So a few years ago I found myself in Dubai Airport fighting with an Airport security official.
He had found a colourful 50meter rope in my hand luggage. It was colourful because it was new. Its ends tied onto a climbing harness only a couple times. And it was in my hand luggage because it was the most expensive bit of climbing gear that I owned and therefore closely guarded. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the oke to understand that I wasn’t planning on tying up the captain, co-pilot and crew during the flight.
Calm defensive argument lead to defensive argument which then lead to argument. Argument lead to my rope being yanked out of my bag and tossed into that see-through bin at security where all the scissors, penknives and nail clippers go. The most colourful and harmless thing in that entire bin. After letting the official know what I thought of him in my most poetic Afrikaans, I shed a tear for my forlorn colourful thing in the bin. And then realised that I had been schooled.
Climbing is a school that teaches some bladdie good lessons. Lessons which I have tried my best to attend in the last few years. Lessons that have punished like losing my very first Sports rope in Dubai to lessons that have enriched like my first on-sighted Berg climb. Ones that have hurt as only an over-used ITB injury can to those that have gifted like sharing a dry tent in the rain with the missus.
Those same lessons led me back to Dubai Airport almost exactly four years later. I had a Trad rope this time and no, it wasn’t in my hand luggage. I wasn’t coming but going. To the French Alps for two and a half weeks. To get Schooled.
Lesson One: Emirates offer 30kg luggage allowance, if you struggling to keep under that, you’ve got too much shit! Alpine is about being fast and light. No two axes when one will do. No thick rain jacket-and-fleece when a good soft-shell will do. No five cams when a run-out will do.
Nope, none of that heavy nonsense, at least not between June and October. If you going between October and June however, I guess it’s different, then just read Andy Kirkpatrick books and take what he takes.
So I had a Schengen Visa and a two and a half week return ticket in my possession. Accommodation was booked at the Chaminard Volant Gite in Chamonix. Gite is what they call a Back-packers over there. Chamonix translates to ‘The world capital of extreme sports’.
Want to try wing-suit flying? Go to Chamonix. Ice climbing? Go to Chamonix. Ski-touring, Downhill MTBiking, Paragliding, trail running, you name it. All crammed into a little valley that also produces good cheese.
My mate, the Natal-born Super-Alpinist, Colin Mcoy unfortunately couldn’t join me due to work commitments so I winged it over on my eis.
Lesson Two: If you go over to the Alps on your own then check out those climbing-partner websites like UKC and make sure to organise yourself a partner from the United Kingdom. Preferably from somewhere like Kendal. Those okes can climb. Especially on hard trad. Just give them the sharp end, a couple of nuts and a cam or two, then sit back and watch the show. Enlightening entertainment in the art of climbing is sure to follow.
The oke from Kendal was called Peter. He was also on his eis for two weeks so we decided to link up for a few routes.
The eve of our first climb saw a good dumping of snow right down to 1800meters which put to bed any thoughts of lofty peaks. So we opted for the little Aiguille d l’M, just above the valley. A PD (easy) grade route that became close to TD (hard) with all the fresh snow and melt. My first Alpine climb was dispatched in swirling mist, soft snow and with scraping crampons.
Couldn’t have asked for more!
Next day the fresh snow was still hanging around. So it was off to one of the Refuges that Peter wanted to visit. We could hang around there until conditions improved and there were plenty multi-pitch routes to climb on the granite banks of Mer de Glace below the hut and on the subsidiary peaks above the hut.
Lesson Three: If you on a budget then go to the Alps around the middle of September. This is when the Summer refuges close and they leave the small ‘Winter rooms’ open for ‘emergency’ shelter. Now what sometimes happens is that when the Summer refuges close they have all this extra food and bev lying about that they haven’t used during the season. I guess it’s too expensive to have it choppered out so they leave it in the winter room for the ‘Hard-Core Winter Alpinists and Skiers’ to revive themselves on in an ‘emergency’. Well boet, it was safe to say that it was an emergency with the Rand/Euro exchange rate as it was, so free food was a win. We ended up staying for 5 days in a little hut on the left bank of Mer de Glace Glacier, gorging our-selves on chocolate bars, beer, orange juice, sweets and all manner of things that go well with Couscous!
So after a good few days at the Envers de l’Aiguille Hut it was time to head back to civilisation. With a camera full of snapshots of the Dru, Aiguille Vert and sneak peeks of the Jorasses. And fingers raw from multiple pitches of quality Granite.
The Grands Charmoz-Grepon Traverse is a well-known and often repeated climb just north of the Midi Plan. It was next on our list. We headed-up early on the first Midi lift that took us to the half-way plateau, walked across the base of the Midi massif and started up Nantillions Glacier that was to lead us to the base of the climb.
Now when I say ‘headed-up’ the Nantillions Glacier, what I actually mean is that I kaked-myself up the Nantillions Glacier. It was steep. There were hanging seracs above us, crevasses below us and hard snow all round us. One slip boet and who knows… So eventually after a few prayers and tense moments we arrived at the base of the climb and it was all-systems go.
We racked up and started moving together.
Lesson Four: Choose plastic crampon straps for the front of your boot instead of that wire toe bail thing. Just try hooking one of your side crampon points through the wire toe bail on the other foot. Do it when you’re in a tight spot while moving together with your mate over hard ground. Get it stuck there nicely. Yes, you will suddenly become a Ballerina and your mate will tell you what he thinks of you in poetry as the rope goes taught and you nearly pull him off the route.
So after a few hundred meters of average ground we got to a tricky section. Out came the belay device and up went the bloke from Kendal. After styling for a couple pitches we found ourselves in a tight spot. And when the cool bloke from Kendal started swearing I figured it must be real hard. We were obviously off-route. A bar of Kendal Mint cake and a cup of tea would’ve been nice right there. So after a quick discussion we decided to back-off. Now in the Alps there are a lot of mostly solid granite flakes which make retreating a breeze so we started looking around for the closest one.
And so began a full-on multi-abseil descent that ended in a fading Alpine glow and a brutal walk down to the valley.
Lesson Five: You can never carry too much abseil tat in the Alps. Snow gets soft and seracs crumble in the late afternoon warmth. Down-climbing and crossing glaciers when the suns a burning ain’t much fun. Sometimes it’s just easier just to throw in the towel and abseil a direct line. But it starts hurting when you see your umpteenth Dyneema sling disappearing away from you as you abseil away from it. An expensive exercise!
If you are in Chamonix and you have a spare few days, go and climb Mont Blanc. Don’t listen to the okes who say it’s full of Blundering Noobs and that you get stones falling on your head on the approach.
Lesson Six: The Grand Couloir isn’t that bad if it’s full of snow. Youtube it if you haven’t heard of it. Keywords like ‘rockfall’, ‘injury’, ‘broken leg’, ‘reconstructive cosmetic facial surgery’ and ‘death’ will aid in your search. I had heard so much about it that that when it came to crossing the thing, I was actually disappointed. Yes, there was all manner of things coming rolling down but they consisted of balls of soft snow and a pebble or two. Hardly the rocks and boulder land-slides I had imagined myself dodging like Brian Habbana with a pair of crampons on.
Just get up early to avoid the crowds and wear a helmet. It’s worth it. It was the first time I had been to that altitude. The first time I had walked on cornices and snow-ridges like that. Felt like I was in a Rolex advert. I had decided to solo it by the easy Gouter route as Pete had returned to the UK on command from his better half. Unbeknown to me, the train line that carries the less adventurous half way up Mont Blanc had ceased working a few days before I walked up and the summer season had come to an end. Therefore there was not a soul on the whole mountain but I. Sat in Gouter winter hut on my own the eve before I wanted to summit, I was having a few doubts about doing the route on my lonesome. It’s lakka to have someone’s track’s to follow on those snow slopes, especially when playing Ching, Chong, Cha with crevasses and such in relatively fresh powder snow. The only experience i had in such matters consisted of a couple hours on the Nantillions Glacier, hardly the skills needed. So luckily at midnight, into the hut burst Idris from Romania and Zena from the Ukraine. After exchanging bleary eyed pleasantries and then being offered some shots of Romanian Grape Skin Vodka, they agreed to have me join their rope. A couple hours of sleep later, we left the hut. Ascending the Gouter Dome during sunrise will stay in my mind forever! We summited three and a half hours later in gale-force winds and a halo of cloud.
Again, an incredible experience!
Attend the school of Climbing and it will take you from stripping your moer in Airports to backing off hard routes in the Alps. From replacing expensive Dyneema slings to finding endless supplies of chocolate. Attend enough of these classes and you can qualify to dine on Ham and Eggs in Alaska, go Dreaming in Tangerine on El Cap’s big walls, front point Point Five in Scotland and ride Souped up Wheelchairs at the best crag in the world.
Just do yourself a favour though and pay attention in class as detention can be deadly!
Many thanks to everyone who was involved in my trip, from airport drop-off to words of advice and use of gear!
Article By Murray Sanders