We arrived in Kandersteg, Switzerland on Thursday night after a long drive down in our van, with the intention of climbing a couple of Alpine peaks in the area.
Unfortunately, it was pouring down when we arrived. We looked at the five day weather forecast – showers tomorrow; then showers; heavy rain; rain; rain. It didn’t look too good. Over a meal in the restaurant next to the campsite, we discussed various options which ranged from staying (and seeing what happens) to driving to the Atlantic coast of France to go surfing. We decided to stay.
The next day had low cloud, but no rain, so we went for a bumble up to the Oeschinensee – a nice blue lake in the mountains. It was very misty, but we had a good walk. The plan the next day was to do another walk up to a small peak, but it started to rain after breakfast, so we had a rethink. We drove to the train station, onto the train and were transported south through the mountain. It was still raining in the Rhone valley, so we drove through the St Bernard tunnel into Italy and ended up in Valnontey near Cogne. It was still raining but the weather forecast looked much better.
Unfortunately, I’d only brought guide books and maps for the Bernese Alps, so I was a bit stuck on what to do. The next day, we decided to go for a bumble up to Alpin Money and think about it. We had a great walk up to the snow line with no rain! The weather forecast was looking good, so what to do?
I’d always wanted to do the Arête de Rochefort which I knew is best accessed from Courmayeur in Italy. I managed to get a very slow Internet connection and found out that the route starts from the Refugio Torino and it should be 4 – 6 hours up to the Aiguille de Rochefort (AD). Sounded good to me and Glenys thought it would be OK. We booked the hut.
Once the plan was decided, we needed to get acclimatised by climbing up above 3000m and to spend at least one night at altitude. The only feasible option seemed to be to spend a night up in the Refugio Vittorio Sella (2600m) and walk up to Col Lauson at 3300m above the hut.
The next day we went for a short walk to the adjacent village to stretch our legs. We took a cable car up from the village and walked up a ridge to 2500m before starting to drop down to Lillaz. On the way, we saw a couple of Chamois and stopped for lunch overlooking Lillaz with a great view of the Lillaz Cascades. From the hillside, we had some good views of the gully (Pattiganio Artistico) where I was avalanched while ice climbing the previous year. The slopes above the gully look to be around 45 degrees - ideal for avalanches. I hadn’t been aware of these slopes because they can’t be seen when looking up from the valley. We took the bus back to Valnontey and chilled out in the afternoon with an early night to get some rest before the planned long day tomorrow.
We set off early the next morning. The two and a half hour walk up to the Refugio Vittorio Sella was busy with dogs, children and people carrying babies reminding me of the Miners Track on Snowdon. We even passed a group of people who were descending with a couple of mules carrying their gear. After stopping for a short break on the path overlooking the hut, we headed towards Col Lauson, which is a further 700m of ascent.
An hour later we stopped for lunch - it was beautiful sitting in the snow surrounded with mountain peaks and blue skies. From there it was tough going because the path across scree was covered with soft, melting snow which was over 300mm deep in places. Having to lift your feet up that high for every step at 3000m is tiring. In addition, we had to be careful when placing our feet otherwise they would slip away. A fall down the steep scree slopes would not be much fun. The path was fairly shallow with lots of long zigzags. This meant that it was easier to walk without sliding back, but it took ages to gain altitude.
At a height of 3150m, we reached a slope with shorter, steeper zigzags. The slope was 100m high and, at 60 degrees, very steep. The path was still covered with soft snow, so we were very careful with our foot placement because a slip would mean a nasty fall down the steep, rocky slope. We had no rope or ice axes, so it was a bit fraught.
We eventually reached the top of the slope, congratulated each other and took a summit photo. I then noticed that our height was only 3230m and that there was a path leading up around a corner. Glenys agreed to have a look. When we walked around the corner, we were faced with another path leading 70 metres up a steep slope to what appeared to be the summit. We pushed on and carefully made our way up the soft snow. This was worse than the previous slope. Perhaps we should have put on our crampons, but I was worried that the soft, melting snow would ball up badly and make our situation worse.
We congratulated each other again when we arrived at the top and took another summit photo. It took us three hours to climb 700m from the hut. After a quick stare at the view, we set off down again. The descent down the two steep slopes was much worse than going up – we could see how far we would fall...
Including a quick ten minute break to eat the remainder of our lunch, it took us 2½ hours to get back down to the hut. We went straight to the bar and had a nice glass of coke with a sticky cake before checking in for the night. The hut has very nice rooms with 8 people to a room on the typical side-by-side mattresses with an upper and lower platform. When we checked in the guardian asked us, “What do you want for dinner – pasta or vegetable soup?” Thinking that just soup wouldn’t fill us up, we both answered pasta. He then asked for our choice of Secunda Platta and sweet. We breathed a sigh of relief...
We checked out the facilities and discovered that they had showers which cost only €2 each – luxury! We hadn’t brought any soap so I “borrowed” some hand wash from the sink and had a nice but short shower. Unfortunately, Glenys couldn’t get her shower to work so while she was naked decided to have a strip down wash in the cold water from the sink – bbrrrr... We then sat outside the bar having a cold beer and watching the sun set behind the mountains next to Col Lauson.
It must have been the worst night in a hut ever (but perhaps they are always the worst...) Some people came in the room half an hour after we went to bed, turned the light on and proceeded to rustle plastic bags while they made up their beds with sheets rented from the guardian. Then Glenys started to snore to my left, joined quickly by the guy to my right, turning into the night into a long snoring session.
I seemed to be awake all night, tossing and turning and getting tangled up in my silk sleeping bag liner, trapped under heavy blankets that were tucked under the mattress. I must have nodded off at some point because I was awoken at 0645 by the sun streaming in through the window in the top half of the door. People started to get up, but Glenys and I managed to doze until 0715 before going with the flow because people were constantly coming in and out of the room.
Breakfast was a very sparse affair – yesterday’s dry bread with jam and some weak hot chocolate – in Swiss huts, at least we normally get a small glass of fruit juice and some rock hard cheese. We sorted ourselves out, filled our water bladders and started off up the path at 0815. It looked like everyone was doing the same walk – a long, high traverse of the West side of the Valnontey valley to a Mountain Rescue hut called Casolari Herbetet at the end of the valley. There was a large group of 30 teenagers that set off ten minutes ahead of us, complete with one guy playing a guitar as he walked off into the distance – it didn’t bode well for a quiet peaceful walk down.
In fact, the walk was very good. We passed the small Lake Lauson – more of a pond than a lake, but it was big enough, and still enough, to have a beautiful reflection of the mountain skyline. The walk then continues along a narrow path with a very steep drop off to the valley below – fantastic. It took us 3 hours to get to Casolari Herbetet (2441m), passing a few small groups and the large group that had fortunately decided to stop on a wide area for a break. Glenys spotted some Edelweiss flowers at the side of the path which was nice to see.
The walk down to the head of the valley at 2,000m was fairly pleasant with lots of gentle zigzags. The walk back to Valnontey was long and tedious taking us another 90 minutes to get to the village. We were both suffering with stiff legs and bruised feet as we plodded down the long shallow path back to the van where we chilled out for the afternoon.
That night, I found it hard to get to sleep, tossing and turning and worrying about climbing the Arête de Rochefort. How hard would it be? Not having a guide book means that I don’t know where the route is. Hopefully there will be someone there with a guide book, otherwise we’ll just have to follow the herd.
We drove to Courmayeur and caught the cable car up the mountain. I was hoping to stroll out of the cable car and into the hut, but there is a very long, steep set of stairs to navigate before you get to the hut, which is a bit of a shock to the legs at 3300m...
We checked in and put our stuff into our room, which are very good with only 4 people to a room in two separate bunk beds. We mooched about and went onto the patio outside to enjoy the sun and the view. The dinner was filling and we were in bed at nine o’clock.
We didn’t have too bad a night. The two guys sharing our room were pretty quiet when they came in and, even better, didn’t snore. This didn’t help me sleep - I still kept waking up worrying about the route, getting up on time, etc, etc.
Our room mates got up at 0430 and quietly left. We got up at 0450 and went down to breakfast at 0500 – dried bread and jam as usual with some orange juice. It took us ages to sort ourselves out – there’s so much to do (and there was no rush because it was still dark.) Harnesses on, boots on, gaiters on, sharing out climbing gear, checking that we have water, food, warm clothing, map, compass, etc.
We walked out on to the patio and put on waterproof jackets, hats, head torches, crampons and sorted out the rope. So it wasn’t until 0550 that we stepped onto the crunchy snow of the glacier. The sky was just starting to lighten, but we still needed our head torches. We set up the rope with 20 metres between us with me leading. A group set off before us and I resisted the temptation to follow them, instead setting off down a trail in the snow towards the Dent du Geant that was just becoming visible. It’s always a bit disconcerting being in the front...
After 20 minutes, it was light enough to turn off our head torches and we were warm enough to remove our waterproofs and thick hats. The path across the glacier went past five tents that belonged to eight Polish climbers who had been on the same cable car as us. Looking ahead, we could see them a mile ahead of us walking up towards the Dent du Geant with several other groups.
The glacier steepened considerably just after the tents and we decided that it would be better if Glenys led us and set the pace rather than being forced to walk at my pace. An added bonus from my point of view is that the lead person is more likely to fall into a crevasse...
At half past seven, we reached the rock ridge that was the next part of the route. There’s a four metre wide gulley which leads up to the ridge. It's 45 degrees and 150 metres long, but very soft snow so it was a bit of a plod.
We left our crampons on and started the scramble up the rocky ridge with bits of snow and ice in places. We caught up with some other climbers who were going up what looked to be a particularly hard section. I looked around and saw a possibly easier route to the left. 25 metres up my "easier" route, I realised that it was all very loose rock and dirt with bits of rock in it – not nice. We had a nasty 15 minutes struggling up this terrain with a few anxious moments as our feet slipped away from us. We finally traversed back onto the correct route and life improved. The scrambling was good fun being interspersed with snow channels to trudge up. Half way up the ridge the clouds rolled in and started to swirl around the Dent du Geant. We arrived at the Pointe Salle (3875m) at nine o'clock in thick fog....
We took a few minutes to look at the Dent du Geant drifting in and out of view in the thick mist. Two British lads came up from the start of the normal route on the Dent du Geant and told us that there was a big queue on the climb. They headed off up the Arête and soon disappeared into the mist.
Glenys and I set off along the very narrow ridge of the Arête de Rochefort. The first section is 18 inches wide, with very steep (75 degree) slopes to either side. The soft crumbly snow didn’t help confidence. After 10 metres I turned to Glenys, “Now remember. If I slip and fall to the left then you have to jump down the right hand side.” She just nodded. Perhaps it wasn’t the best time to mention falling.
After ten minutes of walking slowly along the knife edge Arête with 10 metres of visibility, Glenys asked me, “How far are we going?”
I looked at my altimeter which showed 3870m. I was aiming for the Aiguille de Rochefort, ½ kilometre away with another 130m of ascent. “How about another hour and see where we get to?”
“OK” came the reply.
We carried on for another 10 minutes and I could feel that Glenys was getting slower as the Arête went up and down quite steeply. The weather wasn’t getting any better and our altitude was still only 3900m. I decided that she’d probably had enough. “You’re not very happy are you?”
“OK, let’s turn back.” I could feel the wave of relief radiating from her as I walked back to where she stood.
We had a quick rest on a fairly wide area and then set off back along the ridge at quarter to ten. The mist had been getting thicker and we never saw the Dent du Geant again.
We retraced our route down the ridge (avoiding my little detour) and had a quick bite to eat half way down. It started to snow as we descended making me glad that we hadn’t carried on. The descent down the snow gully was awkward because of very soft snow and the two kilometre walk across the glacier was very tedious with the added complication of very poor visibility. We had a slight detour 400 metres from the hut when I decided to follow a track that took us upwards towards the top cable car station. It “felt” wrong so I pulled out the map and soon had us back on track. We arrived back at the hut at quarter past one.
Thirty minutes later, we were on the cable car going down to the valley. We were happily ensconced in the campsite by three o’clock. We went out for a nice meal and crashed out.
We woke up the next day to brilliant blue skies – typical! We took some photos and set off through the Mont Blanc tunnel at half past ten, arriving at back home in the UK just before midnight.
It was an interesting trip with lots of moving around – having a van was great because we weren’t tied down to one place. I was quite surprised by the difficulty of the route up to the Pointe Salle under the Dent du Geant – a real mountaineering route in its own right.