The plan, follow the Swiss Route comprising 11 pitches for a total of 300m grade at ED- with a maximum difficulty of 7b. That said, it had not passed my attention that there was indeed a cunning ‘bail-out’ point on the Swiss Route crux pitch to arrive at the summit via O Sole Mio - if it all got too heavy.
The early morning flight and transfer from London to Geneva deposed us in Chamonix for early Sunday afternoon. Both ChamExpress and AlpyBus (http://www.alpybus.com ) operate a regular service to/from Geneva. We left our spare gear and details with the Gardien at L’Ile des Barats campsite (http://www.campingdesbarrats.com). The transfer bus drops you right outside the campsite and from here it is an easy 15min walk into the town centre collect food provisions and then direct to the cable car station up to L’Aiguille du Midi. Our first mistake (and a rather obvious one with the benefit of hindsight) was to arrive in France on a Sunday afternoon - not the best time for food shopping. Nearly every store was closed. We ended up making a brisk dash to top up our existing provisions with bread, saucisson and cheese from boutique ‘artisan’ shops with the commensurate Chamonix price tag one might expect. Fortunately with my British Climbing Alpine Insurance policy I was able to Ramiro resuscitated after he received the bill. With our fresh bread, Gucci saucisson and Prada gas we were well on our way late afternoon via L’Aiguille du Midi cable car.
Walking through the ice-tunnel tunnel, we were swiftly transitioned from normality courtesy of a large billboard sign in BIG BOLD CAPITAL letters ‘Haute Montagne’ being presented with a narrow arête leading down and away into the fading evening light. Ramiro kindly explained if I were to fall one way I’d arrive back 1800m below in Chamonix whereas the other side… his voice trailed off as to my alternate final resting place as my eyes fixed solidly on the knife-edge arête. By contrast, Ramiro was quite ebullient with our route declaring it a ‘motorway’ in comparison to previous seasons. My lack of experience to this environment ironically meant that the most terrifying part of the whole trip was to be the arrival and return leg along this arête as well as passing the bergschrund on the approach to the Capucin itself. For climbers experienced in the Alpine style, this need not be a concern.
Although I did not realise it at the time, already the altitude was starting to bite. Effectively, we had gone from Maidenhead (altitude 31m) to Chamonix (1,012M) arriving at L’Aiguille du Midi (3,842M) all in well under 12hours commencing our descent at almost 6 o’clock in the evening. Having never been at this altitude, I had not considered the effects of altitude and was really unaware as the effects crept over me. The burn in my legs and feeling of breathlessness I had put down to the sudden feeling of exposure as we descended the Arête together with our full packs. From the l’Aiguille du Midi station we hiked for approximately 1hr 30min to reach our camping spot just below the Cosmiques Hut and within eyesight of the Rebuffat. Making camp, I really struggled to perform the most basic tasks as the altitude depleted my strength and concentration. I was delighted to finally crash into the tent. That evening I lay in the tent as a listened to my heart thumping through my chest doing overtime to catch-up. The following day, Monday, we were snowed in which gave me a much needed forced acclimatisation day. Informed by accurate meteorological reports via an excellent mobile signal, we were once again on our way 7am Tuesday morning traversing the Vallée Blanche glacier. Moving at an athletic pace and with purpose, it was still four hours through fresh deep snow before we arrived at the foot of The Grand Capucin. Without hesitation, we dropped our rucksacks, racked-up and set off. Our intention was to recce the approach, start the route and initial pitches/route finding in preparation for an attempt on Wednesday. This proved to be an effective strategy as I struggled with the exposure of crossing a bergschrund for the first time and getting used to crampons and an ice-axe. By the time I put my crampon onto solid rock I was honestly mentally shattered and could not comprehend the fact that we had not even started to climb yet.
Despite considerable research, colour printouts, topos and analysis, route-finding was surprisingly difficult – for me. In part, despite arriving in mid-June we were in fact still climbing under winter conditions. This was self evident on approximately they second or third pitch Ramiro had to let a sizeable rock dislodge and tumble of the face. A real rope slicer if ever there was one. However, the supposed recce climb started to have a real sense of purpose and soon began to feel like a serious attempt until we arrived at pitch 4 or 5. Ramiro set off first leftwards (his fault for listening to my pathetic route directions) across an unprotected traverse and then straight up a narrow crack (what we later discovered to be 7a) dripping wet and rammed full of bailout gear. Ramiro cleaned the pitch however the day was up for me as I failed to follow Ramiro. We retreated leaving as much gear as possible at the base of pitch 1 to ensure a swift return the following day. At least Ramiro recovered a cam from the ‘bailout crack’ to add to his mantle-shelf collection.
Wednesday started well, or at least I was relieved that for the second time in my life I had survived crossing the blasted bergschrund approach. At the top of the first pitch, Ramiro announced his invitation to ‘climb when ready’. Were it that easy I thought, I shouted back “You’ve taken my climbing shoes in your pack” I replied. “Climb in your ice-boots” the reply came delivered like a steel fist in a velvet glove. We avoided the narrow crack of the previous day and pretty much seemed to be following the Swiss Route. Ramiro had to make, in my opinion, an early bold pitch across a snow covered ledge. Out of sight he had called down to me that he had to traverse a snow covered ledge and it “was a bit tricky” so asked I watch him even though I could not see him. Knowing Ramiro, I sensed it must be bloody difficult. When I arrived on second, it was at least a 4 metre wide, feet-only traverse smearing on granite crystals, damp from snowmelt. Chapeau to Ramiro for leading the pitch especially being belayed blind. The next pitch had a tough start from the ledge owing to the snow and wet, almost making a high rock-over I slipped and took my first and only swing of the day. Quality of rock on the Capucin is generally very good and belay points are quite new however, the risk of loose rock (especially so early in the season) and correct mountain practice in terms of belay stations and redundancy MUST ALWAYS be followed. Personally, I would be mindful of these considerations particularly if you were to be climbing with a party further ahead up on the route.
Once clear of the crux pitches, the general form on the Swiss Route is for easier and easier pitches to the summit. By contrast, we entered a real mind game of harder and harder pitches as we were diverted off course by ice. The day was getting late, Ramiro was getting cold and I was shattered being wired on adrenalin for what seemed to be the entire day. I had done a little multi-pitch with Ramiro in preparation however, still had not got the relaxed comfort factor of my buddy. To be fair, we were on bolted belays therefore it was more my inexperience with the exposure which prevented me from relaxing and recovering at the belay points. I made sure to do my best to support Ramiro insisting he eat and drink and trying to keep moving and climbing quickly so he stayed warm.
The last two pitches were by far and away the most technically and physically demanding requiring Ramiro to make some incredible moves. They were however mega enjoyable as we were working really well together and felt like a real joint experience getting through to the summit.
With the winter conditions we encountered, we were soon having to adapt arriving at so-called easy cracks to be presented with solid ice. This is where Ramiro’s philosophy of not being 100% dependent on guide books or second-hand accounts really paid off. Finding our own way and being comfortable with exploring to what to us was the unknown. When we climb together we rarely, if ever, consult a guidebook or topo. We never know the ‘name’ of the routes we climb let alone the grade. This often causes many a raised eye-brow in the UK climbing scene when the most accurate information I can give when questioned on a particular route or what we climbed that weekend is that ‘It was somewhere in Wales’.
Owing to our tent damage and general fatigue, Thursday we decided to return back to Chamonix. It would have been great to have completed another route such as the Rebuffat however with our damaged tent and my fatigue, it made sense to return to Chamonix. As a result of the fresh snow, the hike back to l’Aiguille du Midi station was still quite an effort. As we exited the cable car station back in Chamonix, we headed directly across the road and had a couple well Biere Blanches. I really was shattered.
Several days in the mountains does enhance body odour, particularly with myself as, I often have a healthy aroma to start with. However, as always, Ramiro had taken into account every eventuality and through his many years of Chamonix excursions had developed a thrifty solution. Back at Geneva airport, he proceeded to charm the various perfume sellers, all of whom seemed to appreciate his attention, and ‘sampled’ a range of their colognes. An unexpected bonus was the exchange rate for some old Swiss Francs I had had for years in a drawer at home. Feeling positively flush with cash, we duly got quite merry and smashed on a few cans of Desperadoes. I would happily return to Chamonix if only for the Fondue and of course the flan nature at the bakery near L’Ile des Barats camping.
Ramiro Villanueva (lead)
It is often said that it is the journey not the destination that is important in life. In the context of climbing, I could not agree more. Summits may or may not be reached, so long as I am fortunate enough to be able to and have the hunger to return is all that matters to me. Ramiro and I are different in many ways both in terms of physical abilities, climbing experience and personalities. It is our differences that make for such a strong climbing partnership. As tough as the experiences are, we have a great respect for one another and profound enjoyment of our shared experiences. I only wish that every other person is as fortunate as I have been.