Climbing in Chamonix

by Jonathan Barrett 

First, let me paint you a picture. Jon had squirmed his way up the chimney to a jammed block the size of a cantaloupe, right side in and left side out. Clipping the old tat hanging from it, he was without any other way to protect the next series of moves. His pack dangled at foot level from his harness like a pendulum swaying out of time. Stepping into a sling, he began to pivot and writhe sideways over the block which rocked ominously under his weight. The movement was physical, comical, and bold. I sat in a block of gneiss in the warm sunshine below his acrobatics gnawing on my sandwich from Le Fournil Chamonaird and watched his gyrations thoughtfully because I was next in line. He called down that the interior was surprisingly slick, which perhaps explained his slithering through the gap like a snake. A few moments later, though, he triumphantly appeared peeking over the top of the spire that was barely larger than a doormat. Well, darn it, I thought, I guess that means I’m up to bat next. And I can assert it was twice as much fun to replicate as it was to watch.

Between July 8th and the 23rd, nine of us spent day after day enjoying Chamonix. The participants were Lee Davis (leader), Ally Imbody (co-assistant leader), Rayce Boucher (co-assistant leader), Rhonda Boucher, Chuck Aude, Jonathan Barrett, Jon Skeen, Nicole Castonguay, and Elisabeth K. Bowers. The beauty of climbing in Chamonix is that there is literally something for everyone, and each one of us found a way to draw from the trip something that suited our own desires and tastes. But the climbing itself is only one small part of the experience.

This morning, as I bang out the first draft of this report, I am sitting at the dining room table of our chalet with Jon and Chuck. From my vantage point, I can see the glacier-capped summit of Mont Blanc nearly 13,000 feet above the valley floor. The morning rainstorm has ended, and the impossibly immense seracs of the Bossons Glacier are a complex of light and shadow. All the while, the tangle of roses along the deck bob and nod their heads sleepily just outside the window. The three of us sit and chat casually about writing computer code and outsourcing to India, working from home and being a desk jockey in a cube farm. As a high school teacher, the conversation is a view into a world that is utterly different from my own. This too, is what makes the Chamonix outing unique and special. Just the other night, we built a fire in the fireplace, not because the night was cold but because we could. EKB, having just soaked in the hot tub (oh, by the way there was a hot tub!), stepped outside, still in her bathing suit and wrapped in a towel, to split wood with a rusty French hatchet. The thunderous bangs caused a neighbor with a British accent to call out to her, “Are you about done with that? It is quite late!” Such a polite way to request her to knock it off. Several of us then sat near the fire chatting about nothing and everything simultaneously, and laughing about the ridiculousness of the situation. But not all the moments were quite so sublime and carefree. As evidence, consider the following anecdote.

“No, no, you can’t lock the door. My friends are out there,” I pleaded with the lift operator. He had slid the thick steel bolt into place, closing a door seemingly designed to take a bomb blast. Sheets of rain whipped across the mountain. “No. I close the door,” he responded in clipped English. “No, my friends are still on the route,” I pleaded again and gesticulated with a form of alpinist’s ASL, as if that would help me translate the problem into French. Chuck and I had just finished the East Ridge of the Grands Montet, a rambling low-consequence line that we had chosen because the forecast had been ominous at best and potentially apocalyptic at worst. He and I finished earlier than Ally and Nicole and continued on up the Petite Verte, climbing the final 5.fun section in crampons. The whole time the rock was wet, and there was occasional drizzle. From our vantage point, maybe a quarter mile away, we had waved at them, and they waved back. It was all good. The weather was holding long enough for us to finish. When we returned to the lift, they were not back yet. At last, the clouds could no longer hold their moisture, and it came pouring down. “No, no. They will be here any moment. Please unlock it,” I said again and pointed into the maelstrom. The lift op just looked at me with a puzzled expression. Then Nicole’s face appeared in the window. She was drenched. And my seemingly insane claims were vindicated. The Frenchman’s expression was easy to read, By god, there was someone still out there! He slid back the bolt, letting them in out of the storm. Later, at the base of the lift, the clouds pulled apart sending down strong summer sunshine.

In Chamonix, you can find as much adventure as you wish to seek out. It is entirely possible to make a Tyrolean traverse, like we did one afternoon, from the first to the second Clocheton (roughly translatable as a belfry) on steel t-shaped bars placed a century ago. To do it, though, you need to lasso them like the Lone Ranger. We also climbed a brand spanking new via ferrata route called Via des Evettes, which included a Himalayan bridge over a chasm. This could be extended into a longer via corda route up a vague ridge, where you simul-climbed as a team clipping lustrous steel bolts exactly where you needed them to be. Whether you are a doer or a viewer, there was something for everyone. Riding the Midi lift from Chamonix to the top station at 3,842 meters, we were stuffed into the “bin”—as it is often called—with tourists from Asia going simply for the spectacular vistas from the observation deck and weathered French guides who casually short-roped their clients down a perilous fin of snow all the while smoking a cigarette and saying in semi-encouraging tones, “Good job, guy.”

It is impossible to do much meaningful alpine climbing in a group of eight or nine, so in the evenings we would sit together in the chalet and discuss ideas for the following day. Some would want in on the next day’s adventures and others would want out, preferring instead to take a rest day, for which you could take the train into Switzerland for lunch or have a day at the spa where rainforest sounds are played while you are misted from multiple shower heads. Over a game of Carcassone or Anomia, we would develop a tentative plan, always contingent on the weather. The Chamonix app was regularly referenced. The forecast, although sometimes difficult to translate from French, was accompanied by graphics. We got many laughs from the cartoonishly drawn lightning bolts coming down like the ire of the gods to smite the French/Italian summit of Mont Blanc. It was never entirely clear what that icon meant. Ultimately a plan would be formulated, often driven by a person who was motivated to climb something of personal interest.

As a point of comparison for the range of climbing that we did, I offer the two climbs: Hotel California and the traverse of the Petite Charmoz. The first is in the Aiguille Rouge on the north side of the valley and is accessed via the Planpraz lift. Rhonda and I climbed as a pair, and Rayce and Nicole joined together as a team. The route is entirely bolted and takes a mellow yet interesting line of ten distinct pitches up a buttress. The climbing is enjoyable from start to finish with a variety of styles and movements. Afterwards, we gathered at the Dru restaurant to lounge on the patio. The second climb, Petite Charmoz, was much more alpine in nature. Jon and I took the gamble that the cloudy, wet weather would eventually clear. The approach was severe: nearly two hours of cross country travel up and over the moraines and boulder fields beneath the Aiguilles de Peigne, Plan, and Charmoz. The clouds had dropped so low that our beta was almost useless. “Cross the moraine beneath the Glacier de Blaitiere (huh, is this it?) following the line of least resistance (what is the line of least resistance in a boulder field?) to reach the ridge coming down from the northwest ridge of the Aiguille de Blaiteire (stupid cloud cover!).” Eventually, after hiking up and down the glacier looking for the obvious gully (á la Fred Beckey), the swirling whiteness parted long enough that we were able to orient ourselves adequately. The climbing was wet, exposed at times, and definitely old school. Jon, the chimney master, thrutched his way up part one of the Etala chimneys. I French-freed/aided my way up the second chimney, shredding my jacket on granite that was, paradoxically, simultaneously coarse and slick. Failing to follow the clear and accurate beta from the guidebook, we eventually blundered our way to the summit. The descent was long and brutal: multiple rappels, down-climbing loose scree, descending a series of rusty steel ladders, scrambling down to the main trail, and then hoofing it back uphill to the Midi lift. We were thrashed when done. But it was a beautiful success.

We had a small car for the two weeks, but it was almost never used because the public transportation was so user friendly. A block away, we could pick up the city bus and ride it up or down the valley. It was a common occurrence to see a group of climbers board the bus wearing harnesses jangling with ice screws, carabiners, tricams, and other alpine accessories. There were a plethora of hikers young and old carrying daypacks and trekking poles. On one occasion, two elderly ladies, who were 85 if they were a day, boarded wearing matching home-sewn outfits and hiking shoes from the 70’s. They had battered downhill poles of the same vintage as their footwear.

As for the lifts, we had an all-inclusive pass that gave us unlimited access to all of the lifts in the valley for the period we were there. There was no need for the epic slogs to tree-line we all love to hate in the Cascades. It is lift-serve alpinism at its finest. Once up high, there was more than adequate signage for directions. Both formally established and climbers’ trails were easy to follow. And when we were thirsty at the end of a climb? An Orangina or Coke could be purchased and consumed in a lounge chair while overlooking the cliffs and glaciers of the Mont-Blanc Massif.

Lastly there was the food. Just a block from the Midi station is an exceptional bakery serving all manner of treats: croissants that were the perfect blend of buttery flakiness and chew, sandwiches that could be stuffed into a pack before the climb, meringues as big as a child’s head, and baguettes fine enough for Julia Child. Stopping at one of the huts, you could get an omelet to satiate the hungriest alpinist. Rayce and Rhonda attempted to explore the wild world of French cheese and discovered that explanations in broken English about the flavor profiles of a particular fromage are at best challenging and at worst misleading. How does one say “stinky feet” in French? Then there were the cured meats. In the fine shops, mysterious sausages hang from hooks like magical chrysalises, the exteriors covered in an alchemical mold barely known to science. Sometimes we ate as a group; one night we pot-lucked on the back deck beneath the alpenglow of the aiguilles. Often we dined in small groups out at a restaurant. One night Chuck, Lee, EKB and I dined al fresco at a tiny place called La Cremerie des Aiguilles in Gailland. The meats were grilled in an open hearth behind us, and the sautéed vegetables consisted of tender baby beets and artichoke hearts. The meal drifted late into the evening, without any sense of urgency.

And that is the secret of the Chamonix outing. It was not really a climbing trip. It was a diplomatic mission to meet with Oliviero Gobbi from Grivel, replete with fine Italian food and espresso. It was people watching of the first order. Chuck and I listened to a guide from the Companie des Guides de Chamonix describe to his client, from first-hand experience, what climbing in the valley was like in the 1940s. It was conversation and comradery fostered by shared artisan breads, broken on the deck of a chalet at the foot of Mont Blanc. I know that Lee sees himself there again next year, and I plan on returning for my fourth visit.

About the Author: Jonathan Barrett grew up in New England and moved to Oregon in 1997. He joined the Mazamas in 2007. When not working as a full time language arts teacher at North Marion High School or being a father to a 1st grader, he finds the occasional morning here and there to sneak up Mt. Hood, pull some plastic, or crank out a long run in Forest Park.

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