25 Nov Rock & Ice Climbing in France and Italy
We all are familiar with plans that change, “the best laid plans of mice and men.” Several weeks ago, I sent an email to clients/friends letting them know that I would be traveling to Switzerland. This would be the first time that my wife, Jay, and I had been to Switzerland. On previous trips we have geographically surrounded Switzerland, but had not crossed a border into the tiny country of lakes, cheeses, chocolates and mountains. Our travel was designed around a group trip that we take nearly every year with friends from the Raymond James partners. These are friends of independent offices, like ours, partnered or aligned with Raymond James. Generally, prior to meeting up with the group I head to some mountain. This year was a little different. All of my hiking group had other plans and decided not to go early to hike with me.
In the past we’ve traveled early to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Mt. Cook, Torres del Paine in Argentina and the Inca Trail. All of these seem exotic, but quite honesty the hikes and climbs can be both grueling and adventuresome. But, nonetheless, these hikes are what I look forward to and this was no different. Since I would not be traveling with my group, my wife Jay, convinced me that I should not miss this opportunity. She says that we will be near Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. She even starts to investigate mountain ranges and peaks near where we will be traveling. After a bit of investigation and discussion with my good friend, Chris Warner (owner of Earth Treks and my guide in Argentina and Everest) he suggests a few peaks near Chamonix, France. He gives me the name of a world class Swiss guide Asmus Norreslet. Unfortunately, Asmus cannot take me during the days I will be traveling in Switzerland. But he refers me to several guiding companies at the base of Mont Blanc. After some discovery I choose a guiding company, Chamonix Experience. Open the link www.chamex.com to see some of the terrain and locations that I travel on in the Alps.
Heading to my climbing destination was a stop for Jay and me in Geneva where I will spend 2 full days. Geneva, Switzerland is the watch capital of the world. I am not a watch buff and other than the preciseness of the functions, watches are not a big deal with me. We did visit with a close friend the Patek Philippe museum which was very interesting from a knowledge and engineering point of view. Some of the exotic watches cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is out of my league. The big buyers these days come from Asia. Geneva was a beautiful city, home to the International Red Cross, the United Nations and dozens of world charitable organizations.
From my earlier email I mentioned that my goal was to attempt a summit of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, about 15,000’. It turns out that the trek would take 4 days, and I underestimated the time needed. I had hired a guide with the intention of hiking and rock climbing in Chamonix, France, about 1 hour and 15 minutes car ride from Geneva. On day three I leave Geneva early in the afternoon and arrive in Chamonix, France, one of the most beautiful places that I have ever visited. Chamonix is a small village town sandwiched between the French Alps and the Italian Alps. I could have stayed there for weeks. The population of Chamonix is only about 10,000, but during the vacation season it expands to over 30,000. Now imagine the additional hotels and hostel rooms and the extra restaurants to house and feed the tourists. Arriving in Chamonix I met my guide “Olivier”, checked all of my equipment for rock climbing, and walked around the town. What a beautiful place. Some of the photos were taken from the village. As Olivier and I talked my direction of what to do changed. Although I had prepared for rock climbing, I had also anticipated that some high-altitude hiking would be in order. But that afternoon we decided that rock climbing would be my goal for the next two days. Yes, I made the decision to rock climb, but did not know where this trip would take me. With my normal traveling friends, we would not have decided to rock climb for several days. So being by myself, with a guide, this would allow me to be more adventuresome and to head up the mountains not normally traveled. In preparation of the trip and anticipating that rock climbing would be on the itinerary, I had spent 6 afternoons in the Earth Treks climbing gym in Columbia. Chris Warner had the lead climbing instructor help me get ready and learn advanced climbing techniques to help keep me on a rock face more safely.
My first evening, in Chamonix, I stay at my hotel, the Refuge des Aiglons, a cross between a hostel and a moderate hotel. But the refuge restaurant had excellent food; why not, we are in France. Many of you know of my fondness for local, micro beers. So, I ask around and am directed to a local bar. Not quite what I had imagined, but a bar that had been there for over a hundred years. It reminded me of local pubs in Ireland or Scotland. The Swiss and French idea of a good beer is an ale or pilsner, not the IPAs that we in the US have begun to favor. I like local ales and pilsner mind you, but when I am served a weak IPA, that’s not my favorite. If you are a beer drinker and enjoy a medium bodied beer then Switzerland and France are a good place to be.
The Refuge, where I stayed, is packed with young people and very lively. It was fun sitting outside admiring the mountains. This first night was a little restless: new town, new bed and some noise. There is no air conditioning in the hotels in Chamonix which generally is not a problem, but this summer was one of the hottest on record. So, I left my windows open and to my surprise I am overlooking a regular bus route in town. Lots of friendly bus riders got off at my corner through the night. The bus route slows down around 2:00 AM and I get to sleep for a few hours.
The next morning early Olivier and I head through a 10-mile tunnel dug through the mountain and arrived in Courmayeur, Italy. This would be a day of fun and adventure. Nearly all of the towns are hosts to major ski resorts and some may remember that Chamonix has hosted the Winter Olympics and the Downhill World Cup Ski events. In Courmayeur we headed up the mountain, full of major ice crevasses and glaciers. I anticipated that my guide would take me on an easy trek the first day, but I soon learned that my past experiences had preceded me and off we went higher and higher. Once you achieve about 8,000’ the snow and glaciers appear and crampons are needed. The good news is there was no deep snow, just crampons and an ice ax for stability. After several miles of snow hiking, we started up some rocky peaks. Sometimes crampons can be a benefit in rocks, and other times it is a distraction. With my big feet and metal picks (crampons) jutting out for stability in ice and snow, crampons can add some adventure in bare rock. But onward and upward.
We started our morning around 7:00 am, and were in the mountain rock climbing by 9:00 am. Although we would reach an altitude of 12,000 plus feet, I was surprised that I had no effects of altitude. I have been fortunate that altitude sickness has not been a factor on my previous hikes. So today would be no different. My guide, Olivier, (think of the actor Sir Lawrence Olivier) was a bit cautious for me at first, but eventually asked me to slow down on our ascent. His caution was to preserve energy and not to over exert on day one. I wasn’t too concerned since I would only be on rocks for two days, so why hold back. The highest elevation around Courmayeur is 15,870’ but we are only heading to 12,300 feet. In photos you will see some of the peaks or needles of rock that we climbed today.
As we climbed higher, I began to feel some of the altitude, no headaches, just shortness of breath. The slow pace kept me from overheating, but I did work up a slight sweat. My thrill of the day (see what I call a needle) was at about 12,000’. I stop and scan this rock peak. Pausing, Olivier asked how did I feel. Yours truly looked up and saw this pinnacle with no observable route to the summit. This was my first real feeling question “what had I gotten myself into”. So, I respond to Olivier that I needed to sit for a few moments and asked him to lead, because I could not see a route up the rock face. Imagine, Olivier is about 5’8”, a seasoned climber, skier and guide who has been up every peak on these mountains. And then me clumsy, 6’3”, big feet, and not at all knowledgeable about a route to ascend this piece of rock about 100’ wide at the base and 300’ feet tall. So off Olivier goes scampering up the rock setting rope for me to protect me from a slip down the rock. As he climbs, I see the route to climb. Understand that this is the first moment on the mountain that I was nervous and it’s not best to have sweaty hands. As I ascend, it is my job to unclip the rope from “cams” or carabiners so the rope can be reset at higher points. And as I ascend my hands stop sweating. This was the only time today that I questioned my ability. When you hang off a rock cliff that has a bottom several thousand feet below you either get used to it, or you don’t continue on. Fortunately, I have had good training from my instructors at Earth Treks and my friend Chris Warner, who founded Earth Treks, and has guided me at different locations in Nepal, Argentina and Colorado. Thank you, Chris Warner. And thank you today for my guide, Olivier.
After summiting this peak, it was time to head down. Sometimes coming down is more adventuresome than heading up. Heading down has a different feel and difficulty because of gravity and what you can hold on to. But some of the fun is when you are able to repel down a rock cliff. It takes a lot less time, but hanging at an 80-90 degree angle takes a lot to get used to. Your sensation is falling or not sure of trusting the rope you are hanging from. One of the photos shows me stopping in the middle of a repel. But I survive. One of the fun parts of today’s descent was near the bottom of the peak. It was a snow field at a 45 degree angle that allowed me to slide down on my back using my ice ax to self-arrest and just have fun sliding in the snow. Climbing typically will leave some knots and bruises, but today’s climb was uneventful. Just for fun I sent Jay a text “My wounds are not too deep today. All is well, love Rick.” Although she is a good sport, she wasn’t sure what to make of that text.
Not too much happened after the repel down and sliding through the snow except trekking back over a two-mile glacier. For safety reasons, while on a glacier, you rope with your other climbers in case someone falls into a crevasse. No falling today, but there were a few deep ravines several hundred feet deep. We finish about 3 pm and head back to the car to return to Chamonix.
Because of cable car problems Olivier informs me that we are not staying on the mountain in huts. Since we are not staying in a hut on the mountain, I decide to change hotels to something fitting for a good night’s sleep. I also wanted to find a location not on the bus route. Tonight, I walk downtown in Chamonix, among the shops and restaurants. There are too many good choices. To take advantage of the warm weather and lots of tourists I choose a restaurant with outdoor seating with glorious views of the mountains. Trying to eat healthy I choose a salad with arugula lettuce, walnuts, lots of lardon, Parma ham, and tons of shredded parmesan Reggiano sprinkled with balsamic dressing. What could be better. We are so near Italy the influence is French and Italian. The breads are French, and maybe it was the atmosphere, but the French bread in Chamonix is much better than what I have found in the US. Across the walking area from my table is a French bakery, “Richards.” How convenient is that. I will remember this for the next morning, as Olivier has said that his downfall as a Frenchman is bread. I plan the next morning to wake up a bit early and head to Richards for freshly baked bread and croissants.
Day 3 is as adventuresome as yesterday. We stay on the French side and head above Chamonix. The photos allow you to see the beauty of the Alps. Think of it as being in a tiny, train-garden-like village, sandwiched in between mountains on each side and looking at Mont Blanc. Today will be rock climbing only, no snow, no ice and a warm sunny day. After I met up with my wife, Jay, I tell her that if the remainder of the trip with our friends was to be cancelled, I’d head back to Chamonix immediately.
On each side of the mountains there are numerous cable cars and ski lifts. At about 7:30 am Olivier and I head out. That morning I was up about 5 am and had a very restful night. Now, remember Richards Bakery from last night. I head to the bakery for a loaf of French bread and two croissants that are still warm. These are for Olivier, but I must have one of the croissants. My guide is very excited to have warm French bread. Me too. What a treat.
We head to one of the lifts for an early ride up the mountain to about 8,000’ feet this morning. What appears to be a warm day cools quickly as we elevate in the lift. Lots of age groups will head up the mountain on the lifts to hike around and see the world from above. I learn that this is the last week until ski season that the chair lifts will run. Not enough hikers nor vacationers. One of the reasons that my plans changed from a Mont Blanc summit attempt is the main cable car has been broken for months, thus the extra days that I would have needed to get higher on the mountain to begin the summit bid. But I take advantage of what is there.
After getting off a chair lift, we head up about 1,000’ to get to some solid rocks for climbing. Today, no crampons, but somehow Olivier had grabbed another bag without my rock climbing shoes. Oh, I have normal hiking shoes, not my regular climbing shoes. This is a bummer, but next time I will not allow someone to grab my bag. My fault. So today, I climb this morning with regular trekking boots. They will work but not what I had in mind. For those reading this journal, rock climbing shoes are akin to a heavy duty slipper with shoe strings or Velcro straps. They fit very tight, and allow you to wedge your foot into small crevices and small rock pieces to ascend up a rock face. But I survive.
We start on a rock face that has some moderate to difficult rock faces. This is not El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Some rock climbs have lots of hand holds, some with extra foot holds, some with an occasional carabiner to grab, some with a few roots, and others with just a few small crevices or knots in the stone. As we started our ascent there was a younger woman, 30s, who headed up, while I was adjusting my gear and checking ropes. She was from Sweden and her guy friend was from Montana. She got up about two pitches and apparently could not find a bolt to anchor into. She was the lead and seemed to be stuck. Her climbing buddy tried to direct her to move horizontally but for some reason she could not make the move. So up he goes and was able to direct her and him to a different route. But, funny, in his haste he forgot his backpack. No problem, I’ll take it to them. As we reach their position it seemed that Olivier and I saw the same routes and off we went. Maybe they were attempting different routes up the rocks, but after 15 minutes we didn’t see them again. Our first rock this morning was about 1,200 feet vertical and was a blast. Even without my rock climbing shoes this was a fun day. Although we would not get near Mont Blanc our views of this massive were spectacular. Some of the pictures attached will provide some comic relief of hanging off a rock face 9,000’ feet in the air. Because of not having my climbing shoes we leave these rocks around 1:00 pm and head down the mountain.
My last pictures are in the area of the world’s first rock climbing school. Finally, I get my climbing shoes and off we go up and down several times on some rocks that are only about 600-700’. It was around 2 pm, the sun was perfect and the temperature climbed to about 80 degrees, not the best temperature for a rock climb. But with my shoes the climbs felt good and I knew that I was ready to come back one day. Olivier and I finish about 3:30 pm and we head to the Chamonix Hotel for me to clean up before my 2-hour car ride to Lausanne, Switzerland. I bid Olivier “adieu” and promise to return.
Should I return it will be to summit Mont Blanc. Until the next adventure, I bid you “adieu.”
Any opinions are those of author and not necessarily those of Raymond James.