Alpine apprenticeship in Chamonix

It has acquired a reputation which is not extraordinary, though not entirely merited. It has neither the beauty of the Oberland, nor the sublimity of Dauphiné. It attracts the vulgar by the possession of the highest summit in the Alps.

— Edward Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps In the Years 1860-1869

Chamonix, the mountaineering capital of the world. Is there a better crucible for the aspiring alpinist (despite the less flatering remark of Whymper quoted above)? Routes of varying degree of difficulty and commitment, mostly easily reached by cable cars and narrow gauge trains. Peaks, ridges and gullies with 200+ years of mountaineering history written all over them. And the irreplaceable human infrastructure: information on the condition of routes, rescue services, people to learn from, people to go climbing with.
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The internet is full of detailed information on climbing in Chamonix; I’ve got little to add save my personal experience. When planning our van-tour there were only few places we decided definitely to go and for me Cham’ was at the top of this short list. With meagre mountaineering experience behind me – the odd Norwegian peak and an alpine week in Zermatt few years back – I was hungry for learning more how to climb in the mountains. We arrived in early September and stayed for a three-weeks spell of almost perfect weather. Having heard the miserable wet stories from friends visiting the Alps earlier that summer we could consider us very lucky. Not only was the weather benevolent for the climbing but also city strolls at the valley floor level turned out trés agrèable. Keeping the van dry and batteries charged with solar panels is just so much easier in the sunshine, too.

During September a good part of the climbing infrastructure closes down: manned huts, smaller lifts, the Montenvers train… making the choice of climbs more limited and/or giving your thighs a good bashing with the lift-less approach trods. Also fresh snow can pose some problems. Still, the summer climbing season is almost fully on with alpinists filling the early morning cable cars and fresh tracks leading to the more popular routes. And, to be honest, limited choice of routes is only good for a Chamonix-novice like me: prevents your head spinning too much at the horizon of all the possibilities. September seems to be a good time to do the more popular outings if you want to avoid crowds and falling rocks & ice, and who wouldn’t? For example, my climbing partners and I encountered only three other teams on Arête des Cosmiques and none on the popular ice climb of Chèré Couloire, both easily reached via the Midi cable car. I experienced a sublime solitude on my solo-adventure to the Aiguille de l’M (2844 m), greeting the breath-taking sunrise with only a pack of chamois at the Balcon Nord, having the view of the mighty Verte at col de la Buche all for myself, finally meeting the first people of the day in the afternoon hours on my way back to the valley. Despite missing my objective by only tens of meters, turned back by the modestly technical ground, I cherish the peaceful day as one of the most memorable on our tour.
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Besides discovering September much better time for climbing I had previously thought, I also found out that you can perfectly well go to Chamonix on your own – i.e. without a climbing partner in my case – and find plenty of nice people matching with your goals to go climbing with. Scribbling a message to the “guest book” at Office de la haute montagne (OHM, next to the church) and answering a few left by others in the same book was rewarded with five new acquaintances, each one of them a solid, reliable companion for the mountains and each one of them handing me those valuable lessons you just can’t learn from the books. Though I teamed up with each as an equal, and I think I also did my share (even ended up leading the crux pitch on many of the routes), I have to admit I was mostly – and happily so – an apprentice. With me in the mecca for the first time, the guy at the other end of rope, 31st; what else can you expect!
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Obviously you need to be flexible with your plans – route choices etc. – when relying on new climbing friends. And don’t aim to 11 straight away but see how your teamwork functions on more modest routes. I had an open-mind approach and ended up on varying routes on rock, ice and proper alpine mixed ground with my companions. Presumably I also passed their reliability test being invited for second rounds. Somehow the routes I ended up with them grew gradually more demanding, making the learning experience even more rewarding. Topping out (and getting down, too) the Couloir Escarra (alpine grade D) on Aiguille du Chardonnet (3824 m) as the final route of my Chamonix stay left me extremely satisfied with the whole package. Alpine apprenticeship, stage 1: completed.


Van-based accommodation options in Chamonix

Middle class

One of the camping grounds in Chamonix proper or nearby villages. Costs around 20 e/night for two persons.

Shower when you feel like it.

Dirtbag

Park next to Gaillands climbing crag, toilets next to the crag. Costs 0 e + possible confrontation with municipal authorities.

Shower: go ice climbing.

Middle class dirtbag

Parking Grepon next to Midi cable-car station. Costs 12,50 e/day (2014); fresh water and emptying of chemical toilet/grey water provided (these you can use free of charge, though, since the first 1/2 h or so at the P is free); toilets next to parking (closed for most of our stay) or at Midi station (wifi included); supermarket with gas distribution (French bottles, naturellement) 300 m away; loads of other camper-vaners to prevent the feelings of loneliness/odd-ballness.

Shower: go ice climbing + occasional visit to a real shower at one of the camping grounds (~4 e/pers).

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