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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

G4G Chamonix - The Alps

The trouble with teammates who are badasses is that sometimes they cancel trips because they smash their knees leaping two meters from tower to tower in the Czech Sandstones. This was the case with Ancee just prior to our Chamonix meeting last June. Her and I had agreed to hitchhike together, and I was looking forward to the adventure and the company.  To be honest I was also happy that we would divide the gear between two backpacks as well. Alas, Ancee's knee did not heal quickly enough and she had to forgo our mountain adventures.

I decided not to hitchhike alone with two backpacks and a camera bag, and found a rideshare driving from Berlin to Geneva. It was a car full of Polish guys, and the driver kindly dropped them all off at their respectful destinations, which meant I saw all of Switzerland by night and we arrived in Geneva well after midnight. Pika, a super friendly climber and adventure photographer, hosted me before I hitchhiked the rest of the way to Chamonix.

With a tram and a bus and all of my backpacks I reached the border with France, walked a few hundred meters and stuck out my thumb. When traveling with so much baggage I always put the biggest bag visibly and arrange the others behind like dominos so passersby don't see just how much shit I'm actually carrying. It was either my thumb or my visible ropes that caught me a ride directly to Chamonix, accompanying a friendly lawyer in an empty Audi. He took my backpack to put it in the back, a scene I witness often, where the man aims to toss the bag in the bag but struggles just to pick it up.  I hope his back is ok. Upon reaching the center of Chamonix, I wandered around until I found a cafe with space for my Deuter companions and I. A man exited the cafe looking at me so I began my monkey talk mixture of English and a few French words, trying to ask for a menu. The man was exasperated and said a lot of things, and finally I took a menu off some other guest’s table and explained that it was what I wanted. I think he told me I could have it, as he walked away and I realized he didn't work there, in fact. Having fulfilled my role as stupid American tourist, I plopped down and awaited the actual waiter. I paid an exorbitant price for the smallest orange juice I'd ever seen, so I decided I could loiter in their chairs as long as I pleased.

Soon enough I was chatting with two Czechs-turned Canadians who grew up climbing in the sandstones before immigrating to Canada. They were a hoot! They supplied me with a glass of wine and we discussed climbing, life, love and when I would remove my nose ring (when I grew up, the woman suggested.) I enjoyed the conversation but the husband was hungry and he dragged his wine-filled wife back to the hotel, and that was that. Not long after a young man passed by and spoke in French about my visible slackline. He turned out to be a slackliner himself, who spoke English, and half an hour later him and his friend joined me at my loitering table. They supplied another glass of wine, and eventually we departed to find the dirtbag friendly burger joint, possibly the only place you can eat well for under 7 euros in Chamonix. Being a gentleman, one of them insisted on taking my big backpack, and as usual was shocked when he lifted it. After collecting our dinner we sat in the park and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. I was waiting for my friend Thibault who was coming to climb in the Alps. I informed him that he could find me by Chanel, which my new friends insisted everyone knew.

We bivied that night in a parking area a short drive away. I strung a hammock between tree's while the boys lit a hookah. It was a short night. Thibault and I awoke at 6:30 to go climbing, his friend Coco arriving to join. Thinking we were ahead of the crowds, we drove to the lift station only to wait 2 hours to get on the gondola. We took a one-way lift to the first station near Lac Bleu. I was reminiscing about my first real climbing experience, with Janek and another friend, when I was first introduced to highlining and climbing six years prior. Imagining myself then, with no knowledge or proper gear, climbing in a vintage leather jacket from London, with bleeding fingers, I was relieved to be back with more experience.

We hiked the remaining distance to the bottom of a well-known classic Contamine-Vaucher, an easy 16 pitch climb on Aiguille du Peigne.  My Tendon Lowe twin ropes were new and I expected some twists, however the best advice you can take away from this post is to flake your new ropes many, many times before you begin climbing. Coco began the route and led the first five pitches, belaying Thibault and I up. We started the route around 11:30am, and other than rope management it went smoothly. Much laughter and sunny weather made me completely forget that I'm usually cold when in the mountains. Thibault showed us a fancy rope technique when belaying from above, which worked well but was time consuming. Taking in armfuls of rope, you make simple overhand knots on a bite, each loop becoming longer that the last, and then when the next leader departs you simply undo a knot and let out a loop as they climb. 

I took the next four or five pitches, the hardest being a 5c with a fun chimney section. It had a lovely piton inside that was incredibly hard to reach with my t-rex arms. I managed. After getting a bit lost searching for a belay, we lost some time traversing in three people, but we were still laughing. Some Germans rappelling pointed us in the right direction, and Thibault led the rest of the route. At the end, we soloed the last twenty meters to be on the proper summit. By this time fog had rolled in and we were surrounded in a gray mist. Damn it! Our selfie could have been taken anywhere! Nonetheless, we made our stupid faces and the one with the longest arms snapped a shot. It was getting dark and we had twelve rappels ahead of us, and so we began the way down. Though a certain comrade had complained about my 80m twin ropes, they sure helped on the rappel when we skipped several pitches. Either way, we reached the glacier in proper dark, and without crampons and only one axe we searched for the easiest retreat. When we hiked up we had done some easy climbing but on descent, in the dark, it didn't feel like the best idea to repeat. I scooted on my butt half the way, soaking my ass in a cold fashion.  The night was completely still, something I am still thankful for, because cold, biting wind always makes things feel like doom is impending.

We hiked down the long, winding trail all the way back to Chamonix. The thinned out trees became less sparse, and their size increased. The city lights steadily grew larger and tangible, but it seemed we would never reach them. Knees throbbing, soaking trousers and still smiling, we finally reached the cars. Coco left for his home, and Thibault and I ate a gourmet dinner of pasta with olive oil, since the shops were long closed and the restaurants long asleep. It was the best olive oil pasta I've ever eaten. In an empty parking lot next to the forest, I strung my hammock between two trees, blew up my air mattress for insulation, and wiggled into my sleeping bag, happily exhausted. The mountains have a funny way of humbling us, and how easily they remind me that I from Texas and need much more experience!
The following day was some kind of rest, though we went to the local crag to climb a few routes while waiting on Chloe. We found each other in the afternoon and drove to a car park to share a meal and discuss our plans. Basia, our third teammate would be arriving in the Valley with the Poles later, so for the time being Thibault, Chloe and I decided to scout some potential lines. Thibault had an idea, so we decided to have a look.
We packed my twin ropes and a light rack, snacks, and set out early to scout the first location. It was a long approach, 1800 meters, with ladders to finish. We scrambled up some easy climbing once in the notch, and with laser in hand, found a hundred meter gap and a forty-meter gap. Neither are easy projects and would require a dedicated team of people able to climb, haul, and hang off of granite edges. It was a beautiful area, and we agreed it was worth returning to rig in the future. The weather could not have been better, with the sun browning my shoulders I hardly felt I was in the mountains. The notch itself was a small summit on a ridge, and therefore was surrounded by jagged peaks, which make the range. The following day was for rest, after 1800 meters of hiking we all needed it.
Being in the mountains requires constant forecast checks, and it was clear the next few days were not the best weather, so after meeting with Basia who had arrived from Poland, we went for an all day hiking and scouting mission in the nearby cliffs of Passy. The trail was beautiful, and though the peaks and cliffs are much lower than in Chamonix, they boast impressive sheer drops, and behind them the grass slopes down into a valley that looks like the moors of Scotland. On the way up the clouds rolled in, and by the time we reached the cliff edges and gaps, there was no visibility of the village below, or even the other side of whatever gaps we were staring at. The rock was different as well, a funky limestone, crumbled and layered with many cracks formed by water. Uncertainty about the legality of rigging highlines there was the main reason we didn't return, though we knew there was plenty of potential. Base jumping and climbing are restricted due to nesting birds, so it is unlikely highlining will ever be permitted. Wet and soggy, we headed back down to return to our parking spot and camp in Chamonix.

Now that us three girls were united, we began the G4G segment of our trip. To start, we repeated two of the beautiful lines at Tres le Porte. One of the things I love about collaborating with women is how analytical we can be when organizing. We carefully discussed gear, application, weight, etc. and packed accordingly. We would use the same single twin rope for climbing the easy scramble as for the backup. In hindsight, taking both twin ropes would have made our lives a little easier, but we made it work nonetheless. We planned for one night, as our bags were already heavy with highline equipment and camping gear. Chloe decided to eat oats for the entirety of the project, so Basia and I teamed up on meals, eating an array of Polish food she had driven from her homeland, such as tiny cucumbers, dehydrated noodles, and kielbasa sausage.
Early the next morning we began hiking. Chloe took a train with our bags, and Basia and I had the luxury of walking with daypacks half of the way. We met at the Muir de Glace station, collected our backpacks, and continued up the glacier. I was at Tres le Porte three years prior doing a commercial with Tancrede and Julien, and the landscape was familiar though this time I had far better shoes for it. The glacier is wide, and mostly gray from small stones stuck in it. All around us we could hear the rushing water of melting ice, somewhere deep below us. Occasionally we would walk up to a giant hole in the glacier, icy blue with a waterfall and a river disappearing into the cold darkness. We skirted around them and continued on. Cairns haphazardly marked the way. The glacier is a joy to walk on, as it is just a slight incline, and it is so wide that fellow climbers hiking on their found path seem endlessly far away. We stopped occasionally to film silly scenes of our feet passing the lens, or us girls hiking by. Eventually we made it to the start of purgatory: never ending ladders to the top. Going up ladders, some overhanging, with a 65-liter backpack full of gear is no joy. The repetitive motion is one thing, but the burn in my muscles was the greatest challenge. We didn't bother clipping in for safety in order to save time, and counting the rungs did me no favors. Eventually we reached the next section of hiking; a thin trail of switchbacks ascending. Chloe outpaced Basia and I but we found each other at various intervals. Unsure of where the next water would be, Basia and I stopped at a trickle and filled our bottles as best we could. The water slid down the mossy rocks and tasted clean, but it was a slow process. Not a hundred meters more and we found a raging stream! We had jumped the gun.

The last stretch to the top felt grueling, and I was happy to throw my bags down. Chloe and I took my twin rope to get on the other side of the gap. We scrambled back down and around to the backside of the formation, and I looked up at each gulley as I tried desperately to remember how I had climbed it four years prior. For the commercial a mountain guide had taken us up, so I hadn't paid much attention to the route but knew it was something easy. I started up what looked like easy cracks in the granite. Some moves involved hoisting my body weight up, and then reaching out right to find a hold and traverse my feet to whatever available ledge I could feel out. The rocks were loosely stacked and I climbed steadily and carefully as not to drop one on Chloe belaying me. At some point about twenty meters up the easy section disappeared. I traversed out on a ledge covered in fallen rock, the lichen covered granite slick and rust colored. It was starting to appear like proper climbing. I made some moves up on the face, the cracks disappeared for some meters, but I felt uncertain without many gear placements below me, and after some up and down and back and forth, I decided it wasn't the right way. Four years prior whatever we had climbed was far easier than this, and at my climbing level now it shouldn't be so scary. I carefully climbed backwards; removing the few cams I had placed a long the way. We walked farther back and I started up an easy gulley, trailing the tendon twin rope. It didn't feel familiar but quickly I was at the top, without placing a single cam. Soloing up the easy way meant I didn't have to back clean and Chloe didn't need to follow me to retrieve the gear. I exited through a hole in the stones and found myself staring at Basia across the void. 

Traversing along the slant, daintily maneuvering over granite slate just balanced on the edge, I eventually discovered the anchor bolts for the forty-meter line.  In the process of rigging, I rested my hand on a large boulder, about a meter by a meter in size. It quickly began sliding towards the nearby edge, to fall into the space under the line. Was Chloe down there on her way back to the other side? Would I start a small avalanche of rocks triggered by this boulder?  My instinct is to avoid causing rock fall, so I took Basia's climbing sling and put it around the boulder while bracing it with my hand, the weight of it quickly becoming more than I could handle. I cinched the sling tight and tried to pull the boulder back to its original resting place, but it continued its downward motion, and with me in tow! I was sweating and stressing as I clung to the sling, Basia watching it all from across the gap likely wondering what the hell I was up to. I yelled to her what was happening, but knew I wouldn't be able to stop the massive rock from tumbling down. I let go, knowing it was unlikely that Chloe was underneath. It slid a few feet and rested in a crack. I laughed, removed Basia's sling and got back to rigging. Silly me!

Soon the anchor was built and I threw the dynamic rope down the notch below. Basia threw the tag line from the other side, Chloe tied them together, and after a bit of back and forth we passed the slackline across the gap.  After tensioning a bit and taping, it was ready to be walked. The weather was perfect, the sun was still high, no wind passed our way, and the small puffy white clouds dotted the skies above impressive peaks, jagged spikes surrounded our little gap. I understand the desire the first mountaineers had to reach summits; if you stand below them, no matter how high you are, the peaks call you, draw you up to them, a magnetism not everyone experiences as ambition but one that evokes awe at least.

The line was a bit tensioned but loose and we all took some turns walking. It was a fight for all of us, and the first attempts proved the backup rope to be too tight. This is a problem when using a stretchy slackline like type-18, which means we can feel the tension of the backup as we walk. A weird, difficult-to-calm wobble is often the result. After some adjusting, we all took additional turns. I managed to onsight the line, and Chloe put in good time screaming, "Calm! Solid! Calm! Solid!" the entire way across. Basia was on the brink of crossing the forty-meter mark in highline, so she gave the line many tries. Whichever girls weren't walking sat on the granite edge, basking in the sun. I always imagine highlining in the alps as a cold, uncomfortable experience, and yet here we were, stripped down to our underwear working on our tans. One of the joys of being in an all female team was the ability to unabashedly pee anywhere, any time. A joy usually reserved for men, it was a taste of freedom!

As the sun set on the valley our layers came on, but we also spent a good portion of my camera battery taking silly photos of our asses. We cooked dinner, Basia and I eating a soupy Polish dehydrated pasta and Chloe eating oats.

Across the valley we searched for Thibault's lights, as he was on a multi day ridge climb. We yelled into the night and wondered if our banshee calls were bouncing across the glacier and hitting his bivy. By night the sky was black velvet poked through millions of times to expose the light of the heavens. Wrapped warmly in my Deuter sleeping bag I slept long. I woke once in the night, opened my eyes to the most spectacular sky I've ever seen, and stayed awake a few minutes, taking it in.

The next morning we walked the line a few more times, then I glided across so we could transfer the set up to the sixty-seven meter gap established by Thibault and friends earlier that year. Finding the anchors was tricky, especially as nothing looked level from my side. Eventually I found a several confusing bolts, and set to making a useful anchor that wouldn't expose any of the slackline to sharp rock edges. The anchors were so off level from each other that we doubted if we had found the correct ones. I extended out with a spanset for this purpose. The slackline was just long enough to be grabbed by my line grip, fortunately. We tightened it old school style (as in popular three plus years ago).  The line was neat, it cut straight through the long gap, passing near a lower tower, and landing on a beautiful flat edge. We made a backup for the bolts with cams on both sides. My Aero webbing was just long enough to span the gap, with little excess for tying additional backups.

Then, came the walking. I had to remain focused in order to cross it, but the spectacular view and exposure was motivational. Walking diagonally through the gap caused the exposure to change, the first section was over nothing but a far away sloping glacier, and then as I moved into the corridor it felt safe, protected, and then passing over the tower far below lead my mind to fearful questions: could I hit it if I fell? I pushed through the ever-changing mental dialogue, and crossed it successfully. 

It was early and we decided to go ahead and do the push back to Chamonix that night. We derigged the line quickly, and began the hike back. A few hours later, no later than nine at night, we found ourselves at Chloe's car, tired, satisfied and proud of our timely project, and excited to eat a good hot meal again! We rejoined our friend Thibault and shared our success stories in between his van and our tent.

One of the most relaxing of our missions was repeating a local waterline with Baptiste, a young, local highliner. We hiked about an hour on a beautiful sunny day, expecting rain but lucking out with hot sun. Unfortunately we found upon arrival that many of the hangers were missing for the waterline, and we spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to do the line all naturally. The boulders surrounded the alpine lake were off level or difficult to sling. We set up two lines, a short twenty meter fun line, and eventually an extremely off level seventy meter line, with webbing too short to make it across and therefore a spanset stuck out four meters. On one side the line was easily four meters above the water, which despite the safety of falling in water, is a frightening feeling. The other side was lower, but the line was loose and it was a fight to stay on it. Wind created a huge pulse and it sin waved under our feet, bouncing us off in some cases. The place was beautiful, it was across the valley from the impressive peaks, and they loomed in the distance. The downside was the sheer number of tourists. Despite our little microcosm of slackliners on all other sides of the lake was a constant stream of human bodies, sun hats, khaki pants, trekking poles clicking, and accents from around the globe. We were a spectacle to say the least. At the end of the day the de-rig became quite a mission when we discovered that the boulder we slung had moved and trapped our spanset behind it. We didn't want to give up the spanset, so between four of us yanking on the boulder we managed to remove it, reason to cheer!

The last of our projects is one that was special and has become even more so. We decided to repeat the incredible solo mission of Tancrede Millet, a long time friend and inspiration in the community. He lived nearby Chamonix, and agreed to join us. It was no small alpine mission, though access was easy via a lift to Aiguille du Midi (to have enough time to do it in one day) the rest of the access and retreat involved crampons, ice axes, climbing, and speed. The line itself was beautiful, the altitude being one of the higher lines in the world, over four thousand meters.

Tancrede was in the middle of a liver detox, and was on a strict diet of apple juice. He had a yellow pallor and low energy, however low energy for Tancrede simply meant that he was just above a normal persons stoke. He had two weeks prior become father to a little girl, and he left his girlfriend and newborn for the day to help us repeat his line. Tancrede always had this special smirk and mysteriousness to him; his eyebrows alive with whatever ideas were swirling around in his head. I hadn't seen him in a couple years, and it was with fondness that we met him before dawn at the lift station. We were first in line for the lift, and we stood like mountaineer zombies staring at the dark windows as the lift workers filed in, sitting at the desks waiting until the last possible moment to open. The lights flickered on like in a dream and we were soon standing in the gondola gliding up, up, ears popping as the altitude gained and we soared over the dark forest. The light of dawn began illuminating the horizon, a pink glow that had yet to touch the still sleeping town of Chamonix. We reached the first lift station, then continued on to Aiguille du Midi, the top and final station for Mont Blanc.

I had never been to the top before, and stepping out onto the icy veranda I was perfectly aware of why mountaineers search for summits. We were surrounded by the crisp peaks of the Alps; endless and intangible, blankets of white clouds hovering beneath the summits. We all stopped to take it in. The beginning of our approach was a short down climb off the terrace of the lift station, followed by a rappel. We donned our crampons, walking over icy snow-covered rocks until we reached the base of one side of the highline. Basia and I took the two camalots and slings from Tancrede after receiving a brief description of the "easy" climb we were searching for on the far tower. We hiked around to the backside with one of my twin ropes and two light backpacks containing the necessary gear. I was unsure of the start, and searched for the easiest way up. This appeared to be a dihedral. I moved up the backside of the tower, Tancrede and Chloe far out of view and only Basia staring up at me, hoping I had chosen the right way. I placed my two cams on the way, slung something, but soon found my crack disappearing into a face. Behind me, an endless stream of tourists in shiny crampons and too-right mountaineering pants rappelled awkwardly as a British guide blandly yet firmly told them how to do it. I delicately climbed up onto the face, then back down, and eventually far right to an anchor. I was still an entire pitch from the top, afraid with little protection and unsure of where I should be climbing. I belayed Basia up, and I attempted to go on once she was hanging at the belay. I felt like a fool, scared on a difficult face with no gear, and eventually I was leaning around the tower hollering for a rescue from Tancrede. He quickly arrived, showing me the easy route on a completely different side of the tower. We released Basia, who rapped down to assist Chloe, and Tancrede and I finished climbing the tower on the opposite side, summiting and building the anchors as to avoid losing more daylight. Two hours were lost with me on that rock.
Tancrede gave the line a go first, but it was clear his base jumping and fatherhood had taken much time away from highlining, so he was unsuccessful but still seemed to enjoy catching and standing up on the sixty meter line. By this time the terrace of the lift station was filling with tourists, and our line was in plain view. Our blue skies had disappeared as the fast moving mountain mists glided past, and in the clouds the endless peaks disappeared and reappeared at their own leisure. Chloe gave the line a go, bouncing it and practicing her "Calm! Solid!" mantra. When my turn came, I hoisted myself up to the anchor and took off my multiple jackets and crampons. I was nervous despite knowing the length shouldn't be an issue. Standing up I could feel my muscles exhausted from the week before; the long hiking, heavy packs, altitude. I was aware that time was limited and the amount of fighting would be cut short by our need to catch the last lift down. Somehow, despite all of these pressures, I managed to start taking steps. It was fluid, not easy, but like a river spilling over rocks that stand in it's way. The clouds passed through me, the anchor disappeared and reappeared. It was like an acid trip (though I've none to compare it with). I wasn't aware if I was leaning left or right, I simply adjusted my weight to stay in equilibrium. At some point I was stepping onto the tower, shouting, joyous, feeling so good in the mountains, on this line, it was the feeling of achievement, of purpose. Going back was a similar experience, and with no falls I was back with the girls, feeling their support.

After Basia tried the line, we began the derig. We had limited time to catch the last lift, and once the line was down we divided into two teams, Tancrede leading Chloe out and me leading Basia. They were fast and quickly disappeared, Basia and I were behind two slow climbers. I had never climbed with crampons, so it was a nice way to begin; under pressure and unsure of the way. I climbed up the first rock, attached to Basia by twenty-meters of rope, the rest of it wound around our chests. With backpacks we carefully simul-climbed the easy terrain, with occasional climbing maneuver’s in order to ascend to the lift station. The climbers ahead of us had disappeared, and I followed foot-tracks hoping I was on the correct way. I arrived to Tancrede's face peering down at us, smiling mischievously as he said, "See? You can be a mountain guide!" We rushed through the station, making the last lift down to Chamonix within minutes.

The final repeat project of us three was the forty-meter highline at the top of Brevent. Basia and I hiked while Chloe took the bags. The weather was sunny and beautiful at the start, but according to plan it became shittier the higher we climbed. Once on top, we were layering up as we stood in fog and light rain. Chloe had already begun rigging, and it was a quick installment compared to the previous projects. Despite being short, the fog was so thick that at times only the first few meters of the line were visible. We left it loose and took turns walking, though after one crossing both directions I was satisfied. When the hail fell, we were all cold, wet and ready to go down. Chloe offered to hike down and I happily took up the chance to save my knees some pain and rode the lift back to the valley, sitting in the car eating bread until the girls arrived.

The G4G Chamonix trip wrapped up after Brevent, and I was happy with how we had cooperated as a group. Despite some different rigging preferences in relation to tension (something that can easily be overcome by training all styles of rigging or loosening or tightening a line according to preference) I was confident in the rigging abilities of us three girls, and we communicated well and laughed often. I hope there will be more G4G projects in the future!

Thank you Thibault for being a great climbing partner, your van that kept us dry and warm during the rain and your good humor. Thank you Tancrede, now deceased, for this last wonderful highline mission with you and for hosting Basia and I in your home after Chamonix.

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