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Summer Exped., alps, 1981

by Bob Hill.

Whilst being as keen as the average B.E.C. member at talking about doing various character building, physical activities, there comes a time when you've actually got to go and do whatever you've been talking about doing for the last few months.

And so it came to pass that three persons, several tons of gear (most of it belonging to Dave Aubrey) and one blue Mini-Traveller all arrived together at Southampton and got on a ferry for Le Havre.

The sight of a blue Mini heading south down the Autoroute de Soleil at 70 mph. with, ice axes and crampons sticking out of it and a Home Rule for Langdale sticker in the back window caused several stares from incredulous English caravan drivers but we comforted ourselves in the thought that we knew what we were doing.  We think!?

The journey to Chamonix took about twelve hours and we arrived in the valley, which is the same height above sea-level as the top of Snowdon, at about 8.30 in the evening.

After pitching the tent and sitting down to look at the mountains, thinking about how far it was from Mendip in this small, isolated corner of France, and how nice it was to get away from everybody for a while, I nodded to the fellow next door who, looking at my sweat-shirt, said,

"Hello: do you know Trevor Hughes?"

"O God, No~" said I.

"I’m going home," said Dave.

"I'm going to fart," said Jem.

We then discovered that the camp site was half full of English and the evening was spent enquiring into mountain conditions, weather forecasts, the state of the refuges, price of beer, etc.

After a day playing on the local glacier to get back into the swing of things, we decided to attempt the traverse of the Domes de Miages, a fine, easy ridge rising to 3300m, but as we walked up the glacier to the Refuge de Conscits the weather began to worsen and by the time we reached the hut we were in thick clag.  After a meal we settled down and I awoke at 4 am to look at the weather, which was still bad, and again at 6 am to see no improvement. However, by 8 o'clock it started to clear and, although it was really too late we thought we would give it a try and in better weather we climbed to the base of a steep snow slope leading to a col.  Unfortunately, with the sun on it the snow was like icing sugar so we decided to return. We then made a mistake which could have cost Jem his life and it was a miracle that he was not badly hurt. Walking down the glacier in the afternoon Jem fell straight into a snow covered crevasse.  Because we were hurrying we were not roped up and he fell 30 feet to land on an ice boulder which was wedged about half way down. Fortunately his rucksack slipped over his shoulders and protected his face, and he landed on some soft snow.

To us on the surface he just disappeared and the first time we crawled to the edge and called down to him there was no reply.  To compound, it all he had our rope in his rucksack.  However, he answered our second call and, with the aid of some French climbers and their rope, he was quickly hauled out, amidst cheering and photographs from some of the French. We spent ten minutes taking deep breaths and reflecting on how lucky we were.  We returned steadily to the valley, roped up, I might add, and drank ourselves into oblivion.

The following day was spent festering to recover our nerves, and we took the Telepherique to the top of Le Brevent, a mountain some 8500 feet high on the opposite side of the valley, which affords a magnificent view of the whole Mont Blanc massif.

We spent the next couple of days drinking litres of French beer at 30p a time and watching the rain come through the tent until the arrival of Jane and Graham on the Friday. After another day on the Bossons Glacier fitting Jane into her crampons, and finding bits from a plane that was wrecked higher up the glacier 25 years ago, we set off to the Aiguille d'Argentiere.

However, when we awoke in the hut the following morning it was snowing and clagged in.  We set off anyway but were forced to turn back about half way up because, of bad weather.

The next day, in fine weather, we all climbed the Aiguille de la Glieres, 2888m., a fine peak on the other side of the Chamonix valley which gave excellent views of Mont Blanc.

The following day saw us plodding up to the Albert Premier hut on the side of the Tours Glacier, for an attempt on the Aiguille du Tours, a fine twin peak with excellent views. We were unfortunately without Jane, who had a blister on her foot.

Once again we were into this Alpine start business:

At 4 am the Guardian bangs on the door of the dormitory and people start groaning and fumbling for torches and various bits of kit.  Suddenly from under a pile of blankets in the corner of a bunk comes a sound like someone tearing asunder a 6 feet length of carpet:

"Gott in Himmell"

"Sacre Bleu!"

"Bloody Hell, Jeremy!"

Jeremy emerges beaming and happy from under his blankets and everybody makes a frantic dash for the door. Breakfast is a bowl of hot chocolate followed by some cheese and crackers.  Then there is climbing into boots and gaiters, putting on crampons and roping up, before plodding off on the crisp, frozen snow by the light of our head-torches.  As we trog across and up the glacier the dawn begins to touch the surrounding peaks, lighting up the tops while the valley is still in darkness.  We climb a steep snow slope to a col and emerge in brilliant sunshine at 6 am with everybody fumbling for suntan cream and sunglasses.  On the route to the summit we are accompanied by 10,000 French and Italians who are all trying to knit their ropes into a large net to catch people who fall off from higher up (or at least, that is what it seems like to us).  We un-rope and climb separately as none of our party can knit, and a short scramble sees us on the summit.

The Matterhorn sticks out like a huge thumb 60 miles away while 100 miles away are the Eiger and Jungfrau, standing like giant sentinels (I copied these last few lines from a good book - Author).

On the way back down we were resting under a large boulder when a Golden Eagle soared overhead to have a look at us.  For anyone who has not seen one before, it is a most awesome sight, especially when one realises that this beautiful bird could rip your arm off if it wanted to. We watched it until it disappeared and then wandered down to meet Jane.

So - we had been there for two weeks and managed to climb two peaks.  A pretty poor average really, but the weather was getting better and we were all fairly fit.

Auntie Jane and Bassett went off for a few days on their own somewhere so Jem, Noddy Dave and I decided to have another go at the Aiguille d’Argentiere.  At the hut that night the weather was grim and, true to form, we got a lie-in in the morning, but this time we decided to stay another day.  We spent the morning waiting for the sun to come out, which it eventually did, at which point Dave put on hat, gloves, goggles, mask, etc. (he came back to Britain the same snowy white colour he was when he left) so that he did not get sunstroke/snow-blindness/exposure/V.D. Anyway, Jem and I sunbathed with everyone else, while Dave cooked inside his wrapping.

Next morning it was cold and clear and, well, we had no choice really, and 3½ hours later we were on the top of majestic peak, 3902m., 12,802 ft., which gives marvellous views. I would recommend this peak to anyone visiting the area.

I felt a tinge of sadness as we descended, as we saw a rescue helicopter fly in to pick up two climbers, one dead and one seriously injured, who had been avalanched 2000 feet off a route on the opposite side of the valley.  In fact, five people were killed in three separate accidents in the area.

With only a few days of the holiday left we had to have a go at Mont Blanc, so Wednesday saw us taking first telepherique, then rack railway, to the Nid d'Aigle terminus at 2250m on the slopes of the Aiguille de Gouter.

Soon after we had set off Dave had to give up because of a gammy knee.  This was a great shame as the following day was his birthday and he would have loved to have spent it on the summit.

Jem and I reached the Tete Rousse hut at about 8.30 pm and then slogged up to the refuge de Gauter at the summit of the Aiguille de Gouter, reaching it by about 11.00. After sorting out crampons and ropes we set off towards the Dome de Gouter.  It was dry but very cold and I was glad of Dob-dob's duvet to walk in. We stopped for about half an hour to watch an electric storm over towards Geneva as we were at the same height as it and we were anxious to check that it was not coming out way.  We then continued up over the Dome and up to the Vallot bivouac box. By this time we were absolutely shattered.  It took us half and hour to climb the last 150ft. to the hut, where we arrived at about 2.45 am.

Inside I melted some snow for soup while Jem slipped into unconsciousness for a few minutes.  We then had cheese, peanuts, garlic sausage and three Gitanes for breakfast.

We were on our way again by 5 am, generally in front of the crocodile of head-torches that was streaming over the Dome. (We learned later that 320 people had stayed in the Gouter hut the night before.  The hut has accommodation for 60.)

The final slog to the summit turns you into an old man and every step takes all your strength.  For those who had had more time to acclimatise it was not so bad (truce note), but eventually we reached the top at about 7 am, shortly to be joined by the world and his wife.  In spite of all the people it is a fantastic sight and we have since realised that we could see mountains which were 150 miles way.

The descent was uneventful and we arrived back in the valley at about 2 pm.

So that was it.  After a day looking around the shops and sorting out the duty-free wine, we took two days to drive the 520 miles back to Le Havre and the boat home.

A wonderful holiday enjoyed by all.

The Exploding Alpiniste.  (a cautionary tale).

One incident occurred on the campsite while we were there which is worth noting.

Three English lads returned very tired from a long day, and, having lit one gaz stove started to change the cylinder in another.  The chap who was doing this did not move away because he was so tired.  It was the type with bayonet fitting retaining lugs underneath and he obviously did not fit the base correctly.  As he screwed in the jet assembly the cylinder shot out of the bottom and exploded, ignited by the other stove.

The chap concerned was very lucky in that he did not receive serious burns.  However, he lost all the hairs on both legs and one arm, and had three large skin burns, two on the leg and one on his arm.  Fortunately for him a British doctor was in the next tent so Dave and I did not have to perform a Belfry operation.  However, I would imagine he was a very sore, sorry little Alpiniste for the next few days.

Be warned!

NOTE: I have various guide books and maps which are expensive.  If anyone wishes to borrow them in the future then drop me a line, c/o The Belfry.

Bob Hill.