Soloing Aiguille de Moine
Earlier this year I decided to solo a peak called “Aiguille de Moine” which sits at 3412m within the Mont Blanc Massif.It seemed a suitable objective; The glacier approach along the Mer de Glace is completely dry towards the end of summer and the easiest route to the summit presents climbing difficulties no greater than 4a. I hadn’t done much alpine soloing before, but my attitude was simple - if I wasn’t comfortable, then I would turn back.
The route is usually climbed as a day trip from the Couvercle Refuge which sits at 2687m, or occasionally as a fast day push from Montenvers train station at 1913m. I decided to go one step further, (well many steps - a vertical kilometre in fact) to start and finish on the valley floor.
My first attempt wasn’t really an attempt at all. My alarm went off at 4am and I contemplated what lay ahead. I was undoubtedly nervous and the weather forecast had changed from good to marginal. I decided this was enough justification to close my eyes and drift back to sleep.
Attempt No. 2
Three days later and I got off to a far more successful start. After the initial 1000m ascent to Montenvers train station I then descended metal ladders for over a hundred metres to gain access to the Mer de Glace glacier below.This is necessary because the glacier has lost an incredible 80m of depth in the last 20 years alone and continues to retreat at an exponentially increasing rate. A stark reminder of the impact climate change is having on our mountains.
From here I decided to avoid a five kilometre trek up the glacier by crossing to an alternative set of ladders that were marked on my map. As I crossed the glacier, I revelled in the complete freedom and remoteness of my situation. The monstrous mountains all around me glowed softly in the early morning sunlight. I could see for miles and realised I was completely alone in this vast dramatic landscape. I felt privileged and humbled to be there.
As I approached the far side of the glacier, the moraine slope drastically steepened and became worryingly unstable. I soon found myself on all-fours and realised that one wrong foot placement or slip would have serious consequences. I was reaching the boundaries of my comfort zone but the idea of descending seemed more dangerous than continuing to the ladders, and so I picked my way carefully upwards. As the moraine gave way to vertical rock I realised to my horror that the ladders had been chopped and disassembled! I sat on a stable boulder to drink some water and contemplate my situation. My surroundings were truly spectacular.
The silence was broken as a helicopter roared across the sky, first circling around the glacier before disappearing behind the Dru. At this early hour, it was most likely to be a rescue; I suddenly felt small and vulnerable.
With no other realistic option, I began an extremely cautious descent back down the base of the glacier. It was such a relief to be stood on firm ground again. But what next? I had only lost an hour but I had also completely lost my psyche. I no longer felt the intense drive to complete this little mission, instead I was rather uncharacteristically drawn to the idea of heading back down to Chamonix and swimming with friends at the lake. I wondered where this feeling was coming from. Should I succumb to the desire to “give up” or if I should push myself onwards? After all, I couldn’t think of a single objective reason not to continue.
The buzz of a second helicopter grew louder and louder as it approached from the foot of the glacier. As it passed closely overhead the air around me was whipped up by the draft of the rotor blades, further swirling up my intangible feelings of discomfort. That was it. I decided to follow my ‘gut’ and headed back down to Chamonix. I knew I would be back.
Attempt No. 3
Several weeks later I found myself with a free day and a perfect weather forecast. I thought again of the Moine and felt a surge of enthusiasm bubble up inside me. It was now late September but the exceptionally hot and dry summer meant that the mountains remained bare of snow. Shorter day light hours enforced a leisurely 5am start so I packed my headtorch and set off with optimism and a spring in my step.
This time there were no doubts and no reservations. I took an alternative route up the Mer de Glace and found the new ladders that had been built to offer a safer departure from the retreating glacier. Up and over the shoulder of the mountain until finally, after more than two thousand metres, the imposing formation of the huge rocky aiguille came into view with its summit lying 450 metres above me.There was one final hurdle to access the start of the scrambling, as the remnants of the Moine glacier reared steeply up towards the base of the rock buttress. I strapped my aluminium crampons onto my running shoes and took out my lightweight axe in case of a slip. The snow slope was longer, icier and steeper than it had appeared. Fortunately a snow bridge remained to cross the final bergschrund and soon I had ditched my metal-work and started scrambling up the South Face.
It was pure joy. In shorts, t-shirt and running shoes I scrambled my way upwards. The route finding was not that obvious and I frequently drifted off route, drawn to sections of more interesting cracks and scrambling, but always finding my way back. In the height of summer this route is a popular guided excursion and there would likely be crowds of people scattering the face. But today, on this warm, dry, late-September morning, I had the mountain entirely to myself.
Such is the joy of soloing freely, I was able to arrive at the summit in well under an hour, less than a quarter of the guidebook time of four hours! The Moine is a beautiful mountain in its own right but even more remarkable is the breath-taking panorama that awaits you from the summit; arguably the most beautiful in all of the Alps. Nestled amongst some of the biggest and best known peaks in the Mont Blanc Massif, there are 360-degrees of mind blowing views. I kept turning around and around, never knowing where to look next. I had climbed several of these surrounding peaks earlier in the season and now the memories flooded back filling me with happiness. Meanwhile my imagination ran wild with all those climbs I still dreamed of doing.
When reaching a summit there is often a temptation to spend only a few minutes before beginning the descent, perhaps an instinctive draw to return to safety and celebrate in the valley. After all, it is well known that the descent is the most dangerous part of mountaineering. So here I was, lying in the sun at 3412m, taking in the most spectacular view I have seen in all my life and yet I was itching to leave. But I resisted. I decided to ‘force myself’ to spend a whole hour up here, taking in the magic. I set an alarm on my phone. Soon I began to relax completely and appreciate the pure joy of simply being in the mountains. Birds began to land next to me and picked at the crumbs of my oatcakes. The hot sun warmed my skin whilst the prayer flags fluttered in the gentle breeze. I was completely absorbed in my surroundings. It was both peaceful and exciting to be all alone in this incredible situation, humbled by the enormity and grandiosity of my backdrop.
My phone beeped and I slowly pulled myself back to reality. My hour was up. I’m so glad I did that, so content. In fact, when I look back, it was the most memorable and profound hour of my entire season in the Alps.