After an early cold spell in Europe, Eddie Bauer guide and Chamonix resident Caroline George is back on the ice. She’s been sending us updates of climbing WI6 and enjoying après in Italy, skiing pow at Grands Montets, and ticking off Vent du Dragon before picking her daughter up from daycare. It’s a good life for a French guide and this is her report. —LYA Editor
I am so lucky to live in Chamonix. I can pack my bag the previous night to go up into the mountains and do what I love most: climb an ice gully. Adam and I trade who gets to go in the mountains on days when we don’t have our parents to help watch Olivia, while we go and play together. If I am lucky, I get to hug and kiss my little princess before I head up high in the mountains.
When the cable car reopened December 21, I had the opportunity to climb with a friend of mine on a route called Vent du Dragon. It’s the perfect route to go acclimate, have fun and be back in time to pick up Olivia from daycare. In other countries, you would have to hike for hours to get to such a line, but the access in Chamonix is unlike anywhere else in the world. You ride the cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. Hike 50m to the passerelle, a bridge that connects the cable car arrival to the other main part of the Aiguille du Midi station.
From there, you do five and a half rappels–the first one being into the void–to the base of the route. The route first climbs what is usually a snow-filled gully, but this year we found it to be in a pretty dry condition, offering some interesting climbing. The route here splits in two: the Profit Perroux, a route I had done a few times before, heads up and right, while Vent du Dragon angles up and left, into a thin ice runnel that dies against a chockstone. From there, you almost have to crawl on your belly to cross the Half Dome-like crawl-on-your-knee traverse.
It had just snowed quite a bit and no one had been on the route since the last storm, so I had to clean a lot of snow to actually be able to wiggle my way inch by inch up the ramp to where it angles up and right. I reached around blindly to swing my ice axe into thin ice and mantled over the chockstone. The ice is thin this year all over the Alps, it seems. This fall was quite dry and early December was cold and sunny, which dried out the little ice there was. So routes are technically more challenging this year.
As I looked up, I wondered where the route went as it seemed like it dead-ended on a black granite wall. But seeing light peeking through, I realized I had to crawl underneath another chockstone. All these little quirks is what makes climbing this kind of route so special and fun. And like so often in Chamonix, I reached a bolted chain anchor to tie into and belay Duncan up to me. The next pitch was a mix of rock and ice, and I was getting pounded by spindrift from all the snow Duncan was clearing to find gear placements.
The cold was biting, and the thing about swapping leads on winter climbs is that you end up standing still while your partner climbs up to you, and then while your partner climbs up the following pitch. So your body temperatures drops. At the belay, you do a mix of shaking, moving your hands to get blood to flow to your fingertips somewhat, so that you don’t get the worst case of screaming barfies (because the rewarming of your fingers makes you scream and almost barf at times!–hence the name), think warm thoughts and numb your mind to the cold, which surprisingly usually works!
The worst though is when you start climbing again. Movement makes you feel even colder at first, before it warms you up. So you try to move as fast as you can up the ice and mixed terrain. Every pitch on this route offers a lot of diversity and is always interesting. The last pitch is a short one, but one with a bite. After climbing a short section of ice, you get to a chockstone again that you climb by doing a few moves of dry-tooling that were surprisingly a little pumpy. A few more steps up deep snow gets you to a notch that connects with the famous Cosmiques Ridge. It felt so good to bask in the sunshine while belaying Duncan up the last section to the ridge. We made quick work of the last section of ridge to the top of the Aiguille du Midi where, as usual, lots of tourists were standing and taking pictures of those two people climbing up the last few meters to the summit platform.
Twenty minutes later, we were back in Chamonix, riding the cable car back down alongside the Frendo Spur and onward to the valley bottom. We said goodbye, and a few minutes later, I was picking up Olivia from daycare and resuming my life as a mom. Only in Chamonix can this happen!
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