Monthly Archives: September 2009

Life: Alpine bivouacs, huts, camps

Berard Valley campOne of my favorite parts about being in the Alps is sleeping out in the mountains. Sometimes this means sleeping in a tent. Other times, it means making a comfy little bivouac, or sleeping in a hut, or bedding down unexpectedly on top of some rhododendrons for the night. Fortunately, I had a bunch of good camps this summer while out trekking and climbing with friends. Some, of course, were better than others.

On one trip—one that didn’t go so well as far as sleeping goes—I opted to carry my 13-ounce bivy sac up the Berard Valley. I love going light. So while my sister set up her one-person tent, and her friends set up their two-person mountain tent, I just tossed down my sleep kit and rigged up a tarp (camp pictured at right). But the weather didn’t cooperate, and even though I set up my sweet trekking-pole-tarp bivy site and tested it out with a smile on my face…

Traci J Macnamara tarp bivy

I got flooded as soon as it started raining and then squeezed into Jacqueline and Trent’s super-bomber mountain tent:

Traci Macnamara tent poacher

We were all smiles here, but no one really slept well. My feet were scrunched between their shoulders, and I slept with my head on the downhill side of a slope. Nonetheless, we were up again the next day hiking and setting up another camp the next night (Lac Blanc in the background):

Lac Blanc bivy

Basically, night two was the same as the first night—torrential downpour—and I again got flooded out of my bivouac and had to jump into the mountain tent (thank you, Jacq and Trent!). I still like to go super-light, but in the interest of survival, I think I will take a one-person tent (at least) for a proper shelter in the future when the weather report even hints at rain. Most recently, I went up with three others to climb in the Envers des Aiguilles area of the Mont Blanc massif. We opted to carry in our own food and gear, but we slept in the hut.

Envers Crew

In the photo above, we were out relaxing on the Envers hut’s deck when mountainglow flooded the mountains surrounding us, Mer de Glace below. A good moment. The scale of things in the Envers des Aiguilles is just so much greater. While the Aiguilles Rouges and the Berard Valley are stunning places, the granite faces here make everything look small. Try to locate the hut in the photo below:

Envers Hut Piege

If you couldn’t find it, the Envers hut is in the bottom part of this photo just right of center, above the Mer de Glace. And the Tour Verte (2760m) is the highest peak above it on the left. Kristy, Mark, Cedric, and I had a good day out climbing the Verte’s classic route La Piege…more on that in upcoming post…

Landscape: The Berard Valley

Berard Valley BeersSummer is a busy time here in Chamonix, France. Tourists are flocking up the Aiguille du Midi cable car—climbers, too—and guides are running clients up the Brévent and Flégère lifts on the Aiguilles Rouges side of the valley. To escape the chaos, I’ve found that the Bérard Valley, the next valley over from the Chamonix valley, is a good place to find some less-spoiled territory. Sure, there are a bunch of hikers going up here to summit Mont Buet, but there are no lifts zipping people up to where they want to go, so everyone is doing it the slow-sane way, on foot.

My sister and her friends came to visit for a week, and I promised we’d spend a few days out in the mountains. I didn’t want to miss a chance to get them out in the Bérard Valley, so we hiked up one afternoon and set up a bivouac above the Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard (after treating ourselves to beers at the hut, above right). There’s no camping, technically, allowed in this area since it’s part of the Aiguille Rouges Nature Preserve, but we justified a short stay, as we planned to climb from our bivouac to the Mont Buet summit early the next morning. We woke up to clear skies and this gorgeous sunrise after two nights of rain:

Berard Sunrise

Above the Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard, the trail gets steep. Maybe an hour or so of zig-zagging up some rocky terrain like this:

Buet Trail

We continued along this rocky alpine trail, spotted a herd of mountain goats, and then reached the super-scenic Col de Salenton, which is perhaps the half-way point to the Mont Buet summit:

Col de Salenton

The rocky-grassy bits gave way to a steep scree field, which we switch-backed up for another forty-five or so minutes:

Scree Climbing

My sister, Trent, and I climbed this in late-summer conditions (end of August), so we didn’t have any snow to deal with. But I climbed this same peak one time in June and had a much different view from the top. Snow and ice covered the peaks in all directions, and from the top, I could see out over the Aiguilles Rouges and get a glimpse of the Mont Blanc massif in the distance:

view from Buet Summit

We didn’t have quite such a spectacular summit view without all of the snow this time, but it was still a fantastic climb, and we were all happy to be huddled together on the top:

Summit Shot

That afternoon, we walked all the way down the valley and were out eating dinner at Trois Ours in Vallorcine that night to celebrate the end of a good adventure with fondue, rosé, and an over-abundance of boiled potatoes.

Literature: Loewen’s Pickets and Dead Men

Title: Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier // Author: Bree Loewen // Publisher: The Mountaineers Books // Pub. Date: March 2009 // 192 p.

Pickets and Dead MenI love books, okay? Everybody knows this. So people are always telling me about books that they like, books I should read, books I should review, books I should love or hate, etc. My sister recently visited me here in Chamonix, and she showed up with a book that I absolutely had to read. I was skeptical of her declaration, but once I started reading the first chapter of Bree Loewen’s Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier, I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that I even took it with me in the mountains while we were out backpacking/camping, and I finished it in two days. This was on a trip where I refused to carry a tent (and got flooded in my bivy sac and then squeezed into someone else’s mountain tent). In the end, I’d say that taking this book was so worth the extra weight.

In Pickets and Dead Men, Loewen writes about her experiences as a climbing ranger on Mount Rainier. She’s candid about what it’s like to be a female in this mostly-male world, what it’s like to pull dead bodies out of crevasses (with your boss looking over your shoulder), what it’s like to subsist on very little sleep and a lot of macaroni and cheese. Loewen’s writing is colorful, funny, and true. I’d recommend reading Pickets and Dead Men while you’re out on a good adventure of your own…this book is so palpably real that it will double your fun.

Click here for more details and ordering info from The Mountaineers Books website.

Photo credit: The Mountaineers Books

Life: The Mountaineers

Traci Macnamara backyard rapAdventure begins in your backyard. That’s one of my favorite sayings—and one that I got to practice with my sister and her friends last week, as we harnessed up in my apartment for a little self-rescue session.  We were planning on a glacier crossing here in Chamonix’s mountains, and I wanted to make sure that everyone felt comfy getting themselves out of a crevasse, should such an opportunity arise.  So.  I tied a rope to the scaffolding outside my window and backed it up on the radiator (the roof of my building is being repaired, hence the scaffolding).  We practiced rappelling out the window and then inching our way back up with prussic cords.

Jacqueline, who has recently been climbing with The Mountaineers in Seattle, seemed skeptical about the safety aspects of this plan, so we clipped her into the radiator as a double backup.  And while she watched on, I wondered if this activity were something that The Mountaineers would have approved of.  That’s me, above, starting down, and here my sister and I are tending the window:

Window Tenders

Shawna volunteered to go first.  She had a bit of a wobbly start but then rapped down with a smile on her face:

Shawna on Rap

Once we were on solid ground, we practiced attaching prussics to the rope and then using them to climb back up.  Basically, you first have to slide the prussic attached to your harness as high as it will go, then bend your legs and put your feet (or foot) into a foot prussic (yours truly, demonstrating):

Prussic 1

Then you can stand up in the foot loops to ease tension on the top cord while resetting it, again as high as it will go:

Prussic 2

By repeating this process, we were able to inch back up the fixed rope to my apartment window in the same way—best case scenario—that any one of us would have been able to rescue ourselves from a crevasse fall.  Here’s Shawna, almost back up:

Shawna near top

Later in the afternoon, we headed up to the top of the Grand Montets lift, where we strapped on our crampons and tied into a rope so that we could cross the Glacier des Rognans.  Signs warned us of the inevitable crevasses (Shawna and Jac all smiles, despite the warning…):

Shawna and Jac

We knew there would be crevasses (this being a glacier), but what I didn’t anticipate was the size of the gaping late-season bergschrund that prevented us from even getting on the glacier.  The opening between the snow slope and the schrund was way too wide to step over, and we decided that rappelling onto the glacier was too advanced a technique for our rope team of four.  I was disappointed in the conditions but glad that everybody took the change of plans in stride and had a happy dinner in town instead of at the hut we were hoping to reach that night.