Nasty, dangerous business, the ultras. It's a peak bagging list nobody has any hope of completing, but you might just get killed trying. There are 108 ultra prominant peaks in Europe, including 16 in mainland France and Switzerland. Of these, only Puy de Sancy (1886 m) could reasonably be considered a hiking peak all year round. The rest are big and scary, and would represent major mountaineering challenges under winter conditions. Considering that the first snow can fall as early as the beginning of September, I needed to get a move on if I wanted to climb any ultras in 2020. Top of my list was Dents du Midi (3257 m) in Switzerland, seen here from Aigle, almost 3 km below (from Wikipedia):
The North face of Dents du Midi is a virtually impenetrable rocky debacle. Most people climb it via the South flank, which is steep and loose, but essentially just a hike. The most sensible option is to to spend the night at the Auberge de Salanfe, at about 1950 m, before finishing off the remaining 1300 m of ascent the next day. For some reason though, I was obsessed with climbing Dents du Midi from Champery, a small town on the North side. Champery is much lower, at about 1050 m, meaning a full 2200 m of ascent would be required to reach the top.
I'd originally planned to leave Geneva in the evening and arrive late at Champery, but at the last minute decided on an early start to give me a half day's walking. I decided to climb Croix de Culet (1962 m), a respectable wooded peak overlooking Dents du Midi on the opposite side:
**a note on the photos: I've recently started using ImageJ to edit my photos as part of a general shift to free open source software. ImageJ is a very powerful tool developed by the National Cancer Institute in the US. Unfortunately it's a little too advanced for someone just needing to crop and resize photos. I'd resized the photos using the default bilinear interpolation, rather than bicubic. As a result, all the photos in this report are a bit blurry**
A well signposted route winds its way up through the forest before reaching the ridgeline. Along the way, I met a group of mushroom pickers, each carrying a picnic basket full to the brim with big mushrooms.
Near the summit, I stopped for lunch at a park bench (this is Switzerland, remember) and gazed at Dents du Midi across the valley. My plan was starting to look completely ridiculous. The 2200 m of ascent was far too great to be plausible in a single day.
After two hours I reached the summit of Croix de Culet. Bearing in mind there's a cable car station and restaurant just below the summit, I expected it to be swarming. It was, but not with people. Flying ants, wasps and other nasties were everywhere, forcing me to make a rapid retreat down to the cable car station and then down through the woods back to Champery.
When checking in at the hotel in Champery, I described my Dents du Midi plans to the girl at recpetion. She was not dismissive (as I'd expected) but suggested I'd need to start very early, around 5 or 6. She kindly offered to set out a tray of breakfast, as the regular hotel breakfast was not until 8.00. With an extra two hours, for the first time I actually started to think this might be possible.
I set my alarm for 5.30 am the next morning and awoke naturally at 5.29 am. I went down to the breakfast room but it was pitch black and I couldn't find a light switch. I returned with a head torch and had a look around for my breakfast. Nothing. She must have forgot. Luckily, there were a few covered bowls of dry cereal and nuts, so I managed to force down a bowl and got ready to leave. As I left, I thought I'd better just check around the reception area, just in case. Sure enough, in the lounge area, there's my breakfast, all neatly layed out with a flask of coffee! I finished off the whole lot and brushed my teeth for a second time. By now, it was 6.30 am, so I needed to get going.
Map of my intended route:
The first major obstacle is reaching the Pas d'Encel. Here, Dents du Midi and Dent de Bonavau meet at a very narrow pass. The route up to the pass is vaguely reminiscent of Jack's Rake on Pavey Ark, although the most exposed sections are protected by chains.
From here, the route leads up into the Susanfe valley:
Dents du Midi has multiple summits, or teeth (Dents in French). The highest, at 3257 m, is Haute Cime (high summit). The rest are all difficult rock climbs.
Finally, at about 10 am I reached the Col du Susanfe (2493 m). Only another 750 m of ascent to go! At this point, the route joins with the path from Salanfe and it becomes much busier. There were dozens of other climbers setting out for the summit.
After a short rest and a banana I set off on the long plod up to the summit. The route goes to the right, crossing the obvious rock band at a narrow point. The path is frequently indistinct and it's surprisingly easy to get lost. A young lady managed to take the wrong route up the rock band and found herself in all kinds of difficulty, slipping and sliding about on the loose ground while others shouted various bits of advice. She seemed to see the funny side of her predicament though, and no harm was done.
Up and up we went...
I was exhausted and barely able to manage 10 m without needing to stop for a rest. At this altitude, the oxygen level is about 70% of that at sea level. It's not enough for headaches, nausea and confusion, but still makes things difficult.
Finally, I reached the Col de Paresseux (3053 m), literally 'col of lazy'. At this point, my immediate reaction was to call it a day. I was completely spent, and the sight of 200 m more of steep, loose, exposed climbing was utterly deflating. Despite deciding to give up, I carried on walking a bit further before stopping for a short rest and finish off the remainder of a chocolate bar. Then I was off again, not going back down, but up to the summit.
The route zig-zags it's way up, then makes a long diagonal traverse under the summit rocks. By this point, I realised I was going to reach the summit. It was a strange feeling. I'd become completely focussed on the climb and stopped taking rests. All the songs that had been playing though my head all morning went away and it was silent.
Finally, I made it
Mais quelle heure est-il? Il est midi! I couldn't believe it. After five and a half hours I'd somehow timed my arrival on the summit of Dents du Midi to 12.00 (midi) almost to the second
The guy in the Sea Shepherd t-shirt was a real character who chatted with me at various points throughout the climb. People seemed to be much more talkative than usual given how busy it was.
There were a few alpine Choughs around the summit. These are extremely rare in the British Isles but are as common as muck in the Alps. They are usually the yellow billed version and have a very distinctive high pitched call. They are often very tame and will even feed directly from people's hands.
After spending 5.5 hours getting up the mountain, I began the long walk back, completely retracing my steps. It was much easier, but the loose ground made things tricky and potentially dangerous. At one point, a group taking a slightly different route down set off a small rockfall. It's something I was surprised not to see more often. Nobody was wearing a helmet and a head injury up here would have serious consequences.
About half of the people climbing Dents du Midi were wearing trail running shoes, with most of the rest in lightweight summer hiking boots. Some appeared to have no equipment at all other than water and trekking poles. One or two didn't even seem to have any water. I did not see a single person looking at a map. The difference in attitude between Swiss and British walkers is almost comical. In Britain we just love shaking our heads and tut-tutting at walkers trying to climb Skiddaw or Ben Lomond without a full set of gear. But here, the 'fast and light', alpine style approach is king. The locals seem to think nothing of climbing serious mountains like Dents du Midi with the bare minimum of equipment.
I made it back to Champery at about 16.45, over an hour earlier than planned. I'd hoped this would mean I'd get home early, but the trains were a nightmare (yeah, it happens sometimes in Switzerland ).
Epilogue: The next day was tough, as I paid the price for the long ascent combined with heat exhaustion. Ever since, it's rained almost constantly, with snow appearing as low as 1500 m on the Jura mountains. If I had failed to reach the summit of Dents du Midi that day, I'd probably need to wait until next June for another go at it.
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