General Climbing Article
The Alpine Trip
by Writen by Greg May & Rob Whelan
Flying out of Dublin airport always leaves a tear in my eye. Thinking of all those poor people who are still sitting in Ireland while I head off to more temperate climes. It was that time of year again when DCU Rockclimbing club departed Ireland looking for adventures overseas. This year France had been chosen with two different places in mind. The bouldering Mecca of Fontainebleau and the snow covered Alpine peaks of the French Alps. It was Andy and Neal who led the way, arriving in Fontainebleau 4 days before everybody else on the 29th August. The rest followed on the 2nd and 4th September eager to climb after hearing stories from the lads. Font, as it is lovingly known, is legendary for its large boulders and forests. An apt desciption and most people's first impressions was that it was like a seaside in the middle of a forest. Boulders lay scattered around like pebbles and it is was these boulders that we would pit our skills against over the next week. Font is different from most climbing areas in that it requires no ropes or harnesses to protect the climber. All the climbs are short enough so that even peeling from the top of the climb is relatively safe.
All the landings are on sand and they were routinely tested by all the members of the group. Days of intensive bouldering, and nights of drinking, ensued along with full body tans. But sadly our time came to an end and we made our way to the colder climes of the Alps. A night train from Paris took us to Chamonix. As the sun rose at dawn so too did the mountains around us. Jagged rocky peaks shot out of lush green alpine pastures and turned into monsterously huge snow covered mountains that grew and grew until we arrived in Chamonix. Upon arrival not a word could be said as we strained our eyes and imaginations trying to take in the sheer beauty and vastness of the surrounding peaks, blissfully unaware of the freezing temperatures that now engulfed us. Pictures could do it no justice, it was truly an awe inspiring sight. The first day was spent in the wonderful Chamonix valley setting up camp and gathering supplies for our first foray into the mountains. Pasta was bought and gear was checked as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive from Geneva. We were treated to a spectacular airshow that evening as a world cup paragliding event took place over our heads. The next day a plan of action was decided as the weather was great and the next few days were supposed to be perfect. The tents were packed and last minute checks were done on gear.
A frenetic sprint into town allowed us to catch the last cable car to the Plan des Aiguilles, where it was planned to spend the next 2 days at 8500 feet acclimatising. We trudged over a very dubious glacier and up an even worse moraine to find our campsite for the night, a patch of level ice in the middle of a boulder field. The tents were pitched and we kicked back and watched our first alpine sunset. A truly awesome sight ensued as the sun slowly disappeared below us and cast an eerie shadow that turned the rock and ice around us a dazzling red. After a surprisingly comfortable sleep on a bed of ice, it was time to practise some vital techniques that could potentially save our lives in the mountains. Ice axe arrests came first. This involved hurtling down a 50?slope on our backs then turning over and digging our axe into the frozen snow and ice until we stopped. This proved to be great fun for some. Lunch was eaten overlooking Chamonix over a mile below us. The glacier was in very bad condition and huge crevasses scarred the otherwise immaculate surface. The going got dangerous and it was decided turning back was the best option. At the campsite we acclimatised further by playing Frisbee with a pot lid much to the amusement of tourists above us in the cable cars. Chamonix valley beckoned us once more as our last group member Tom arrived from a Kung Fu competition looking a little worse for wear.
The Argentiere glacier was our next destination. It involved a two day walk in from the valley over rough and improbable terrain. This tested our physical and mental strengths to the limit as we struggled with over laden rucksacks up severely steep tracks while the sun beat down on our backs. The first night of the walk saw us sleeping in an abandoned cable car station (or so we thought). As we curled up in our sleeping bags thunderstorms could be heard in the distance. These proceeded to get closer until they settled directly above us and barraged us with giant forks of lightning as we hid in our sleeping bags cursing ourselves for sleeping in a metal box. Lightning could be seen arcing down the cables into the valley below as the station was bombarded with hits from the storm. Eventually the storm subsided and allowed us to catch some well earned sleep. After a hasty evacuation of the station, the final wallk across the glacier was all that separated us from the hut. Crevasse fields, where a slip could spell disaster were negociated and boulders roughly the size of T101 were passed, we came to the hut and our home for the next 4 days. A well earned rest gave way to a days hard climbing. Dave, Neal and Rob attacked a 7 pitch rock route behind the hut. It was over 600 feet high and its top lay at over 10500 feet. Near the summit a small tourist plane flew about 20 feet over their heads nearly knocking them off the climb. The following day 2 groups set out to do a classic Alpine route called "Tour du Noir". This involved getting up at 3am and setting out as early as possible as to avoid the sun melting the ice and causing dangerous rockfall.
The 1st group went off route but ended up climbing a neighbouring peak that stood at 12000 feet (4 times as high as the highest point in Ireland). This proved to be sensational as it was the first true summit that had been climbed on the trip. The 2nd group fared much worse however. They remained on route but the condition of the ice made the going extremely treacherous. A close shave with falling rock convinced them to back off. Back in the hut that evening everybody had tales of the epic adventures had during the day and all were glad everybody was still in one piece. The next day we decided it was time to leave the heaven that was the Argentiere hut and go down to get some real food. A long walk in sleet and thunderstorms saw us arrive back in the valley, our clothes and bodies echoing the trials of outdoor living. By this stage the Alps had claimed 3 victims. Dave had developed a stomach bug that was getting worse, Enda had sprained his ankle badly running down from the hut while Gregs old knee problem was giving him trouble again. They felt there was no point in staying and bid the Alps a final farewell and flew home. The remaining group had planned to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe standing at over 16000 feet. Sufficiently acclimatised a hard route was chosen up one of its sides that took in 2 other peaks.
The route would take over 15 hours to complete with a start time of 10.30 at night chosen. The start would be from Valle Blanche. 2 cable cars were required to get to Aquille du Midi from where it was a 25 minute walk to Valle Balnche and our campsite for the next few days. The walk off the cable car station in Aquille du Midi was out of this world. A small ice tunnel led to a knife edge ridge that had to be walked down. On one side of the ridge was a 2 mile drop straight down into Chamonix and on the other side an 800 foot drop into Valle Blanche. Upon reaching the campsite holes had to be dug out of the snow to pitch tents and snow walls constructed to shield the tents from the breeze. The first night was cold but spirits were high. Mont Blanc du Tacul was our first port of call. We set out late expecting to make it to the summit but the weather turned on us and only 100 metres from the summit it was decided by the only remaining group on the mountain consisting of Andy, Neal and Rob to retreat. It was extremely frustrating to have to turn back so close from the summit but common sense prevailed and told us the weather would not clear. Upon reaching camp Dave was sick in the tent and we were all in store for a night we would not forget in a hurry. Tent bound from 5 that evening a savage storm blew in and turned outside into a complete whiteout. Heavy snow fell and strong winds blasted the tent from the opposite direction in which the weather forecast had told us.
Thunderstorms growled over our head and at times during the night almost blinded us with huge cracks of lightning. Over 25 hours were spent in the tents and even though the storm was still raging it was decided to head back to the cable car station and spend the night there. Disappointed but glad to be back in the valley not to mention alive, Dave and Andy left for Paris. That just left Colm, Tom, Neal and Rob to see what else could be done. Tom and Colm finished off their trip by climbing a classic rock route called "Chappelle de la Gliere". It turned out to be an epic climb which took much longer than anticipated and caused them to miss the last cable car down. This meant that in total it took them around 15 hours to complete the route. Neal and Rob climbed "L'Index" and had planned on climbing "Chappelle de la Gliere" as well but by this stage the cable cars had closed down for the season. Exceedingly frustrating as it was some cragging in Chamonix kept us happy. Having to leave the Alps was by far the hardest part of the holiday. Taking one last look at them Neal and Myself vowed that one day we would be back. Upon arriving in Dublin I was faced with rain and yep you guessed it more rain. God I miss the Alps.
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