The plan for the next couple of days was to climb up to the Refuge du Couvercles (hut) at about 2800m. We would take the mountain train to the Montenvers station above the Mer de Glace glacier, and take the Balcon route to the Couvercles. Unfortunately we couldn't manage a nice early start, which would be significant later.
Montenvers is at about 1900m, and is about 300m above the Mer de Glace. The mountains there are very steep, and the last 100m of the descent to the glacier is on steel ladders bolted into the sheer cliffs. Since the glaciers have retreated (and sunk) considerably in the last fifty years or so, there is also the lateral moraine-little hummocks of glacial debris, a mixture of rocks of all sizes from house size to a very fine silt-to negotiate. These moraines would play an important role in the adventure to come.
The way up to the hut was uneventful. Very nerve-racking, but uneventful. We descended to the Mer de Glace, crossed it, and ``only'' had the moraine to cross before getting to the ladders. That certainly was no fun - climbing a pretty steep slope that was all mud so none of the things stuck in it like trees or rocks could really offer any real support. And of course the higher we climbed the scarier it got...
We finally got to the ladders. Pretty damn precarious, and one of them was what Peter whimsically referred to as ``a bit technical'' i.e. vertical. When you have a large pack on your back, that vertical ladder feels more like it's overhanging, and the pack is trying to pull you off that ladder!
Once over the ladders, the exposure didn't improve a whole hell of a lot. This was the balcon stretch where there was a foot trail, but on very narrow footing and with a straight drop to the glacier some 200m (650') below. It just so happens there are steel handrails bolted to the rock so though completely frightening, it was quite safe.
Well, the trail just continued to climb and we all suffered in silence. We weren't really burning up the hills with our speed. There was a little excitement where we crossed below the Charpoua glacier on a huge tilted slab of rock which was, of course, wet since the outlet stream of the Charpoua ran over it. A little more excitement was added by the fact that glaciers like the Charpoua which are on a steep slope have a habit of sending down large seracs and what-not down the gullies, so we couldn't stop to rest.
Once across, a slight change in plan: at the rate we were going, we wouldn't make the Couvercles before nightfall so we decided to head for the Charpoua hut instead. This one was directly above us next to the glacier, at an elevation of about 2900m and is used by parties attempting the summits of the Drus or the Aiguille Verte. Vertically speaking we were now halfway between the Mer de Glace and the hut. We could see it, which was a rather disheartening sight.
The rest of the day passed in more breathless agony. To cut a long and agonising story short, we got to the top of the shoulder we were climbing, crossed a narrow snow ridge and got to the fun part. The hut sits on a huge outcrop of rock that rises between two arms of the Charpoua glacier (the Rognon de la Charpoua), and this rock is rather cliffy. Yes indeed, more ladders! And this time, with the odd patch of snow just to make things a little more interesting.
The route continues steadily up the rock with ladders and some traverses and less steep climbs with handrails. At one place the handrail had broken off, and someone had fixed a rope in its place. So how old was the rope, and how had it been treated? Oh yes, and the rock was all wet at that spot. We managed to get across that section without relying on that fixed rope.
We finally made it to the hut at about 7pm. The hut itself is very nice - it has room for 8 people in the bunks and a few more on the floor. There was also a stove, tables and chairs, and an emergency radio. Furthermore, on the wall there were some prints and photos - including the cover of ``Tintin in Tibet''-in Tibetan! And the view - ah! What a view! Up the Mer de Glace to the Glacier de Tacul and the Glacier du Géant. Unfortunately it looked like the weather was coming in.
The next day (again!) we slept a little later than we should have. The original plan had been to continue on to the Couvercles hut, but now it looked like if we were going to make the last train back to Chamonix (which left Montenvers at 5:30) and also beat the weather, we needed to head straight down. From the map it looked like there was a route that went straight down to the Mer de Glace following a moraine ridge, so we didn't plan to retrace our steps on the balcon route.
We got off the rognon and headed down the shoulder, straight down towards the Mer de Glace. What had started as a broad shoulder gradually became a narrow ridge. When we got to about 400m above the glacier, the ridge had a break in it, and on the other side of the break two really hairy boulders balancing on what seemed a knife-edge. Well, now what? Peter and Mike scouted while Vic and I took a little rest. They climbed down off the top of the ridge and traversed on, to cross the break about 10m below the level of the (broken) ridge-top. Peter called out ``it goes'' so Mike was heading down, then he said it doesn't so Mike headed back up to the ridge. Peter climbed back up beyond the break, but Mike came up where the break was. In in an incredibly hairy move he climbed up on the boulders. In the meantime Vic and I had climbed down and started to traverse, then word came up that it didn't go so we managed to climb back up.
So here we were, Vic and I on the ridge top on one side of the break, Peter on the ridge on the other side, and Mike balancing precariously trying to work his way around a large boulder. It looked horrible, and I was wondering if we'd have to call out the helicopter rescue to pick his broken remains off the bottom of the stream. In the meantime Peter couldn't see what Mike was up against, and was starting to get impatient, and shouted to Mike to get a move on so Vic and I could also move down the ridge. I didn't know how to convey the impression that i) Mike was in some deep shit and ii) no way in hell was I going to leap across the break on to one boulder and then work my way around the other one.
Well, Mike finally made it across, and then Peter came and looked over the boulders. ``Oh My God!'' Ok, he agreed that it was not a likely prospect for the two of us so we climbed back down off the ridge.
After we climbed down, the plan was to traverse across where the break was in the top of the ridge, and then climb back up to the top of the ridge on the other side of the break (the little green patch on the ridge). Did I mention how steep it was, what the exposure was like, and that all the rocks and boulders were really uncertain? Vic unfortunately climbed a bit too far down and was starting to look gripped. I was higher up but I couldn't traverse across above him because it was completely certain that large numbers of rocks would be sent down while I did so.
Finally with much coaching and yelling (from Peter, of course!) Vic made it across, then got belayed to climb back up. Mike tossed me down a harness which I put on while balancing on a shaky rock, tied on and climbed up on Peter's belay. Ok, that done, now what? Peter said the best plan would be to walk a little further along the ridge, climb down the side and pick our way down to the gully bottom, then follow it down to the glacier outlet and follow that down to the Mer de Glace. The top of the ridge had a couple of good anchors so Mike, Vic and I got lowered off, and Peter scrambled down.
The gully bottom was all moraine stuff - loose steep mud with embedded rocks. The glacier outlet was a mass of large boulders, at least that would be easier going than the moraine gully. We then carefully managed to pick our way to the gully bottom. I had of course been thinking (hoping) that things would get easier once I got there; of course it was not to be. We also had to climb down separately because rocks were very easy to dislodge. (Hearing one cry of ``rock'' I managed to squeeze behind a boulder and cover my head... unfortunately my legs were still in the open, unprotected by the boulder - and of course that rock hit me on the shin. To add to the fun I was in a precarious position so I couldn't even reach down and rub my shin!)
From the sides of the gully - did I mention how absurdly steep it was? - the gully bottom looked invitingly flat. Alas, not so - it was only marginally less steep. The ordeal was not over. And if I ever stopped to catch my breath, there would be a yell either from Peter above or Mike below to get a move on before a boulder comes down and kills us all. And of course I'd slipped a couple of times and only managed to stop myself by digging hands and knees into the surface, so I was covered in mud, my knees were sore and hands had lots of cuts.
Above, Vic was still a little gripped, so it looked like Peter put him on a rope. God alone knows what Peter was anchored to, I had some troubling visions of Vic slipping, pulling Peter off, then both of them falling on me to sweep me on to Mike. And, as Mike remarked bitterly, if we had any kind of accident we wouldn't even make it to the pages of ``Accidents in North American Mountaineering.''
And then it started to rain.
By that time I was almost at the boulders of the glacier outlet so I hurried on intent on putting as much distance between self and that gully. The boulder field was a piece of cake, and even the lateral moraine on the Mer de Glace didn't seem so bad (since it was mostly flat!) and I was almost singing as I put on my crampons. Only problem was, it was about 4:15 pm by now...
Far down the valley I could see, on the other side of the glacier, the white rectangle on the cliffs that marked the ladders to Montenvers. I set my sights on that mark and made the best time I could. I knew Mike was somewhere ahead, and Vic and Peter were somewhere behind; but I didn't care. If I made it to the last train and they didn't, well, too bad for them! I tried taking the most direct line I could in sort of haze of quiet desperation, leaping small crevasses where only a couple of days ago I'd plan my every move and think about planting the axe and all that. And we all made pretty good time, but not good enough.... it was 5:30. Then Peter said that there might be a last train at 6pm. Ok, train or not, I was going to make it up to the station by 6pm - and I did. No train.
A tentative plan to bivy at the station till the next morning was vetoed. We got some water at the hotel (and found that the rooms were too expensive) and started off down the track. Only 6km, 1000m and two tunnels to Chamonix...
That walk down the train track was just the perfect end to the day. It was so steep that I had to stop and turn around to face uphill to rest every 100m or so. And of course it was raining. The tunnels... at least I took out my headlamp, Mike and Peter ahead had decided not to and had felt their way. (Since I could see what the walls looked like, I was extremely glad I hadn't had to do that same.) And of course it was hell on the knees. We finally rolled into Chamonix around 8:30. I was so tired and sick with dehydration I couldn't even enjoy the beer and the excellent dinner at The Alpenstock.
God I love the mountains!
(Jun. 5-6, 1998)