Getting Lost on the Aiguille du Tour – A Festival of Choss

Another blast from the past migrated to the new site…

Apls (5 of 5)

The Aiguille du Tour and the Tour Glacier are far left.

“Everything is MOVING!” my inner voice shouts, compounding fear and dread at the situation I find myself in. This is the bit of alpinism I don’t like, the feelings of vulnerability and nakedness. The deep unease of being somewhere really dangerous with no way to escape other than to carefully move through it. My climbing partner Dom and I are trying to climb the Table du Roc Ridge on the Aiguille du Tour one of the smaller mountains in the Mont Blanc Range and have gone off route a bit. Unfortunately the couloir in which we now find ourselves appears to be constructed of rock with the natural consistency of Wheatabix. 

Piles of shattered granite lie everywhere, a loose morass from boulders the size of cars down to fine sands waiting for something, or someone to dislodge them into the abyss and on to us. It could be anything, a settling caused by a minute thawing of snow and ice as the sun rises over the horizon and its rays strike the upper sections of the couloir. Already I have heard a stone whistle unseen past my head like a bullet. Looking up all I see is more of the same, a tottering pile of choss, from which any minute something could detach and kill us.

Objective dangers (factors which you can’t really control) have always been a nagging doubt in my mind putting me off alpinism. The fact that however good you are or how carefully you plan your days something outside your control can kill you is remarkably brutal. To die because at that point in time a serac decided to collapse, or a stone fly down the mountain through the space you occupy for a few seconds or minutes seams so arbitrary, so pointless, and to me so disturbing, it overshadows the great joys I get from being in the mountains.


The Table du Roc is just below the apparent right (south) summit. The true summit is about 400m further along the ridge.

Generally routes with high objective danger are well known, obvious; if you must climb them you can minimize the risks by getting there early before the sun hits the slopes when the risk of stone fall or serac collapse is lessened by cold. Of course the best way is just avoid the routes altogether; the Gervasuti Couloir on the Tacul looks a fantastic route but I have no intention of spending hours with those 10,000 tonne seracs perched over my head waiting to calve onto me.

Some objective dangers are inescapable if you want climb in the mountains, snow covered crevasses are an accepted risk of the sport, but one which can be vastly reduced by roping up; although it must still be terrifying to fall through into one! You can never eliminate objective danger but you can reduce it to a level where it is no longer an overriding concern impinging on your enjoyment (I don’t for example worry that when I walk in the woods a tree branch is going to fall on me but it could, and does happen occasionally).

Mountains are dynamic entities alive with change, and would be shadows of themselves without it. The spires and runnels which catch the eye and draw the foot are the result of nature sculpting the land with its tools of wind, rain, ice and thaw shattering and shaping the rock over eons, covering the mountain with detritus drawn inexorably down by gravity.


The Aguille du Chardonet clocked in evening cloud from above the Albert Premier Hut

I’ve digressed however, and need to explain how I managed to find myself feeling tike a mouse in a bowling ally. The start had been almost civilized, a late-ish rise at 4.30am from the warmth and comfort of the Albert Premier refuge; the cloud which had clung to the peaks the previous evening had evaporated during the night leaving the mountains stark against a black sky. Across the Tour Glacier the magnificent shape of the Aiguille du Chardonet dominated the view. High on its ridges tiny pinpricks of light move in the dark, signs of life in this barren world from a party of four who had left at 2.00am to climb the Forbes Arete.

Our objective is more modest, the Aiguille du Tour a peak of 3,540m it’s spiky twin summits more austere and brutal looking than the glamorous Chardonet not having the dressing of white glaciers to clothe its naked rock. From the base and staring up you can just see the giant table of rock that gives our chosen route it’s name; a breakfast bar for giants on the roof of the Alps.

A quick scramble over the moraines of puts us down onto the quickly shrinking Tour Glacier which fills the valley between our peak and the Chardonet, but is now seemingly in full retreat in our warming world, freeing more and more rock from millennia it’s icy prison. All the glaciers in the range are much smaller than one hundred years ago and Dom a more frequent visitor has noticed changes in the past few years.


On the glacier approach

In alpinism you do a lot of walking! Having roped up it’s a slow trudge up the frozen river of ice, crevasses stand out black and stark against the white surface. Thin slivers of nothingness over which I step unable to resist the urge to look down and peer in to the fathomless depths below; voids like some terrestrial black hole.

We think we get to the start of the route, the guidebook had been singularly unhelpful on this point saying something like: “start at a couloir, climb to the ridge and then to the table”; unfortunately there appear to be lots of couloirs and ridges to choose from. Moving together Dom leads the way up into the couloir we selected as the best bet, I follow about 20m behind; although we are joined by the rope we are each in our own little world of concentration focusing on movement and control of handhold and foothold in this 3D landscape. 

The climbing is easy but quite loose, and the anxiety begins to build. After about 150m the gully broadens into a small amphitheater and this is where I think we went wrong. I spot an easy looking gully out right Dom a slightly harder one left which leads to a bigger couloir above. We go left into chose central.


Celebration du Choss!


I think this is about where you came in. The next hour was a deeply unpleasant experience as we picked our way through what can only be described a festival of loose shattered rock only attached to the mountain by the vagaries of friction and melting ice. Dom climbs excellently knowing anything he knocks off is going to come straight down and hit me. I’m less successful, a badly place foot and the rock shifts then collapses under my weight, there is silence for a second then two rocks are falling, then three. Within seconds  we can see a cascade of stone crashing down the route we’ve just taken. Dom and I watch silent until the sounds of the fall fade away “Shit I hope nobody is following us; actually, thank fuck there is nobody above us”.


The gully is strewn with loose rock

It’s with relief we reach the ridge, solid rock, sturdy and secure, the climbing and with it my mood change as the views open up and the sun warms my body and lifts the nervous tension of the last few hours. Above is perched the table, a massive slab of granite supported on a small pillar of rock, getting onto it is supposedly the crux of the route. A few minutes later following a bit of yarding up on in situ gear and a climbing move best described as the “fish out of water belly flop” I lie exhausted on top of the table.


Stood on the table with the Chardonet in the background


From now the rest of the day is a romp; working our way along the ridge the climbing is superb, weaving in and out of the spikes and flakes of rock, looping the rope this way and that way for protection from the voids either side. The moves are never hard and the rock is good; this is what I love best about alpinism the joy of movement through spectacular and beautiful terrain. I try to dawdle stopping to admire the contrast in colours, white snow, brown rock, and blue sky.

Far below is the green trench of the Chamonix valley it’s floor hidden from view, beyond it the wall of the Aiguille Rouge mountains, peaks which tower over our campsite but from our current vantage point look small and devoid of the snow and ice of the Mont Blanc Massif. 


A climber on the final section of the ridge

The south top of the Tour is a couple of small slabs of granite, Dom and I sit for a while  surrounded on all sides with spectacular views. This is the first time I’ve ever topped out in the Alps and seen the ground fall away on all sides. Finishing on a proper summit feels like a much more complete experience than the routes I’ve done before which finished at ill defined points with true summits towering above them.

From so high the other mountains take on a different appearance, across the glacier the Chardonet which still out-tops us by about 300m is no longer the towering peak it was from the hut. From here I can trace the ridge line that marks the watershed of the range, snow falling one side destined to flow west the other side east, both entombed in a glacial river of ice. I’ve always climbed for the views, the space, and the landscape rather than the gymnastic and technical difficulty. It’s for minutes like this that I return again and again to the hills.


On the summit with the Aiguille du Argentier behind


Chardonet, Argentier, and the Tour Glacier; the prominent ridge of the left of the Chardonet is the Forbes Arete

We drop off the back of the Tour, its normal ascent route being a short scramble down to the glacier and perhaps one of the most frequented routes in the Alps. The snow is now soft and slushy in the sun; T-shirt weather at 3000m. The vast Plateau du Trident stretches out before us as parties of little black dots clustered at neat intervals apart move slowly over it’s surface like ants, roped parties of climbers returning from today’s objectives.

Were now in Switzerland, standing on the Trident a glacier that flows north east opposed to the west flowing Tour Glacier where we started this morning. We cross back into France by the Col Sup du Tour a short rocky step crossing the watershead of the range and marking the border between France and Switzerland. A well beaten trail through the snow leads down from the col and back to the moraine with the mountains towering above us once more. It’s been a good day.


Descending towards the Col sup du Tour



Looking towards the Tete Blanche


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