Sunday 12 August 2012

Aiguille du Plan, Dent du Crocodile & Dent du Caiman traverse

With a few days of perfect blue skies forecast, and with Tom back in the Valley after a few months away, we were both pretty psyched to get back into the hills and get something big ticked. We had a day up the Midi on Tuesday to have a look at conditions and ended up climbing the Pointes Lachenal and Arete a Laurence in the process, both of which were fun as ever.

Having sussed out that everything above 3600m (ish) was plastered with snow, we decided to go for the traverse of the Chamonix Aiguilles, a route I'd been thoroughly hammered by a few years back, and which I'd always wanted to finish. 

The route can begin either at the Midi, or by climbing the Grand Charmoz first (much harder), and takes in the whole of the skyline in between the 2 peaks whichever way you do it. We opted for starting from the Midi, and made quick time over to the Aiguille du Plan, having tagged the summit and descended back to our bags less than 3 hours after leaving the Midi.

Tom heading for the Aiguille du Plan

From there, things started to slow down, as the route to the summit of the Dent du Crocodile was supposed to be PD and take half an hour, but rockfall meant that we had to climb some horrific loose choss and then up a much more difficult ridge to the north. The descent is pretty confusing too, and involves some tricky abseils and route finding. 

Parts of the route are pretty exposed!

Me climbing terrible choss on the way up to the Dent du Crocodile. Photo Tom Grant

Me on top of the Dent du Crocodile. Photo Tom Grant

Luckily the climb up to the Dent du Caiman is great, with golden granite leading up to one of the pointiest and most exposed summits I've ever seen. However, the abseils on the descent are so full on that in the 3 line description of the Aiguilles traverse in the British Alpine Club book, there is virtually no detail on the route save for, "...including a spectacular piece of rappeling off the Caiman".

It certainly lives up to its reputation...

From the bottom of the Caiman we traversed beneath a couple of minor summits via some pretty scary, loose rock, and found ourselves looking down a relatively low angled face leading to the Envers Glacier far below. By this time we knew that we weren't going to manage our goal of reaching the Blaitiere at the end of day 1, and as such would either have an enormous second day getting all the way to the Charmoz, or we'd have to stop at the Blaitiere and descend the rockfall-prone Nantillons Glacier. With neither of these options looking very tempting, and with the route so far having been a pretty tedious combination of loose rock, scary abseils and general faffing, we decided to bail. We had no idea what the face below us was, but it looked pretty amenable, and seemed to be pretty featured and we were confident it would provide abseil anchors if there weren't any in situ. 

About half way down the face, and having used a combination of in situ anchors and our own abseil tat, as well as a bit of downclimbing, we found a huge ledge with a massive snow patch. Neither of us were too keen on abseiling through unknown terrain in the dark, and so we settled down and got the bivi kit out. Although we were disappointed at having not done the route, the bivi site had an incredible view and we passed a pretty comfortable night.

Amazing views of the Grandes Jorasses at sunset

Me letting the sun soak in the next morning. Photo Tom Grant

The next morning we carried on abseiling and everything went smoothly until the terrain began to really steepen for the final 100m to the Glacier. I was leading the abs and on the second to last ab managed to go virtually to the end of the ropes without having found an anchor on the very steepest part of the wall. The terrain was in fact so steep that I could only just touch the wall, and so was left hanging in space. With no option but to start prussiking up the ropes, I started heading back up after a load of grunting and faffing, and after about 5 metres I spotted a little flake. Keen for a rest I chucked a sling onto it and clipped in, and then suddenly realised that going all the way back up the ropes wasn't going to get me anywhere as an anchor wasn't going to suddenly appear. After much internal debate I unclipped from the rope and called for Tom to head down to the flake. His face said it all, but to his credit he came down and we both clipped into the tiny sling and hung in our harnesses, feet on nothing, thinking light thoughts and trying not to shift about too much.

This is what fear looks like. Photo Tom Grant

It's up there somewhere!

Unfortunately we both felt that the traverse was a bit of a let down. It is supposed to be a major classic, and maybe things improve after the Caiman, but overall it seemed like a lot of scary abseils and climbing on loose rock. Still, 3 good summits climbed, a good time had complete with plenty of Tom banter, and one less route on the to-do list, even though we didn't finish it. Onwards.