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Marlborough College Alpine Trip - 2007

Day 1

After what was soon to become our traditional breakfast of cereal, bread, ham and jam we made our way to the centre of the universe.  Well if you're a serious climber then Chamonix is the place to be.  It is situated an hours drive from Geneva, in France and has borders with Italy and Switzerland in the high Alps.  It also has many of the 4000m peaks within easy grasp, or sight for some of us mere mortals, should I say.  Nothing is easy at that altitude, as I can well now vouch for.  After catching the early train, yes train, to what used to be the top of the Mer De Glace glacier, (it is the second-longest glacier in the Alps) we descended by a series of ladders to the edge of the glacier, 200 meters below.  Pure evidence of the effects of a global rise in temperature. I won't go into my theory for the cause of global warming; just suffice it to say that I do believe temperature changes are afoot.  This was plainly evident in that the train station built in Victorian times, used to meet the glacier just off the platform.  Today one has to descend a series of iron ladders for 200 m before reaching the icy moraine covered surface.  Our instruction was met with trepidation as we learned the new skill of walking and climbing in crampons, along with the use of ice axes.  Yes, it does work like you see in the movies!  It is very tiring, and requires a lot of concentration not to spear your own calf when kicking the crampons into a solid ice wall.  Anyhow, we were soon walking and climbing various seracs that had formed along the glacier.  As this was our first day we were limited to working on ropes, and to short pitches.  Little were we to know that the Chere' couloir loomed in the not too distant future.  Day 1 ended with us exhausted, after having to ascend the ladders again, wet and laden with our heavy kit.

Day 2

Since the weather was far from decent, and had been for the previous 2 weeks, we decided to travel through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy, where we spent an awesome day climbing a long multi pitch route in the Aosta Valley.  After what our guides described as an easy walk-in, (translate this to mean 40 minutes of steep uphill scrambling, and an elevation gain of 400 meters), we arrived at the base of our climb.  To put this into perspective, consider walking half way up Table Mountain, with only about 100m lateral travel!  Anyhow, we climbed the route which was divided into 9 different pitches, and a total climb distance of 500 metres.  Again the pictures will show how exposed this leaves one feeling at times.  Yes, you are on a rope, but when you look outwards, or down and see nothing but specks for people, you soon learn to climb better!  A fall would not be fatal, but confidence shattering, painful and probably entail a free fall of about 4 metres before clattering into the harsh granite rocks below!  So we didn't fall, we did love the adventure and adrenaline rush, however.  After completing this we then had to descend the 1000 meters, past some beautiful abandoned villages and huts.  The weather forecast was one of a much improved outlook, and set for a hot spell over the coming days.  The setting was perfect for our high altitude expedition. 

Day 3

Once again we were up and out of the early doors to ascend via another cable car.  The Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi, was built in 1955 and held the title of the world's highest cable car for about two decades. In a spectacular ascent it travels from Chamonix to the top of the Aiguille du Midi - an altitude gain of over 2800m in just 20 minutes.  The Aiguille is the start of the popular Vallée Blanche ski run, and the nearby Cosmiques Refuge is the starting point for one of the routes to the Mont Blanc summit.  We made our descent down the knife edged ridge (about a foot in diameter) across the glacier, and up to the Cosmiques refuge (hut), whilst we were roped up.  This is done in case one of the parties falls prey to a hidden crevasse.  If you have seen touching the void, you'll understand how we felt.  It was just a matter of ignoring the drop on the left – 3000 metres down to Chamonix.  Anyhow after reaching the hut, we left our overnight kit, and headed back out for the classic climbing route and circumnavigation of the Cosmiques arête.  The route snakes up through large rocky blocks then follows the crest of the ridge to a gendarme. We moved to the right along a little snowy ledge then back onto the blocky ridge until we came to the second gendarme – a rock spire with a steep drop – abseil – on the other side down to another snowy and thin edgy traverse. Back up onto the ridge then we came to the steep wall which gives the highest technical move of the climb. The wall is blank with a crack running diagonally across. This looks like it once had little knobbles that would have held a toe but now these are smooth and rounded through years of use.  We all made it to the top safely, albeit with not the most elegant of climbing moves!  Again I must stress that at 3800m, you are so careful with your hand placement, and holding on.  Remember, you now have thick gloves, alien spikes (crampons) and ice axes as hands!  It is probably one of the easiest ways to slip off at height!  Needless to say since it was a circumnavigation we had to return via the same knife edged ridge to the hut.  This also entails a small elevation gain of around 100m, as you near the hut.  I find it hard to explain, how difficult it is to actually plod uphill at 3800m.  It is really a case of stopping every ten steps for 2 minutes or so to get your breath.  Man, I know I am not the fittest guy, but hell man, it was painful!  I can honestly say that running a marathon, is easier!

Day 4

After our epic climbing, one would think we would have a laid back start....Uh Uh, alpine climbing requires that you start at 4am to avoid softening snow, widening crevasses, and the ever present German that wants to get to the route ahead of you!  So after a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) we headed out at 4 30 am to get to the Chere Couloir, an epic, and well known ice climb.  We crossed the glacier, and then began our zigzag approach to the beginning of the climb.  It is known as a classic, and hence the Germans were closing in!  It is pure ice hell, and steep.  Lots of spindrift, old ice and hard rock raining down on you as you make your way up the gully to each successive belay point, where you hang in mid air, dreading the call to climb.  Quite a funny feeling, knowing that there is no resting place, just 4 points of steel, holding you into the ice, 3000 metres up!  Eesh!

Day 5

After our alpine start, we were allowed what seemed like a lie in as we left at 8 30 for the Aiguilles Rouge, national park.  We were headed for the classic route of the Cocher Cochon.  Again by now, this entailed regular walk in and altitude gain of about 400 metres.  The route is below snow level, and the weather had turned into a brilliant summers day.  The climbing is a consistently harder grade, and just as exposed as all our other routes.  Most of it is spent climbing up and over the pinnacles towards the summit, at 2900 meters.  The views were stunning, and most of the time you are alone on the rock face, waiting for your partner to reach the next pitch.  You are constantly exposed to drops and sharp ridges leading down to the wild mountainside far below.  Each pitch is about 40 metres long, so the higher you get, the more tired you are, and the harder the moves become, as your strength slowly saps away.  The pictures are probably the only way to show how alone and insignificant you are when you climb these routes.  At the final pitch, we ascended the hardest grade, up a slab of rhyolite to the summit.  A solitary pillar that stands tall above the rest.  From here you then have to abseil the 50 metres down for the walk out. 

Day 6 and 7

We spent the last 2 days, of what felt like a month, high in the mountains on a lightweight alpine bivvy (expedition and camp without tents).  En route to our sleeping area, we stopped off to climb a needle peak, and watch the various other climbers in the valley.  It must be said that all the routes we did, were considered classic, and more than one would usually attempt at the first visit to the Alps.  We were very fortunate to have the skills and leadership of Rupert  Rosedale (my ex boss as of today..) to show and lead us into these adventures.  His impact on the group was felt by all as we nursed tired calf muscles, tendons and raw fingers!  Anyhow, we then ascended to the lac de Cheney where we slept beside the ancient sunken lakes.  We watched the sun set over the High Alps and Mont Blanc, and took time to reflect on the busy week, and recap all the good stories we had managed to clock up.

Photos in the gallery