I left you yesterday anticipating a big day of routine skills training in fine weather.
We should have guessed shouldn’t we?
Today didn’t dawn fine. At 6:30 it was snowing and whited out. We couldn’t see a thing. It was still like that at 7:00 and 7:30.
The plan for the day was to walk to the Tour Ronde (Round Tower) about 2 hours walk away across the glaciers. At 3792m it offered an introduction to alpine climbing of all grades and the walk would refine our rope and crampon discipline. But if it was a whiteout the walk out would be slow and the climb fun factor would be reduced. More importantly a storm was now forecast for 3pm and we needed to be back at the refuge by then. Alpine storms are not to be trifled with. In the event we agreed to wait until 8:00 and then decide whether to stick with Plan A or stay and climb locally. The issue was that a trip to Tour Ronde was about 4 hours return and the climb was anticipated to be about 3 hours. If we didn’t leave by 8am we wouldn’t be back by 3pm.
At 8am there was no change but the latest weather forecast suggested it would clear by 9am. So we set off through the murk. By 10:30 despite the odd clear spells and a reduction in snowfall (it was now hail) it was still generally murky. More importantly our guide had checked the latest forecast and the afternoon storm was likely to be earlier than 3pm. We could have continued but decided that we didn’t need to risk being caught in the bad weather. The objective of the day was to train, not to get soaked on an unnecessary folly. So we returned towards the hut.
The idea was to find another challenging climb close to the hut which we could tackle in indifferent weather and in the event of the storm materialising, we could beat a hasty path to the refuge.
So it was that at about 11:30 our guide said we were to do the Aiguilles de Marbrées Traverse.
The Aiguilles Marbrées (Marble Needles) is a group of rocky spires in spectacular surroundings on the border between France and Italy, not far from the Rifugio Torino.
There are two ridges of spires; a long South Ridge and a shorter but steeper East Ridge. Either can be climbed but climbing to the peak of the East Ridge and then traversing the Aiguilles and descending by an abseil from the South Ridge is particularly demanding. So of course that’s what we did.
Following a quick bite to eat and some snacks and drink at noon, our brilliant guide David gave the thumbs up and we were off.
David led. Roped behind him at about 6m distance was my room mate and co-Mont Blanc aspirant Stephen, with me roped close behind.
The route was immediately steep with some challenging stretch moves on mixed terrain, ie snow and ice on sharp granite. Slowly we made our way up, sometimes all 3 of us moving together and sometimes with Stephen and I being belayed Alpine style. This involves the belay rope being wrapped around rocks to provide a friction belay. This is much quicker than the more methodical placement of ‘gear’ such as pitons, chocks or other means of providing protection. It requires a lot of skill and trust.
After 20 minutes or so David offered us a choice of the hard route or the less hard. Naturally we opted for the hard. This involved a very committing move beside a fearful drop.
There was some interesting language spoken between words of encouragement. It wasn’t necessary to mention not looking down! That I am writing this tells you we were successful. Apparently this was the crux of the route and earned the entire traverse, full of other challenging and committing moves, an overall grading of AD+. Once safe, there were some hearty congratulations. Stephen had never climbed anything like this before. While I had done some hairy and airy Alpine work in the past I had never climbed above AD-. I didn’t take a photo of the move itself as my hands and knees were shaking too much. In fact it never crossed my mind as I was too busy cursing the laughing David, who had skipped over it and assured us we were well belayed.
We continued to the peak and posed. The distance to the ridge below may be seen in the photo. To be clear that’s not the ground. We were on a pinnacle above the ridge.
Thereafter I was delighted that David asked me to lead several sections of the traverse which comprised some very airy snow ridges no more that the width of 2 feet, and some 6 inch wide ledges involving a very close relationship with granite to maintain balance and numerous clambers over and around granite flakes many of which were overhanging. David of course led the most tricky. Here are a couple of views:
At one point there was a short slip. It wasn’t especially dramatic as there was a ledge not far below but Stephen was relieved that the Alpine belay system worked. David and I arrested the fall within a metre or so and Stephen, very calmly and purposefully front-pointed back up to the icy ledge and continued the route. Needless to say I didn’t release my vice-like grip on the granite to take a photo.
Eventually, after two and a half hours of exhilaration, fear and profound relief, David abseiled Stephen and I off the South Ridge and we made our way back to the Torino Hut for some refreshment.
David had been extraordinary and shown immense trust in Stephen and I. What we had just achieved together was far more demanding than Mont Blanc. This was of course David’s purpose; to show Stephen and I what were capable of. He already knew as he had tested us, quietly and supremely professionally, yesterday.
Come Sunday and Monday when, weather permitting, we will head to Mont Blanc, we shall be in exceptionally good hands!