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THE TRAVERSE OF THE MEIJE

Image for article THE TRAVERSE OF THE MEIJE

Our man in Chamonix, mountain guide MARK SEATON, reports on one of his standout climbs of the season; the traverse of the Meije.

Everything went like clockwork. I scooped Charles Sherwood up from Geneva Airport just as he walked out of the terminal. We then drove south towards Grenoble before heading up the vertiginous road to La Berard; a road where key sections have disappeared and ended up as rubble a kilometre down the adjoining ravine. The road now has passages where if you missed the bend, and the fluorescent warning string didn't stop you, then you would certainly die; but only after having time to reflect on your inability to judge the width of your car.

There are only a few times that I can remember having such a stellar forecast. Conditions were perfect. We arrived in La Berard and parked right by the sign which pointed to our accommodation for the night; the refuge du Châtelleret. Before we set off we stopped for (and ordered) an omelette in French. Yet once again it was served by a Frenchman who refused to speak his native language but insisted on speaking my language rather than replying in his own.

The weather was hot. So hot that I decided to set off wearing only my underpants, which I argued doubled as shorts. The rationale was that I could keep the rest of my clothes fresh and dry, as we planned a three-night, four-day expedition. Fortunately, mid-September is quiet so my eccentricities weren't spotted by many.

Two hours later we were at the hut, beautifully peaceful with us and only four other guests. Next day we made our way to the Refuge du Promontoire (3,082m). Our thinking was if we arrived early and broke the trip into two days, then it would provide good gradual acclimatisation. This is particularly important for the traverse of the Meije because you spend about eight hours at nearly 4,000m, rather than just bagging the summit and turning tail.

My preferred way of acclimatising is to do it while sleeping. After I woke up in the late afternoon I bumped into fellow British Mountain Guide, Neil Johnson and his client Roger. Their plan was the same as ours. This refuge was full, with loads of people taking advantage of the perfect forecast and equally perfect conditions. It is a great hut with very friendly staff who gave us a good briefing on the route conditions and weather forecast, in what was evidently a nightly ritual.

Breakfast was at 4am, and we were away by 5am. The route description states: "Turn left out of the hut and climb up between the hut and the toilet." Something has possibly been lost in translation, but the first obstacle after leaving the toilet is the wonderfully named "passage de Crapaeu." It was not long before I followed a set of cairns in the pitch dark. With the benefit of hindsight, it was all going too well because these were not the cairns for the route. Instead I took us up a ‘variation’. Possible to climb, but not by me. Neil, on the other hand, set off later than us, spotted us backtracking and seamlessly took the correct line. Although this was mildly humiliating it was ultimately good because we travelled along pretty much together from that point on.

You know you’re on a world-class route when the route has features which are famous in their own right. After the Passage de Crapaeu you have such names as the ‘Dos Annes’ which provide relatively simple but beautifully exposed rock climbing in a classic setting. All the time the goal is to reach the foot of the Glacier Carré. Here you stick on your crampons and follow the upper edge of the glacier to the Breche. From here, it’s back on rock where you follow a vague line up terrain which is not simple, nor does it allow for any significant belays. Eventually we reached the ‘Cheval Rouge’ where you find yourself straddling a rocky ridge with La Grave several thousand metres below.

Five minutes later we arrived on the summit of the Grand Pic, or what is known as the Pic Occidental. Now there was the not-so-small matter of making the traverse of the entire ridge. The first thing to do is negotiate a couple of rappels, and we joined forces with Neil and Roger. There is a real need to be efficient and ‘alpine quick’ because it is still a long way. The route drops onto the cold north face where the snow changes to boiler-plate ice. In 2007 the local Guides decided to fix a cable around the Dent Zygmondy, but still even with the cable it has a very remote and serious feel.

After roughly eight hours Charles and I arrived on the final summit; the Doigt de Dieu (3,973m). The view back down to the Promontoire Refuge would be a BASE jumper’s dream, because of the uninterrupted drop.

From the top we descended broken ground to a fixed rappel point, then walked along the ridge to the next (not obvious) rappel. According to the guidebook this rappel should dump us on the glacier. Yet any guidebook which mentions glaciers in its descriptions is nearly always out of date, due to the devastating effect of global warming. And so it was; we needed a third rappel to avoid going into a giant 30m high bergschrund.

As often is the case, the last rappel was the most complicated because it involved a big swing to the right to gain some indifferent DIY anchors. The net result meant pulling the rope through on the diagonal, with the real possibility of getting the ropes jammed. Always what you fear, and made worse at the end of a long day when you can practically touch the terrace of the hut and the awaiting beer.

Finally we were on the glacier, and then after 30mins walk we arrived at the Aigle Refuge which is still at 3,400m and second only to the Gouter Hut in the French mountain-hut height awards. Another wonderful hut which had recently been refurbished, run by a guardian who was perfectly delightful. But his true vocation was that of a rave DJ, because he shared his already modest kitchen with a giant music speaker the size of a wheelie bin. Despite this, we were pleased we did not have to walk the 1,750m down to La Grave, which could wait for another day.

12 December 2016 by MarkSeaton

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