Alps

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Best of the Alps

Best of the Alps

When I graduated college, I’d traveled quite a bit in the US for running, geology and on family trips, but I’d hardly been outside the country. I got my first chance to go abroad after my first year of grad school as a teaching assistant for an earth and environmental science course taught with my advisor in Europe. We spent three weeks camping in Switzerland, Italy and France looking at glacial geology in the Alps as well as visiting amazing and significant locations such as Europe’s largest caves and the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary marking the extinction of the dinosaurs. Always scheming, I booked my flight back to the US a couple weeks late to go climbing in the Alps.

Annecy, France

There’s a reason it’s called alpinism. Debates over ethics, style and tradition run deep in the climbing community, and these terms seem to be deeply guarded and held in high esteem. I’m sure there are many out there who would consider what I do something other than alpinism. I guess I’ll claim ignorance. In fact, the best definition I’ve seen came off the wall at the Grand Teton National Park Visitor Center, so I’m probably getting it all wrong. Anyhow, it reads:

“Alpinism was first used to describe mountaineering as practiced in the European Alps. The alpinist has a keen mountain sense and is well schooled in the various disciplines required to climb a peak, including technical skill and experience on rock, snow and ice. Bu the essence of the sport lies beyond this. The alpinist is attracted to the high peaks, compelled by the opportunity to grow in the face of adversity and by the uncertainty of success. For some the reward lies in the fulfillment of childhood dreams; for others who venture into these wild places, the power of the mountains stirs the imagination.”

As long as I was looking for what this meant, I immediately knew I had to head to Chamonix. Cham is a scene. It’s a mecca for alpinists, rock climbers, paragliders, extreme skiers, anything goes. It has an air about it, and I’m not sure I got a great read on the place after my short stay. I stepped off the train and walked to a climber’s hostel in Argentiere, just up the valley from Chamonix itself. Mont Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi and a million other peaks soared above. One of the first things I did, and one of the most touching, was visit the cemetery in Argentiere. So many young men paid the ultimate price looking for who knows what.

I immediately met a few young Americans and we clicked and came up with some plans. I also met an American expat, Dan, who’d been to Stanford as well, was strong (a former world champion rower, actually) and was eager to climb. The first days were rainy, and I only ended up squeezing in some sport climbing with Hamik, a Caltech student. As the weather wasn’t holding out for any alpine climbing, we found other diversions around Chamonix, which included eating and cooking great food (it’s France!), checking out route descriptions, and gear fondling in one of the many mountain shops. Dan and I drove up to Geneva to meet a friend of his, hang out, and head to the Tour de France one morning.

Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc at sunset

A long time cycling fan, I’d just missed the tour during a train stop, and I was eager to see the race itself. We went to Annecy to see the final individual time trial before the ride to Paris. A few hours in, Dan remarked, “Oh, I just got a text from my friend, he owns the Tour, should we meet him?” … “What?? YES.” A few minutes later, in what was certainly one of the most serendipitous afternoons of my life, I was getting handed a VIP bracelet by the owner of the Tour. The day progressed quite nicely, with me arms length from George Hincapie, Paul Sherwin, checking out Cavendish’s TT bike, watching Lance from a few meters away, and sipping champagne with the finish line ladies at, well, the finish line.

Dan ropes up on the Petit Aiguille Verte

The next morning, Dan and I headed up into the mountains, which, only in Cham, consists of getting on the telepherique, roping up and walking down the stairs to the glacier. Not the hardest approach. We were going up the normal route on the Petite Aiguille Verte, a short climb above Argentiere. After the short glacier approach, we realized the route was extremely crowded, and opted to climb a few pitches of alpine ice up to the rock arête above. It was my first time climbing ice, and I’m pretty sure my form was horrible. With each swing of the axe, I was knocking off dinner plates of ice, a classic sign of my using brute force instead of any finesse to hammer in my ice tools. Unfortunately, my stomach was far from settled, and I ended up having to take a few of the most wildly exposed pit stops of my life, including one from a hanging belay station.

Once on the rock arête, the climbing became fun and spectacular. We simul-climbed the moderate rock. Another first, this was my first time rock climbing in crampons, which is definitely a learned art, but I found it fairly straightforward and enjoyable on this beginner route. At the summit, we briefly paused, but quickly turned to downclimbing as we saw an incoming storm. After reversing the rock route and a single rappel back to lower angled snow, we roped back up and dashed back to the cable car for the quick ride back to town.

Over the next few days, I took a dayhike with a Belgian across the Mer de Glace. I was astonished by the rapid loss of ice due to climate change. You often hear of glaciers retreating, but the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in the Mont Blanc massif, has shrunk downwards by hundreds of meters. Now, from the train station at Montenvers, which used to be at the glacier’s edge, you need to downclimb many ladders to get down to the ice.

Hundreds of meters of ladders leading down to the Mer de Glace

Mike, Dan, and Hamik, the three other young Americans and I finally got our weather window and decided to head up the Trois Monts route of Mont Blanc. We headed into Cham, and caught the telepheriques up the Aiguille du Midi. Instantly being dropped off at 12,000 feet, then roping up in an ice cave and stepping out onto the famous arête is just such a shocking and fast way to start climbing. In the US, you almost always have several hours of hiking before arriving at any terrain of consequence. After a short walk across the glacier, we arrived at the Cosmiques Hut, which sleeps 200 and serves four course dinner, for quite a fee of course. We opted for a 3AM wakeup call, later than most of the guided groups, which meant that our night was interrupted by lots of stumbling and chatter.

Descending the arete from the Aigille du Midi

We roped up and stared across the glacier in pitch blackness. It’s a strange sensation to be climbing in a party, but with wind and darkness, you’re totally alone. I could tell we were passing through seracs, huge towers of ice, at one point, but it was a few hours before I could make out the peaks above and see the lights of Chamonix nearly two vertical miles below.

Crossing the col below Mont Maudit.

As we crossed a giant col between the Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit, the wind intensified greatly. We caught a bit of traffic at the headwall up Mont Maudit, the 50 degree ice face marking the crux of the climb. Impatient with our progress, Mike quickly led up and past as I belayed off a munter hitch. We roped back up and passed the col below the broad snow dome of Mont Blanc. We passed a guided group calling for a helicopter rescue. I think the Alps are the capital of heli rescues mainly because they’re available, free and so professional that people end up abusing the system. One day during my stay there were 18 rescues. Insane.

The view from high on Mont Blanc

The upper slopes stretched on seemingly forever as we were battered by tremendous winds. Dave, who had a small gap in the side shield of his glacier glasses ended up getting his eye abraded by the windblown snow. We topped out in the early morning with views hundreds of miles in all directions. We could even make out the Matterhorn. We continued our complete traverse of the mountain by descending the classic Gouter Route. The Gouter, while slightly easier technically than the Trois Monts, is so much longer that we opted against it. We quickly found out just how long it was. It was along slog down beautiful snowy ridges. It was here that I realized just what our strategy would be if one of us fell. The faller would yell that they were falling and to which direction, and we would jump off the other direction. I’m glad we didn’t have to test the physics.

The Aiguille de Bionnassay, one of the most beautiful ridges in the Alps

At last we reached the Gouter Hut at the bottom of the route. Well, actually not at all. We descended steep rock to the top of the Great Couloir, a broad chute that avalanches rock almost constantly. It used to be mostly snow, but due to climate change, is now loose rock hell. I opted to not clip into the fixed line and instead ran across the gauntlet. From the base of the couloir, we descended endless ridges downward into the mist until we at last reached the train station taking us back to town 12 hours after starting that night. We celebrated with some nice Indian food the next day, but we were all to beat to go out that night.

Mike leads on the Rebuffat Route, Aiguille d’Index

A few days later, the four of us climbed the classic Gaston Rebuffat route on the Aiguille d’Index. About 5-6 spectacular pitches of moderate rock climbing took us to its knife edge summit with great views of the whole Mont Blanc Massif.

About as close as we got to climbing the Matterhorn

A few days later, I caught a series of trains to Zermatt and met Jorge for an attempt on the Matterhorn. We arrived in Zermatt just after the last tramway up toward the mountain, so we had to hike more than normal. Jorge, who had just flown in that day from the US was probably a bit more jetlagged than he was hoping. We hiked through beautiful forest and misty meadows towards the classic Hornli ridge. By the time we made it to the mountain proper, we were walking through snow and slush in pretty poor visibility.

Admiring the Monte Rose through a break in the clouds

When we finally arrived at the Hornli Hut at the base of the route, we poked our heads in and realized that absolutely no one was there. We took the hint…looks like it’s a bad idea to climb tomorrow. After some discussion, we decided to hike back down to Zermatt that night. A fairly painful hike back brought us to town at 1AM. We reached Jorge’s family in town and promptly crashed. The next few days, I poked around town with them and ended up going up the Gornergrat train with them, which offered fantastic views of the Matterhorn and the Monte Rosa, Switzerland’s highest peak.

The Monte Rosa and Breithorn from the Gornergrat