This is officially now, a Chamonix based blog, page, whatever. Yes, after rambling around the world I ended up here which seems logic to any alpinist nut, but was not for me for a long time. Boy, was I wrong! I wish I had arrived here earlier, like, 10 years ago. But okay, being here kinda makes me feel in my early twenties again. So here goes.
I got to Chamonix on a Tuesday and went straight to two job interviews. The next morning Chema, whom I met in Peru last year, arrived and already wanted to go climbing because the weather was so good. I still had to go see an apartment and wait for people to call me about jobs, but after much insistence, I agreed to leave super late for a climb in Argentiére. Chema wanted to do a 1000 m north face route in Les Droites, with a 6 hour walking approach from Argentiere itself, but I was like, “I love hard routes BUT, it´s my first time in the Alps, I have the insurance issue AND I´m super out of shape SO let´s do something easier”. So we went instead for an 800 m north face route – the Swiss route – on Les Courtes, with a 7 hour walking approach all the way from Argentiére. Something seems to be off here… Was I misled? Hmmmm.
Anyways, I checked the apartment and was supposed to be back on Thursday night from the climb to celebrate it, and make the deposit. But ha! Things don´t always go as planned.
We started walking up at 5 pm on Wednesday and reached our first bivy spot close to 9 pm, a little above the middle cable car station. Ate dinner, slept decently, got up at 2 am to start walking again. After about 3 h we reached the base of the route already in discreet daylight. Some three rope teams were already on the middle of the route.
We decided to simul climb as much as possible to save time and also because according to Chema is wasn´t a hard route. Although there was vertical hard ice at many points, it was super good quality, and there were also many steps carved in and that eased things up a lot. I don´t know how fast we were in the first third of the route, but by simul climbing we got about 250-300 m done really quick and actually reached the last rope team when they were working on the crux pitch.
As I belayed Chema on that pitch, I saw the greyish snow clouds in the valley and asked him if we should be worried about it… They looked pretty sketchy to me and my knowledge of other ranges tell me clouds usually come into valleys by afternoon, even though the weather forecast predicted good weather. I usually follow my instincts but since it was my first time here and Chema has a lot more experience than me in the area, I believed him when he said we´d be fine. And then things started turning sour.
We did some belayed pitches and then went back into simul climbing, and we were climbing pretty fast but then the things just went white. It started snowing heavily, and all of sudden, while simul climbing on delicate ice, we started getting avalanched on. The snow accumulated on the surface and conditions went from good to horrible.
The climbing got more difficult and hours started passing faster. I don´t know where they went (the hours) but at about 4 pm we reached the point of the route where you are supposed to take a left and climb the easy snow ramp to access the summit and then descend through another route. Problem was, that´s where there was a funnel area where the bigger avalanches were coming from. It was impossible to get down and impossible to cross left to finish the route. We then sat on a “protected” ledge for about an hour trying to figure out what to do. We tried to call the gendarmerie to see what they suggest we do – we were sure the descent route was even worse in terms of avalanche than our route. The temperature was plummeting, we ran out of food and the little water we had froze. Chema said we could go down the south face but even if we abandoned all the equipment it wouldn´d be enough to rappel all of it.
So the only obvious thing to do at the moment was to keep moving, and the only place to move to was up. So we went up to the right, another 3 mixed pitches – a lot harder than the rest of the route and sometimes overhang with horrible protection – until we reached the summit ridge, exhausted and cold. From there we managed to call the gendarmerie again, and they confirmed us bad weather for the following day but that the descent route wasn´t avalanching as the Swiss route. Chema wanted a helicopter but because of the clouds it would not be able to come (I was kind of relieved for that because of… insurance…). They instructed us to go left from the summit some meters, then some more to reach the first rappel. It was whiteout and we had no idea where the descent route was.
We went up to the summit, down to the left and found another, aham, “protected” ledge. It was enough for two people to sit under a slightly overhand rock, or one person to lay down on the lap of the other one. Chema sat there and started sleeping, too tired. So it was decided, that was out bivy site for the night.
Luckily Chema had an emergency blanket. So we slept sitting, on top of each other and in the most weird positions ever, changing places and positions a million times though the next five hours, switching between that ledge and a snow ramp that could “accomodate” two people laying down and squeezed together. So romantic! Lucky for us the weather cleared in the middle of the night and we could locate the descent route.
About 4 am we got tired of not sleeping and of shaking uncontrollably, and decided to have “breakfast” and descend. The first anchor was quite close to us, about 10 meters bellow, and we rappelled most of the route quite fast, but in the end realized it was wise to not descend at night since it would be super hard to find the anchors. We then down climbed (or maybe slided down facing the wall would be more appropriate) the rest of it in super powdery snow, Chema fell in a shrund, and we finally reached the glacier in a whiteout.
So, when you think you are finished, things keep going wrong. I won´t describe the agony of navigating an unkown glacier in a whiteout, but with the little we were able to see when some clouds cleared every hour or so, we managed to go the right way – straight out of the glacier – but then found our own footprints and followed them to almost where we began, which made us lose another hour. We finally managed to get back on the right track, and started seeing the seracs of the entrance of the glacier.
There´s no giving up on a situation like this, you can´t simply go home and calling mom isn´t going to do any good. You just have to keep going. Finally, I found some ski tracks, and those for sure weren´t ours. We were relieved and now it was just a matter of time before reaching our fist bivy site, picking up our stuff and getting back to Chamonix, an extra day after what was predicted.
But no! A ski patrol found us and asked us if we were the people stuck in Les Courtes, and told us we couldn´t go up the way we were going because, although shorter, some seracs fell and bla bla, so we had to follow him to the bigger lift station just 20 minutes away, the other patrols would get our stuff at the bivy site and we could go down by lift. Awesome! But that´s not how things were, obviously.
It took us exhausting hour walking on the slushy ski piste, the patrols didn´t find our stuff (my dear super expensive big mountain sleeping bag) and we took the last lift down.
Chema´s brother was waiting for us in the van, and we headed back to Cham together. They left me at the hostel, where I got the news that I had gotten the job (yay!) and the apartment. So in the end it all worked well.
Well, it is easy to say that while sitting from the comfort of my apartment. It was the worst night of my life, and considered the one before it was just six months ago, that isn´t that good of a pattern. I may be too naive or even humble, but I think I got enough experience on several different ranges to, next time I see bad weather coming, believe my knowledge and instinct and bail, even more so if is the Alps. For a first time here, it was quite eventful, and in a way a great learning experience. If things ever get more serious or worse than this I´ll probably won´t come back to be writing about it. I think all of my friends who have done serious climbs in the Alps had to do an unplanned bivouac at some point, so now I too have that added on my “ability” list. I dropped an ice screw and my trekking pole was stolen from the first bivy spot, but that´s the least of our worries. Chema has circulatory problems and nothing happened to him because of the cold during the bivy. Although we were both shaking from the cold and somewhere between stages 1 and 2 of hypothermia we managed to keep ourselves “warm”. I still have numbness in some of my fingers.
Although a stressful situation and some moments of nervousness, we never got desperate. Which is a good thing. I learned to climb in ranges with little to no resources in cases of things going bad, so you either get yourself off the mountain or don´t climb at all, and it´s my goal not to accommodate myself to how easy it is to get rescued here in the Alps.
Unfortunately with the bad weather of the past weeks I haven´t been able to climb in the mountains yet. But I can´t wait to! While the weather was good, the snow and ice quality, and the rock as well, were pretty good, much better than all my months in Spain. So much to explore and climb here, it is ridiculous. I´m ready for the next!
If every time someone invited me to go sport climbing, instead I could go dry-tooling, I would. It still climbs only halfway up a wall, but it is so much fun and I get so stoked that I wanna do it every time it is raining. Too bad it´s far, I don´t have a car and neither can solo any of those routes but hopefully I´ll have a belay slave very soon.
Anyways, Pep and Patri joined me on a rainy day to beautiful Zoo, a crag with some dozen routes from M3 to M13 right next to a waterfall and in the middle of beautiful fairy like woods (that fairy term didn´t sound like me…) We got in at 1 pm so we did some 3-4 routes each, all M4 since we´re all rusted. Patri, who hadn´t even climbed much sport, tried crampons for the first time and already went on dry tooling as one of her first ever climbing experiences. She moved quite well and it was awesome that she wasn´t all fearful and stuff. Glad to be able to introduce such a cool and unexplored disciplined to a new climber instead of going the regular “sport climbing first” way, specially in Chamonix, where dry-tooling seems to make a lot more sense than sport climbing. Yeah, if you haven´t noticed yet, I´m super biased…
Does anyone speak french here? It seems it´s just brits everywhere. And climbers? It´s just a swarm of skiers everywhere, but then it´s still their season… Lot´s of spanish people everywhere as well, and I´ve already met almost 80% of them. Speaking a fourth language is also quite complicated as I had the portuguese, spanish and english quite separated and now I´m mixing them all the time, besides forgetting how to write some words in all languages. Thank god for spell check!
Most important impression so far is that skiers are a VERY different crowd. As much as some of them climb, most of them don´t climb in the big mountains, so their lifestyle is quite distinct and by that I mean they don´t train 20% of what I train. So, if you are a big mountain climber, you need to be careful. Getting drinks everyday after work can seriously damage your physical conditioning, so have your excuses ready. I already ran out and am already dealing with folks saying I´m anti-social and train too much (and I´ve only been here three weeks..).
No rock bars in Chamonix but I just had the most awesome idea of hosting a rock night somewhere since the spanish folks know all the bar and club owners. Nothing like taking over a bar and listening to your favorite songs blasting through good speakers… let´s get ready for ACDC Chamonix! Eff that crappy Euro dance music, yuck! So 90s!
In any case, I´ve been working a lot and on my free days the gods of good weather seem to be off as well, so aside from Les Courtes no other rad alpine outing. And besides, I need to fix my insurance situation, get a new helmet, better crampons…
And on a last note, I started mountain trail running here, and there are so many awesome trails to go out and about, the possibilities for training are amazing, and I am super stoked to think of the opportunity I have to get super strong here. Tons of free time everyday, trails and climbs right next to me, no 3 hours a day stuck in traffic, no crazy pressure at work, no travelling to reach crags… seriously, this place is utopian… only downside is it is expensive, but then you gotta know how to live cheap.
That´s it for now. I´ve got several friends from all over the world lined up to come to Cham all summer long so hopefully I´ll have more interesting news very soon. To the mountains!