Sunday, 14 August 2011


Finally, at long last, we went to do the Dent Parachee today.  But I’m ashamed to say we didn’t make it to the summit due to an attack of nerves on my behalf (which I’m kicking myself for now!)  The title above shouldn’t really be mountain of doom, but mind of doom as I just got to the point again where I really couldn’t be doing with exposure on top of loose and chossy rock.

We weren’t able to get booked into the Dent Parachee refuge which was just as well, as when we went path reccy’ing later that day, the hut looked really full and boisterous.  Instead, we stayed at the La Fournache refuge which was really nice.  Privately owned and smaller than the dent rufuge, but just nicer.  We were in a small room, just 5 of us and I actually slept quite well.  Food was okay, delicious soup for starter, boeuf bourguignon  and polenta for main dish (discovered that plain polenta is the most boring dish EVER!  Then cheese and bread *and* some sort of weird blancmange thing (which was disgusting – I gave mine to D)  Breakfast consisted of white bread and jam and honey, the best cup of tea in the whole wide world and a glass of fresh orange (which gave me indigestion from the word go, knew I shouldn’t have drunk the damn stuff!)

We were off by 4.50am, walking up past the Dent hut and onto the path into the corrie.  The guide description mentioned an ever moving ‘punishing’ scree slope, followed by a 35degree angled scree couloir exposed to rockfall (helmets necessary, and it took a bit of persuasion to get D to wear a helmet)  Basically I told him I didn’t want to have to clean his brains up off the ground and we didn’t have the insurance to cover it anyway!  (who says romance isn’t dead)

I’ve been told that there used to be a snow slope leading to the Col where the ridge starts (and it may be that we were too late in the season.)  Hodges book mentions a permanent snow field at the bottom but there was no snow to speak of anywhere.  All the snowlines and glaciers are receding in the Alps I am led to believe.  So the climb up to the col was punishing indeed!  It started off by each foot step sliding down before stabilising and this became hard work.  In the middle it was better, with bigger stones and rocks so felt more secure.  But the top couloir was hideous!  All the scree had pretty much vanished and all that was left was shattered bits of rock and mud.  I had to go on all fours at several points and it became like climbing a slab of mud and rock, not nice!  And I put my helmet on before this point as it did feel quite exposed to possible rock fall.

Past the horrible bit, the angle eased a little and it looked easier going but was still quite steep and muddy.  But higher still and the mud had frozen slightly so it was more stable.  We finally reached the col and the view of the Vanoise Glacier opened up and looked brilliant!  I hadn’t been nervous about the climb up to the summit at all, thinking it would be similar to what we’d done previously in the Alps, like the NW ridge of the Balfrin via the Gross Biggerhorn or the WSW ridge of the Lagginhorn, ie wee scrambly bits of nice rock with easier bits inbetween.  Well, it was sort of like that but the scrambly bits were more like scrabling about on shite rock, where as the other ridges I’d done last  year were mint in comparison as regards the standard of the climbing (and the Lagginhorn has a reputation for loose rock, but it was solid as anything in comparison!)

So when I looked up from the col at all these crumbling spikes and bastions of rock, my heart rate rose more than it was already from slithering my way up that scree slope!  The first pinnacle was bypassed on the left along a narrow ledge of shale and rubble which got narrower and narrower and more and more rubbly and exposed and scary.  Until we came to a bypass and realised we’d gone too far.  We backtracked, my nerves doubled by this point by the chossyness and found some crampon scratches going up a short rubbly groove.  There were plenty of good holds underneath all the crap, but some felt dubious to trust and much gentleness was called for.  This took us to the crest and a narrow path above which felt fine, just a little rubbly.  Then we came to the bottom of a gully and Hodges guide suggested climbing the gully itself by a zigzagging path (don’t do this!)  We crossed to the bottom of the gully easily enough but the ‘path’ up the gully was scrabbling on mud and dubious rock, taking some time to search for more solid and reassuring areas.  

The top of this gully met at a narrow point ledge of rock with a steep gully dropping down the other side and a steep and horrible muddy slope above.  All our guides (Hodges, the French one and an old one from the 1980’s) mentioned a slip from this point having fatal consequences.  As I tentatively inched my way up the mud, searching for solid little nubbins of rock to place my feet on and to balance on gently I was ever aware of this drop below and the guide descriptions and I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that I was hating it and crapping myself!  I made it to the top with my palms sweating and my heart racing though.

Every so often I had been looking back down the way we had come up and thinking to myself, ‘holy shit!  How the feck are we gonna get back down all that steep rubble and mud?’  The higher up this mountain we got, the more nervous I became about all the objective dangers and how hard and awful it was going to be to descend!  I think once at the top of the slope above the gully this is where my nerves about going back down got the better of me.
The next section was okay, just more walking along on a narrow ledge of rubble, the drop down the North Face, all though not as sheer as the cliffs of the South face, were steep enough that the thought of slipping on the way down was compounding to my already nervous state.  Another little section of scrambling upwards brought us out onto the crest again and into the full sun.  The sun was glaring and blinding and squinting upwards all I could see was this steep narrow section, with ribbons of hard snow in places, not enough to need crampons on, but enough to warrant great care to avoid!

That was me, too much!  I just kept thinking the icy patches were going to make things worse, I was tired of the constant need for utter concentration, the sun blinding me (and the fact that I can’t seem to see very well with sunglasses on and feel almost suffocated when I wear them ) and these thoughts that I might find the descent too difficult and dangerous was enough to make me stop and sit perch myself on the crest of the ridge.  Bad mistake!  Once I sat down, I got a little gripped and just didn’t want to carry on, I just wanted to get down and get off this awful, rubbly hill!  I think if I’d just swallowed my fears as I normally do and hadn’t stopped and just kept going then we would have gotten to the top.

As it was, I told D I wanted to bail.  I said that I would sit here and wait for him to go up to the summit and come back down but bless him, he didn’t want to leave me to get cold while I waited (it was pretty windy and cold up there, just before 10am by this point)  So down we went and apart from one little bit above that steep gully, the descent was a total doddle!  I was utterly kicking myself!  When I had been looking back down on the way up, the path that we had taken seemed to be really hidden and all I could see were these steep, rubbly slopes of doom but in reality, the easy way down became obvious as you approached it.  In fact, we could see where we had gone wrong on the way up!  The slope above the steep, dangerous gully had more solid rock to the left on the way down, with just a very exposed and loose step right at the top of the gully.  And the gully that we had climbed up, we climbed down on its left wall also, which was LOADS more solid and much easier!  By the time we’d gotten to the bottom of the gully, I was regretting my decision to turn back and by the time we got to the col I was utterly kicking myself for being such a wimp and letting my nerves get the better of me!

Neither of us fancied going back up though, too far now!  To go back up would have taken another hour and half to get to the summit I think, then an hour back down, and there was still the scree slope of hell to contend with, then the slog over the moraine and back to the hut, then shove all our stuff into sacks and back down to the van, and still the scary drive back down to Aussois!  No, that was it, I felt quite ashamed!  In the same way that backing off a route due to loss of bottle has me kicking myself for day afterwards!
And I’m still kicking myself for it today, but you live and learn!  I now know, that I’m perfectly capable of downclimbing steep, loose rock and that looking at things from directly above or below make them seem steeper and scarier than they actually are in comparison to viewing them in profile.   A friend mentioned to me yesterday (you know who you are…….) that it took him a couple of Alpine seasons to get into the swing of things and discover what he was capable of etc.  This was good for me, and I think I have realised that as much as I love being in the Alps, I’m not so keen on soloing rubbly and terribly loose PD routes.  I don’t mind typical alpine looseness like we found on the Balfrin and Lagginhorn, but when it’s just sheer rubble, then I’m not keen.  I prefer snow slopes and atleast rocky ridges that feel stable and reassuring, but there’s definitely got to be snow involved!  The whole experience left me deflated and really wishing that the whole holiday had gone to plan and that were in Gressoney and tackling the glaciers around Monte Rosa and Liskam area, my eyes specifically on Castor and Pollox.

I even checked the weather forecast, thinking that we could get the van fixed today (Friday) then zoom across to Italy on Saturday, up to the hut on Sunday and climb on Monday, rest on Tues before heading home.  But not to be as all the forecasts I could find said rain, rain, rain for Italy on Monday, gutted!  Nothing was inspiring me here anymore.  Even the thought of going up Rochemellon which I had been keen to do, wasn’t enough to motivate me, more shitty crap I reckoned!  I’d been keen to head up to the Vanoise hut to try and do the normal route on the Grand Casse but I’d heard bad things about the conditions come mid August and the forecast wasn’t looking promising anyway, with high winds and cloud again.
That’s it, enough!  As much as the Vanoise area that we had seen so far, was stunning to look at, as far as the climbing was concerned, it’s not for me, not in August anyway!  I can image just how much better things would be with more snow, and that it’s really a destination that’s much better for climbing when there is more snow and it would be great for ski touring and for the folk that like doing walks from hut to hut. 
Still gutted about my attack of nerves though!  The view from near the top of Pointe Fournache where we bailed was stunning, you could see Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, and the Barre du Ecrin to the South.  D is keen to get a guidebook to this area and go here next summer.  I’ll have a look into it, but I want to go back to Italy and the Monte Rosa seen as we didn’t make it this time.  And I’ve only got 2 long summers as a student left before I qualify as a Radiographer and hopefully start working.

Anyway, we decided this morning, rather impulsively that we’d had enough of crumbly mountains and after the van was fixed we would start heading home, visiting a few places on the way.  Unfortunately there was a mix up at the garage and they didn’t order our new DPF.  So we’re having to drive all the way home with a knackered DPF.  One person has said that there is a danger of the engine going on fire (eeeeek!) but according to most people, the engine will go into ‘safe mode’ whereby you can only drive it at 60mph.  This we don’t mind, quite happy to sit at 60 on the way back!

So I’m sitting typing this from a campsite in Troyes and we’re going to explore this ancient town tomorrow.  We’re also going to spend a couple/few days in Paris doing touristy stuff like climb the Eiffel Tower and visit the Louvre.  Not usually my cup of tea, but I’m quite looking forward to it, though I’m sure all the hustle and bustle of Paris will be stressful in its own way.  And I’m very curious to see the hotel which only charges 50 euros a night for a double room in the centre of town, it’s gotta be a seedy shithole!  Can’t wait!

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