A travel journal
to Chamonix by Alan Ingram
Quote: Introductory information on hiking and climbing in the European Alps of Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland.
Accounts and photographs are provided of ascents of Mont Blanc ( the highest ) and the Gran Paradiso ( one of the easiest ) of the 80 "four-thousanders" ( peaks over 4000metres ).
One of the finest alpine panoramas can be obtained from the observation platform atop the Aiguille du Midi accessable by the cable car from Chamonix.
The sunsets and sunrises on the mountain tops when they flame red in the rays of the rising and setting sun - the best views are obtained from the climbing huts.
The spectacular views on ascents and from summits over the surrounding alpine landscapes of icy glaciers and snow-covered peaks.
One of Europe's most spectacular alpine panoramas is achieved by taking the cable car in Chamonix to gain the airy observation platform atop the Aiguille du Midi directly below the imposing massif of Mont Blanc - the highest summit of the Alps.
From the hamlet of Pont at the end of the mountain road from Val d’Aosta it is a half day climb (2-3 hrs)to overnight in the Refugio de Vittoria Emanuele II of the Italian Alpine Club (CAI). (Advisable to book in advance).
An early morning alpine start by torchlight through a maze of large boulders gains extensive snowfields leading inexorably upwards.
A final traverse beneath the pinnacled crest crossing the bergschrund and a short scramble reaches the Madonna on the rocky summit for a spectacular panorama over the surrounding alpine landscape including the massif of Mont Blanc and the spike of the Matterhorn on the northern horizon.
The Gran Paradiso is one of the easiest (assuming good weather) 4,000 metre summits in the European Alps. It is the highest summit entirely within the borders of Italy.
Reference: "High Adventure around the World"
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 15, 2001
Ascent of the Gran Paradiso, 4061m
The observation platform on the top of the rocky spire provides a spectacular panoramic view over the Chamonix Valley and the surrounding peaks of the French Alps ranging from the dominant massif of Mont Blanc, its satellite Mont Blanc de Tacul, the Aiguille du Geant and the serrated spires of the other Chamonix Aiguilles looming above the dazzling white, crevassed slopes of the Mer de Glace.
An outstanding alpine landscape - not to be missed.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 16, 2001
Aiguille du Midi
In huts serving easy, F (Facile) grade routes, such as the Refuge du Gouter on the normal route to Mont Blanc, overcrowding can be a major problem, especially at weekends, with people sleeping two per bunk, on table-tops and on the floor. Membership of an alpine club such as the OAV (Austrian Alpine Club) or SAC (Swiss Alpine Club) ensures you are not refused entry and reduces the hut charges levied. Insurance cover is also enabled (as with the BMC, the British Mountaineering Club) which can otherwise prove difficult and expensive to obtain - unlike Scotland rescue services in the Alps must be paid for.
Numbers usually drop off dramatically for huts serving only harder, PD (Peu Difficile) routes and above - the ever busy Hornli Hut on the Matterhorn is an exception.
Huts on well-frequented routes have resident wardens and supporting staff to supervise visitors and prepare meals but those on less-frequented routes may be unmanned as I was surprised to discover on the Weisshorn and at the Rottal Hut on the SW ridge of the Jungfrau - we were the only occupiers.
As well as the danger from avalanches the additional hazards involved in alpine mountaineering are glaciers, ice-falls and crevasses. Even on well-frequented climbs someone has to be the unfortunate who breaks through a previously safe snow-bridge and a rope of three is the recommended minimum. Nevertheless guided parties on the popular, easier routes are commonly tailed by "solo" climbers who hitch lifts from roped groups to cross suspect slopes.
The increased altitude also poses a problem and acclimatization is advisable on the many 3,000 metre peaks before tackling the higher 4,000 metre summits. Unlike the Himalaya, fatalities from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) are rare in the Alps with symptons usually restricted to lethargy, headaches and nausea. Lightning storms are another, literally hair-raising hazard when it is advisable to dispose of all one's iron-mongery.
Collecting the 80 "four-thousanders" of the European Alps is the continental equivalent of Scottish Munro bagging. Although some pose no technical difficulties others such as the Shreckhorn ("Terror Peak ") present a much harder challenge than the Inaccessible Pinnacle - the stumbling block for many would-be Munroists.
From a hut the customary "alpine-start" time in the early hours of the morning is dependant on the vertical distance to reach the target summit and should enable it to be reached before noon with rapid progress possible on firm snow before it softens in the heat of the sun. Scottish mountaineers in the Alps have however gained a reputation for being last out of the huts in the morning and returning in the dark, long after everybody else, by the light of matches. Laggards leaving the Refuge du Gouter can however admire the long line of head torches illuminating the upper slopes of Mont Blanc like rows of street lamps. On a good day some two hundred climbers attain the 4,800 metre summit - second highest in the continent of Europe to the 5,600 metre Mt.Elbrus in the Caucasus.
Locations of huts and their access routes are given on continental climbing maps as are the normal routes to summits. Maps may also specify the different symbols painted on trees or rocks to signpost routes. For the less frequented and more difficult routes a detailed description from a good guide book is helpful but all alpine climbs depend on prevailing snow conditions which vary both from season to season and with time of season - late in the season crevasses are more exposed while each year there is effectively a first ascent. On one tour I was lucky enough to be on the first ascent of the season of the Ortler- much to the chagrin of local climbers who had been waiting for it to come into condition but arrived a day too late.
All my alpine climbing tours have however been confined to the summer months - winter mountaineering in the Alps with its extreme conditions is not for me - a single night spent in a snow hole on the Jungfrau one July was more than sufficiently cold to endure.
Many of the so-called "huts" are in fact substantial, three-storied, stone-built buildings and, with their private rooms and extensive menus, are more akin to hotels. For most people the "Bergsteiger essen" - a kind of sausage soup - is a complete meal on its own. An abundance of chair-lifts and cable cars enable day trips above the snow-line while multi-day, high-level, hut-to-hut tours without recourse to descents to the valley floor are popular.
Locations of huts together with their approach routes are given on the local Wanderkarten as are the normal routes to summits. The maps may also specify the different symbols painted on rocks or trees to signpost routes. Professional guides are widely available for hire. Joining the British branch of the OAV (Austrian Alpine Club) secures reduced charges at huts and helps with obtaining the appropriate and advisable insurance cover.
From the picturesque Baroque town of Innsbruck with its mellowed, green domes and red roofs a short drive to the south-west through pleasant meadows and pine forests gains the village of Ranalt ensconced beneath the peaks and glaciers of the Stubai Alps.
A circular tour via the Nurenberger Hut of three summits stretching along the crest of the Italian border is then feasible. Fine views of neighbouring ranges are obtained on the traverse along the broad ridge from the Wilder Freiger leading to the final rocky scramble, protected by hand-rails, to the Wilder Pfaff. A steep descent and re-ascent then achieves the large metal cross surmounting the tip of the sharply pointed cone of the dramatic Zuckerhuttl - a neat vertical line divides its northern, snow-covered half from its completely snow-free, southern half. As with other summits climbers can add their names to the annual logbook kept in the compartment at the base of the cross. The valley floor is regained by a long trudge down the soft, afternoon snow of the Fernerstube Glacier to the Sulzenau Hut.
Further to the west, a winding alpine road leads to the tiny hamlet of Vent at the head of the Venteral Tal. Beyond the chalets with their flower-bedecked balconies, a chairlift provides mechanical uplift part of the way to the Breslauer Hut. Hence a roundabout route via the Mitterkarf Joch gains the summit of the rugged Wildspitze - the principal peak of the Otztaler Alps. It was in this region that Otzi, the more than 5,000 years old Iceman mummy, was discovered close to the border with Italy.
To the east, Mayerhofen is the main valley-base for excursions into the Zillertaler Alpen while to the south of Kitzbuhl, a former site of the winter Olympics, the Gross Venediger is another popular and easily attained objective.
In the dim, pre-dawn light of the morning we packed our tents in the campsite in the quaintly-named Heiligenblut (Holy Blood) to drive up the scenic toll-road to reach the Hotel Franz Joseph Hoher with its extensive terraces affording spectacular views across the Mittel Pasterzenkees Glacier to the imposing ridges and snow-fields of the 3,797 metre - the highest of Austria's peaks.
Dropping down onto the glacier a level walk along the icy, crevassed surface is followed by a steep but straightforward climb on the far side to the Erzhaus Johan hut perched on a broad col. After lunch it is then only a little distance higher before one reaches the top of the Klein Glockner. A narrow but short arete precedes a rocky scramble to the main summit for a magnificent outlook over the surrounding alpine landscape.
The hardest part of the day's outing is the re-ascent of the glacier wall to re-gain the Franz Joseph Hotel - there is nothing worse than encountering a stretch of uphill on the long, downhill return from a major summit.
For aspirant alpinists the Austrian Tyrol offers a fine selection of 3,000 metre peaks well suited for acclimatization and training prior to tackling the challenges of the 4,000 metre summits of the European Alps or indeed the greater ones of the Himalaya - they were after all the home ground of Rheinhold Meissner - the first to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000 metre mountains.
Like Scotland's Ben Nevis and the principal peaks of other countries it attracts considerably more attention than lesser but more aesthetically appealing targets. On a good day some 200 climbers can make their way to its top and there is severe over-crowding in huts. However despite the lowly F+
on the alpine grading system of its voie normale its conquest is never a foregone conclusion.
Three abortive attempts preceded my first successful ascent. While several peaks in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, including the 3,800m Balmhorn, had been climbed with the 24th Glasgow (Bearsden) Scouts without the aid of crampons - our Swiss guide Hans Hari had cut steps all the way to the top - a similar assault on Mont Blanc from Courmayeur failed to reach the intended hut.
A second attempt never got off the ground - the Aiguille de Midi cable car had broken down.
Next morning we took the rack and pinion train from St. Gervais les Bains on the outskirts of Chamonix to its upper terminus at Nid d’Aigle and climbed the steep, spiralling trail winding up to the hut at Tete Rousse. Beyond a snow slope we headed into thickening mist and followed paint marks leading up a rocky ridge. Becoming increasingly difficult and exposed we eventually realised
we had taken the wrong route when figures were spotted through the mist moving easily on a parallel ridge. A delicate traverse of a boulder and ice filled couloir regained the correct path only a short distance below the higher hut perched on the Aiguille du Gouter.
Others have not been so fortunate. Safely ensconced within the hut on a later trip we were shocked to hear that a pair of climbers on their way up had made the same mistake but one had slipped while attempting to cross the couloir and fallen to his death. The continental practice of painting signs on rocks and trees to mark routes can have unforeseen consequences.
Overnight a blizzard blew enforcing a treacherous and time-consuming retreat on snow-covered footholds to the valley.
On the correct access route a wire hawser affords protection for crossing the couloir although only professionally guided parties tend to take advantage of it - most others disdain to waste time roping up and putting on crampons - on one occasion we helped rescue one such party which had run into difficulties.
Returning the following year with two different companions I repeated the climb to the Refuge du Gouter but not having undertaken any preparatory acclimatisation ascents on lower peaks we all suffered varying degrees of altitude headaches - Bruce turned a delicate shade of purple. Many stay
the night at Tete Rousse to avoid this problem.
Joining the pre-dawn, torch-lit, single-file procession we trudged relentlessly upwards under a grey, inauspicious, threatening sky and along the final narrow arete to stand at last atop the broad summit snowfield - amid heavy cloud - two more attempts were required before enjoying the view of the long ridge, crested by the subsidiary peaks of Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul, extending to the Aiguille de Midi far below.
On a subsequent planned traverse of Mont Blanc the Aiguille de Midi cable car was successfully used to gain access to the Refuge du Col du Midi but only to learn that a party of eight had been killed by an avalanche on our proposed route - now out of the question. Moreover a thunder and lightning
storm raged throughout the night squashing any lingering aspirations. By mid- morning however all was serene and tranquil when we emerged to a dazzling-white snowscene.
From the observation platform atop the Aiguille de Midi a spectacular view unfolded across the sparkling Vallee Blanche to the enclosing needles and spires culminating in the great fang of Aiguille du Geant and the huge massif of Mont Blanc soaring immediately overhead.
After one alpine tour we returned to find friends and colleagues highly concerned about our well-being - there had been a major tragedy on Mont Blanc with multiple deaths - one roped party had fallen and brought down others - as with Everest and K2 or other major mountains the probability of disasters increases with the number of people on the same route at the same time. Mont Blanc had not been on our itinerary that year.
Reference: "High Adventure around the World"