I always know it’s going to be a tough day when I’m knocking back Cliff Caffeinated Shot Blocks still hours away from the bergshrund to stay awake. But the week leading up to the Charmoz had been full of long climbs and very early starts- so the decision to finish it all off by getting up at 3am and climbing the N Face of the Charmoz from town in a day, round trip, was not the best one I’ve had.
But then it seems like such a good way of climbing this face. The idea to do it from town was actually born almost exactly a year ago when myself and Ally headed up only to find the lower slabs covered in snow rather than thin ice. Another notch to the bail list and a year later I read that some Italians had just done it- the Charmoz is one of those faces that can often look in condition but is actually very rarely in condition. I was happy on this occasion to let someone else take the unknown out of the equation and find out whether it was climbable or not- they reported thin conditions and took three days so we packed a big rack and a small bivy kit just in case.
The alarm was met with the usual startled annoyance at 3am; it felt like a long day was ahead. Meeting up with Ally for our rematch in town and we left the cold inversion and found ourselves sweating our way up the track to the Mer de Glace. The body and mind were tired but for some reason the psyche was high as I was confident it would go- I also couldn’t bare the thought of having to bail twice having walked in from town both times. So some way or another it was going to have to go.
Montenvers was slow but the approach on the glacier and to the base of the route was even slower. We failed to find much of the old tracks but thankfully Ally-trail-breaker-Swinton has happy to carve on ahead and we arrived at the shrund 2 hours later than we thought. Oh well, the route looked in amazing condition so that would save us some time. The topo describes the first pitch as being the crux- which I guess it kind of is given that its pretty much completely unprotected for about 30m of climbing, but whilst the ice is hollow and thin it’s just a head pitch rather than anything else.
The whole face we did as a simul climb, but really you could have done as a solo apart from maybe the last two pitches. The lower part of the face is perfect sticky nevee - it wasn’t too cold and we made fast progress…it felt a lot like Autumn….finally! The sun rose behind us on the Verte and Drus and life was good.
The final 4 pitches out of the direct were in great condition, and before long I was standing in the sun on the top looking forward to brewing up some water in the late afternoon sun. The view was excellent, the freeze dried meal much appreciated, and the tea abundant. What more could you want when sitting on top of an Alpine North Face in winter?
The descent down to the Nantillons Glacier follows a line of raps- once on the glacier we opted for a more circuitous route that would avoid the seracs above. It was slow going but never a problem. The real crux of the day began after that- getting down to town. Instead of heading back over to Montenvers or over to the Midi we decided to just keep heading straight down. Terrible decision. Hours of deep trail breaking and dangerous terrain followed- the Foehn storm that ripped through town a couple of years ago has devastated this area and we found ourselves climbing through an obstacle course of slippery dead forest. It took the expression ‘combat hiking’ to a new level. A few hours ofcombat later and we arrived back down to the inversion and the car- tired but wow what a day out.