Monday, 25 August 2014

The Midi-Plan Traverse (AD)

I will admit that maybe I am not the best person to plan a 'gentle' day...

We had climbed the two previous days with no prior acclimatisation and Anna was feeling a little exhausted. The Midi-Plan Traverse sounded a steady day in principle, given that there would be little height gain or loss once we had climbed from the Cosmiques hut to the ridge descending from the Midi Station. Technical difficulties we anticipated would be low, plus I had traversed the first part of the ridge a couple of times before so had some beta to back this up. The routes was graded III for seriousness in the Damilano guide, indicating "a long route with a difficult descent. Maybe some objective dangers" but this I attributed to the length of the ridge, with limited options for making a quick escape in poor weather. The forecast looked no cause for concern though with only cloud expected in the afternoon. By this time I anticipated we largely have completed the route. We also planned to descend the Glacier d'Envers du Plan to the Requin Hut and then onto the Montenvers railway rather than backtrack all the way to the Midi Station, thereby reducing our time on the ridge. The Philippe Batoux book estimated 3:30 hours to the Aiguille du Plan and then a further 4 hours to reach Montenvers so with an early start we expected to be in Chamonix by the evening. At it happened it would not arrive in Chamonix until the third day...

The Traverse

We left the Cosmiques hut at 5am and shortly after were greeted by a fine sunrise. As with the previous two days the snow conditions were perfect although the temperatures were only just maintaining freezing now.

Early morning panorama

Our early start meant we were a significant way along the ridge by the time the first cable car arrived, although only one other party made tracks in our direction. We followed an existing trail which made going easy and where this became the steeper the snow became stepped. We moved together on a relatively short rope following the exposed ridge which rapidly dropped away on either side of us, intermittently stopping to admire the fantastic panorama. Grandes Jorasses looked magnificent.

View back to the Aiguille du Midi

Once at the Col du Plan we dropped the coils and moved together maintaining a handful of runners between us. We couldn't locate the abseil from the first rocky section on Rognan du Plan and so instead we skirted along the snow slopes on the Southern side. Here the snow was much softer and less stable... A sneak preview of what was to follow. Cloud thickened as we approached the top of Rognan du Plan, then unexpected snow began to blow in from the North. Visibility soon dropped to less than a rope length, and the wind picked up a little. Nothing of major concern though - it was just like a regular day out in Scotland now.

Climbing above the Col du Plan
Before the Rognan du Plan descent
Skirting the initial small abseil on Rognan du Plan 

Route finding down the south side of Rognan du Plan proved less than straight-forward. I started my abseil from the first collection of tat that presented on the ridge but 30m below I found no opportunity to continue. We made a 20m traverse further right to another assortment of hanging tat. Two further abseils down a steep corner system took us to the bottom (one more than expected overall). It didn't look attractive to try and retrace.

Descending from Rognan du Plan

The snow conditions on the South side were a marked contrast to what had largely gone previous. Firm neve had given way to soft, unstable snow that didn't lend well to moving together. On the plus side we were out of the wind. We made a belay of sorts. I then lead out right towards where the Col Supérieur du Plan would lie. It's exact location currently a mystery in the white-out. Carefully I kicked in steps whilst stabbing the soft snow slightly pointlessly with my axes for some sort of reassurance. I skirted beneath the compact granite that offered little in the way of runners.

At 55m I found a belay, after which it was Anna's turn to continue into the murk. I could see Anna's anxiety levels were creeping into the red and so we agreed to forego the summit and to head down as soon as possible from the col. I wasn't that bothered about continuing to the summit unless we were both happy to climb the final section and I certainly wasn't about to leave Anna sat in the snow waiting whilst I nipped up. The snow slope above the col would probably be easy but there was a short rocky section to the summit and no doubt the round trip would still take a reasonable time. The possibility of worsening weather was also playing at the back of my mind together with how far we currently now were from anywhere.

By now it was after 11am so we were way off track. Realistically we were aiming for the Requin hut rather than Montenvers, although we hadn't openly acknowledged this yet. We still hadn't found a trail leading down yet... maybe there wasn't a trail and we would need to navigate down in poor visibility.

With Anna's pitch completed there was still no indication as to where the descent route lay. The col felt close at hand though as the granite walls of Rognan du Plan were coming to an end. I nipped around a small rocky band and was delighted to see a clear trail in the trail heading straight down. What we didn't know was the the poor state of the glacier below...

Descent from Col Supérieur du Plan 

The steepness of the descent combined with the wet instability of the snow meant it was safer to face inward for the first few hundred metres. We crossed the bergschrund and dipped beneath the cloud of icy fog. The steepness eased up but soon the glacier became heavily crevassed. The trail weaved back and fourth in order to skirt each crevasse in turn. Without the trail we would have lost a lot of time navigating the maze. Then a crevasse that was partly filled-in necessitated us to enter it's jaws, descend a short way, and then leave it by similar means.

Just below the bergschrund

Entering the crevasse

Beyond the crevassed section the glacier steepened a little bit for 100m or so. The snow thinned out to expose hard ice littered with loose rock. Below this point the angle eased back, however between these two areas lay a short barrier of acutely broken ice. There looked to be no obvious way of avoiding the broken section and with the trail having dissolved with the snow the best thing seemed to be just to head straight down and work it out at closer quarters. Our crampon points superficially scratched the surface of the ice so we opted to abseil from a nearby boulder on the premise of saving time and avoiding the precarious descent.

I started my rappel descent. The broken section looked more unpleasant the closer I became. Fortunately towards the end of the abseil I spotted a better line of escape 30m to my true right. Here thin passage of snow skirted the adjacent granite walls to escape onto easy snow slopes beyond. I traversed in its direction but this left the rope kinking wildly at a couple of places above me where it hooked itself around the glacier debris. Anna did her best to straighten the rope on second but despite this the rope pinched itself behind a rock just below the abseil point. On the plus side our new point further right had a better coverage of snow above us so nipping up and freeing the rope and then descending proved an easy task. More time lost though...

The abseil

For the time being the way became much easier but ahead of us we could see the glacier once again dropped down more steeply out-of-sight in all directions towards the Glacier du Tacul , which still looked a long way below. We followed the trail across a broad snowfield to where it swung sharply left onto a more baron section. Here the snow thinned and the trail faded but judging by it's initial bearing I was pretty confident that the way off the glacier lay to its true left side. Straight down the middle towards the terminus I anticipated meeting seracs. We followed this leftward bearing towards the lateral portion. Here it became steeper, less continuous, and more precarious. Again we needed to uncoil the ropes in order to drop down a short icy step. Then to our relief we spotted a cairn on the lateral moraine ahead. We climb off the glacier and just beyond lay two more cairns. We felt overjoyed to finally be off the ice. It was now 3.30pm. The hillside was steep but clearly we had found the start of a trail that would lead us down to the Requin hut. A short way beyond we found the start of a sequence of thick ropes leading down the mountainside to an isolated smooth snowy glacier below...

Our cairn
...Note the steepness of the glacier behind us

We descended the ropes in sequence, hand over hand. The snow field below looked dirty and rotten and maybe a little mushy. Anna was first down the final rope. She stepped on the edge of the snow in just her boots, believing it soft enough not to warrant crampons. Next moment she was skating down the slope on her backside, with limbs flailing, in the direction of a nearby bergschrund, which she promptly swallowed her up head first. She dropped about 2 metres onto a ledge where she managed to claw enough of the ice with her fingertips to stop herself travelling another 6m further to its terminus.

Anna fell in here...

She hauled herself out and then sat in shock for about the next ten minutes. I did my best to comfort her by pointing out that it was at least a dead end so the worst case scenario would maybe have been just a few more bruises. Plus maybe falling in the hole was better than skating all the way down the glacier??

We crampon'ed up and descended the snow slope towards the right-hand side and back onto the moraine. The gradient eased up. We passed a couple of water pipes indicating the hut was close at hand. We joined a clear trail and then just beyond this sighted the huts at close quarters below.

A couple of men working on the exterior of the hut were the first that we met. The hut looked disconcertingly inactive but thankfully it was still open for business. But only just as the staff were in the throws of packing ahead of an early departure in the next few days. The main communal room was littered with belongings. The summer had been a bad one for business, due to the almost incessant rain, and with the glacier being in such a poor state they had not expected any more climbers to descend. In hindsight, knowing the condition of the glacier, we would have not descended.

Rain was due later in the evening and throughout the next day but we lost any urge to descend by foot all the way to Chamonix immediately. Instead we unpacked our bags, ordered some food and beer, and settled in...

Day 2

True to form, it rained through the night and into the following day with little let-up. The rain was too heavy to consider pushing on regardless. We hoped that maybe there was a chance to make a dash for it during the mid-afternoon when reportedly there would be a minor let-up but in reality this came too late and anyhow proved to be too brief. We passed the time reading and playing board games...

Day 3

When day 3 arrives you start to reflect that maybe the planned easy day had encountered complications...

Thankfully by the next morning the rain had passed and for the first time there were views of the surrounding peaks starting to emerge through the clouds. Finally it was time to make the descent to Montenvers. Navigating through the crevasses on the Glacier du Tacul was no easy task. The lady at the Requin Hut had advised us to stay left through the crevassed section. Maybe we had missed the point but this didn't look practical and so we zigzagged a tedious line through the higher middle portion of the glacier that felt a little futile at times. We needed to jump a couple of crevasses, which Anna was far from amused about. But once through the broken section things became much easier and the only real distractions were the wonderful views and periodic rockfall. The descent took far longer than expected due to the difficulties through the crevasses so we were very glad not to have tried the descent during later afternoon the previous day as would certainly have missed the last train. We stopped for an unsatisfactory ice cream at the Montenvers station then headed down. One things for sure was that we had earned a well-earned trip to the Micro Brasserie de Chamonix in the evening..

Descent from the Requin Hut
Dent du Geant
The Dru & Aiguille Verte
Descending the lower portion of the Glacier du Tacul

No comments:

Post a Comment