In Chamonix, for an ‘advanced mountaineering techniques’ day clinic as the second clinic day of the Arcteryx Alpine Academy, we met at 8 am at the base station of Aigile du Midi with about 300 other people, all excited for our various days to come. We are to be six with one french guide, who initially seems quite off putting with a bag almost the size of himself, but it turns out that he is sleeping up at the Col du Midi in the Bivouac course, so his large amount of gear makes more sense. We hop on a cable car and head up, a German couple who have been taking an extensive vacation to climb and camp in Switzerland for three weeks, a brit who lives locally, and an irish man who does not, plus me and German Boy.
I felt the altitude pretty quickly, I had previous experience with my lack of ability to acclimatize rapidly and was no so surprised, but a ‘quick’ run to the bathroom up four flights of stairs at 3,800m quickly put aside any notions it was going to be better than I had hoped. Oh well. Back assembled we found some breathing room to put on our crampons above the knife edge ridge down to the Col, along with about 100 other people, probably about 90 more people then typically try to get on their gear and rope up in the same physical space at one time. While putting on my crampons, German Boy so accommodatingly agreed to join German Rope Team, thus neatly squashing any plans to climb together over the whole weekend, having been also separate the day before, and different clinics scheduled for the next day. He did seem honestly baffled that I would want to be on a rope with him. Men. Anyway, team English Speaking International had a blast.
We lengthened the rope and headed off towards the base of Mont Blanc du Tacul and the Cosmiques hut. I was still suffering, but tried to keep my embarrassingly loud gasps to myself. The German couple was perfectly acclimatized, German Boy never suffers physical discomfort ahem, and the local obviously was doing fine. The irishman wasn’t feeling so hot, but still nothing to my desperate gasping and frequent light headed spells. Still not as bad as the previous time I went so high so fast, but, still, bleh.
We took a small detour to practice building rock anchors at the rock cliff evident above at the right, and then headed on to the ridge. Some groups, it would turn out, did the complete Cosmiques ridge, which would have been badass, but our guide had a bit more of a lassaiz faire attitude, and we did the small one instead. It was an interesting ridge, lots of ample rock for natural belay points, good snow cover, and technical enough to distract me from my stomach, letting me finally stop worrying if I was actually going to throw up for the first time all day.
It was a fun and technical ridge. Some places required full belays which we set up with slings or cams, some were fine protected with flakes and loops. There was one nervy almost meter wide hole to step across, a committed step with handholds only on the other side, large enough to see drifting clouds through it, and one down climb over a slab which took some mental energy. Crampons really do well on rock, but only if you place them well and trust them. Takes some getting used to. We switched up the order and finished the ridge, climbing down with a thump onto the back patio of the hut where we enjoyed a nice lunch break.
I had caved and took a jacket from them for the day, I ended up with the startlingly amazing Alpha SV, in beautiful brilliant orange, and really loved the thing. It was completely wind proof, and quite light. As one of their heavier models it was original a bit ‘crunchy’ though very flexible, and I soon forgot it was on. The armpit zippers were extensive and offered great ventilation, it slid fine over the rock, and didn’t ride up under my harness. If anyone is reading, cough cough, phd graduation present, anyone? At a retail price roughly equivalent to my months rent, I doubt it, but hey, nice to dream right 🙂
We headed back to the top station directly after lunch, the clouds were massing and it was shaping up for a strong afternoon thunderstorm. Not fun at 3,800. We trudged along, and I am honestly really proud of how I kept up. I know we were going objectively slow, and maybe some of the others could have gone faster, but we caught up to the first team from our group, and even passed two other rope teams. More importantly, I didn’t need to ask to stop for any breaks. It was 300hm, or 1,000ft and at this point I had the headache pounding with my pulse, typical of altitude, nausea, occasional dancing lights, and a serious wish to lay down and do nothing but breath. I started a pace, and kept it, trying to focus on my breathing and using my movements efficiently. When I thought I couldn’t go on, I would take a lock step pause, then go back to walking more normally. I was proud of how I held up through the altitude, definite improvements which are evident to me if no one else, and we got back to the cable car just as the first snow was starting to fall.
All in all a highly effective day. Once back down in the oxygen rich base station, I felt just fine! German boy went home for a nap, I went off to collect our free gifts, happened to run into the Scottish crew from the day before and stopped for one small celebratory drink, where we shared our days adventures, before returning home for a quick shower, change, and the movie night. Which was much more artsy than the typical mountain movie night, but not enough to keep us in our broken uncomfortable seats for the 1.5 hour Cerro torre and we headed off to a reasonable bedtime.