First Acclimatization and team bonding
It was an amazing week of leading and following in a roped team. We were navigating mostly rock faces as the snow was pretty little this year. However, the day didn't start well. As I wore my crampons, I tripped on my legs and hit my lips onto my ice axe. I was amazed as to how clumsy I could be on flat ground! Luckily it was a small cut but I had a swollen cheek for the rest of the day.
The first team I was roped in was composed of Nick, Samie and Brian. Nick was leading up the ridge to Aiguille des Grand Montets (PD) in a very fast and efficient manner. It was my first time climbing at high altitude with him and it was great to pick up some tips from him.
Following that small acclimatization plus team bonding climb, we went back down before heading up to Refuge Albert 1er to do some additional 'team bonding' climb. However, the approach time to any peaks would make most climb impossible within half a day. We ended up revising our crevasse rescue skills where Brian volunteered to be thrown into the crevasse.
For the following day plan, we were undecided whether to push for the Aiguille du Chardonnet, arete Forbes (AD) as the snow condition was not ideal and we did not know how the whole team would perform on that relatively big climb. We then opted for a safer climb of Aiguille Du tour via arrete de la Table (AD) as it was mostly rock. Staying in the same rope team, I had the opportunity to swap lead from time to time with Nick. At the crux (which has been promoted from a 4c to 5a), I have to admit that I found it very hard to lead despite several attempts. Nick did it in a breeze and we all followed. We spend some time on the table as the 3rd rope team were trying some harder routes up as they accidentally detour off the easy route.
As we were on the summit ridge, half of our body was in Switzerland, while the other half was in France; that was a pretty cool country border to walk on! After a 16 hours ordeal (5am to 9pm), we reached the refuge exhausted, hungry and in no mood to talk. We manage to settle down at close to midnight and most of us couldn't visualize waking up 3 hours later at 3am to climb Chardonnet. Only Xieheng, Ernest and myself did not mind that option. Xieheng was on time to wake us up and the three of us woke up promptly to conclude that we should just sleep in!
The next trip up, we went to Aiguille de líndex for some multi pitch (6/7 pitches, 5a with 3 abseils down). As weather was bad above the snow line, there was a crowd on that classic route. We also took a multipass to go up Aiguille Du Midi, walked down the famous Alpinist ridge to do the short Arrete a Laurence (PD+). I was roped up with Xieheng and Jason.
When the weather cleared, we went up to our last refuge which was Torino hut, on the Italian side. We put our bag down and went for a short acclimatization climb on Le Petit flambeau (PD+). We were supposed to climb Dent Du geant (D-) the next day and Mont Maudit: Kuffner Ridge (D) the following two days.
We didn't plan our ration well and we ran out of gas. Xieheng took a cable car down to Courmayeur the next day to get some gas and ration while I waited for him at the hut. The rest went to attempt Dent Du geants (D-) As I woke up at 7 am and everybody was out, I was happy that I was not in the Dent Du geant team as the weather was really bad with zero visibility. I radioed them to ask for their location and plan in this terrible condition and was relieved to hear that they have decided to turn back. They had to rely on their GPS to navigate as it was a complete white out. The good thing was that we now had ample ration and gas to extend another day.
Facing my fear
The next day we set off at 3am for Dent Du Geant. We reached the start of the rock climb (salle a manger) at around 6am where my nightmare started. I forgot to mention that we swapped rope team and I was with Xeheng, Osh and Keith. I was leading up to the salle a manger when Xieheng said that we are going to check out the Rochefort arrete(AD) before getting to the dent du geant. There was a long day ahead of us and I did not know why they wanted to go on that arrete sooo much! I soon found out! It's something I was not mentally prepared for! It was a steep ridge, with fresh snow from the previous days that managed to freeze over a day, and both side was crazily steep. There was no trail on the snow yet for this season, which means that the ridge has not been in condition yet.
As we started front pointing and moving on the edge of the ridge, I was fine as the grip felt secure with both my ice axe and boots firmly into the snow/ice wall. Then we had to climb on the ridge and poking my ice axe in the snow break the thin snow layer, allowing my axe to be hanging freely. We just had a tiny space to walk. A few minutes on the ridge, Osh slipped but quickly arrested his fall and got back walking. During that split second, I thought that we had to arrest his fall. All four of us being roped up increase safety, while at the same time putting one's life in the hands of the other team mates. If one were to fall on one side of the ridge (say right), he is supposed to shout right so that the rest jump in the void on the left side to counter balance that weight. After stability is reached, we are supposed to climb up the rope back on the ridge to resume climbing. As our rope team members were pretty new to each other, I was worried that the wrong side was shouted when one of us fall causing all of us to jump in the void. After what felt like an eternity, Xieheng mentioned that the snow does not look good and we should turn back. I was so happy. As I turned back to follow Nick's team who was behind us, he shouted "Xieheng, your team can continue if you want" Xieheng then told us that we will go ahead a bit more. Hell no! I told them that I was not comfortable and to turn back. I was really not prepared for that and was worried of how I will perform on the Kuffner ridge.
As we got back, we started to get ready for the rock climbing section of Dent Du Geant. I took over the lead from Xieheng and there was a couple just in front of us on the wall. As I got onto the wall, and waited for them in the shadow, my fingers were feeling cold and feet numb from all the ice that went in as I was leading the way in the fresh snow for the first 2 hours (yes, I should have worn gaiters). While I could warm my fingers, my feet were too wet for me to do anything. The sun was only going to shine on us in another three hours. Given the queue ahead of us, the rest also agreed to give it a miss due to time. I was glad that we did so, as it took me another 1 hour in the sun to regain sensation in my toes. Only Nick, Samie and Jason carried on with the climbs.
The rest of us then did the Aiguille Marbrees(PD) instead. Nick's team came back very late in the evening all exhausted! The next day, we decided to scrap our initial plan of bivouac-ing out for the Kuffner ridge as that would require an extra day and more money for the Aiguille Du Midi cable car. We then went for the classic route of cosmique arrete (AD). From the cable car station, Brian lead Xieheng and I through the classic and crowded climb back to the cable car station where tourists clapped as we made our exit from the route.
With one extra day to spare, I managed to convince Xieheng and Keith to join me on Clocher de pranpaz: clocher de crochetons traverse (AD+). I was happy that they allowed me to lead all the section of this amazing traverse that has a section of lasso and tyrolean traverse. I have done few tyrolean traverse across rivers but I always wanted to set up one during a climb! Keith's amazing lasso skills allowed us to make this tyrolean traverse successful! It was a long one hour duration for the three of us to setup the tyrolean, cross the void and clean the system but it was such a rewarding feeling.