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Thor calls it, “exposure desensitization.” This was the second day of the four that I spent with him. The first day was for acclimatization and to wet my feet with moving on quasi-technical alpine terrain. We went for a third to fourth class scramble and moderately steep snow on the Petite Aiguille Verte. Both guys did a fantastic job of selecting routes that would push me in just the right ways and that held enough progression from the previous day. I consider this to be the first real alpine route I completed. Needless to say, it was thrilling.
The Aiguille du Midi cable car was under repair for the first part of the trip. This meant that to get up to Vallee Blanche, you had to take the Punta Hellbronner cable car in Italy. To do this you drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel, an experience unto itself. At least it is the first time you drive it. From then on it’s just a sweltering stretch of toxic claustrophobia. You arrive on the other side in beautiful Italy. The Skyway tram is one of the nicest in the world. Each of the two cars rotates a slow 360 so that every seat is the best in the house for the sprawling views of Mont Blanc, the rolling hills of Aosta Valley (I’m told this area is world class for single track mountain biking) and far in the distance the continued expanse of the Alps, 4000m peaks dotting the horizon.
The tram arrives just above the Refugio Torino. A metal walk way skirts the exterior of the station and deposits you down onto the snow, icy at the first tram hour. We are surrounded by a number of other teams setting off for their objectives. Harness, crampons and rope go on. Dent du Geant to our immediate south. Part of me is dreaming about skiing the steep couloirs under the tram line. Part of me is apprehensively envisioning the possibilities of what is to come. Entreves is a big step up from the day before.
The snow made that squeak with each step characteristic of crampons puncturing the ice. We headed towards the col des Flambeaux. From here I was presented with the first view of the Vallee Blanch. It was mind blowing. I had seen it from the other side of the glacier a couple years prior when I visited Chamonix with my brother. It was a whole other experience to be in it. Glacier as far as the eye could see. Mont Blanc and Mont Blanc du Tacul in charge of the northern skyline. Trident du Tacul and Grand Capucin. The south faces of Aiguille du Midi, Aiguille du Plan, and Aiguille de Blaitiere stood out across from us. To the far east, Aiguille du Dru and Aiguille Verte. True alpine. Many lifetimes of missions that birthed the sport I sought to learn. They don’t call it the birthplace of modern alpinism for nothing.
Thor and I continued on to the west, around and under the north face of Aiguille du Toule. Off to our right was Tour Rhonde, an ice climb and steep ski peak I was familiar with from Seth Morrison’s movie, “The Ordinary Skier.” It wasn’t in condition on this trip but I will certainly attempt it on a future spring time visit. About twenty minutes more and we arrived at the col d’Entrèves, a saddle on the SW end of the route which overlooks the Italian side. Here we took off the crampons and ate a bit.
The first part of the route is easy scrambling. You more or less follow the ridge which gets increasingly airy as it gains prominence above the SE and West faces. The SE face is a classic big mountain ski line. Also on the list for another trip. Thor told me of the day he took Seth Morrison for a ski here. But today was about rock climbing and mountaineering boots. Half an hour of 3b terrain and we arrived near the summit and crux of the route. We also ran into the crowd. I didn’t know such a place could be flooded by this many people. But that’s what you get on an accessible Chamonix classic. In a way it was a good thing. A couple of the places we stopped were unassuming little perches that when I stopped focusing on movement, were actually airy enough to get me swaying a bit (I.e. exposure desensitization: having a mind for heights). I was nervous but handled it.
There are a few moves of steep climbing up to the summit. And one point I remember with an exposed down climb move. I tried to pay attention to how Thor led the climb as well. All of this was done on a short rope. If moving up, Thor leads and may or may not place a couple pieces of protection depending on the degree of technicality followed by an alpine belay, usually consisting of wrapping the rope around a horn or an Italian hitch on a piece of gear. The expectation is falls are unlikely.
We gained the summit and moved on quickly so that others could do the same. From here it was a fairly easy down climb of the NE ridge. We followed obvious reliefs in the rock back to the snow. Here we put on crampons and made our way back to the Torino Hut for a beer. While no longer anywhere close to the most technical thing I have climbed this one will always stick out in my memory as being exceptionally aesthetic and a perfect intro to the timeless ridgeline movements that define many alpine routes.