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Published: August 14th 2010
Sitting hiding in the corner of a busy starbucks taking full use of their free internet, newton faulkner in my ears and caffeine in my tummy. I'm ready to recount the last few weeks adventure in a land of fresh bread and cheese and stupidly cheap wine...
The first thing I will remember is the feeling of change, as I boarded the train to Bristol where I would meet the travelling crew who were on route from Limerick via Wales, England (and the moon) to the south of France where the big hills waited for us. All went to plan and after a few hours chilling (literally) at the train station chatting to some other solitary travellers (mostly welsh) I was aboard the big blue fun bus and the epic had began!
The trip to Chamonix is a blur. Nodding off on the bus between identical service stations and frustrating mind games invented on the spot to try and pass a few more minutes of the long long journey! The approach to the valley excited even the most weary traveller. Late evening sun and blueish moon light on the snow covered peaks got the imaginations revved up. Who knew
what would happen up there, what mysteries awaited!
Our first wander through the streets of Cham lead us (some what illegally) to a popular and somewhat famous feeding spot, Midnight Express. With a reputation which would almost match Ferg burger in Q'town, we took refuge for our first meal in Cham before heading up to pitch tents and finally stretch out our limbs which had been cramped for far too long on the bus!
The next day brought about some house keeping, checking in, lift passes, food groups and of course food! We got orientated and even managed to get out and do some sport climbing down at a local crag in the evening sun. What a scene, belaying in a bikini, with glaciers and snow covered peaks looking down on your exploits from 3,000m above. This was my first introduction to the joys of bolted climbing. Quiet a controversial subject in Ireland, but very popular over here and served us well as a nice down day activity to hone some climbing skills on beautiful warm French rock.
After the first few days, the rest of the time is a mixture of amazing memories. Good days were
spent on multipitch rock routes at L'Index and Vallocrene or snow and ice covered ridges and climbs from 2,500m and above. Rainy days were spent recovering, and looking for shelter from the torrents of water that rolled up the valley with a flash and a crack that always kept me entertained! I do love extreme weather, and Cham does it quiet well! Shelter came in many forms, from the tents (some more waterproof than others) to the big blue fun bus, to the communal dining table at the camp site. Venturing further afield, there were coffee shops, net cafes and of course public houses where shelter and beverages were offered in exchange for a small fee. Anything to escape the wet, muddy campsite!
Once we got used to how things worked around cham and started to understand what we needed to know to be independent "up there" we were soon planning our own adventures and executing them (nearly) perfectly! Myself and Ailslinn became a team. We planned together, worked together and climbed high together. We identified each others strengths and capitalised on these and started ticking routes and ascents off our list as the weather allowed it. It being
our first alpine season (and we're now allowed to call ourselves "alpinsts") I'm very impressed with what we achieved, and the calm that I eventually evolved into up there. I won't deny that a constant healthy level of fear was always present beneath the calm exterior!
A typical high altitude day started the night before. Me and Ash would sit down and have a look through the many guide books we had at our disposal. Certain routes has been recommended to us by the more experienced. The weather forecast had been inspected and a translation attempted. The weather really dictates your movements at altitude. A sniff of bad weather could make an already difficult route impossible to those who weren't properly prepared. As novice alpinists, we weren't taking any chances. Typical Cham weather was clear and sunny in the morning with a chance of storms in the afternoon/evening. Therefore an early start was usually essential to getting up and down safely. Once we'd decided on a route and figured out what equipment we would need (ropes, slings, nuts, ice screws, axes etc) we would split the equipment between us and get our personal gear ready for the morning. Essential
included suncream and lip protection (so so important up there!) sun glasses, food, water, crampons, clothes, camera, gloves and more gloves. Although I had been warned about the sun up there, I still wasn't prepared. The sun literally bounces off everything up there and it's like being wrapped in tin foil and being cooked! I resembled something like the swiss flag after my first day up there, the helmet strap under my chin providing a lovely white stripe across my chin to break up the neck burn. And god forbid, protect your lips and nose at all costs. Roasted lips means blood on laughing, eating, kissing, everything! A badly burnt nose is equally uncomfortable. Hitting the hay early was an option, but usually recommended. Alarms would be set for between 5 and 5.30am. The first task was to wrestle into thermals and depart from the warmth of your sleeping bag, and convince yourself that this was indeed a good idea! Quickly wake up and shove some breakfast into and as much water as you could manage. No hanging about, get the boots on, harness too to make things quicker at the top and start on the short walk down to
the cable car. The early cable cars (which started about 6.30am) would be filled with ambitious alpinists ready for a day tackling high altitude problems. There would be the odd tourist at that time of the morning, who always looked a bit intimidated by the well wrapped up climbers weilding ice axes and assorted colours of ropes!
Half asleep we cued for the cable cars and began the ascent to the start of our routes. Depending on the day we would be going from Cham (1,000m) to the top of a cable car route, which could be as high as 3,800m. This would usually take less than 20mins in some very cramped tin boxes where up to 70 people would be tightly crammed in on Frances most popular tourist attraction (even busier than the Eiffel Tower I've heard!). Stepping out at the top, immediately you felt the cold and the sun glasses were donned to prevent snow blindness! From here we prepared to leave the tourist trail and enter the hostile world of snow and ice that waited beyond the ice tunnel. Typical glacier travel required people to be tied together on a rope, in case you might fall
into a crevasse, the other person can in theory secure the rope so you can either climb out or be pulled out (fingers crossed we would avoid these icy holes!) After taking advantage of the last toilet of the day we would rope up and attach our crampons, harness, helmets and climbing equipment. We layered up against the cold and stepped out onto the snow. From the Aiguille du Midi (our most frequented cable car) in order to get down onto the glacier you had to decent a treacherous snow covered ridge with very steep drops on both sides. It was a sure fire way to wake you up! Once down on the glacier, usually in the safety of the Col du Midi you could breathe easy and start to enjoy the experience of glacier travel and being surrounded by snow and some very beautiful spikey snowy peaks.
THe next challenge was to find your route and make your way safely to the starting point. This varied, depending on the route you were doing but usually didn't take longer than 1-2 hours for the more straight forward routes. For the most part we could follow some well trodden paths
along the glaciers and snow fields. The routes that we were doing were "classics" and would usually see quiet a lot of traffic throughout the day. We would encounter mainly guided parties (a paid guide at the front with 2-3 people attached by rope on the back) and some other independent parties like ourselves.
The walk up usually involved travelling up some steep snow slopes and across the bergschrund (where the rock and ice meet, there is sometimes a gap) to access the rocky parts which we wanted to climb. Once we made it up to the rock we would start moving across the route. This would sometimes involve moving together (where dynamic protection is used) or pitching the route, depending on how comfortable we were feeling and the exposure/terrain/difficulty of climbing. For the most part of the routes we moved together until we came to the "crux" or difficult part of the route. From there we would get organised, sort out equipment, decided on a route, who would lead, commands and signals and get going. Placing protection on the snow covered rocks and icy slopes was an interesting challenge which would often get quiet creative but would give
you the piece of mind you needed to tackle the next few meters and help put that 200m+ drop to either side out of your mind. Focused and determined we pushed on to the top. Reaching the summits or top of the routes was always worth it. For a few moments you could unwind, let your guard down, have something to eat or drink and enjoy the fruits of your efforts over the last few hours. Then came the descent. Often going up seems so much easier than coming down! Down climbing, abseiling, sliding in the snow and kicking steps took quiet some time and at this stage you had been up hours and focusing on when your next hot meal would come!
Once the descent has been made and we were finally back in the safety of the ice tunnel we would briefly share in the relief of another successful day before unroping, removing crampons and rejoining the tourists to descend back into the valley to start the recovery from altitude. Curious tourists would ask questions and take photos of these weary Alpinists, with their panda eyes and white lips heavily covered in sun block. We would wander
along, satisfied and feeling somewhat super human, skipping the cues to the cable cars and attempting to eat and drink and come back to normal again. The only think that the altitude got to for me was my stomach. I found it very hard to eat or drink up there and it would take hours for my appetite to come back once we came down. This wasn't a problem except when we would 2-3 days in a row up there, as you would be trying to refuel for the next day after coming down. I could easily go for 8-10 hours up there without eating or barely drinking. I've never had that feeling before!!
Cooking on very wobbly stoves with tinned veg and pasta, plans would be made to head into town for the evening with the international party possie that had evolved throughout the time at the came site. Many many bottles of cheap wine would be consumed and various pubs would be visited to check out their special offers ( 2 for 1 cocktails was ALWAYS messy!) and selection of music on offer. I preferred the places that offered cheap wine and live music and tended to
wander on occasion. At the weekends there was a selection of night clubs on offer for those who wanted to continue into the small hours.
Wandering back to the camp site by moon light, looking up at the giant peaks illuminated in a blue-ish glow was a wonderful way to end a day. Sleep would come easily in the slightly damp tent, head resting on a stolen cushion!
Thanks to everyone (Darragh, Fergal, Rob,Conor, Oisin, Aislinn, Dave, Ross, Paul, Edel) who made the trip happen, who sorted out the logistics, did the planning, paying, driving, cooking, made us laugh, looked out for us up there on the hills, made a mess in the camp site, cleaned up, told stories, made up games...got drunk and fell over! It was an epic, and one I won't be forgetting any time soon!
Now to wash everything, evict any ants which have come home with me and sort out the photos!
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