and Duncan did on the same day.

Pyramide offered a short, sharp crux section followed by some 'meat and potatoes' jamming work in some straight in hand jamming cracks following by a delicate, exposed step out left onto an arete on the second hardest pitch, which John fired off despite the wet conditions. At the base of  the second tower, a burly hand and fist crack graded a stern 6b+ led to easier ground and the summit.

 Classic pose at Montenvers

 The Mer de Glace

 View towards the Deant du Geant and the Seracs du Geant from L'Age de Homme 6c, 1st Pointe des Nantillons

 Pyramide 7a (pitch 4),  Aiguille de Roc

Pyramide 7a (pitch 5)


 Poco Locos in Chamonix, a calorific feed!
Back in the valley, some rest and recuperation followed after 3 hard days in the hills and a raid to the excellent valley crag, Gietroz, which is just inside the Swiss border during which I managed to bag the classic 'Reve de Singe' 8a before a massive thunderstorm. One of the local guides actually said it had been the worst July for 30 years. Next came a run up 'La Fin de Babylone' on the South Face of Le Brevent in the Aiguilles Rouges (opposite from the Mont Blanc massif), an 8 pitch 6c on a dodgy weather day. This provided some good mileage purely on bolts while we were waiting for a 3 day good weather window towards the end of the second week. I even jogged down from the summit of Le Brevent to save the 8 Euro cable car ride down, must have been getting fitter!

'La Fin de Babylone' 6c (pitch 5), South Face of Le Brevent

We were so pleased to have a chance at getting a go at the Grand Capucin as the weather seemed set fair but were initially apprehensive as it looked very wintry up there and by all accounts there had been fresh snow down to 3,300m and the climbing is well above this altitude! We ummed and aahed and had many debates over leisurely beers and coffees in the campsite over whether to go for it or leave it for another year.  Finally we were galvanised into action after meeting a German team who had just done the Swiss route the previous day and said it was OK to climb although a bit snowy on ledges high up and pretty wet in many of the cracks. Sounded worth a punt! 
We were all pretty apprehensive heading down the snow arete to the glacier below the South Face of the Aiguille du Midi but excited at the same time, this was finally it, after months of waiting, planning, buying new kit and psyching up for the route, our chance was finally here. We trecked for a couple of hours down the Glacier du Geant roped up as a four and set up camp on the glacier a few hundred metres below the Capucin, which briefly loomed out of the mist before darkness fell. We could all feel the effects of the alitude as we were a fair bit higher up than our previous forays. It was bloody freezing in the night and despite buying a brand new top of the range sleeping bag before the trip, it was difficult to sleep in temperatures that must have dropped below minus ten.  

Home for 2 nights! Base camp on the Glacier du Geant below the Grand Capucin
 Early start for the Capucin (v cold!)

We set off as soon as it was possible to warm our fingers and were at the base of the route, having cramponed up the approach gully at 7:30am, while all the loose rock that tends to funnel down this later in the day was well frozen in. Temperatures rapidly rose until we were climbing in T-shirts. John and I had initially planned on doing the Swiss Route but as this was quite busy, we decided to branch off left onto O Sole Mio, a slightly harder line which involved some pretty burly jamming. It was a joy to plug in cams and solid nuts and move quickly over some very high quality, golden granite. The crux 8th pitch was an awkward, bolt protected wall and maybe it was the alititude but it felt a good 7a to me!

 O Sole Mio 6c (pitch 5), South Face of the Grand Capucin

 O Sole Mio 6c (crux pitch 8)

The air temps became distinctly colder later in the afternoon and time was marching on as we battled with some sustained crack work. All our layers came on and we presssed on to the summit even though it was getting towards 5pm, this was too good a chance to miss, how many times in your life do you get this close to the summit of the Grand Capucin? Finally we topped out and took in a breathtaking view across the entire Mont Blanc range. We only had 10 minutes to spare before beginning the 10+ abseils back down to base camp, which took longer than planned due to the (inevitable?) rope jams. At 8pm we crawled back into camp and had several revitalising brews and a tasty meal in the bag cooked on John's jet boil for supper.

 Summit of the Grand Capucin 3,838m, the highest I've ever been!

 View towards the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey from the summit of the Grand Capucin

 A long way (500m) straight down from the summit to base camp!

 Endless, cold abseils. Le Trident (3639m) in the background

The next day we were all quite tired so despite the excellent weather, we took it easy and walked back up the glacier to set up camp below the south face of the Aiguille du Midi. We had one more day of alpine climbing left and managed to put this to good use in bagging the classic 'Contamine Route' 7a on the right side of the south face. I had actually seconded this 15 years previously on a trip here with Andy Pedley and still remembered most of it. Duncan did a barnstorming lead on the crux pitch, probably E4 at sea level - anybody's guess up at 3,700m! We just made the last 'phrique down after busting a gut powering up the arete with monster rucksacks packed full of wet ropes, tents, stoves and gear, probably 70lbs plus each! I think our record time was 39 mins from the glacier up to the ticket station! We were definitely all feeling fitter. 

 New base camp below the south face of the Aiguille du Midi

 Contamine Route, 7a (2nd pitch)

 Mont Blanc du Tacul (plenty of tents pitched)

 Dunc's big lead! Contamine Route 7a (crux 6th pitch)

So to sum up, we had an awesome time out in Cham - it was great to get away from familiar haunts back in the UK and do something different for a change. It has definitely inpired me at least for a return visit in the next few years. The Bonatti Pillar on the Capucin awaits, now that is a king line!

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