Scrambled amongst the alps

Earlier this year, I along with the members of MIR 22 embarked on a trip to Nepal for our TMC. There we practised and learnt various skills which allowed us to tackle the mountains. The trip ultimately culminated in a summit of Baden-Powell Scout’s peak. However, for me and 3 of my other teammates, we could not get enough of the mountains and this would not be the end of our adventures. Itching for more, we would find ourselves on yet another mountain just 7 days after returning to Kathmandu, this time in India, attempting friendship peak. This narrative of chasing mountains wherever we went would continue long into my exchange semester in Europe.

            Unlike the rest of my teammates, when summer drew to a close I found myself not in the lecture theatres of NUS but in the foothills of the alps (when my schedule allowed of course. With my newly acquired skills from TMC, it seemed only right to put them to use on the mountains here. I thus made haste to the famous alps of Europe.

My journey in the French alps started as many do, in the modest town of Chamonix. A tourist hotspot abuzz with activity during the summer and winter months, it, like Kathmandu is where the budding mountaineer to the veteran alpinist gears up for the mountains. However, it could not be any different, Chamonix is a highly developed town with amazing infrastructure designed to bring you closer to the mountains. The streets are riddled with mountaineering stores, guiding companies, ski stores, rental companies, the valley is even equipped with multiple cable cars that bring you all the way up to elevation from the valley floor in a matter of minutes. The mountains have never been more accessible.

In the valley, the Mont Blanc massif was omnipresent, wherever you went in town you could always see it towering above you where it seemed to perpetually bear down on you, as if tempting you to challenge it. As the highest mountain in Western Europe and in the alps, Mont Blanc reigned as King of the alps. Its summit, would be my goal during this trip.

I arrived in Chamonix on the 7th of September, nearing the end of summer which was the prime climbing season. I knew I only had a few days to acclimatise before my summit attempt on the 10th. I therefore decided to spend as much time as possible at altitude with the help of the Aiguille Du Midi cable car, which brought you to an altitude of 3842m.

View of Aiguille du Goûter upon my arrival in Chamonix

The cable care station at Aiguille Du midi, serves as a major tourist attraction but also doubles as the starting point for numerous alpine climbs. However, as I travelled alone and was without climbing partners, I had to reach out to climbers via Facebook groups online unfortunately to no avail. Luckily I met some climbers at the cable car station and after some small talk and discussing objectives they kindly allowed me to rope up with them to head on to the glacier. It was a great opportunity for me to acclimatise and practice glacier travel again. I would find myself fortunate enough again to find yet another group of Spanish climbers the following day to climb with. Together we tackled Pointe Lachenal and Arête à Laurence. We managed the summit of Pointe Lachenal, though we only climbed along the western ridgeline and did not attempt the whole traverse from the eastern snowslope.

On the summit of Pointe Lachenal

Though only my first real Alpine climb, I managed alright and we decided to do the Arête à Laurence, before heading back. Often described as a miniature and easier version of the more famous Cosmique Arête climb, the Laurence Arête was perfect for us in terms of difficulty and length. Furthermore, the Cosmique Arête was simply too unstable due to heavy rockfall for us to attempt it, (I would however, return to the valley just 6 weeks later at the end of fall to complete the Cosmique Arête climb). I was able to pick up new skills and expand upon knowledge I had previously learnt in Nepal, though I hadn’t made my summit attempt yet, being in the mountains and being able to hone my craft made it an already fruitful and immensely gratifying trip.

On the Arête à Laurence climb

While I wasn’t up on the glacier I would spend my time chatting with other climbers in the hostel I stayed in, they regaled me with their epics and stories which succeeded in aweing not just me but the many travellers around. It made for a pleasant atmosphere to rest and prepare for my climb. As we chatted in the shadow of the mountains I would often steal glances at the massif anticipating the climb to come. Mont Blanc, itself is not visible from most angles on valley floor (at least in Chamonix), as it is hidden behind Dôme du Goûter, the shoulder of Mont Blanc. Although the mountain was never in sight it was always on my mind.

Mont Blanc

After my few days of alpine climbing off the Aiguille Du Midi station I set off for my main objective, Mont Blanc. Along with a guide and another climber I decided to climb the normal route also known as the Goûter route which is the easiest and most popular route up Mont Blanc. I started from Nid d’Aigle (2362m) and hiked up to Tête Rousse refuge (3167m) and spent the night there. I spent the hours gathering my strength for tomorrow’s summit push. Making the attempt from the lower Tetê Rousse hut instead of the Goûter hut (3815m) meant climbing over 1600m of elevation in just under 6 hours. As there was still some sunlight left I spent the evening on the rocky outcrop adjacent to the refuge, where the ironically & amusingly named Tetê Rousse beach was located. It was a cloudy day, but at 3167m we hovered just above the clouds and it looked as if there was a sea of clouds sprawled beneath our feet. Against the setting sun it made for an absolutely stunning photo.

View of the sunset from Tête Rousse “Beach”
The setting sun bathing the Aiguille Du Bionnassay ridgeline in a warm orange
Sign indicating the Tête Rousse “Beach”

The next morning I woke up early and prepared to set off at around 5am. The next checkpoint would be the Goûter hut, situated just above the Grand Couloir. Which we intended to cross early in the morning when the cool temperatures kept the rock more stable. The Grand couloir, known as the most dangerous and deadly section of the climb, is prone to massive rockfalls which had the ability to sweep entire teams off its face if climbers found themselves caught by the calamity. Teams had to cross one by one and often ran across this section as it was so dangerous. This year had been especially deadly, the heatwave earlier in the summer made the mountain highly unstable; this meant more rockfall, more crevasses and sadly more accidents on the mountain. The situation got so bad that the French government actually closed the mountain huts and the Goûter routes not allowing people to climb Mont Blanc as it was deemed too dangerous. Fortunately temperatures stabilised a little and the route was reopened at the tail end of august just as I was about to make my climb. Regardless, when we found ourselves at the foot of the Grand Couloir I felt a little tense. Fortunately the climb passed without incident.

Although we managed the crossing of the Grand Couloir without incident, the climb to the Goûter hut was still an extremely steep one involving quite a lot of scrambling. We reached the ridge where the hut was located just as day was breaking and was able to catch the rising sun.

Catching the sunrise just as we reach the ridgeline

After some rest at the Goûter hut we set off again, for the summit this time. The Goûter hut is nestled just beneath Dôme du Goûter which towered over us. From this angle at its base, Dôme Du Goûter blocked Mont Blanc. Though I could not see it, I knew the summit lay just behind and couldn’t wait to start climbing. From the valley floor I was always looking up at Dôme Du Goûter, even from Aiguille Du Midi I was always looking across from it and now standing at its base it felt almost surreal.

Dôme Du Goûter, a large wall of snow and ice seen from the Goûter Hut

Upon reaching the top of the slope we finally had a clear view of the summit, our goal was finally in sight. The summit of Dôme Du Goûter was slightly to our right but we decided not to grab it and continued on toward the summit. 

Summit in view

From here we descended slightly before climbing up again past the Vallot shelter and onto the bosses ridge. The climbing here got much steeper and we had a short tussle with strong winds forcing us to stop and keep our heads down for awhile but we inched ever closer to the top. After crossing some narrow ice bridges we soon found ourselves making the final steps to the summit. We had made it, we were standing on the roof of Europe. I felt immensely relieved and elated having reached the top, I prepared for this climb alone without a team or vetted training plan. The training process was definitely a lot different from the weekly Bukit Timah hill training or Wednesday technical sessions. Training had to be interspersed with visiting tourist attractions as in the weeks leading up to the climb I went travelling around Europe. This meant clocking in runs after a full day of hiking in national parks or after days of travelling. Ultimately the entire experience was extremely satisfying and to top it off, it was a cloudless day and we had an uninterrupted view of the surrounding mountains. We could even see far into Italy and Switzerland and could see the Matterhorn rising high above its neighbours.

Summit Pictures!

However the climb was not over and we still had to make the descent to the Goûter hut, it was a long slow plod down which felt neverending. Upon reaching the snow slope at the top of the Dôme Du Goûter, the Goûter hut was finally in sight and we made haste for the comforts of the refuge. Many other teams had made the climb as well and the atmosphere in the hut was rather jovial. Congratulations were exchanged and talk was merry. The only thing was that everyone spoke in French, unfortunately, despite my disastrous attempts to pick up the language I remained quite illiterate and the French was unintelligible to me. Regardless, I did not need to understand the language to enjoy the company and the amazing climb. After a sumptuous dinner and after one last mountain sunset we headed back down to the valley, completing the climb.

Sunset from the Goûter hut

Although the climbs were not the most difficult or crazy routes, I learned a lot during the entire trip not just in alpine skills and techniques but also about climbing culture. The style of climbing is so different from that in Nepal. There are no porters here to carry your equipment up the mountain but at the same time there are mountain huts here to aid your ascent. You have to be a lot more self-sufficient but you also travel a lot lighter.

Interacting with the climbing community here was also another amazing experience. Travelling alone and without partners, I stayed in a hostel while in the valley which allowed me to cross paths with many strangers and experienced climbers. I met many veteran climbers hailing from all over the globe who were more than willing to share their trove of experience and wisdom.

Before I left Singapore, my team and I often joked about how I could give back to the club by being “MIR’s ambassador to Europe”. This somehow became a reality, I would often share with climbers about how we have a budding mountaineering community here in Singapore despite our lack of mountains. In turn they would tell me about their climbing experiences back home and insist that I bring more MIR members on climbs there.

All in all it was a great trip, from meeting members of the mountaineering community outside of NUS, to learning new skills, to climbing in a different environment. I learnt that wherever there are mountains there is also an amazingly helpful and knowledgeable community of climbers ready to back you up. Through the highly varied nature of climbing I learnt that every climb yields a different experience but always a memorable one.

Taking that lesson to heart, I would see myself return to the valley 6 weeks later during my semester break hoping to climb some more peaks. However, the bad weather coupled with logistical issues would prevent me from doing as such. Despite this I managed to climb the uber classic Cosmique arête route as well as some multi pitch routes around the valley, with another amazing member of the climbing community. The mountains are always calling and you should not be afraid to reach out to other climbers to answer that call, you never know what you may learn.

Paul Chow

MIR’s unofficial “ambassador to Europe”

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