With no money for guides we had to learn from books and practice techniques in the UK where we could. The winter of 2014, had taught me a little about how to walk in crampons and Sammy had only ever worn them in an indoor wall. We used the opportunity to practice our skills watching what the guides taught their clients from a distance, the slopes they walked across and how they moved. This opened up new ideas of what was possible and gave us confidence. Sammy, ever the natural with footwork struggled little.
We put on the rope as we progressed practicing moving together our crevasse rescue kit jingling away. There was no objective danger to necessitate this however it helped us become more familiar with what we would need to do later.
A British guide walking the other way stopped for a chat and we confirmed that the Courvercle hut was up a set of ladders, the paint marks being yellow squares. knowing we had to cross the large glacial river which runs off centre down the left hand side of the glacier as you face up it we headed towards this. A few guided groups were crossing the raging torrent using a gentle slope of ice to a large rock and a subsequent jump to a smaller ice ledge and a steep climb out so we sat and had a quick bite to eat before attempting this.
The jump from a slopey rock in crampons was more risky for the first person across so I sent Sammy first, allowing me to secure her with a belay. I followed and we climbed the steeper ice slope out. Unlike Scottish winter snow climbing the ice was bullet hard, secure. We congratulated ourselves on how we'd handled this and proceeded aware that we were behind schedule and would possibly be walking down from Montenvers rather than getting the train.
Not a great deal further ahead we spotted an oil drum cairn on the morraine and yellow squares painted on the cliffs above and we headed across the morraine. It was about 1500hrs at this time so we stopped for another snack and something to drink before carrying on for another 15mins or so to the base of a ladder. Here Sammy realised that she had left her gloves where we had the water and wanted to go back to get them, this wasn't really an option as we had no discernable foot prints among the many that cross the morraine looking for the easiest route and the only defining feature of the place where we stopped was that it was 'behind a big boulder' in a sea or them. We opted to crack on.
Sammy lead the way up the ladder climbing approximately 30m of rope ahead of me, enough for 5 bolts or so. The route is well bolted and the ladders here are stable though in places overhanging. 30mins later we had climbed all the ladders necessary to a large platform, where we saw our first Ibex. Climbing on we expected the hut to be only 30mins away. Well over 1 hour later we were overtaken by a faster team who confirmed that the hut was not much further and we rang the hut to book in for the night as we were well behind time. Around this time the altitude hit me, I've since learnt that I begin to feel the effects at 2500m, Sammy however was not short of breath yet but being more powerfully built I found all the smaller laddered and scrambling sections difficult.
It turned out that we had taken the wrong set of ladders to the hut, these ladders are part of the new Balcon route and are not the Eschelets described in the Cicerone guides. The guidebook time for the circular walk back to Montenvers is given as 8 hours, most people we spoke to thought that 4 hours to the Courvercle is unrealistic and 6 hours would be good going. Unacclimitised and practicing techniques this took us almost 8.
Lessons learnt; Don't believe the guidebook times, Don't use Cicerone guidebooks (similar experiences in the UK), Don't drink alcohol at altitude.
This is not to say that this was a bad experience, we had succeeded, we were tired but the hut had room and food. That night we dined with an artist and an older mountaineer who was guiding him to allow him to paint the landscapes. Kindly he offered to take us to the col they were visiting the next day but we declined due to limited funds barring us from another night in the hut. We had a glass of wine each and watched the sunset over the Grand Jorasses, that night I found myself needing to force myself to breathe deeply or feel too nauseous to sleep, the wine had taken effect, combined with the altitude it made for a terrible nights sleep followed until the alcohol left my system.
We descended via the old balcon route, past the Charapoua Glacier and descending the ladders opposite the Egralets to the Mer de Glace the path to the Charapoua and crossing beneath the glacier was exciting. Many pegged steps are bent or broken by rock fall from above making for some exciting steps. Crossing below the Charapoua glacier is best done with haste, the seracs and rocks above are funneled down a 300m wide polished rock slab, this is not a place to linger and a slip could see you take a slide towards the drop towards the Mer de Glace. As we were crossing Sammy sent me first to ensure that I didn't rush her too much, about 20m from the end of the traverse she slipped on some wet polished rock. Luckily this only caused my heart to stop as she cried out and she was fine and we cracked on.
I have been told since that the ladders opposite Montenvers have been removed.