Kingsley Jones: Alpine Diary, part 6 – Summits, Snow and Sunburn

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As a Canadian mountain guide pithily said after his stint of work in Chamonix, “I leave for Canada tomorrow, with my crampon points rounded, and my elbows sharpened”. His words were said in jest, sort of, but there’s quite an element of truth to them. It’s the peak of season in the Alps, with mountain huts at capacity, cable cars rammed, and a sea of sunburnt faces. The past months have been a blur of alpine summits: Matterhorn, Dufourspitze, Eiger, Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa, Oberland, Saas, and Mont Blanc, to name but a few. Chamonix tourist office confirms that now there are more visitors during the summer than over the winter. Long gone are the memories of Polar Vortexes and Beasts from the East. The thermometer has risen from the winter lows of -20C, to over +30C.

The cumulative winter snowfalls set up the early summer season with excellent snow covers on the glaciers, and very low risks of rockfall. Many classic early summer routes in Chamonix such as the North Face of Tour Ronde, Forbes Arete of the Chardonnet, Kuffner Ridge on Mont Maudit, and Couloir de Table on Aiguille du Tour, were in the best condition we have seen for years. Some groups were even skiing Mont Blanc until early July, and the Gonella route stayed in condition longer than for over a decade previously. The mountains hugely benefited from the winter snows, and yet as the thermometer climbed, so did the melt accelerate.

Early summer trekkers had concerns about the amount of snow on the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Walker’s Haute Route, but their worries soon evaporated too, as the snowline quickly raced up to over 2500m by the end of June. Now as we near the end of July, the conditions are very typical for the time of year, but there have been no significant rockfalls in sectors that are prone to becoming unstable as the permafrost altitude creeps upwards, such as the infamous risk of the Grand Couloir on the Aiguille du Gouter. Now the dawn-to-dusk sunny weather of June has given way to sunny days with late afternoon storms. The associated dustings of snow at altitude seems to have stabilised the permafrost line for several more weeks.

With the good weather, have come many successful summits, and the rockfalls which affected some routes in recent years, such as below the Carrel hut on the Lion Ridge of the Matterhorn, have not materialised. This stability, both meteorologically and in terms of low objective risks, has opened up more options in the mountains in terms of route choice, and less time pressures. Consequently the summit stats seem to be booming so far this year, and it’s been nice to see guided groups being able to offer flexibility to their clients in terms of which routes on certain mountains would suit them best. As I type this blog, I have two friends guiding on the Matterhorn tomorrow, each starting from opposite sides of the mountain, one via Hornli and the other via Carrel, to accommodate the clients preferences and strengths. As those who climb regularly in the Alps, this flexibility is a rare and great thing, which benefits everyone with less crowding on the classic routes.

One peak that hasn’t seen any let up in climber numbers is the Gouter hut on Mont Blanc. Last week the mayor of Saint Gervais, in whose commune the high hut on the mountain lies, introduced a ‘Arrêt Municipale’ which stated that to progress past the Tête Rousse glacier, all climbers must have a booking in the Gouter hut, and last week several guided groups had their reservation vouchers checked, as they began to ascend to the hut. Some people have questioned the mayor’s motives, others have said they are draconian, but the ambition of these rules is to ensure that some of the pressures are removed from the mountain, and climbers carrying huge bags of camping equipment up the mountain are removed from putting themselves at risk. As a whole, the guiding companies who regularly use the Gouter hut are unaffected, but the amateur (and sometimes very capable) climbers are those most impacted by this bylaw.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this saga pans out, as there seems to be a rift forming between two ever- increasingly opposing views; on the one hand the mayor and his supporters seem to be moving towards a potential summit permit system to limit numbers on the mountain, whilst the other camp cites freedoms of being in the mountains and the spirit of escaping to the summits to escape the bureaucracy of the valley floors. Personally I find there’s elements I support in both sides of the argument, but I remember my first ascent of Mont Blanc quite vividly. I was a teenager, and with my friend we ascended the Trois Mont Blancs route, descending via the Grand Mulets. We learnt a lot in our unguided climb, and the achievement was all the more sweet for it. As two skint school leavers, it was the biggest challenge either of us had ever faced. To remove those emotions, those goals, and that freedom for others, sticks in my throat.

One highlight of this summer was seeing the PGHM (Chamonix Mountain Rescue) team celebrations for their 60th anniversary. Two old Alouette III helicopters were brought into the town square, there were climbing competitions, aerial displays, and music. The good atmosphere, and huge support showed how much the town residents, mountain professionals, and visitors alike, all respected and supported the PGHM. Whilst it was a great display for the town, I hope the PGHM members understood how much their vital role meant for so many others. I speak with a highly vested interest, as one of the airframes on display was the very same Alouette III which I remember hovering overhead as it scraped a very broken me off the foot of Aiguille du Mummery nearly 25 years ago, after a rockfall cut our ropes clean through. Thank you PGHM, and happy birthday!

Chamonix town has hosted a whirlwind of events in the past weeks, with the major billings of the Chamonix Marathon weekend which saw Catalan runner Kilian Jornet break the course record less then three months after he’d broken his leg, the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy with an increasingly eclectic range of events including portaledge experiences and mountain sports photography, the Cosmojazz festival with its jazz performances in the mountains around the valley such as the headline acts at the Brevent yesterday. The next huge event is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc week at the end of August, but before that we have to brave the weeks of holiday arrivals, and the increasingly challenging daily hunt for car parking spaces around town, before we can escape into the mountains.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining of the crowds for a second. The magic attraction of the Chamonix mountains is that they appeal to such a wide range of user groups. It’s a smorgasbord of interest groups: climbers, paragliders, trail runners, skiers, mountain bikers, hikers, and ‘normal tourists’ who ogle with wonder at the ‘others’ ascending, descending, flying and traversing the mountains in their chosen sports. Equally there’s others who visit the mountains for moments of peace, to take in the views, for photography, or for inspiration. It’s this last factor, inspiration, that is unaffected by the numbers, or by the conditions. These stunning mountains are just awesome, and fuel a lust for life.

y now, when I awake and stare at those webcam images each morning.

Kingsley Jones is an International Mountain Leader and co-owner of Icicle Mountaineering. He’s also an author of mountain running books including ‘Lake District Trail & Fell Running’ and ‘Chamonix Trail Running’. More info at

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