I have lost my virginity. For Chamonix. For the other things… maybe someday 😀
I spent the last week of August in Chamonix to do some climbing. We had booked a course from Alpine Guides with my friend Lauri, but had also some time for climbing to do on our own. My trip did not start there, however, as I first visited my friend Markus in Basel. I flew in on Thurday morning and I spent a nice day and a half there with him and his extended family. I also got to experience a real Basel activity: floating on the river Rhine. Basically, you take a special waterproof bag sold (or rented) for that purpose called a “fish”, strip your clothes, stash them into the bag and jump into the water. The river has quite a strong current and you do not need to swim much at all. The area where you can float safely is not very long and when you’re finished you climb off the water. Floating was a very fun thing to do and I would recommend it for anyone going there.
On Friday afternoon I took a train to Gevena airport where I met Lauri. We had booked a shuttle bus to take us to our bed & breakfast in Chamonix. We didn’t arrive there until 10 pm when there wasn’t much else for us to do than find a place to eat. A restaurant down the street had just closed the kitchen, but we managed to get some food from a camping site restaurant nearby. Cheesy pasta and a beer was all we needed for that evening. After we got nourished it was soon sleepy-sleepy time, as we would have an early start the next morning to do some climbing.
Climbing day 1
Early morning wake up was followed with a limited, but sufficient breakfast. The breakfast consisted of different kinds of cereal and müsli, juice, milk, tea and coffee, ham and cheese, toast and, the best of all, fresh baguette. It is unreal how good a freshly baked real french baguette can taste. Well nourished we packed our packs with rock gear and headed off to Chamonix center. We stopped quickly at the tourist office to check the weather forecast and it looked all good for the day. Confident about the good weather we took a bus to the Flégère téléphérique.
Over there we bought a multipass for a week as we figured it would be the best option if we would use the lifts even a few times. Then we took the next lift up and continued with a chairlift all the way to Index station. From there it was only a 5 minute walk to the base of our chosen climb: Voie Brunat-Perroux on the Aiguille L’Index. It is a seven pitch climb with grades ranging from 4c to 5b if you do not do the last short 6a variation at the end.
We had to look for the start of the route for a few minutes, but from there it was pretty straightforward. The first two pitches got us to the ledge and from there the route continued a few meters to the side. It was pretty easy to follow still and the difficult bits were quite short. There was just a few trickier moves on the first and third pitches from the ledge. But the last pitch to the ridge was another thing. I climbed here and there and could not really see where the route goes and eventually ended up traversing quite a bit and then having a huge runout until I reached the belay I thought was the correct one. From there it was just a few easy moves and we were at the top. Hooray!
We took the mandatory summit shots and started the traverse on the summit ridge to the abseil point. There were quite a few anchors to choose from and we chose the biggest one. For a while few pondered on which side we should abseil as the route description did not clearly say that. We chose the northern side as it looked a bit more appealing. Once we got happily down and started pulling the ropes down we saw that something was wrong. The ropes were stuck. For a few moments we tried to tug and pull them in different directions, but with no luck. Eventually I ended up half climbing, half prussiking all the way back to the anchor and moved the knots nearer to the cliff edge. I abseiled down again and just then realized how futile my efforts had been as the ropes did not budge at all. There was just too much friction on the ropes. Luckily there was a guide with a client who reached the top after us and they released our ropes. We had used the wrong anchor to abseil on that side. What an embarassing moment, but we were sure we weren’t the first ones to make the mistake. When we finally had our ropes with us, we headed quickly back down to the lifts and down to the valley. If nothing else, at least I got one of the most scariest experience I’ve ever had when I was hanging 30 meters in the air held by just two tiny cords 🙂 I tried, I learned and do not want do that again if I can avoid it.
Because of these little incidents we had, the trip took a little longer than expected and we just quickly had pints of celebration beers for the succesful ascent and headed back to the B&B. A quick dinner at the nearby restaurant and off to sleep.
Climbing day 2
For Sunday we had big plans. We woke up early and had a brief breakfast before hitting the bus to the city center. We then walk to the Aiguille di Midi lift, where there were some 20-30 people queing in. We got the second lift up and quite soon we were gearing up at almost at 3800m high. As soon as we were ready we headed off from the “alpinist exit” and on to the narrow snowy ridge that leads to the Vallee Blance. Our goal for the day was a super classic Arête des Cosmiques that starts from the northern edge of the valley and continues all the way to the Aiguille du Midi lift station. The approach along the ridge was a bit scary, but the rest of it was just walking on the glacier.
With no delay at the bottom of the route, we started up at the same speed. The first part of the route was relatively easy with a few more physical moves here and there. After a bit more than an hour we reached the abseil points. So far we had basically only seen one guide with a client who passed us and some other people further up the route. So, we were basically all on ourselfs there. We absailed down the fifty odd meters there was. Right around the corner we encountered one more difficult spot, a chimney where you were supposed to step over the corner to the right. It was not difficult, but having that 400m of air beneath you, it does make things a bit more interesting. After that there was a slippery couloir up, then some rocky downclimbing and finally we walked the snowy section to the crux. We had to wait a bit for the previous party to clear the spot, and were delayed a bit more as Lauri managed to drop one of his gloves into between the rocks. It took a good ten minutes and some hooking with the ice axe (the only spot we really used those) to get the glove back. Finally he managed to grab it and I was able to continue to the crux. I started up the crack and used pretty much everything there was, the newly chopped crampon pockets too. I was feeling pretty tired here, but managed to pull it through. The elevation must have taken some toll as we had come up almost three kilometers from the valley.
After the crux belay, we had thought it would be just an easy walk up to the top, but we were a bit surprised to find quite a few tricky spots still. Being tired and on the most exposed section of the route the going was slow and we used a lot more ad hoc belays from rock spikes. At the very end there were a couple of quite physical moves and then we were at the top of the ridge. An easy walk to the viewing platform and we were done. At the viewing platform there were dozens of tourists taking pictures of the views and also of us. We took a few summit shots and then had the mandatory top beer before we took the lift back down.
You can see about the whole route being climbed in these Youtube videos. A total of nine of them.
When we got back down to the valley we were tired, hungry and burned in the sun as neither of us hadn’t remembered to apply sunscreen for the day. We had asked for a dinner in the lodge so we headed straight back to the B&B. In the evening we also met our guide, Al Powell, who told us about the week’s program.
Climbing day 3
Monday was our first day with a guide. Our plan was to climb Chapelle de la Glière, a longer climb on the Aiguille Rouge near the L’Index we had climbed earlier. Wake up was about the same time as previous days and after breakfast at 8am Al came to pick us up for the day’s work. We drove to the Index lifts and headed straight up. From the top it was about a half an hour walk to the base of the climb. We saw a couple of groups on the route, some on the right track and some wandering a bit off the route.
The first pitch of the route was surprisingly difficult. It was graded 5a, but was quite a physical half-layback corner with pretty polished rock. I would not have been too comfortable with leading that, and luckily I didn’t have to 🙂 The second pitch was a bit easier, on the same corner up to the ridge above. On the ridge there was an easy section, though sparsely protected, to a belay. Next was a tricky corner again in two shortish pitches on to a ridge. We simul-walked the easy ridge and then climbed again an easy short pitch to a belay. Next was the apparently famous razor-edge, though I did not see why the fuzz about it. It was more complicated to do those couple of tricky moves first up the smooth slabby crack and then onto the razor-ridge itself.
Then it was one easy pitch to a large terrace and then more walking or scrambling to the bottom of the chapel itself. The pitch over the chappel started with a few airy moves, but there were good holds if you looked around a bit. A couple of moves more and a traverse on the roof of the chappel to the bottom of the bell tower or Clocher. There are two ways to the top and we chose the easier one. This, too had a few balancy moves until a peg and then crimpy stuff to the edge and over. The more difficult one would have taken a more direct line apparently with some thin moves. Now we were on the top of the Chappelle and we took some summit pictures and abseiled off to the back side on to a good picnic spot.
A few groups had had a snack break here, but we just shuffled our gear up and darted towards the lifts. The path was a relatively easy one to follow, but there were a few bits of down scrambling here and there. Mostly, it was walking ground, though, and us being roped up was a bit unnecessary until the path went down into the Col D’Index, the same loose gully we had descended earlier. We downclimbed into the gully and continued directly to the lifts and back to the valley. Our first guided day was now at its end. After a late pizza lunch we headed back to our B&B to get ready for the next day’s adventures.
Check out the video of the Chappelle de la Glière climb from tvmoutain.com.
This was the first part of our week. I’ll try to wrap up the rest, too, shortly in “Part 2” with more climbs to come.