Saturday, November 16, 2013

Chamonix / Mont Blanc Training

Chamonix Pre-Season Winter Climbing Training 2013

Travel & Arrival Day: Salzburg - Frankfort - Geneva and finishing with an hour transfer to Chamonix. A very early morning, but everything went well and got to Chamonix at 13:00. The transfer service, “Chamexpress” was a great new discovery as a way to get from Geneva to Chamonix with minimal hassle.

Every time I am briefly in the world of the business people & “general” population, I realize how much differently I live and how I just don’t really fit in. On the other side, it is amazing what we as a species are able to accomplish - the Frankfort airport is a perfect example of this - a complex, man-made system that functions fairly well, and really astonishingly well when you think of all that could go wrong and it’s sheer magnitude. The small details of the system have hiccups that must Be worked out and adjusted by the different elements (human & nonhuman) in the system. Often these adjustments are made on-the-spot and in an improvisatory manner.

It got me thinking of an insightful analogy to how we look at “systems” in our own lives. When we create a system to become healthier, climb better, work and earn better, etc. we are also running systems to accomplish these goals. Often we get caught up in how the small details are inefficient and fail to realize that as long as things are progressing in the right general direction, the system is functioning successfully. We have to expect that along the way we need to react to and always steer ourselves accordingly in the direction to reach our goals and not get hung up as the inevitable glitches spring up along the way. Despite the lack of ideal perfection in the system, enormous things can and will be the result. You just have to persevere, show up, put in your time, etc. Success come through the suborn application of just sticking with it and and evolving.

I am staying in Le Hotel Chamonix for two nights before the first group arrives. The rest of my travel day was spent at the guide’s office getting information about the weather (past, current at 3,500 meters & forecast), buying a few things - mostly some good quality protein - to take up to the Cosmiques hut. the guide's office is always an important resource for me in the Chamonix valley.

The first group arrives on Saturday morning. I have Friday to myself. I went up to the top of the Midi and in poor visibility set a gps track to the Cosmiques ridge and the Cosmiques hut. I made the group reservation at the hut and got some more information about the conditions of the various routes and glaciers. Next, I went over to the Triangle du Tacul and soloed the Contamine-Mazaurd route in the center of the face (a route I did with my friend Erwin 3 or 4 years ago), rappelled down the Chere Couloir, and climbed the mixed line, L’Infidle just to the right of the Chere. I intersected the the Chere Couloir after its sixth pitch or so and rappelled down again.

I got back to the Midi station just before the 16:00 car down. I really felt the altitude on the last uphill bit before the station. I was pleased to get some accurate gps waypoints and have a first hand view of the conditions above 3500m. The bit of solo climbing was a treat too!

I met the first group of three at the Midi Station and got on the 09:30 gondola. As expected the exposed snow ridge station exit got their attention with the 1000m drop on the left and 300m drop on the right. I short roped the group down the 230m exposed ridge, relaxing after we got to less exposed ground for the pleasant walk over to the Cosmiques hut.

We did an easy route that traversed the Points Lachenal. the flat walk across the basin gave the three a chance to take in the stunning and intimidating surroundings.  On the flats, everyone was okay, but once we had to cross the bergschrund and climb a 40-45 degree snow slope the elevation was felt by all. Also, at this point of the route you are standing quite near the threateningly leaning lower seracs of the Tacul northeast face. Though somewhat protected by the form of the terrain, you feel that you could touch the triangular teetering lower serac. Jumping ahead, the next morning at breakfast, we saw ice debris and the long fracture crown of an avalanche on the approach slope to the normal route on the Points Lachenal. Part of a seracs had broke off, impacting the slope a causing a slab avalanche with a meter high crown and a good 250 meter width.

Many times the first couple of nights at higher elevation are characterized by a faster than normal heart rate, a bit shorter and shallower breathing and headaches (especially when pushing the level of exertion). The Cosmiques hut is at 3613m, so the first 2 nights or so are not so restful. This was clear with this small group. The combination of not sleeping well and being in rather intimidating terrain makes people less experienced in this environment doubtful and worried while underway.

The following day was devoted to skill training that would enable the group to safely do more challenging routes. We worked on moving with crampons and ice axes in steep terrain (including self-arrest) and basic rope technique including rappelling. The lower sections on Triangel du Tacul offer excellent opportunities to work on climbing 50 degree ice, climbing on a fixed rope, mechanics and efficiency of climbing in a rope team, and descending. Later that day we went over to the small north face of the Gros Rognon to do the short north face route.

the next two days where used to do two routes: the Contamine-Grisolle with harder mixed variations and the wonderful traverse of the Cosmiques Ridge. Both tours caused some wide-open eyes and a bit of an adrenalin rush in the participants.

I could leave a few things up at the the Cosmiques hut for the 6 days that I would be with the second group. So I had a pretty light pack while doing the ridge traverse. We moved pretty well and were finished in a bit under 4 hours. This was great, because we got down to Chamonix village in the early afternoon and could make use of my re-organization day, take a shower and sleep in a nice bed.

On the following Wednesday morning, I went back up to the Cosmiques hut with the second group (of now only two, as the third participant  cancelled) for a more advanced program as compared to the first group. After dropping some excess things off at the hut, we went through the full array of training for crevasse rescue: holding all types of falls, rescuing a conscious and unconscious partner and self-rescue methods.

I was really looking forward to the next few days. With just two guests, we would be able to get on some nice routes and really climb a lot over the next few days. This proved to be the case. Thursday found us on the “Contamine-Mazzuad” route up the middle of the Triangle du Tacul. Later the same day we did three pitches on fun, moderate mixed terrain on the right side of the face. 

On friday we got up at 04:30 and got going by 05:00 to climb the “Contamine-Negri” ice route that bisects the north and east aspects of Montblanc du Tacul. We started early so that we could get to the top of the Triangle and traverse the snow ridge to the summit.

The atmosphere for the climb was serious: cold, foggy, dark. Stepping over the remains of a recent serac fall in the darkness of the morning approach set the tone for the day. The weather was not perfect, but gave no reason not to do the climb.
We roped up at the bergschrund and found a place to cross where recent avalanche snow had filled in the gap. The climb unfolded with pitch after pitch of moderate 60 degree ice interspersed with steeper steps and easy mixed sections.

After following the final snow slopes and ridges, we topped out at around 14:30. We had decided to rappel over the upper part of the Triangle and the Chere Coulior to descend. This took a very long time as the upper rappels are continuously moving towards the left as you look down the face (to the right as you are rappelling). the terrain is moderate mixed and filled with small rock cliffs, cracks, horns, etc. The ropes got stuck once or twice when they were pulled. Forcing me to climb up and free up the mess.

The weather was holding out, with strong cold winds from the north west. We were at the base of the couloir by 18:00 and made our way back to the Cosmiques hut at around 19:00., a long 14 hour day all-in-all.

During dinner we needed to address the next couple of days. There was a big storm forecast for the evening continuing into Saturday. 50 to 60 cm of snow was predicted above 3000 meters with strong winds and zero visibility. The small group was due to descend on Sunday and head home. We were concerned that the Midi gondola would be shut down due to the storm. Additionally we would be restricted in our selection of tours due to the effort of breaking trail and avalanche danger.

I wanted to sit it out at the hut and see what developed: do what ever was possible on Saturday. The weather was expected to improve and clear late on Saturday with Sunday being precipitation-free with some sunny spells. The two guest however felt otherwise and wanted to try and get down to Chamonix on Saturday as long as the gondola was in service.

On Saturday morning, after a late breakfast, we called the Midi station and found out that they were starting a bit late but would be running. The luxury of a late breakfast was something we could enjoy, along with the two-person hut staff, as we were the only guests at the hut. This is one of the reasons that being in Chamonix later in the fall is so attractive: At the weekends there were a handful of people in the hut, but during the week we were the only ones there!

Decision made, we headed out in white-out conditions towards the Midi station mid-morning. Roped up and breaking trail through the new snow took time. The orientation was not an issue as it seems as I have done that short trip a hundred times. I did have a gps track and way-points as insurance in my pocket however.

Once we got to the exposed snow ridge 250 meters from the station, I short-roped Vaclav and Antoine as we carefully made our way upwards. There was a bit of nervous energy traveling up the rope and we where all a bit relieved to reach the ice tunnel entrance to the station.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with going through the process of route planning and preparation for doing an independent tour. We meet up in a cafe and spent over two hours thoroughly going over all aspects of preparation, route planning, orientation, etc.

Due to more than a half meter of new snow above 3000 meters, our last day was spent in the valley at the idyllic sport climbing area Les Galliards, 2 km outside of Chamonix village. The day started out cool and damp, but then rapidly transformed into a beautiful sunny Autumn afternoon. We learned and practiced all elements of alpine rock: placing traditional protection, building anchors, rappelling and climbing in stiff-soled mountain boots.

The last day brought a fitting and relaxed end to the couple weeks of working with two small groups in magnificent surroundings. Looking back, the weather and conditions were always more than adequate to undertake routes or have training sessions. There were absolutely no issues with over-crowding in huts, waiting in long gondola lines or not getting into a pension or restaurant in town.

I am already planning an alpine training event again in Chamonix for 2014!

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