Also posted at Summitpost here

Day 1: Best intro ever -> Cosmique Arete

Dan and I drove down to Chamonix Thursday afternoon. There was pretty bad traffic from Munich to Bregenz, it seemed to take double the time through that stretch! So we didn’t arrive at the Vagabond hotel until around midnight. The place was quiet and we fell right asleep.

The next morning there was a bold blue sky. I just had to go out! I tried to wake Dan up, but he was recovering from a cold and needed rest. Gathering an ice tool, crampons, harness, helmet and rope, I chomped down some breakfast and walked to the Aiguille du Midi lift station. I gave them a lot of money and headed up. My plan was to descend from the lift station a few hundred meters and climb the Cosmique Arete, taking me back to the lift station. It’s described as an easy day climb, though very famous. Hopefully in the spring it’s not so crowded as in the summer.

The ride up the lift was amazing, and the many viewing platforms on the Aiguille du Midi offered incredible views. Finally I was seeing all these famous mountains I’d read about. The Dent du Geant seemed to occupy a singular position. I can’t help but think of that tower as the heart of the range. I walked down the famous steep snow ridge among a collection of skiers. I guess it’s been tamed a little bit. There were rope guardrails and even a switchback on the Chamonix side of the ridge to make the descent less steep.

Down in the basin below the Aiguille, I began a very slow post-holing journey over to the Cosmiques Hut. Eventually I hooked up with some boot tracks which made the trip easier. I went in and made a reservation for Saturday night, then went back out and started up the Arete. With crampons, I followed some tracks easily up the snowy ridge, eventually coming to a couple of “moves” that awakened the climbing spirit. First a little icy gully, then some moves on warm, golden rock that had those beloved features of granite like solid flakes to grab and a hand-sized horizontal crack. I knew there was a party ahead of me, because I saw them looking at me down on the post-hole fields. But I was surprised to have caught up with them so quickly. They were rappelling a steep section of the ridge. Once they pulled their rope I got mine out and followed behind for two rappels. The second one was very steep and I don’t know how I’d reverse it if I had to go back! A walk around a corner and I had a magnificent ledge to stand on while the group ahead negotiated the next tricky spot.

They were two French guides along with two beginners from Afghanistan who were themselves training to be guides! They were from the north of that country, and told me it was a safe place to visit with incredible mountain scenery. The group was very nice and arranged to let me pass by after about 10 minutes of waiting. Another party of two had come up behind me and we exchanged hellos.

Passing by was awkward though! First a little mixed step with a good undercling hold on granite to make up for slippery feet, then going around a corner for a steep down-then-up traverse on a narrow snow ledge. I hurried a bit to clear the way for the group, then had a choice of three passages. I chose one to the right which went around a tower then forced me to crawl under an overhanging rock. It was a little creepy escaping from that crawl, as I had to get my feet in secure snow below a rocky buttress without falling out of the cave prematurely (the handholds inside were nothing to write home about).

Now steep snow traverses and then a mixed gully got me to a bit of walking terrain. I front-pointed down from a prominent notch, and was soon at the crux of the climb: a smooth granite slab divided by a very nice finger crack. A little bit intimidated, and wondering how I was going to climb it, I let the party of two right behind me pass ahead. They belayed a pitch and were soon out of the way, though clearly climbing this crack in crampons was not easy. I decided I had to belay the first 5 meter step, then could revert to soloing. There was an excellent fixed nut to serve as an anchor, then a bolt at the end of the crux step. I tied the rope in and gave myself 5 meters of slack. I got my fingers in the crack and looked for a nubbin for my crampons on the face. I laughed when I found a divot that appeared custom made for two crampon front points. Hmm, I think that is man-made. On a route that sees so much traffic, I guess something like that will happen. I was happy to use it. A couple of interesting moves, and I was on a ledge with a bolt. I abseiled down and re-climbed the step, which now felt much easier.

I put the rope away and climbed enjoyable sun-warmed rock around to the right, then traversed a snow ledge on the cold Chamonix side of the ridge and waited for the party of two to finish another mixed step. This one looked soloable, so I went up, eventually getting my right foot in good ice, right tool in a crack, left hand on rock and left foot scraping uselessly. No matter, I could pull up to a better position, and soon made it into a shallow gully with good snow and ice for feet. The next 30 meters were really enjoyable, climbing this gully. Now I could see the viewing platform with people watching me and taking pictures. “Oh great,” I thought. I traversed the cold side of the ridge, and right near the end I found (for me) the scariest part of the climb. The easiest way to get off was to traverse about 6 feet of vertical snow piled at the base of a smooth slab, then climb easily up to the crest and the end. But I had a bad feeling about that pile of snow, and indeed, on testing with a foot I sank endlessly. Suddenly the view down to town didn’t seem so hot! Happily, I never let go of a flake that kept me anchored to an upper ledge. Some difficult-feeling moves got my feet on the upper ledge, and hands pawing for jams near my feet in a snowy crack. Some inelegant thrutching got me to more secure terrain, and then the ridge top.

At that point I felt kind of proud. I looked to the watching crowd for a standing ovation, but actually the first crowd had gotten bored of my gyrations and been replaced by a new crowd, already growing dull-eyed at my relatively static performance. Bitterly, I climbed the narrow ladder to the viewing platform!

What a fantastic introduction to Chamonix! I headed quickly down, beginning to nurse a headache. Back in town, Dan was out and about (he later said he slept until 1), and I went out for some food. A woman who ran a bookstore gave me some Advil for my (now throbbing) headache. What a nice lady! The pharmacies were closed because it was Labor Day.

After some lunch on a terrace, looking back up at Mont Blanc, I went back into the bookstore, hoping to find something to buy in order to repay the gift of Advil. Who walked in but my old friend Silas Wild! What a small world! He was here with two friends to ski the Vallee Blanche. They’d done that from the Italian side, and now were stuck overnight in Chamonix because no bus was running today. They were escaping bad weather further east in the Dolomites.

Later we all hooked up for a great dinner, talking endlessly about mountains and plans.

However, back at the Vagabond, it was party night, and the room shook with techno bass until 2 am. Alas…

Day 2: some of the Triangle

The next day, Dan and I headed up with ski and climbing gear. Our packs felt really heavy! We skied over to the Triangle du Tacul, me realizing from the steeper parts of the descent from the lift that I would not enjoy skiing the Vallee Blanche with such a heavy pack. We planned to climb the Contamine-Mazeaud (II, AD+) route, but there had been a big avalanche the evening before on the Mont Blanc du Tacul glacier on the right, and the route enters a kind of snow bowl halfway up. Also, no one was doing the route…what did they know that we didn’t? So instead we chose a slightly easier route, the Contamine-Grisolle (II, AD), around to the left.

Dan led a pitch from the bergschrund up snow then bare ice for about 100 meters to an ice screw belay. Really nice, easy alpine ice. Then I went up first ice then snow along the left side of a rock ridge, belaying from an anchor in rock at 60 meters. Dan led a very similar pitch, then I headed up to an interesting move in a gunsight notch. A little overhang of rock pinched against a wall, and I made several mixed tool placements to get over it. That was really fun, and soon I was belaying from a rappel anchor above the step.

Dan came up and looked around to the right, where some tracks went. That way would have had us traversing across the great snow bowl. Doable but not part of the route. I thought instead the way up was to go through a shallow gully on our left. Dan came back down and headed over there. It was a very interesting pitch for him, with a real sense of the unknown. He would yard up on a flake, set his crampon points, and then hope he could do it again, because down-climbing didn’t seem like a good option at all. However, he got excellent protection in the gully: either solid ice screws in the runnels or a good nut or cam in a crack.

I came up and climbed through another 20 feet of interesting terrain with somewhat rotten ice but big flakes and hand-jams to make up for it. Above, steep snow led to another rappel anchor, and a fantastic view on the ridge crest out to the north. Alarmingly, clouds had boiled up and were climbing over the Cosmique Arete, eventually obscuring the Aiguille du Midi too. Dan arrived and we talked about retreating. The climbing looked easier for quite awhile, though there would be another (supposedly easier) rock buttress at the end. The mixed climbing took a long time. It was 3 pm. We would be descending the Glacier du Tacul in thick clouds, but it has numerous seracs, and just avalanched as well. Also we’d seen no tracks on it. The post-holing would be severe. Dinner is served at 6 in the Hut. I estimated we’d be down at 8 pm.

So, we decided to retreat. It had been fun, instructive climbing. We made a total of 8 rappels, the lower three from Ablakov anchors. Interestingly for me, I have built very few Ablakov anchors in my time, and Dan is more experienced. He gave me some tips which helped, like setting a “guide screw” in the first hole to help you correctly drill the second hole. By my second Ablakov, I felt like I’d learned to be more efficient. Still, I dropped an ice screw while I fumbled around for knife, cordage, gloves, etc. On the last rappel, Dan could retrieve it.

We skied across the glacier and up to the hut. Again, I had a pounding headache. More aspirin, lots and lots of tea and soup, and eventually I came out of the nausea-inducing head pain. I could barely talk to our German table-mates, and only ate token amounts of food. By dessert though, I was feeling back to normal and ate the whole piece of cake.

Sunset was so beautiful with a mix of clouds and pink/golden rays. Based on how the altitude had affected me, and feeling a bit tired from two active days, I decided I’d be content to ski the Vallee Blanche, and scrap plans to climb the North Face of the Tour Ronde as well. That was okay with Dan, as skiing the Vallee Blanche was something he really looked forward to.

Day 3: skiing

In the morning, we went back up to the lift and I took down a heavy pack of technical gear. An hour later I was back and we skied away to the south. We stopped often to look up and name the walls around us. I can’t get across how numerous and exciting the route choices here are. Things are very compact, but the killer is the incredible vertical relief. We looked at the Gervusutti and Jager couloirs, promising to come back for climbs.

Later we saw the Grande Charmoz and the Dru: what imposing towers of beautiful granite! Finally, the Tour Ronde remained visible from many points of the ski descent: coming back to climb the North Face is a must.

The actual skiing on the Vallee Blanche was underwhelming. I decided it was foolish to carry down a pack on the lift: mostly, it was long schussing, with just 3-4 slopes of about 200 meters that require turning. Dan felt that the ski descent is a bit over-hyped. But, as a tour of the range, as a triptych to guide future visits it was very nice.

A long climb up stairs to the Montevers lift and train, then a long wait for the train, finally a long and slow train ride tried our patience. But re-packing for the drive home at the car was quick. We drove away to Martigny, then Zurich. Sadly I missed the last train to Munich from there (7:30 pm), so I had to stay in a hotel overnight.

In short, it was a great first visit to that fabled range. We didn’t do anything really impressive, but we got a sense of the scale, learned some tips on lifts and camping, enjoyed some good climbing and scenic skiing. I hope in the future I can do stuff up there without getting a headache every afternoon! I guess some acclimatization should help. Thanks to Dan for a great trip!