Mont Blanc du Tacul, Gabarrou-Albinoni. III 4+. 500 m. “La grande classique de la face E du Mont Blanc du Tacul.”
An alpine route climbed on Monday, March 16, 2009, just in time to sneak into the pullharder.org Winter Club.
The Gabarrou-Albinoni has been on my partner’s tick list ever since he climbed the adjacent Modica-Noury, III, 5+, 500 m with a guide over a decade ago. He has a mischievous habit of plastering Alta stickers all over Chamonix which I’m sure pisses off the sticklers at the Compagnie du Mont Blanc. I’ll refer to him as Dr. Dan. The guidebook describes the route as “a grand classic couloir on the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul.”
Climbing the Gabarrou starts with rolling out of bed in the valley for a Chamonix Alpine Start. A quick and painless ride up the Aiguille du Midi telepherique to 3842 meters is the first leg of the lazy man’s approach and leaves an hour ski tour to the base of the route. The Gabarrou itself involves surmounting a bergschrund, several pitches of steep, sugary snow interspersed with mixed steps, more unconsolidated snow, and finally the bread and butter, 4 long pitches of sinker alpine ice. This is where the “route” itself ends, but the actual summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul lies beyond. The objective hazards of topping out and descending from the summit back to your skis deter all but super-alpinists, crazies, Type-3 fun enthusiasts, and those who don’t know any better from continuing on. Most descend the route via sporadic rappel stations along the granite walls of the couloir and some down climbing. What’s left? Oh, a 20ish kilometer ski run down the Vallee Blanche back to town where a fridge full of cold beer awaits – just don’t fall into a crevasse along the way.
My goal for this trip was to ski as much as possible, especially off piste. I got lucky and arrived just in time for a storm and enjoyed a few days of epic powder skiing. Unfortunately, blustery winds followed, scouring the higher elevations, leaving ice and wind slab. We skinned and hiked and searched for good snow but couldn’t find any. Enter Plan B – go climbing.
(Dan approaching the route on skis. The route follows the snow ramps clearly visible in the middle of the picture. The snow gives way to ice about halfway up, right where the shadows begin in the image. We tried to be quick, but unfortunately another party was quicker so we spent the morning dodging their debris.)
Click out of your skis, strap on your crampons, uncoil the ropes, tie in, grab your tools, kick some steps, and whoa! check out the bergschrund. Dan went first without any fuss. I mumbled: “Please don’t punch through the snow bridge. Please don’t blow a tool and plunge into the crevasse.” Did I sign up for this? As I was about to scratch my way over the lip and belly flop onto the snow ramp above, I caught a glimpse of Dan digging in. A moment later, he graciously pulled the rope taut. If I had slipped, I’m not certain Dan’s belay would have held, but it definitely added a psychological advantage. (Way to jump on the grenade, buddy!) Later on, I decided this was the technical crux of the route.
I didn’t enjoy climbing the snow ramps leading up to the ice. We didn’t bring any snow pickets or rock gear, and I think it’s safer to untie and put the ropes away than to simul without a running belay; suicide rope pacts aren’t for me. Pilot error doesn’t worry me nearly so much as getting knocked off my stance by an errant missile and dragging my partner along for the big ride – or vice versa.
At one point, I looked up, wondering why it was raining snow, just in time to see a rock heading my way. I shifted my hips and it passed between my legs nicking my left inner thigh, uncomfortably close to my junk (my girlfriend was scheduled to arrive the next day). My mouth tasted metallic. Objective hazards scare me. By the time I caught up with Dr. Dan at the first “belay,” I was wet and cold from being showered with snow and feeling a bit edgy. We packed a belay jacket but decided to leave it with the skis at the base of the route. I was cold and wanted to keep moving to stay warm so I grumbled a bit, grabbed the screws and the screamers, and started up the pitch. I’m not very much of an ice climber but the ice was very climbable. My placements felt solid, the shafts of my tools vibrated reassuringly when my picks bit into the ice. Swing, “thwack,” “screech.” I settled into a pleasant rhythm of swing-kick-kick, swing-kick-kick and moved steadily up the pitch.
I can’t see a damn thing without my glasses. I dread placing screws because any time I stop, the fog rolls in, and I hate leading ice while peering over the rims of my glasses, trying to see what I’m swinging at. The ice wasn’t very thick and we only brought a few stubbies, so I didn’t have many screws to place. Problem solved.
(The author leading the first pitch of ice.)
There’s not much to say other than the ice section went smooth. I brought Dr. Dan up, re-racked, and kept on going; he generously gave me the sweet leads.
(Dr. Dan following the first pitch of ice. In a former life, he was an eye surgeon. On his last ice climbing trip, a sliver of ice slipped behind his glacier goggles, poking him in the eye, which scared him enough to buy a helmet with a clear plastic face shield. In preparation for this route, we got drunk on Bavarian malt liquor while he decorated his new helmet with psychedelic mushroom stickers – wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea.)
(Looking up the second pitch of ice. I hugged the left side and was able to catch a quick rest here and there by leaning my back against the rock. It was surreal to be climbing a route in the Alps.)
(Dr. Dan leading the third pitch of ice. I snapped this picture after kicking out a platform to stand on at the belay. The activity kept my mind off the belay jacket we decided to leave at the base of the route.)
(The snow/icey fourth pitch.)
(A view of the Vallee Blanche from our high point. Shadows were already starting to settle over our highway home. After much dabbling in rock, ice, and backcountry skiing, it was nice to put all these skills together to make it happen for a few hours in the mountains. As my Dad is known to say, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn sometimes”.)
(Dr. Dan working his way down the rappels. If there’s anything I have a lot of practice at, it’s bailing, so I took over setting up the rappels from here. Nothing like a pair of old pins, a tangle of sun-bleached shoestring, and a rusty quick-link for an anchor. Did I mention the pins were hammered behind rotten flakes?)
I took myself off rappel, shouted “clear,” and started gently down to my skis. Dan followed and we packed without saying much. The sun was fading fast and we still had to ski the majority of the Vallee Blanche back to town. The light was flat and it was getting colder. Dan skied off and I remember it being very quiet, alone and surrounded entirely by snow, rock, and ice.
Several days ago, we had skied the Vallee Blanche with a group of friends. We stopped for lunch, snapped some pictures, took our time. The visibility was good. There were even some powder stashes, and overall, it was a blast. This time, the visibility was poor, it was icy, and we were carrying packs full of climbing gear. We were in a hurry. I underestimated how burned my legs were from ripping powder laps the week before (not that I was complaining) and how demanding it is to make turns with weight on your back. Dan says he’s skied the Vallee Blanche in 45 minutes and I believe him, but I was in no condition to break any speed records. To lighten my load, he offered to take both ropes. Dan is a salty old dog. I made a dozen turns, waited for my legs to come back, and repeated the sequence, trying to balance the need make the most of the remaining daylight by hurrying against not falling into a crevasse or otherwise getting injured. Dan kept yelling useful shit at me like “WATCH OUT FOR THE BIG CRACK IN THE SNOW BRIDGE,” but I couldn’t hear a fucking thing because my edges were making all sorts of noise grating over the ice. This is how we picked our way down the glacier.
The last 1000 meters involves some serious combat skiing. In the dead of winter when there’s plenty of snow, I’m sure it’s no big deal, especially after-hours. But in late March, most people take the cog train rather than ski back to town. Since we were a little behind schedule, that wasn’t an option. But we made it. Dan had the foresight to park the car close to where the trail spits us out and we skied almost all the way to the car to conclude a fun-filled day of Type-2 fun in the high Alps.
(Being in a hurry, we didn’t stop to snap pictures on our way down so instead, we posed for this one several days later at the terminus of the Argentiere glacier. Born to pull hard, notice Dan’s excellent form. The glacier used to extend much further down into the Chamonix Valley, but thanks to the greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere by people who, amongst making other poor choices, indulge in air travel to ski, climb, and vacation in distant lands, it’s receded significantly of late. In the background is the first leg of the famous ski tour, the Haute Route.)
We were having some Type-1 fun at the Grands Montets. Dan was up to his old tricks, plastering the Bouchard gondola with Alta stickers. I was up to my knees in fresh powder. The next day, we got another half-meter of hero snow and killed it all day long, followed by beers, bed, and a flight back to the States.
When Matt isn’t climbing in Chamonix, he enjoys skiing the “Best Snow on Earth” in the Wasatch backcountry with his time-share dog, Blue. If anyone wants the rundown on dirt-bagging in Cham, he’s definitely not the one to ask but he’d still be happy to chat you up: [email protected].
Chamonix Alpine Start (CAS) – wake up around 6:00 a.m. in your warm bed, slam down a baguette smothered in Nutella, and drink a cup of strong coffee. Drive to the tram, unload your gear, and get in line to wait for it to start running. Hiring a guide to herd you down the Vallee Blanche ensures you a spot on the 8:10 a.m. car and all the advantages of an early start, so feel free to give all the noobs – “…What’s a crevasse?” – the stink-eye. After all, as an alpine climber, you’re at the top of the food chain. No worries. Soon you’ll be at 3842 meters, almost on top of the world; so for 36 euros, that’s less than a penny per meter and well worth it given the difficulties of the approach otherwise. Thanks to its network of lifts and trams, it’s easy to be “all about the down” in Chamonix. But be on the first car and be fast at skiing in, racking up, and getting underway, or be prepared to climb behind another party. Solitude is a rare commodity on the trade routes when conditions are ideal.
Type-3 fun – a ski descent of Couloir Jager. II D. 600m, 60 degrees (first done in 1964!) or any other highly technical “you fall, you die” scenario. It’s that chute under the giant serac clearly visible in opening photo of Mont Blanc du Tacul massif. See also other psycho shit like BASE jumping.
Armchair Mountaineer – a person, who, like the author, rather than actually going climbing, sits around and looks at guidebooks, reads the Alpine Journal, and occasionally writes up trip reports about glories past. Also considers “alcohol” one of the 4 basic food groups.
combat skiing – involves navigating narrow, steep, icy switchbacks, choked with exposed rocks, and bumps; throw in some slush and vegetation at lower elevations. Made much more arduous if 1) you care about your skis, 2) the people you’re skiing with don’t. Also, more difficult in the dark. French fries or pizza pie?
Type-2 fun – skiing a crevasse-ridden glacier, i.e. the Vallee Blanche, in the dark, with a heavy pack, tired, and dehydrated. May require jumping small gaps on skis. May seem like Type 1 fun in retrospect with a BAC of .10 or higher. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.”