Last year in June me and BG went on our first date to the local indoor climbing wall. I admitted there and then that I didn’t like heights, that I wasn’t a climber but that I did have an idealistic sense of adventure.
Just over one year later I was very glad to get out of a car that we’d been sat in for over 24 hours and into an apartment in Chamonix unaware of what the next two weeks was going to throw at me.
That evening, four bleary eyed experienced mountaineers/climbers and two (including me) novices, also bleary eyed, shared a massive pot of bolognese and some very welcome red wine and agreed a day on the Mer de Glace was the order of the next day. This was to be the start of a trip that became the most rewarding, most challenging two weeks of my life.
When you live somewhere at sea level and the nearest ‘Peaks’ are just hills, and the mountains that are four hours away are around 1000m lets just say seeing what surrounds Chamonix for the first time is quite overwhelming. There is a lot to take in. And I don’t ever remember once getting bored with the views.
Getting off the train at Montenvers was certainly no exception.
Let’s just take a minute to remind ourselves of what is going on.
I, me, that ‘petite ballerina’, does dancing, has been climbing a few times, three times outside but mostly inside, got as high as Helvellyn once when out hiking, freaked out over exposure on a tiny English mountain once, yes that person… That person got off a train wearing a backpack that had an ice-axe attached to it, some crampons inside it and was about to go and have a ‘play’ on one of the longest glaciers in the Alps.
My ‘Welcome to the Alps’ wasn’t a gentle, gradual welcome as within 10 minutes of getting off the train I was faced with ladders. 150m? Of ladders down to the moraines. Ladders attached to rock faces. This is Via Ferrata. Welcome to the Alps.
This was the first mental hurdle of the trip. Slow and steady wins the race? The ladders seemed never ending despite the bottom looking constantly close. It was high up. I remember fighting gravity. Some of the ladders are bolted into the rock at a little bit of a wonky angle so you would be climbing down and fighting the pull of gravity on one side. When we finally got on the ground and looked back up at the ladders it looked further than it felt. And we would have to climb back up them on the way back to the train later that day.
I survived the Via Ferrata and then was heading onto a glacier. Now, back in March I read Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. An absolutely gripping but terrifying read and something that generated a new fear/phobia of crevasses. I had never registered that crevasses existed up until reading Touching the Void so having a little walk on a glacier may not have been my first idea when it came to fun.
But I was wrong.
I had never seen anything, ANYTHING so stunning in all my life. The mountains all around are completely breathtaking. They are imposing, desolate, cold, even spiky looking and imagining being at the top of them was unnerving. Yet while they look and feel so threatening sometimes they are like nothing I have ever seen before. Everything is blue, the sky is more intense, the air is clear and quiet. You feel like the smallest person in the world staring at those mountains.
One of my favourite views in the world that I have seen so far is one of the first I had seen in the Alps. Looking up the glacier to Aiguille du Tacul, the Grand Jorasses and Dent du Géant. Everything is so vast.
Once we got the crampons and ropes on we headed up the Mer de Glace to practise being in our rope-teams for the bigger adventure that would come at the end of the week. I relaxed about crevasses as we were low enough on the glacier for them not to be an issue. The sun was out, it was hot, I was wearing crampons and was going for a walk on a glacier on a Sunday morning. Life couldn’t be better.
As we traveled further up we came to a river that cut through the glacier and gradually carved itself though some sizeable ice walls.
Ice. Walls. Walls of ice.
The experienced four decided this would be the perfect opportunity for an ice climb. The inexperienced two, including me decided that we would be stupid not to try. It was only five days ago at work that I was saying I drew the line at ice climbing as it was a bit beyond me, a bit too adventurous. Five days later I’ve got a pair of ice axes in my hands and I’m abseiling (another first) down an ice wall on a glacier towards the river banks to climb back up with spikes on my feet and spikes in my hands.
The first climb wasn’t so steep so I got an idea of how to climb up the ice. The second climb we set up was vertical. And with a little overhang. I think the ballet paid off as being used to using my toes kicking in with the front of the crampons felt relatively natural. I did fall but it didn’t scare me. I just reattached myself to the ice and up I went. It was a killer for the arms but the achievement felt fantastic. And perhaps because it wasn’t planned and I didn’t have time to worry about what was to come it helped me enjoy it more.
I enjoyed ice climbing. Biggest surprise ever.
After the high of successful ice climbing we headed back to the Via Ferrata ladders. It is sure as hell more exhausting going up than coming down. It was like the most persistant squat challenge. If you’ve ever done the Insanity workouts and heard Sean T tell you to ‘dig deeper’ then you will understand that is all I could hear in my head when going up those ladders. Exhausting!
We got back to the Montenvers station just as the heavens opened and the thunder started. Very lucky as I wouldn’t fancy Via Ferrata in those conditions.
Back in Chamonix we headed to a bar for a celebratory drink. This had been the perfect start to two weeks in the Alps. I couldn’t wait for more and I liked ice climbing.
Chamonix is full of surprises.