Saturday, 10 August 2013

A fast tour of Europe - 13th to 23rd July 2013

Having successfully undertaken our trek in Nepal in October/November 2012 Paul Hodges and I choose Mont Blanc 4810m as our next challenge and an invite to Tim Blakemore (our Leader in Nepal) to be our guide was despatched as he has intimate knowledge of the Alps, living in Les Houches.  He provided us with a quote for his expert services and this was accepted by us.

Six days of our eleven day break was allocated to our mountain challenge, with acclimatisation firstly on Gran Paradiso 4061m and Becca di Monciair 3544m in Italy before moving back to Chamonix and allocating three days to the ascent/decent.  James Whittaker a friend was to be joining us for the ascent of Gran Paradiso and Becca di Monciair. Tim came up with a suitable agenda for our mountain quest but this was not cast in stone as the ever changing weather patterns in the high mountains would at the end of the day dictate what we would do and this turned out to be the case. 

Our Long Journey
This started in Capel Curig with Paul picking me up in Chester at 1pm on Saturday 13th July.  We made excellent time and we arrived at our hotel in Ashford at 6pm.  It was an early rise, 2.45am and away at 3.30am next morning as we were on the Euro tunnel Shuttle at Folkestone for the first train at 4.35am, arriving in France at 6.10am.  It was a foggy morning for the first hour or so of our journey and then it cleared up and became a warm sunny day as we made good progress on our way to Geneva (1.30pm) with our end destination being Chamonix.

We arrived in this lovely town at 2.30pm and as we had not booked we stopped at the first hotel we liked - L’Oustalet - and the hotel was able to accommodate us.  This proved to be an excellent choice with good accommodation, food and such friendly and helpful staff.  Breakfasts were so relaxing and enjoyable.  We stayed a total of three separate nights at the hotel.  At 7pm we met up with James, Tim and Tim’s girlfriend Tams to discuss the intended climbs and acclimatisation program.  It was agreed that Tim would meet us at 9am next morning and that we would head for the Valsa Varenche valley in Italy.

Our six days on the mountains begins
Next morning we were away on time and we made a couple of stops for coffee and to get some food for our lunch.  At 12noon we were ready to start our steep climb up to the Rifugio F. Chabod at 2750m (a climb of 916m) and we arrived there at 2.45pm with Tim being pleased with our initial performance.  We spent a relaxing time at this enjoyable refuge with such pleasant staff.  Our pleasing evening meal was at 7pm.

Tuesday morning saw up for breakfast at 4am and we were all geared up and away for 4.45am.  It was dark for the first hour so we had head torches on.  On arriving at the glacier we stopped to put our crampons on and a long steep glacier ascent of 1300m lay ahead of us before we reached the top.  Again our ascent went well and we reached the top at 9.30am in lovely sunny weather conditions.  Today we were returning to a different refuge – Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele at 2732m and we were there for 1.15pm.  Again we spent a relaxing afternoon and evening in the mountain hut.  That evening we experienced a massive thunder storm that lasted most of the evening and into the night.

Paul, James and Tim were up for 5am next morning to climb Becca di Monciair 3544m, reaching the top at 6.30am.  They reached the summit at around 9.30am after a climb of some 822m.  On the way back they altered their route to avoid waist deep snow and had to negotiate a very demanding boulder field together with three river crossings before getting back to the refuge at 12 noon.  It was then a decent down to the valley bottom some 772m below to collect Tim’s car and drive back to Chamonix where Tim was to undertake a detailed check of the weather forecast.  On the way back we passed through a massive landslide which had just had a single track cleared to let cars through.

It was frightening to think about being there when this mass of earth and stones came down from the high mountains above during the thunder storm the night before.

At 4.30pm when we got back to Chamonix it started raining which was followed by thunder and lightening and this lasted for a few hours.  We said our goodbyes to James who wished us all the best of fortunes on Mont Blanc and it was agreed that we would meet up with Tim in Les Houches later in the evening to go over his thoughts as to how we best tackle Mont Blanc with our main aim being to “Summit”.

On meeting up with Tim the weather forecast going forward was not good with thunder and lightening storms forecast particularly on the Friday but forecasting Saturday (the day of our final ascent) to be good.  With this news before him Tim did not want to risk the Pope Route out of Italy and he opted for the Gouter Route starting in Les Houches.

Paul went for an early morning run on Thursday morning as he did most mornings and we went for breakfast at 8am.  I wrote postcards and caught up with e-mails and we vacated the hotel at 11.30am.  We were meeting Tim in Les Houches for 3.30pm and then taking the cable car to Gare de Bellevue and then onto the Mont Blanc Tramway (the highest rack-and-pinion railway in France) and then a short walk to our accommodation for the evening at Le Nid d’Aigle Refuge at 2372m.  Another group of three French men were staying the night in this small hut with us.  Again it was a pleasant stay with good food and a helpful and pleasant gentleman looking after the place with his dog and cat for company.  We could see the Gouter Hut high above us in the cloud.

Friday 19th July saw us leave the hut at 6.45am after breakfast and our destination for the day was the Gouter Hut some 1445m, very steep above us.  At the Tete Rousse Hut 3167m we fitted our crampons to cross the Tete Rouse glacier and it was then a very quick crossing of the Grand Couloir.  Rocks and ice regularly sweep down this snow and ice gully so it is essential that your way across it is clear and that you look up the gully for falling stones as you rapidly cross. We then took off our crampons and scrambled up the Aiguille du Gouter ridge arriving at the Gouter Hut 3817m at 10:30am.  This was a busy place although not totally full and we took the opportunity to share a large bowl of spaghetti Bolognese, drink plenty of water and rest through the course of the afternoon.  An evening meal was served at 6pm before going to bed at 8pm and once again resting, but like others not sleeping as an early 2am breakfast and thoughts of the ascent/decent tomorrow prominent in all our minds.  There was a storm outside and the earlier rain had turned into snow.

At 1:40am I was out of my bunk (twelve of us were in the room) made sure Paul was awake and we met Tim for breakfast at 2am.  We were all roped up with crampons and head torches on at 2.30am and away in an upwards direction we went, the moon bright above us.  There had been a fresh fall of snow overnight but underfoot conditions were okay.  We ascended up to the top of Aiguille du Gouter 3863m and then steeply up to the top of the Dome du Gouter 4304m.  This went on and on and I thought I was never going to get to the top – thank goodness it was in darkness!  We were then on the top for a short duration and then a welcomed small decline before tackling the ascent to the Abri Vallot Shelter 4362m.  This is a small and very basic bivouac hut generally for use in emergencies.  Here we stopped for some water and something to eat.  Another day was about to dawn and ahead of us we could see the Bosses Ridge and at its base the Dromedary’s Humps.  You firstly go over the Grande Bosse 4513m and then the Petite Bosse 4547m.  This was an “airy” very narrow steep ridge with massive falls on either side so you were very much aware of the exposure and you needed to concentrate very hard.  Paul later informed me that his concerns going up the ridge were that he would be leading the three of us down it in the near future. Tim assured us we were doing well and we were very near the top.  The top 4810m is a massive “whaleback” which has been covered in ice and snow for three million years +. 

At 6am we reached the top just as the sun was rising and casting a red glow and shadow of this massive mountain across the lands to the west.  It was ever so cold but just a magical moment as the photographs taken reveal.  We did not stay too long on the top and stopped for something to eat and drink at the Abri Vallot Shelter.  The enormity of the Dome du Gouter

was seen on our descent.  By 8.15am we were back at the Gouter Hut with our mission successfully accomplished and Tim totally pleased as to our overall performance.

After picking up a few things that we left behind in the hut (to lighten our rucksacks for the climb) we commenced our hard scramble down the route we had taken up and with the overnight fall of snow this made the descent much harder.  However with Tim’s guidance we made it to the Grand Couloir (where small rocks were beginning to fall) and we put on our crampons, had a good look to see that no rocks were falling and that the way was clear – we raced across. 

As we reached the other side we crouched down as we heard a shot from the ridge above warning that stones were again falling but I am pleased to say none came in our direction.  We then passed over a short stretch of rocks before coming to the Tete Rousse glacier and here again small rocks were falling as we made a speedy descent across the glacier.  At the Tete Rousse Hut we removed our crampons and we had near two hours to get to get to our train at e Nid d’Aigle.  We reached the train station at 1.10pm, with our train being at 1:40pm – we had been on the go for a demanding eleven hours.  Leaving the tram we had a final 30 minute steep climb to catch our cable car.

The cable car from Gare de Bellevue took us down to Le Houches and a debriefing session with Tim before we said our goodbyes.  We were back at our hotel for 5pm to change and then to go out on the town for an evening meal and to celebrate.  We went back to Neapolis an Italian restaurant which we had been to before and enjoyed an excellent meal.

Our sightseeing continues
Sunday morning saw us leave for Strasbourg at 11pm.  We were heading through Italy, Switzerland, Germany and back across the border into France again.  From Chamonix we headed North West on the N506 and went over Col de la Forclaz at 1527m. Then we descended spectacularly down to Martigny in Switzerland before taking the E62 north that leads onto the E27 at Montreux on Lake Geneva.  At Bern we took the E25 to Bassel and from Bassel the E35 to Strasbourg and to our hotel, a Novotel, Centre Halles, which proved excellent, in the centre of this lovely city.  It was then out to see the city by the river and canals, Petite France and the area around the cathedral.  The receptionist at the hotel had recommended the Maison Kammerzell by the cathedral and we had a wonderful dinner there and at the same time watched with delight the lighting display to a classical soundtrack on this unique cathedral building.

Monday morning saw us going out for breakfast and another walk around the centre of the city.  At 11am we were away once again bound for the Moselle (Mosel) Valley, where Paul had bought wine a few years before and wanted to find the same vineyards once again.  Our route by passed Frankfurt before entering the Mosel valley at Koblenz.  We travelled up this lovely and scenic valley to Treis-Karden where wine was purchased from two separate growers, both of whom Paul had purchased wine from back in 2004.  It was a very hot day and we had lunch at the hotel – restaurant, Moselblick in the same town.  We took great delight in watching large and heavy barges go up and down the river.

At around 5.30pm we drew up at a residence in Piesporter, where Paul had stayed before, but alas the place was closed.  We did try several other hotels and residences taking in quests but we were out of luck as all the places we tried were full.  The valley is so popular with cyclists, we saw them everywhere.  What a wonderful holiday sampling wines the length of this long valley on your bike with no fear of being breathalysed!

Eventually we found a hotel in Trittenheim, not the best bedrooms we stayed in, but the breakfast was good with attentive staff.  The guy who showed us round and took our bookings was totally abrupt.  Had we not been tired we might have found accommodation elsewhere!

We were all packed up and away at 9am as we had a long journey home.  This would take us out of Germany, through Luxembourg, Belgium, by passing Brussels and into France and on to Calais.  We were booked on the 16.20pm shuttle back to Folkestone but in arriving at 2:00pm we were allotted a space on the 2:52pm train but alas it was delayed and we left at 3.47pm getting into Folkestone at 4.22pm (UK time).  Thus when we reached the M25 it was busy and with a broken down vehicle there were long queues.  Once gaining the M40 we made good progress and stopped at Oxford for a short break.  It was a drop off for me in Chester at 8.30pm with Paul then travelling to Dolgellau and getting home at 10pm.

We had done a massive 2,150 miles in all and 36 hours in driving time.  With Paul’s excellent driving we never went wrong once. 

Our massive adventure was over with total success.  A massive thank you to Tim for successfully getting us to the tops of the mountains, just a massive achievement for both of us. Like our trek in Nepal this was a great shared experience.  It was good to meet up with James again and see him perform well on the two mountains he climbed.

Fraser Mackay
31st July 2013    

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