A Cosmique delight

An early awakening at 5.30 for a 6am breakfast and a 7am start to the Aiguille du Midi gondola in order to head for the top, along with several dozen other likeminded souls. Yes, I was there only a few days ago, but this was to be different.

We were wearing our climbing boots, and had our climbing gear with us. We managed to head up on the second gondola of the day. They were still clearing the ice from some of the walkways when we arrived a good sign. We donned our crampons as quick as we could, the harnesses were put on Chamonix while we were waiting for the gondola.

As the weather was good, and crowds of climbers were expected, we were trying to get in front of the queue to avoid being impacted by a Hillary Step moment. Look it up. Not recommended. The route we were heading for was the Cosmique Ridge, not something to be taken lightly as it features sensational exposure, read cliffs, potential falls and death. A climber’s delight, rated at 4a with a 4c crux, and would normally take between 3 to 6 hours by the tie you are back in the Aiguille du Midi complex.

We scrambled across the barrier that keeps the tourists from plummeting to an untimely death, roped up and carried on to rewards of great views, new firm and semi crusty snows. We got to the base of the climb in good time due to the good conditions. We kept the pace up with Christian in front, Stefanie in the middle, then myself. Unless we reversed the order.

Clambering up between and on the shards of granite, a couple of abseils and a few photos later we emerged at the top of the spire and at the base of the buildings at Aiguille du Midi. A final clamber up the ladder had us complete the climb on the observation platform, except it was us being observed by curious tourists. Noting like watching a bunch of smelly climbers high fiving and hugging.

The Mont Blanc retreat

Groups had started rising early to make the best of the frozen ground. But there was no frozen ground.

After a leisurely French style breakfast, including bowls of coffee, we left at 7.15 to head up to the Grand Couloir crossing point, but in reality, we knew there was no hope. No safe hope at least. We watched a rapidly moving duo cross the couloir, and then started heading back to the Nid D’Aigle station we had arrived at a thousand meters lower.

The impending front along with its rain got to us about 10.30, and we got to the station just after 11. Station is a rather grand name for a gravel platform at the end of a short tunnel. The railway was originally planned to head all the way up to the top, but the project ran out of steam in the fifties. Probably just as well.

Instead of waiting cold and wet another hour, we walked down another 500 meters in height. First along the rail tracks, then through fog shrouded forest to the Bellevue station we had embarked from the day before. Real coffee and good, local food awaited us there. This gave us an opportunity to discuss the following day’s plans. This was to be plan C, and did not include the Mont Blanc summit unfortunately.

The Mont Blanc approach

A fairly leisurely start as we only had to get up to the Tete Rousse hut at 3187 meters, and the rack railway took us up to 2380 meters already. That made it about an 800 meter climb if my sums are right. This to be over mushy snow and glacial rubble fields. Ankles be damned.

We managed this in just under 3 hours, and it didn’t even feel hard surprisingly. All the acclimatisation must be working. What was better that the weather held until we got to the hut. Our hope a that it was not going to be as wet or snowy as the forecast was predicting, and it would not stay as warm in order to stabilise the snow, ice and rocks we had to climb over to get to the top of Mont Blanc.

We planned to leave early for an alpine start about 4 am, climb about 150 meters to and across the Grand Couloir. This is a steep and narrow gully from near the Gouter hut and past the back of the Tete Rousse hut.

It started to rain, along with some lightning, just after we got to the hut. During dinner, about 7pm, there was a sudden commotion. An avalanche was heading down the Grand Couloir. Car sized rocks and masses of snow and rubble thundered down all 600 meters of the gully. The warm wet weather was not doing us any favours. The talk in the hut was then generally about plans B, C and D.

Lights out was about 9pm. But the alpine start had changed to wait and see what the morning would bring us. We were in the hands of the fickle mountain and weather gods.

Return to France and Chamonix

A good night’s sleep. No really, I slept all the way till 4.30 in the morning when the first group of climbers left clompingly. I slept through the next few mobs until it was time for us to grab breakfast of the usual European type. Bread, cheese, salami, jam etc. But I so needed coffee.

After once again packing all my gear, putting on the helmet, harness and crampons, we headed off back to the Punta Indren cable car station. That was over an hours walk away over the glaciers and about 400 meters lower. In that time the snow had turned from firm and icy to patches of slush. We did stop to strip off wind proofs and crampons, as well as unroping once we got past the steeper sections.

Apart from seeing some juvenile ibex at one of the cable car changes, it was an uneventful trip back to the valley, and the soon to be fulfilled promise of good coffee. 10am and a great Italian/French combination of cappuccino and croissant was indulged in.

A change into lighter and less smelly clothes made for a more pleasant drive back to Chamonix. Mont Blanc was coyly hiding itself behind a lenticular cloud. This can be a sign of incoming moister air preceding a front. We’ll see.

Our first summits in the European Alps

A restless night. Whilst our group was lucky and had a room right at the end, quiet and peaceful are not the words I would use for the night. Every call of nature from one of our group caused a squeaking of wooden bunks beds and clicking of doors to disrupt an already uneasy sleep, probably due to the altitude.

Then groups started having breakfast and leaving from 4.30am. The clunking of mountain boots was just a level above the other noises. And those groups made short work of the breakfast supplies as we found out at 6.30am. That, and a lack of coffee made for a poor start for the day.

But start we did at 7.30 in order to climb the Vincent Pyramid and the Balmenhorn at 4215 and 4167 meters respectively. I had to borrow some sunglasses for the day as mine went on a leave of absence for the day between packing my pack and putting on my crampons. Most annoying. The snow had frozen to provide a nice, firm surface to walk on. There were a few other groups, but by the time we reached our first objective after about 3 hours, the Vincent Pyramid, we were on our own. Obligatory high fives were followed by summit photos. Then the Balmenhorn summit was ticked off less than an hour later. It provided us with a fairly steep rocky scramble to the top and its Jesus statue.

Then back down and to the Gnifetti hut for something, anything, resembling lunch. That was followed by a 5 hour, just mooching around, wait for lunch. Literally, that was it for the rest of the day, just mooching.

Up into the Italian Alps

A sensational night’s sleep. The soothing sounds of the torrent of the nearby glacial creek helped.

A fairly early breakfast of good Italian coffee, fresh crusty bread, prosciutto, cheese and scrambled eggs was consumed as I needed to keep my strength up. Then off to meet the rest of the group I was going up into the mountains with at the café next to the cable car station.

So that made four of us plus Christian the guide. Introductions were made along with some basic background, like what was an Australian doing climbing mountains. Good question. Because it’s there, and because I can, were plausible options. So is insanity.

Three cable cars later we were up at over 3100 metres. Time to shoulder our packs and let our legs get us up the remainder of the 500 odd vertical meters. The sunny and warm conditions meant the snow was quite soft just like Australian snow, so I felt at home. Except for the mountains we were heading towards. Decidedly un-Australian, not a bad thing in this case.

We reached the rustic Gnifetti Hut after donning our crampons for some more grip on the steeper slopes. The rustic hut was built 1876 on a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 3647 metres under the Vincent Pyramid. It’s been renovated and enlarged a few times and now sleeps 176 people. No roads come here and all supplies are helicoptered in. Some hut!

Following a sensational lunch of real Italian al dente Taglioni and cerve ragu (that’s venison for non-Italian speakers), we again headed outside for some crevasse rescue training in the blazing sun. A great way to build up an appetite. That was certainly needed to give justice to the 4 courses we were served for dinner. Not much risk of losing any weight on this trip.

It is lights out at 10pm as the hut is not on mains power. Good thing with another long day coming up.

To Staffal, Italy

An easy day after enjoying the delights of a leisurely breakfast. A wander into town to supplement my equipment for the next few days, and to indulge in another gelato. There were more paraponters in the blue sky than birds.

Then back to my temporary home to pack and to wait for Christian, who was to be my guide and probable mentor for the next few days. He seems a cheeky bloke who had a varied life in the past before morphing into a professional mountaineering and ski guide.

We stored my bags in the camper bubble installed on the tray of his aging Hilux, and set off to pick up another participant Stephanie from a train station in Italy, then onto Staffal on the edge of the European alps in Italy.

The roads were what you expect in mountainous regions, twisty, turny, with sensational and varied views. A passengers delight. And I assume many drivers white knuckle these roads whilst breaking into a cold sweat.

On the way we drive over the St. Bernhard Pass, but unfortunately were not met by a big fluffy, brown and white dog carrying a revitalising beverage in a small wooden barrel under its neck.

Staffal is a mini version of Chamonix. Probably all mountain resorts are similar. Now to repack, again, in order to trim down what I was to carry up the mountain tomorrow.


The sun rises early here. And as my body is still partially in another time zone it did likewise. I grabbed my camera and went outside into the predawn, and minutes later the sun kissed the top of the mountains opposite my hotel.

The mountains, I could see the mountains. Not a cloud in the sky and the entire Mont Blanc massif was visible to me, including the Aiguille du Midi, today’s goal.

After giving the camera a short workout, whilst cursing myself for not bringing the polariser, breakfast was beckoning. Whilst the coffee was nice and strong, I do prefer Italian espresso to French press. It is just a little more mellow, whilst still having that essential caffeine kick.

But I do digress from the excellent baguettes, French cultured butter and cheese. I went back for seconds. Following this almost joyful breakfast experience, I once again grabbed the camera, this time along with my polarisers, and meandered through the back streets towards the cable car station.

A lot of the houses here retain, and are still built in the old French mountain farmhouse style, if there is such a thing. And a good thing it is compared to the soulless apartment blocks a few streets away. I know which I would be happy to photograph as something that brings a warm character to Chamonix, if not with the timber in their walls, then with the traditional roof lines. Even if they no longer covered in heavy slabs of slate.

The cable car was to take me up from 1035 meters via a change at Plan de l’Aiguille at 2317 meters, to the Aiguille du Midi at 3842 meters at the top. And it does this at an almost eardrum splitting 20 minutes, including the change.

Something about leaving the trees and the valley behind does my heart good, even when sardine canned into a cable car with 40 or so strangers. The air at the top was pleasantly fresh, and the views were eminently viewable. They were probably also very viewable by the people jumping off the mountain, only being stopped from slamming into the ground more than a thousand meters below by some paracord and a few square meters of nylon that they were attached to.

A short and steep ride down to the Plan de l’Aiguille just below the snowline, enabled me to go for a walk to Lac Bleu. This is a small lake filled with runoff from the snow and glacier fields higher up, so had a hint of that magic bluey green colour that glacial melt water has. On a still day it provides a mirror for the surrounding mountains. Now if it only wasn’t for the small horde of bare-chested, Scottish youths playing over loud Kris Kristofferson and other music.

I left, and headed back down to the valley. This time I scored a front position in the gondola and could see and almost feel the mountain fall away from me as we descended steeply. Whilst I enjoy this sort of thing, it is highly not recommended for anyone with any height issues.

Tomorrow it is planned to head towards the Italian Alps and its delights.