Chamonix is nestled into the valley between the Aiguille Rouges and Aiguille du Midi. It is widely regarded as the birthplace of alpinism and is at the cutting-edge of modern mountain sports.
Gripped editor Brandon Pullan is in Chamonix for a month, at first for the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy, now climbing some of the area’s classics.
With alpine conditions shaping up around Chamonix, Will Woodhead and I sharpened the tools and set the alarm clock. We caught the first lift up the Midi and were the only one to leave at the mid-station. After an hour of talus and glacier hiking we started up the approach ice of the Frendo Spur on the south face of the Aiguille Midi.
The Frendo Spur III, 5b, 1,200 m, was first climbed on July 11, 1944 by Edouard Frendo and Rene Rionda. The upper slopes have been skied.
We brought light packs and knew we had to be on top of the route by 4 p.m. to catch the last lift, that gave us about seven hours to climb 1,200 metres of mixed ground. We knew the route was in condition because local hardman Korra Pesche had soloed it in three-and-a-half hours the day before. Pitch after pitch we were greeted with solid granite and snowy ledges. The upper crux 5b (5.8) was a full value pitch in crampons. The glacier-polished stone gives few features for front points. After the 800 metres of rock we were faced with the aesthetic ice arete. The sun was hot and the east side of the arete was sloughing under our weight, careful foot work was required. After the arete, another 400 metres of ice climbing to the upper east ridge of the Midi. We topped out at 2:30 p.m., a calf-burning five-and-a-half hours of classy climbing.
The following day, we returned to the Midi with an iffy forecast and climbed the famous Rebuffat on the south face. About eight pitches up to 5.10. The rock was slick and the friction poor. We were on the route with 12 other parties, so wait times were long. One down side of so many people climbing these classic routes is the issue of human waste. The glacier beneath the route had many unsightly piles of s#(t, as did the start of the route. The ledges smelled bad. It made me realize how lucky we are to have the Canadian Rockies.
Unlike the Bugaboos in Canada, the Alps do not have toilets for climbers to use. The area could benefit by taking a few notes out of Parks Canada’s handbook on how to deal with waste. During one of our bivys on the glacier we discovered buried bags of trash from previous parties. The season is early, I can’t imagine the mess by September.
We returned to Chamonix, packed up and drove to the Eiger in Switzerland.
In the left-sided passenger seat of Woodhead’s U.K. Jaguar, I read more of the history to the Alps: In 1991, Antoine Savelli made a five-and-a-half hour solo of the American Direct on the Dru, a 38-pitch 5.11 route. The following day we watched as the face was engulfed with a forecasted three-day storm. We made the three-hour drive home and decided on a rock route.
On Woodhead’s last day, we climbed a fun 400-metre route up the south face of the Grand Perron on the Suisse-France border, it rained most of the day. The rock was gniess, similar to Skaha in B.C. Canada. From the top of the mountain we could look down to a large dam project in Switzerland.
Heading back up to the Valle Blanche, I managed one more alpine face before the weather rolled in for the week. The Tour Ronde’s North Face is an extreme ski run in winter and in summer it is a cruisy 350-metre WI3 face.
Chamonix – Bears and Lulu
Chamonix is full of tourists and thrill seekers. The climbers are a mix of guides, hardcore lads trying to make a name for themselves, newbies and laid-back vacationers. The lifts are full and they require reservations in the summer. When the conditions are right you can see hundreds of parapenters (paragliders). The trails are always busy, the glaciers are crowded, and the huts are always overflowing. The cheese and wine are cheap and the coffee is strong. No one wears bear spray as there are no bears. It is common to bump into climbers you have met from another corner of the world.
The scariest part of the day is walking back up to the ice tunnel along the east ridge of the Midi to catch the lift. Often there are dozens of people and within them a few unsteady climbers, if one person goes, chances are you all go.
There is no gluten-free menus as gluten is the main diet (bread). If you see Lulu Lemon, then you are looking at an American, only tight jeans for the locals. The roads are bumpy because the British tour and hotel operators don’t pay tax here. Most people smoke, especially post-dinner. The micro-brewery called MBC is owned by Canadians, it’s the best beer in town. Elevation is the pub where all of the climbers go, so it’s full of dudes. If you are in France, you drink the wine. Everything is local and relatively organic, they don’t write it on the food as it’s sort of implied.
There is limited cragging in the valley, but the alpine is second to none and the access can’t be beat. If you like granite alpine, history, wine, cheese and pastries, then you will love it here.
Au revoir Chamonix, until next time.