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Summer in Chamonix

Updated: Jan 7

Some experiences are so much larger than those it precedes, it takes a time before they can be shared. For me, the two weeks I spent climbing in Chamonix with Daniel Joll in August 2013 were such an experience. Not only were the routes we climbed longer and harder than any I had previously climbed, they were also more committing and several were climbed in poor conditions with marginal forecasts. This is why it is only now, 6 months after the end of the trip, that I am finally putting a pen to paper.

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The Noire De Pueterey – South Arete (14th-17th July 2014)

Soon after I arrived the weather finally settled with a five day high. We decided upon the Noire de Pueterey via the SW ridge with the possibility of extending it to the Pueterey Integral. We would climb it as two rope teams with our Irish friends Danny and Rhys. The plan was to climb light and fast, while maximising the weather window. This meant that like many of our routes it began in the rain. And so, the four of us sat huddled under a fly at the base of the route waiting for the forecasts prediction of 'clearing morning showers' to become a reality.

It was mid afternoon by the time we began climbing and the rock was still wet. Dark found us perched somewhere on the SW frank of the Pointe Bifide where we stopped for the night. The others constructed a miserable bivy ledge while I harvest a small patch of snow 20m above. Too large for the four of us, I spent the night a metre higher, wedged securely on my side between two rocks. Progress had not been as fast as desired. Unfortunately, sometime during the packing process we had lost sight of our plan to travel 'light and fast'. As such, we were each lugging around 18kg packs. These would see us well feed and warm at each bivy, but also eliminated the option to extending our route.

Morning came too soon. It showed and we were slow to start. Dan it seems was eager to see what I was made of, and so I was still on the sharp end. At lunch we reached the retreating snow line near the top of the Pointe Welzenbach. After a quick brew we rejoined the others for the abseil off Pointe Welzenach to gap between it and the Pointe Brendal. A traverse and some enjoyable climbing took us to some appealing looking slabs. Sadly they were running with snow melt slowing my pace slowed considerably. Eventually we reached the top of Pointe Brendal where we again had an abseil this time to the dramatic gap between Pointe Brendal and Ottoz.

The gap is narrow, no more than a metre or two in width, and the Pointe Brendal appeared steep and angry. Intimidated, I again lead off. A steep 50m pitch saw the four of us clustered in a dripping corner. Rhys and Danny who had arrived first were not impressed by the resulting cluster of rope. Two more pitches saw us diverge. I ended mine wedged in the back of another dripping corner, while Rhys continued up and left on a thin face. I was beat and when Dan arrived I mentioned that I was no longer confident I wouldn't fall. He took over, and after lowering a bail rope for Rhys, we were soon all on a narrow snowy ledge, which would be our bedroom for the night. At 3500, it was the highest several of us had slept.

The alarm had been set and we awoke early. After breakfast, I'll admit I was relieved to see Dan racking up. No longer on the sharp end, I was looking forward to easy work to the summit. I hadn't, however, realised just how heavy the seconders pack was. Although, leading was certainly more mentally taxing than seconding, I do not believe it was more physically demanding. A few pitches of steep terrain followed by a downward trending traverse took us onto Ponte Bich – our final pointe before the summit. After several pitches of sustained climbing, we finally traded our rock shoes for boots and continued up easier terrain to the abseil atop Bich. A section of fun mixed climbing took us from here to the summit.

It was now early afternoon and we enjoyed the views and a brew before eagerly beginning the descent. After several hundred meters of mixed down climbing, we gained the eastern ridge and began abseiling. Darkness took us somewhat lover down after we had stumbled across an unexpected bolted descent line. We continued down this until losing it in a chossy gully about 1:30am. We remained mired here with a stuck rope until shortly before dawn when two swiss climbers came upon us and freed our stuck rope. We continued our descent reaching the welcome sight to Dan's partner Julie at 2pm. Upon reaching Chamonix we mustered ourselves for one last task before bed – burgers at Poco Loco.

A big thanks to Dan, Rhys and Danny for such a good climb. This one will stay with me forever.

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The Contamine Voucher (19th July 2014)

After our return from the Noire De Pueterey, it was time for a rest. Dan and Rhys are evidently more practiced at this than Danny and I, who all too eagerly joined Julie and Lucy, Danny's girlfriend, for a quick afternoon crag the next day. We were both returned feeling a little worse for wear. That evening we checked the weather forecast: fine weather in the morning with afternoon thunderstorms followed by several days of unsettled weather. Keen for another route Rhys and I selected the Contamine Voucher. We hoped its easy approach, 30min from the mid-station of the Midi lift, and bolted rap line would make fast low commitment climb. Lucy and Danny decided to join us on another rope.

An early start combined with simul-climbing saw Rhys and I make good time up the the crux at half height, a right tending 6a slab. Unfortunately, I continued straight up a steepening corner to an enticing collection of ab-tat. As I repelled off, Danny and Lucy began up the actual crux. We followed soon after, keeping a nervous eye on the now looming clouds. Fortunately, we had only a few drops of rain, and soon we were at the crest of the Gendarme Rouge of the Aiguille de Peigne.

We quickly located the rap station 50m to the true left and began repelling. This passed uneventfully until the all to familiar rumble of rock fall began above us. I was still to descend, and watched in horror as a melon sized rock ricocheted towards the three others huddled below. It impacted two metres to their right leaving an impressive little crater in the granite. Shaken we completed the remaining repels as quickly as possible before embarking on a race for the last Gondola. We had slowed significantly during the later half of the climb, and only just made it.

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The Cordier Pillar and Grands Charmoz to Grepon Traverse (22nd-24th July 2014)

The unsettled weather came as predicted, and it was some days before we were able to see let alone return to the mountains. We spent the first dry-tooling, before I was finally forced to admit I needed a rest day. Dan spotted a short 24hrs weather window beginning a few days later – starting one afternoon and lasting all the way through to the following evening. He suggested we combine an ascent of the Cordier Pillar on the Grands Charmoz with the Grands Charmoz to Grepon traverse.

If we had a hope of fitting this all in, we needed to go light. So unlike our ascent of the Noire de Pueterey, we left our sleeping bags and stove behind. In addition to rope and rack, we carried only a two-person bivy bag, 2l water, a sandwich each, personal bars and Gu-shots. We did decide to stash a stove and two dehydrated meals at a bivvy rock below the approach glacier. The climb started well. We got off the mid-station of the midi lift just as the rained stopped and were at the base of the Cordier pillar 2hr later. The rock was already starting to dry and it was only 3pm. We hoped to make it much of the way up the pillar before dark. Unfortunately, we were ensnared by a crack system to the true right of the Pillar, and three precious hours were wasted before we began climbing the pillar.

Dan quickly lead us up about five pitches of loose rock before handing over to me. I managed two more pitches before darkness caught me perched on a three inch ledge attached to a large detached flake belaying Dan up. We continued up then left, before coming to a vertical face split by a thin finger crack. I instead took an easier looking corner to the right, which proved a mistake. A series of slimy overhangs lurked just of head torch range; they proved too much for me. Fortunately there were several pitons in place, and I was able to pendulum back across to the finger crack. Three pitches remained to the large terrace that spits the Cordier pillar at just over half height. We hoped to find some water and a flat ledge to sleep on here. They passed uneventfully, and Dan switched back into the lead at the terrace.

Sadly, we found neither water nor a ledge, and so we finally stopped climbing at 2am on a 1.5man ledge at the top of the grade three pitch immediately above the terraces. We set up an anchor, before folding out the foam backing from our packs to set up our 'camp'. There was space for Dan to lie down, so he did. I perched 30cm below still in the bivvy bag but unable to lie down full stretch. I don't either of us had a particularly brilliant nights sleep. I was almost relieved when morning finally came, but certainly no better rested. We drank the last of our water and each had a bar. Our respective sandwiches were long gone.

I started up a meandering pitch of 3+ before the first crux pitch of the day. Halfway up, my body finally woke up. It did so abruptly and immediately demanded I go to the toilet. Training my eyes on the belay ledge above I desperately pulled though the remaining section of steep crack climbing thinking only 'ledge, secure, toilet. ledge, secure, toilet. At the ledge I was greeted by a rock. Remembering some advice Dan gave while climbing the Noire De Pueterey, I took careful aim hoping to deficate neatly on the rock before throwing it away. Unfortunately, my aim is not so good. I instead spent the next several minutes scouring the ledge for something, anything, to cover my foul little present. The best I could do was a handful of grit, which I sprinkled atop the pile. Dan was not impressed at my stammered apologies, when I eventually brought him up!

The remaining climbing on the Cordier Pillar was delightful. It seemed to have it all: steep face climbing, thin finger cracks, run-out slabs, and even a full pitch of off-width. Then suddenly, we were at the crest of the ridge. Dan took over, and lead us on an enjoyable, but surprisingly protracted, traverse to the summit of the Grand Charmoz. We were rewarded for our visit with a small puddle of water – we drank it dry.

It was now noon with only the traverse to the Grepon remaining. Dan continued to charge on, and it's a good thing too as we had underestimated the traverse. Two abseils to us to the Couloir Charmoz-Grepon. From here, we climbed a surprising number of rope lengths before we were finally reached the summit with it's watchful statue. The night had taken it's toll, and I was starting to slow down even on second. Dan found the abseil station and began to rap down. Several raps later, we reached the glacier after only one stuck rope. It was now early dusk. We hurried, making as much distance as possible before dark caught us just as the rain set in.

It was 11pm when we finally reached our stashed stove and food at the bivvy rock at the base of the glacier. We each ate our dehydrated meal and had 1l of warm water plus a Gu-tab, before crawling into the now wet and a little miserable two man bivvy bag. I awoke shivering at first light. Peeling my back away from Dan, off whom it seems I had been leaching as much heat as possible, I started stiffly packing up. Everything was wet. We split the last of our food, two gummy lollies, before beginning the walk back to the lift mid-station. Arriving back in Chamonix at 7:30am, we wandering around looking for food. After some time we concluded it was too early for burgers, and instead settled for some delicious crepes.

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The Frendo Spur (27th-28th July 2014)

I was wrecked after the Grand Charmoz and Grepon, but fortunately I was finally starting to get the hang of this resting business. After our breakfast of crepe's, I spent the day sleeping rising only for a burger in the afternoon. The next day dawned fine in the valley, so we hitched up-valley to a quiet granite crag, one of Dan's favourites, just above Barberine. We bumped into some friends, Mike and Britta, with whom we spent a pleasant day cragging before returning together to Chamonix.

The next day was my last full day of the trip. We'd been toying with a quick ascent of the Frendo Spur, but sadly we had to let this go as the forecast was for storms in the mountains. We went dry tooling instead with Danny and another friend of Dan's, Gabriel. At some point in the afternoon, Dan got a glint in his eye. The weather was forecast to clear at 10pm tonight and my shuttle didn't leave until 1pm the next morning. Dan reasoned this gave us a window of 15hrs, which according to his previous ascents should be more than enough time for us to climb the spur, descend on the lift before my shuttles departure. We were all keen, and so we abruptly finished our dry tooling session and headed back to Chamonix.

Given our tight time constraints, we planned to simul-climb the route as two roped teams with each team bringing only a half rope and light rack: mid-large nuts, mid-size cams, ~4 ice screws, ~4 extendable draws and 2 Tiblocks. Each team also carried a Jetboil and 2 dehydrated meals to either be eaten, either while waiting for the first lift in case of a speedy ascent or more likely just prior to the ice section of the climb. In addition to this, we each carried 1.5l of water, a couple of sandwiches, bars and Gu's.

Our departure time of 9:30pm quickly arrived. We nervously checked the forecast again before squinted up through the darkness towards the mountains above. Did it hold true? There was only one way to find out! The walk to the base of the climb passed uneventfully if not a little slower than expected. We roped up for the glacier at around 2:30am, and reach the spur proper at 3:35am. We could already see the lights of those leaving the Chalet du Plan de l'Aiguille curling their way towards us like moths to a candle.

Danny and I would be on one rope, Dan and Gabriel on another. It was the first time either Danny or I had climbed the Frendo, and we decided to lead it in two blocks: I would take the rock, and Danny the ice. The lower two thirds of the Frendo is rock. It was in good condition with minimal seepage; it was a delight to climb. You wind your way ever upwards through slowly steepening terrain until you catch your first sight of the ice above. It's here that the route gains a sense of purpose, and you take a more direct line up a left trending crack system to the top of the rock. By this time it was light, and I was beginning to look nervously at my watch. 10am was fast approaching.

Danny and I stopped for a quick brew and meal before heading onto the ice. After some debate, it was decided I should remain in front as it was my plane to catch. The ice was covered by a thick layer of well bonded neve making it extremely climbable it not a little harder to protect. With some activity already beginning to the left of the spur, we took the shaded less avalanche prone line to the right. The time flew past and it was 10:45 before we reached Dan and Gabriel at the top of the spur. I left my end of the rope – still attached to Danny – securely in Dan's careful hands, and began a painfully slow run to the Midi-station.

I arrived at 11:03am after 7:30hrs of climbing, and was instantly swallowed by by the mass of tourists. The transition from the quiet focus of the spur below to the chaotic multi-coloured world of people was jarring. After several false starts, I finally managed to find both the ticket office and the lift. The descent thankfully passed without incident and I was soon back at Dan and Julie's. After packing my bag, I even had time for a cup of tea before my airport bound shuttle arrived.

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A big thanks to all those I shared a rope with on this trip: Dan, Danny, Rhys, Gabriel, Julie, Lucy, Mike, and Britta. In addition, thank-you Dan. The Mentorship you have provided before, during and after this trip has been great.

Click on the photos below to see more pics from the trip. You do not have to have a FB account to view these pics.


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