As Tim and I huffed and puffed up the final 55 degree snow slopes, the sun beating down on our backs, we crested the summit ridge and were rewarded with one of the most remarkable views I have ever seen. I had just accomplished an objective Sophie and I have had since we first came to Chamonix on our own, 4 years ago: to climb the Aiguille du Chardonnet. We were rewarded with a view across the whole Mont Blanc Massif with the north faces of the Droites, the Courtes, and the Aiguille Verte, each over 1000m, towering in front of us.
The Aiguille du Chardonnet
Up at the top of the Chamonix valley is the small ski resort of Le Tour which, in the summer, turns into a huge downhill mountain biking arena. It is also the starting point for the popular hut, the Albert Premier, and great beginner peaks; the Aiguille du Tour, and Tete Blanche. The Aiguille du Tour was Sophie and my first unguided alpine peak 4 years ago, and we have been up and stayed at the Albert Premier hut several times for other peaks since.
The walk in, when you take the lift, is a pretty easy 1.5 hour traverse around some lower hills until you turn the final corner onto the Glacier du Tour and, right in front of you, you are confronted with a huge and mighty looking mountain, the Aiguille du Chardonnet. Its massive size and steep sides left us awestruck the first time we laid eyes on her and, after researching the possible ascent routes, it was confirmed that this was a real mountaineers mountain; no easy ways up, a committing and long descent, and countless stories of ill-prepared parties being helicopter rescued by the brave PGHM.
With the peaks starting from the Albert Premier, you begin your day with an alpine start, a pre-dawn beginning to take advantage of firmer snow conditions. Sophie and my first foray up the Aiguille du Tour had us leaving the hut at 4am and, as the sun broke over the horizon, we were rewarded by seeing the Chardonnet in even more splendour; glowing orange with the morning sun. We decided there and then, with very little experience, that one day we had to climb the Chardonnet.
The right place at the right time with the right partner
As you may have read, I’ve been giving myself a bit of a hard time recently, not feeling like I’ve been achieving enough out here and not climbing as well as I should. I’ve been putting that behind me but I couldn’t shake the feeling that, prior to leaving on the Alpine Coast to Coast, I wanted to climb one last big route in Chamonix.
I have been climbing with a lot of new people this summer, one of whom, Tim Oliver, more than most. Tim arrived in Chamonix in December leaving a very promising career in finance to follow his dreams of steep skiing and mountaineering. We have similar aspirations and experience and so, when there appeared to be a two day weather window in this rather wet summer, we decided to team up onto something a little bigger.
The weather was still not very reliable in the afternoons so we wanted to choose a route with an early start and thus, hopefully, and early finish. The Chardonnet is on a lot of climbers tick lists and so it didn’t take long to settle on as our objective. There are two popular routes to climb; the Forbes Arête, a stunning ridge climb along the east ridge; and the Migot Spur, a beautiful, steep ice and rock spur that splits the north face. We were after something a little more committing and so opted for the Migot Spur and set about getting the gear we needed for the snow, ice and mixed ground we would be climbing on.
‘Fessing up to Sophie
Having settled on our objective, I had one fairly major hurdle; this was supposed to be Sophie and my mountain, one that we had talked about climbing together for a long time. I needed to get her approval. Thankfully, I have the most understanding wife ever. Though disappointed that she wouldn’t be climbing with us, she quickly told me that I can treat this as a recce for when we go back to climb it ourselves. What a winner!
Climbing the Migot Spur
The weather has been pretty atrocious all summer and, as we caught the last lift up and set off on the walk up to the hut, there were thick grey clouds spitting rain down onto us. On the walk in we just hoped that the weather report would hold true; a very clear and so cold night leading to a beautiful and crisp morning.
There are two approaches to the start of our route from the hut, a long and circuitous detour up and round the edge of the glacier or straight across it. The risk of the direct approach is that, this time of year, it is a minefield of crevasses and not to be undertaken in the pitch black of night by head torch. Upon arriving at the hut, we headed down to the glacier to see if the glacier was filled in enough for us to take the short route. The bad weather meant that glacier looked good, we were on!
We needed a very early start as the descent is both long and deteriorates quickly in the morning sun, so at 2.30am my alarm went off and I sneaked out of the dozing dorm room. After a quick bite to eat we geared up and headed down onto the glacier. There were at least 4 parties ahead of us showing up as little dots of head torch lights across the glacier.
Tim led off which gave me the opportunity to sit back a little and he did a remarkable job negotiating the heavily crevassed glacier; a few jumps over bottomless caverns and detours around monster gaps led us to the base of the route with just enough light to make out the hulk that is the Chardonnet. It was 5.15am by the time we made it to the bergshrund, 2 hours 15 minutes for a normally 1 hour 30 minute approach. We both felt fine with this as the 3 to 4 hours needed to climb the spur would still bring us out on top in time.
I took the lead here and headed up out onto the spur, as we gained the ridge we were greeted by the most incredible sunrise, coming up over the Eastern Alps; silhouetting classic mountains like the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa chain on the horizon. I returned my gaze up to our objective and smiled at the beautiful looking mixed climbing that lay ahead.
We had intended to pay out the full 60m of our ropes and climb together where we could, then pitch what looked difficult but we were both feeling strong and confident and the terrain didn’t look too taxing so we opted to carry on climbing together with just 15m of rope between us. I could place protection where needed and, when I ran out, Tim could swing past and take over using the gear he had been collecting.
The climbing was varied and, though the ice was quite rotten in places, we moved quickly together and started to make very good progress. Before we knew it we were a short way below the top of the rock spur and Tim was tired of me kicking snow and ice onto him. He took over the lead and we finished the mixed ground before heading out on the final 55 degree snow slopes up to the summit. The sun was up by this point and, breaking out of the shade allowed us to warm up our hands and charge up the final 200m to reach the summit.
We had moved quickly and efficiently up the whole route and, when we made it onto the summit, it was only 7.55am – the route had taken us just 2.5 hours. Catching my breath a little and sorting out the rope, I looked up.
The view. Wow, I have never seen the Argentiere Glacier from this side and I was not disappointed. The imposing but alluring Droites, Courtes, and Aiguille Verte, with their 1000m+ north faces rose up before me I thought: One day, maybe even this winter, I want to climb these behemoths.
We knew the descent was long and involved and so, after summit Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, we set off back to the hut. I could see why we needed the early start, the descent was made up of poorly bonded snow on steep slopes that would only get looser later into the day, I wanted to spend as little time here as possible so we made haste.
Down climbing, traversing, and then a number of abseils finally brought us onto the more level ground of the Glacier du Tour and the last, downhill glacier crossing back to the hut. Leaping over crevasses nearly 1m wide gave us pause for thought for the blind walking we had done in the same place just that morning. After 4 long hours of descent under the beating rays of the sun and 9 hours since we left it, we made it back to the hut.
The gear I used to climb the Chardonnet
Sophie and I have been very lucky to gain the support of some amazing brands on our Alpine Coast to Coast with Haglofs UK supporting us with outdoor clothing. We are both long time fans of their gear and I had some new pieces to test out in a proper mountain environment and I was not disappointed.
On my top half, with the unpredictable weather, I opted for the Roc Jacket, a full hardshell jacket. I was a little worried I would get too hot and sweaty as hardshells are not always very breathable but this felt great on the whole route – the jacket kept me warm in the cold north face shadows and didn’t let me overheat when the sun finally hit us and we were working hard up the steep final slopes. The slim cut also meant that the jacket never got in the way of any movement and was extremely comfortable throughout.
On my legs, I tried out the Skarn Pants, a midweight softshell trouser that performed excellently as well. Though a little warm on the walk up from the lift the day before, out on the glacier and then on the route they were perfect. The stretchy fabric not just meant ease of movement on high step ups, but it also meant that when my crampon technique was poor and I caught my trousers, rather than tearing or cutting them, they stretched and sprung back into place without a mark. That is pretty cool!
We were going for a lightweight approach so I also took with me the Essen II down jacket for emergencies which kept me warm, without taking up much space, when we were recce-ing the route and back in the hut, as well as their fleece mid layer but this wasn’t really needed on this route. All of this was packed into the Roc Speed 25 litre climbing pack, an awesome lightweight mountaineering pack that was comfortable all day long. Thanks Haglofs!