A couple weeks ago I returned to North America after spending almost all of the spring in Chamonix. I had missed the two previous spring seasons in Cham, so it was exciting to be back in the ultimate alpine playground. People often ask me what my “goals” are when I go to Cham, and to be honest I usually don’t have any. I go to Chamonix mostly to simply have fun, and also to get in some good mileage/training on real alpine terrain. Although there are some routes in the Mont Blanc massif that are technically very difficult and would be cool accomplishments, I think that there isn’t a single route in the massif that I would count among my most meaningful climbs if I succeeded on it. With almost every feature already climbed, and with the option of rescue almost always just a quick phone call away, there isn’t a lot of adventure or commitment to be found in Chamonix. Rescues are routinely performed with no injury or emergency, simply because climbers don’t want to lose gear rappelling a steep face. There are still new frontiers to be crossed in Chamonix, in the form of enchainments, speed ascents and first free ascents (although, personally, I think there is some irony in “freeing” an aid route using dry-tooling), but those aren’t the sort of goals that motivate me in the same way as big, committing terrain in Alaska, Patagonia, the Himalaya or other big, wild mountains.
However, what Chamonix lacks in adventure and commitment, it definitely makes up for in access! The awesome experience of playing in the Mont Blanc Massif is foreign to most North American climbers. The Mont Blanc Massif is true alpine terrain, something which hardly exists at all in the contiguous United States. Unlike alpine climbing in North America, you never need to wake up at 3am and start your day with a 3hr drive. You never need to bushwack for hours before arriving above treeline. The system of lifts allows you to often climb or ski on fantastic 4,000m peaks as a daytrip from town, and even when heading out on multi-day climbs you never need to carry a heavy backpack thanks to the extensive system of huts and bivouac shelters. Oh, and if you have a smartphone you can even check your e-mail from the bivy! All these factors allow you to rack up an incredible amount of mileage on alpine terrain when you are hanging out in Cham, and that is what I generally end up doing when I’m there. Most of my days in Chamonix are planned the night before, and many even the morning of. Even taking a “rest day” often means an easy lap up the Arête des Cosmiques or an easy ski lap down the Glacier Ronde or Cosmique Couloir.
Thus, my springtime in Cham is a blur of activity, and I never found the time while I was there to update my blog. I was also experimenting this spring with using a smartphone as my only camera – This failed experiment resulted in me not taking as many photos, and many of the ones I took are terrible quality compared to even a small point and shoot camera. On some other days I was simply too lazy to take any photos at all. But, nonetheless, here’s a massive blog post done in retrospect, mostly just a collection of photos, with a few short bits of story as well.
I spent most of my first week in Chamonix climbing with my friend Mikey Schaefer, who was there for his first time. On my first day in Chamonix, feeling tired and jetlagged from the travel, we headed to the Frendo Spur on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, a classic which I had never done before. It was still proper winter at this point, and some sections of the route involved wallowing in impressively deep snow, which was a fun challenge except that it caused us to miss the last cabin down the telepherique!
A day cragging with Mikey on the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, on the classic “Modica-Noury” route. A lot of alpine ice grades in Chamonix seem very soft in comparison to Canadian Rockies grades (and it’s intentional and conscious, something to do with the alpine ice grade encompassing the situation in which one would climb it), but the “Modica-Noury” takes the cake! It’s graded AI5+, and we climbed it at AI3!
Sunny, warm rock climbing with Mikey up the “Contamine” route on the south face of the Aiguille du Midi, despite the fact that it was technically still winter:
Climbing and skiing the Aiguille d’Argentière with Mikey via the Glacier du Milieu:
Playing in the alpine by day, bouldering at the EMHM by night:
Some adventure skiing (aka getting lost) near the Dent du Geant with Steve House and some Swedish friends:
Skiing the Couloir Trappier with Caroline George – a super nice ski run, can’t believe I’d never done it before!
On March 30 I climbed the classic route up the north face of Le Grand Charmoz with Briton Dave Sharp. It was a cool climb, up a particularly cool-looking face that I’d wanted to do for years. We approached on skis from Montenvers, descended to the Nantillons Glacier, and then climbed back up to the col between the Grand Charmoz and l’Aiguille de l’M to return to our skis below the north face. This seemed like a good way to do the approach, but we definitely missed the last train down from Montenvers, and had to walk from half-way down the James Bond trail.
I got to go climbing for a couple days in the mountains with Ueli Steck, and it was certainly a pleasure to climb with someone so highly skilled. Our first day climbing together we figured it would be most fun to do a route that was not so technical, and more of a “romp,” on which we could move fast and enjoy ourselves, so we went and climbed the classic Couloir Lagarde on the northeast face of Les Droites. There are a couple steps of AI4 at the bottom of the couloir, and Ueli was kind enough to wait for me, as I certainly couldn’t keep up otherwise! The rest of the couloir required enough step-kicking that keeping up was no problem. We descended via the same route, down-climbing most of the couloir, and making some rappels off a single 60m rap line. I had climbed the Lagarde a couple times before, but this was certainly the quickest I’ve done it, taking roughly 5 hours roundtrip from our skis on the Glacier Argentière.
I headed out on April 7 with Jon Griffith, Korra Pesce and Ben O’Connor to try the north face of the Dent du Requin. Conditions on the face seemed really bad (deep sugar snow over dry rock, with no ice or nevé), so we traversed to the right and climbed the gully up to the Brêche Este du Dent du Requin. Not quite so grand as the original objective, but a fun climb nonetheless.
On April 10 Jon Griffith and I attempted the Czech Route on the northeast face of Les Droites. It was quite a cool route, and Jon did a nice job of leading the crux pitch of vertical slush, but despite our early start from the top of Les Grands Montets, we were too slow to pull it off. Upon joining the upper Tournier Spur we realized that we would be in for a long, cold epic if we tried to make it to the summit, and bailed down into the Couloir Lagarde instead, which allowed an easy descent.
On April 12 Nils Nielsen and I climbed the north couloir of the Col Armand Charlet, and tried to summit the Aiguille du Jardin. We reached one of the two summits, but the other summit was clearly a meter or so higher, and more technically difficult. It looked doable, even in our ski boots and with our modest rack, but we were more concerned with catching the train down from Montenvers, and thus hurried off on our descent without trying the proper summit. Alas, in the end we missed the last train from Montenvers by about a half hour anyways, and had to walk to the valley in our ski boots!
During a period of extremely high winds, I went to Céüse for a week with Ueli, and another friend of his from Interlaken, Daniel. Céüse was definitely an awesome crag, and Ueli was definitely an impressive sport climber. The climbing at Céüse was very high quality, although not easy for someone inexperienced on limestone (myself). The setting is very pretty, and it was cool as well to meet local badasses Arnaud Petit and Stephanie Bodet. Although Ueli is known for his alpine-climbing accomplishments he has a very strong background in technical climbing, and despite being “out of shape,” he sent 8a as his warm-up one morning.
Skiing the north slope of the Col des Cristaux on April 24 with my housemate Dylan Taylor, and Briton/Spaniard/fellow-Seattleite Eduardo Blanchard Wrigglesworth IV:
My girlfriend, Sarah, arrived at the end of April, and with bad weather in Chamonix we headed back down to Céüse, this time with local Cham friends Damien Tomasi, Korra Pesce and Jeff Mercier. It was of course nice to be back, but at the end of the first day I was trying a classic 8a called “Carte Blanche,” and I suffered my first real finger injury. It probably didn’t help that I was tired at the end of the day, it probably didn’t help that it was pretty cold, but mostly I think it was just because I’m not accustomed to climbing on pockets. I was making a big cross move off of a two-finger pocket, and felt something go wrong in my ring finger. Unfortunately, I’m still not able to go rock climbing on routes that feel hard, but hopefully that will change soon.
Back in Chamonix, ski touring with Sarah in the Argentière Basin, on the closing day of Les Grands Montets:
Climbing the Tour Ronde with Sarah on May 5:
It was Sarah’s first trip to Chamonix, so of course a lap up the Arête des Cosmiques was mandatory:
Doing the classic ski tour through the Brèche Puiseux with Sarah, with an extra lap on the Glacier des Periades, because the snow was so nice!
Nils Nielsen and I made a short trip over to the Val d’Aosta to climb the Dent de Hérens on May 17 via it’s voie normale. It was an easy climb, but with a gorgeous summit ridge, and of course it is nice to visit a new valley.
A solo day-trip up the “Trois Monts” route on Mont Blanc:
Skiing the Spencer Couloir on Aiguille de Blatiere with Danny Uhlmann and Ross Berg:
On my second-to-last day in Cham, May 24, I went out with Andreas Fransson and Fred Sansoz to ski the north face of the Tour Ronde. It was a perfect finish to my season in Cham – nice snow, an aesthetic descent, and fun partners.
A few days after getting back to North America, Sarah and I found ourselves in Seattle with exceptionally nice weather, and figured that one more ski outing would be fun. On June 2nd we woke up early in Seattle and drove up to Tahoma (Mt. Rainier). Sarah climbed and skied the Muir Snowfield, while I decided that I ought to try and use any fitness gained in Chamonix to see if I could climb and ski Rainier quickly. I managed to go from Paradise to the summit and back in 5:08, which I was pretty happy with. Truly impressive however, are my friends from Squamish, Eric Carter and Nick Elson, who broke the Tahoma speed record a couple days earlier – Eric managed a time of 3:51:40, and Nick was on track for an even faster time before crashing and losing a ski. The day afterwards Sarah and I skied the Interglacier, on the east side of Tahoma.