Saturday, 28 July 2012

Aclimatising In The Vallee

After we arrived in Chamonix, the next phase was to settle in to the apartment, aquire lift passes for the cable car, get our gear prepped, and finally get some rest before we set off the next morning. A supermarket stop was also required, and we purchased supplies for in house dining and alpine lunches. Oh......and beer. The resting didn't quite go as planned as the first nights dinner was washed down with a couple pitchers of lager.   When in Rome ....(or Chamonix!)

Despite the previous evenings refreshments, we got up and headed for the cable car to get to our starting point before 9 am. As it was a Sunday, I expected it to be busy, but we were able to coast onto the big box hanging from a string....

The two stage ascent to the Aiguille Du Midi brought a bit of excitement as we grew nearer to the peaks that we had stared at from a distance in the town below ,and viewed in a variety of guide books. Most of the other people in the box were tourists heading up to the viewing platform to take in the surrounding alpine peaks from the security of the fixed barriers which encased the decks. When we arrived up to the main station we did this too, getting our photographs with the scenery behind us. Going up the stairs left me a little light headed , this gave me an initial taste of the effects of altitude.

Altitude was one of my unknown factors, how was it going to affect me? Was it going to stop me even attempting the summit? We had planned to spend three or four days getting our bodies used to this effect. I had read about the symptoms but, until you're there, you never know how you as an individual will react. Now the time had come to test my body.

Happy snapping over, it was time to get down to the break in the barrier , relinquishing the security afforded to tourists. We were now to be Alpinists. Through the tunnel system, we headed to the route that would take us into the valley below. Harnesses, ropes, crampons and sun cream on, we made our way down the narrow ridge leading in to the Col Du Midi.

The first time going through the little gate on to the narrow path is daunting. The drop on either side is substantial, at places the track is only enough for a pair of boots. This is a two way path to add a bit of variety to the proceedings ! It does widen in places allowing easy passing points. This though doesn't seem to be a consideration to some, especially the local guides. On the whole, we personally didn't have any issues with lack of manners, but I have heard of certain people taking priority regardless of right of way.

Into the Col is an immediate loss of altitude, looking back up at the route did make me think that was going to be the last stage on summit day, a slog! There was nothing strenuous planned for this first day, although everything felt like hard work when the air was this thin.

We made our way past the make shift campsite dug into the Col floor. Had we not managed to get spaces in the Cosmiques Refuge this was our alternative. It wouldn't have been a bad place to be, as night temperatures weren't that different to a mild Scottish winter. The logistics of camping were a bit different to the now booked hut so thankfully there was no need to lump unrequired kit up the mountain.

At the foot of the Cosmiques arete we surveyed our surroundings. Skies were blue and the sun shone across the white glistening coating on the landscape around us. I've had blue sky days in Scottish winter before, but this was different. The magnitude of the peaks around us overshadowed where we had been before not only in altitude or scale but in, what I can only describe as, attitude. The legend these mountains have established, the tales that have been written from travels across their peaks (including the most recent accident amongst the nearby slopes) , I was in awe of the Alps. How could one not be? I, along with my three associates, was here to summit western Europe's highest peak in the coming week. There are some who would regard this as a small conquest but for us it was the highest and hardest we had undertaken. We were also not taking it lightly. A lot of planning had gone into getting to this spot, and now there were still a couple of more days of preparation before the attempt was to be made.

From there, we visited the Cosmiques Refuge to check on our upcoming bookings. (There were no email confirmations or booking references given when we called to request four beds)  All was fine, and the language barrier hadn't lost  anything in translation. Our digs would be ready for us in a couple of nights time. On leaving the hut , we saw what could only be described as an omen in the bright blue sky....

Saint Andrew was watching over four of his patrons!!  Or..... it was just a freak cloud formation. Either way it looked good :-)

On our travels again we plodded off around the bowl. A little peak on the other side of the Col was our target. Testing the low oxygenated air in our lungs whilst moving up hill was required.

Although initially I found I was out of breath quickly, I felt okay at this stage -result! On our way down again it was time we stopped for lunch. We planted ourselves down on the valley floor and prepared our alpine lunch. French loaf, cheese and sausage. The norm is for this to put together whilst out in the wilds. We cut the bread open and sliced the sausage and cheese, filled the bread and settled down to our chewy sandwich. (The French must have jaws of steel, as no matter how fresh you get that bread it's still hard work to eat)

Again, a full rotation of my surroundings re-established my feeling of the area. A crunching sound bellowed around the valley and we realised  a serac on the side of the feature in front of us had broken off , falling down a gulley and  leaving a puff of snow in its wake. This falling debris did not pose a danger to anyone where it fell was out of reach from the valley floor. We monitored its deterioration over the upcoming days.

After lunch we headed further into the valley, again losing height and in the direction of Italy. We didn't quite go that far, the plan was to lose altitude to gain it again on the route back to the cable car.

When we headed back, the effects of the thinner air started to materialize. I started to get a sore head which was amplified by my heart beat pounding inside my ears like a boy racers bass box. This was common amongst all of us, additional issues were nausea and dizziness. As we trudged slowly, very slowly with regular stops, back up towards the ridge, none of our symptoms improved. Getting back on the cable car and down to the town would solve the complaints. We navigated the final ridge and got ourselves back to the safety of the tourist enclosure and got de-rigged of our alpine additions, stuck them in our packs, and found our way to the entrance of the box on a string.

It was now vety busy and capacity of the car is 72 people. Once you are literally squeezed into the car and it sets off, there is a sense of equilibrium as you do seem to have enough room. Until that is,  the runners get to one of the pylons supporting the running cables there's a jolt and the car swings like a pendulum! The occupants normally give a scream and get thrown about, if feet aren't positioned properly or the bars supplied don't get used as they are designed to. As we got on the second car at the mid station and continued down to Chamonix, the pain still lurked inside my head. I linked this to dehydration and I was continually trying to remedy this but it seems the other symptoms among us had subsided.

Due to the sweatiness created it was back to the apartment for a shower. On the way, we checked on the upcoming weather forecast at the guides building. Towards the end of the week wasn't looking too good. Along with altitude, weather was the other factor there was no control over and it now seemed that they were in conflict with each other. If we didn't allow ourselves to get used to the thinner air we wouldn't summit, but if we left it too late the weather would stop us. This inspired a discussion about bringing our summit day forward. We had only one day on the mountain so it was hard to gauge how we would feel longer term. We had booked Cosmiques for 2 nights on the off chance something like this would happen. The decision reached was to try and summit earlier , but if we felt the same way at the end of day 2 we would rethink.

The only way to do this was sensibly and safely. There were factors out of our control, to add factors which we could control to the risk list isn't sensible or safe. The mountain would always be there. Then there's the but; I was here to summit, nothing is without risk. Another day up there would give us the answers we all needed.

The next day brought the same routine. This time fresher bread sticks and pre sliced cheese and sausage. When we arrived at the cable car station, we were faced with a different  scene from the day before. The queue wound out of the door full of large, guided parties along with the other tourists. It was Monday, so it seems the start of a new week of Alpinists were being taught by their respective guides.It didn't take long to get back up to the Aiguille Du Midi and back into the required gear. Once we were rigged and tied together, I had a look down the path and I noticed two guys coming back up the ridge towards us, they were slow moving and at the narrowest part of the track. The only option was to sit tight and allow them to get back to safety. This meant we had to stand waiting for a few minutes. The area that you leave from was also a magnet for tourists wanting to see mountaineers head out into the playing fields below. As we waited we started to attract some attention with cameras being pointed at us. We were approached by a girl who wanted a photo in amongst us. This then led to more requests. One even asked if they could hold an ice axe for the pose. We must have ended up in 4 or 5 different sets of holiday snaps. I do wonder if one day I will come across one of those pictures?!

Thankfully , the two figures reached their destination and we could escape the paparazzi and get on with the task in hand. We started on the same path over to the hut with the next stage to increase our altitude ceiling on the first leg of the summit route; Du Tacul.

I luckily felt no effects of altitude , only the hard work required to get up Tacul's slopes. The headache was not evident at all. There was no other signs among us from the thin air. We didn't reach the summit of Tacul as a returning guide from it advised that the heat of the day had put some of the overhanging seracs in a potentially delicate condition.

The nights freeze would sort that out but for now we retreated to the valley floor. The collapsing serac from the day before had deteriorated further, both impressive and grounding. We made the most of the rest of the day then headed back down to town. Two days was to be enough conditioning for our bodies to adapt.

I felt good, my system had adapted and I had confidence that the altitude factor was resolved. Not all of us felt this way. There were still niggles. Nerves relating to the upcoming challenge. I don't think there was one of us that didn't feel nervous, even a little. My plan was to use this as a tool to get it done. The 'but' was gone, my opinion was to go as far and as high as the conditions would allow. If there was any risk in moving forward a line would be drawn and we would call it a day. I wanted to succeed, but it's a dangerous beast and there was no point in putting anyone at risk.

The next days start would be later and the morning would be used to rest.

The final stage of our journey was fast approaching - to summit Mont Blanc...