Chamonix and the Urban Bivy
By Freddie Wilkinson
"Your backpacks are very big, no? Surely you do not require so much equipment for such a grande course classique." I watched the gendarme's eyes move from our packs to our skis, then over Max and I, and back to our packs. The summary inspection was followed with an apathetic shrug, and then a dismissive, "As you wish".
Outside the cafe, plumb raindrops bounced on the Rue De Pacard. We were, of course, in Chamonix: crown jewel of the French Alps, birthplace of alpine climbing, the world headquarters for all things extreme. One might confuse the scene — the arrogant locals, the wet cobblestone streets crowded with patisseries, cafés and lingerie shops — with any ordinary European city in March. But the fact that a traffic cop was dissing our climbing style tells you that Chamonix is anything but ordinary.
People have lived in these mountains since the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. The wooded, pacific valley we were in with its elevation a modest 4,000 feet, once provided an ideal environment for pastoral and agrarian pursuits. I say once because today the Chamonix valley is a bustling urban landscape that, according to one source, houses more than 100,000 people during peak vacation season. Imagine taking a town the size of Manchester, New Hampshire, or Charleston, South Carolina, and dropping it smack dab in the middle of the Central Alaska Range or the Khumbu Himal. Chamonix boasts a network of chairlifts, telepheriques, and trains that whisk the alpine commuter thousands of feet into serious mountain terrain, and deliver him or her safely down to the town’s lively bar scene in time for dinner. This unrivaled accessibility, combined with the limitless shopping and partying available in town, makes Chamonix the number-one mountain town in the world.
Unfortunately, Max and I were stymied by this same modern engineering. The lift was closed. We had hoped to ride up the Aiguille Du Midi, a 9,000-foot miracle of engineering to access the steep ice and mixed climbs of the Mount Blanc massif. In virtually any other place in the world, this type of terrain would require a multi-day, expeditionary approach. In Cham, however, it's a half-hour cable-car ride.
But the weather was crap, the lift was closed, and we had nothing better to do than loaf around town and wait for circumstances to improve. As we were building up a good caffeine buzz, Max noticed an acquaintance named Eric, who worked at the Gendarmerie. This is not to say that Eric spends his days writing tickets or tracking down robbers. He is part of a professional police mountain unit specializing in mountaineering. Such groups were originally created during World War Two, when the high-alpine borders needed to be defended from the Axis powers. These days, war is a distant possibility, but the French take it as a matter of national pride. So Eric's job is to climb, train with various other guide and rescue organizations, and generally project the perceived French superiority in all matters alpine. The bastard.
I was climbing with Max Turgeon, a young French Canadian alpinist (even younger then me!) who’s recently been downing hard alpine routes like a serving of Mamma’s meatloaf. Once the guy bites into something, he doesn’t stop until his plate is empty. This makes Max the ideal partner for yours truly, since I’m a bit lazy and prefer to climb with people better then me. It means I have to do less work — I recommend trying it sometime. Anyways, Max and I had already experienced a few snafus with the local public transportation: after an evening of revelry in town, we found ourselves stranded five miles from the chalet we were staying in (courtesy of Max’s girlfriend, Zoe) in the adjacent village of Argentiere. The trains had stopped. The buses had stopped. And, of course, no one would stop to pick us up. Finally we called a taxi, only to discover that it would be a 30 euro fare for the five-minute drive, a rate far greater then even New York. We kindly suggested the French cabbie could drive to hell instead.
With a nonchalant shrug, Max started to walk home. It was 1:30 in the morning; I was tired, a little drunk, and not psyched to finish the evening with an hour and half journey up the moonlit Cham Valley a pied. Normally, in these sorts of situations, I resort to a tried-and-true solution I’ve relied on most of my life: throw a temper tantrum. But I knew that Max, my Quebecois ropegun, would think I was a total pud-knocker and probably refuse to go climbing with me. So I grumbled and bitched, but started walking. An hour later, a kind soul took pity on us and drove us the final two kilometers through winding avalanche tunnels to our chalet in the shadow of the Dru.
After a quick, half-hour approach, Max and I were racking up below Scotch. Just as I had hoped, Max did a marvelous job leading through the crux slot, and after five rope-stretcher pitches, we reached the small ridge where the route ends and began rapping back to our packs. A sea of clouds had slowly risen over Italy, and by the time we were back at our skis, the glacier was socked in. The original plan had called for us to have a fun late-afternoon ski down the Valley Blanche, catch the last train ride from Montenvers to Chamonix, and be drinking beer and eating french fries (In France, they actually try to call them pomme frites, but they’re still French fries in my book) by seven. But the plan was about to change.
We blindly charged into the whiteout, and for a brief while I was convinced we were making excellent progress, until I noticed that my skis were actually pointed slightly uphill and I was barely moving at all. That’s the problem with whiteouts — you become so disoriented its hard to tell whether you are going up or down, or even moving at all. I hadn’t been down the Valley Blanche for five years, and Max had never done the descent. I stopped and called a conference. With that same nonchalant shrug, Max agreed to ski back up to the Aiguille du Midi top station. We both knew the lift had long since closed, and there wouldn’t be any French fries waiting for us.
Alpine bivy, cham style.
A couple hours later, we burst back into the tunnel system blasted out of the summit block of the Midi. We were knackered from the return hike at 13,000 feet (one thing Chamonix does not do is provide easy acclimatization). Although the lift was closed, we stumbled onto two caretakers enjoying a bottle of wine in a cozy apartment suite. “Follow me,” one of them said. My spirits rose — surely there was some extra bunk space for the two of us. We were led through more darkened tunnels, until at last we reached a door. “And here you are….”
I had to laugh: we were going to spend the next 10 hours, until the sun rose and the lift started up again, sleeping in the shitter. Not that we could complain. Only a couple hundred meters away was the Cosmique Hut, offering warm bunks and hot meals, at the prohibitively exorbitant price of 60 euros a night. At least the bathroom was heated. Max and I curled up for an uncomfortable alpine bivy. Only in Chamonix….