Pained and Pampered in Chamonix

Photo: Chris Garren
Surrounded by seracs and pristine rock at our camp below the Blatiere

Story And Photos By Chris Garren

In Colorado, I wake every day to a scenic mountain panorama. Still, my jaw dropped when I first saw the Alps in Chamonix. Endless peaks shot up from crevassed glaciers and sunny hills. Mont Blanc was a commanding presence above the valley. A climber’s dreamscape!

Drinking questionable amounts of coffee to get the better of my jet lag, I gazed at routes I’d been reading about for years. I was in the heart of the alpine climbing world; the stage for legendary first ascents and home to the best long, moderate routes anywhere.

Once a pursuit strictly for the elegantly clad upper class, climbing is now written into the DNA of Chamonix. Gear shops, huts, cable cars — a vast infrastructure supports vertical endeavors. From cafes I watched a spectrum of climbers pass by: smiling families bound for local cliffs, so close that everyone bikes there already donning harnesses and clutching a café au lait, and hardened alpinists, eyes dulled from brutal efforts in the mountains.

My friend Jeff guides in Chamonix. We’d decided to do a big climb, one he’d never done. He picked an ambitious link-up on the Aiguille de Blatiere. The lower portions are often climbed but the mountain rarely summitted. We dug but unearthed little info.

We were whisked halfway up the Aiguille de Midi. Laughs and screams echoed in the crammed cable car as we felt momentarily weightless passing each lift tower. We had superlight alpine climbing gear. Also, plastic bags full of indulgences, made possible by the easy lift access. Instead of gels and sports bars, the staples of American endurance outings, I brought bread, cheese, and tons of chocolate croissants. Such juxtapositions abounded in France.

We slept on a moraine below our objective. With no shelter above, I lay watching stars glimmer above the silhouetted Alps. In the serene night, I felt a mix of giddy excitement and pre-climb nerves.

Just off the cable car, looking up at the iconic Aiguille du Midi on the right

My 3:45 a.m. alarm woke me abruptly. With much grunting and grogginess, we stuffed ourselves with oatmeal and chai tea. We cramponed up nicely frozen snow, traversed exposed ledges, and arrived at the start of Nabot Leon. Our light summit packs had little but raincoats, down jackets and emergency blankets. Our secret weapons were straws for drinking snowmelt and garden gloves for grippy protection in cold weather. With unknowns ahead, we brought one axe and one pair of mountain boots.

Sipping refreshing melt water during our rappels off Aiguille de Blatiere

Racing the sun, we flew up pitch after pitch of perfect granite, belaying hard sections and simul-climbing when we could. Cracks, slabs, face climbing, edges, stemming — so many different styles and a stream of motion that reminded me of everything I love about climbing. It was exhausting but perfect. We linked up with a route called Osez Josephine. At the end of the route, we crested a large pillar. The backside dropped off a thousand feet and a circular view revealed hanging glaciers broken by cliff bands, steep ridgelines, and the spread of the Chamonix valley.

Moving on, it was a choose-your-own-adventure. Wearing boots and with axe in hand, Jeff climbed a skinny, snow-packed couloir. Once he secured the rope, I swung off my rock island and climbed hand over hand up the rope, my rock shoes offering no help on the steep snow. A tension traverse and stellar crack climbing followed. And then, we were stuck!

Jeff rappelling into the mist, searching for the next anchor

The nearly featureless rock immediately above was unprotectable. Climbing lore is full of improvisation. So, we went old-school, our method effective, if not glamorous. I stood on Jeff’s shoulders. With him on tiptoe, I did a precarious transfer onto the rock face, mantled over a ledge, and happily saw better terrain ahead. We progressed but faced frustrating route-finding. At one point, Jeff sent cams to me using the rope like a zipline. Ancient wooden pitons marked previous passages.

Jeff led one final pitch, a tricky and dirty corner finishing on a ledge slippery with loose rock. A handful of pitches from the summit, we decided to descend as daylight faded and clouds moved in. Searching through the mist, we eventually found the top of Fidel Fiasco, a route with bolted anchors. We rappelled quickly, stopping only to feed the ropes through each new anchor and take rejuvenating sips of meltwater. Oddly, we could hear music rising from town.

Jeff enjoying our epic meal after a long day on the Aiguille de Blatiere

Boot skiing and talus hopping brought us back to camp, where we scooped the rest of our gear. In the dark, we rallied across an endless snowfield that rolled into blackness. Drained, I was on autopilot but still smiling. The hut was a sight for sore eyes! After 20 hours and 20+ pitches of climbing, we kicked back, had beers, showers, and an outrageous gourmet meal. What a wild mix of pampering and suffering. With salmon cream sauce and blueberry- topped dessert in my belly, I headed to bed satisfied.