This was a solid glacier hike in what appears to be increasingly bad conditions. We used this GPX track which was mostly accurate although deviations to be expected with changing conditions.
We started from Le Tour near Chamonix (which can be reached by bus from Chamonix), and hiked up to Refuge Albert Premier (2707m). The hike felt long with all the gear, but was mostly ‘easy’ after the first steep sections, leading to a relatively slow but comfortable ascent on a ridge that brings you to the foot of the Refuge. The path was a bit annoying because everything is so dry and slippery with rocks and sand. The refuge itself is clean and the food is very (very) good, although perhaps too many egos in one place and many guided tours. We ended up having to share a dormitory with six other people even though the place was only half-full, so I would not expect COVID-protocols to apply anymore and to nab your own dormitory. There’s a hangboard in the dorm hallway if you’re looking for some finger exercises.
Once we arrived at the refuge, we scoped out the trail for the next morning knowing that it would be dark with our early departure. While we originally wanted to do Aiguille du Tour, we talked to enough people that we thought we might try something a bit more comfortable (the refuge warden was discouraging people from going to that peak – which has been re-routed to go by Col du Tour versus Col Supérieur du Tour – and we didn’t have any trad equipment if we needed it). In any case, the trail to both destinations starts behind the refuge. It can be a little bit dicey to follow in the dark, so it was good to walk this first section with light. That afternoon, we made it down to the first short ice section, and actually ended up just walking across to see how bad the next section was that heads just over the Signal Reilly. It is a steep and slippery scramble over sandy/rocky terrain with not so many markings, my least favorite thing. After that, we went back to the refuge for dinner (excellent spicy chicken and couscous, soup, and some kind of delicious slice of almond pastry – there was plenty). The sunset over the glacier was just beautiful.
After naturally not sleeping at all, we left the dormitory around 4 a.m., stuffed down some breakfast, took some for the road, and made it out the door around 4:30 am. We were the first to go, so ended up being entirely self-sufficient when it came to navigation for the first few hours. It was a beautiful morning, the sky was starry, and no wind. It was pretty warm and we managed to hike the first few hours without a second layer or gloves. After the first section that we walked the day before, things became tougher. We were navigating using a mixture of the GPS, trying to find some cairns, and estimating what the easiest route was in the dark. It worked out fine – we made it around the Signal Reilly and to the glacier just as dawn broke. Some incredible views down over the valley behind us with a pink and blue sky. Weather seemed stable so we continued on.
The glacier was very chaotic. Big, big crevasses, a few intimidating snow bridges. It was comforting to be on the glacier so early, when it was still cold and things seemed pretty stable rather than soupy. We were able to navigate the crevasses and benefited from some old tracks. At some points, we had to deviate and adjust to the conditions. Towards the final ascent to Tête Blanche, there was one gigantic crevasse that we saw a guide hesitate with, and ended up following their group up a steep, icy slope as the best shortcut/detour. It was easy enough with piolet and crampons, but did not leave much room for error with the crevasse at the bottom. There was an easier snow bridge to take on the left side, if you wanted to spend some time zig zagging your way to the bottom of Tête Blanche. We ended up taking the large snow bridge on the way down.
Once at the foot of the Tête Blanche, we did an easy scramble to the top. I proceeded to dump my wallet into the blocks of stone under my feet, which was not a very smart move. It turns out there is quite a lot of garbage up there, even if you cannot readily see it. The sun was just hitting our side of the glacier, and the light was beautiful and bright. The glacier is sandy and a bit dirty, so not exactly the dreamy snow-filled landscape one tends to imagine, but we were very satisfied (particularly going up without a guide, which tends to be more stressful and take longer). We made it back to the hut before 11 am. After an early lunch over the camping stove and a slice of homemade banana bread from the refuge (their carrot cake is a must try), we started the long and painful descent back to the valley. Knees screaming, we had a beer in Le Tour before heading home.