Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Alpine Rock Roadtrip: Chamonix, part 1

It’s getting warmer and the sun starts to burn… We leave the snowy Furkapas behind us but a bitter feeling starts to get the upper hand. For me, it was the second time I passed the Albert Heimhutte and both times, I couldn’t do anything but look at the famous Graue Wand… Only one thought lingered in my head: third time best time, this summer, I will be on the summit!

Three hours of driving brings us to climbers’ heaven; Chamonix, a city that never seems to sleep. When the last drunk finally stumbles out of the pub, you can already hear the jingling of climbers who don’t want to miss the first cable car.

It was my first time in Chamonix and I have to admit that I got overwhelmed by the aggressive views. I couldn’t think but “waauw”. After a rainy day of waiting and lingering around, we packed our bags to set off for a couple days at Envers les Aiguilles. Our purpose was to climb some classics and to have the corners of our crack climbing technique rubbed off. We took the little train of Mer de Glace, which gave us some more time, and after a while we arrived at the glacier. There was only one problem: the clouds hadn't left yet and there we stood, like two clowns on the glacier in thick clouds, guessing the way to the ladders. We walked way too far and took the old way up, which led us over a loose moraine, where big rocks - as big as a car - fall down often. Hours of walking on steep slopes of grass and clambering over rocks finally took us to the old stairs and – some kind of – way, which led us to the Envers hut. We were both exhausted. We quickly drank some beer and after some negotiating with the friendly hut keeper, we were allowed to put up our tent at 50m from the hut. A beautiful place to bivouac, which overlooked Dent du Geant, Grandes Jorasses, Droites, Courtes, Verte, … Except for some cooking, eating and enjoying the view we weren’t capable anymore for doing anything. 

Time to sleep. The next morning Bart didn’t feel well, maybe the effort had asked to much from him? We decided to take a day off, enjoying the sun and all magazines we could find in the mountain hut. Day two at Envers didn’t bring anything better, Bart felt even worse and seemed to have a little fever. He hadn’t slept very well and he looked like hell. After some deliberation, Bart decided to return to the valley. I stayed up there, alone, hoping to find a climbing partner. With success! After asking around a bit, I met Henink, a German who’s climbing partner had caught a cold and was forced to stay in bed. Together we climbed Le Piège a classic crack-climbing route of 6 pitches and a 6b+ start or a 5c variation. Henink had climbed this route before and asked me to lead the first pitch (the big crack). With an approach of only 2 minutes and no warming up, it was a heavy first pitch. After some cruxes with a lot of handjamming and fistjamming, you are finally able to put cam 4 in and from then on it gets easier. It was a very nice route with a lot of cracks, some dihedrals; all perfectly protectable. The whole route was only protected by a few bolts. After more or less three hours we got back to the terrace of the hut.

Approaching the Envers Hut
Base camp!

Bart, feeling a bit ill

The next day, Henink’s climbing partner felt a lot better and I had to look for a new climbing mate. This time it took me a little longer to find someone, but finally I got in touch with a group of youngsters from Paris. They treated me very friendly and a little later I got to know Kim and Joseph. After a while, our minds were made up: we would climb Guy-Anne insolité, at the first point of the Natillions. Although the day started slow, we were able to get off with a flying start in the route, with Kim on lead. I quickly found out that Joseph wasn’t really into shape. Already on the third pitch, a beautiful small crack with a big flake, he couldn’t manage to get to the stand. Kim and I had to rig him up. Joseph wasn’t in the mood to go ahead and told us to  carry on while he would wait right there. Then it’s my turn to lead a diagonal crack, heavy but beautiful. Each time I want to put some protection in the crack, I have to hold on close, crawl into the crack and put in the right size of friend/nut. What a beautiful pitch! Everything carried on very smoothly, with alternating cracks and slabs, which are quite difficult to me. At this moment, I don’t really like slab climbing, but I hope that one day, I will be able to change that. During our ascent, huge thunderclouds were starting to form above the Jorasses and  a little before the summit we decide to descend. The rappelling went very smooth and after six hours we got back to Joseph, who spent this time sleeping, hanging on the belay. He was happy to see us. Could it be he regretted that he had send us up without him? After a while we got back in the hut and the thunderstorm starts. The proof we made a wise and safe decision.

The next day I climb with Kim again, this time we go for Marchand de Sable. The route has a difficult slab start. The first bolt is at a height of 6m, and because of the huge bergschrund it isn’t recommended at all to fall before this bolt. The third pitch, I’m on lead and I get the chance to climb a dihedral pitch, which is said to be a 5c, quite tough and without any rests. To be honest: it doesn’t feel like a 5c at all… Although I’ve never climbed such a difficult 5c in my entire life, it was a magnificent climb. Nevertheless I was relieved when I got to the belay. After four pitches, we got the same experience.  A 5c (NOT) in a dihedral,  as hard as the previous, but at least as beautiful as the previous. Kim showed to be mentally strong while easily climbing over slabs where the distance between the bolts often was up to 5/6m, and sometimes even in a traverse… A little before another pitch of slabs, we were forced to descend because of bad weather. This time we got bad luck and already at the first rappel we turn up in a real rain-and hailstorm. We both rappel like crazy people, and after one hour we arrive at our backpacks, soaking wet… Luckily we didn’t get stuck in real heavy weather. Again a new adventure!

The whole group of Paris’ youngsters is going to descend tomorrow and I decide to join them, so I won’t have to do the long descend on my own. And I need to go down for some supplies anyway. That night we sat together to drink some cans of beer and the friendly hut keeper offered us some Génépi.  The next morning, the descend is a piece of cake and now I see the way we had to take in the first place at the ascent. So better next time!

Descending to chamonix

When I return to Chamonix, I find Bart, who is already looking a lot better. He has settled down on a cozy camping. There I get to know Steve, a British climber who has a lot of experience. Bart doesn’t feel entirely recuperated yet and decides to take some more rest. I also take a day off and the day after I climb a small route on the Aiguillette of the Aiguilles rouges, with a couple of Danes. Then, again, I made the ascent to Envers, with Steve. Because there isn’t enough place in the hut at this moment, we take our sleeping bags and matrasses with us and the first night we sleep outside, dreaming of our objective: Bienvenue chez George V, again a classic route. 

The next morning we got up early, but not early enough. At the base of our route, we find a couple of wiseacres who believe they are standing underneath Guy-Anne insolité. We show them the real way to the route, but they don’t take our advice. After a lot of discussing - in which those guys gave the wind direction as an argument -,  they had to admit we were right. They couldn’t ignore the fact that we already climbed this route, and we weren’t THAT forgettable yet… All together we lost almost half an hour talking to those guys. But we didn’t allow this incident to ruin our day, and little later I took off with the first pitch, a 6a+ which is hard but quite easy to protect. At the start we lost a lot of time by going in the wrong direction, which made us end up twice at the wrong belay. A guide passed us, he was very quick. His gear: 4 quickdraws and 3 cams. Our gear: three times as much as he has. He even omits some bolts and he seems to fly over the slabs where I’m almost trembling. The route we are climbing has a lot of variety: slabs, cracks, dihedrals,… all can be found in this route. I’m pleased to find out that the slabs are better protected than on the previous routes I’ve climbed this summer. 

We enjoyed each pitch, while the sun was burning above us. The rappels first gave us something to think about, because of the many boulders and cracks where the rope may get caught. Important to be careful! Some excellent teamwork brought us back to the snow quickly. That evening we were pleased to see there was some room in the hut, and after a night of some good sleep, we are ready for Children of the moon. Not an easy route. The approach takes us almost an hour, while climbing on a steep snowfield. Slipping isn’t an option, because it would mean a harsh landing on Mer de Glace, in only a few seconds. This means a great need to concentrate. Thereafter we lose time searching for the route and going over a bergschrund who may collapse anytime. When we finally reach the route, the first pitch goes on very smooth. But in the second pitch we find some difficulties: the way up isn’t very clear, so we take the wrong direction. When we look in the guidebook, we find out we need to do some crack climbing, but we can’t find one! After some looking around and doubting, I find the right way up and when I finally find the belay, I’m bursting with joy. One pitch later, we decide to bail. Because of the late start and the lots of time we lost, we decide it’s more likeable to start rappelling. We still need to do a very long descent and we aren’t willing to miss the last train to the city. This time we are lucky and at 7 p.m. we are both sitting in a pub, cheerfully drinking some beer. Envers les Aiguilles, I love it!!! Be sure, you will find me up there again!

The Aiguillette d' Argentière
Bivy at Envers
Steve in Guy-Anne insolité

Walking back to the Hut

The next day, again, I climb with Steve on a short multi pitch above the Flégère Index. A nice climb with a magnificent view, but the gneiss isn’t very well. After an easy climb and some relaxing in the cable car, we are able to enjoy Happy Hour in a English pub! Cheers!


You can find the guidebook of Envers les Aiguilles in every bookshop and newsstand in Chamonix, although you can find them a little cheaper in Belgium.

A round trip Chamonix-Montevers Mer de Glace costs 27, 40 euros.

The mountain hut is really great, with a kind hutkeeper and a great sphere of climbers who are always willingly to help you out or to recommend a great route. Staying up here for a couple of days is really recommended. Besides  you can enjoy a magnificent view and if you show your alpine club member-card, you even get some reduction! And if you’re not in the mood to do some cooking, you can take dinner at the hut, which makes you feel like you’re in a restaurant! Off course you’re also able to cook and sleep by yourself, which is a lot cheaper. That’s why there are some places to bivouac, although they aren’t that big and they are occupied really quick. Camping isn’t allowed! 

In Chamonix, we stayed in camping "les arolles". It is a nice camping site in Chamonix-sud, on walking distance of the Midi-cablecar. The camping is climber-orientated and with the communal table it is easy to meet people.

Thanks to our sponsor: Kariboe Leuven

Text: Jeroen Van Campenhout

Translation: Annelies Vaganée

Pictures: Jeroen Van Campenhout

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