This summer Andy and I headed back out to the Alps; this time we went to the Chamonix valley, home of Mont Blanc and widely acknowledged as the death-sport capital of the world. We were unlucky with conditions - we arrived right after a week of rain, which meant all the high slopes were loaded and avalanchey, and then we lost several more days to bad weather mid-trip - and we generally had a less successful time than last year. In the end, we bagged one 3700m summit, did an easy (but very enjoyable) rock/scrambling route on the Aiguilles Rouges, went hiking a few times and retreated off two more mountaineering routes. Nonetheless, I feel like I learned a lot; here's my belated attempt to set some lessons-learned down in writing.
Double-check your packing
Andy and I had both moved house shortly before the trip, and in the post-move chaos a few things got left behind. You don't want to spend the first day of your holiday dropping 70EUR on a new pair of softshell trousers, or discovering on the first route that you left the new bottle of suncream at home and brought the nearly-empty one from last year instead. Similarly, I couldn't find my less-tight pair of rock shoes before departure; my tight bouldering shoes got really painful after three hours on the Arête des Crochues.
I don't know what exactly changed, but fitness was a much bigger problem for me this year. Age, weight gain, my asthma getting worse, longer routes, reduced workout frequency, all of the above? Whatever it was, I often found myself struggling to get enough air (which in turn meant I couldn't drink, which in turn meant I couldn't eat). I've since beefed up my base exercise schedule, and will try to do more sport-specific workouts (hillwalking, trail running, climbing) in time for next year's trip. If I need motivation, I flash back to how dreadful I felt on Pointe Isabelle.
We knew in general terms that we needed to do more research, but didn't know how to operationalise that, which meant we couldn't research effectively. Having lists of routes you want to do is good, but what you really need is if-then planning: IF conditions are X, Y and Z, what routes will be in good nick? IF we're at the Foobar hut, what is there to climb in the area? What are the mixed routes, the ice routes, the snow routes? Which routes face in which directions, and from which directions are the approach routes threatened by avalanche? This is the kind of knowledge that lets you move quickly to handle a change in conditions without losing another day to book-scouring.
Compare as many guidebooks as you can
We screwed up on the Arête de Table du Roc because we got to the top of the ridge and found ourselves confronted with an unexpected brèche. We then wasted a long time arguing about where we were before finally deciding to make a long and rather unpleasant abseil down our route of ascent. As it turned out, the route down from the summit proper would have been much easier and less threatened by rockfall. We'd been unable to work out from the Alpine Club guidebook which bit was the summit, but when we got back to the campsite we discovered that it was completely obvious from the topo in Gaston Rébuffat's 100 Finest Routes. Rébuffat's book is a bit large to carry up the mountain with you, but if we'd read the description more carefully in advance we might not have had that problem.
After another season doing classic winter routes in Scotland, particularly the Liathach and Aonach Eagach traverses, my Alpine ropework was a lot more fluid. I'm seconding last year's recommendation that Scottish-style winter climbing is great training for Alpinism.
The Aiguilles Rouges are great
We did the Arête des Crochues in the Aiguilles Rouges (the sub-3000m massif on the other side of the Chamonix valley from the Mont Blanc massif) near the end of our trip, and had a great time: it reminded me a lot of the Skye Cuillin. In retrospect, we should have done this right at the beginning: it would have been a good way to start acclimatising and get our fast-and-light heads on.
The French-language guidebook we had for the Aiguilles Rouges was funny to our British eyes: it gave a topo so detailed it would have its author thrown out of the SMC, apologised for the lack of pitons on the route, and suggested that we might find it amusing to find the route by following rock polish and crampon scratches. Heaven forfend! Who ever heard of such a thing?
Take a non-climbing guidebook
There's a huge amount to do in and around the Chamonix valley when the weather's too bad for climbing. Hilary Sharp's book Chamonix Mountain Adventures was an excellent investment, taking us on some great (albeit damp) hikes. The dinosaur-tracks hike was particularly good. The Alpine Museum, by contrast, was rather disappointing.
To péage or not to péage?
Most of the French autoroute network consists of toll roads ("péages"). If you're driving all the way across France, the tolls mount up fast. As an experiment, we tried avoiding toll roads on the way back. This added about four hours to our journey, but meant we actually saw some of the beautiful French countryside instead of the unchanging embankments that surround the autoroutes. The free Routes Nationales, like their British A-road counterparts, vary a lot in quality: in northern France they're usually wide, fast, straight and pretty, but in the mountains they're usually narrow, full of hairpin bends, and rather frightening. I'd suggest driving on N-roads between Calais and Dijon, and using the autoroutes for getting between Dijon and Chamonix.
There's lots of climbing in Bulgaria
A group of Bulgarians in our campsite kept giving us the hard sell on the merits of Bulgarian rock and winter climbing. To be fair, it does look good, and it's a much cheaper country to travel in than France. So, Bulgaria is now on our list of possible climbing destinations.
Take a pair of approach shoes
I took a pair of fell-running shoes last year and didn't really use them, so this time I left them behind. This was a huge mistake: they'd have been incredibly useful for hiking and the walk-in/out from the Aiguilles Rouges route. I've never owned a pair of purpose-designed approach shoes, but I'm sure a pair of those would have been even better.
Leave plenty of time for hut walk-ins
Mostly because of our lack of effective research, we often found ourselves deciding on a hut with only just enough time to walk in to it, leading to a rushed walk-in and an arrival in the middle of supper. This is a Bad Thing: you want to arrive early so you can ask the hut guardian about recent ascents and conditions, and so you can scope out the start of the route. We lost a lot of time stumbling around in the dark at the start of our attempt on Pointe Isabelle, and this might have made the difference between success and failure.
The other mistake we made on that route was not leaving enough time for the walk-out: given the conditions we probably made the right decision to go down when we did anyway, but it didn't help our decisionmaking that we had to be back on the other side of the Mer de Glace by a certain time in order to not miss the last train.
Eating on routes
We still haven't found an eating-on-routes system we're really happy with. This time we experimented with having a chalk-bag full of snacks each and grabbing a quick bite every so often; I think this helped. We also discovered Nakd bars, which are great, and which can be cheaply and easily duplicated at home :-) I'm wondering if Soylent would be good for mountaineering: put some in your hydration bladder, sip constantly without the need to stop or get anything out of your sack. I'm also considering Plumpy'Nut, or some home-made approximation, and Mike Prior-Jones introduced me to BiFi Rangers and Carazza mini-pizza-sandwich things, which are tasty, shelf-stable and savoury - sometimes you don't want something too sweet. I've since used these with success on the An Teallach ridge in Scotland.
[More photos here!]