The first two weeks of September was a trip I had been looking forward to for several months. Shreya had a conference to attend in Oxford, UK. We spent a couple of days in London meeting an old friend, then worked from Oxford. Oxford is a really quaint town and running along the old canals with historical buildings all around was such a nice experience. Parts of the UK look very similar to India, and parts of it sound very similar to India, so there is always a sense of familiarity.
The best part of London is the food. I can’t wait to go back to Dishoom, and the ridiculous creations in Treatz were eye-opening! I don’t understand why there are no US milk shake parlors with a “add whatever chocolate you want to this shake” option.
Of course, London wasn’t really why I was excited about this trip. The real deal was spending 9 days in Chamonix, France. Chamonix is the birth place of alpinism as a sport. The names of the routes there are famous across the world, and represent the who’s who and what’s what of climbing. September isn’t the best time to go any more because the glaciers become heavily crevassed and cut of access to several popular routes. I wasn’t going to complain when one person’s round trip ticket to Europe was being paid for :P
Chamonix itself was everything I had imagined. Spectacular granite needles rising out of immense glaciers, and funny names I couldn’t pronounce. We stayed a block away from the iconic Midi lift and lived on croissants and quiches. Unfortunately we didn’t have the best luck with the weather. Our itinerary:
- Friday - Go up the Midi in really low visibility to experience the snow arete descent (spooky as F for one 20 foot section); Do a quick romp up the Arete Laurence.
- Saturday - Terrible visibility in the mountains. Go up the Brevent chair and climb Mic et Mousse to make it back to the cable car before it started to rain.
- Sunday - Rain and snow all day.
- Monday - Sunny but cold (-11C). We used the opportunity to climb the Cosmiques Arete. The route was incredibly exciting, but definitely type 2 fun. First the Midi lift didn’t open till 9:30, so we didn’t get to the base of the route until 11:30. Several inches of snow made the route the worst combination of “not really rock, not really snow” that required way more belaying and simul climbing than is usually necessary. This necessitated some really fast climbing at the end to finish in time for the last lift down. The crux itself was very straightforward due to the crampon points and the vertical (snow-free) nature. Shreya definitely had a worse time than me. She had no previous experience technical climbing in crampons, nor in such cold weather, so it was painful for her.
- Tuesday - Take the Bellevue cable car and the tram to the Nid d’Aigle. Hike up to the Tete Rousse hut.
- Wednesday - Attempt Gouter Route on Mt. Blanc. Turn around at 4200m because it was too cold. Back to Tete Rousse.
- Thursday - Back to Chamonix. This would’ve been a gorgeous and perfect day to actually climb the Gouter. See my thoughts below.
- Friday - Take the Midi + Panoramique (Holy shit!) to the Torino hut (Italy). The Panoramique is a truly stunning ride. I can completely see why non-alpinists would also enjoy this. It is awe-inspiring, both in the terrain it traverses and the sheer technical capability. Do a quick jaunt up the Petite Flambeaux. The Torino hut has incredible facilities.
- Saturday - Climb the Aiguille de Entreves (don’t ask me to say that) in wonderful weather. Descend down the Skyway Monte Bianco and take the bus back to Chamonix. Tour Ronde was falling apart the whole day.
So 3 days of bad weather, 3 days of cold weather and 3 days of perfect weather.
I’d go back to this place in a heartbeat. There is so much stuff to do even without leaving the classics!
I have mixed feelings about the guiding situation though. A huge majority of groups out in the mountains were guided (partly because we stuck to extremely classic routes). This made it somewhat disconcerting for us as the guided parties would go all over and around in a bid to finish routes quickly. It was odd that they were rushing to finish when the day was incredibly beautiful and the weather was good and there was no hurry to get anywhere.
In addition, some guides were downright condescending on the Gouter Route. Particularly given that their practices are incredibly unsafe when performed by non-guides (to be honest, I think they are incredibly unsafe for anybody…). We ascended and descended the rock part of the Gouter unroped, because it is fairly steep class 4, easy 5-th scrambling for over 2000-ft, so it isn’t something you can reasonably protect with fixed gear. We had 3 different guides comment on and call out that what we were doing was dangerous and that we should be roping up (short-roping) so that we can die together… I hope this is because they see too many novices on the route who really should’ve done it guided.
The thing to realize about Cham is that even with the crazy lifts, there are some logistics depending on your route. Due to lift times you often need to spend a day hiking in and a day hiking out (which is why we didn’t do anything in the Tour sector), and it can be a little difficult to fit all of that within weather windows and other objectives. In particular, I will not try a fixed-date Mt. Blanc attempt again as it encounters the same problems with reservations and permits as in California. You can’t predict the weather months in advance, which means your success or failure is entirely dependent on luck, which is not a good place to be in mentally. It was very easy to get last minute hut spots for everything else. After turning around at 4200m I lost the motivation to go up the Gouter, because I know it is well within my capabilities when the weather cooperates, so I may try it at some other point in my life via a more challenging, and thus easier to “book” route.
For the moderate routes, everything is about your technical skills as an alpinist, and not much about pure rock skills. Everything can be pulled on gear if you really need to (in boots). What matters is using terrain anchors, simul-climbing, quick alpine anchors and practiced rappel transitions to progress through the day, enjoy the views safely and still be done in time for the last lift.
In terms of gear, Shreya used the Nepals for boots. I used the Scarpa Ribelle tech, which was excellent for everything except Mt. Blanc (where it would’ve been fine if our reservation was for Thursday). All our routes were climbed using one 60m half rope as both the glacier rope and the climbing rope (doubled up for Mic et Mousse) and a single rack. For the conditions we faced, steel crampons would be the way to go. We had one steel and one aluminium pair, and the aluminium were completely blunt by the end of the trip. That’s because the entire Cosmiques Arete was climbing in crampons on rock/snow, as was the ascent and descent of the entire Gouter (conditions were an inch of snow on rock). We both had Ortovox 30-35L backpacks. My Ortovox Trad 35L continues to be an incredibly good pack, but Shreya’s Peak Light 32 is even better suited for Cham due to the nicer axe holders and the helmet attachment.
Apart from that, get the Rockfax guidebook, buy the right lift pass, and try hard to be the first in line for the Midi lift! :D