This summer we went to the Alps for two weeks and while climbing Mont Buet was not the first thing we did it has been one of the things I have been looking forward to writing about the most.
Earlier on in the year when researching what to do in Chamonix that didn’t involve crevasse crossing, serac passing or activities that had a high risk of potential death I came across a blog (I can no longer find it) that a couple had written about Mont Buet. They had climbed it and wild camped near the summit. Various other websites claimed it was one of the best things to see around Chamonix. It therefore became the one thing I had wanted to do while we were staying in Chamonix.
Just like when we set off for climbing in Wales, in fact more so because of the heat I wondered how on earth I was going to carry everything up to 3096m. We left Chamonix in the middle of the afternoon and it was HOT. It was HOT and I’m pale skinned and English and therefore not used to being so hot. I was wearing a pair of B2 mountain boots, my feet were on fire and the backpack was heavy. So when we finally started the trail through the Berard Valley it was very welcome.
The first part of the trail up to the Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard was a shaded path beside a glacial river and it was very much needed in the heat of the afternoon. The one thing that really stood out was how green and Alpine everything was. If you searched for ‘Alpine Trails’ on Pinterest this is what would come up. It was a very popular path and because of the late afternoon most people were on their way back down. There weren’t many people going up.
After the path left the shade of the woodland it opened up into a huge valley and the rain came down. Putting waterproof trousers over bare legs is one of the most unpleasant feelings. Gradually we started to pass fewer people and the rain got heavier. The path suddenly became more steep just before we passed the Refuge and whether it was because of this or the fact we were nearly getting to 2000m and this was my first time heading into higher altitude, it felt like progress was slowing down.
Once we had passed the Refuge we were the only people left going up. The path went up, it started getting colder and very much that feeling of being a million miles from anybody started to kick in. It was still, it was quiet and the light seemed at a level which was permanent dusk. We had to pass through a stream that had a roof of thick ice and snow above it. Beneath the icy roof it felt claustrophobic, you didn’t know where you were putting your feet and I was glad to get out at the other side. I hoped there was no more icy stream crossings.
The rain had stopped by the time we hit the snowline. We hadn’t expected there to be so much snow left considering it was the end of July and it had been so hot. It made progress a little more difficult as it was slushy underfoot and for some reason I was under the impression it wasn’t solid enough and it would all slide down the mountain from beneath me. Clearly I was not an experienced mountaineer!
We could see the summit ridge from where we were at but it looked a million miles away. We had planned to camp up there but there was no way we would make it before dark so we decided to camp on a little plateau at about 2700m.
We only had the tarpaulin we had taken to Wales as we certainly hadn’t expected to be camping on snow. We certainly didn’t expect it to start raining again as we were putting the tarpaulin up. And we certainly didn’t expect to see what we did for the next few hours.
It was about 9.30pm and we had just settled down to get some sleep as we wanted to be awake to watch the sunrise over the Mont Blanc massif in the morning. A lot of effort for a sunrise, I know. The tarpaulin was facing Mont Blanc and even though it was night we could still make out the outlines of the mountains in the distance. Unfortunately we could also make out the flashing lights and cloud that was forming dead ahead of us in the next range of mountains. Lightning. Thunder. Directly opposite us. And a storm cloud that was getting bigger and also appeared to be heading towards us.
We stared intently at this storm for three hours hoping it would not head our way. We had no cover, we were completely exposed. There were no sheltered rocky areas to hide in. Running back down the mountain would have been just as dangerous. So we watched the lightning and the clouds. We counted the time between lightning flashes and listened out for the thunder. Just as we thought we hadn’t seen any lightning for a decent period of time another flash would happen. I just wanted it to be the morning and the sunrise coming up and to be alive.
Despite the storm that was raging away ahead of us the sky directly above us was clear and the stars were stunning. And I didn’t even have my contact lenses in. If you looked up you forgot for a moment that a terrifying storm was happening directly opposite you.
By about 12.30am we decided that the storm was dying out and not coming towards us and that it was safe to try and sleep. But this didn’t stop you wondering if it was thunder you could hear or just another aeroplane passing above you.
Waking up and realising you haven’t died in the night is a good feeling. Waking up and realising you are the only two people on a mountain watching that view and sunrise over Western Europe’s highest peak is an even better feeling. It was freezing cold but worth it. The dawn gradually came from the left of us and the sunlight turned all of the major peaks orange one by one until it gradually hit Mont Blanc itself.
We packed up and continued up to the summit. It was steep as we didn’t take the correct path, something of a recurring tradition we seem to have developed on any adventure. I started to experience the effects of altitude for the first time. It slowed me right down. It made my heart thud in my chest. It made me realise that these mountains are the big ones.
We hit the summit just after 9am and were the first ones up there that morning. First Alps peak, done.
Back down should have been easier than up. Getting back down to the Refuge seemed to take forever, in fact I think it took about four hours. The snow was so slippery and a real effort to not fall on. This was all fun and games until we left the snow behind us. From there it was just a steep mountain path back to the Refuge which you could see below.
But we lost the path.
There were people coming up from an opposite direction to the one we were going down, and in an attempt to now have to pass under the claustrophobic ice roof again I was happy to take the alternative route. Gradually this ‘path’ started to involve a bit of scrambling down and then some down climbing. I took my backpack off at one point to make it easier. I threw it down to BG and it did a comedy-slow-motion roll off the side of a cliff. Joy.
No problem as we were heading down that way so I was certainly going to pick it up on the way.
We were tired by this point. We could see the Refuge and just wanted some coffee and a decent non-wild-camping meal. We continued down until we came to a traverse across a rock face that was 6m or so from the ground. It was covered in ants. The only was the only way across unless we wanted to go all the way back up and round. BG went across first. When it was my turn he said that the only things to grab onto were the bushes and they were spikey but I ‘would just have to get past that’. Even more joy. We got across with a lot of swearing and were covered in red spots from whatever spikey alpine bush we had to use as a climbing handhold.
I’ve never been so glad to see a Refuge before.
After some sort of baked/toasted cheesy ham stodge and coffee we headed back through the valley to catch the train at Le Buet. It was hot again but it was nice to appreciate the valley in the sun rather than the previous day’s rain.
And after everything, the most painful part of the trip was walking through Chamonix back to the apartment. Hot. Sore. Swollen. Completely done over by Mont Buet.
And I would do it all again tomorrow.