The weather has been very strange over the last few weeks, going from snow in the valley then up to 23º. The snow seems to be settled at about 2300 meters – the mid station height of the Aiguille du Midi. Reportedly the snow up high has been very good sending the eager skiers up to the Midi for a few early powder turns! Unfortunately we haven’t had the time to get the skis out just yet.
Pete and I wanted to try and get an alpine route done before the bad November weather sets in. We decided to go to the Albert Premier Refuge nestled on the bank of the Glacier du Tour which sits high above the small hamlet of Le Tour. As it is October the lifts are shut until winter; this meant walking up from Le Tour to the refuge, a height gain of 1300m, with heavy climbing bags – I am now appreciating the idea of the fast and light fad that seems to be the rage in the mountains at the moment. We had no clear objective but thought we would see how the conditions were when we got to the hut before making a decision.
During the summer months the glaciers shed their winter coat of snow revealing an icy, scarred surface full of crevasses. The first snow has started to fill these back in and make weak bridges which span the holes, with a bit of daytime sun these weak bridges become soft and even more dangerous.
We arrived at the hut around 6pm, an hour before it got dark, we dumped our bags outside and wandered up behind the hut to survey the glacier. Conditions looked good, so encouraged we returned to the hut to make some dinner and consult the climbing guide.
The big mountain refuges (or huts) have guardians during the high seasons, the guardians greet climbers, cook meals and look after the buildings, when they are not there the refuges are closed but a small winter room is left open with a handful of beds and blankets – the basics you need to survive. The Albert Premier refuge is undergoing a facelift. A whole new floor is being added so when we popped our heads into the winter room we were met by a friendly Italian chef busily cooking away for the men working on the hut, who, it turned out were also using the winter room to sleep! With the hut full and the stove roaring away for the chef to cook the hut was lovely and warm – a rarity for a winter room! The Italian chef showed us which bunks were free when we arrived, he showed us upstairs and pointed to the first room saying Italian, the second was French and the last he just shrugged and said he didn’t know, the French room had two spare bunks so we picked that one.
Pete conjured up dinner, an amazing concoction of seaweed, noodles and brown spicy liquid. The workmen gave us a couple of funny looks when Pete pulled out 2 pairs of chopsticks! As we ate we discussed routes and conditions and decided to climb one of the routes on the North West face of Aiguille du Tour, we would make the final decision of which route when we had the a closer view of the face in the morning. There is not a huge amount to do in mountain huts so once we had eaten so we retired to the ‘french room’ of the hut. After a couple of games of pass the pigs we went to sleep with the alarm set for 5am.
Pete woke me when the alarm sounded, we headed down the stairs and outside so as not to disturb the workers. We made a brew and inhaled some breakfast on the hut terrace . Once fuelled we headed away from the hut and towards the glacier. It was a warm night and the snow had only hardened a little but seemed safe enough – the forecast was for the freezing level to rise to around 3500 meters during the day so we knew speed and efficiency was key to a safe day climbing.
There was another pair of climbers who had left the hut about an hour before us, when we got to the glacier and roped up we saw their headtorches high on the glacier ahead of us. We followed their tracks over the glacier until we came across them siting on their rucksacks looking a bit perturbed – they were a little unsure about the crevasses and seemed to be waiting for us to discuss if it was safe to carry on. They wanted to team up and travel as a four but they wanted to do a route which involved more glacier travel, we wanted to get off the glacier as quickly as possible so we left them continued on up and left as they carried straight on.
After about 45 minutes of warm upward progress, spotting and navigating our way around the tell-tale depressions in the snow which mask the deep terrifying holes that lurk below we arrived at the bottom of our intend face. On the way up we had decided to climb the Couloir de le Breche which climbs 200 meters up to a col between the North and South summits of Aiguille du tour. Being pretty much north facing the routes on this side of the mountain stay in the shade making them safer to climb in on warmer days – this does mean climbing in the bitter cold.
Having a last few glugs of water and filling our pockets with chewy bars we left our rucksacks. Tentatively we crossed the Bergshurund, the massive crevasse which guards the rock faces from unwanted visitors, to the start of the route. This was a peg belay at the bottom of a short but steep ice pitch. After sorting the ropes I headed up the ice onto some mixed ground, which was not easily protected, eventually I found a belay and Pete climbed up to join me. The second pitch was a similar blend of ice and mixed climbing. Pete took the third pitch heading up a terrifying rock slab covered in a veneer of thin ice and snow onto a deep snow slope traverse with some more mixed climbing to reach a belay. We had climbed about 3/4 of the route and it was 12.30 – we were not making fast enough progress. With cold hands and worried about the glacier that had been being baked in sun for the last hour we decided to cut our losses and head back down to the bags.
At each rappel we had to build an anchor and after three rope lengths we were back at the first peg belay. We ended up having to re-seat the peg as it had become wobbly and worrying. Pete rappelled towards the bags, as he crossed the bergshurund his feet punched through the softened snow into the gaping abyss – the sun had not even been on it yet! Once he was safely over the bergshurund I followed down and the same happened to me. Looking into these holes fills me with a hollow, sick feeling, I get the same feeling when I’m swimming in the sea and its so deep and blue I can’t see the bottom. Theres a sensation that something big and scary is watching and waiting for me.
After gulping the last of the now super cold water (brain freeze!) we retraced our steps onto the glacier back towards the refuge. The going was incredibly tedious as with every step we sank to our knees or waists in the soft snow. We were impressed by the route we had taken in the dark through the maze of crevasses on our way up. Thankfully we made it safely back to refuge, had a quick brew and reflected on the day. Refuelled we started the long trudge back to the valley. Georgie ran up and met us at the lift station in Le Tour with a flask of fortifying tea to fuel us for the last 30 minutes of walking back to the car park.
After pizza, beer, discussion of our next adventure and a génépi I was asleep by 9pm!
Photos of Dan and Noodles thanks to Pete – http://altitudinalnoodles.wordpress.com