The night I arrived in Chamonix I received the unfortunate news from my guide- Mont Blanc was a no go due to avalanche risks, and that no one was heading up the mountain until at least the following week due to the poor conditions. I now had 3 rainy days in Chamonix to fill, and because of the terrible weather, my entire time in France, with minimal peakbagging, can be summarized in one trip report:
The first full day in France I met my guide, James Kaler, who suggested some via ferrata in place of Mont Blanc. We drove about 1 hour east to attempt the Tour de Jalouvre in Grand Bornand, an impressive granite face with iron rods and cables leading to the summit. We moved quickly through, and I barely took any pictures given our pace. But about halfway up, a sign indicated the upper part of the route was covered in ice (it clearly was not) and they removed part of the cables to prevent parties from continuing anyways. With no choice, we descended back to the car.
He called a friend in Chamonix to see if the weather had improved (not really, but it wasn’t actively raining) so we drove back to do some sport climbing in the famous “Les Gaillands,” the training grounds of many famous European alpinists. Understandably, the crag was crowded, but we found a route rated French Grade 4 (~5.6-5.7 YDS) and he lead the two pitch route. We repelled down, and he handed me the quickdraws, saying- “Your turn.” I had never led climb before so I was understandably a bit nervous, but I did quite well with no falls. Definitely a big confidence booster.
The second full day was a complete bust. It rained nonstop and heavy the entire day. Arc’teryx was having an alpine academy in town that weekend, so I joined a volunteer cleanup team with rain across Europe (I even looked throughout Italy and Southern France, rain everywhere!). I was soaking wet the entire day, with the only upside getting a free lift ticket up the north side of the valley for fleeting views of Augille du Midi.
My last full day in France held some promise of better weather. I was determined to climb something my last day in France, and decided on Mt. Buet, a 3000 meter peak in the Auguille de Rouges north of Chamonix, the highest in that area of the range. Often used as a Mont Blanc training hike, it held no crevasse danger and is often skied in winter, making me think I could probably manage in the suboptimal conditions I was likely to face. I woke up in my hotel in Les Houches at 5AM and drove Northeast through Chamonix to the trailhead off the highway at about 1300 meters. The entire drive it was raining despite my initial hopes for better weather. I sat in the parking area for a good 30 minutes wishing the cold rain away (it was 3 degrees Celsius), then finally gave up without signs of a break. I charged up the trail, quickly becoming saturated in the cold precipitation. The trail passes an impressive waterfall early on, the Cascade de Berard, and I laughed at myself as I subconsciously avoided the mist of the falls despite being soaked already.
The weather seemed to settle a bit farther up valley, about 1 hour into my hike, and I had hope that I may be able to salvage the day. I could see fresh snow not far above me below 2000 meters, very unusual for active snow this low in June in the area. I began to hit patches of snow at about 1700 meters, and as I rounded into the upper valley, things ahead did not look promising. It wasn’t so much the snow cover, which I had fully expected, but the thick clouds that hung low in the valley, blocking any view of the pass I needed to aim for above.
I decided I would hike to the Refuge de la Pierre a Berard at just under 2000 meters, maybe warm up inside and ask if anyone there had been up Buet or were familiar with the conditions. Higher in the valley, I could make out the large backcountry hut, just at the start of snowline. There were no signs of life, and as I grew closer, I could see it was still boarded up for winter in the middle of June, almost unheard of this late in the season! At that moment, the skies opened back up into a wintry mix or rain and snow, and France twisted the knife as I had no where to take cover next to the boarded up hut. I looked up at where I thought the pass would be, however looking suggested it wasn’t a true col but a higher saddle that the trail led to, with some route finding past gendarmes along the ridge that would probably be simple in good weather, and treacherous with no visibility, GPS or partner.
It seems I was not meant to summit a mountain in France. Defeated once more, I hiked down the trail and descended 600-700 meters (~2000′) back to the trailhead in the continual rain, not passing another hiker until I was near the trailhead. I got back in the car, it only being about 10:30 AM. And being insane, I picked up the map, and figured out what else I could climb. The cloud level was at about 2200 meters, so anything above that I would lose visibility. The number of options on my map were somewhat overwhelming, but I had no idea of what would actually be any good, or if there were any pockets of better weather. I decided to drive to Chamonix and scope out the conditions there. Arriving into the valley, I could see rays of sunlight hitting some lower summits at the western most end of the Mont Blanc summit massif, which corresponded to two small summits on my map: Tete Noire and Le Prarion. I would take what the weather would give me, and dropped a pin in my car’s GPS where the trail looked like it would start. Driving west through Les Houches, I switched up the mountain through a small village to a trailhead labeled “Les Bouchards,” and started up through thick forest to the Col de Forclaz between the two peaks.
I seemed to be in the only pocket of good weather around, and felt bold enough to even take off my rain pants. I remained in trees as I hit the col, and decided to go for Tete Noire first, thinking with a name like Black Head, it might have some cool black summit rocks. But as I continued up through the muddy forest, I found no black rocks and little in the way of views. The summit had nothing more then a fallen down tree and a small cairn to designate that you had made it. Not too exciting for my first French summit….
I headed back down to the col and hoped I would have better luck with Le Prarion, a good 200 meters higher. The route of Le Prarion followed more of a ridgeline up, and the views to the North improved as the trees thinned. Of course, as I neared the summit, a cloud moved in and my views were lost. There were some signs at the top labeling the summits that you would see in every direction, including Mont Blanc. I sat down to eat, and as I waited, I finally caught a break, with the clouds clearing to the North and West.
I still did not have any views of Mont Blanc, but I at least felt like I had gotten one decent summit before leaving France. I half jogged back down to the car through the mud. Despite having only climbed two small peaks, between the failed attempt on Mt. Buet and the dual summits at the base of Mont Blanc, I had still climbed nearly 5,000′ that day. I headed back to the hotel and had one last dinner in France before heading back to Switzerland for my last full day in Europe.