It’s always a pleasure to help a family spend time together safely in the mountains. I know some of the best visits I’ve had with my dad have been on climbing trips. Having time to relax sitting around huts, or in camp without the electronic distractions of daily life lends itself quite well for connecting with people. This week I climbed in France and Italy with Rob and Sonia, a fit father-daughter-duo that were new to mountaineering.
When Rob and Sonia arrived our weather forecast looked grim. Almost every day it showed unsettled air, with precipitation, electrical activity, and high freezing levels. Our acclimatization took a bit of weather dodging, but luckily for us the storms generally waited until later in the day or the evening/early morning. We spent our first day off the Grand Montets tram, with an introduction to cramponing, self-arrest, and movement on rock terrain wearing boots and crampons.
The following day our next venue was the Glacier du Tour. A two-hour hike led us up to the Albert Première hut, which is perched on a lateral moraine providing fast access to the glacier, to review crampon techniques. After dinner in the hut, we turned in early trying to get some sleep before our first route the next morning. At 4 am we were drinking coffee, followed by lacing up our boots, clicking our headlamps on and heading to the Aiguille (needle) du Tour (the town below the peak). A couple thousand feet of gain led us to some rock scrambling, in the Col du superior, where we crossed into Switzerland and gained the Trient Plateau.
Traversing across the upper reaches of the Trient glacier, we soon left the ice and got onto the summit pyramid of the Aiguille du Tour. A half hour of climbing over the classic alpine rock terrain landed us on the 3,500 meter peak.
After descending from the Glacier Du Tour we found our forecast had not changed. An unsettled forecast with electrical storms does not lend itself to safely ascend Mont Blanc (the peak of choice for this trip). The long committing features, and exposure to rock fall on the normal route of Mont Blanc require an ideal forecast for a safe ascent. Fortunately Chamonix has a central location making it easy to travel to Italy or Switzerland, which can offer better forecasts when the low pressure seems to be focused on Chamonix. After discussing our options and closely monitoring the weather models we made the final call to capitalize on the less dramatic forecast to our south and head to Italy for a try at Gran Paradiso.
The National Park of Gran Paradiso offers a nice contrast to Chamonix. There are no lifts inside the park, and the climb to the hut takes about 2 ½ hours covering 800 vertical meters, thru an idyllic larch forest and into the sub alpine. Once you pop out of the trees the view of Gran Paradiso (the highest Italian peak) is noticeable to say the least.
After a night in the Chabod hut, again a 4 am wake up had us on the move. The summit day involves about 4,500’ of vertical gain, some steep snow/rock terrain and about 11 miles round trip hut to hut. The pre-dawn morning started off with the classic summer European forecast of “Sultry conditions”. Meaning warm, hazy, and generally unsettled. We climbed quickly, with good conditions, and made it up on top with clear skies, and excellent views.
After a bit of time on top with Madonna, and some of the friendliest summit conditions I’ve experienced, we rappelled off the summit block and started our descent.
As we started down we watched the cumulous cloud growth overtake the Chamonix ridgeline, and Mont Blanc, adding validity to our decision to change objective. Due to the fitness levels of our guests we beat the afternoon weather with time to spare, and despite a poor forecast with timing, flexibility, and efficient climbing we managed to only get hit by a couple raindrops and climb two engaging peaks of the Alps!
- Alan Rousseau