Climbing is synonymous with travel. As climbers we get to avoid the tourist label and experience foreign places and cultures in a unique and often authentic way. And just like those local crag classics that have to be ticked off, there are a handful of must-see climbing destinations that demand a pilgrimage. For alpine climbing the place it all began is Chamonix. Mountain tourism has been going strong in the region since the early nineteenth century, and the town has been a base for many classic and modern alpine first ascents.
We have world-class rock in abundance on the southern tip of Africa, but our frozen terrain is pretty limited. I wanted to hone the few alpine tricks I had, and hopefully learn some new ones. And so I hopped on a plane to France to see what all the fuss is about.
This is what I learnt.
One You have to know how to shove
Rob, a South African living in London, a Chamonix regular and my initial local beta-master broke it down for me: “When we get out of the lift the rope must be ready for the rap, yeah? It’s going to be crowded on that bridge, and we want to be first to the anchors. You’ve got to be selfish.”
The bridge in question spans two icy rock pinnacles at 3,800m on the Auiguille du Midi and the usual way up is via a two-stage cable car which whisks you almost three vertical kilometres in about twenty minutes.
To get to our route, a five-pitch mixed climb called Vent du Dragon, we had to rap down the gulley between the spires. Fresh from the streets of Jozi I felt dangerous enough to do what needed to be done. It turns out I was a puppy dog compared to the hardened ‘Chamonistas’ and I got roughly shunted aside as no less than seven parties all vied for the same anchor.
Fortunately Rob and his local climbing partner Paul were old hands and they literally beat everyone else to it. After they disappeared into the void I stepped up meekly to the front of the queue and piped up in a little voice that they would all have to wait a bit longer as I too was using these ropes. Seething stares were the only reply.
I was going to need to grow a pair to climb in this place.
Two Ice is hard, noses are soft
Vent du Dragon turned out to be a baptism of fire. It’s a classic route with easy access and in good weather it’s crowded as hell. There were four of us climbing as two parties – Rob and Paul in front because of their superior scrumming abilities, and another local, Gareth, and I just behind. Below us was a Scottish couple, with yet another other party after them. The route has two mild mixed intro pitches before getting down to business: a steep ice chute followed by a wide and awkward granite crack with poor feet. I watched Rob, then Paul and finally Gareth dispatch the crux with grace and style, while I had a nice chat with the two Scots at the stance.
Then it was my turn. The ice chute felt hard and steep. I tried my best to hook the previous axe placements but more often than not ended up hacking new ones for myself. A few meters before the ice transitioned to rock I was just starting to get the hang of things when I heard a long, drawn out groan from below me. I looked down to see James, the Scotsman hanging on lead on his tools five meters below me with a red smear on the ice in front of him. “I just broke by bose!”. What he meant was that my inept hacking had sent a block of ice crashing down onto his nose. Bugger.
James put in an ice screw, hung on it for about two and a half seconds, and then said “right, well I guess I better finish this pitch off.” Which he promptly did. He was a sight to behold at the next stance, and he looked even better with a skeef nose and two black eyes the next day when I bought him and his partner Nicky a drink.
That’s right – don’t mess with the Jozi boy!
Three ADK has climbed everything
After the Vent du Dragon experience I was fed up with jostling and aggression. So I opted for a bit of mountain R&R with two nights in the Cosmiques Hut. The French have taken hut-building to the next level. The “small” winter room was fully kitted out with blankets, mattresses, a sit-down kitchen and two very loud Poles who’d been drinking 1% alcohol beer. Just as well it wasn’t whiskey or the place would have been uninhabitable. On the first day I climbed the delectable Cosmiques Arête. It follows an exposed ridge which tumbles down 200m to the Valée Blanche glacier on one side, and 2000m to Chamonix on the other. The crux is a perfect granite crack, replete with perfectly drilled crampon pockets. Somehow these, and the hundreds of tourists snapping hero shots at the route’s exit ladder (literally a wonky steel ladder onto the viewing platform), take nothing away from the quality of the line. It’s a real classic.
Paul joined me late that afternoon and the next day, after a few weather related plan changes, we ended up doing the originally-named German Gulley on the Triangle du Tacul. The route gave both of us a run for our money, with Paul tinkering his way up a fragile, disintegrating ice smear on the first crux, and me using my ice axes like a ten year old with a Swiss army knife on the second. We called it after that and retired to tea, cheese, and noisy Poles at the hut.
Later that evening just as I was getting into my book I heard an unmistakable “Howzit boet!” Two South Africans, Ant and Kevin had just pulled in. Lekker! I hadn’t seen Ant in ages so we tried to drown out the Poles by catching up as loudly as possible. Kevin weighed in with a schweet comment every now and then, and Paul just shook his head at all this vernacular disturbing his evening. Which brings me to ADK. At some point in the evening’s festivities Ant happened to glance up at one of the hut’s wooden beams. And whose name should he happen to see carved there for posterity?
You guessed it.
Four Chamonix is more dangerous than the Bubonic plague
The infamous Dr Doom punk rock alpinist Mark Twight was never one to let the truth stand in the way of a witty overstatement. He described Chamonix as the death sport capital of the world. And while there are other places that enjoy mixing their sports with a healthy dose of mayhem and destruction (for instance bull fighting in Spain, big game hunting in Africa – wait a minute – this isn’t Hemingway), Twight wasn’t far off the mark. The age old climbing practice of sitting at a bar and talking kak brought a disparate bunch of locals, transients and climbing tourists (moi) together one night in town. I was the only one at the table who had anything resembling a nine-to-five job. There was a skiing movie producer, a mountain guide, an offshore rigger, a guy trying to kick-start his handmade ski business, and this guy:
He’s a pro-golfer-turned-pro-acrobatics paraglider. That’s right, WTF was my reaction too. He boldly claimed to be the best acro pilot in the valley, and then conceded that maybe he’s second best if some other so-and-so is in town. I wasn’t going to argue. We were then regaled in great detail about the ingenious safety device used to prevent a major cock-up when practicing a new trick. Basically if the trick goes wrong the acro chute is jettisoned and in the process it rips a specially positioned BASE chute out of a secret pouch. “Fail safe” I hear you say? “Safety third” I say.
Suddenly a broken nose sounded as safe as golf. The marsupial backup chute story was by no means an isolated event. In my two week visit I heard more stories about people falling in crevasses, getting taken out by avalanches, rockfall and jettisoned acro chutes, skewering themselves on ice axes, disappearing in storms and generally not coming back from the mountains, than I’d heard in the previous eighteen years of climbing combined. The one guy I climbed with had taken a 600m fall a few years before when a cornice collapsed under him. His injuries? A tweaked knee. I just couldn’t fathom how Jozi got such a bad rap as a dangerous place to live.
Chamonix was deadly – compared to the Bubonic plague.
Five The French still love a bit of equality, fraternity and liberty
By the end of my first week I was starting to get used to the place. The cable cars, the tourists, the outrageous mountain huts, the rock staples, fixed ropes and via feratta were all starting to feel pretty normal. It was about then that I discovered something interesting about myself – I loved the infrastructure! It was fun on toast. The daily routine was to wake up in the morning, look outside at the weather, and decide if you want to climb little warm rocks, big cold rocks, or hurl yourself around the sky like a ballooning spider on crack cocaine. And within half an hour you could be doing any or all of them.
It was magic.
The surprising bit for me was how much I reveled in it. I’ve always been a climbing traditionist – enjoying long walks, cams over bolts, and tea over Red Bull. Yet somehow in Chamonix human penetration into the mountains was so complete and had happened over such a long time that it felt perfectly natural. Fitting even.
I suppose if anything is done for long enough it becomes a tradition. The result seemed to be an egalitarian and liberated mountain fraternity. How very French. During my two weeks I saw two ladies in their seventies roping up together at the base of a six pitch sport climb. I saw an eight year-old child in a poorly fitting harness clutching an ice axe while marching across a glacier. I saw hundreds of tourists ascend to 3,800m, see a glacier for the first time and watch in awe as climbers descended a knife-edge snow ridge. And I saw climbers of all abilities and experience enjoying quality alpine climbing in one of the most beautiful mountain settings in the world. Like any glaciated area it’s pretty huge, and you really don’t need to go far to find a quiet corner. There are probably tens of thousands of routes to choose from, and so if high adventure is what you’re after you can still go out and get it. It would just have sucked to miss out on my morning croissant.
Six Ice is cold, blood is warm
After a week of alpine “cragging” I felt like I was ready for something bigger. The weatherman said we were in for a perfect few days, so fresh off the cable car from one mission, Gareth and I threw a rack together and hiked up the Mer de Glace to the Leschaux hut. Our goal was the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses via a route called “Le Linceul” or The Shroud. Basically it’s a 1 km high slab of ice. For once I didn’t get my croissant, and a three am start saw us marching up the ever snowier glacier to the bergschrund. Our plan was to simul climb as much of the route as possible – basically both of us moving at the same time, always keeping a few ice screws clipped to the rope between us. It’s fast but no one is really allowed to fall off.
The bergschrund was steep and a bit slushy, but once we were through it the angle eased and we were into full throttle cardio calf burning hell. Gareth is fit. Disgustingly fit. Within thirty minutes I was starting to feel a bit pukey trying to keep up. After an hour I felt like one of those army cadets with the Drill Instructor yelling spittle in my face. And then the blood started to slowly drain from my fingers – probably on a sympathy run to my burning calves. Numb fingers aren’t too much of a problem on an ice climb – they’re pretty much par for the course. The problem is when you lower your arms for a bit and the warm blood comes seeping back in.
It’s called the screaming barfies because most people scream and want to barf from the pain. True story. It. Is. Kak.
The only consolation I had as I hung on an ice screw trying not to throw up, was that Rob had told me he only gets them once a day.
I hoped the same was true for me.
Seven It’s all in the feet
This one should have been pretty obvious, but somehow when you’re strapped into crampons and have all kinds of bulky layered clothing it’s easy to forget about precise footwork. After the agony of the first 200 meters I started to find my rhythm. Gareth was an old hand at this and as we moved he shouted down some tips. The one that gave the most calf pump relief was to plant my lower foot sideways on a little kicked-out shelf in the ice and lock the knee in place. It was ecstasy to stand for a few seconds without using any leg muscles. Then the rope would tug tight and I’d have to move again. After many hours of climbing all kinds of slabby ice we eventually arrived at the exit gulley. It felt amazing to climb actual features again, particularly the shattered and spiky rocks that poked out the ice. Somewhere in the depths of my rock climber’s reptilian brain, and through the fog of a long day it felt natural to seek out the little divots and cracks with my front points, and to stem the narrow gulley. Anything to keep weight off my exhausted arms and over-flexed calves. It turns out this alpine gig is mostly about efficiency and tenacious suffering. There is no stopper move – just one calf-crunching front point too many.
Eight A Jetboil is a wonderful thing
We topped out the Grandes Jorasses at five pm. It was beautiful to pull onto the sunlit summit dome and see a whole different view into Italy. We still had many hours of technical descending ahead of us, but we took thirty minutes to rest, soak in the view, and make a brew, bru.
We had each taken only one litre on the climb and until now there hadn’t been a single ledge to make bru’ing a bit easier. As I sat there in the snow clutching this amazing little heat-generating device I wondered what Walter Bonatti would have done in our position. Probably taken a sluk of olive oil, sucked on an icicle and told us to harden the f- up.
Nine Two blokes should never hitch together
By the time we descended to the Boccalatte-Piolti hut in Italy we’d been on the go for twenty three hours. We collapsed in a heap of blankets and mattresses and didn’t even have croissants for breakfast the next morning. I was slipping. It’s always a bit trippy coming back to civilisation from a big experience in the hills. You feel different but the world goes on as before. This was rubbed in our faces as the two of us stood dejectedly next to the main highway with our thumbs out. The cars went whizzing past us – and not just the fancy Audis and beamers. Even the jalops and motorhomes wouldn’t stop. The worst was a climbers’ van with black diamond helmets in the back where the driver just shrugged his shoulders and drove on by. Bad karma dude!
After a few fruitless hours we drowned our sorrows in pizza and beer, and then went back out and hit the tarmac again. This time it was even worse – a police van pulled up and demanded our passports. While the one cop spent thirty minutes on the radio verifying we weren’t terrorists, his colleague slowly donned a bullet-proof vest and assembled a semi-automatic rifle. Things weren’t going well.
It turns out they were setting up a roadblock in our hitching spot. After getting our passports back we were free to go, but there didn’t seem any point trying to hitch a ride at a roadblock. So we called it quits and phoned a friend to pretty please with cherries on top come fetch us – we’ll be the two guys standing with the cops.
Ten South Africa still has the best climbing
Traveling is great. You get to: see how other people do things; eat weird food, onsight a lot, only climb classics, buy nice gear, drink weird drinks and hone your miming skills. But one of the best things about traveling is coming back home. The Magaliesberg stamvrug smell, the white chalk on Boven rock, the black eagles at Wilge. They all have a new lustre after a trip. And they are really, really good.
We are lucky to live in a place with so many beautiful established climbs, and so much potential for new adventures.
As a parting shot, I’ll leave you with a classic quote from the noisy Poles – I can’t do the accent, but it sounds even better in Polish-English: “I believe in partnership, not Gortex.”
Basically, your expensive gear won’t get you up the route – the people you climb with will.
A huge thanks to the following people: Rob, Gareth, Paul, Cherie, Tristan, Andrew, James, Nicky, Ant, Kevin and everyone else who made my stay in Chamonix so memorable – the climbing tribe sure is welcoming bunch.
- Contamine-Mazeaud, Triangle du Tacul (II, AD+, 350m)
- Vent du Dragon (M5, 150m)
- Arête des Cosmiques (II, AD, 4c, 300m)
- German Gulley, Triangle du Tacul (II, 4, 350m although we only did 4 pitches)
- The Shroud, N Face of Grandes Jorasses with the classic finish on the Arête des Hirondelles (IV, 4, 80˚, D+/TD, 1200m)
- Some pretty average single pitch sport routes at Téiha de Blansté and a great multipitch at Corma di Machaby Paretone, both in Italy