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Chamonix: The Alpinist's Mecca


 

by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

The day had begun ominously. When the alarm went off at 2 a.m., I'd unzipped the door of our small Gortex tent and peered out into the gloom, hoping to see the mountain illuminated by the cold blue glow of a full moon. Instead I was greeted with low clouds socked into the North Face. Moonlight managed to break through a few openings though, and it looked to be clearing in the west, so I roused Randy. What the hell; we'd made the approach, we were geared up, psyched up, and as ready as we'd ever be. After years of reading articles, guide books, and voyeuristic trances staring at glossy photos, we had built up personal myths which saw us overcoming the infamous difficulties with skill, nerve, and speed. It was time to confront reality.

We gulped down some cereal and coffee, quickly packed, and set off across the glacier by headlamp. A mile away, looming ever larger through the predawn mist as we scurried like ants under its shadow, rose the huge north wall of the Grandes Jorassess. Four thousand feet of steep granite ribs, seamed with icy couloirs, and crusted with snow patches clinging precipitously to its near vertical walls, it forms an archetype in the minds of alpinists the world over. The North Face of the Eiger may be longer and more dangerous, the Matterhorn more singularly striking, but neither can match the Walker Spur on the Jorassess for purity of line or quality of climbing. With sections of steep smooth granite more difficult than any individual pitch on either of the other two, it was the last of the "Three Great North Faces" of the Alps to be overcome. After a series of attempts by many of the world's best alpinists it was finally climbed by Riccardo Cassin in 1938. Hidden up a long glacial valley out of tourist's casual view it never gained the notoriety of its Swiss counterparts; but among climbers it remains the classic alpine climb.

Another gust of wind set the nylon fabric of the bivouac tent flapping against my face. The patter of sleet against the thin yellow wall of Gortex made me feel snug inside its protective confines, even though I was precariously perched on an ass-width ledge hurriedly kicked into a little snow patch two thousand feet up a sheer granite wall in the French Alps. Better warm and dry in here, than exposed to the deadly elements like the two ill-equipped Frenchmen standing three hundred feet above us.

Looking through the breathing hole of our tent we could glimpse them between snow flurries, standing on a small ledge swinging their arms and stamping in place to stave off the inevitable hypothermia. This was the worst type of storm; just cold enough to snow, but warm enough to melt into your clothing. The sleet quickly soaked through with a frigid wetness which the wind capitalized on, sucking heat from the very marrow of your bones.

Inside the tent we were OK; not comfortable, but able to sit out the night if need be. The French weren't so lucky. They were dying. Every minute that passed, the storm drew the life force from their bodies. If they didn't move soon, their core temperatures would drop to a point where rational thought and movement would be impossible. They would sink into a drunken stupor, then a short coma, soon followed by death.

They started down. When Randy glimpsed someone rappeling in the fog we debated tactics. If we sat out the night the melt water dripping everywhere would freeze up, coating every surface with a slick patina of verglass ice, making any movement extremely dangerous and difficult. If we started down now every time we touched the rock freezing water would stream down our arms. As we sat pondering these dismal choices we heard a flat thudding sound, like a fist pounded into a palm. Pricked ears caught the sound repeated faintly, then again, almost imperceptibly. It was a sound I'd never heard before, an insidious disappearing rhythm which raised the hair on my neck and set my mind spinning. Randy and I glanced at each other, eyes wide with questioning. "Must've been a pack," I said.

"Yeah, that's what it sounded like," Randy replied, a little too quickly, hysteria just beneath the surface. We couldn't see anything but driving sleet through our peep hole; and so sat helplessly wondering, trapped on our ledge.

An hour later the storm abated and we began to descend. On the second rappel I leaned out from an anchor point to look down and saw a lone climber on a ledge coiling a rope. A cursory glance told me his partner was nowhere near. Leaning out a bit further I could see down to the glacier far below where a tiny red figure lay twisted on the snow. Even though I'd suspected a fall, the reality of the first death I'd witnessed in the mountains hit hard. I slumped back into the secure bulk of the mountain and rechecked the equipment I was hanging from. One little mistake and that could be me.

When we reached Patrick, he nonchalantly told us, "My partner, he is dead, he has fallen." I thought he must be in shock to be acting so casual, but this was my first introduction to the French attitude toward danger in the mountains: "You choose to climb, you take your chances, so be it." There are so many climbers attempting long and difficult routes in this compact area that an hour without the drone of a rescue chopper rarely passes.

Seven harrowing hours later we were back at the hut where Randy and Patrick smoked some hash, then giggled themselves to sleep. The next morning we sat, each with his thoughts, as a helicopter zoomed up and recovered the body in minutes. Welcome to the Alps Jimmie.

I'd arrived by train in the small French town of Chamonix a week earlier, an American pilgrim come to this mountain mecca in search of the perfect climb. Nestled in a narrow green valley beneath the massive glacial bulk of Mt. Blanc, Europe's highest peak, Chamonix is a holy place to confirmed mountain worshipers. Whispering its sacred syllables to any mountaineer conjures up visions of pristine ice fields set like glittering jewels among cathedral towers of perfectly faceted golden granite. Nowhere else on earth is there such a concentration of high quality alpine routes (i.e., rock and ice, as opposed to pure rock such as Yosemite Valley in California) on such fine peaks, so easily approached. A series of amazing cable cars serve skiers in winter, tourists and climbers in summer. The most spectacular ride in the world has to be the single 1,300 meter swoop up the icy North Face of the Aiguille Du Midi. From the 3,842 meter summit, you can hop into a little telecabine for the airy ride across the Geant Glacier to the Italian side of the massif.

Even Eden had its serpent, and this climbing paradise is no different. The sweet fruit of its famous routes draws hundreds of aspirants from all over the world, each intent on picking the juiciest plums. This leads to international traffic jams on the popular routes. Getting caught behind a slow, incompetent party may mean a cold unplanned bivouac, and dodging the loose stones they inadvertently knock down. There is another, more positive side to this situation though. After three years living in Europe it remains the best place I've visited for getting to know people from other countries.

Leaving the train station my first evening, I shouldered a heavy pack and walked into town looking for the infamous "Bar National." It wasn't hard to find, there being only one main street. I propped my gear against a multi-colored jumble of similar rucksacks piled by the door and looked at the noisy hubbub within. The long, narrow room was crowded with a ragtag assortment of slim, fit-looking men (with a rare female alpinist and a few girl friends mixed in). Quaffing wine, beer, or espresso, they were gesticulating frantically as they described some horrendous ice pitch, or sat hunched over a guide book in serious conferences choosing the next route. A psychic electricity surged through this intense crowd of singularly driven individualists. The religious fervor was there in the shell-shocked eyes of a Scotsman sitting at the table near the door. Apparently, he was just down off the tram, returned from some personal epic on a storm-swept hillside to the center of town in minutes. He'd seen God all right, or perhaps just himself, but the vision had been deep and powerful. He sat in his still damp knickers and boots, quietly drinking beer after beer, not quite believing the reality of the warm dry room.

Pushing my way to the bar, I asked Maurice, the droll, balding bartender/owner, for a beer. With no apparent interest in climbing, this rotund, congenial Frenchman does a brisk business dispensing huge quantities of beer, and good cheap sandwiches, to his largely English-speaking customers. When I turned to listen to the babble, I found some of the heavy English accents as hard to understand as French, but thought I picked up a brisk American twang. A few minutes later I was sitting with Dennis and his British friends, getting filled in on details of life in town and conditions in the mountains.

It was after midnight when we walked out of town to an unofficial free camping area. Coming up a dark path through the pines, we saw a group of Polish climbers sitting around a makeshift picnic table constructed from a discarded door and tree stumps. They were having a rousing good time listening to Polish pseudo rock at full volume on a little tape deck. When they spotted us, we were called over for a drink. A couple of plastic mugs were quickly filled to the brim with good, cheap homegrown vodka. I had some tapes to play on my Walkman and offered to turn them on to "The Talking Heads'" latest, which was a great success. And so I passed my first night in Chamonix sitting up into the wee hours around the feeble yellow glow of a single candle, rocking out to New Wave music, discussing politics, life, and climbing, all the while gulping straight shots of smooth Polish vodka.

A climber's life on such a "vacation" falls into a manic depressive syndrome. Lazy days in town slip by, drinking coffee, and eating pastries, waiting out the weather. When the forecast is good, frantic activity follows - packing, then rushing up an approach to be in position when it finally clears. If you're lucky the weather holds, the rock has cleared of snow, and a magnificent day of superb climbing follows. You bask in the glory of the summit sunshine, taking in the incredible view, then complete the descent, hop on the tram, and repair to the bar to regale your mates with the glowing account.

If you're unlucky, you get caught behind a guided party of Frenchmen, and a group of quiet but determined Japanese. Even though you're obviously faster, no one will let you pass; so you rudely climb through, with an awkward moment hanging on steep cold holds below an overhang waiting for a "frog" to heave himself over. You're always on the alert for rocks knocked down by those above, or bad weather, but it catches you by surprise. First, a small stone zeros in on the back of your hand, leaving a bloody gash, then clouds pour over from the opposite side of the ridge where they've been brewing out of sight all morning. A hasty retreat, followed by a long wait jostling in the tram line with other sodden frustrated climbers also ends in the bar; only now, you're ignomiously drowning disappointment, rather than toasting success.

Most "flat landers" wonder why climbers spend so much time and money, risking life and limb for a few good days each summer, when even these days of "pleasure" are long, strenuous, and contain moments of cold, discomfort, and fear. Just so, climbers wonder how the mass of tourists can come and gaze at these phenomenal peaks and not feel the irresistible urge to grapple with, and truly know them. To grip rough orange granite, or tiptoe up a massive sheet of glistening ice on crampon points, reveling in the pure joy of movement, and its integration with the elemental bulk of the mountain. To spend the whole day out watching the sun rise over the valleys, then sink behind a jagged ridge, outlining the peaks with orange fire. To feel a cold snowy wind, or the intense sun at high altitude. To breathe air so clean it fills your body with a sparkling sensation of purity. Finally, to feel the satisfying soreness in muscles well used, that tell you you've been somewhere and done something. All the sensations of life, magnified by the scale and beauty of the surroundings and the difficulty of the undertaking. The intensity of the experience addicts those who must return to the heights, year after year, in search of the total involvement and commitment only alpine climbing can convey. Many will find it here in Chamonix.



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