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Destination: CHAMONIX, France

On top of the world

Summer is the best time for a trek up Mont Blanc in the French Alps
By CHRISTINA WILLIAMS -- Special to The Sun


CHAMONIX

CHAMONIX, France -- My carabiner snagging on the steel cable with each step, I felt exposed and vulnerable as I hastily cramponed across the Grand Couloir. The bombardment of boulders from above began again. I shuddered as the missiles thundered by, disappearing in the icy depths below.

Mont Blanc towers over the Chamonix Valley. At 15,770 feet, it is the highest mountain in the Alps. Straddling France, Switzerland and Italy, it can be seen for miles on a clear day.

It is also one of Europe's most popular climbs.

Perennially crowned with snow, the "White Mountain" was originally called Mount Maudit, the "Cursed Mountain." A massive conglomerate of rocky pinnacles, domes, glaciers and alluring peaks, Mont Blanc is a mecca for climbers of all ability levels.

My aim was la voie normale, the easy way up. From a technical point of view, the normal route is relatively simple. Given the advantage of good weather and barring any unforeseen occurrence, all that is needed is a knowledge of basic rock scrambling, the correct use of crampons and ice axe, and an ability to walk roped up.

It has, however, been described as "a long plod."

My guide was the no-nonsense Brede Arkless. Many years of fighting for recognition as the only female, UIAGM-registered (International Union of Mountain Guides -- in French initials), British professional guide in a male-dominated world appeared to have made her intolerant of female weakness. My plaintive pleas for breathing stops fell on deaf ears.

By 8:30 a.m., the starting point for the climb, Nid d'Aigle (Eagle's Nest) at 7,782 feet, was the scene of excitement. The Tramwaydu Mont Blanc (TMB) rattled to a halt and climbers of all nationalities disembarked into the already warm air. The TMB is a tiny rack-and-pinion train that originates from Le Fayet at the west-end of the Chamonix Valley.

A long procession began to snake upward. The fastest climbers soon disappeared above, blending into the slope.

To the left, the Aiguille de Bionnassy, bathed in cool shadow, jutted like a silent sentinel, guarding the summit dome. As the ascent was made -- past the plateau of the Tete Rousse Hut, across the Grand Couloir, up to the Gouter Hut -- this gradually became a dazzling white, illuminated against the sky.

By 2 p.m., we arrived at the Gouter Refuge. Like many high huts in the Alps, it is a simple metal shelter with an outhouse.

Perched precariously on top of an almost vertical 2,000-foot rock scramble, it promises weary climbers a well-earned rest.

Boots removed, our feet found respite in clogs provided by the warden. We stowed our gear and consumed our fill of bottled and snow-water, soup and tea, which were for sale.

The lucky few, who had reserved their bunks months in advance, claimed their spaces. Others sat at tables, hoping to pay the same price to stretch out in sleeping bags on the crowded floor. This would be, Brede assured me, a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Later on, these people would be able to buy a hearty meal. I am told that night begins early here, because the wakeup call is 1 a.m.

But today, Brede announced she planned to continue to the unguarded Vallot Refuge to spend the night. At an altitude of 14,310, it is less than 1,500 feet below the summit, and would allow us a much later start in the morning. Crampons on, rope attached, ice axes rhythmically crunching, we followed the well-trod path along a ridge toward the Dome du Gouter.

We were alone now. Everything was peaceful. The sun shimmered in the afternoon light. A breeze tickled my face. To the east pointed the spire of the Aiguille du Midi. The Aiguilles Rouges, a range of red pinnacles, jutted to the north. Behind them, rows of grey-purple peaks disappeared into the distance.

The climbing became steeper. To the left, huge crevasses gaped as if to lure unwary climbers into their dark depths. We skirted the rounded Dome du Gouter, crossing a bergschrund. We slogged down a gentle slope, up a steeper incline. As dusk was falling, we reached the Vallot Hut. A rocky scramble led us to the trapdoor. Unsteady and exhausted, I pulled myself up the metal steps and descended into the dingy interior.

Inside, about 10 Gore-Tex-clad figures were trying to turn the garbage-covered floor into home. We claimed body-sized areas. I had forgotten my headlamp and had difficulty finding my necessities in the dark. As the French and Swiss cooked elaborate meals on camp stoves, we swallowed cans of pop, handfuls of peanuts and Mars bars. Crawling exhausted into my sleeping bag, I immediately fell asleep, seemingly suffering no ill-effects from the altitude.

"They are coming. It is four o'clock." A French accent jerked me into unwilling consciousness. Peering outside, I was amazed to see a string of illuminations winding toward me. We roped up and rapidly joined the procession.

Concentrating on forward motion, I felt hypnotized by the steady crunch of crampons gripping the snow. Beams from headlamps danced on the slope ahead. Gasping for breath, I was frequently forced to step aside to allow others to pass. We passed the Grande Bosse and Petite Bosse, and the Tournette rocks. We followed a narrow ridge, precariously dodging groups of climbers who were now starting to descend.

Suddenly we were there -- on top of the Alps, the highest point in Western Europe. I had achieved a long-held dream.

Panting, I plopped down on top of my pack. It felt wonderful to sit down and to be there. Finally, I gained the strength to get up and look around. A long, broad summit housed the rapidly increasing hordes. A stranger thrust a bottle of champagne into my hands. I took a sip and passed it on. We identified the famous summits that stood out clearly in the crisp morning air -- Matterhorn, Monte Rose, Aiguille Verte.

After half an hour, Brede became anxious to descend before the afternoon heat caused excessive rockfall to begin.

Arriving at the Grand Couloir at midday, we discovered the cable had been snapped. We had no choice but to make the 100-yard perilous crossing with no safeguard.

Thrilled and relieved but very tired, we boarded the 2:45 p.m. train down the mountain.

(First featured: August 29, 1998)

BOTTOM LINE:

GETTING THERE: Many airlines fly to Geneva from the U.S. Check with a travel agent for flight information. Chamonix, which is about 50 miles southeast of Geneva, can be reached by bus, train or rented car.

WHEN TO GO: Mountaineering in the Alps depends on weather. The best time to climb is mid- July to mid-September.

GUIDE SERVICE: I booked my guide through Geoff Arkless Mountaineering for about $200 per day. Contact Arkless at the Riverside Restaurant, Betws-y-Coed, Gwynedd, LL24 OBN North Wales; 011-44-690-710-650. For more information on guided climbs, contact the American Alpine Institute, 1515 12th Street, Bellingham, WA 98225; (360) 671-1505.

WHERE TO STAY: A variety of accommodations are available near Chamonix including hotels, pensions, dormitories, a youth hostel, chalets and campsites.

INFORMATION: Contact the French Government Tourist Office in Montreal at (514) 288-4264.

(First featured: August 29, 1998)

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