The climbing life – Part II: Chamonix, France

In Chamonix you know right away who the climbers are because they strut around town with their climbing rope strung over the top of their backpack like a badge of honour.

We arrived in early August after two weeks of climbing in southern France. We spent the first week of our stay crag climbing in the valley, and noticed that despite it being peak season here, we were, once again, the only climbers in the campground.

Crag climbing in Chamonix

After a few days we had discovered the real climbers’ campground north of Chamonix centre in Argentiere, and it became clear we would have to up the anti. Crag climbing in Chamonix valley is for the tourists. Real climbers here climb up in the mountain tops at elevations of 3-4,000m.

There were no climbing hippies or parties. The campground had a noise ban from 10pm onwards, as here in Chamonix the climbers are alpine climbers and often start the day at the crack of dawn or earlier (an ‘alpine start’ can be any time from midnight).

To reach the mountain peak or rock ‘aiguille’ (needle) you plan to climb, you may have to cross a glacier, hiking for several hours. You may have to pay €50 for a gondola ride up the first 1,000m and another €30 to spend the night at a mountain hut, or €60 with all meals included. Beer and chocolate are extra on top of that.

Because of the European luxury of gondolas and mountain-top hotels, you only need to pack a small backpack with the latest, brightest, most light-weight technical climbing gear – and it’s best to hang as much of this on the outside of your bag as possible so people know you have it. And so you can use an even smaller bag.

Rowan rocking the Chamonix style: rope on display

Having not calculated Chamonix and alpine climbing into our original plan, we weren’t fully equipped to head up into the mountains. But we were determined. We had our friend in Austria send back our winter clothes that we had sent ahead and tried to figure out how little else we could get away with purchasing to meet our needs.

My wishlist included:

1. Hipster as f**k glacier glasses:

2. New bright coloured puffer jacket:

3. New fleece top to replace mine with its holes:

4. A set of 8 or 9 cams/friends of varying sizes (you stick these in cracks in the rock for protection where there aren’t bolts. There aren’t so many bolts on alpine climbs):

5. Lightweight 60m twin ropes (we have one 60m single rope). With smaller twin ropes, you need to have two to take your weight on a fall, but you can also abseil down twice as far, which would allow us to do climbs we couldn’t on our current rope:

6. Super lightweight 30–40m rope for glacier travel and easy rock summits where a long rope isn’t required:

7. Small climbing backpack, as this is all I need for my new lightweight kit and so I can hang all my fancy gear on the outside:

What we settled on buying:

  • 3x friends:
The $300 of “friends” we ended up buying…our budget went steadily downhill from here

As we waited for our parcel from Austria to arrive, a storm rolled in flooding the campground and converting our tent into an indoor swimming pool. Rather than tough it out with the most hardcore climbers, we evacuated to a budget hotel and spent the week practising rope and glacier rescue techniques (and in my case also being sick in bed. A well-timed illness since there was not much else to do in the constant rain). Our warm clothes arrived just in time for the sun to clear.

We hired crampons and ice axes and stuffed our 60m single rope, my old grey puffer jacket, my holey fleece, our cooking gear and two days worth of food into our giant hiking packs and set off to blow our budget on the gondola up to Le Tour Glacier.

We hadn’t booked the mountain hut in advance due to the rain and when we got there we found the 140-bed lodge was fully booked. Despondent, we mulled over our options, trying to determine how far we could go without missing the last gondola home. Luckily for us and our ambitions, the hut staff either got a cancellation or took pity on us and offered us a room in their overflow dorm room. Which is not as fancy as the main building, but still the same price.

View from near the hut

Happily, this allowed us to tackle both of the routes we had hoped to over the two days. We left our sleeping bags and cooking gear at the hut and roped up to weave our way across the glacier, using the NZ-invented ‘Kiwi Coil’ system to tidy away our excess rope. If one of us fell into a crevasse this extra rope would allow the other person to set up a pulley-system to haul them out – assuming they’ve managed to dig in their ice axe to arrest the fall and not been dragged into the crevasse as well. The person in front is most likely to fall into a crevasse and least likely to have to do a rescue, so off I went ahead.

Roped up on the glacier, weaving past crevasses

As an aside, I don’t necessarily recommend being tied to your spouse by a short length of rope. Inevitably you walk too fast or too slow for their preferences and start thinking it would be nice if they would just go ahead and fall into a crevasse. It’s kind of like trying to cooperate in a 2-person kayak where you constantly get splashed with water by the other person’s oars; they had nicknamed these kayaks ‘divorces’ in the river kayaking company Rowan worked for in Canada.

However, on this occasion we got there in the end without any casualties. The first peak we climbed was an easy scramble up Petite Forche – no rope required.

Views from Petite Forche

The next day we took on more of a challenge and summitted the Aiguille du Tour, learning along the way an alpine climbing technique where you use the rope between you as dynamic protection against falls by wrapping it around rocks as you go. This allows you to more quickly ascend rock ridges and summits that aren’t too technically difficult.

Rowan walking above the bergschrund at the base of the Aiguille du Tour. On the way down we abseiled over this big snow crack.
At the top of the Aiguille du Tour. Check out my Kiwi Coils.

With a couple of easy alpine routes under our belts, some new techniques learned, and renewed confidence in our roping skills needed for glacier travel, we set our sights on Chamonix’s crown jewel for beginner alpinists: the Cosmiques Arete at the top of the impressive Aiguille du Midi gondola.

This route is famous, required no more than 3 ‘friends’ (if any) and there were no abseils longer than our rope could reach.

Also famous on the Aiguille du Midi gondola are the queues.

6.30am alpine start in Chamonix

Normally alpine climbers start their summit attempts in the middle of the night so that the snow is firm and they can get back down before it starts to melt making it harder to walk through and the glacier crossings more dangerous. In Chamonix we had an alpine start to avoid a long wait for the gondola.

At quarter to six in the morning we were outside the campground thumbing a lift. We got a ride from one of the staff who works the gondola so made it there just on opening time and had to wait no more than an hour to catch our ride up.

The view from the top of the gondola (at 4,000m above sea level) is breathtaking. It was an amazing feeling to put our crampons on, rope up, and step outside the confines of the tourist viewing platform and along the narrow snowy ridge to the start of the alpine route.

The early start is worth it for the view!
Rowan with the Aiguille du Midi summit tower (top gondola station) in the background
The climbers’ exit to “outside”
Making our way down the ridge from the tower

As far as alpine climbs go, this one is not terribly remote. At the base of the snow ridge we walk along a flat glacier below the tourist centre at the top of the gondola. Another gondola passes above our heads taking climbers and tourists into the Italian side of the alps.

Gondola to Italy

To our left are mountains and a flat plateau of snow. The plateau is full of tents, which are full of climbers slightly braver than us (who also didn’t need to get up quite so early).

Snow camp (bird’s eye view)

Ahead and to our right is the Cosmiques Arete, a rocky ridge that we will climb up and along until we circle back to gondola viewing platform.

The Cosmiques Arete (photo taken from the gondola station viewing platform)
Rowan climbing the start of the arete

Normally the ridge is climbed in crampons, but we are late in the season and most of the snow has melted, so we can climb in just our mountain boots. We make good progress until we reach the first abseil point, and the start of the queues. It is perfect weather and a very popular route, so with a lot of other things in Chamonix, we have to queue.

Queue to go up the crux pitch of the Cosmiques Arete.

In the end a climb that should have taken us just a few hours takes about 5. But the sun is shining and everyone is having a good time so we enjoy the slow pace, enjoy some good banter with a group of English climbers, and drill the guides on the route about the alpine climbing techniques we are starting to pick up.

The view from the arete is always incredible; the drop down to our left is immense. With so many climbers around it isn’t difficult to navigate our way up, around, down and along the maze of rock pillars that make up the ridge.

The most technical parts of the route have been made easier over the years as mountain guides have carved crampon notches into the rock to help their clients get a foothold. With no crampons on, these little holes didn’t help us, but they were useful reassurances that we were going the right way and wouldn’t find ourselves boxed in to any hairy situations high up on the exposed rock.

The last bit of the route requires us to climb a ladder back onto the gondola viewing platform. From here we explore the tower and the viewing platform before joining yet another queue to get a gondola back home to the valley, and contemplating where our climbing will take us next.

(Spoiler alert: it’s Switzerland).

Looking back over the route with its striking rock pillars and sheer drop down to the valley below