Friends who live in this magical place were inviting me to visit them for years, and now that I’ve been there I can only say I was stubborn not to visit earlier!
I went climbing in Cham with my climbing and business partner Viktor for a week in August, with a few of his friends being already there (working from home during COVID redefined both work and home for many people!).
History of alpinism
Chamonix is the birthplace of alpinism, and the history of mountaineering is visible on every corner here. Mont Blanc was first ascended in 1786, and already in the early 1800s people were paying experienced mountaineers to guide them on glaciers or explore the mountains. The mountain guiding industry was born in 1821 right here in Chamonix, and I am proud I am able to contribute to this industry with the project I am working on with Viktor, 57hours.
It is astounding to realize that a small village in the middle of the mountains became a touristic attraction in 1800s. Hotels were being built for people who wanted to walk on glaciers, ascend Mont Blanc or just admire the scenery of the Mer de Glace at it’s peak in the 1820s. Seeing images of traditionally dressed people walking on ice with the extinct alpenstock just makes me smile for some reason. To fully grasp the history of alpinism and how conquering high mountains became a thing you can consider doing professionally, I warmly recommend a visit to the museum of alpinism.
Point Lachenal and the Contamine route
For our first objective we teamed up with IFMGA guide Jeff Witt of High Peak Adventures who we are working with on the 57hours project for a while now. We went straight up the Aiguille du Midi (3800m) with a cable car, where you are entering the Géant Glacier straight from the door. I was glad Jeff is with us, as walking on glaciers can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing like me. We roped up, put on crampons and ice-axes, went through some basic techniques and started walking over snow and ice. After about an hour of walking on ice, jumping over a few crevasses and getting used to being both hot and cold at the same time, we reached the bottom of the super-classic Contamine route.
The route is following a series of beautiful granite cracks on Pointe Lachenal (named after the famous alpinist Louis Lachenal). It starts with a few pitches of 5c before the crux of two sustained 6a+ pitches, and eases of at the end with a few more easier pitches. All this might sound easy to a sport climber, but keep in mind there is snow (and rain) looming, you are climbing at 3500m elevation with a full backpack, and not to forget there are no bolts except on belays! Since I did not climb any trad routes since Yosemite, I was climbing as second while Viktor and Jeff exchanged leads on perfect granite that rewards you with footholds outside of the many cracks (unlike Yosemite).
Two pitches below the summit of Contamine we decided to start rappelling down due to the incoming bad weather (and we had some rain during the abseil). We went straight to the Cosmiques Hut for a refreshing dinner and much needed rest. Or it would be refreshing had I been able to eat it – I got suddenly struck by altitude sickness and could not eat at all. I had symptoms like vomiting, headaches and brain fog until 5am, when I finally woke up fresh and feeling normal. By morning I was surprisingly ready to go, and our plan was to climb via the easy but very photogenic Cosmiques Arête route to the Aiguille du Midi station, and then take the cable down to the city. This time bad weather and danger of lightning got us to bail and head straight to city for a lunch.
Les voies des Druides
After a good days rest, the weather window opened for another classic route. This time we teamed up with Viktor’s friends Theo and Killian, who were honing their Chamonix skills for a few months. The route of choice was Les Voie Des Druides in Les Moines. We crossed the famous Mer de Glace glacier on our way to Charpua hut, a small climbers-only hut with only 12 places, but a lot of history and charm (and Tiramisu for dinner, unbelievable!). It took us 3.5 hours of walking to 2700m elevation but all I can say is one sunset from there is worth the effort. The best part of all was seeing the host family in the hut – they are a young outdoor couple, and they have their 1.5 year son with them in the hut from Jun-Sep. What an amazing way to raise your kid!
It was all action the next day: wake up at 6 for a 2 hour approach to the route (one section is a legit grade 3 climb in your approach shoes with no ropes). I was climbing with Theo, who is a real badass climber, and he was gracious enough to lead all the pitches and show me how a real high-level mountain climbing looks like. He was cruising all the various terrain confidently and gracefully, placing gear and basically owning the climb. I was lucky to be able to belay him and experience the many perfect pitches of this climb in a very stress-free enviroment. From the first few cracks you will arrive at the first crux pitch, a 6c slab with literally no handholds in the second half of the pitch (the angle is so low your feet hold all the weight, but the pitch is the most strenuous and the only one I did not climb free).
This is followed by a superb 5-star 6b layback pitch before going into an airy and scary 6a+ on loose rock with only one bolt in the middle. Before yet another classic 6b+ the best pitch arrives: a very technical and precise low-angle 6c finger crack. Theo led this masterfully, placing just as much gear as needed, and generally cruising the very technical terrain. After that you only have a short but very exposed 5c pitch before reaching the summit.
And the summit is finally a proper mountain summit for me, where you are sitting on a 1m ledge at the very top of the mountain in perfect setting, with a 360° view of the entire valley. This super climb was done, but the day was far from it’s end. It took us two more hours abseiling, and another two to get back to the hut. For a guy who walks more than an hour three times per year, I was more tired than ever while climbing, with the entire body hurting except the forearms, but the setting, scenery, climbing and a renewed taste of (any) food in that state of mind and body made it all more than worth it!
Back to Croatia
The plan was to climb the second day as well, and I will say my hurting body was ecstatic when the bad wether came and we decided to bail and head home. The walk back was a lot more casual and easy, with a big smile never leaving mine or anyone else’s face. After returning to Chamonix for a nice dinner with the Croatian in Chamonix, Ena Vrbek (ski mountaineering champion and Everest conqueror I might add), the time came to go home. This place has climbing in its very heart, and coming back became a must even before I left.
Special thanksgoes to Viktor for making me go, Jeff Witt for a great day in Lachenal and Theo&Kilian for leading us into serious free-climbing terrain.