Monday, 4 October 2010

Spectrum Magazine Sept 2010. The French Alps

Alpine first steps

I was brought up, or brought myself up, on a menu of Chris Bonnington, Dougal Haston and Joe Brown climbing books. As a dyslexic they had to be of interest as reading was a tough challenge for me: you should see these stories before they are edited….

When I started to climb the natural progression was from local crags to mountain crags in Scotland, then to winter climbing, the Alps, and ultimately the Himalaya. At the age of 17 I bought a rail card and headed for Chamonix the French Alpine Mecca, intending to get along the road to the Himalayas. The campsite was a hot sweaty walk from the Cham train station. In those days it was a small football pitch called Snells Field, an illegal climbers squat with a reputation for being rough and drunken. On the site was a motley crew of Glaswegians hardened in the valley of Glen Coe, a few Japanese, some laconic Yorkshire men and us. About 30 in all. We got a feel for the valley which included an aborted shoplifting attempt in the local supermarket. Incidentally I eventually paid whilst the other stuffed sausages and cheeses into the pockets and rucksacks. Not bold enough. Some creeping future guilt projected me towards the till.

On the way back to the campsite, the air bristled with electricity, and soon lightening and thunder filled the granite walled valley. The storm lasted for three days. Heavy hot air filled the forest turning the football field into a series of small tent platforms each surrounded by a moat attempting to divert the stream of under trap water.

Fun really, but soon the scene became very sober. Our Japanese tent mates had been high up on a remote route called the Walker Spur and had all died in the storm, stuck in heavy wet snow without enough protection or shelter. Their remaining friends trooped in and in silence dismantled their dead friends’ tents, and left us all of their remaining tins of food. It was a pitiful and heartbreaking sight. The Mont Blanc Massif is a beautiful, wonderful, and completely unforgiving place. Fired up by the strength of youth and with minimal experience, hundreds of young bucks like myself throw themselves into the mountains with little or no knowledge of how to survive in the high snowy Alps. More by luck then design, most survive to build up enough knowledge and instinct to manage a few routes during the hottest summer months. But experience has shown me that it’s often better to be out in the Alps during the spring or the autumn when the weather is cooler and more stable.

Two or three days after this and I find myself queuing for the Aiguille du Midi telepherique (Cable Car) with a hairy bloke from Stirling University. I have never climbed with him before but he looks the part, all Moac Tartan Shirt and full beard. And what’s more, he looked like Doug Scott, a climbing legend, and he was called Doug. What could be better?

The Frendo Spur

The Aiguille du Midi telepherique is truly a magnificent engineering achievement. In two long sections, it runs from the valley floor from 1000m to 3842m, a head spinning altitude, at break neck speed which leaves the unconditioned gasping for breath and in the first hot sweat of altitude sickness.

We get off at the mid station, below the mountain proper, and hike in the mid afternoon heat to the couloirs at the base of this classic route. A steady stream of stones are falling off the mountain thudding into the snow at the base of the climb. We wait an hour or so, and as the sun dips behind the massif we sprint under our heavy packs onto the orange granite that marks the start of the route proper. Our packs are traditionally heavy. It used to be that you would climb the first part of the route, a long rock buttress to below a long sun licked snow arête in the evening, and then rise at dawn to climb the snow arête in the frozen cool of the next morning. By pitch 3 it’s obvious to me that I am moving a little better on the climb than Doug. He is not feeling too great, maybe fatigue, maybe altitude. So I find myself pushing out in front as the sun turns from white to yellow, to orange and deep ocher blue. The Route is a magnificent 1200m long. Just as the sun decides to start illuminate some Californian surfer we reach our bed for the night, a small flat platform the size of a good-sized garden rug. We break out the primus and it splutters into life. I am pooped, and soon the tepid pasta and tea works its magic, and we drift off to sleep, the lights of Cham blinking in the valley below. The still of the night was broken occasionally by the sound of distant rock fall. These mountains are always alive.

By the light of a dimming head torch we packed our sacs and cajoled our stiff and cold bodies into action. A short pitch or two of easy rock climbing led to what could be the most perfect snow ridge I have ever seen. This time Doug is really lagging, and I lead up the snow. It’s hundreds of meters to the summit ridge and the end of the route, but I am enjoying the special place I am in. By 10am we are at the rock buttress at the top of the ridge, the last obstacle to the end of the route. This is the hardest climbing of the route and now it is rarely done, but back in the day this was the crux and the best way to finish the route. By now the Chamonix guides are on the arête below having caught the early morning cable car and are steaming up the arête to the summit rocks, their poor clients dragged along by an unforgiving leash tugging constantly at their waists. Poor clients, but the guides’ fitness is truly impressive and it signals a massive difference between the newbie and the professional. The rock buttress is a big struggle and I resort to full alpine technique, which involves forgetting style and pulling on every bit of fixed gear, slings et al. After an epic struggle with the “bitch” rucksack on my back trying to pull me off the rock backwards, I flop happily in the sun on the Ridge at the top of the route. Poor Doug is floundering below, getting slower and slower, but after much hauling and cursing we finally sit together happy and tired in the sun. 3000m below lay Chamonix all ego and testosterone. We however are spent. I have a lot to learn.

Back in the valley after a fab Alpine route above Chamonix I arrive sore footed and sun burnt back to my steamy, overheated tent in the football field that serves as the illegal campsite home for British and dosser climbers. Its kind of filthy and we sneak into the Biolay campsite adjacent for a free shower and a clandestine crap whilst trying to remain below the custodians’ radar.

The campsite is raucous tonight. All of us residents have climbed big routes during a fab week of calm, storm free weather and it’s time to celebrate. As a quieter highlander I am slightly overwhelmed by the riotous Glaswegians at the other side of the campsite. The Glasgow crews, the Todd Twins, are hard partying, hard climbing, and accompanied by Paraffin and the aptly named Harpic. My idea of fun is a six-pack and a small toke, but these boys are in full mode and have built a huge fire in the campsite. By the wee hours they are still going strong and their spirits are well lubricated by equally spiritual beverages. It is going off. I am now lying in the mouth of my tent watching the dancing and the increasing tempo of the celebrations. Some time as the night wore on the fire was being stoked by lighter fuel bottles and empty camping gas cylinders.

A new level of frenzy ensued as one of the band of brothers decided to launch a full, oversized canister of propane camping fuel onto the fire. The crowd of twenty or so scattered with shouts of “fire in the hole”. It seemed an age for the climax to happen. All of a sudden the fire exploded in a fireball, forcing shards of shrapnel into the dark sky followed by burning branches and flames. It was exciting, youthful and very funny at the time. A huge sleep alarming boom shook this part of the valley.

Having climaxed, the talking and laughing slowly subsided during the night. I admire their freedom, their sense of the abandonment of convention that I seem bound by. I love their ‘grab it by the scuff of the neck’ attitude that they display.

Sleep comes easily.

Its 8am and the smoldering embers of the bomb crater are now the only residue of the night’s antics. However something far more sinister is moving in the dawn. From my sleeping bag I hear some brisk and angry French voices, and as I open my tent door I am met by the muzzle of a machine gun and am face to face with a rather large Alsatian straining at its leash. Its handler is a member of the gendarmerie. It is a military body charged with police duties among civilian populations in France. You do not piss these guys off and they want us scum balls off this site and now. Whilst the majority of the heat is focused on the fireside camp, I pack up in silence and wonder where in hell I am now going to call home for the next couple of weeks.

Just like all refuge or squatter camps, if you move in and clear one out without actually deporting the residents, another one will soon spring up somewhere else. Deep in the woods above the telepherique station is a quiet, discreet group of plastic sheeted climbers’ summer hovels. It gains a few more residents armed with ice axes and crampons, ready to do battle in the high peaks.


  1. Hi Duncan, I don't ever recall having been in Cham. with Willie and Ewan Todd or Davie Sanderson at said site and certainly have never been evicted from the camp. I am too much of a nice boy for all that. But don't let the truth get in the way of a good story!
    Cheers Martin (Harpic)

  2. Also as you can see from facebook I have still away to go before going bald. Haha