First alpine season

Having looked across from the top of the Midi télépherique in 1982, a number of NPC had determined that they should climb Mont Blanc in 1983, as it was essentially just a snow plod. Although I wasn’t in that party, I’d somewhat bought into the idea, but not as a “one-off”. If I was going to climb the highest mountain in western Europe, I wanted to have a bit of an idea of what I was doing, and probably quite a lot of acclimatisation, first. Accordingly, July 1983 saw me wild camping in the Saas valley just above Saas Grund (you really can’t get away with this nowadays). I walked up past the big reservoir and towards the Monto Moro pass, then, using borrowed boots and crampons, up Joderhorn, my first 3000m peak (but at 3035m, not a 10,000 foot one). I was up the mountain before almost anyone else, and felt a real sense of achievement – that is until on my way down I encountered numerous Swiss teenagers crossing the pass in trainers, no ice axes in sight.

As the week progressed, I’d set my sights on Weissmiess as my first 4000m peak. To get more acclimatised and also get a view across to my planned route, I climbed the Almagellhorn. Although this is quite a lot higher than the Joderhorn, at 3327m, it was pretty much snow-free, and an early start saw me on top, with the peak to myself. The voie-normale on Weissmiess climbs from the south, but is quite crevassed, and I wasn’t in favour of this as a solo first-time alpinist, so my recce was intended to suss out the nominally slightly harder route from the other side.

Weissmies, from my reconnaissance peak, Almagellhorn
Looking across to the 4023m Weissmies from Almagellhorn

From my position on Almagellhorn, this (the steep snow slope on hte right side of the peak) looked OK, so two days later with an even earlier start, I was on my way. I did pretty well for time, and the route, though steep, was essentially a snow plod with nothing technical. However, having attained the SE top at 3962m, the ridge to the main summit proved unnervingly narrow, and I gave up very near the top. Merely getting myself turned round to face back down my route was something of a trial – I was just not adequately practiced in wearing crampons to cope with this stuff. This was all a bit frustrating, coming so near the top, but it certainly showed that I was coping with the altitude.

Dawn in Wysstal, on way up to Zwischenbergenpass
Looking back to the Mischabel chain from the top of Wysstal as it got light

From Saas Grund, I made my way, with a fleeting visit to Zinal (to take photographs, it says in my journal, but I don’t seem to have any) to Arolla where I expected to meet various cavers. Before they arrived, I had a wander around, taking photos, first from Pra Gra up onto the glacier below Aiguilles Rouges where I encountered my first crevasses, then over the Pas de Chevres towards the Dix Hut. Clive Westlake, John Cordingley, Steve and possibly others then headed for an acclimatisation walk to the Bricola Hut. The next day we headed up to the Bertol Hut, and the nearby Dents du Bertol S summit which didn’t need an early start. We didn’t plan on staying at the hut (we weren’t going up any high mountains and didn’t want waking up at 3 a.m.). Instead, we found an old, partly collapsed “chalet” (a shed with a corrugated iron roof) and bivouaced inside. During the night, it got quite windy, and kept slapping a loose sheet of the roof onto the timbers. So much for not being awake at 3 a.m. !

Towards the Bouquetins hut, via the Haut Glacier d'Arolla
Heading up the right-lateral moraine of the Haut Glacier d’Arolla towards our planned peak

On our rather groggy return to Arolla, we packed a bit more gear and headed up the Haut Glacier d’Arolla towards the Bouquetins Hut with the intention of climbing Point Marcel Kurz, a proper snowy peak, although at 3498m, not as high as yesterday’s rocky eminence. Whilst some chose to stay in the hut, I’d brought bivvi gear again, and had a much more comfortable night than at the Chalet de Bertol, with the added bonus of being somewhere I could watch the sun rise over the mountains.

However, owing to lying in my pit taking photos, I was slightly late up, and had to head up the route with the others in sight a short distance ahead of me, but not close enough to catch up. The summit view, towards Italy, was extensive.

Looking into Italy from Point Marcel Kurz, 3498m
View from Point Marcel Kurz

At this point, it was time to head west to Chamonix, with a view to the main objective, but on arrival, the aiguilles were plastered in fresh show and large volumes of spin drift were coming off the top of Mont Blanc, so there was a bit of a wait…

Note: Although the photos from 33 years ago are providing quite good scans, they are taking a couple of hours each to get rid of all the dust spots, so expect a few more … eventually …