The majority of British mountaineers to visit the Alps will have visited Chamonix Mont Blanc in eastern France and that is where my trip commenced. I arrived by car with two friends - Hazel and Dan - from Sheffield after a journey of about 26 hours. We drove into the Chamonix valley at about 7pm at night and headed straight for the Les Chosalets campsite in Argentiere. This was to be our base for the week and we were welcomed onto the bustling site by some other friends who were already there.
The following morning saw the three of us start on our Conville course. These excellent courses run jointly by the BMC and the Jonathan Conville Trust offer subsidised training for aspirant Alpinists over three days. The first day consisted of basic training, including crampon and axe work, on the Mer de Glace reached on the Montenvers Railway from Chamonix.
The second day of the course, we set off up the valley to Le Tour and caught the cable car up to the Col des Balmes to walk in to the Albert Premiere hut at the bottom of the Glacier du Tour. The afternoon was spent in rather damp weather practising crevasse rescues outside the hut before retiring for the evening meal and an early night. The following day saw an early rise at 4am in order to climb the Aguille du Tour above the Glacier. Unfortunately, one of our guides was feeling unwell so we set off up the glacier on a rope of seven! We reached the Aguille just before dawn but, due to the large group with only one guide, decided it would be unwise to ascend the short distance from the glacier to the summit. Instead, we continued on the Swiss side of the ridge and circum-navigated the peak returning to the hut in time for lunch. The afternoon was spent returning to the valley by cable car.
The next few days were unfortunately spoilt by poor weather which left us with plenty of time to explore the valley. This included chances to peruse the gear shops of Chamonix and boulder on some of the local rocks. The highlight, however, was a trip to the local climbing wall which was a completely different experience to that back here in Britain. The wall was extremely popular that day (the weather outside was dreadful) and there was neither control over the numbers nor cautioning for boulderers who chose to traverse freely above multitudes of young children packed on like bees to a honeycomb. A couple of lads, probably no older than 13, were also seen attempting to top rope a route left led by another party (leading was done on the wall's own ropes). It must have taken a good half hour before another climber advised them that it would be safer to climb the end of the rope leading through the quickdraws, which would keep them from penduluming a good 12m across the room from beneath the overhang they were attempting every time they came off. An older couple were also seen body belaying (and lowering!).
For the final day of the week, we grabbed the opportunity to get up high again. Four of us decided to head up to the Argentiere hut before attempting the Aguille d'Argentiere. This meant a not so early start on the Grands Montets telepherique before the walk in to the hut above the Argentiere Glacier. The mountains surrounding the glacier provided an impressive backdrop although wisps of cloud were yet to clear completely. After an overcast night, the skies cleared and we set off before light up the Glacier du Millieu. The crux was left until after the bergschrund where a continuous snow slope of about 45° ascending for several hundred metres led to the summit ridge. On finally reaching this, we decided to only visit the higher of the two summits at 3909m. We felt pleased to have made it alone to our first Alpine summit after missing out on the course earlier in the week.
After we had taken in the views, all that remained was the descent. This was made by retracing our steps down to the
Millieu Glacier to the main Argentiere Glacier. The steep initial slopes proved rather more difficult in the now warm
sunlight but eventually we made it down and returned to the middle telepherique station avoiding the walk back up to the