Chamonix!

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.

A descent from Mount Blanc in 1787 | Christian von Mechel via Wikimedia Commons

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).

The view from the 3rd pitch on Contamine route of Pointe Lachenal

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.

Absolutely stunning sunset at the Charpoua hut

Yosemite 2017

A year ago I visited Yosemite for the first time, and the trip was so great me and Viktor decided to repeat it again this year. Yosemite Valley is truly mesmerising the first time you visit, and equally amazing the second time as well!

This time we had two more Croatians with us, Siniša and Ivek, the team from PK Vertikal (they stayed 3 weeks). The first day we all headed to the famous Cookie Cliff, where Ivek and Škalec jumped on single pitch routes, while we practiced some aiding, hauling and jumaring skills. After the first day, with taking both our aiding speed into consideration and the the fact we only had one week in the Valley, we decided to go for a 2-day mixed (aid and free )ascent of the South Face of Washington Column instead of the originally planned Nose route, which takes 3-4 days for “normal” people.

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The Croatian team

The first big-wall experience was great – we did some aiding, we hauled our stuff up (that part is not so much fun), we slept on the ledge tied to the rope (so you don’t roll over), and met some cool people in the route. There was 7 of us sleeping on the ledge!

The second day we had to wait for 3-4 hours for other parties on the wall before being able to continue with the climb, as popular routes get (really) crowded here. This is unfortunately now very common in Yosemite, and can be a legit reason to bail the climb. And so did we – after a few more pitches of aiding, we realised there is no way we can make it in time to the top of the climb before night, so we rappelled down. On our way down there were 10 more people waiting to do the climb (there was 5 people in the 4th pitch alone). Chose your next routes carefully, echoed in the head.

The next three days we spent just free climbing, or attempting to free climb a few routes. We did two 5.9 multi-pitches, the very aesthetic Absolutely free, where by some luck we were alone all the way. The next day we almost got stuck in the mega crowded Superslide (5.9), where we waited for people, raced past some and tried to enjoy climbing in the whole mess of people – I think there was more than 15 people in this 5 pitch route at once!

The last day we decided to test ourselves in something a bit harder than our current levels. We went to Serenity Crack, a 10 pitch route with multiple 5.10a to 5.10d sections. We got scared, took our very first falls on gear (yikes!:-), aided (this time not because we wanted to), finished the route in the dark, and returned to floor dead beaten but determined – we will be back and free climb this thing! Aiding is fun, and it was very useful for us. We learned a lot about placing and trusting the gear, but free-climbing this perfect hand and finger crack is the proper way to do this climb!

We will be back.

In the meantime, enjoy a few pictures from Viktor (thank god he loves taking photos 🙂

Yosemite 2016

I went on to write a small report for my Yosemite trip this year (2017), only to realise I have an unpublished draft from the 2016 trip waiting for some final editing! So, here is the report from the last year’s trip to Yosemite (only 13 months late :-).

In September 2016, I visited Yosemite for the first time, and I certainly did not expect to go there on only 10 days notice as I went, without any preparation for trad climbing at all. But don’t miss an opportunity when you have it, even if it is not as you imagined it!

I was there on the International Climbers Meet organised by American Alpine Club with my “American” climbing partner Viktor (we climb in Croatia also). People from Grahorova gym will remember that Viktor and Karmen used to come with their kid Nika (now a grownup), and this kid was all over the place. The International Climbers meet is a  week of climbing and socialising between 50 climbers (usually about 2/3 of climbers are from US, and then people from all over the place, like Croatia, UK, Pakistan, Norway…), with clinics during the day and some lectures during some of the evenings.

Before going to Yosemite I managed to repeat a local test-piece Maskirni Keks (7c). A week later I was barely climbing up a 5.10d (around 6b+) on top-rope in Yosemite. The difference in climbing styles is huge – it’s more like starting climbing all over again. And without bolts, which we are so used to, the game becomes like a completely new sport all of a sudden.

Climbing cracks is first and foremost super interesting – you are holding yourself on without actually holding holds! You are jamming various body parts (from fingers, hands to arms, feet and legs, shoulders or even your entire body) between rock surfaces, and you expect it to hold you (or in my case as a beginner, this feeling could merely be called hope). Climbing on top rope is interesting, but the game really starts when you start to lead, and place your own gear. In trad, climbing on pre-placed gear is more or less considered like top roping or practicing for a valid ascent.

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The gear on display at the trad protection clinic.

I always wondered why do we as climbers have so many different scales to measure difficulty of a climb. Now I understand it totally makes sense to use a new scale when you are climbing something completely different in style. While translating the ascent of 5.10a to 6a might not sound as impressive as a 7c, I consider that grade in trad a bigger achievement than red-pointing 7c.

One other thing that is different, except not having bolts and jamming yourself instead of holding yourself, is the approach to climbing and what is a good ascent, or a good day of climbing. For instance, when trying a multi-pitch routes in Paklenica, the first question you would hear is: “Did you (free) climb it?”, while here people will ask you “How was it?”. In Europe we might get a bit too obsessed with climbing stuff free, while with trad climbing, and it seems to me even more so in Yosemite, the point is to go out and have a bit of an adventure. Did you manage to get to the top? How was the gear placing? How was leading pitch XX on the climb? People don’t really ask if you did the route free – it is more about having a good day of adventure. The difference between doing the route and doing the route free seems a lot smaller in Yosemite.

Enough small talk, here is the action we did day by day:

Day 1: top rope practice and hanging like a potato in 5.10d climbs on top-rope.

Day 2: I went on a gear placing clinic, where I finally began to understand what is a good placed cam or a nut. After the clinic I did my first single-pitch 5.6 lead, followed by a 3-pitch of the same grade.

Day 3: We did the great 5-pitch climb, After Six (graded 5.7).

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Power at the top of After Six 🙂

Day 4: The day 🙂 We went to climb a very famous route, the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, an amazing 10-pitch route just in front of the Nose of El Capitan. Except being listed as one of the top 50 classic climbs in North America, the entire day of climbing you are rewarded with an amazing view of El Capitan.

This was the first really serious climb we did – it’s a climb with continuous 5.8-5.9 climbing (it’s the grade where joking around stops, and stuff gets a bit more serious, at least for me), and there is a pitch of 5.10a face climbing protected with 3 bolts and 2 cams in total. Needless to say, I was scared shitless. But off we went, and finished the climb. I consider it to be my best and most difficult climbing I did in 2016. The grade is only 6a translated to our scale, but it does not compare to other ascents I did that year (I redpointed a 7c, onsighted a 200-meter 7a and did the BWSC speed competition in 20 minutes the same year).

But climbing without bolts, on new rock where it is quite easy to slip in fact, is completely different. The level of control and consciousness in a climb is well beyond pushing physical limits on a hard sport climb. There is a lot more decision making during a climb, and a lot more of your willpower being used.

Day 5: rest 🙂

Day 6: we decided to go “cragging”, which means climbing single pitch trad climbs. We went back to the place where we top-roped the first day, to see how much we learned. I went straight to a 5.10a that seamed easy the first day on top-rope. And before I knew it, I was half way up the climb, pumped as fuck, and too scared to fall on my own gear. So I placed an extra cam and sit in it. Although in retrospect I see that well placed cams in Yosemite are as good as bolts, sitting on gear for the first time scared some fucks out of me, and I was done for the day. I also realised that one day of rest might be good enough for the body, but it certainly was not enough for the mind. I simply had no willpower to win a fight with fear again.

Enjoy some photos by fellow international climber George Cave and my US climbing partner, Viktor.