Chamonix, In Conclusion

April 28th, 2006

Sunday, April 23 – OVER THE ATLANTIC. It’s -81F outside, cruising altitude of 36,0000 feet. Tunes: “Lying Peacefully,” Pepe Deluxe, off of Beatitude. Five hours left to go. The kid behind me is kicking the chair, he’s one of many in a boisterous Jewish family. Hassidic, I think. With the braids. Quite the drama going on back there.

It’s a full flight. A small, irritable asian woman is to my left. To my right, across the aisle, is an Italian woman, judging by the tabloid magazine she is reading. In the window seat to her right is a woman who looks British; tall, thin, long face, and sick. She’s sneezing and coughing. I’m finally healthy but the memory of my colds are fresh in my mind. She’s got a 12″ iBook. I’d like a 12″ Powerbook instead of my 15″. Smaller, lighter, easier for travel. Swiss Air got me for being overweight; American Airlines didn’t on the way out, but on the way back…that rolling duffel is 70lbs. My ‘ski bag’ is 33lbs. Add on the camera belt and the 27 liter climbing pack with computer gear and I’m totaling out at about 140lbs of baggage.

Last night Colin wanted to go to Chambre Neuf, a bar by the train station, to try and sell some of his gear. He’s headed to Norway with Camilla and has a 20 Kilo (45lb) limit on his baggage. Since he came with three bags of climbing gear he’s going to be overweight but every kilo (2.2lb) he can sell saves him a 5 euro charge. At the bar we met a gang of Swedish who pushed beer on us. It’s a scene I saw a little of but didn’t have the energy to really be in; being sick and keeping up with Colin was enough without the drinking.

Last week when Colin and I returned from our Les Droites climb at 11.30 at night we saw Jonas and Hannah chomping on pasta in a drunken stupor. They had been at the weekly Chambre Neuf apres ski party. Dancing to live bands, the Swedes were soon topless (the guys, that is) on the tables. When Jonas went back the next day to find his hat the bartender told him there were two broken legs, two knocked out teeth, and a broken nose. Maybe I’m getting old, but I’m kind of glad I missed it.

(Last looks at Mt. Blanc) It rained last night; a hard, short spring rain. The kind of rain that smells heavy in the air and whose sound surprises you through windows left open after a sunny, warm day. In Chamonix it’s that transition time, where the sun has that orange glow but the town is still waiting for the thickness the summer green will bring for the trees are still brown and barren.

I’d like to make an analogy about how the spring transition was occurring at the same time as my own but I can’t truthfully do so. I think that moment began over a year ago and is still evolving.

(Colin, before he got bored of posing) I have solidified a few things though, in terms of focus. I know that while I can shoot rudimentary concept stock, it is not my passion. I believe I will have to continue developing these skills, as I did half-heartedly in Chamonix, but I know that journalism is much more my thing. Curiosity and storytelling. After seeing the rescue helicopters flitting around the mountains I couldn’t help but want to know more; so I visited the Gendarme which flies the aircraft and the hospital which supplies the doctors, looking for a story. Unlike the States, emergency doctors go out in the field and, in Chamonix, a lot of the doctors are also skilled alpinists. Quite the contrast from Mt. Rainier where the rangers are climbers trained with EMT skills who *might* get a helicopter. Response time in Chamonix, I was told, averages seven minutes from the cell phone call. On Rainier it’s hours to days.

I found an interesting technology story but as a simple rescue profile, unless something major happens, it is unlikely to be covered. At least by any US magazine.

Since climbing Les Droites I’ve done some lounging, some skiing, and some climbing. We rode the Aguille du Midi tram to the top, skied down to the Cosmique hut, the place where I started my first Alps alpine climb, and then dropped down a face that started at around 50 degrees. I think I’ve skied that steep before, but not in such icy, chunky conditions.

(Chamonix below) The first runnout was a giant serac cliff, the second was a choose-your-own-boulder of a steep, skied out chute. This is where I fell, my ski tails washing out behind me, sending me into a backwards slide that I tried to right with three complete barrel rolls. I finally got my edges under me, about one roll from a rocky constriction of the chute. Henrick, Camilla’s bad-ass tele-skier-from-Norway friend, saw the whole thing. Colin missed it. The two of them kicked ass, I sucked ass, and we made it down with ‘good experience’ displayed in our smiles.

Another day of rest in the sun and then Colin proclaimed he was taking Camilla on her first alpine climb ever. First it was the Chere couloir, a 4 pitch WI3 climb on Mt. Blanc du Tacul which (wisely) was downgraded to the Arete du Cosmique on the Aguille du Midi as it was sunnier, warmer, and a little easier.

For me, after much thought since I was soloing, I chose the Mallory on the north face of the Aguille du Midi, just under the tram line. First, let me say, I don’t solo. But the 2500′ route looked mostly like steep snow, like the La Garde. Stuff I solo anyway. Classic Cascades slop. But there was a section of ice and mixed I’d have to pull off or I’d have to back off.

(Colin tearing it up) I was on one of the first trams to the mid station where I began walking across breakable crust to the route’s debris fan. Up the cone, into the constriction. The ice wasn’t terribly thick, but it was w
ell-adhered. Sometimes I’d get hero-swings, sometimes my ice tool would rebound sharply as it hit rock. Things steepened, the spindrift became more insistent. I found my self making a move or two and then ducking my head as another wash of powder snow poured down over me. Ice sticks followed by scratching rock continued for 2-3 pitches. The two cruxes were not indelicate as they required several looks downward at the fall, followed by cussing, a dousing of spindrift, more cussing, and then upward progress. I had climbed onto ground I didn’t think I could down climb; over gripping my tools, I was already in terrain requiring forward momentum. But what’s funny about it (in retrospect) is that I had already evaluated what I could see of this part from below. I’ve climbed this difficulty before with no falls. I knew, roughly, what lay ahead and I felt I could do it.

(Henrick: Let’s here it for the Teleboards!) What made it more ‘serious’ and dramatic was I had no climbing partner to talk to and I had no rope. Any fall would be a very bouncy big fall. But realistically, were I tied in, the gear would have been sparse enough that any “short” fall I took would have involved breaking something, just not the long ride. I think this is what the draw is for soloists; unfettered climbing with a supreme focus found in the knowledge that the difficulties can only be overcome by your own skill. You are wholly self-reliant and must make your decisions based on the knowledge you have of yourself and your limits.

But get this, it never steepened to completely vertical and the rating, I would hazard a guess, was no more than AI2+ or AI3 with a little mixed in there (especially the final moves involving hooking and camming of picks).

(The Colinator)
It’s amazing how mental climbing is. And, as was re-illustrated on Les Droites, it’s the mental that keeps you moving. It’s your will that pushes you beyond what you think you can do, provides the focus and tenacity to complete the seemingly impossible. There’s something about climbing, reiterated by Gioachino Gobbi of Grivel, that challenge can be found by anyone of any level. It’s a personal thing.

I, of course, have no pictures because the extra several pounds of camera weren’t warranted when I had no one but myself to photograph. Maybe some tourists took some pictures as I topped out at the Aguille du Midi tram station, ducking under the rope to the stares of tourists and one asking me “Where did you just come from?”


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