Friday, July 08, 2016

Mont Blanc: Under, Up, Across, Down, and Over

Short version: Mont Blanc looms large in Europe, the tallest peak in the Alps and the 11th most prominent peak in the world. It is more than just a mountain; it is an entire massif with many peaks, glaciers, and aspects. Here, alpinism was born and a rich history of climbing followed. Despite the high mountain refuges dotting it, it is wild, rugged, and majestic. We did the climb in a really fun way: we drove under it using the 11 km Mont Blanc tunnel, stayed at the Italian Refugio Gonella, climbed up a remote route on the Italian side, traversed the summit, descended the classic three summits route, stayed at the French Refuge Cosmiques, then used the Hellebronner gondola to get across and back down to the Italian side. Our trip on Mont Blanc was more intense, beautiful, and fun than I expected. 

We awoke at 7:00 and checked out of the Argentière campground. I felt a bit heavy with anticipation of what we were about to do, while Jon felt brisk and energized. The tunnel was expensive: a round trip toll was 56 Euro. 

After the tunnel, we turned right and drove a few miles up to Val Veny, where we parked alongside the road and began walking among throngs of Sunday hikers. The tourist trail quickly fizzled and we found ourselves on the wild, valley-filling Glacier du Miage. Jon thought the scenery was Himalayan in character. The glacier was tedious to cross and I still felt a bit reluctant and tired as we picked our way through the boulder fields, then got onto some easy glacier snow. 

The approach to the hut involved some mountaineering. We crossed some steep snow, then followed yellow spray-painted dots up a rocky buttress, aided by some via ferrata rungs and fixed ropes, some of which were still coated in snow, making for a bit of mixed climbing.

We arrived at about 5:00, six hours and 5000’ after leaving the car. The hut, modern and sleek, is perched on a cliff, with a helipad attached.

Inside, climbers lay in bunks, trying to sleep before tomorrow’s big effort. We studied the map, realizing we could descend to the French side and take the gondola down, rather than re-tracing our steps, which would have been long and tedious. The hut warden told us a bus could get us back to our car, and that he could reserve us a spot at a hut on the French side. Jon and I studied the route. Suddenly, I was much more excited about this trip!

Jon's beta face

the climbing route

Dinner was at 6:30, and we sat with some Italian and Basque climbers, talking in a pigeon mix of Spanish and Italian. I am going to have my languages seriously crossed by the end of this trip! This was our first Italian hut, and the decibel level was decidedly higher than in the more reserved French huts, even though there were 1/3 as many people. Perhaps it was fueled by the all the hype and stoke about the summit. Dinner finally wrapped up at 8:00, and then we found out that breakfast was only served at....

yes, breakfast at midnight

Looked like we’d be climbing on less than four hours of sleep! But sleep is never ideal before these things anyway. 

It was stiflingly hot in the bunk area, and apparently there were no windows to open. I tossed and turned more than I slept. At midnight, all the climbers got up and began clomping around, hurrying to get out the door. Jon and I took a little more time, organizing our packs carefully and drinking a giant bowl of coffee along with some white bread. I could already feel the bonk coming on. 

Around 1:15, we stepped out into the dark onto a steep little bootpack traversing some snow. Snow conditions were perfect: firm enough for our crampons, but not icy or hard. Eventually, we gained the glacier and followed the good tracks up. It was steep in places, and I’m glad we did it in the dark so I couldn’t see the drop off. We stopped a few times to eat some bites of food, turning off our headlamps to see the spectacular night sky. Then, we turned the lamps on again and our world shrank to a circle of light at our feet. We seemed to be making excellent time with a steady but efficient pace. “Are we going to do this whole climb in the dark?” I wondered aloud. A German climber, one of the too-stoked, passed us going the other way, saying he didn’t feel good. We wished him a safe descent. Finally, after a steep and icy slope, we crested the glacier and gained the ridge, catching up to his party.  Daylight began to creep in and we finally saw the view. 

The ridge traverse was beautiful and exposed, but the boot path made the going pretty easy. We kept hiking. 

Finally, we joined the trade route and took a short break. Some emergency huts waited uphill, and we could see lines of climbers on the summit ridge. 

I had been eating consistently until now, but started to feel the warning “bonk” symptoms: shakiness, tiredness, and a mild sense of panic. When we got to the huts, some combination of caffeine and white flour, fatigue, and altitude got to me and I had a full-on bonk. I had to lie down for about 15 minutes before I could force some food down. I felt miserable, and I just wanted to flee downward and escape. 

But, since we were descending the other side of the summit, the only way out was to go up!  After a short rest, I decided that it was time to just go for it, so we began the final 1500’ slog to the summit, which Jon dubbed “the race of the snails.” The climbers took on a curious, swaying, rest-step. The guided parties moved very slowly, with the clients short-roped. There was plenty of room to pass, and I was encouraged to see the people going down moving quickly and easily. It would not be hard for much longer! I began to feel happy and excited as we neared the top. After several false summits, we arrived! Windy, frigid, beautiful, the top of the Alps. 

It was too windy to stay for more than a few minutes, so we hustled down the other side, quickly dropping several thousand feet. Then, we "only" had to go up and over two more peaks: Col du Maudit and Mont Blanc de Tacul. 

Down: the Three Peaks Traverse
After we had descended the Mont Blanc summit and traversed a long ridge, we came to the Col du Maudit, near the top left flank of the peak in this picture:

The climb up it was easy, but getting over the other side was a little spicier than I had anticipated: Two pitches of 50-degree snow that turned to ice with slush over it partway down. Jon belayed me down and I climbed easily at first, then got stuck on the ice. I don’t have fully rigid boots and I couldn’t get good footholds. I was concerned about Jon soloing down after me. I placed a picket, then asked an Italian climber if I could clip the ice screw he had just set. I reached the rappel anchor and tied in. Jon climbed down with more ease, thanks to his ice climbing experience and full-shank boots. I was still glad to have the extra protection of the ice screw. One single rope rappel brought us to easier ground. 

We descended more, enjoying the big ice cliff views. 

We were feeling the fatigue start to set in and were VERY sick of our climbing food. 

"Want a cracka?"

Then, we hiked up another little rise which turned out to be the top of another huge mountain, Mont Blanc de Tacul. I was expecting to see the Aiguille du Midi and hut in all their glory at the top of this rise, but no! We had to descend another 2100 feet down what looked like a giant snow field! 

Fatigue really set in here. The snow was warming up and I didn’t have bot plates on my crampons, so my crampons got filled with sticky snowballs every few steps. Jon didn't have this issue, so I slowed him down frequently. The snow field turned out to be a wild glacier with 100 foot ice cliffs. At last, we reached the bottom, then had to hike another agonizing 300 feet up to the hut. I haven’t been that tired in a long time. We checked in, washed up in the sink, then put on blindfolds/earplugs and had a two-hour nap. A liter of water and a home-cooked dinner revived us and soon we felt almost completely normal. Recovery is much easier when you can take a nap, have dinner served, and don’t have to drive home that night. 

We enjoyed some beautiful alpenglow and chatted with other climbers from around the world: Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, England, and France.  

Down: gondolas!
The next day dawned moody and gray, perfect for our gondola-aided descent. 

We climbed up the Aiguille du Midi, which is home to Chamonix’s iconic mountaintop visitor center and gondola station. We had visited four years previously and longed to be among the climbers venturing in and out of the center. 

The next part of the trip was easy: we took four lifts across the glacier and down the other side. It was expensive, but fantastic. What a great way to unwind after a huge effort! 


climbers practicing crevasse rescue below

Soon, we were on a small bus that whisked us up to our car, and an Airbnb awaited us 20 minutes down the hill near Aosta. And just like that, it was done, our much-anticipated climb now a memory. 

feeling surreal.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Five Days in the Vanoise Alps

Short version:
Our first hut to hut trip in Europe took place from June 26-30 in the magical Vanoise Alps (“Ven-wahz”). Protected as a French National Park, these mountains are criss-crossed with trails and dotted with refuges. In the valleys, cows graze and provide milk for the region’s signature cheese, Beaufort. After only seven days of eating French cheese, I’m forever spoiled. We chose a five-day loop around the southern end of the park called the Vanoise Glacier Tour. It was a relatively short itinerary that fit with the weather window and our plans to climb Mt. Blanc afterwards. This was an absolutely perfect first journey in the Alps, filled with idyllic scenery, four-course dinners, and nice people who were mostly locals. We went in late June, before the high season. Though you do need a reservation to stay in a hut (they plan meals accordingly), we booked each hut one day ahead of time by asking the warden to call the next place. There was some snow on the ground, so we needed ice axes a few times, but route finding wasn’t hard due to good signage and tracks in the snow. Later in the season, there is no snow and it gets quite crowded. I’d recommend this route to anyone, and if you can go in late June, even better! The mountains aren't as glaciated or jagged as the Chamonix region, but they were beautiful with snow on them.

Here is the overview of our itinerary. I find the French place names to be hard to remember and even harder to pronounce! 

Day One: Pralognan-la-Vanoise to Refuge de Col de Vanoise, gaining about 3000’
Day Two: climb Point de la Réchasse, then hike 6 hours to the Refuge l’Arpont 
Day Three: hike up to Lac de l’Arpont, then hike 6 hours to Refuge Plan-Sec
Day Four: Climb the col d’Aussois, scramble up Pointe de l’Observatoire, arrive at Refuge du Roc de la Pêche
Day Five: Hike out two hours to the car, drive to Chamonix.

More details and pictures:

Day One: hike in the fog.
Twisty roads, traffic circles ad infinitum, and switchbacks brought us to a mountain town called Pralognan-la-Vanoise, a name we’d struggle to remember all week. Eventually, we just started calling it “Parmesan.” We ate the last of our cherries and shouldered our too-heavy packs. Even though we didn’t have food or camping gear, we brought things we wouldn’t pack otherwise. Huts have showers so you have to bring a towel, soap, clean clothes, maybe a book to read on the patio, snow gear… At 2:00 PM, we headed uphill, following the signs for the Col de la Vanoise. We didn’t have guidebooks or a map for this trek, instead relying on amply-signed trails and the ever-useful MAPS.ME GPS app. Not wanting to miss dinner, we hurried uphill for 3000’ through foggy, damp scenery, meeting some Scottish hikers along the way and offering them our condolences on the recent Brexit fiasco. At last, we reached the refuge at 5:00, finding a small campus of several buildings. We went in the biggest one that said “entrer.” Upon checkin, the hut warden told us that dinner was at 7:00, so we had time to relax and explore. It was completely foggy outside, so the hut felt cozy and a little surreal.

My jaw must have dropped a foot as I looked around the hut. It was huge, modern, bright, and sparkling clean - completely new as of 2014. First, we hung our poles, helmets, and ice axes in the entry way. We took off our boots and put them in the drying room. Yes, a heated drying room!

We donned crocs provided for wearing indoors, color coded by size. 

The warden showed us to our room, which had 8 bunks, pillows, and thick blankets. And, much to my delight, there were a whole row of these…

The shower was immaculate, hot, and had great water pressure. In the common room, we met some local climbers, one of whom spoke good English. Fred gave us some ideas for adding peaks onto our hike, including a nearby summit that we could do the following morning. At 7:00, we found our name card at the table. The wardens brought out some pureed vegetable soup in a big bowl, a plate of local cheese, and crusty sourdough bread. We watched the French hikers carefully to see how they served and ate their food, noting that they cut the cheese and bread up daintily and added them to the pureed vegetable soup. The atmosphere was subdued but cozy, as we served each other food and enjoyed the meal. On our previous bicycle trip, we felt very isolated in France due to the language barrier and the fact that we stayed in campgrounds and cooked our own food. Next came fluffy couscous and a delicious curried pork stew. Finally, we got a small, cold bowl of crême brulée. At dinner, we met Lainé and her 11-year-old son Alex, Parisians who spoke good English and who would become our hiking friends during the trip. I brushed my teeth and fell into a deep sleep in my comfortable bed. All of this, at 8200’ in the middle of the alpine! 

Day Two: Climb of the Pointe de la Réchasse and hike to l’Arpont

I woke up early the next morning, slightly nervous about the climb. I crept out of the bunk room with my copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and read until breakfast. We would be going to 10,000 feet and I didn’t know how I’d respond to the altitude or what the glacier would be like. We had crampons, ice axes, and helmets, but had decided to forego the rope and harness for this trip. After studying the map, we saw that the glacier seemed safe and crevasse-free, so we decided it was OK. The petit déjeuner, or breakfast, was mostly white bread, jam, cereal, orange juice, and milk. I predicted that I’d burn through it in about 20 minutes of climbing, so I added lots of extra butter, even going so far as to scavenge some unused butter from the table next to me… The wardens gave us a “picnic” (sack lunch), which contained cheese, an apple, a lentil-corn salad, some dry ham, and, of course, more white bread.

We stepped out into the fog, found a boot track leading to the climb, and saw movement in the clouds. 

Soon, they lifted, unveiling mountains we hadn't seen yet.

We climbed up firm snow, donning crampons near the top, and came up to a beautiful summit. 

Jon wanted to climb all the mountains, and got motivated to take some pictures. We got a new DSLR to replace the one that was stolen in 2013, and we've gotten much more interested in finding good shots. This place obliged us with many aesthetic views.

We got down to the hut at noon, and found a gaggle of relaxed French hikers enjoying a sunny lunch on the patio. 

We ate most of our picnic lunch, and set out on the six hour hike to the next hut, already feeling hungry. These huts also operate as lunch restaurants, so we could have/should have bought a hearty meal to prevent a hungry hike. We descended through melting snow, seeing new panoramas at each turn. Goats and cows grazed in the valleys below, their bells clanging raucously from miles away. Puffy white clouds grazed the snow-capped peaks. Soon, we came upon Lainé, Alex, and three other hikers who had lost the trail in some snow. We got out the GPS and found the way to the Refuge l’Arpont, a quaint hut perched in a basin much like Boston Basin at home. Hot showers and clean clothes revived us. Dinner was excellent: soup, bread, cheese, cheesy mushroom polenta with honey-roasted pork, and chocolate mousse. We met Niels, an ultra runner from Tolouse, who was hiking our loop in three days, preparing for running it in a single day the following weekend.

Day Three: hike to Lac de l’Arpond and hike to Refuge Plan-Sec
Before hiking to the next hut, we went up to a beautiful, isolated alpine tarn called Lac de l’Arpont. We opened our picnic lunch, hungry already. Here is the spread: bread, applesauce, Salad Niçoise, paté, a hard-boiled egg, cake, cheese, butter. Note the lack of energy bars; we can't even find them in the grocery stores. Only real food here!

I tried the paté with trepidation. I knew that I needed the calories, and Jon goaded me to take a bite. It was vacuum-sealed packaged paté, so it wasn’t the best flavor, but it provided nutrients. Now I’d like to try the real thing! Jon maintains his disgust. 

We descended to the hut and took some pictures of Roger the rabbit, the refuge’s funny, evil little mascot. He runs around, the bell on his collar jingling, pooping every few feet, biting anyone who tries to pet him. 

"méchant" means wicked.

Finally, we thanked the wardens and left the beautiful hut. The trail was mostly level this day. Bright sun shone as we traversed the mountainside, and despite several layers of sunscreen our left legs both got burned. The scenery was straight out of the Sound of Music, a “thin” place where heaven feels closer… only there were some flies buzzing around on marmot poop, just to keep things real. 

We lingered in the meadows, but hunger drove us to continue to the next refuge. Arriving at 4:00, we got a buttery crêpe with ham and cheese and a green salad to tide us over until dinner. I relaxed on the patio and wrote in the trip journal. 

This hut was near a ski area, so it had road access, which meant had fresh food. Good to know! The more remote huts get helicopter supplies once a month, so no fresh produce for them. This hut served ratatouille, chicken, a cheese platter, and finished with creme brûlée and flaming liquor. 

We lingered over dinner, talking with Lainé about life in Paris and Seattle, hearing about the challenges and joys that the French face in their daily lives. 

Day Four: Climb the col d’Aussois, scramble up Pointe de l’Observatoire, arrive at Refuge du Roc de la Pêche

The col had lots of snow and was just coming into shape for hikers. We were glad we’d brought the ice axes, otherwise we’d have had to detour. Laine and Alex didn’t have mountaineering gear, so they chose to hike down a different way and take a long bus ride back to their car. We sadly bade them farewell. Breakfast was white bread and jam again, so we stopped at a hut an hour into the hike and ordered a green salad and huge ham and cheese omelette. Thus fortified, we made quick work of the climb up the col, leapfrogging with the French mountain military unit. A quick scramble brought us up another peak. 

The descent down the col was a little more involved than we expected. We had to face in to down-climb some steep snow before we found good plunge stepping. We heard rivers of water rushing beneath the snow and proceeded very cautiously. At last, the snow ended and we found ourselves passing through glorious fields of wildflowers. 

Then, we heard cowbells. Finally, the refuge came into sight. We were the only guests that evening. The staff wasn’t too friendly or outgoing, but we were ready for some downtime after days of fun socializing across language barriers. I was starving (again!) and lay down for a nap before dinner. Dinner was hearty and satisfying. I was stuffed at the end. Since we were alone, I didn’t feel like a total dork taking pictures of each course. If you are curious about what food is like in the Vanoise refuges, you won't be disappointed by the food, or by Jon's facial expressions. He eats with much more gusto than the French. He wondered frequently if his gusto would be matched when we visited Italian huts. We would find out a week later on Mont Blanc... 

pureed vegetable soup with croutons and cheese

Two andouille sausages and pasta with melted Beaufort cheese

a large piece of Beaufort cheese - we asked for only one to share.

a chocolate cake with cream. Thankfully it was fluffy-light, or I wouldn't have been able to finish it!

Day Five
We hiked out easily to the car and had just loaded our things when the heavens opened. Perfect timing! 

soooo glad we are not stuck with touring bikes right at this moment!!!
The drive to Chamonix, again on tiny, twisty, back roads, took all afternoon. I was carsick and exhausted, but arriving in the familiar village of Argentière, our favorite place from 2012, felt so good. We were lucky enough to get a last-minute room in the cozy Gite Le Belvedere, a hostel/lodge run by a friendly British guy named Ben. For dinner, we walked 20 minutes into the forest to a little Savoie restaurant called the Crémerie du Glacier d'Argentière. They offered excellent salads and local specialties for 8-10 euros per plate. We’ve been having a much better French experience than last time. I feel a love for this country now, and a connection to its people and culture, when all I felt before was confusion and isolation. After only a week we can read French, get around easily, and communicate more effectively. Thank you, Vanoise Alps, for the warm welcome to Europe and the great high-altitude acclimatization that would come in handy on our next adventure, climbing Mont Blanc!