After the two weeks of poor weather experienced in the Vanoise we took a chance around the corner,heading by train to the biggest mountain draw of all for a bagger in this area.Mont Blanc,the highest mountain in western Europe at 4810 metres(15,782 feet )
We arrived in Chamonix in bright sunshine and found a pleasant campsite on the outskirts,paying our fees up front, erecting the tents and settling in. By the looks of some of the bigger tents left here they too had seen their share of bad weather recently.
The rest of the day we shopped,rested,washed dirty gear, munched food and drank gallons of cheap fizzy orange that turned our lips the same lurid colour as the stuff inside the bottle despite much scrubbing.It eventually faded a couple of days later along with the embarassment factor.
Brian had a music and film magazine which was much coveted by the rest of us.It was the only thing we had with us to read in English apart from guide books and had loads of long articles and great pictures which helped pass the time.During the three weeks every time he went to wash his socks,needed the toilet or went shopping in town one of us other three,(two Johns and myself) would sneak over to his tent and grab it to read.He ended up having to hide it away somewhere.Small things mean a lot on an extended camping trip,getting amplified as the days increase,in particular food.I remember seeing John each evening on a walking tour bringing out a small tin of fruit after the main meal which was usually some tasteless backpacking crap in my case..And each evening I beat myself up mentally for not thinking of that as well.Back at home I`m only an occasional tinned fruit person but I really wanted those little tinned pears and peaches to pop out of my own rucksack so badly it hurt.Your entire mind and body seems to crave sweet sugary items after a while.
In those days it didn't take long for us to recover our energy though ...a day was enough.
The next morning was wonderful.We could actually see the hills for a change so we phoned the warden of the Grand Mulets hut high on the slopes of Mont Blanc and in very bad French booked four beds for that evening.We packed up,leaving empty tents standing and caught the telepherique (cable car) up to the Aiguille de Midi..Even from here it was still a long hike over the glacier to reach this hut.
After reading our guide book down in the valley the twisting route through the Bossons glacier was picked.It wouldn't be as busy or as exposed to the wind as the main tourist route up the ridge and in the couple of grainy photographs we had it looked fantastic.
The Bossons glacier is the fastest glacier in the Alps due to its steepness and the underlying terrain. A fractured, crumpled mass of ice slipping down the mountain,full of deep crevasses,leaning serac towers (unstable walls of ice) and melting snow holes caused by a very strong summer sun.It was really hot on the glacier.You could get frostbite and sunstroke at the same time if you dropped into a crevasse leaving just your head and arms sticking out.
Due to the popularity of Mont Blanc there was a good path though the maze of seracs and holes.This changed year by year as ice walls collapsed or new crevasses opened up,the biggest marked with poles and sometimes narrow planks of wood.
It was a very impressive landscape and a step up again from Gran Paradiso though not as intimidating as the steep heights of Aiguille de la Vanoise.Mind you its all relative of course.
This is a picture taken from the Italian side.A windy wild day with spindrift flying off the summits.
Alex had also climbed Mont Blanc many years ago travelling days on the back of a motor bike to reach the Italian side from Glasgow with his biker climbing friend Brian.They climbed it via Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit,returned the same way then headed off to visit Chamonix.While there they met a guy whose friend had died the day before, pancaked by a serac.A climbing helmet is no protection against several tons of collapsing ice wall landing on top of you.
We reached the hut, perched in a spectacular position on a cliff high above the glacier by late afternoon and grabbed our bunks,placing our gear on them.If you are not fast you come in dead last in most busy alpine huts and we were learning the rules required!.Views from the cliffs around and above the hut were sensational and we scrambled about on them having a ball.
Food and wine were ordered later and a happy night passed.This was a view of the route up the glacier from a position near the hut. We were too excited to sleep so stayed up late at the bar and were some of the last to leave.Everyone else went to bed ridiculously early compared to Scotland. I had picked up a chest infection and had a slight fever but nothing that couldn't wait until I got back home to a doctor.Around eleven or twelve I think our heads finally hit the pillow.I kept having to sip water to stop myself from coughing.That ... the altitude just kicking in and the packed airless, snoring hut meant it was well after one o clock before I drifted off with dreams of falling seracs and endless deep crevasses.Sweet Oblivion.
Around two or three o clock(cant remember the exact time all these years later) a loud bell went off all over the hut.It sounded like and probably was a school bell.This shocked us numb with disbelief.Was it a fire!
Our more savvy continental companions around us simply groaned,got up and started to dress themselves in the dark.We could hear the clink of crampons and ice axes being moved and rucksacks clicking open.
The truth finally dawned on us...this was the stampede for the summit.
Outside the hut it was still night time of course.The surrounding cliffs now looked large and menacing in the dark as we roped up, put on crampons and set off across the gleaming glacier in a long line of bobbing head torches.It all felt very surreal,we could even see the nightclub crowds spilling out onto the neon lit streets of Chamonix far below.A full moon shone down from a clear night sky painting the heights above.
It was a big glacier.When dawn arrived the line of hut climbers were well spread out over the slopes.At this stage we were still enjoying ourselves,admiring ice towers and happily jumping crevasses.Some of these photos were taken on the way down,It being too dark on the way upwards for pictures.
Sunrise saw us reaching the upper ridge and the wind instantly picked up,temperatures dropped below freezing and we needed every bit of extra clothing we had.A small metal bivi hut was used briefly to pull on gloves and jackets.There were a few folk in it who looked as though they'd spent a night or more in there.It smelled rank and they looked like it was really time for them to head down again.Slow moving and apathetic they seemed to us,just arrived still fresh.It was my first glimpse of altitude sickness and pretty soon I felt it creep across me as well made even worse by my chest infection.
Everyone was feeling it by now,that extra couple of thousand feet making all the difference.John chewed down a mars bar for some energy then threw it back up again minutes later.Every 20 steps you had to stop for a while to catch your breath...then it went down to ten.We kept going upwards in the right direction though and eventually made it to the summit.
I don't know what I was expecting but I for one was slightly disappointed by the actual highest point in Europe.
Everything seemed flat.A flat broad summit,a flattish view with even the mighty Matterhorn looking somehow small and insignificant.Good weather though.The view from Ben Nevis,Scotland and Britain's highest mountain is much the same as it looks down on everything else around.I was also feeling pretty bad by this time,bringing up loads of yellow and green slime in between sucking in huge gasps of thin air so I wasn't too bothered about the views.Can`t beat altitude for clearing out the lungs.
I do remember a client climber with a guide.The client had a small oxygen bottle and a mask with him,which I thought was a bit over the top even in my knackered state.He was having the more enjoyable summit though,no doubt about it..The guide looked attentive but slightly bored.Safe to say this wasn`t his first time up here.
We didn't stay long ,everyone keen to get back down again.A few thousand feet lower we started to feel much better and a bigger sense of achievement took over.We`d done it and saved our holiday into the bargain.Hooray for that extra week off.
Back down in Chamonix we dressed in our best gear,a newly washed tee shirt and socks,then hit the town.You could get "un grande beer",about four pints in one giant glass tankard.We ordered one each.
They were so heavy the barmaid could only carry two at a time,probably cursing daft tourists under her breath as her legs buckled walking towards us.
It was a great night and we staggered back to the tents with a different kind of influence hampering our progress. .Back down here at low altitude the gravity seemed suddenly fierce and some of us sustained more cuts and bruises reaching the campsite than anything the hill could throw at us.
Finally a word must be said about culture shock.One of the great delights of going anywhere abroad is the difference.Its a big part of why we travel... to experience new and different aspects of life far from home.Large numbers of tourists though tend to change the very places they go to by their attitude towards the places and objects around them.Too many want them exactly the same as they are used to where they live.It happens all over the world and erodes the very things that make different cultures so exiting.
I was both secertly delighted and appalled travelling though France and Italy years ago at the number of hole in the floor toilets both in campsites and fancy restaurants. Some campsites had a few token UK style sit up toilets but you could never get on them.The continentals seemed to love them with a passion.These flat models are perfectly ok if you are fit and healthy but anyone elderly ,obese or disabled must find them a nightmare.I think they are for the most part getting replaced now but for a long time these were standard issue over most of Europe.The only thing we had against them was the lack of any handholds, just polished slippy tiles all round the cubicle walls if you lost your awkward squatting position suddenly after a few cheeky pints. The French and Italians may have great food ,wines, perfumes and fashion but we at least have the better toilets I believe.Mind you....Could this simple thing be the reason why most continentals have a less excessive drinking pattern than the UK Perhaps?.That , the price of alcohol and usually much smaller glasses in restaurants.
Culture shock number 2 was our expressions hanging round the open air swimming pool in Chamonix.We discovered this oasis after Mont Blanc and went in a few times.For young guys brought up in a cold northern climate where our women even in summer normally wear tee shirts and waterproofs outdoors this was like Valhalla for four returning heroes
Topless mums and even grown up adult daughters sat round the sides of the pool on sunbeds,reading books and enjoying the rays.To them it was completely normal all this.Meanwhile we tried and failed to look the part of nonchalant and uninterested men of the world while swimming or splashing about.For their part, when they acknowledged our presence at all it was with a dismissive haughty sigh.No one can do superior rejection better than a French female.I may be wrong here but I don't think four tiny, smelly backpacking tents would impress them much as nighttime surprise accommodation so we thought it pointless to even try.We didn,t care if they all looked down at us.Climbing Mont Blanc was enough. Good views of the surrounding mountains though from down in the pool :o)
Govan public baths were never this much fun.