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The Midi-Plan Traverse, a journey high above the Chamonix Valley.

It all began on Sunday evening just the day after I arrived in Chamonix when we were going out for a meal – Mum, Lee, Ron and I. The day had been fairly good with Lee and I walking up to the Plan du Aiguille whilst Mum took the cable car up to meet us there. Ron stayed down in the valley to catch up on his washing. He had already been out there for two weeks, had done lots of cragging, climbed Mont Blanc and Mont Blanc du Tacul so needed an easier day and some clean clothes!

The plan was to walk along the Balcon Nord then back down to Chamonix with the option of taking the train down if we were tired only by the time Lee and I arrived the day was getting on and it seemed unlikely that we would make the train down. I was using the clock on my mobile phone and had forgotten that it was still set to British time rather than French so we were an hour later than I had thought! Mum didn’t seem to keen on walking down at the other end so she opted to walk back down with Lee from the Plan du Midi station whilst I trotted along the Balcon Nord towards Montenvers. The weather was perfect and I stopped at the viewpoint overlooking the Mer de Glace for a while just absorbing the feeling of being back amongst the mountains. Onwards down to Chamonix through the pine trees which offered a pleasant escape from the sun. We all met up back at the apartment to shower, change, consume some wine then off to a restaurant but first, a visit to the weather station.

The forecast said "beau temps" which was a good sign and my suggestion of the Midi Plan traverse seemed to get agreement from Ron so we planned for the early cable car – six o’clock start for seven. The traverse is the obvious mountain crest running high above the Chamonix valley from the Aiguille du Midi to the Aigulle du Plan. It is a popular route which is described as giving a good introduction to the surrounding mountains. It was late by the time we got back to the apartment and hard to think what to pack in my rucksack– perhaps that was the wine! By twelve I must have been asleep but it was too soon before it was time to get up again. Why is it that the harder I try to be quiet, the more noise I end up making. Anyway, all set but very little food to take as the shops had been closed the night before so some bread, margarine and lots of water were about all we could find.

The cable cars had started running at six so there were no horrendous queues and soon we were up at the Aiguille du Midi and heading out to the familiar ice tunnel and the descent of the scary ridge. It feels much better to do this unroped and at my own pace but does take me a bit of effort to collect my nerves together. The ridge was broad this time with almost a wall of snow on the Chamonix side so the exposure felt less than on past trips but I was still glad to reach the level col below. We moved quickly along the broad ridge to where it narrowed then roped up to traverse a knife-edge snow ridge which was very delicate and took a lot of concentration. But with blue sky above and the sun shining, it was the perfect place to be that day and soon we were at the little col where we had turned back the year before. Last year the snow conditions had been poor, the ice hard and gritty but this time, it was ideal and we wound round the rocks on snowy ledges with the picks of the axes biting well into the ice. Last year we had just lightweight walking axes which lacked the weight to give good purchase on the rock hard ice but this year, our mountaineering axes proved much more suitable.

A broad gully brought us back onto the snowy slopes above then a little rocky step then onto the Rognon du Plan. Interesting this as the guide book mentioned nothing about abseils yet in the back of my mind, I knew there was something that was described as tricky to climb or needed an abseil depending on which direction the traverse was done. And here we were perched on a rocky platform with what looked like a few abseils to do to reach the snow slopes below. One abseil, a bit of down climbing, another abseil then a traverse across a rather mushy, icy slope and back onto the broad snow ridge again. From here we could see the summit and it looked temptingly near but distance is deceptive.

We climbed on and up towards the summit rocks where after a quick drink, left the rucksacks and scrambled up to the summit. Ron was quite happy to stop at the belay just below the summit block but how could we come so far and not go and sit on the top even if just for a minute or two. And after seeing others there throughout the day, I wanted to be up there myself. We had an interesting climb up to the belay with Ron completing a very strenuous heave up a chimney. This move was not going to work for me so I slid up and into the chimney until I could reach out a foot behind me to push and squirm onto a flat rock to the right then wriggled round on my stomach to reach the belay where Ron was standing looking slighty puzzled by my method of climbing! The summit block needed a mantleshelf manouvre to get onto it which Ron could do and I couldn’t so more squirming and, being honest, a bit of rope pulling, got me up too! Views all around, back along the ridge to the Midi, down to the glacier below and so much further afield – towards Mont Blanc in one direction, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in the other.

On the way along we had been chatting to two guys from Denmark, only we thought then that they were German. They had asked if we intended dropping down to the Requin Hut and we nonchalantly replied that we would see how the day went. We didn’t like to admit that our route planning had been vague to the extent of non-existent and not much thought had been given to getting back other than reversing the route along which we had just climbed. As it was now four o’clock and the sun had been on the snow ridges all day softening them and turning them to mush, they did not appeal as a means of getting back. Crossing a melting, soggy glacier didn’t appeal much either but it had the advantage of being safer. So with the snow clogging up our crampons and making every second step a stumble, we slipped and slid down to the glacier which would take us back to the Requin Hut.

When we were on the summit block of the Aiguille du Plan, we had seen some climbers having difficulty crossing the bergschrund, the huge crevasse between the glacier itself and the mountain. This was a bit puzzling and it made me approach the gaping crack carefully. It was wide and crumbly with no safe-looking snow bridge to cross so I inched forward and put a foot to my left which went further down that I felt comfortable with so quickly pulled it back again to where I had been safely standing before. I yelled to Ron that I was about to jump then whoomph, went straight down into the crevasse as my snowy platform collapsed. I must have shut my eyes as I fell because I opened them expecting to be hanging free in a huge cavern of ice. Instead I saw that there was snow below and that I was hanging with the rope pulling at my harness but with my rucksack pulling me down, feet were somewhere in the air. I must have bashed my backside as I fell as a huge bruise appeared later! I yelled up to Ron that I was ok and would climb back out and for some reason I felt it important to state that I would climb out on the other side. Pretty obvious really as I did not want to have to try and jump across again. So I sorted of righted myself and thrashed about with my axe on the other side until I flopped out and back onto the glacier. And into the sun. it was incredible how cold it was and I was only in the crevasse for a short period of time. Ron crossed cautiously and safely then we only had to move quickly across the path of some threatening looking seracs to reach the part of the glacier which was described as broken and an “interesting” descent.

Hours later after winding through crevasse after crevasse we reached the rocks above the hut. The glacier has retreated so much that there are now metal stanchions and footplates to help in the ascent or descent of the slabs exposed by the retreating ice. (Warning: The glacier has retreated a lot more since the hot summer of 2002 and many sections of the ridge can be tricky when very icy ).

By now it was getting gloomy too and we were tired but we were nearly there. One last snow slope to cross then the moraine at the bottom of the glacier and we were just above the hut. Some British guys were bivvying and we stopped to chat. They had an ideal site with stone walls, it really looked quite comfortable and dry but the shelter provided by the hut appealed and the thought of food appealed even more so.

It was well after eight by the time we reached the hut but the guardian welcomed us and prepared the most delicious soup, potato omelette and chocolate pudding. We didn’t last long after that but headed up to our allocated slots on the huge platform bed to sleep. Only it wasn’t a peaceful night as a storm raged around the hut with thunder that started as the occasional growl, became a roar that a lion would have been proud of then grew into a continuous loud rumble. The lightning lit up the room and from where I was lying, I could see the mountains outside flashing in the bright, white light. Not a night to be bivvying! The storm must have given up at some point during the night as it was dry in the morning and I must have got some sleep, I think!

We had a slow start, breakfast and chat with the two Danish guys before starting the descent down to Montenvers – more metal footplates and lots of marmots emerging from their rocky holes to bask in the sunlight and stare at these strange, colourful creatures making their way down the mountains on two legs instead of four. Then we spent the descent spotting bits of debris in the glacier. There are an amazing number of broken skies. I wonder what befell their owners stuck halfway down the mer de glace with only one ski! An ominous looking pile of material prompted closer inspection. Ron has the grim fascination with anything that looks like it may be a body so he had to go and have a closer look and I think he was disappointed to find it was only an old sleeping bag. I was relieved that was all it was!

Having forgotten to buy more water at the hut, we were both very thirsty by the time we arrived at Montenvers and very glad to meet up with my Mum amd Lee, bags of baguettes and bottles of water!

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Copyright Fiona Chappell 2003-2012 (updated Wednesday, 10. October 2012)