Working for myself often means I can end up with gaps in my diary, which in my eyes can only lead to one thing: spontaneous climbing trips. I’m writing this on an evening in Mallorca after a good days climbing catching some autumn rays, having only booked my trip two days before flying. One of my most memorable climbing trips was even more last minute than this. Six hours till the ferry, with a five hour drive to the port, we clicked ‘Book Ticket’.
Piers and I had already planned a three day early season Scottish mixed trip the last week in November, but the mild weather coupled with rain wasn’t doing much to help our cause. A last minute cancellation at work meant the weekend off and five days free. Scouring the forecasts across the UK proved fruitless, however Chamonix was down for five days of sunshine. A plan was hatched. Forty minutes after booking the ferry ticket, the boot of the car became the most disorganised mess of climbing and camping gear waiting to explode. We quickly arrived in Dover ready for our midnight ferry and the following all-nighter to the Chamonix valley. We arrived, pretty knackered from our short naps in the car on the way down, to a Chamonix ghost town. It seems November is the quietest month of the year in the valley, with half of town shut until the ski hordes arrive the following month.
Our plan was to catch the Montenvers train up the following morning and walk in across the Mer de Glace to Couvercle Hut on the Talefre Glacier above. We rushed our packing after another night in the car and just caught the earliest train. My bag felt unnecessarily heavy, unsure what kit we might need on the route. Our aim was the Whymper Couloir on the Aiguille Verte, a 650m AD+ route. After crossing the Mer de Glace, we had to climb a brilliant set of ladders and via ferrata systems, which criss-crossed the granite walls giving entry to the hanging glacier above. We rocked up to the winter hut of the Couvercle to find wood already chopped, and soon the fire was roaring. The guidebooks recommend an early start as the couloir comes into the sun in the afternoon and is susceptible to rockfall, so I set the alarm for a 2am get up.
The beeping watch came around far too soon, but I hadn’t slept much anyway; clock watching in anticipation of the early start, or perhaps nervousness as to what lay ahead. This was only my third time to the Alps and the route was by far my most ambitious. I’m not sure what Piers was thinking, this was to be his first route in the Alps. We trudged out of the hut and up into the night, skirting the edge of the glacier whilst the Whymper waited right at the back. Fresh snow had started falling in the high mountains – it was November after all – and therefore there were no tracks or prints for us to follow. The going was slow, as the powder was about up to the top of our boots, and we ended up weaving through the shadows of huge crevasses lit up by the moon. We arrived at the bottom of the route for 6:30, an hour slower than the guidebook approach time. After swiftly kitting up, I left my bag there as we would be returning the same way. I led off crossing the Bergschrund.
We moved together for the entire route; I stopped to belay occasionally at harder sections and when I was running out of gear to place. The climbing was slow, weary legs stamped away into the snow, the weight of the two 50m half ropes hung on my waist and we ended up off route, having to make a delicate mixed traverse to regain the couloir proper. I’m not sure of the time by this point, but the snow was becoming softer, footsteps collapsing as I applied pressure to continue. This became increasingly frustrating. The sun was beating hard, I was wearing far too many layers but it was too much effort to stop and remove them. We were running out of water and I kept snapping off icicles to eat; the cold crushed ice so refreshing in my mouth. We reached the top of the couloir at 14:00, shattered. From here around a 200m snow arête would lead us to the summit of the Verte, but for us, not today. I am still pretty gutted that we did not to make the top that day, but I believe it was a good decision, and to be honest I can’t say we’d been 100% prepared for the trip as it was. A reason to return, anyway.
I sorted the ropes for our first abseil back down the couloir, sticking to its right wall. The first seven or eight abseils were great, nearly full 50m lengths to good abseil stations with no snags or hitches with smooth retrievals. This was followed by several shorter abs with less than ideal anchors, and twice I managed to abseil past the next set of anchors, only to then spot them from below and climb back up to reach them. The light was soon starting to fade; somehow the time seemed to have just gone, and here I had messed up. Having set off up the couloir at around 7:00, it was light enough not to need my head torch so I left it in my bag, which I then left at the bottom of the route. So we had one between us, which I used as I was abseiling first, Piers then following in the fading light. I had lost any trace of anchors to use, so made a couple of longer pitches from spikes and blocks, leaving gear as we went. We were now close to the bottom of the couloir as I made the last abseil from rock down the final snow slope above the bergschrund. I cut a small ledge and swung my axes hard into the snow to provide some protection and shouted ‘Safe’ up into the darkness. Piers abbed down towards my light, and we pulled the ropes and arranged ourselves to down climb, daggering our axes into the slope. We jumped the schrund and reached my bag, happy for more water, food and another light.
We were shattered. Running on empty we retraced our steps, trudging back across the glacier which seemed to go on and on. We could see our footprints from the approach, zig-zagging across slopes ahead to avoid crevasses, and soon we saw light coming from the hut. We stumbled through the rocks close to the hut. It was now midnight; 22 hours on the go had taken its toll. Three French mountaineers were staying in the hut and were still up, amazed that we had managed to make the day without the use of skis, as they were heading up to ski the couloir the following day. We melted snow to refill our bottles; dehydration and altitude had taken it out of us. There was no urge to eat, only to drink before collapsing into a deep sleep in the bunks.
I was awoken the following day to sunlight through the window, it was nearly 10am and that was, and still is, the best night’s sleep I have had at altitude. We repacked the heavy rucksacks and began our return journey down the ladders, across the glacier to the Montenvers and back down to Cham. Kit in the car and a monster burger from Midnight Express in town saw us ready to start the drive back to Calais. We had a more relaxed drive back and arrived home the following evening, unprepared for work the next day. What a five days it had been, my most memorable alpine adventure… so far.