The weather in the Alps this summer has been terrible. Twenty two years I have worked in the Chamonix valley as a mountain guide, and this has been the worst; whole weeks have been washed out, and many peoples’ mountaineering dreams have been put on hold.
However, the constant bad weather meant that it snowed a lot. The glaciers and their crevasses remained filled in, and the snow plastered the north faces acting as a form of render, gluing everything in place. Then finally, at the end of the season, the high pressure built and we were set up with near-perfect climbing conditions for climbing on snow and Ice. These conditions were almost unheard of for a generation, and numerous possibilities evolved.
At the same time Charles Sherwood, my client of 22 years who has never missed a season, arrived to a mouth-watering combination of perfect conditions and a fabulous weather forecast.
I had identified a particular route for us to attempt: the Nant Blanc Face of the Verte. The face is seldom climbed because it is rarely in safe condition, and pretty much never at the end of the summer, but as I have said this was no normal season.
Yet even with perfect conditions the challenges are considerable. The face is massive: from the bergschrund to the summit it is over vertical kilometre. The ice climbing in two sections is vertical, and the final key section at over 4,000 metres involves scaling an overhanging serac. (I did not know this before we started. otherwise I might have not been so keen.)
In addition, actually getting into position to start the climb is very hard work.
At midday Charles and I took the Grands Montets cable car to the top and then headed across and down the glacier, from where we had to make a series of difficult abseils down a horrible loose gully towards the Nant Blanc glacier. Things did no go well; the new ropes I had brought for the attempt were immediately damaged by loose rocks, one irreparably, which must be some kind of record - one hour old.
We found a place to bivouac at about 6pm and enjoyed the setting sun while having our dinner.
Breakfast was at 2am the next morning, and we were packed and away by 3am. We scrambled down onto the Nant Blanc glacier and threaded our way through a maze of giant crevasses by the light of our head torches. This was difficult, and we took a wrong turning and headed up a false line. Everyone can get lost in this game; the trick is to realise quickly and rectify the situation, which we did but still it was frustrating and time consuming. Eventually, just before dawn, we arrived at the start of the route, which is marked by a giant crevasse; the bergschrund, the last crevasse between the mountain and the glacier. The guidebook rather unhelpfully suggests it will be between 12 to 15 hours to the summit from this point.
Climbing over the bergschrund was steep, but thereafter the angle laid back a little for the next 400 metres. We made steady but unspectacular progress, because the snow was very hard and we were balanced on our crampon front points instead of being able to kick steps in the snow.
By 10am we were confronted with a pitch of very steep ice- far steeper than anything we had expected. Fortunately the quality of the ice was perfect, and the ice axes stuck in the snow like they were being driven into cork. Perfect nevé.
Above this pitch, the route moved onto another giant icefield before heading left to a rocky ridge. By now the sun had come onto the face and it got unpleasantly hot, added to which bits of melting ice started spraying us from above - some of which were football-sized!
We were now tired and thirsty and we decided we should stop for the day and bivouac. The problem was, we couldn’t find anywhere flat enough so we just kept on climbing in the hope of finding somewhere suitable. As we climbed higher the ground became even steeper, so we reluctantly set up a belay and abseiled back down about 50 metres to an area that was the least worst option! We carved a ledge out of the snow, a sort of bucket seat, and climbed into our sleeping bags at about 9.30pm. As Charles observed, this is known as a ‘double head torch day’: you start by head torch, and you finish by head torch.
We awoke at 4am and melted snow to brew mugs of tea. Packing everything up was difficult because it was all frozen like a board, but eventually we were back climbing at about 6am. Above us was the crux of the climb - an overhanging lump of ice known as the “Calotte" which bars the route to the summit. I arrived at the foot of the feature, which was made up of fluted ice and I was not at all sure that I would get any purchase with my ice axes. Firstly I cleared all the flutings of ice away, like a vandal attacking a giant chandelier, and then I launched myself at the overhanging ice and climbed what was the most exposed bit of ice climbing I think I have ever done, because it felt as if I was hanging above the entire Chamonix valley. I was happy to pull over the lip and see ahead of me much more mellow ground. I belayed, and it was Charles’ turn to follow.
Above us lay the summit of the Verte, a short walk away. The scenery was stunning and we arrived on the summit at about 8.30am, with hardly any wind and not a person in sight.
The next challenge was to get down, which off the Verte is never simple. Some earlier pre-planning meant we knew the Whymper Couloir was still full of snow, and because we had arrived on the summit early the snow was still frozen and safe, so we headed down the rather narrow ridge to the col and set up the ropes for the numerous abseils back to the glacier. It was a rather hot walk on a soggy glacier to the marvellously positioned Couvercle Hut, some beers, massive omelettes and bed.