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updated 18 Dec 2018

Cham ‘90

By Gavin Swinton

From BFMC Journal 4, 1992

We had decided Chamonix was to be the venue for our rock concert this year. Ten years since our last trip there were bound to be some changes. Hope the hills have not got any bigger. Difference this time was that there were three teenyboppers as well. Frank having heard of cheap accommodation as usual, soon had two rooms booked for the entourage. Training this year for myself was a dozen Munros in the rain. For Chamonix the rain part seemed important. Frank’s training was hours on Kelvin Hall climbing wall and a reading of the guidebooks. Fiona acclimatized by changing from Italian to French red. We eventually all turned up at the Gite Argentierre six miles up the valley from Cham, where we were pleasantly surprised by our accommodation.

First route on the agenda was the Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi, 3000ft D Sup French grade. This was to be the training route. First cable car in the morning, still dark, half asleep and Frank queue-jumping for tickets. One-and-a-half hours later found us soloing up the first few hundred feet. Taking a belay and roping up. Two other climbers came up a corner. Turned out one was from RAF Kinloss. They were going slowly and soon disappeared. Pitch after pitch for six hours until we reached the top of the rock band, except for one couloir where I got pushed in front to see if there were any stones coming down. (Told you it was a rock concert!)

The top of the rock pillar formed a fantastic ledge and our first ledge of the day. Starting the ice arête, the heat really hit us now the sun was on us. Trouble was it was on the ice as well. Sticking arms into slush and moving up, no runners, no belays, no falling.

Higher up we decided on a variation finish up an ice gully, now out of the sun the ice was incredibly hard. Picks just scratching. By now there were four of us. Two east European or Russian climbers were alongside us. They did not speak one word of English, French, German, Italian or Fife. Apart from the customary titanium ice screws which east Europeans always seem to have, their gear was primitive – bendy boots, no gaiters, and gloves were surely for wimps like us. Near the top of the ice gully, watching their bloody knuckles following us, we had more company in the shape of a local rescue helicopter trying to drum up business. Frank’s gesture to them was international, but not one of distress. Top at last. By now it was dark (heard that before some place). The ‘Frendo’ finishes next to the telepherique station at the summit and a doss in the rock tunnels was reasonable, and down 9000 feet to breakfast next morning.

Several hard days of sunbathing, swimming and drinking followed, trying to hide until the muscles had recovered. Even going for walks in the hills with the kids. Though Fiona had to carry Alastair as my shoulders were too sore.

We now decided on the main event, the Gervassutti Pillar, a 3000 ft route on Mont Blanc du Tacul and no. 88 in Rebuffat’s 100 best routes on the Mont Blanc Massif no less. So Friday found us going up the Midi ‘frique right to the top this time and a walk-in across the Vallee Blanche. It was 15 years since I had last crossed this area and it certainly showed. Modern short rock routes being the in thing, dozens of tents were pitched on the glacier and climbers were wandering about in shorts before nipping up a route and back down for tea. Two young English lads we spoke to (any excuse for a rest) knew the crag they were at but not the hills all around.

A few hours later we reached the bottom of the face, crossed the as usual horrible bergschrund and found a ledge for bivvying on. Next on the agenda was food. A boil-in-the-bag for one divided by two, don’t want to waste gas. Frank’s next idea was to start climbing the pillar that night and leave a rope for next morning, only trouble was it got dark and we got a ‘Friend’ stuck. Still, hanging around getting it out stopped me getting bored. Having read Rebuffat’s books talking of the beauty and enjoyment of Alpine bivouacs, I always think he must find better ledges than I do, when at three in the morning you think your back is frozen to the rock and Frank’s face appears out of his bivvy sack, it’s definitely St Tropez next year.

Breakfast a Dixie of tea and a two-day-old hard-boiled egg. Just the job for getting yourself and a 25 pound rucksack up 3000 feet. Right from the start the route is steep and nasty and, facing east, the sun was soon taking its toll. After half a dozen steep pitches Frank, feeling the heat, takes his jersey off and throws it away to save weight. This brought a scream from a following Australian climber thinking somebody had fallen off. Reaching a belay ledge I don’t think he understood about it definitely being a ‘Pringle’ and the name for insurance purposes. Pitch followed pitch followed pitch. A couple that would have been E1 in Britain even without sacks, and an aid pitch up a blank wall stand out in memory. Getting dark and a mad rush to find a decent ledge, found two. One you could lie down on but stank of a hundred relieved climbers. The other, which I grabbed, was clean but sloping room only. Night, as they poetically say, always ends, and this one found me hanging in my harness hoping that loss of circulation wasn’t permanent. Breakfast was an abseil down to another set of grooves, still slightly icy this early in the day. Two pitches later found us past the steep stuff and onto scrambling which went on and on. By this time we were definitely running on empty. The steeper pitches and the top came at last and were a fitting climax. The weather was still perfect and the view amazing. Downhill now, great. Why do routes not go that way? It would be so much easier. Frank’s shortcut over a crevasse 15 ft down, 10ft across. The jump left me shaking and a French audience staring. Eight o’clock Sunday night wandered into the gite and wondered if my tea was ready. Got told where to go!

Next morning wonder why the body can’t move. By this time on a high and no rest for the wicked. Up again soon to the Brown-Whillans route on the Aiguille de Blatierre. This was the route that made Joe Brown famous in the Alps. The Fissure Brown a five inch crack, 100 feet long: well, it stopped us completely. Maybe famous next year, but we did not use aid like Joe! Going down it was good to know that was the end of the hard work for this season. All that remained was a party at the apartments at which there were seven nationalities and no French. Next morning left for the drive home and 25 hours later it was back to suburbia as usual. Maybe it wasn’t ‘The Greatest Alpine Season by a British Rope’, but it was a good holiday.