Again it has been too long since the last post and this summary the trip to Chamonix and Chamonix Mountain Festival is months late. Better later or never or something. The second time in the mecca of alpine climbing did bring some joyful moments, but also left me wanting some more. I had high hopes for my bit over week in the valley, but I did not accomplish many of the things I had on my wishlist basically for two reasons: the weather and I was not fit enough. I did get to do climbing on seven days out of eight, which certainly is way more than some people have to had to settle. And of course it is none other to blame than I if I lack the stamina needed to do those things. Still I had hoped that could have pushed my limits a bit more that I got now. And now for the very lengthy account of the week 🙂
That’s enough ranting for that. So, at the end of June I boarded the plane with again plenty of too many gear (had to even leave few things behind which I had thought of taking). Three hours later I found myself waiting for the transport to Chamonix. By coincident, there was a guy named John going to the same place in Argentière – the UCPA hostel – as I was. He then proved to be no other that the John Ellison, the man behind the Climbers Against Cancer organization (did also explain the CAC t-shirt he was wearing). In the end we even shared the same room in the UCPA. We both were hungry as hell, and went straight to the center to grab some food.
After the very hearty meal, we headed to check out the Midi base station and the assumed location of the gear fest, which should start the following day. After walking around a while and checking some shops (I bought some new topos) and wondering all the fuss that was going on around the main square, we headed back to Argentière for some rest. Of course we had a few beer with the few people that were there. In fact only in addition to myself there were only Michael (from US) and Julian (from Kenya) – the”Kenyans” as they were later labeled – attending the actual festival. And just to clarify only one of them was really Kenyan, but they both worked guiding in Kenya for the African Ascents.
Early in the morning I gathered my gear and headed for the nearby Argentière railway station. It was so early that the busses did not run that often and it was better to go with a train. My first in Chamonix btw. I had booked a Black Diamond Experience beforehand, since I weren’t sure if I could hook up with anyone for the first day.
Nicely in time I got to the meeting point – which we had scouted the previous day – and found the Black Diamond guys just getting their stuff out of the car. I was told to bring “personal alpine gear” which in my mind could have been anything from rock shoes and harness to full set complete with axes and screws. In the end I would have managed with just with boots and cloths basically, since they would have had axes, helmets, harnesses and such for testing. I took Stinger crampons, Venom ice axe and Couloir harness for testing. I had a little worry about my lift pass as we were supposed to meet 7:30 am at midi, but they festival organizers were able to the get the tickets only some time after 8am. In the end there was quite plenty of time to get the tickets, since we did not leave in too rush.
Initially there were supposed to be more people, but perhaps the deteriorating weather did scare few people off. Lucky for us, as we got now the guides on 1:1 ratio – pure luxury for the price! I was set to go with a french guide called Patrick Pessi. The incoming bad weather also dictated that we could not do any lengthy excursion and we set off to climb the Cosmique Arete – the same I climb two years earlier, but now in totally different snow conditions.
At 9:30am we were already at the base of the climb and started immediately up the ridge. Less than two hour later we were already at the viewing platform at the end of the route. This time, though, there were no tourists to cheer us up, as it was under renovations and out of bounds for all except climbers. The route itself was much more easier now than the previous time, thanks to the better snow coverage instead of just ice rocks. In addition to the different conditions, we did a little variation to the route by first climbing past the abseils on the Vallée Blache side and also skipping the crux section at the end by doing some tricky drytool/mixed climbing on the same side and topped right next to the ladders going up to the viewing platform. With these differences the route seemed almost like whole new route to me. I felt pretty good other than on the final snow climb to the top, where my thighs were burning like hell. Had to rest few times. We descended pretty much right away after taking a few pictures around. This perhaps was not decision, which came obvious later on.
After the climb I spent some time around the city and in the evening it was again time for a round of beers before bedtime.
Sunday was the first official day of the festival, but not very nice one on weather wise. Rain continued, but I had got in touch with Gus Morton – the man behind Fun Alps – with the help of our lovely host Martina. I had thought before the trip that the Via Corda Alpina might be something fun to do in rain. Apparently Gus had similar ideas and the plan was set.
In the morning Gus picked me and my gear up (I had to take everything with me since we had to move to the other UCPA facility in the Chamonix center) and drove to the route approach. He had not done the route in years, but we did find the start quite easily despite the constant rain. The route consists mostly of easy scrambling, walking and few pitches of where proper climbing is required, all very easy still, though. That is if it would not be raining 🙂 Nonetheless we soloed the first five-six “pitches”, until we encountered first difficult enough moves to not to do them in trail running shoes on wet rock (as a side note I can recommend to take a bit stiffer shoes on the route get a bit more purchase). After a while we needed to un-rope again for a short section of walking. This way it continued up to the top. There was one particularly tricky section to do as it was so wet and I managed to slip take a fall. We were roped up, though, and it was more like a 3m slide down the slabby rock. The last bits of the route require also some route finding as there are several paths crisscrossing in the forest and we did get a bit lost for a while.
Three hours and some 550m vertical later we were at the Les Mottets hut which is the end of the route. Unfortunately the hut was closed and we headed pretty much straight back down to the car. All the clothes and gear was soaked wet, though, the rain had stopped for a while. Gus dropped me to the Chamonix UCPA and where I got my room after a little wait and got my gear drying. There weren’t much else to do than to wait for the dinner and relax as the weather was so crap.
The next day the cloudy and foggy weather continued, though, there was promise of better weather coming in. I had made plans to climb with Ilze – a bit older Canadian lady – on the Aiguilles Rouge. I had set my eyes on Cocher-Cochon and perhaps do the Clochetons traverse afterward. Sadly, the weather was all misty and fogged on this side of the valley and we ended up waiting the whole morning for the skies to clear. In the meantime we visited the top of the Le Brèvent via cable car to pass time and look at the scenery.
When the weather improved, it was obvious that it was way too late to start a like Cocher-Cochon and we then opted for an easier Hôtel California, which seemed to be the choice of couple of other rope parties as well. The route is 10 pitches of max 5a (though I’d say the crux pitch is more like 5b and airy) with few walks between the towers. We climbed with alternating leads, though, I got to lead all the trickier bits. The route was quite alpine with nice exposure and spaced out protection (you might want to bring some nuts/cams for extra protection). By change I managed to get the crux pitch feel even more scary as it should as I managed to miss one bolt and had a quite a runner when I finally got clipped in 🙂 Now thinking, I could have put a few pro in to make it a little less intimidating.
There weren’t any great mishaps or anything. Mostly just fun climbing, though, in places still a bit wet and muddy. Most of the route is relatively long angled and not too strenuous, except the last pitch which requires some more power to pass the overhang. I actually was too tired to do it on first go and had to rest a bit on the ropes. From the top it was easy walking back to the Planpraz lift station and back to the city.
In the evening we had a lecture on mountain safety and first response, which got a very nice audience. Later on we had the dinner and time for a few beers.
For Tuesday the weather forecast had been a really good one and many people went for the high routes – us included. I joined again forces with Ilze – also didn’t have too many options – and we set our eyes on the Contamine-Grisolle on the Tacul triangle. It is a moderate snow/ice/mixed route and one of the easiest on the triangle. I hadn’t really done this long snow/ice route before, so this seemed like a good start 🙂
We went up on the Midi with the perhaps second lift and after gearing up we walked to the base of the route across the Vallèe Blanche. There were already at least two other ropes on the route while we started up around 10am. The first part of the route was not really that difficult, though, one section was quite ice and a bit scary to cross and at one point the party above loosened some snow which caused a small avalanche to run down – luckily bypassing us. About halfway through the initial snow ramp, we were joined by guided party. I talked to the guide on belays, while waiting for Ilze to climb up or join me on the belay. Have to say she was rather slow, though, I can not say I was too fast either. Also the guide asked how we had planned to go down and continued to say that the normal Tacul route looked “absolute murder”. Nice. Just the idea we had had. Then he said that they were going to abseil down the Goulotte Chéré, which somewhat became our plan then. Only problem was that we had only one 70m rope, which should work in a pinch. We would have to do some more abseils just then.
End of the ramp there was the crux section, with 60-65 degree ice and a short mixed step. At the belay right after, there was one of the two English ropes still and they gave me good beta on the move. The next pitch was the first mixed section, which I climbed with mixture of using the axes and my hands on the rocks. The guide with the clients took a detour around the corner which apparently is slightly easier, but harder to find. From here the route continued on about 40 degree snow where we alternated the leads again. Again the worst problem for me was my thighs, which were really burning on the steady snow romp. The steeper ground were actually better. Near the end of the second snow field, we bump into the “Kenyans” who had been cruising up a different route and were crossing our route. At this point the time, the descend and weather looked to be turning on the wrong side and we asked the “Kenyans” if we could join forces and abseil down together, which they agreed to our relief. They were also quite late anyway. At the end of the snow field there was still one more steeper mixed section with some 60 degree ice and there was quite a cluster-fuck forming up. There was Ilze, the guide with the two clients and still the other English rope party. All the ropes were pretty messed up and it took quite a long time to unravel the section of climbers. After Ilze got the belay I followed as fast as I could with by exhausted thighs. The section was actually quite tricky in the end. The English rope parties decided to abseil down the route, which would have been a good option for us too if we would have had the double ropes.
Once at the top, I continued straight up the easy climbing on rocks to the top of the triangle. Over here the Michael saw the big serac fall that washed the bottom snow field we had climbed, but we only saw the results of it. Would not have wanted to be there right now. The “Kenyans” got up there about the same time and we started the surprisingly tiring walk up the upper snowfields and across to the top of the Goulotte Chéré. The guided party was halfway done with their abseil. At this point the time was almost 3:30pm so it had taken us a bit over 5 hours hours on the way up. Naturally this meant we were way too late now. The more experienced “Kenyans” started to setup our abseil (I was pretty fine with that :)) and then we were off. Julian went first, me second, then Ilze and last Michael who was the most experienced being a mountain rescue guide in the US. The abseil went pretty fine, though, it took a long time since we did only short abseils since the belays were hard to spot in the deteriorating visibility. Also on the first abseil Ilze managed to kick an rock loose, which missed me a bit too close since I could hear it whirl past my head. Luckily it didn’t hit. Also Julian dropped one of his glove near the bottom, which unfortunately rolled into a crevasse and was not recovered. Once down the clouds had rolled in and the visibility was pretty much nothing. It had taken us almost 3 hours to abseil down and it was quite clear that the last cable cars had already gone. We would have to either go to the Midi station for a bivi or then head for the Cosmique hut for then night. We chose the latter.
We walked over the Vallee Blanchè to the slopes that lead to the hut. We got there quite easily despite the poor visibility, since there were lot of tracks on the snow. It was pretty though going to get to the hut those last meters. Luckily there was room for us and with 65 euros we got evening meal, bed and breakfast the next morning. In the end the epic that was building did not quite happen, much thanks to Michael and Julian who were kind enough to stay back and abseil with us back down. Otherwise it would have taken us certainly much more time to get to the bottom again.
There certainly was few things to learn. First of all, we should have started earlier and faster. Now it was quite late we actually started climbing. Secondly I should have been better acclimatized. A factor that mostly was shown as the pain in my thighs. I could have prevented that at least somewhat, if I had stayed on Saturday longer in the high up, instead of heading back down immediately. Well… you learn from the mistakes, right?
The next morning we woke up pretty early and after lazy breakfast it was time to pack things up again and head for the Midi station and with lift back to the valley. During the evening it had started to snow and it continued until morning. When we got to see the Tacul again after the clouds had lifted, we could see that there was substantially more snow now on the face. We had anyway decided to skip climbing that day 🙂
The walk up the ridge leading to the station did feel quite hard still on the legs, though it took only about 45 min to reach it. Then the first lift to the valley and some rest.
Though it rained most of the day, on the afternoon I visited the Alpine Museum which contains loads of artifacts and information on the history of alpine climbing both in Chamonix and elsewhere. Sadly, most of the texts were in French, but it is still worthwhile to visit as the artifacts are quite fascinating. Rest of the day went by wandering in shops or sitting in a cafe till it was time for dinner and few pints there after.
For Thursday the forecast predicted perhaps the best weather of the week. Certainly one you should not miss. For the day I had made plans to go climbing with Norwegian Knut, who is around his fifties and has climbed for around forty years! Though, there had been few pauses in between. Still, very experienced guy, who also seemed to be doing thing the “old way”. Our plan was to do the traverse of the Point Lachenal, the ridge up to the Refuge Cosmiques and finally the Cosmique Ridge.
We started early enough to have a relaxed day. Around 9:30am we were at the start of the Point Lachenal traverse and two hours later we were at the top of the route, only the easy walk down left. We though had a little break there as we enjoyed the good weather. The route had few people on it and there was a little traffic jams forming up. We actually did not do the final rock/mixed climb to the top, but instead traversed around from the right.
On the way to the
ridge Arête Laurence (or Lolo) leading to the Cosmique hut, we could checkout the debris of the serac fall two days earlier. The biggest piece was around a car size. Crossing the Valleè Blanche took another half an hour and we continued up the ridge following the guided party who had been going around the same pace. The ridge only takes around half an hour and there is really only one step you might need to rope up, if you are sure with your feet on the exposed parts. Again a refreshing break on the hut terrace with a sip of fizzy drink.
Being energized again, we walk through the hut and crossed the col to the start of the Cosmique Ridge. We started around 1:20pm and soloed up the first half of the route until the abseils. At one point I took, though, foolish route where the steps had already melted quite a bit in the sun. Luckily the steps were steep. After the abseils we switched leads the rest of the route. Knut who had not done the route before got to do the awkward step after the abseils and also the crux pitch which was crowded as usual. I on the other hand got to lead the final icy couloir up to the top. It was actually my first time to climb it since on the first time, we went too far on the North face and climbed a quite exposed variation and on the second time – the previous Saturday – we did a variation on the South face. It was quite interesting and I might have wanted to have an ice screw with me instead of just nuts 🙂 Anyway we topped around 4pm and readied to get down. We actually had to wait for our lift cabin almost an hour, but the weather was perfect so it did not matter. We also stopped on the way middle station for a mandatory beer (it is cheaper there :)) and almost missed the last lifts down while doing so.
In the evening we were supposed to have a talk about mindfulness and climbing, but in the end we only got a round of free drinks since the person who supposed to do the talking was still stuck doing the Dru traverse.
For Friday the weather again looked a bit of a coin toss and few people opted to go to the Montenvers for some slab climbing in the morning. I joined and paired again with Ilze. We didn’t take it too early and took the train up to Montenvers around 10am. Then it is a short walk and down climb of couple of steep steel ladders to the bottom of the walls. Earlier times the Mer de Glace glacier has been much, much thicker and apparently the receding ice has brought these rocks into light. Don’t know for sure though.
Anyway we opted to climb a three pitch Le Palais des Glaces which is around 5a in difficulty. I lead the route all the way and Ilze followed. On the way the wind pickup quite a bit and it created perhaps the most fun element into the climb – trying not to be blown of the wall 🙂 In truth, it weren’t that bad, but still pretty stiff wind. There was some hassle in the abseil down as Ilze got the ropes tangled on the second abseil and I had to go fix the mess. Didn’t help that the weather was rapidly declining and we got the first few drops of water while we packed the gear out. Two South African ladies from the festival had first gone for a bit more difficult line, but it had apparently missed some belay bolts or something and they changed to the same route also. Together we then got still pretty dry to the station and not too long off we were back in Chamonix.
For me it was lunch time and I tried again the pizza place we found two years ago. It was good, but perhaps the Irish place other side of the town is even better. Fully nourished, I persuaded Ilze to go to the Gaillands for a few quick rock climb. The buses didn’t fancy us and we ended up walking all the way to the crag. Not as long as you might think really. We climbed couple of routes on the Forestiers section, easy routes only. Though, have to say that there was probably the only 4c route I have done where you need to overcome a small roof, despite having good holds to pull.
On the way back it was pretty much the same thing with the buses, but that gave a good excuse to stop for an afternoon pint at a bar on the way. Then we had to actually rush a little to get in time for the dinner, so that we could eat before the evening picture show. There we had quite a bunch of pictures from the festival participants doing various routes around Chamonix.
For Saturday there was something totally different as few of the organizers were planning to visit this ice cave near Annecy. In the morning there was two cars full of us, including two of the organizers, but none of us had never been in the cave before. What we had was a general idea and a rough hand drawn map of the place. Plus a GPS coordinates of some sort. A bit of exploring to come.
The approach walk started from Chalet de l’Anglette which was at the end of a small mountain road. The drive was otherwise pretty straightforward except that on the way up we encountered a big boulder right in the middle of the road. Our other car, a four-wheel drive, managed to go around it, but our other had to be parked down the road. A bit later, though, there came a tractor which had apparently called to pull that big boulder out of the way. Apparently the boulder had just landed there right before we came! Would not have wanted to be on the way of that.
From the Chalet, we walked about an hour through meadows and forests until we came onto a odd rocky area. We crossed that and found eventually the steep entrance gully into the cave. Our initial plan had been to abseil down from an opening on the caves roof, but we decided that it was waste of time to go and try to find it still. The entrance through this way was also quite exciting. You had to either dip your boots into the icy water or drytool few meters around the puddle. There were, though, logs and fixed ropes in place, but they did not help all the way.
After that you come into the first main chamber and see the hole in the roof where one could abseil down. On the walls you could also spot some bolts and quick draws hanging as there were few drytooling routes going around the roof. After goofing around for a awhile we setup an abseil point (to a convient bolt anchor someone has put up) to abseil down deeper to the cave. First you do about 10-15 meter vertical abseil down to a small chamber. From there you need to abseil, crawl or down climb along the sloping icy tunnel too narrow to stand and really sit up straight. Then you enter the true attraction of the cave – an hollow concave which has floors, walls and roof covered in hard ancient ice. It was pitch dark there, but we had brought plenty of head torches to lighten up the space.
Most of the time we spent just looking around, but we did setup a top rope on top of one easy ice wall which apparently is the place most of the other setup the ropes too. Everybody got to do a lap or two on the wall, which was fun, but got quite soon pretty boring though. Apparently people have also climbed the ice on the roof too since there are quite a few abalakovs paled into the ice for clip in. None of us was crafty enough to climb overhanging ice in a dark cave 🙂
The going back, then, became another challenge. The first part along the narrow tunnel was easiest to just solo climb up since that way you had the most space to do your things. Then there was a bit of a thing to tackle. The second part was surmounting a about 10 meter high ice wall which was partially overhanging. Knut was there first and as being a true old school chap to the bone, decided to prussik it up. After some struggling he did get to the top, though, being quite soaked as there were few small streams of water pouring down. He then worked a top rope for us and I chose to go second and really climb the wall. This was perhaps the most exhilarating thing of the day, since it was super fun to climb it. It certainly was hard, but really, really fun too. While being partially overhanging, you got to do some resting by stemming across a corner which helped a lot. Then everybody climbed up one by one, few climbing more as other being more “dragged” up. Few people also dropped their tools couple of times and had to do the climbing multiple times 🙂
After we got everyone up, we gathered our things and scrambled the slippery exit gully up into the sun. Another hours walk and we where back at the cars and soon driving towards Chamonix and dinner. For the last evening there were no particular program, except few pints at a pub.
The last day of the trip did not have any pre-planned program and I decided to utilize my still valid lift pass and visit the very top of the Aiguille du Midi station. So, half past noon, after standing in two separate queues with Japanese tourists, I was standing in the Step in to the Void at the highest level accessible in the station. You couldn’t spend too much time in there, but they did have a nice service to have staff to take pictures of you in the glass cubicle. A great thing that you weren’t forced to buy some pricey pictures taken by some “professional” photographer.
Rest of the day I spent around the town and buying some cheese to bring home and had that excellent Savoyard Croûte which I had on the previous trip also. Super good and give you just the energy you need after a day in the mountains. There are different versions available and I took a vegetarian version of it.
After lunch I spent my last drink coupons at the UCPA and waited for my ride to the airport to arrive. Off to airport and off to Finland again.
To summarize the trip a bit, it was a bit contradictory as a whole. I got do the some great things, though, not exactly all the ones I had in my mind. Some because of the weather and some for other reasons like not being perhaps fit as I should have been. And would I go again on this kidn of festival? It depends…. if I would have a partner to go along, then why not. It could be just me, but I am not perhaps that kind of person who goes around asking for people to climb with me. I rather pre-plan it and go with people I know beforehand. Also, as for Chamonix Mountain Festival, it looks like moot point as it does not seem to be organized for at least for the present year. I really hope they would be able continue on it on the next.
For the future, I kind of figured out that I should either do like four consecutive days of climbing and be off or then stay for two weeks or so. After the first few days I was a bit mentally dipping, but the good feeling for climbing came back a bit after a day or two. On the last day I escorted off my other roommate as he went for a photo walk on the Midi Plan traverse, I would have so much have wanted to go along as I felt again that I could really cruise it and also it is supposed to be really superb climb and I really would like to do it one day. But I also really liked the idea of getting back home to my family. The mountains will be there. If not forever, then at least for my lifetime.