Monday, October 21, 2013

Alpine Rock Climbing in Chamonix

I left for France in late July with plans to meet up with Jonathon in Chamonix, a mecca for world class and accessible alpine climbing.  Jonathon has spent the last four summers guiding in Chamonix but has spent limited time doing any personal climbing.  I had been there two years ago for a brief trip but was excited to see more of the range.  Plane tickets were purchased, gear was packed, dollars were exchanged into Euros and logistics were finalized.  We had two weeks to play in the French Alps!

We had a couple goals and peaks in mind but were ultimately most excited to take advantage of climbs that were in the best condition.  Knowing that France had a very snowy winter, we knew that north facing rock climbs would likely not be in condition.  However, snowy winters also lend itself to less complex glacier travel.  I tend to be drawn to long rock climbs that climb high above glaciers.  Unbeknownst to me, the options were unlimited in this realm.  With a weather forecast calling for primarily high pressure for the next several days, we packed our 40 L backpacks full of rock climbing gear, clothes, topos and snack food.

Alpine climbing in France is a unique experience and quite different from the climbing common in the United States.  One main difference is that lifts or trams are used to access the majority of the terrain.  For our first mission, we rode up the Aiguille du Midi tram for 6000 feet depositing us at 12,605 feet.  After getting off the tram, we harnessed up and got our crampons on and walked down onto the Vallee Blanche glacier.  A pleasant hour-long walk on the glacier brought us to the base of our first objective, the Contamine route on Pointe Lachenal.  Jonathon led up through the 5.10+ cruxes as I struggled to catch my breath still not quite acclimated to climbing at 12,000 feet.  

Jonathon on the first pitch of the Contamine route
 Nine pitches later, we were on the summit after climbing one of the best crack climbs we had ever climbed.  The climbing combined with the sunny weather reminded us of climbing in California.  Unfortunately our sunshine ended on the descent as we rappelled back to glacier.  The skies opened up and it hailed on us as we completed our final rappels.  There was lightening off in the distance and we quickly packed up our gear in preparation for the uphill slog to the Cosmiques Hut.

Midway up on the Contamine route

Following the upper crux pitch on the Contamine route
Staying in huts is another unique part of the French climbing experience that is not all that common in the United States.  While they are more expensive than camping, it does eliminate that need to pack camping gear, cooking gear and food.  After getting pretty wet from the fierce hail storm it was a nice relief to know that we could easily dry out our gear in the cozy hut and eat a hot meal prepared by the hut caretakers.  There are also all sorts of other treats and alcoholic beverages available at these huts.  Who doesn't want a glass of hot wine after a day in mountains?

The next day we woke up to gray skies and we slowly packed up our gear in preparation for the trek to another hut across the valley.  The sky's began to reluctantly clear and we decided we would try to fit in another climb on the Chandelle du Tacul.   After climbing four fantastic pitches full of great cracks, we found ourselves off route with absolutely no idea where we were on this granite spire.  Feeling motivated, Jonathon forged ahead on loose terrain eventually finding an overhanging offwidth/chimney system that contained an old wooden ladder attached by some old pins.  Who knows how long that had been there, but we both pulled on it to get ourselves through that burley section.  After a much longer day than expected, we found ourselves perched on top of a tiny granite spire.  We rappelled over our intended line and we both felt like kicking ourselves after seeing how clean this route looked.  At the bottom, we re-examined our topo and realized there was some blatant errors in the topo.  Note to self; do not trust topos from Mont Blanc Super Cracks.

Jonathon following pitch two on Chandelle du Tacul

Jonathon leading pitch 3 before we were lost on the Chandelle du Tacul
With the weather still looking good for one more day, we knew that we would need to rally to fit in one more objective.  The next day we woke up early for an attempt on the Grand Capucin, a beautiful golden granite pillar.  There were many other parties that also had the same idea and we got in line behind a nice Swiss guide and his client.  Fortunately there was no getting off route on this day, as the Swiss guide had been up this route many times.  I led up through the first scrambly section and to the top of the first crux pitch.  The climbing got better and better as we got higher and higher.  Unfortunately it got colder and windier and more crowded with other climbing parties.  At one point I was leading up through 5.10 terrain in my puffy jacket right on the heals of the previous climber.  Meanwhile another party had started leading up behind me.  I guess this is the French way and I did my best not to let the stress of all the people and cold get to me.  Eventually the routes diverged and we finished the Swiss Route via the Sole Mio culminating with several hundreds of feet of crack and face climbing on some of the best granite we had ever climbed.  Five hours after we left the ground, we crouched on the tiny summit psyched to have completed an objective we had both wanted to climb for quite some time!  About ten overhanging 50 m rappels took us back to our boots and crampons.  We quickly packed up our packs and literally raced up the glacier to catch the last tram down into Italy avoiding the long slog back to the tram to Chamonix.  We were able to catch a ride with some of the friends we made on route and they drove us through the tunnel back to Chamonix for some much needed rest days.

Leading up high on the Grand Capucin

Beginning the rappels from the top of the Grand Capucin

All smiles after finishing an awesome day! The Swiss route goes up the left most part of the spire.
It conveniently rained for the next several days so we could rest our tired bodies and sore hands.  We entertained ourselves with some trail runs and sport climbing on the limestone cliffs down valley.  I also gorged myself on the French cousine including lots of cheese and gelato.

We had about four more days until I had to leave and Jonathon had to go back to work.  Hoping to squeeze in a couple more climbs, we hatched a plan to head up to the Envers Hut, known by the French locales as a little Yosemite.  We took the train up to the top of the Mer de Glace.  The French know how to make terrain accessible and sturdy iron ladders and iron structures have been drilled into the vertical rock faces leading down onto the glacier.  These via ferrata type structures make passage onto the glacier possible.  After walking through the glacier, there is another ladder system that leads out of the glacier.  The hike to the hut concludes with switchbacks through beautiful alpine meadows. 
Climbing ladders through the fog on the way to the Envers Hut

Views on the way to the Envers Hut

The sky's teased us that day, clearing at times but ultimately we arrived to dreary and overcast weather.  After getting our stuff situated at the hut we picked n small objective that was just a mere 5 minute walk from the hut on Tour Verte.  While the climbing was just average, the route involved walking across the bridge of sighs.  Essentially, a large granite block is wedged precariously between two granite spires, with an impressive amount of air below to add to the exposure.  Jonathon and I both marveled at how wild it was that this block was still in this unique position as its only a matter of time until erosion works its course.  We both quickly tip-toed across the bridge.  We continued climbing the route in a light drizzle and topped out as the skies were starting to clear.

Tip-toeing across the bridge of sighs

A better view of the bridge of signs from our climb the next day

The next day we prepared for our longest objective of the trip on Aguille Roc on a route called Pedro Polar.  The approach was 30 minute hike up the steep and firm glacier cumulating with a challenging step across from the overhanging snow slope onto the rock formation.  Jonathon led up through a couple tricky slabby pitches and finished his block with a super classic 100-foot hand crack.  I then took over for the crux pitches beginning with a challenging finger crack, some run out traversing slab climbing and a beautiful pitch of primarily well bolted 5.11 face climbing.  I was in the zone and all the stresses from work and life were forgotten for those moments.  At that point, life was simple and the beauty of the mountains and athletic nature of the climbing motivated me to push myself.  It is this sort of meditative focus that keeps me coming back to the sport for more and more.  Jonathon and I smiled and laughed after the crux pitches were finished knowing that we were both thoroughly enjoying our time with each other in a beautiful setting.  We finished the remaining eight pitches of mostly 5.9 - 5.10 crack climbing to the top of the peak.  We snapped a few photos and hugged and began the rappels back to our boots.  Everything came together for this day of climbing; a great route, a great partner, and splitter weather. 

Jonathon leading on the first pitches on Pedro-Polar

Jonathon leading the splitter 5.10 hand crack midway up Pedro-Polar

Leading one of the crux pitches mid-way up Pedro-Polar

Smiles on the upper part of Pedro-Polar
Feeling sore and satisfied, we had a mellow final day in the mountains and hiked back to town that afternoon for a final gourmet French dinner.  All told, we summited all of 5 of our objectives and climbed 50 pitches up to 5.11 not including sport climbs.  While Jonathon and I have climbed a lot together, this was one of our first times climbing this type of terrain together.   I was proud of what we had accomplished together and was pleased with our ability to work well as a team.  In this partnership, I found that we were able to push and support each other to step out of our comfort zones, while also recognizing the moments when it was important for one of us to take charge and pick up the slack when one of us was fatigued.  I look forward to many more alpine adventures with this guy. 

In fact, just two weeks later we began a different sort of adventure when we celebrated the beginning of our marriage with our friends and family on the coast of Maine.  The lessons we take away from our climbing partnership easily translate to a partnership between husband and wife, where teamwork and an ability to provide uncompromising support are of utmost importance.  This trip and many of our other experiences together have built a solid foundation upon which to build a lifetime of dreams, goals and adventures together.  Jonathon, I can't wait for the next one!

As always, I must thank Patagonia and Petzl for providing me with the best gear possible.  And I of course must thank Jonathon for working hard to make this trip possible.  Without your strong work ethic, we wouldn't be able to travel like we do.

Summit shot on the Grand Capusin

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