1 climb, 2 girls, 3 traverses & some extra cheese10 min read
They say a story is only worth writing about when there has been a gone wrong situation in the plot. When two girls go on an adventurous holiday, one would expect a lot of twists and turns, especially when they rope up for the first time. The best thing about generalisations is that they are never accurate and that the statistics can always be proven wrong.
I am chatting with Uschi about our lil’ girl’s trip to Slovenia, while the snowflakes outside are gently creating a barrier between us. She is in Germany. I am in Bulgaria. Тhe plan is to meet somewhere halfway for a climb. Triglav is a classic and perfect place for us to rope up for the first time. Unfortunately, those snowflakes build some sort of a Berlin wall between us. We cancel the trip as the roads are blocked. But we leave the door open for something in the near future.
to this gentle breeze
the sealed-in cold
of the still season…
— Horace, Odes (I,4)
The summer in Europe wraps the continent with unpredictable weather. But the natural decision to meet up this time finds no obstacles to come to life. The Italians and the French are like two poles of a magnet bonded by the Mont Blanc massif. A bond which attracts climbers and mountaineers from all over the world. Uschi has never been there, so our destination is set. We meet in Chamonix, only to spend a rainy day high on Aiguille du Midi for some acclimatisation.
It has been a year since we last met and the day melts away, like the glacier around, by catching up and checking topos of possible climbs. The following day we cross the Italian border and hop on the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car which takes us up to The Helbronner at 3462m.
The cabin is packed both with climbers hauling backpacks and pointy axes and with tourists wearing shorts paired with inadequate footwear. To our surprise, from the cable car’s station, we find a lift which takes us down through a tunnel to Rifugio Torino. There goes my concern about the not so fitting footwear! One could easily reach the rifugio and the glacier by swaying hips in heels.
On the borderline
We are at the hut at noon, so we spend the afternoon traversing the close by Aiguilles Marbrées. It is a short route of rocky spires that form the border of Italy and France and only a 30-minute approach from the hut. A great choice if one is looking for something close by or for an introduction to Alpine rock ridges. In fact, it is my first full traverse. After a short walk on the sludgy glacier, we untie at the start of the ridge and solo for the sake of eliminating extra hurdles with stuck rope.
Graded PD, the traverse’s crux is a little crag where some friends could be used. Since the rest of the ridge is an easy scramble, we negotiate the crag on the Italian side and complete the climb to the top soloing. The views are breathtaking! On one side Monte Bianco stands clear from the usual bewitched clouds that veil it. On the other—the spire of Dent du Géant bites you with a desire that rushes in your veins and makes you want to experience it. The weather forecast for the following day is mostly good with some probability of thunderstorms in the late afternoon. We go to bed with a clear idea of our agenda.
Two nights after July’s full moon eclipse, it is 4 a.m. and the hut is busy with people fuelling with energy and dressing for the occasion. The air vibrates with the sound of gear in the rhythm of excitement. We hang around and leave way after the 4 a.m. groups. The queue for the climb seems inevitable, so why bother?
As true female representatives, the last thing we want is to hang around shivering under the face of the spire, waiting for our turn. And so, with the break of dawn, at just after 6 a.m., we set crampons on the glacier. The approach takes place in a setting which seems as if from the canvas of an impressionist.
We follow down the glacier, skirting the spires of Aiguilles Marbrées, on the obvious track formed by all the crampon prints. Just before the gully, which takes you to the shoulder where you climb the loose rocky rib rightward, we find our first obstacle. It requires a hop and a pull.
The gully looks steep from further away but it has been turned into snowy stairs. In the morning it is stable. The rocky rib is tricky and many find themselves lost. We get a bit confused but are lucky enough to find local guides who navigate the right way.
We reach the foot of the SW ridge of Dent du Géant only to find there is still a queue. A second breakfast is in order and some chatting with people who have already warmed up on the Aiguille de Rochefort. Seriously!? At 10.15 a.m. we are finally roped up under the first pitch.
Dent du Géant
It is a beautiful and classic climb which has turned into a too popular destination for climbers of all levels. For the better or worse, the guides have fixed ropes on the major middle section of the climb which has made it way easier and accessible. It has made it also a very obvious climb. One can hardly get lost. Yet, on the second pitch I lead up into the wrong right dihedral. The ropes take their toll and as far as I know, I need to traverse a few meters on the left to reach the stand. I do so only to find myself already at the middle of the Burgener Slab but on its right side. Once more, I prove the statistics wrong and manage to get out of route.
Thanks to the confusion, this is the part of the climb I enjoy most. After another pitch in the unknown and a small traverse, I find my way back on the route just below the beautiful snake-like fourth pitch. We are back on track. Surprised, since it is our first climb together, four hours after our start we are on the Punta Sella peak (that is what the guidebook suggests). What follows is a traverse to the Punta Graham, where the Madonna is.
I find my way there while the clouds around are forming threatening unions. While I try to belay Uschi from the other side, I realise the rope is stuck. The Mega Jul device comes in handy, making it safe and easy for me to untie, go down, fix the problem and come back up.
Though fixed, the issue takes its fair share of time. With the prejudice of the afternoon storms and by looking at the sky, rushing down becomes our priority. We are, in fact, the only ones left on the Dent. I hop and tap the Madonna on the shoulder with the speed of light and off we go.
Three abseils later, we are down. It is afternoon and the conditions of the gully and the crevasse worry me. Despite that, the worst part of the day for me is going down the rocky, falling apart rib.
This time, instead of jumping over the crevasse we negotiate it on the side. The clouds have been messing around, but are kind enough to wait for us to finish our climb before they start their forecasted spectacle. We are back at the hut happy and tired after a long day out.
Surely, the slowest pair on the massif that day, we are the only female one and I am proud that slowly but steadily we managed our first climb together. Wine and cheese are in order before we crash in bed.
The following day we wake up for a late breakfast at 6 a.m. We digest back in bed. That day, we decide upon an active rest by doing what is said to be the easiest route on the entire Mont Blanc massif. We stroll for a walk to the Le Petit Flambeau just to make it back to the hut for a long-yearned soup. They only serve soup for lunch.
The menu of the day for the last few ones included loads of cheese, crackers, nuts, chocolate and energy bars. As much as I fancy each of those tastes, that vegetable soup in the hut is as if cooked with heavenly ingredients. The afternoon looks like this:
On our last day on the mountain, the weather forecast is less merciful. There is one more traverse we fancy to do before we leave–the Aiguille d’Entrèves. Breathtaking and airy, one could have fun watching videos online of people riding the ridge like a horse. I tried to make one, but the GoPro did not listen to my voice command. Plus, I didn’t really ride it. Even though the afternoon forecast has a rainy cloud, the morning allows us to make our way through the fog and experience the exposed traverse.
We start early, despite the gloomy sky, and agree to give it a shot to the base of the ridge. Depending on the weather and our intuition we shall decide whether we hop on it for a ride or retreat. And so we hop! Far from surprised, we find ourselves with plenty of people around. The traverse is exactly as it promised to be. We enjoy it garnished with a spooky fog, as if part of a mysterious tale in a forbidden land. We are back at the hut just in time before the clouds weep.
Once again the mountains worked their magic as a playground, glue, and broom. They have given the opportunity to create strong bonds while dusting off the troubles of the mind.
Our trip comes to an end. Time has dissolved along the way. A smart man called Einstein once proposed to the world in his theory of relativity the gravitational time dilation. It took scientist a century to prove that the further from Earth, the faster time passes. Up on the mountain time passes quicker. Time may be relative, but so is life. The gravitational force may have a lot to do with it, but there is another force that makes time pass quicker up in the thin air—that of a good company and a great setting.
Thank you, Uschi, for sharing that adventure! Looking forward to our next one!