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Book of the month: Mountain Views

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Majestic summits, mountain woodland, floral meadows; with the summer Alpine season now upon us, we’re dreaming of high-octane escapes.

If you’ve been waiting all spring for an Alpine adventure, take some inspiration from this account from Mountain Views by Rupert Hoare, a former president of the Alpine Ski Club. In this extract, the author describes his first and one of the more technically difficult climbs he made in the Alps. 

In the summer of 1977, I graduated from Exeter and soon afterwards Simon and I set off, with three other lads, for the Alps. It was my first visit but Simon had been there with the others the previous year. The start was inauspicious: the others were two hours late at the motorway service-station rendezvous, we missed the boat, went to Calais not Boulogne, bivouacked in a hayfield and spent a cramped day driving across France.

We arrived at Chamonix in bright sunlight and found a camping spot in a fir wood below the Argentière téléphérique. The sheer height of the peaks, together with the steep, shining glaciers picked out by the evening sun, put the mountains on a different scale to those of Norway or the Drakensberg and left an indelible impression on me.  

The next afternoon we walked up with heavy rucksacks from Le Tour to the Albert Premier Hut, noting the beautiful flowers and the icefall to our right. Simon had made a bivouac tent from red nylon and we set this up on some rocks a few hundred metres above the hut. According to my diary, ‘the evening was fantastic – not cold and incredible views of the glacier and of the peaks between the clouds, including the Aiguille du Chardonnet with its Forbes Arête which we hope to climb’. We crawled into the ‘tent’ at 9.00 p.m and I set the alarm for 2.30 a.m.

I needn’t have bothered. The condensation from wet nylon made sleeping difficult and it was good to crawl out at 2.30 a.m. and see the stars. Walking up the glacier by torchlight was an extraordinary experience, the two of us totally alone, following tracks in the snow. There was just occasionally the distant light of another climber or the unnerving sound of a rockfall. The mist came down and the ground steepened. ‘Ici  Forbes Arête?’ we asked two climbers but they were Spanish and spoke less French than we did.

It gradually lightened and we met parties returning, saying the snow was bad. I suggested we walk up to a col. Simon was feeling the altitude and going extremely slowly, with me tugging impatiently on the rope. Fortunately, the weather improved and we eventually reached the col at the head of the Glacier du Tour at about 8.00 a.m. There was a superb view into Switzerland, the sun lighting the head of the glacier to the left with the black tooth of the Grande Fourche in the foreground. Simon waited at the col while I climbed a few hundred feet up a small peak. I couldn’t get enough of the views – but by the time we returned to the valley it was raining heavily.

The weather was to remain mixed and there always seemed to be a reason for one of us to go into Chamonix. One afternoon we took the téléphérique to L’Index, a rock peak in the Aiguilles Rouges, which we climbed. I felt clumsy climbing in boots and with a rucksack but I enjoyed the wonderful views across to Mont Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses. Eventually we decided to drive round to the Dauphiné. We arrived at Col du Lauteret in darkness and pouring rain to find a damp, empty-looking building. The others decided to go on to the South of France for some rock climbing but I wanted to stay in the mountains. There was no animosity, just a difference in objectives, and we unpacked my gear from the car.  It took me a long time to get to sleep that night, alone in a damp room with a steady drip from the ceiling.

In the morning I pitched my tent on a good site a few hundred metres above the col. For two days the weather remained very wet, and lying in the tent listening to the rain on the flysheet brought back many memories of Arctic Norway. My book was Jane Eyre and the first paragraph I read went as follows:

‘It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connexion ... The charm of adventure sweetens that sensation, the glow of pride warms it: but then the throb of fear disturbs it...’

Finally the sun came out and my diary for Monday 1st August starts: ‘wonderful, wonderful day’. Leaving the campsite, I passed a shepherd and his flock and followed the path to the Alpe Hut, marvelling at the views of the snowy Meije above the flowery meadows. I tried to climb up to a peak called the Roc Noir but it looked too hard and instead I climbed the Tête de Pradieu (2879m) where some friendly French climbers pointed out the names of the many summits in the superb vista. I descended to a milky blue stream in the valley and followed an easy path beside the river through a gorge and then through cool fir woods all the way down to Le Casset.  

The next day I found an easier route up the Roc Noir (3117m) and returned to my tent which, by chance, was pitched so that it got the very last of the evening sun. My diary records ‘a wildly beautiful and peaceful evening. Today’s summit high above, ambition fulfilled. Only the gentle sound of the flowing stream. A sense of deep satisfaction and appreciation of one’s surroundings.’ 

After one more day alone, the others returned and we drove back to Le Tour. Simon and I walked back up to our bivvy site in the rain, planning to climb the North Spur of the Aiguille du Chardonnet.

This time the night was clear and we walked up the glacier by moonlight. By dawn we were well up the climb. Steep snow gave way to mixed rock and ice. We came across a group of climbers getting in a muddle with ropes and, with the impetuousness of youth and the mantra ‘speed is safety’, we soloed straight past them all. There was a fine sunrise as we looked across at the seracs on our left, and the climbing was interesting and enjoyable. I led the final pitch to the summit ridge, described in Gaston Rébuffat’s book The Mont Blanc Massif: The 100 Finest Routes as ‘pure, detached and exposed’. From the summit we had glorious views, the descent was fairly straightforward and after a long plod down the glacier we returned, exhausted, to our bivouac site before midday. The North Spur of the Chardonnet is graded Difficile and, although my first major route, it remains one of the technically hardest I have done in the Alps.

Next day we drove home.

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