Climbing in Chamonix and Aosta!

October 7, 2012

Around Lausanne, Climbing, Travel

Back in mid-September Emma and Lachlan went on trips with the International School of Lausanne, and Kathryn flew to China on business, so I took advantage of the freedom to steal away for a few days of climbing in Chamonix, France, which is about 90 minutes south of Lausanne. Chamonix is pretty much the Mecca of alpine climbing in the French Alps, with Mt Blanc (4810m or 15,782ft) and many other other peaks over 4000m in the area.

I have long been attracted to this area by the sheer vertical relief and jagged profile of its many peaks and serrated ridges. For example, the gondola ride from Chamonix village to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi (starting point for many climbs in the Mt Blanc area) is a staggering 2807m or 9209ft, which is almost TWICE the vertical drop at Whistler ski resort in BC!

I arrived in Chamonix on Monday, September 10th and met up with Mark Houston, who is an American climbing guide who has been living in Chamonix for the last 6 years with his wife and fellow guide Kathy Cosley. Together they own and operate Cosley & Houston Alpine Guides. Our plan was to take advantage of the good weather forecast for Monday and Tuesday by heading up to the Aiguille du Midi to climb a short but classic route called the Arete des Cosmiques that afternoon, followed by an overnight stay at the nearby Refuges des Cosmiques. On Tuesday we would get up early and attempt the East Ridge of the Pyramide du Tacul, hopefully finishing before a predicted storm blew in. Our plans after that would depend on what the weather brought.

Mark and I made our way to the gondola at about noon for the 20 minute trip to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (pronounced “eh-gwee du meedee”). In the line-up for the gondola we bumped into an old climbing buddy of mine from Toronto, Dave Lue, and his climbing companions Joe and Astrid. Small world! At the top of the Aiguille we took a quick look around at the summit station and its various observation decks, which were packed with tourists. The decks literally cling to the rock faces and are linked by a series of bridges, stairways, and even tunnels bored into the rock. It’s quite the engineering feat!

The Aiguille is the main access point for many alpine climbs in the Mt Blanc area. From the gondola station we walked through a tunnel to an exit through a small ice cave, where we stopped to don our  crampons and rope up, while the non-climbing tourists snapped photos of one another posing in the cave.  From this point we exited through a small gate and proceeded out onto a very narrow snow arete or knife-edge ridge that drops down to the glacier several hundred feet below. The snow arete is a little intimidating, as it is barely a foot wide and with very steep snow slopes plunging for hundreds of feet down on either side. Tripping and falling is not a good idea here. There is always a lot of traffic on the arete as well, so getting around slower parties or groups coming from the opposite direction is always interesting!

After descending to the glacier we enjoyed a short walk under the south face of the Arete des Cosmiques to the start of the route, passing the Refuges on the way. The Arete forms the south-southwest ridge of the Aiguille, and the route more or less follows the ridge from its starting point near the Refuges back up to the summit station of the Aiguille, about 750ft above. The climbing involves a lot of mixed scrambling on rock and snow, with a few sections of steeper belayed climbing (up to about 5.6) and one or two short rappels, depending on the exact route taken. I found the climbing very easy, although I certainly felt the 12,500ft elevation during a few strenuous moves. The route is very exposed in places and affords spectacular views of the leaning rock towers along the ridge, with Mt Blanc in the background, although our view wasn’t so great this day thanks to a bit of afternoon cloud that rolled in. We finished the climb in about 2 hours and exited the ridge via a short ladder that led up to one of the viewing platforms on the Aiguille. You can view a short video of the climb below.

After re-descending the snow arete from the Aiguille we made the 45 minute walk over to the Refuge des Cosmiques, our abode for the night. The Refuge is part of the extensive system of alpine huts all over the Alps that makes alpine climbing considerably more accessible and comfortable than it is in North America. The Cosmiques hut sleeps up to 100 people and serves hearty dinners and breakfasts to hungry climbers. They also serve beer and surprisingly good red wine, which was much appreciated at dinner.

The following morning we were up for the 5:00 breakfast shift. Most of the other 50-odd guests had already left, having woken up at 1:00 to make the long slog up to the summit of Mt Blanc, which is a 12-16 hour round trip for most people. Mark and I were out the door of the hut by a leisurely 6 a.m. and trekked due south down the glacier towards the Pyramide du Tacul. The Pyramide is a roughly 800ft high granite spire that thrusts out of the glacier. In many other mountain ranges, including Canada’s Bugaboo spires, the Pyramide would be a major feature and landmark. Here in the Mt Blanc range, however, it is dwarfed by the gargantuan spires surrounding it, including the famous Grand Capucin. Once standing beneath the imposing rock walls of the Pyramide’s East Ridge, however, it is an impressive feature in its own right.

The East Ridge route on the Pyramide is an easy-to-moderate rock climb (crux is 5.7) on solid granite that can be done in rock shoes, although boots and crampons are needed for the glacier approach, and to negotiate a short icefall that leads to the base of the route. The off-vertical climb follows a series of cracks and faces with good friction for about 10 pitches. There is good exposure most of the route and spectacular views to the glacier below and of nearby peaks such as the Dent de Geant and the Grande Jorasse. We made good time with Mark leading all the way and were at the summit within about 2 and 1/2 hours. The actual top of the Pyramide is truly the smallest summit I have ever reached. It consists of a steep pyramid of rock about 15 feet high that is too small to sit or stand on, so Mark and I took turns climbing up to tag the summit with our hands. From the top we could also see some cloud build-up from the approaching storm, but relaxed a little knowing that we would be off the summit and (hopefully) riding the gondola before the bad weather hit. We descended the route in about 6 double-rope rappels and completed the round trip in about 4 hours. We then headed back up the glacier towards the Aiguille for one last trip up the snow arete to catch the gondola back down to the valley.

On Wednesday I awoke to a chilly, blustery and rainy morning in Chamonix. There was no question of climbing anywhere in the Chamonix valley, but after consulting forecasts and radar images Mark was convinced that we would find clearer skies and dry rock across the border in Italy’s Aosta valley, about an hour and a half away. So we set off after breakfast and, after passing through the 11km long Mt Blanc tunnel, we emerged on the Italian side and made our way to Aosta. While it continued raining most of the way to our destination, when we finally reached the climbing area of Machaby the rain had stopped and the rock was dry, just as Mark predicted!

That day we climbed a multi-pitch bolted sport climb called “Lo Dzerby” on a feature called La Courma di Machaby, a rounded ridge of low-angled slabs and highly featured gneiss that was a pleasure to climb on. The climbing ranged from easy scrambling and friction climbing to some shorter steep pitches with the occasional harder move up to about 5.9. Considering how rusty my rock-climbing skills were, I was delighted to get up this 10 pitch climb without once having to hang-dog it. The walk-off from the summit of the Courma led us back down through some lovely oak and chestnut forests, as well as past ancient dwellings, abandoned villages, and an 18th century church. Mark and I agreed that if the weather in Chamonix didn’t cooperate on Thursday that we would return to Aosta for more rock climbing.

Sure enough, Thursday was still cold and damp in Chamonix, so we headed back to Aosta. On our final day together Mark and I climbed another multi-pitch sport route called “Dr Jimmy,” which is on a rock formation called Monte Coudrey, near the town of Albard di Bard. The area is well-known among rock climbing enthusiasts, although it was quiet when we arrived, it being mid-week. We did run across one other group of climbers, mind you. As we approached the base of Dr Jimmy we hiked past my friend Dave and his buddies Joe and Astrid. Astrid was just starting to lead the first pitch of a route called “Olympic Spirit”. Imagine traveling all the way to some valley in Italy and the only other climbers there are from Toronto! After making dinner plans with Dave and crew, Mark and I carried on and climbed Dr Jimmy, a much steeper and somewhat more difficult route than Lo Dzerby, with many sections of continuous climbing in the 5.7/8 range with occasional harder moves up to 5.10. I really enjoyed the more sustained and challenging pitches on this route!

Thursday evening, my final night in Chamonix, I hooked up with Dave, Joe and Astrid for dinner at their rented apartment. Thanks guys! I woke up on Friday morning and after a breakfast of crepes and coffee on a sunny patio, I hopped in the car for the drive back to Lausanne to pick up Emma and Lachlan from their trips. All in all, this trip was a great introduction to climbing in Chamonix and Aosta. Many thanks to my guide, Mark Houston, for showing me around his backyard and keeping me safe. I am already fantasizing about going back next year!


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