Summers are long and warm. For us “cold” folks that means a lot of time with no snow. That`s why every year I try to break this streak with one adventure into the high Alpine. Searching for the eternal snow and ice. This year at OUTDOOR Friedrichshafen we heard that Ferrino would be opening a new HighLab at the foot of the Mont Blanc near the Tete Rousse hut at 3.167m. Since Jan and I had been to Chamonix a month earlier with wind killing our skiing ascend plans, it was time for another try at Mont Blanc. Would our acclimatization go well at the Highlab and could we make it to the top of Europe this time? A new adventure was about to begin…
I had planed a trip of these proportions for the summer. The original idea was a tad bit different. For over 20 years Ferrino has set up a HighLab, a kind o test camp every summer at the Reffugio Quinntino Sella on the italian side of the Monte Rossa plateau. Since we had visited there before I was eager, conditions permitting, to ski of my first 4K peak, the Castor in August. But plans change. There was not that much snow this year. Also at the Outdoor fair in Friedrichshafen Matteo, Ferrinos R&D guy, told me about the plan to expand the Highlab to France. And where else in France then the Mont Blanc massive. Set up along the normal Route at the Refuge Tete Rousse at 3.167m it would be another great place for acclimatization and gear testing.
One evening as we were sipping a good beer in Radovljica with Jan and Krištof I got word from Monte Rossa that the snow conditions were not that great. After some deliberation we decided. We would visit the new Highlab at Tete Rousse and try to reach the Mont Blanc peak at 4.800m. The highest peak in Europe. The time until that Thursday evening, right after work, when we were to set off, seems like a blur now. Lots of training, for sure, and a nagging daily grind, but the closer the date moved the more excited we were .
Since this would be a mountaineering expedition for multiple days we set out to plan it a bit like the biwiproject outings from last season. The idea here was to be able to stay independent for a planed three-four day ascent window. We would do one acclimatization ascend to somewhere around 4.000m, before heading all out for the final 4.800. It was also a great opportunity to test the newest Ferrino gear that would already be waiting for us at Tete Rousse`s 3.167m. At that altitude we would also set up our camp. So we would bring all our gear except the tent and our sleeping bags and then according to acclimatization and weather try to peak.
We also needed to brush up on our safety skills. A long part of the tour would see us travel over vast glacial terrain. With the recent high temperatures stability could be a problem. More so did we have to know what to do in case of crevasse-fall. I had done a course with Rok from Vertical adventures at the Grossglockner in January but that was a long time ago. Winter was kind to us in this regard. But it also let us forget. We also needed to gear up a bit with a half-rope to get us up to speed. Ice screws were a necessity too. Thanks to Chouka here for lending us his ice screws 😛
We used a few evenings before departure to train our handy work. I must say that the first day of training had really bummed me out. I had trubble doing knots and the whole procedure I had learned seemed like a blur. Thankfully after two more days of intense training, even until after dark saw us improving fast. At least enough to say I know what to do in case off. Truly mastering these techniques of course is quite a different matter. In the spirit of what Rok thought me in avalanche safety in my early powering days I think this is something we need to improve in the future. And that we will.
day 1 morning – getting to the highlab
Then Thursday came. I was having a hectic day at work. Tons of meetings and still having things to drag home after we were already supposed to be on our way. Jan and Krištof had already made it to Ljubljana with the bus. We still had to go shopping for supplies and I still needed to do some stuff at home for a Friday deadline. Talking about stress. These work related collusion’s have been nagging on my stamina for quite a while now. And it was showing. Finally thou late, we were off and after an hour or two we passed the border to Italy happily leaving all our “grown up life” worries behind.
Thou after a long day of grind and stress at work while getting up at 6 am and driving for 8 hours straight trough the next night is a bit of a problem. We got into a bad traffic jam near Milano, loosing two more hours. I was getting sleepy and Jan would take over for me. Unfortunately he was sleepy too. So like a eagle I kept an eye on him while he was keeping an eye on the road. Krištof was the only one happily snoozing at the back. Finally at 3 am we had passed the Mont Blanc tunnel. We just stopped at one of the stops after the tunnel and made our bed in the trunk of my Octavia. Last time when Jan and I had slept in the car it was nice and cozy, but for three people, it was to little space. Squeezed like sardines we were trying to get some sleep out of it. After a while we were so tired we just fell asleep.
As uncomfortable as the trunk was with three people there was no denying that it had a bit of a road trip feeling to it. Something I dearly miss in my everyday life. Just trying to do the best at the moment to get from A to B And early in the morning we were at B. Driving into the parking lot of the Bellevue Cable car at Les Hoches we were all smiling. After a good 30 minutes we were packed up and on our way up.
To get to the Tete Rousse you can take the old Bellevue cable car form 1.000 m at the parking lot and switch to the Tramway de Mont Blanc to bring you to a bit above 2.000 m. From there you can start your way on the normal Mont Blanc route until you reach the Tete Rousse hut under the towering Grand Couloir at 3167 m and the Gauter Refuge at 3.800 m with its wast glaciers. All this leads up Dom the Guater at 4.300 m and from there the Mont Blanc peak is just another mountain away. Today thou we would only need to drag our 15-18 kilo backpacks to 3.167m and set up our tent.
With a good tempo we were making really good time. Jan was trying to reach some kind of record as usual while Krištof and I were following with a good pace. The scenery on the way up was majestic. The mountains were just towering all around and there was no end to them in sight. Truly epic.
On this same weekend the Trail running championships were being held in Chamonix and we meet quite a few of trail runners on our way up. After a good hour and a half we had cleared the 1000 hm and were approaching the refuge.
day 1 Noon – Setting up the tent
As we arrived it was not even noon yet. It was time to start our acclimatization routine. I had read that taking an Aspirin before the ascend would help later on. So before leaving the car we all had one. The next was to be taken before going to sleep on the first night. I would not repeat the grand mistake I had made at Monte Rossa the year prior. I slept without a hat on a cold -7 night at 3.500m on our first day. The subsequent migraine I had back then was bad. And I did not want to repeat it.
We entered the Hut to signal our arrival. At first the clerk did not know exactly who we were. We did book everything in advance and made all the arrangements. But this is France and things run a bit differently here. Being used to Austria and Germany the lax attitude of the French can be daunting. Also the clerk had forgotten to tell me that we would need to give a considerable safety deposit for the gear we were about to test in cash. Fortunately we scraped enough together to seem legit. Otherwise we could have had a problem :P.
Then they gave us the gear: A new version of the Ferrino Snowbound 3 tent the same I use for the biwak powder Project, two HL Sliver Pro sleeping bags with a comfort rating of -7 and primaloft down. We also got a interesting sleeping bag that I had not seen before. A wts 510. It had a older Ferrino logo but I could not remember it from any older catalog. It seemed that it could have been a older or newer prototype. After a short inspection it became apparent that it had no stitches, just glued seams even running down it`s length. It`s rating was also a tad bit higher then the HL Sliver Pro. I think it was -9 but I am not sure anymore. Krištof tested it ‘thoroughly’ and managed to catch one of the glued seams on the sides to the mattresses air-went. The result was a tear on the seam that we fixed wit duck tape. It also showed what the gear testing is all about. To find wired situations that you can not reproduce in a lab. And that was one of them. We also got a few new Swift mattresses that were super compact to pack up and easy to pump up thanks to the integrated foot pump that did not take away any additional space while compressed. I really liked those, but in hindsight would prefer another normal valve on them in the case of a storm 😛 But more on that later.
Since the tent was the same we use for my project and Jan and I had set it up countless times over the last season, we were set up quickly. Knowing how to set it up correctly so that it would withstand everything nature could throw at us would prove to be VERY beneficial later on in the trip. We also made our first bag of Travel lunch ‘space food’. The dish was beef stew and I must say that it tasted delicious.
In the spirit of preparing for bigger expeditions we bought these dehydrated space food bags where you just had to add hot water and had a ready meal. Portions were proper, and it tasted really good. With my Pinguin Aura coocker the water was boiling in no time. But more on the meals later.
Since the temperatures were so High we were also able to resupply our water close to the tent in a little flow coming form the snowfield. The water had a great taste from all the stone minerals it was being filtered trough. But you had to be quick. Once the sun started setting everything froze up quickly. We did eat dinner at the hut. I was eager to see how good the food was in the mountains of France and they did not disappoint :). Fancy cheese plates And they even made astounding pastries. The french really like their gourmet comforts.
One thing thou did finally get to me. After a long overworked and stressful week, the training in the evenings and driving trough the whole night had taken it`s toll on me. I was tired. Mentally more then physically. I have noticed that in recent time the stress at work, seems to be sipping into the other portions of my life. I do have good resilience to that but honestly when the bullshit keeps on nagging for too long it it starts too creep in regardless of your no bullshit attitude. Usually I did not have a lot of understanding for this, especially growing up seeing my parents being frustrated from work and “grown up life”. Now I see that that can be a tricky balance to master. And the solution this time was to just sleep it off.
While Jan and Krištof eagerly ascended the Grand Coluar in 1.5 hours and came down in a mere 50 minutes I finished setting up the details of our camp and took a nice long nap. After that it was time for dinner and Soon I felt better. I was still drained but at least I felt better. And so shortly after a spectacular sunset we went to sleep. I dreamed that night. It was a wired dream. I know my two companions made an appearance… work was there.. it was weird but in the end I saw a white ice field in the snow. When there is snow there is no more problems. So the objective for the next day was clear. Make it up to the snow and ice 4.000.
Day – 2 ASCENDING THE GRAND COULOIR
The alarm started beeping. It was 7.00 am. We were all super motivated. Packing our stuff did not take long. My Ferrino Sierra Alpha was suddenly very light. Contrary to what I had planed I decided to just put on my trusted old Ferrino Stolmberg pant. I had used it in my old winter setup. Back then I did not understand why it was so narrow at the bottom. Getting more into mountaineering and steep ascends with time it became clear.
Before setting off we had to eat something. At the Outdoor fair in Friedrichshafen we had been to the Booth of Katadyn industries who develop all kinds of cooking and water filtering gear. There they presented us their sealed Trek’n’eat meals. Originally we should have been four on this trip and my buddy Flo would have bought these packs in Innsbruck. Since he had to bail I found a competing brand called “travel lunch“. These came in 150 g and 250 g sizes and being me I bought enough of these to last us for at least a week in 250g.
Our dish for the morning was spageti carbonara. They were really tasty. The pack size was good enough for all three of us for breakfast. So I guess the small bags would be enough food for one person. Unless you are really hungry. I still do not know if it is ok to just seal the ready meal pack again if you wanna save it for later. If anyone knows that drop me a comment bellow.
All feed and geared up we started our ascend towards the dreaded Grand Couloir, the more technical part of the normal route. I had read a bit about how infamous this place was. Not that demanding form a technical climbing stand point but more from a hazards one. When I asked our guide Friends Rok and Lori about it they both said the same thing. Get trough there quick because there is always trouble there.
The ascend thou went well. Jan and Krištof sped it up and I made my own tempo. Around 2 hours we were at the top. Passing guides with their guests firmly roped up one told me that there is more rock fall then usual this year. I knew about the immense rock hazard but until our descent I we would not imagine what that really meant.
DAY – 2 Glacial travel to the Dome du Gouter
At the top we were happy to finally reach snow. I was happy that the altitude did not seem to have much of an effect on me. This time around I was not feeling any headaches. Still I was not 100%. The week before had really drained me. It made me a bit angry. But I had enough reserves so we could continued towards our goal.
Past the new Gouther refuge we quickly made our way on the main glacier towards the 4.000m. Here we had to make a decision. Would we rope up and put on crampons. The way up was very stable. Time was about noon and the temperature was around 4 degrees. We checked the other groups and decided to not rope up since there was no apparent danger and the way up looked more like a freeway.
If that was a smart move or not I am still at odds to say. Our tempo was quite out of sync for a group at that point. Jan pushing forward full tempo, Krištof trailing abut a Zig Zag behind and me another zig zag behind him. There might not have been any hazards here but as we did in the infamous grand couloir in hindsight that was just plain stupid. First rule of mountaineering in a group is stay together. We always did that. I always did that. Thou this time I guess I let it slide a little. Fortunately it was of no consequence. Still this are mountains and unlike Jan or Krištof, who are rather young and have not had to deal with failure consequences yet I have had my share of avalanches and getting broken people of mountains in the past. Guess I burned some of my good karma from those incidents where I helped get a friend to safety on this trip.
Soon we had made it to the top of the Dome du Gouter. 4.304m. The highest I had ever been. A good 100m higher then the Castor that we managed to claim at our expedition to the Ferrino Highlab at Monte Rossa a year earlier. And what a view it offered. Before us. Towering at another mountain height was our grand goal. The highest peak in the Alps. The Mont Blanc. The white mountain. The goal of our desire for the last month or so since Jan and I had set eyes on it on our last visit to Chamonix. We were all in agreement. We would try to make it to the peak on the next day. After a short break we started our way back down.
That was quite fun. Being happy kiddos we “skied” on our feet down the wet snow. It saved energy and time. And it was fun to. I think at that point we were all thinking the same thing. Why had we not brought our skis with us. I would have loved speeding down the Gouters face towards the “Gouter UFO refuge” at 100 km/h.
Bellow the old refuge there was just the nasty death couloir to clear and then we would have lunch waiting. We filled our water bottles with fresh glacial water. I love the water form the Chamonix valley. it has such a good taste. I still have a bottle in my fridge for a special occasion 😛 Then we continued our descent.
DAy 2 – The ‘death couloir’ shows it`s teeth
Since Jan and Krištof had cleared the Grand couloir in 50 minutes on their acclimatization ascent on day 1, we though that a good hour and we would be at the bottom. It was approaching 1600 hours and the sun was starting to boil into the couloir. From the bottom clouds were starting to form and a colder wind was blowing. The weather report was saying it would be a bit of cloud cover in the valley but it should stay clear for us. But this is mother nature and it reminds us that it is unpredictable. We had noticed the random stone fall at the couloir from the first time we arrived. But it was nothing major.
Then it happened. 1/3 on the way down a giant block of stone hurtled towards the bottom. We just stopped in amazement. It triggered a bit of a rock avalanche that took a good 15 minutes to stop. Smoke was rising. The stones were flying everywhere. We saw people at the bottom running for cover. After it all cleared it looked ok. We thought wow. More amazed then scared we continued our descent.
Soon the stones stopped and it seemed peacefull. But that was not for long. Then it came. Out of the blue. A rock the size of a bus hurtled down the couloir with at lest 120 km an hour. the sheer force of it`s impacts was felt with every blow to the ground. But it did not break. Like a huge asteroid in a Roland Emerich movie it just continued to hurl higher and higher with a deadly trajectory.
When you pass into the couloir you have to clear it at a lower point. You have to be quick. The place before that passage is a narrow way that is partly exposed and leads to the base camp. A few people were standing there. And that is where the whole thing was heading. One of the guys was a bit further then the others. I used my thumb to predict it`s impact. Fuck. That would be close. A few seconds later it hit.
With only smoke rising we could not see exactly where it hit. After it cleared we saw it. The dude had been lucky. 15-20m above it had hit with full force and stayed there. The close proximity had knocked the dude down but he seemed to move. Soon we saw he could not stand so a shrapnel from the impact must have done some damage. The stones still kept on rolling long after as we were continuing our descent. Later we saw his knee was open. A helicopter landed an took him away.
It was a odd feeling of excitement about the sheer force of mother nature and the helplessness that we, as little insignificant humans, should be aware off more often. Mother nature had shown us there is no place for arrogance here. Then just shortly before reaching the critical point the now seriously unstable crossing we just ran. And it was the last minute to do so as raindrops were starting to hit the ground.
Day 2 – the PLAN and the storm
Back at base camp we were looking back up at the whole of the wall. The remnants of the days rather significant stone fall were visible even on the snowfield of the Tete Rouseu. Huge stones and small boulders were laying all the way down to our little river where we filled up our water supply’s for the morning ascent. Regardless thou our plan was still standing. Over dinner we meet a Scottish guide who was was also very positive about the weather for the coming day.
Our plan: Start at 2 am and make it to the Gouther refuge in a good 2 hours and form there another 2-3 hours to the top. The idea was to be at the top around sunrise. Pumped from the acclimatization ascent we were ready. I was feeling ok about 80% with a good 6-7 hours of sleep in front of us I would be good to go. The Ferrino sleeping bags were keeping us nice and warm as the temperature was a lot lower then the day before. Humidity was getting quite high. Before getting to sleep, as a precaution we had packed all our stuff outside in the tents foyer in case of a little dusting snowfall.
Krištof organized a few more bottles for water the Balkan way 😛 Jan and I then descended to the Information hut under the refuge to fill them up with fresh water. We were amazed to be above a huge thunderstorm that was beating down in the valley. Unfortunately it was rising fast and it was starting to rain. We scrambled back up to the tent. Soon after the storm hit. First it was just raining heavily. Then thunder joined the orchestra. A bit of hail and snow and the wind picked up to about 60-70 km\h.
We had put everything well into the tent and I was really happy that we had properly set up the tent. If we would have been lazy it could have meant a lot of trouble. All moorings lines attached and the outer shell well positioned. We also had a good stone wall to protect us from the wind at least on the lower part of the tent. We were trying to get some sleep but I will be honest, it was not working well. We were all seeing our grand plan running down the rivers and crevasses of the mountain with the falling rain. Fortunately we were warm and thanks to the good isolation of the Snowbound 3 tent dry. and so was our whole gear.
Still if the rain had fallen for a good hour it there would still have been hope. Unfortunately it lasted past midnight. We decided to wake up at 1.30 am to check the situation. When we got up we already saw a few guys heading for the Grand couloir, but all of them just turned back. It was a lost cause. The peak would have to wait for the winter.
Day 3 – Salvage operations
Then morning came. The night was rough. I did not sleep that well. It was not the mattresses nore the sleeping bag. It was just a bit of disappointment. After all we had all pictured ourselves at the top of the Mont Blanc on that day. This one was not easy to taim. This was the second attempt in a month. With the Dome de Gouter on the prior day we came so close. Yet it seemed so far away. We would have to come again.
We made breakfast, our grand cousin of space food, this time some Gulasch and started to dry the tent. We are kind of easy to plan over so we decided to go swimming into the Passy lake before heading home to Slovenia. While drying out the tent we were waiting for the first rays of the sun to warm us up. That`s where Krištof saw a derelict abandoned broken tent lover in a small couloir under our base camp. From the looks of it, it must have been there for a while.
Determent he strolled down and dragged it back up. It was soaking wet but inside we found quite the treasure. A sleeping bag, matt, go pro batteries, a coocker and three packs of trek’n’eat brand space food. Ironically it was still good after all this even until 2017. The tent itself was ruined but hey.. one men`s garbage is another mans treasure.
Krištof decided to dry out the matt and the sleeping bag. I still don`t know if down with a peritex shell is still ok after being soaked multiple times but I guess he will be able to answer that in the coming winter 😛 Packing stuff up was tedious.
We all wanted to reach the peak but our time was running out. We returned the gear from Ferrino at the Refugio and went on to fill out the Ferrino questioner to do our part in testing gear. Then we started our descent.
It was a long way down. 2300m and a good 15 km later, my knees where crying and I was not in the best of moods. Note to self: next time don`t make the final descent into an quest.
The return home
As we arrived at the Passy lake it was a really good feeling to swim. My feet were killing me and we were probably really stinky. Three guys in one car/tent over 4 days. We did not smell it but it was probably quite a potent testosterone filled odor. Still after the lake we still kinda could not leave before getting a good bite to eat. And where else to end another Chamonix visit then at the MBC brewerey with a good burger.
I really like those burgers. I am not sure weather they are so good, or it is just that, after being up in the mountains on rations and frutabella bars days on end meat just is a great delicious juicy thing to eat. Regardless that was 16 EUR well spent. Soon after we were driving back home into the night. 800 km and 2 Red Bulls later I was still pulling and all righter while Krištof and Jan took turns sleeping like babies in the back of the car. But that would not be all for me. After arriving at 5 am in Ljubljana a long 8 hour work day was only 2 hours away. Suffice to say I sleep for 12 hours after my shift, dreaming of the white mountain still waiting there for us to be conquered. And it will…
Quick gear recap
Again I would like to thank Ferrino and the guys and girls at Tete Rousse Hut for accommodating us at the Highlab and supplying us with the gear to test. Here a short resume of the products we tested:
- Ferrino Snowbound 3 tent – In short. I love this tent. It is a proper expedition type tent for three people. Jan and I have used it extensively for the last season for the biwipowprojet in a lot of adverse conditions and the storm we weathered here with out a hitch proved to me that the design and construction are solid. Also this was the latest version of the tent that had a few detail improvements. The little hinges are now plastic that works better then the small metallic once. The front of the tent has a nice window in it now that proved great to check the conditions outside during the storm. Wind stability was excellent event at 70 km/h winds. I know that it is made for a lot more. Also its very roomy and three people with gear can move inside without getting on each others nerves.
- Ferrino HL Silver Pro sleeping bags – With a comfort rating of -6 and a max of – 24 this is a proper winter sleeping bag for your biwaking needs. WTS glued seems (horizontal) make sure the heat loss is minimal. Also it`s very flexible and one of the most comfortable expedition style sleeping bags I have tested in the last year. It is not the lightest at 1.2 kg but can be compressed well. You also have to consider for the ultra light bags, that you need another biwi bag for comfort. The only thing I would add is another short zipper on the non opening side like on the mid-range Nightec 800 model but I might be mistaking and this is a design choice to minimize heat dissipation. Size wise it was ok for me. Jan thought it could be a tad bit wider in the foot area. For the temperatures around 0 it was also really warm :).
- Ferrino Swift Inflatable mattrace – I must say that I was skeptical when we got these. I am used to the Superlight mats that are thin and have really good isolation for the winter and a lot less air in them. But in the two days I grew quite fond of these. They pack well and are very comfortable to sleep. What I did not like that much was the integrated foot pump. Might be cool for camping but when I needed to inflate the matt during the storm in the tent it would have been easier just to blow it up trough a normal ventilation system like on the superlight. Still in the end it is more comfortable then the superlite, packs well and is a interesting alternative.
Well that finishes the summer here in Europe as I head for a surf vacation to Bali at the end of the month. There is just one more thing before. The Red Bull Planica 400 race. In hype and anticipation of the winter I will finally start sharing the details on the first year of my #biwipowproject with you guys Check out the landing page. In the coming weeks I will post articles on our six trips that will include a lot of what we have learned while surviving out in the cold on glaciers in the alps and in the snowy mountains in search of the perfect lines.