adventure

July part 1 - Petrel, SAR and boating by Jerry Gillham

Despite it feeling like a quiet month in the aftermath of midwinter and still in the midst of the cold, short days it turns out quite a bit happened in July, or at least I’ve got plenty of photos from what did happen. So I’ll split the months blog into two.

The month started with a fun ascent of Petrel Peak, Fraser, Paddy, Vicki and I fought our way through the snow and occasional ice patches to reach the summit.

Kicking steps up the snow slope, it never looks as steep as it feels when your legs doing all the work.

After the climb out the valley you hit a fairly flat bowl. Petrel has two peaks, the most interesting and photogenic is the pointy one directly ahead of us in the middle of the photo.

Fraser contemplating the route to the summit. Petrel looks impossible from virtually every angle. From here we headed up to the ridge on the left, along and up that, then below the peak itself and back at it from the far (easier) side.

Up on the ridge, Petrel looks closer and marginally more accessible, but that ridge to get there gave us some problems and needed quiet a lot of route-finding and doubling back. Paddy's photo. Note July has been a month for experimenting with facial hair - this look is certainly better than one that will feature in July part 2.

Vicki and Paddy looking at something in the distance. In the background is the higher of the two Petrel Peaks (by a couple of meters); covered in loose rock and ice and not much of a fun climb even in good conditions, we decided this day it wasn't worth it.

Paddy, Vicki and I ascending the pyramid summit. In the summer we were amazed at how simple this route turned out to be. With snow and ice it was a little tricker. Summit height is about 600m. Fraser's photo.

We didn't hang around at the top as we could see the clouds closing in. It didn't start to snow until we were down in the bowl and approaching familiar ground. Still, the hard snow on these steep little slopes were good for a) sliding down, practicing ice-axe arrests and b) getting some good practice walking in crampons, as here. Fraser's photo.

Search and rescue practice is an ongoing training exercise. We’ve done a few tabletop scenarios and doc schools but this was the first time we put them all together and went out in the field. To complicate matters the casualty in this session was the doctor and I was pretending to be a visitor meaning Vicki, as deputy station leader, was responsible for co-ordinating the incident while Kieran was the lead first aider. They, and everyone involved, did extremely well and Fraser was safely recovered all the way back to the surgery. Even though you know these are only practice sessions they are still always stressful as there is a lot to remember. However well it goes there are always things you learn and little improvements you find you can make. There are so many different factors that could occur there is no one fix-all response so you have to do a lot of dynamic planning and responding and best reason for doing these practice sessions is to give you that confidence and ability to keep a calm head in a real emergency.

Fraser had 'broken his leg while playing on the old whaling station'. I was sent out as the quick response, taking the bike and pedalling round to meet him with a big orange blanket and some warm clothing. Shortly afterwards the main team arrived and splinted his leg up.

As we could have an incident anywhere off station we practiced bringing him back on the boat. Loading him from the jetty was relatively simple - next time it might be a RHIB pick up and mid-water transfer.

With several people managing holidays on separate peninsulas and the krill trawlers (which need inspecting by the government officers) there has been quite a bit of boating this month.

This was a weird day to be out - the snow fell so heavily it was sitting in a layer on the surface of the sea. Clearing it off the boats took a while but driving through it was simple enough...

... until it got sucked up into the cooling system and the engine overheated. Kieran watching on as Matthew fixed it.

One last thing Matthew wanted to do before departing was test whether he could take the jet boat into Moraine Fjord. This channel, although it is over 100m deep in the middle, can be just 4 or 5m and forested with kelp at the mouth. Normally we only take the RHIBs in there but with one due to go out for servicing we need to have a plan to use the jet as a back-up boat in case of any problems. So, with permission from Cambridge, we set out one sunny day on a test run.

Cutting through the line of kelp, hoping not too much gets sucked up into the jet units.

In front of the Hamberg Glacier. We kept our distance in case of calving events but didn't catch any. Shortly afterwards we did get a leopard seal swim past, checking us out.

Stepping out the boatshed door on 19th July it took me a moment to work out what was different, then I sussed it - the sun was shining on my face while I was on station. Although we don't get anything like the full days of darkness that's expected further south we are in the shade of Mount Duse, so it can be two months without the sun on base. Feeling it's warmth again is something special.

Tied up alongside here is the Fisheries Patrol Vessel, coming in to pick up pax and post in between searching for illegal fishing.

Start of winter by Jerry Gillham

Midwinter, the biggest celebration in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic, is almost upon us. Everyone has been spending the last few weeks (if not longer) working on their gifts, trying to tie up odd jobs so they can enjoy some time off, and trying to make the most of the start of winter. 

May was a pretty quiet month. With the toothfish ships at sea and the krill ships not arriving until next week (probably right in the middle of our celebrations) the boats have been off the water for a bit of maintenance. A few pairs of people have been off on holidays and on station we've been counting everything. Our annual indents cover all the field kit, stationary, comms, computing, domestic, cleaning, food & catering goods. Sometimes you can work with a few other people to get big chores done, other times you just put some music on and start looking through draws, making piles of pens.

Here's a few random photos from the last couple of months that haven't fitted into any other blogs:

One of the tasks we had in March / April was supporting a party doing asbestos and oil assessments of the old whaling stations at Husvik, Stromness and, pictured here, the largest one at Leith. These sites are fascinating but prohibitively unsafe so we're not allowed to get much closer than this.

Young rebels, Bob (mechanic) and Dave (electrician) having ridden their bikes round to Grytviken to consult with builder and former BAS technician Andy. It's only about a kilometre around the track between King Edward Point and Grytviken but it can be the longest part of any long walk and if you're doing it repeatedly it's nice to be able to mix it up a bit with the bike.

A day out exploring Repeater Ridge and making a try of Mount Spencer started with a walk over to Maiviken. Fraser (doctor), Vicki (fisheries scientist) and Bob looking at the route ahead, with Fraser preserving his energy by not wasting time turning round.

A steep ascent up the scree left us sweating and panting but gave great views down on Maiviken, the study bay for the gentoo penguins and fur seals.

We didn't get to the peak of Mount Spencer as the ridge pretty soon got quite technical - a bit too much for flaky rock and no kit. Still found it a challenge to traverse around the edge.

Another day out and exploring the edge of our travel limits with Fraser, Matthew & Paddy (boating officers). We are restricted to a few small peninsulas but it still makes a very expansive area - you'd have to be here a good few years to experience it all. This direction we found another technical ridge marking the end of our day's walk. From here we got a great alternative view down to Upper Hamberg Lake, the glacier above it and the peak at the back is Mount Sugartop.

A decent bit of snow on the ground, but a grey day so Vicki, Dave, Paddy, Kieran (zoologist) and I went off to do a short hike up the small, local Brown Mountain. It turned out to be a great day for some ice axe training that quickly turned into a sledging competition.

"Now, this is where we keep all of our meat. You got 15 rib roasts, 30 ten-pound bags of hamburger. We got 12 turkeys, about 40 chickens, 50 sirloin steaks, two dozen of pork roasts, and 20 legs of lamb."

Today. We had this big dump of snow earlier in the week but today was the first time I've got out in it. Partly because of work but mainly because that slope at the other side of the bay is above the only track out of King Edward Point and is rather prone to avalanches, so I let it settle a bit first.

It's still deep, fluffy snow so I opted for the board rather than the skis. Turns out it's still too deep. I got a couple of good runs down when sticking in a rigidly straight line but pretty much every time I tried to turn, which I'm not very good at anyway, it dug into the deep snow too much and threw me on my arse. Still, it's not a bad way to spend a lunchtime.

Stenhouse Peak by Jerry Gillham

There's a phenomenon in the hills around these parts known as 'South Georgia steep'. It is the uncanny ability of the peaks to look unclimbable, almost vertical, on approach, only to be fine once you get to them. Recently we went for Stenhouse Peak, a 540m summit a few miles from station that was the perfect example of this.

It took about two hours to get here, up and through one of the passes then traversing a wide scree slope. At this point the ascent looks impossible; it's up that snow-filled gully that looks like it might in fact be loaded and overhanging.

We were well equipped with axes and crampons but the snow was good and we didn't need the latter. Once the lead person (Matthew this time) had borne the brunt of the work kicking footsteps it was just like walking up steep stairs of snow.

Taking it slow and steady was clearly the best course.

Once up the gully it was a relatively simple push up to the narrow summit for lunch.

Fraser and Paddy modelling proper explorer haircuts.

Paddy, Fraser and Matthew victorious at the top.

Matthew starting the descent down the gully while Fraser and Paddy put on crampons. Again, it's not as steep as it looks here and although we did a bit of deliberate sliding down it was never too fast or out of control.

St Andrew's Bay by Jerry Gillham

One of the best things about being at King Edward Point is that we get to go on holidays. Not too far - just away from station for a few days on one of the neighbouring peninsulas. After a busy end to the summer I was certainly ready for mine. I'd tried to get one in January but that was at the height of the comms blackout and I cut it short to try and fix that, though wasn't much use.

So at the end of March, Paddy (boating officer) and I headed out to St Andrew's Bay. This is one of the highlights of South Georgia, any time you've seen king penguins on a nature documentary there's a very good chance it'll have been filmed there.

It was an early start, just as the sun was rising, when we set out in the boats. Well wrapped up in our boat suits as the journey can take the best part of two hours. It's not too bad inside the jet boat but we'd volunteered to do this on the RHIB, mainly so whoever took it back wouldn't have to be in there the whole time. It was a calm enough journey round - any big swell or change in the weather and we'd have had to head for home or shelter in one of the bays as this journey took us outside of the safety of the local travel area and down the coast with nothing to our port side but the southern sea until you reach Africa.

It was shortly after 9:00 when we jumped off the boat and waded ashore, the others departing quickly to pick up a few field workers and head back before the weather changed. With a boat drop-off we'd been able to bring a few extra luxuries (pre-cooked dinner, crate of Guinness, loads of camera gear). It took a few runs to get it up to the hut but the sun was shining clearly as we sat and had a cup of tea.

It wasn't long before we got together our camera gear and headed over toward the king penguin colony.

With an estimated half a million birds here on undulating terrain it's impossible to get a photograph that truly does the place justice. For what must have been the first hour we just wandered round the edge of the colony, sitting where we got a good vantage point and just observing in genuine awe the spectacle. I'd heard all sorts of good stuff about St Andrew's and it truly lived up to the superlatives.

With so many penguins about it was difficult to know where to point the camera. I didn't have any specific photographs I wanted to take to for much of the time was just sitting watching the interactions between adults, chicks and each other.

The vast majority of king penguins I've seen before, especially those at Bird Island, were mainly moulting or lost. But these ones seemed more confident on their breeding ground. Sitting at the edge of the colony I'd be passed by streams of individuals who were unconcerned by my presence, though some did wander up to investigate.

Down the far end of the beach there were off cuts from one of the three glaciers that pour into St Andrew's Bay. It's long been an ambition to stand on an iceberg, but with them being slippery, usually surrounded by cold water and liable to tip over at any opportunity I wasn't sure I'd get the chance to do so. However this one was free of the last two issues and not so slippery I couldn't climb it.

The Mercer is one of the three big glaciers that roll down into the bay. I walked up to take a good look at it, though didn't have the kit, people or permission to clamber about on it.

Sometimes the colours and curves of the king penguin makes it impossible not to try and do arty photos.

The majority of the chicks were medium sized and forming little creches. King penguins lay an egg every 18 months, which may be unique in the bird world. Although those that are hatched at the start of winter have a very tough early life it means there's every stage of development on the beaches most of the year round, from eggs to nearly moulted chicks starting to enter the sea.

Although there's movement in and out the sea all day the early mornings and sunset were the best times to see trains of penguins walking down the beach, looking for the perfect place to enter the water - maybe somewhere safer form the risk of leopard seals, maybe somewhere easier to navigate in or out from, maybe a weird penguin tradition.

The hut is located about 500m away from the colony, far enough to avoid disturbance both to the birds and to the hut's residents as the colony can be quite noisy and smelly. In the way is this river which we crossed with ease on the first day but on every subsequent crossing it had risen a little higher as the warm (well, above freezing) weather melted the glaciers a bit more. By the end we'd tried so many places, boots, wellies and bare feet and none were truly satisfactory.

As with most of South Georgia you can't just look at one part - you focus on the penguins and before you know it you're staggered by the mountains behind them.

We quickly got into the habit of getting up at sunrise to catch the best light, having a few hours with the penguins, coming back for a late lunch, doing a bit of reading or a short nap, lunch, more penguins and then back for dinner before it got dark. Then a few drams and ready for an early night.

The hut at St Andrew's is fantastic - cosy for two people but with bunk beds, separate rooms for wellies and storage. It's rustic and full of character but clean and dry. I know that looks like mould on the walls but it isn't. Perhaps historically but not now. The visitor book makes reference to problems with rats stealing food and leaving a mess, thanks to the eradication it sounds a much more pleasant place to stay now.

Cooking is on a big old primus stove and light is from a tilley. It feels good to cook on them, like you're properly living the wild, hut-dwelling lifestyle. 

After two and a half days we had to start heading back. The first obstacle is getting out of the plain, up a very steep scree slope that just when you think is done turns into what at first glance appears to be a wall. Then you start scrambling up it.

We were well loaded down with kit, both carrying large rucksacks on our back and day-sack sized ones on our front. Partly because we had a fair amount of camera gear each but in these locations you have to carry a good amount of safety kit with you. If we'd got into trouble (weather, injury etc) on the hike back we could be a few hours away from a hut and, depending on the weather, several days away from a pick-up.

From the top of the pass looking down on St Andrews Bay and the Mercer glacier. The hut is toward the coast, bottom left of the green plain. The flat grey area above the green is all penguins.

We split up the walk back with a night in another hut, this one at Hound Bay is a lot newer than the St Andrew's hut, with four beds and a gas oven! We still cooked the rehydrated meal packs, livening them up with a bit of bread, cheese and spice.

The next day we walked back to one of the beaches from where we got picked up. It was nice to back on station where I could have a warm shower and something other than rehydrated food, but it was an excellent trip. I shall certainly be going back in the autumn when the elephant seals start fighting for control of the beaches and giving birth, while Paddy is going back next week.

Jerry.

Higher in the Alps by Jerry Gillham

Walking the Tour du Mont Blanc was brilliant, but most of the way round I couldn't help looking up towards the snow line and rocky outcrops and wonder what it was like up there. Well this week I had a chance to find out. I'd booked on an alpine climbing course with KE Adventures, with the aim of improving my climbing and mountaineering skills.

Arriving back in Chamonix after a frustrating journey where nearly everything that could delay me did, I was pleased to find my accommodation, at the Yeti Lodge, comfortable and welcoming and the other two guys on my course, Rob and Brian, friendly and easy going. That night we met up with our guide / instructor, Neil, a good-natured and reassuring presence with 40 years experience of climbing around Chamonix. He checked over our kit and issued us with bits I was hiring rather than fly out with them - helmet, harness, crampons, ice axe.

Day 1; rock climbing.

So Neil could get an idea of our competency levels we went to a large crag near the road in downtown Chamonix for some climbing. It's a while since I've been properly climbing rather than just scrambling so there was some old stuff for me to remember (belaying, different ways of tying in) and some new bits to get to grips with (new rock shoes, though we did also do a few routes in big mountain boots). 

Busy times on the crag.

It was pleasing to see Brian, Rob and I were all of a similar level, challenged but completing a series of increasingly difficult routes.

 

Day 2; ice skills.

With all our ice gear we ascended the Grands Montets lift and walked out onto the glacier. First priority was feeling comfortable walking around in crampons and then roping up to move around safely. This is stuff I've done before but I was able to push myself onto steeper gradients and harder surfaces.

Playground for the day.

Clearly a popular place for training.

We moved to a wind-pocket where there was a good, steep slope where we could try a bit of ice climbing. This was supposed to be a fairly big part of the course but unfortunately for us there were very few appropriate places where it could be done, partly because of the time of year and partly because of the very warm summer we've had; much of the snow was soft and unreliable (planned expeditions to summit Mt Blanc couldn't go ahead, while rockfalls had been much more regular than usual. There have been multiple fatalities this season and our guide was wary of following the planned programme too closely, luckily with his vast experience and extensive contacts he was able to come up with alternatives that were at least as exciting).

Neil, showing us how it's done.

Our short ice climbing experience was great and it's something I hope I'll be able to expand on in the future. We also did some crevasse rescue training, setting up pulleys. It's something I've done before with BAS but was good to refresh myself and on real snow. We took the rope back home and set one up again in our flat, as well as a bit of knot-tying practice.

Setting up a crevasse rescue system.

Much conversation was about the strange people you meet on the slopes, particularly a preposterously alpha-male Canadian who worked in the Middle East and his much younger Thai partner, whose cartoon child-like voice made us all uncomfortable, though not as much as their poor guide.

 

Day 3; Aiguille du Coches traverse.

With the weather reports dubious for later in the afternoon we headed up the Aiguille Rouge side of the valley early, up the lifts to Index. A short walk and ascent up a steep scree slope put us on a sharp ridge where we roped together and started working our way along. A mixture of scrambling, climbing and lowering down with picturesque clouds drifting across the ridge and green valleys below. I really enjoyed this route, much of it is the sort of thing I would try to do in the Lake District or Scotland, but with narrower routes and steeper, bigger drops so I was glad to be roped in.

Ominous clouds over Mt Blanc.

The ridge ahead.

Looking back and watching the next lady mocking us by racing through untethered.

We finished with a descent to Lac Blanc, glisading down through the snow patches to reach the beautiful blue lake where I had been a month earlier in thick cloud and unrelenting rain. It was nice enough to stop outside for a coffee but the walk down to the lift station at Flegere was, once again, in the rain. We had timed the day well.

Down through the snow.

That evening we ate out as the Yeti Lodge chef, who had provided some amazing vegetarian food, had a couple of nights off. It was back to the all-too-common France, reacting with confusion and fear when I asked if there was a veggie option. Salmon? No. In the end I had a plain omelette, which was fine, but the massive bowl of profiteroles made up for it.

 

Day 4; glacier traverse.

Neil picked us up and drove through the tunnel to Courmayeur where we caught the swish gondola up to the high station at Pointe Hellebronner. We had to climb over a gate to get out onto the glacier where we knitted up with crampons and ropes. Happily tied together we started the crossing to the Aiguille du Midi, the high lift station over Chamonix. Crossing our first crevasses I had a slight giddy feeling as I looked down and saw basically nothing underneath my stride. Further down, where the glacier was spelling over an outcrop and the crevasses were larger and less predictable we followed an established route across snow bridges, marvelling at their shapes and the contrast between the white cliffs and black holes.

The sun beat down on us for the next few hours as we trudged slowly across the snow, stopping to admire the view and listen to Neil talk about climbs he'd done on the towering rocky cliffs and people he'd known who'd been lost amongst them.

Looking back across where we'd walked, from the hump on the right.

After a few diversions to look at the base of the Cosmic Arête and a potential ice climbing spot (where the snow was clearly too soft) we approached the Aiguille du Midi. Before we could reach the lift station however we had to ascend the narrow snow arête. For me this was the scariest moment of the week. As we set off I looked left to where the the snow fell away down a hundred metre slope and out onto the glacier. The edge of the path had holes through it where ice axes, put down for support, had poked all the way through the thin lip of ice. Glancing to the right I could see the snow slope dropping away, getting steeper for about 50m, then the next thing was Chamonix, the best part of two and a half kilometres below us. That was enough to make my head swim a bit so I made a very conscious effort to just stare straight ahead, concentrating on planting my feet firmly in the footsteps made by others, watching Brian move in front of me and matching his pace to keep the rope between us taut. 

Approaching the narrow footsteps up the arete.

Though it felt it that ascent didn't take long and at the top we de-knitted and enjoyed the views. Neil had to rush down to get the bus back to pick up his car, while we stepped out onto the terraces. Aiguille du Midi felt a bit mental; at the Pointe Helbronne there were several others with climbing gear and those who had gone up for the view looked at us with interest, one lady even took a photo of us as an example of 'proper mountaineers' (I didn't want to shatter that illusion with the truth so played along). Yet at Midi I really felt we were the odd ones out as groups of Chinese pushed past us, snagging themselves on our gear, sunbathers indecently exposed themselves and at least one person was carrying a rotisserie chicken. 

The view down into Chamonix. The drop I was trying to avoid looking into on the arete.

Come on France, if you're going to pass laws about what people can and can't wear I think there's an obvious candidate here.

That evening we ate out again and properly overdid it with nachos, veggie burger and a huge Hoegaarden. 

 

Day 5; to Switzerland.

We met a second guide, another Neil, and drove through to Champex in Switzerland. From there we caught a lift and walked up for about two and a half hours to the Cab d'Orny, a high mountain hut and one I'd considered a diversion to when doing the TMB last month. I was glad I hadn't as it was a steep, hot ascent in places, though with marvellous views back across Switzerland and forward to glaciers and peaks.

Cab'Orny beside the glacier and little lake.

After a while relaxing and acclimatising at the hut we headed to the cliff behind it for a little more rock climbing, not entirely unsuccessfully using the hut's crocs as approach shoes. There was enough time for three short pitches and a brief abseiling set up before we had to be back for dinner.

The hut was fairly quiet with a few more climbers and a larger hiking group, a mixture of Swiss and Americans. I slept well that night, feeling used to being on thin mattresses in big dorms.

 

Day 6; Aiguille d'Orny.

The cabin, first thing in the morning.

We started early and walked uphill for about 30 minutes to the base of the cliff. Brian roped up with new Neil while original Neil (origineil) lead me and Rob. The Rock was good for climbing - clean and dry gritstone with plenty of handholds. Yet there were some tricky moves that required time, effort and the problem-solving approach I most enjoy about climbing.

Aiguille d'Orny, 3150m.

We were chased up the cliff by an elderly Swiss guide and his client, frequently sharing the tiny belay points with him, indeed more than once I was feeding out the rope while sitting back in my harness a tight rope or sling the only thing keeping me there. Those were the occasions when it wasn't best to look down.

Looking down.

Looking up.

We ended up doing eight or nine pitches and the whole climb took us about three hours. Near the top we hit the sun and a view to the north that included looking down on the Fenetre, one of the most impressive cols from the TMB. When I reached the top I found the rest of our group already up there as well as two girls who'd come up from the other direction, with the Swiss pair arriving shortly it felt quite crowded, five of us on a point no bigger than a standard dining table. For that reason we didn't hang around, abseiling down the opposite side that we'd ascended, manoeuvring across the top of the cliff and then changing back into mountain boots to walk down the scree slope and gully. 

At the top. See the cabin in the top right

We were back at the hut for midday where we enjoyed a relaxing drink before the hot descent back to the car and back into France. We said our thanks and goodbyes to the Neils and enjoyed a final meal at the lodge.

 

It was a thoroughly enjoyable week - good company, a guide I felt safe with, old skills improved and new ones learned, every day pushing myself in some way.

Tour of Mont Blanc part 1 by Jerry Gillham

DAY 1. CHAMONIX TO LES HOUCHES

Distance 15.90km, ascent 1625m, descent 1658m, time between hostels 5hr 30min.

Departing the Gite Vagabond after breakfast we walked up the road to the and got the cable car out of Chamonix and up to Planpraz, having decided we'd get stuck straight into the exciting walking rather than spend out first few hours trudging up the lower slopes. We were thrust straight into steep ascent though and within 20 minutes there were red faces all round, however by the time we hit the col, after avout 40 minutes, we were into our stride.

Team photo all fresh-legged and raring to go.

The top bit there felt high, with rocky spires and snow patches while atmospheric patches of mist drifted over the top of the ridge, cooling us slightly from the hot sun.

Snow patches around le Brevent.

Short via ferrata sections.

The descent felt long and I was glad firstly that I wasn't doing it with tired legs and secondly that I wasn't carrying full camping kit. Down through the woods we went, on twisting, narrow paths. Down past the an animal park and a big statue of Jesus and onto some slightly confusing tracks that took us into Les Houches and the Gite Michel Fagot. 

The guide book said this place was self catering only so we went and bought stuff from the supermarket. Then found out it wasn't, so put most of it aside for the next days lunch and went for pizza instead.

 

DAY 2. LES HOUCHES TO REFUGE DE LA BALME

Distance 26.4km, ascent 2694m, descent 1993m, time between hostels 9hr.

We had to stop immediately after breakfast as Paddy's boots were falling to bits. He wanted to ignore it but as the sole was coming off and we wouldn't pass any more shops for at least 2 days we persuaded him to invest in a new pair.

These boots will not last.

Again we started the day with a cable car journey and this one was memorable for all the wrong reasons as Paddy again disgraced himself, dropping a smell so bad we genuinely thought he'd shat himself.

Escaping to the clean mountain air we dropped over the railway track to join the TMB variant route down through the woods, across a Himalayan style bridge and up through lovely flower meadows to the Col de Tricot.

Looking ahead to the Col de Tricot, the gap on the right.

The Himalayan style bridge.

This was the first of the long, sweaty ascents we would get used to over the circuit but, as with them all the view from the top was stunning. The alpine visage was interrupted by the sight of Ric and Paddy, topless, eating ham from last nights abandoned meal. Is there anything creepier than half-naked men shoving fistfuls of cheap ham into their sweaty faces? Close by meanwhile another trekker got hassled by sheep.

A steep descent to Chalets de Miage was celebrated with a refreshing cola drink before the hot but short ascent to Chalets du Truc where we had our lunch; bread, cheese and a big box of cherry tomatoes. It did then mean I had a big bag of rubbish to carry but c'est la vie as they say round these parts.

Looking back to the descent from Col de Tricot from the next col.

Down through some forestry tracks until, at La Frasse, we had to decide whether to continue with the variant route or to drop down into the valley to meet the main trail. We opted for the former so started slogging uphill again. Half an hour later we had a similar choice that resulted in Ric and I heading up the steep zigzagged path into Combe d'Armoncette while Paddy took the main track straight on.

Good paths to walk along high above the village of Les Contamines.

Our ascent wasn't too bad as the path was decent. After about 40 minutes it struck off south along a really pretty route that seemed carved into the mountainside. It weaved in and out of the trees so there was limited shelter when it started to rain. Then came the hail, with balls the size of Birdseye frozen garden peas. The intensity increased as the thunder started so we threw on our waterproofs and picked up the pace, looking for better shelter.

Hail, rain, thunder.

The storm didn't last long but just as it was abating we came across a torrential stream of mud and rocks moving downhill fast in the flash flood. It looked a bit problematic so we spent a while sizing it up before finding a spot upstream where we could use our poles to help us leap across.

A problem.

The path then ascended to the refuge at Grande Roche de la Tete. Placed on a dramatic spur with views both ways down the valley it looks like it'd be a good place to stay, only a short walk from the next glacier. With it being the middle of summer we had booked all our accommodation in advance to be sure of having somewhere to stay so we had to press on. The track down was tough on the knees as it wove down very steeply through the woods, crossing some impressive gorges, and happily the sun came out again. We caught up with Paddy and trudged up the last hour or so of dirt track with aching legs.

Weary legs making the final ascent.

After a quick shower we sat down to dinner; soup, polenta, chicken (I realised that in the interests of getting well fed I wasn't going to worry too much about being vegetarian if the choice wasn't immediately available).

 

DAY 3. REFUGE DE LA BALME TO REFUGE DES MOTTETS.

Distance 13.71km, ascent 1165m, descent 994m, time between hostels 6 hours.

The elderly Scandinavian couple on the bunks below us had been awake for at least 45 minutes making noise by the time I decided to get up but apparently that wasn't enough time for them to get dressed as the image that greeted me that morning testified.

Clear morning views towards the Lost World.

With weary legs from the long day before we set off immediately up the hill, in and out of the shade as the sun rose over the hills in front of us. It took about 90 minutes to get to Col du Bonhomme up a path that was sometimes bogy and sometimes well eroded, through rain as much as people.

The paths were generally well marked, with TMB labels, destinations and often predicted walking times. Although we had a map and a guidebook we rarely consulted them apart from in the evening when researching the next day.

Looking up toward Col du Bonhomme.

The beautiful Col du Bonhomme.

A hot day was ideal for for drying pants and socks. The other advantage of drying underwear like this is that you feel safer leaving your bag unattended, knowing that only the most desperate pervert would think of rummaging through it.

A hot day was ideal for for drying pants and socks. The other advantage of drying underwear like this is that you feel safer leaving your bag unattended, knowing that only the most desperate pervert would think of rummaging through it.

At the Col we continued up to Col de la Croix and then up the variant route towards Col de Fours. This was some of my favourite walking of the entire trip as the path rose slowly through proper mountain landscapes, with snow patches and fresh amazing views around each corner.

Heading higher, toward the Col de la Croix.

The clouds were rolling in and out, adding to the atmosphere and sense of occasion as we crested the Col de Fours and saw the valley below, into which our continuing adventures would carry us.

Clouds adding to the atmosphere.

Shame about the pylons.

Col de Fours.

Leaving the other to rest at the col I dashed up to the Tete Nord de Fours only a few more minutes up the hill. At 2756m it was the highest altitude of the trip and the full 360 degree views were superb; the valley we had ascended and the one we were heading into as well as Mont Blanc itself, mostly obscured by cloud but just for the odd second poking through.

Descending the col was via a rather rough path, though Ric and I found it much quicker to throw ourselves down the snow patches, to the amusement of others and numbness of ourselves.

Walking poles are not as good as ice axes for arrests, but are more effective than just digging hands in.

Down the valley flowed a beautiful river, cut into the layers of rock that used to be sea bed, thrust up by tectonic forces to create the Alps themselves. The flower-filled meadows around it were also home to our first marmots.

Gollum, taking a break from fishing in the stream.

The final half hour of the day took us down a few dirt track zig zags then up the base of the next valley, past bathing French families enjoying the mountain streams and spreading themselves across the entire road. The Refuge des Mottets is attractively situated at the head of the valley. Our accommodation block was a big old cow shed with mattresses down both sides. Unlimited showers and a well built washing block although the lack of toilet seats seemed an unnecessary saving. That and the poor quality of the toilet paper were compensated for by a genuinely impressively powerful flush. Best of all there was a donkey outside that was rolling around in the dirt as we arrived and then, as we sat outside with a beer, started simultaneously braying like a foghorn and farting.

Refuge des Mottets.

Comfy and cosy bedding in the old cow sheds.

The place was busy for dinner but there were still plenty of beds free. Dinner was soup, beef boulion, rice and potatoes, with a little trifle. During the meal one of the staff played an old French song on a punch-hole accordion music box thing and a load of people loudly sang along while we chatted to an American about other treks and long bike rides.

 

DAY 4. REFUGE DES MOTTETS TO REFUGE DE RANDONNEUR

Distance 20.00km, ascent 1242m, descent 1204m, time between hostels 6hr 20min

A good nights sleep and an early start meant we were zig zagging up the hill in the shade and in fact needed the first 20 minutes to warm up, though the cloudless skies informed us we were in for a hot day. The ascent didn't feel too long or arduous, with the gradient easing toward the top.

The Col de la Seigne, looking east into Italy.

The view as we crossed the Col de la Seigne, entering into Italy, was something to behold; green valleys and glaciers, Mont Blanc just shrouded in cloud but the spires of those just below it, like Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, looking like an impenetrable fortress.

Stopping for smoko just below the col.

There was a chill wind blowing so we didn't hang round and set off down into the valley, passing cyclists and horses carrying large amounts of kit, and a museum explaining the formation of the valley and the Mt Blanc massif. 

Looking back up the way we had come from Lac de Combal.

Below the Refuge Elisabetta we dropped into the flat-bottomed glacial remains of the valley that developed into the very pretty Lac de Combal. Taking a slight detour we climbed up the steep slope of moraine to look down on the blue-green Lac du Miage. Goats were patrolling round the edge and we had an argument over whether all houses are basically the same or not.

Lac du Miage.

We retraced our steps and headed up the south side of the valley. This was a tough one, sheltered by trees at first but for the most part a long slog up an exposed slope in the glare of the mid-day sun. The gradient wasn't even that steep and the altitude gain less than what we'd done previously but I think with the heat and the fact that we'd put all our attentions into the first ascent of the day we underestimated this one.

Looking east towards where our route wends its way.

The views were worth it though. Mt Blanc was still in cloud but the twin glaciers; du Brouillard and du Freney, were in full view, with the Refuge Monzino perched between them. The Glacier du Miage, which takes up a huge swathe of the map, is nought but a remnant, a scar of moraine debris where the ice once was.

Glaciers and debris where glaciers once were.

Winding our way down the edge of the slope we passed some nice pools and plenty of wildlife; more marmots, chough, redstarts, kestrel, grasshoppers and crickets and loads of butterflies including a lovely swallowtail.

Eventually we reached the ski area above Courmayeur where the path started to be criss-crossed by lifts and pistes. Odd to see them in the summer. The ones here were less of a blot on the landscape than elsewhere but still made the place look artificial compared to the relative inaccessibility of the morning.

We stopped at Refuge Maison Vielle for a beer and a sandwich. On one side of us was a life size plastic cow, on the other a good looking couple in matching cycle gear, sitting beside their bikes for a photo shoot before putting it all in the back of a pickup and driving off. 

The price of beer remained constant all the way round, but sizes would vary. This was one of the best.

10 minutes down the road was our accommodation for the night; Refuge de Randonneur. This was possibly my favourite of the places we stayed though it's difficult to properly say why - modern feeling dorm room but still with character and a great patio on which to relax. At dinner we chatted to a couple of Belgian guys about the music in the hostel the night before, football, motorbikes and how brexit was nothing to do with us.

 

DAY 5. REFUGE DE RANDONNEUR TO REFUGE BERTONE

Distance 9.41km, ascent 854m, descent 781m, time between hostels 4 hr 10 mins.

Descending into Courmayeur.

It took about an hour to descend the steep, dusty track through the forest. At the bottom of the valley we wandered into Courmayeur and paused at the tourist information office where Paddy found a map. Our priorities were 1, cash machine (those beers had dented our predictions) 2, bits of food, specifically bags of nuts, and 3, new flip flops for Ric whose previous pair had gone the way of Paddy's boots. We were successful with the first two, then had one of those tiny coffees about which the Italians are so fanatical.

Making friends with the locals.

Trying to fit in.

We started out of Courmayeur about 11:00, heading up the big hill to Refuge Bertone, about 700m above the town on a rocky spur. It was swelteringly hot but thankfully we were shaded by trees as we struggled up for about 90 minutes. From the top we got a good birds eye view of the town and plenty of wildlife in the form of butterflies and a few lizards.

Refuge Bertone sits on top of the central hill.

Refuge Bertone in the foreground and Courmayeur below.

We sat outside having a few drinks and nice, if expensive, pasta as the sky clouded over and the water started falling out of them in the shape of small drops. Quite a lot of it so we ended up sheltering inside for much of the afternoon. It was a bit of a strange place - very busy when we arrived so we accepted the lukewarm welcome. Not much English spoken bar one very helpful lady who seemed to be doing everything while the rest just sat behind tills. Dinner was very good; a pasta started then cheese-topped polenta, beans and stew. We were sat with a French doctor who was trying to get round the whole think in 4 days, right when we were trying to justify having a couple of short days mid-trip.

It continued to rain loudly during the night, and thunder, and we had the loudest snorer this night too.

 

DAY 6. REFUGE BERTONE TO REFUGE BONATTI

Distance 12.32km, ascent 1048m, descent 988m, time between hostels 4hr 40min

It was a light rain when we set off that morning, but it soon eased and we climbed out of our waterproof layers. There was still a low cloud layer obscuring the mountain tops, a shame because the guide book had promised us expansive views of the massif from here.

A wet start. The umbrella proved a worthwhile piece of kit, keeping its occupant dry but not overheated as waterproofs can do. So long as it wasn't windy.

We took the high variant route, I think we were the only people to do so that day as we didn't see anyone else for the majority of the time. The initial push up the ridge was steep and muddy but as we passed the crest it it eased up, though still ascended slowly to Tete Bernada and Tete de la Tronche before descending steeply to Col Sapin where a family of kestrels hung in the air, apparently watching our arrival.

Like walking in the Lake District.

We dropped down and crossed the stream before heading uphill again to Pas entre deux Sauts, or Porks enter Dork Storks as Paddy pronounced it. The other two started down the slope while I went for the half hour round trip up to Tete entre deux Sauts, a short climb up a steep, grassy slope, rewarded with with a 360 degree view of cloud-decked mountains and the valleys we had both come down and were going up.

Looking back from the Tete entre deux Sauts with the route we had just come, the previous valley, and the Grande Jorasses to the right.

Dropping down I enjoyed the solo walk down through the meadows of Vallan de Malatra. There were loads of marmots about and I got a good view of a very young one as it ran across the path in front of me, looking like a chunky squirrel. The bird life included a lot of wheatears which are always nice to see.

View of the Grande Jorasses from the Refuge Bonatti.

I arrived at the Refuge Bonatti about 1:00. A nice place with a modern mountain hut feel - well built, warm and very accommodating. Not enough toilets and the drying room didn't really dry anything. Dinner was very good; salad, soup, veg quiche with mash. The first place to feel prepared for vegetarians.

I made sure I noticed my alimentation behaviour to the staff as soon as possible.