Monsoon Season in Chamonix: A First Alpine Summer

Written by Jono Hawkins on 19 Jun 2016

It was a pretty straightforward journey from Bristol to Chamonix on 6th June, meeting Ash and Adam at Bristol Airport before flying out to Geneva and hopping on an early EasyBus through the foothills of the Alps and into Chamonix. One by one we bought some food for the next couple of days from Super U, and then caught the bus up the valley towards Argentiere. Having checked in at the campsite and pitched our tents (I dumped my kit in the tent set up by Claire a few days earlier) we lay in the sun, admired the sunny view of the Aiguille Rouges opposite the campsite and relaxed.

Late afternoon, Claire arrived back at the campsite from her Conville Course and told us what we could expect over the next three days. After cooking dinner in the communal covered area and talking we made our ways to bed, excited about the upcoming course. Following on from the introductions to everyone on the course and the Guides, we were driven into Chamonix to the Montenvers train station. The plan the Guides had in mind was to take us up on to the Mer de Glace and cover some moving together skills on the ladders, basic crampon and axe technique then possibly ice belays and crevasse rescue if the weather allowed.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t and after we had made our way down onto the glacier it was beginning to spit with rain, and the clag was racing up the glacier towards the train station. Trudging back to the station via the ice cave, we spent the rest of the afternoon practising crevasse rescue and ascending ropes in the shelter of the station - these were all useful skills to learn. Because the course is run from the campsite, the evenings provide an amusing sight of people practising the skills they had learnt during the day. Day two was spent at the Gaillards Crag, just out of Chamonix. It’s a great venue - and popular too - but we spent the day climbing and it was good fun. Having sport climbed before, and been climbing for several years, it didn’t feel like there was an awful lot to gain from this day, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Fortunately, a good weather spell on the third and final day of our course meant it was possible to head up onto the Aiguille du Midi and onto the Vallee Blanche glacier to put crevasse rescue and moving together into a real situation. After practising crevasse rescue in a snow bowl below the Cosmiques hut, we traversed the Arête à Laurent, which finishes at the hut, before dipping down back onto the glacier and up to the lift station via the Midi Arete.

Unfortunately after this the weather took a turn for a worse. Alasdair, Mule and Ben arrived and we tackled the Via Corda Alpina (or way of the alpine rope) which was a cool, bolted scramble half-way to the Montenvers train station. Later in the week we tried our hand at ice climbing on the Mer de Glace, however this was also thwarted by the weather, a helicopter rescue from the Montenvers steps and poor communication which left the group who got the train sitting in the cafe for a long time while those of us who walked up had assumed they would already be on the glacier!

As one day of ‘better’ weather approached, people prepared to get up high and plans were made to tackle the high winds. After some faff in the ice tunnel and venturing out onto the Midi Arete, Claire and I decided to turn back and we met Ben, Lucy and Mule in Chamonix to go cragging. It seems like this was a wise decision since Ash, Nathan and Adam ended up queuing for a long time (almost 8 hours!) on the Cosmiques Arete in strong winds.

It’s a shame not to have had the opportunity to truly put into practice what I had learnt on the course, and writing this now I feel that may be why I came away from the Alps less enthralled than expected. However, the time spent with everyone on the campsite, cooking dinner, exploring the Chamonix valley all made it worthwhile and I can’t wait to get up to Scotland over Christmas and back out to the Alps next year!