Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Alps

The Alps is a tough place to climb; massive walk-ins, unpredictable weather, loose rock, cold and worst of all, snow. At least, this is the impression I’ve come away with after a week or two climbing there with Calum this month. I hadn’t been to the Alps for many years, since an exciting hit-and-run on the Eiger north face with Tony when we were students, and before that, a few months spent in Chamonix more than ten years ago. That first encounter I was still relatively new to climbing, but managed to find partners willing to show me how to walk in crampons and had a great time climbing classic rock and some mixed routes.

Unfortunately, my alpine skills have not had many opportunities to improve over the years, so this trip I was quite happy to follow Calum’s lead, not a risk I would be willing to take under most circumstances. Actually, I’m impressed at how much Calum has managed to achieve in the Alps over just a few years. I was relieved that at least one of us knew their way around and about how not to get avalanched or fall in a crevasse. I did, however, have to contend with the Calum’s wild climbing ambitions as well as a range of terrible cheese jokes, all of which I’d heard many times before.

Since Calum is much more familiar with the climbing in the Chamonix area than me, I let him come up with some possible climbing objectives for us while we were there. I think that this meant Calum gathered up his guide books, searched for the absolute most difficult routes in all of the Alps, and those were the ones he thought we should do. Luckily the plan did accommodate an ‘acclimatisation route’ which was to be the American Route on the Aguille du Fou, a gentle ED5 that is difficult to access and includes rock climbing up to French 7c+ and is 800m long.

The Fou
American Route
At our bivvy below the Refuge Envers, our alarms got us up at around 4am and we had a leisurely breakfast before walking the hour or two needed to get to the south face of the Aguille du Fou. It was a stunning day and we quickly made it to the start of the couloir used to access the south face. I gather that this has a reputation for being a bit dangerous and contributes to the route not being as much of a classic as it should be. I believe we were fairly lucky, there was still a lot of snow in the couloir that was pretty solid and we made it about three quarters of the way up very easily. The final section, roughly a rope length from where we thought the route would begin, becomes narrower and is more mixed terrain. We swapped the lead here and I set off up the icy corners.

By this point the upper walls had already come into the sun and chunks of ice were continuously being funnelled down the couloir. This made climbing quite tricky, as whenever I tried to look up I was punched in the face by several pieces of ice and the ice in the corners started streaming with water. We were too late, and very close to the ledges at the start of the rock climbing, we made the difficult decision to bail. We were concerned that the falling ice might be followed soon by falling rocks. If we were even 30 minutes earlier I think we would have made it up the couloir without the slightest difficulty... we’re going to need to work on our alpine starts.

Nice Envers bivvy
A bag-eating Marmot
The jaws of a bag-eating Marmot
Rewarding views from Envers
Bivvy scenes
Retreat from the Fou
Great weather for retreating
The Fiz

Objective two, we decided to take a break from the big mountains and try something a bit more convenient. So I don’t know why we ended up walking for hours to the base of the Fiz and then hiking up a loose, choss filled gully from hell. I actually can’t remember what the route was called, a shame because it’s very good and impressively difficult. It has about 15 pitches, up to 7c+ and is very sustained, hardly any pitches below 7, I think Calum had woken up thinking he was Adam Ondra. Happily, we did make it to the start of the route and amazing climbing did follow, amazingly hard climbing. The route consists of rippled slabs and without any particular line and no chalk I found the climbing hard and even harder to on-sight! We made slow progress up the wall, not bothering to red-point all the pitches after falling, but being pleased with a few good flashed and some great pitches. After doing the hardest climbing, a bit over half way up the route, our fingers were fried. I dogged my way along a 7b traverse pitch, with fingers quickly uncurling on small holds. Calum took the next pitch and had a similar experience, having a very tough time to find a way between the spaced bolts. We realised we had bitten off more than we could chew with this one, it was a very big undertaking. We were disappointed not top out again, but it had regardless been a very good day of climbing.

Calum flashing desperate 7c pitch
Last pitch of the day, 7b
Grand Cap
Les yeux dans le bleu

After the past week I think we both felt like we had put quite a lot into climbing in the mountains and not gotten a huge amount out. It may have been time to put our mountaineering ambitions to one side for while and relax with a bit of cragging. We were in two minds and since I had been listening to the smug economist Steven Levitt on more or less toss a coin as a way to aid decision making, I suggested we do this – it turned out to be a stupid idea. So we got on the Aguille du Midi cable car bound for the Grand Capucin.

That afternoon we trudged along the glaciers on our way to the plateau below the Grand Capucin. We nearly didn’t make it because the snow was very soft, visibility was poor and our way was blocked by crevasses on several occasions. We finally found a way when I think we were both pretty close to calling it a day and bimbling back! I don’t think our hearts were in it. However, we did reach the plateau and had an awesome bivvy on the glacier once the weather cleared; I watched Monty Python’s The Life of Brian while Calum watched Batman The Dark Knight.

The next day dawned beautifully and we were briefly filled with hope for a good day of actual rock climbing. However, by the time we were out the tent and on our way, a thick bank of dark cloud had already started to roll in. It was forecast to crap out, but much later. We were worried that the ming had heard we were out and had decided to come over early. We decided to continue since we could retreat fairly easily if necessary. At the cliff twenty minutes later I realised that I’d left my rock boots at the tent... For two psyched individuals this would have been a non-issue, the tent was less than 200 meters away along a flat glacier. I could have been there and back in under 30 minutes. But, like I said, our hearts weren’t in it. This was the final straw along with the deterioration in the weather and so we ran away from the mountains once again!

We needed to get out of the mountains for a while, not only because the weather forecast looked terrible! So, after a brief visit to EpicTV and a few movie deals for Calum, we got back in the C1 and took off for Gorge du Verdon!

Morning below the Capucin
Worrying developments
Evening below the Capucin                 
Calum considers how to keep track of Gabby on the grounds of their new estate in Nant Peris
Cold belaying on the Grand Cap


  1. it seems like you had payed for the yosemite trip the usual high price of all your Motivation for an entire season. I also had to make a 3 weeks break after that trip to get psyched again a little bit. Dont wast yourself befor the fall season.

    1. You might be right about that Tobias! It was a fun time and it doesn't seem to have been the best summer ever for climbing in the Alps. I'll hang on to some mojo for the Autumn season. I hope that its been a good summer for you so far!