Over a year ago I posted in Portuguese 346 Days, detailing my year of travelling for climbing and surfing around the world. I usually post my trip reports in Portuguese on Brazilian portals to which I contribute to, so I figured a “wrap” about everything that happened in that year would have a good place here, especially because quite a few people ask me about how to “live the life” (answer here).
On my last post about climbing in Spain, which was the last post about my (first) full year of travel, I stated that my stay in Chamonix was open ended. And in indeed, it was. After 18 months in Europe’s sweetest climbing and alpinism spots, time arrived to move on.
So to give light to this second year of travel, in which I based myself in the birthplace of alpinism, I figured it would be nice to detail the roller coaster that living here has been.
My first summer here is well illustrated in this post. I will just shorten it here as lots of mountain running as training to climb an 8000 meter peak, some incursions onto the massif on classic routes, and lots and lots of work.
I started autumn of 2015 unsure if I would be going to Pakistan in 2016 or not (I planned on making a solo-no O2-attempt on Broad Peak). So I kept training, but also wanted to start getting back on rock. Explored some climbing spots in the valley with a new partner while the weather allowed. Spent a week in Italy with my parents and got the news I was selected to run the Mont Blanc Marathon the following year.
In the first few weeks back in plastic I tore a pulley on my left annular finger. It was pretty bad and quite devastating mentally. Doc told me to find another sport and expect at least 3 months off from climbing and another few of slow recovery. So I started running like crazy and ran my first marathon for fun, very proud. I figured since I wouldn’t be able to climb, I should work hard during the winter to save money so that I could be recovered by summer, work part time and climb a lot.
In November I realized I wouldn’t have the funds for Broad Peak, another devastating news. So I guess that triggered the lowest point of my PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder condition, which showed up after some accidents, incidents and near death encounters during climbs that happened mainly in 2014), and by early December I was quite freaked out. I confess, I went crazy for a while, maybe a month. But then I got the funds for BP and almost as by a miracle, woke up one day tired of being sick, and started coming out of the PTSD. Decided not to make any plans any more, get away from the people that weren’t good for me, and just enjoy each day.
Did my last long and high run on December 20th or so, before the snow finally started coming. Had a pretty bland Christmas – again away from my family (bummer), and a sweet New Year’s RDV with friends and my then current beau, after splashing champagne all over my own face. Still no snow in Cham, and I was not ready for what was about to come…
WINTER, THE HORROR
In the early weeks of January, myself (along every person of latin origin) were semi depressed after not seeing the sun for three weeks, and without a purpose in my climbing life, I ran into a really cheap ticket to South America and “accidentally” bought it. There, I had a project for 2016. 6 weeks of high altitude alpinism and a few big walls in the Cordillera Blanca, 2 weeks of surfing in the Peruvian coast, and 3 weeks of climbing and surfing in Brazil. Fun!
Excited with the project, I started gym climbing again in early January (non stop precipitation), doing endless endurance laps on the easiest wall of the gym, still with some pain. Straight away, I injured a pulley on my right hand. Unable to even touch piolets, I sadly accepted I would miss the ice and mixed climbing season altogether (which is what I was looking the most forward to), and resigned to training indoors and recover for the spring. Everything was going wrong, and no sun to make things even more bitter.
My naivete kept dominating my spirit and I thought I’d met tons of climbers at the new gym, such as happens back at home – where after 3 weeks of going to the climbing gym I was already best friends with most of the staff and other clients. Here, after a month of getting scary, psycho-type long stares, a few salutes and close to zero introductions at the gym, I decided to mind my own business and just climb in headphones. My negative impression of the climbing community in Chamonix was yet again being proved correct.
Running wise, at first I enjoyed winter running and discovering the dynamic conditions of snow and ice, but it didn’t take long to get tired of it. It takes so much effort to run in snow and in the cold, and eventually I got sick for 2 weeks and didn’t run for almost three, due to the incessant snowfall in the valley. For the first three months of the year we had maybe 3 or 4 days of sun. It was depressing, agonizing, I hated it and will never live in a place with real winter again! Well, I decided to keep the shape and forced myself to go almost every time, decreased the mileage, but truth is, it sucked. You can say “you should have gone skiing”. Skiing is very expensive. I’m a third world poor and nomad climber. F*ck skiing!
Good thing about spending so much time indoors is that I devised a pretty sweet training and supplementation plan that was
not really well followed all the way through the spring since there wasn’t much else to do. I did learn to ski and snowboard when it was the last option on the menu – didn’t get hooked though. Lost some more fat, gained a lot of muscle and got happier and happier as results finally started to show.
And although winter is a period of darkness (literally no more light at 4 pm, crazy!) and with all the setbacks, I had realized I had finally fully overcome the PTSD I lived through for over a year. Finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel was enough reason to make me happy, and what a great way to begin 2016. Proud of myself for overcoming it.
Conditions for spring alpinism were close to perfect as the first days of spring arrived. Good weather days finally came right on my days off and I had a long, classic dream route planned to solo since glaciers were covered and it’d be good training for Peru. But after hearing of solo skiers dying after falling on crevasses a few days earlier, I decided to change plans and accept to take a noob to do some easy corridors.
Spring had its moments of happiness though, for example on the dates I removed taping, and as I entered new phases of training and saw my climbing shape and ability return, and noticing improvement every time I went, and that was super motivating. Amazing the transformation my body went through inside and outside since January.
Again I decreased mileage in running because it was taking too much energy and impacting climbing, and also because I was on the borderline of over training, feeling completely spent. So I decided to instead of taper 2 weeks from running, to taper the entire month of May (hahaha), and do long hikes with lots of elevation and heavy pack (a few times). There’s an element of laziness there too, but I built such a good base of cardio in summer that I really felt I didn’t need to improve on it, just maintain it.
When I finally got back on rock I went straight into cruising 6s, feeling a lot more confident in every aspect, and realizing the benefits that bouldering bring (although it destroys your body as well if you do it too much). If I ever have a training routine again I will for sure through in a day of bouldering every week. Still had some pain in my fingers and some minor overuse injuries on shoulders and elbows, but nothing that hindered performance too much. The discipline, dedication and patience of the previous months finally started showing. Once again, hard work pays off. In loads.
WHAT NOBODY SAYS ABOUT CHAMONIX, THE TOWN
As a friend once said, Chamonix is a great place to come for a month with your partner and climb the hell out of these mountains (this friend eventually left Chamonix, it was pretty obvious he didn’t fit in either). I agree 100%.
I get loads of enquiries of non Europeans of how to make it in Chamonix, but be warned, there’s criticism in the next paragraphs that some people may not like. But if I did give any f*cks I wouldn’t have published it. Ha!
One day at the gym, an Italian girl was telling me how, living on the Italian side of the range, she always dreamt of living in Chamonix. Then she told me how she thought everyone in the world dreams of coming to Chamonix, almost requiring an affirmative answer. I squinted my eyes for a few seconds, trying to remember my idea of Cham before I got here – that it was this place in the French Alps where Mark Twight lived for a while, where everyone was a super accomplished alpinist and where the cracks were bolted. I remembered how I heard of it before from Europeans, but also thought of how good and diverse climbing in the Andes is and maybe that’s why it wasn’t such a big thing for me or other South American climbers I’ve met on the road. Patagonia was more of dream place to go I guess.
For someone who comes here on vacation to climb, the details of these impressions don’t really matter. But after living here, I can say I couldn’t have been more wrong (except for bolted cracks). So this section is mostly about living here, and not so much visiting.
To begin with, let’s disassociate the mountains from the town as they are two completely different things. Making a life here is a difficult. Everything is expensive, including the mountain access. It’s hard to save money. And if you don’t save you are stuck here. But if you do, you don’t get to go to the mountains a lot. By the time you have enough money (and the paperwork) to buy a lift pass, it has already been several months since your arrival, and depending on the season, you already missed the best part of it. That is obviously, from the point of view of someone who likes to live with a minimum of comfort, eat and train well, and not be stuck here for the rest of her life. And besides, for me it’s cultural to save money – I’m from a country that’s been more years in crisis than out of them, so you gotta have your savings.
In the spring for example, the weather was horrible so in order to rock climb you needed to get out of the valley and cross the tunnel to Italy. In order to do so, you need a car and the most expensive pass, or 70€ tunnel to go there and back. How the hell do you get all that money? To have a car and cross the tunnel or have the fancy pass, if it is so hard to save money?
Although easy to find a job, there’s a lot of incompetence and lazy, poorly performed work, and you end up having to do other people’s job and clean up their mess – which is quite unfair considering everyone wants to climb/ski. In the end you end up stressed out and tired. Bosses are apparently so used to it that they don’t really care much, which is understandable as you lose an employee today, you get a new one for another month tomorrow. Job rotation here is crazy.
Salaries are low and it is very difficult to live on minimum wage without sharing accommodation with another 48 people. I stopped eating meat because of its high price and low quality, and hardly ever eat or drink out in order not to drain my bank account. Home dinners yield great get togethers at a much lower cost than bars and without the annoying drunks from certain nationalities (especially in the winter) and excess of tourists (lines, long waiting times, obnoxious drunk skiers, etc).
And last but not least, the climbing community. Right after getting here I was having drinks with some people at Gite Vagabond when I met a Scottish boy who said about the community here that “there are ‘cliques’ usually defined by nationality/language, hard to get into”. I naively thought climbing passion is above that, that the community would be super awesome and tight. I had heard similar negative comments before, but I thought everyone had to be wrong. Unfortunately, I will be another person diffusing a somewhat negative image.
Yes there are some out-of-this-world strong alpinists here. You don’t see these people getting smashed every day. I hardly ever see these people in town, except when they’re training in the climbing gym on bad weather days. Most are also mountain guides. Then there’s the badass rock climbers who tend to party a lot, the skiers-with-nothing-to-do-in-the-summer turned climbers who party even more, and then there’s tons of people who started climbing here (because there’s tons of people that come here who don’t ski and/or climb), and those party a lot as well.
Aside from the first group, who are rightfully living in Chamonix due to their talent and/or profession, there is a clear vibe among people that makes them think that living in Chamonix automatically makes you a bad ass climber/alpinist, which is obviously and outrageously wrong. And the ego-loaded, polluted air of Chamonix also corroborates for a lot of those people to think that climbing 6bs in Gaillands makes them good alpinists and expert athletes. I will not expose nor detail the ego-inflated absurdities I’ve heard and seen from kids who started climbing just yesterday because that is a waste of typing, but it may explain the recklessness that is also ever present in these mountains, both from tourists and locals. I can only say that maybe 70% of local climbers really have no idea what real alpinism is all about, especially when they go up to mountains truly believing that it is okay to climb in bad weather and to call a helicopter if you get tired. And that may also explain they lack of basic understanding of how being drunk everyday is really bad for climbing performance.
Chamonix the town is therefore a party town first, and anything else a distant second. Fact. And I guess if everyone wasn’t to good for climbing with everyone else, people would spend a lot more time in the mountains and a lot less time in the bars. Just saying…
On to the ever present issue of being a female climber/alpinist. Strong males will only climb with females out of sexual interest, except in the case of you being on a Ines-Papert-level. Because I cannot be born again to reach that level, the solution was taking up beginners/intermediates to climb with, or wait until friends from other countries came to visit to climb at my own level, and finally, hard stuff. That is true especially in the spring, when most people are very out of shape and/or injured after skiing season.
That is to say, unless you prove you are a badass over and over again (and that goes for both sexes), people will be measuring you up for a long time. Unless you climb a lot harder than them, they will not climb with you (aside from second intentions). It sounds confusing I know, I haven’t figured it out. Good news is that, as in any other part of the world, if you are a young, pretty, model looking type you can definitely have it easier as any guy will “take you up climbing” even if you have no skills. Although I don’t fit in any of those adjectives, I’ve got enough skills to actually take people up climbs, and when I offered my skills as charity I had quite a few candidates, but obviously couldn’t do any hard routes. It’s better than wasting a good weather day in town. And my only interest was in having a belay slave!
So getting into cliques and having a regular partner is hard and tiring. When I got a good local one, we eventually started dating and when things turned sour we didn’t climb together any more. I looked for other girls but although I found some strong ones on rock, I found none with enough skills to do interesting alpinism (lost count of how many times I declined taking newbies to the Cosmiques Arete, even if they paid for my lift), and honestly, it comes a point when you need that adrenaline in the veins that only comes from climbing hard routes, and you don’t have patience for doing easy stuff any more.
So it has been a good option to use the partner finder book in the OHM, and some internet forums. Usually these places yield people that are really psyched to climb, with good experience, that eternal “traveller” vibe and close to zero pickiness and ego, as well as contacts in other parts of the world for climbing. I also joined some other “lost” people from different nationalities other than french/brits/spaniards. I would eventually run into a Yankee here and there, and as usual they’be laid back, amicable and strong and humble climbers (theory proved right once again). I finally understood some stereotypes and impressions – good and bad – I had of European climbers, from running into them during my trips around the world. I’ll leave still believing that I just have not met quite the right crowd, alpinism wise. And I seriously believe that, no kidding. Still it is quite sad that in a place like Chamonix so many people have such a hard time to find partners to simply go out and climb (thank goodness South America is the total opposite).
So this is all to say that in no other place I had so much difficulty in finding partners. Actually let me correct this sentence, Chamonix has been the only place I had difficulty in finding partners. So beware that if you decide to come here to make a living, the reality will be far from what is advertised, in every aspect.
And although it attracts lots of weirdos and unconventional types (and I’m not saying I am not one, hell yeah I fit the bill more than most) I did create some very strong bonds with people here, and for sure seeing them almost every day for over a year has turned this farewell into probably the hardest one I had to go through in a long time. I’m not sure I will miss these mountains, although I would love to come back during one of my off years. But I will miss the friends I made here, and it is going to hurt being away from them until who knows when we see each other again. The town I can surely say, I will not miss. Strangely Chamonix is the opposite of what these mountains are, it is in fact suffocating.
I created a definition for it: Cham is Neverland, and its climbing community is the Big Brother TV show of Neverland. No one has yet disagreed, and it seems to fit. And although I have Peter Pan complex, I haven’t owned a TV in many many years. Do the math.
To end this section, fact is that Chamonix is a brand serving an industry, and that has an impact on the type of person that is attracted to here, to live or visit, and people eagerly buy into it. If the mountaineering industry transformed Everest in the mess it is nowadays, and the industry transformed Chamonix in this utopian, dreamy but fake idea, what does the industry can do to other mountain ranges? Are any truly difficult and wild mountains exempt from this industry? Well, that’s another post…
WHAT EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT CHAMONIX,
Not much needs to be said about these mountains. Chamonix has its fame for a reason, and it is all over the internet. It is definitely a place to visit more than once in a lifetime of a climber, to experience its steepness and exposure, and accessible long and hard alpine rock routes at low to moderate altitude. For someone who has not been to Yosemite or Patagonia yet, so far this has been the best granite I’ve touched. Climbing in this range can be an intense experience because of the ease of access, and you can focus on the climbing and nothing else.
If you don’t like approaches, heavy packs and suffering, this is definitely the place to be. Although to me that is not true alpinism, and would be better defined as altitude cragging, it does provide enough fun for a lifetime if that is your style.
On a final note about the Chamonix lifestyle, people here live very intensively. I´ve been asking myself a lot the question of why I ended up here and what I learned from the time I stayed. I haven´t yet found the answers but one thing was deeply affected by my séjour here: my climbing career was moving towards doing 8000 m mountains, and now it is geared more towards technical alpine rock and ice. The first demands a huge commitment of time, work, training and “socializing” (as in kissing ass of media and possible sponsors, that is) in order to enable expeditions. The second allows more of a day-to-day approach to objectives, more actual climbing, and more fun in the mountains. And if it wasn´t for the intensity with which Chamoniards live climbing on a daily basis, I wouldn´t have made the conscious choice to pursue what I love instead of what people were expecting of me.
So, I came to Chamonix to make some money and train, after a year of travelling around the world climbing. I planned to make enough money just to go back to South America. I ended up staying the summer, then ended up staying the autumn, then ended up staying the winter and spring.
Initially I would return from my summer in SA to work a bit more in the autumn and then go to Brazil in early November, but after some consideration I thought it just would not be financially worth it. If I just stayed there, I would have more time to climb, I would have partners anywhere in the country I went, I would be spending less money than here, and I would have sufficient time to prepare for Patagonia. In a sudden decision in late May, I just decided to leave for good in June.
Living in Europe is comfortable, safe, and easy (except for French bureaucracy). It doesn’t mean it is easy to adapt here. Values are very different, and compared to South Americans the people are quite cold, and that has affected me a lot. I value many things, especially climbing, human relations, life, smiling, friends, being able to reach a mountain peak and do all that together. I’m also part of the third world, and I can’t live in pretense that the world is perfect – ignorance to me will never be bliss. So it’s been hard to adapt to society here as a whole, and although climbers are a different breed of humans, here it is obviously permeated by European values and lifestyle. I am a simple person, and it is true the theory that the less you have, the more you value non material things. Fortunately or unfortunately, I failed to adapt, eventually got tired of the social dynamics of an Euro mountain town, and I felt a strong urge to go back to my roots, both family and climbing wise.
Deep thanks to the people that were part of my life here and whom I owe so much. As usual I got a new set of best friends to visit, and to host, whichever place in the world we will be in. You know who you are.
And so begins year 3 on the road. A few months in my dear Cordillera Blanca, lots of rock climbing in Brazil, and then several months all over the Argentinian Andes. I have no idea what’s going to happen after Patagonia, but I have the longest mountain range on Earth to search for answers and options. Sweet home South America, back to the Andes, off I go.