Grand Combin (09.08.2018)

Written by hmsv1 (Hannah Vickers) GSM

Start point Valsorey hut
Characteristic Alpine climbing
Duration 7h 45min
Map
Ascents Grand Combin (4,314m) 09.08.2018
Grand Combin de Valsorey (4,184m) 09.08.2018

The Grand Combin ended up being the major summit of the week climbing with Tim and we were also joined by Janine and aspirant mountain guide Jack. It was nice to have another female for company, although when the other female has previously been on the British skimo racing team it made me a bit nervous about the pace we’d be hiking up to the Valsorey hut in ;) We left Evolene at around 9am on the wednesday and stopped at Martigny to pick up Jack before continuing the journey up to Bourg St. Bernard where the trail to the hut starts. With about 1200m of height gain it’s regarded as one of the "longer" hut walks and fortunately that means it also ends up being quieter. There was only a group of three female hikers and another couple other than us staying at the hut that evening. The walk up to the hut is actually quite nice and the paths are typically Swiss; gentle gradient, lots of switchbacks etc. Views weren’t spectacular but nice enough. But hiking up under the late morning/early afternoon sunshine it felt like pretty hard work for someone who doesn’t tolerate heat so well…… Anyway, I was more than happy to be finished with the hut walk by the time we actually reached the Valsorey hut. We were welcomed by the lovely hut guardian Isabelle and her pal who I can’t remember the name of. Turns out she had studied at Aberystwyth university for a short while a few years before I was there. Small world! :)

Janine and Jack on the trail going to the Valsorey hut
Janine and Jack on the trail going to the Valsorey hut
First glimpse of the mountain's west side
First glimpse of the mountain's west side
Second break on the hut approach
Second break on the hut approach
The Valsorey hut
The Valsorey hut
Hut art :)
Hut art :)

The afternoon wasn’t too long since we arrived just after 3pm and a great dinner of soup and chilli with rice was served at 6pm. A good time to be eating dinner considering we were supposed to be having breakfast at 3am the next morning! I as usual didn’t really sleep so much despite the fact that the dormitory was really quite quiet but was nevertheless so pysched up for the day ahead that I was well awake before the alarm went off at 2.55am. There was the usual selection of bread, jams and nutella and some coffee for breakfast but nothing too substantial. Janine and Jack were rather speedy with getting ready and left the hut about 5 or 10 minutes before myself and Tim, though we did catch up with them a bit later. It was noticeably windier than the day before. Really windy actually – and I was starting to get a bit concerned that maybe I should have brought another jacket with me but I guess there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway. The first part of the ascent to access the Meitin Ridge was really just a steep slog up some semi-frozen scree slopes. We went at a very slow and steady pace which I was more than happy to stick to. I was breathing hard enough anyway so I had no need to go faster! I don’t have a clue how long it took but it was in any case still dark by the time we reached the start of the ridge. And still cold and windy. We took a brief break here and I put on pretty much every piece of clothing I had taken with me in my rucksack including mitts which I did not regret!

Jack looking super psyched up to climb the corner
Jack looking super psyched up to climb the corner
Tim climbing one of the easy pitches
Tim climbing one of the easy pitches
Jack and Janine close behind
Jack and Janine close behind
Jack arriving at one of the earlier belay stances
Jack arriving at one of the earlier belay stances
Dawn
Dawn
A loose gully
A loose gully
More solid stuff :)
More solid stuff :)
Nice views westwards
Nice views westwards

The initial part of the Meitin Ridge was straightforward and it was mostly scrambling terrain so we moved together for most of the time. Then we arrived at what can be best described as a very strenuous corner pitch – which was also climbed still in the dark. It was vertical (no kidding) and a bit of a squeeze at times. There were actually handholds and footholds to be found but they were just not very obvious in the dark even with a headtorch on. Even though I climbed it with a pair of softshell gloves on my fingers still got really cold, stiff and more or less useless which didn’t help to speed things up….. In the end I got up it, ever thankful for the tight rope held at Tim’s end and we could move on to the next section of ridge which was like a walk in the park in comparison. The corner was probably the crux of the whole ridge as well – nowhere else on the ridge was the climbing anywhere near as hard as that. The rest of the ridge was a bit broad and loose in places. It was never really an obvious narrow ridge – the type it would be impossible to go the wrong direction on. I think on this ridge it would actually be quite easy to go off route. In parts the climbing was quite easy but engaging but these were often interspersed with stretches of walking over steep and broken ground before another section of OK climbing. This seemed to be a recurrent theme of the ridge. I think the route finding would probably be one of the main challenges but I guess that’s the advantage of going with a guide who’s done the route three times before :) The views were ace though - admittedly not quite as spectacular as for example being on the Eiger, Dent Blanche or Dent du Geant when you are completely surrounded by peaks that soar up from the glaciers or valley bottom beside you, but we had the whole of the Mont Blanc massif in the distance behind us all the way up and I think that was still pretty cool.

View towards Mont Blanc. The shadow of the Grand Combin is pretty awesome I think!
View towards Mont Blanc. The shadow of the Grand Combin is pretty awesome I think!
Tim at the foresummit
Tim at the foresummit
Foresummit cross
Foresummit cross
Jack and Janine arrive at the foresummit
Jack and Janine arrive at the foresummit
On the way to the main summit
On the way to the main summit
Me at the main summit
Me at the main summit

As we approached the upper section of the ridge leading to the foresummit, the rocks became gradually covered in rime, which made the scrambling a bit trickier and more care was required to not slip, but eventually – and after 3.5 hours from the hut we came over the top of the ridge and got greeted by warm sunshine, which was much appreciated after such a long time in the dark and icy wind! Jack and Janine were still a way behind but we could see them maybe 100m below, so we used the time to put on crampons and have something to eat while we waited until they’d caught up before leaving for the main summit. It was quite fascinating how a few metres away from the edge of the ridge could be so much warmer than standing at edge and looking back down; it was like bein gon a beach vs being in the freezer again!

After some 15 or 20 minutes break at the foresummit, Janine and Jack had now also arrived and we continued on the way to the top, with Tim having to break trail in nightmare crusty snow, which eventually gave way to a think layer of wind-packed snow. The summit slopes were probably up to 30 degrees, maybe less but just straightforward walking. Unfortunately we ended getting enveloped in some think clouds at the top, so didn’t get a completely clear view of the surrounding mountains. At least it was a bit intermittent so we did get a glimpse of Jack and Janine approaching the top when the clouds thinned out a bit. It was very atmospheric though :) There were high fives all round at the summit but not a very long break there before we began the descent and retraced our steps all the way back down (and up again) to the foresummit. I was almost tempted to take off a jacket or two here since the sun was now scorching warm, but was soon reminded that we’d be descending back into the freezer so in the end zips were done up again and the jackets stayed on.

Tim on the summit
Tim on the summit
Jack and Janine approaching the summit
Jack and Janine approaching the summit
Jack and Janine approaching the summit #2
Jack and Janine approaching the summit #2
Team photo (Jack took it it).
Team photo (Jack took it it).
On the descent
On the descent
Back at the foresummit
Back at the foresummit
Bivvy hut nearby
Bivvy hut nearby
An abseil
An abseil
The strenuous corner - which looks nowhere near as epic in the photo as I remember it to be!
The strenuous corner - which looks nowhere near as epic in the photo as I remember it to be!

And so we come to the descent; it was a mix of downlimbing, moving together or either getting lowered by Tim or we both abseiled. It definitely seemed like the ridge had become longer on the way down than when we went up. I was quietly ticking off ”landmarks” as we reached various points along the ridge that I recognized from earlier in the day, but instead of giving me an idea of how far we’d descended it felt more like I was getting an idea of how far we still had to go. I wasn’t even feeling particularly tired (maybe impatient though?!), but it did seem that it was taking forever to get back down to the hut! But once we’d abseiled the strenuous corner pitch I at least knew were weren’t too far from the start of the ridge – and the rest would just be speed walking back down the sun-softened scree slopes to the hut, which was a very welcome sight when we did get there at about 11.45am. Janine and Jack were not too far behind and arrived about ½ hour later or something like that, so it was nice to be able to chill out with a cold can of coke (thanks Tim!) while we waited and also repack the rucksack with the rest of the stuff I’d left in the hut before we left. Since we knew there was going to be some heavy rain on the way we didn’t spend too much time hanging around once Jack an Janine had got back – it was a matter of doing as much of the walk back to the car as possible before getting drenched….. unfortunately we only got 20 minutes down the path from the hut before the first drops of rain began to be registered on our faces; this was swiftly by a deluge lasting at least another hour where everyone got completely saturated regardless of whether they were wearing waterproofs or not. It was so wet it was on the verge of being amusing! Luckily the last 45 minutes (ish) of the walk out were spent in drier weather, so we managed to dry out a bit in the warmer valley air before piling into Tim’s car for the 2-hour drive back to Evolene.

Verdict? Well it was good long day out with a variety of terrain to negotiate, but I guess you wouldn’t go and do the Meitin Ridge for excellent rock and continuous climbing. It did feel like a proper mountain day though with the added icy wind!

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