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Chamonix: Alpinism Made Easy in the Heart of the French Alps

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Aiguille Du Midi Chamonix France Rock Climbing Alpine
A cable car brings tourists, climbers, and skiers down from the Aiguille du Midi.Julie Ellison

My crampons crunch into old snow softened by the morning sun. It’s November 2012, and my rope team is traversing the glaciated Vallée Blanche in the Mont Blanc Massif of Chamonix, France. The white blanket stretches in every direction, meeting a craggy granite ridgeline to the right. This serrated spine connects Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses, Les Droites, Les Drus, Aiguille du Grépon, and a host of other storied summits. With recorded ascents dating back to 1786, many made during the Golden Age of Alpinism, this terrain is a living museum.

Perfect rock towers, snow-covered ridges, and steep couloirs of néve cover the landscape—it’s an alpinist’s playground. From low-angle snow on Mont Blanc’s Goûter Couloir to the Petit Dru’s 3,000 feet of steep granite, the thousands of routes in this section of the French Alps can be as easy or as hard as you want. Plodding along the slight undulations of this glaciated valley feels like a waste of time when there’s so much vertical terrain to be scaled. Twelve of us arrived the day before, invited on a press trip by a large shoe brand. Most of the other attendees work at shoe-trade and general outdoor publications, and I was the only one interested in alpine climbing, so glacier travel was the most technical activity on the agenda. I’m bored, I think. A frantic desire to run up every peak in sight makes this plodding tour of what is essentially the approach seem dull.

The person in front of me makes a joke, and the others laugh a little too hard, buzzed from the thin air. I watch a trio of Skittles-colored skiers skin past, think about the frozen gravel field they’re sliding on, and realize my horizontal fate might not be so bad.

snow cave mont blanc Chamonix France Rock Climbing Alpine
Skiers and climbers kit up in a snow cave high in the Mont Blanc Massif.Julie Ellison

There are no to-go coffee cups, but everyone here drinks six coffees a day. This thought crosses my mind while I sit outside one of the three cafés that line this section of Quai d’Arve. It’s June 2014, my second trip to Cham, and the pink, purple, and yellow flowers filling planters on the streets and under windows are in full bloom. This cobblestone street runs on top of the river Arve, a cloudy gray vein that cuts through town. On both sides of the water, pastel buildings with slate roofs give way to steep green hillsides and snow-topped peaks. With a milky coffee and a buttery croissant in front of me, I watch climbers, clad in boots and harnesses, pass high-heeled women headed out for a day of shopping. In France, coffee is meant to be enjoyed all day—French press in the morning, espresso at night—as long as you’re sitting.

I finish breakfast and walk to the cable-car station in downtown Cham. Starting from there, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi goes up 2,800 meters (9,186 feet), ending at the Aiguille du Midi, a 12,605-foot granite spire with a cable-car station, restaurant, gift shop, viewing platforms, and a glass skywalk. This station acts as the main entrance point for mountaineers in the region. At 60 Euros (about US $67) for a round-trip ticket, the price is as steep as the terrain, but it turns a half-day slog into a 20-minute ride. In America, you wake up at 1 a.m. and eat gloopy oatmeal by headlamp to summit Colorado’s Petit Grepon, returning to the car at dusk. In Chamonix, you roll out of bed at 7 a.m. to enjoy pastries in the sun, then summit the 11,854-foot Pointe Lachenal, returning to town by midafternoon.

I meet my partners in line, where the oranges, reds, and greens of the climbers’ and skiers’ technical gear contrast with the grays, blacks, and beiges of the tourists’ street clothes. Each time a gondola comes down, 40 people cram in. As we head up, the gondola bounces with each sway of the cable, but we’re packed in so tight I could pass out and still be held upright. Packs sit on the floor balanced between unsteady legs so an errant crampon or ice axe won’t do serious damage.

It’s in these very mountains where the ice axe originated, along with mountaineering. In August 1786, Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard completed the first ascent of Mont Blanc (15,781 feet), the “White Mountain,” via the Montagne de la Côte summit and the Grand Plateau. Balmat, a hunter and crystal collector from Chamonix, reportedly carried two separate tools, an alpenstock (walking stick) and an axe, later merged into the single ice axe.

Another Chamonix resident, Marie Paradis, made the first female ascent of the white mountain in 1808, and 10 years after that, the Aiguille du Midi was conquered. In 1864 and ‘65, English explorer Edward Whymper (along with various other partners) summited Aiguilles d’Argentière, Grandes Jorasses, and Aiguille Verte. These ascents marked the tail end of the Golden Age of Alpinism, a decade-long siege of the Alps that resulted in first ascents of most of the prominent peaks, including the 14,692-foot Matterhorn.

The Midi cable car started operating in 1955, the same year Walter Bonatti took six days to solo the 3,000-foot Bonatti Pillar on the Dru, the legendary granite spire across the Mer de Glace from the Midi. Rated ED+ (extremement difficile, or extremely difficult), the line remained a testpiece until it was destroyed by rockfall 50 years later. The region has one of the Alps’ hardest high-elevation rock routes, a 1,500-foot 5.13d called Voie Petit on the Grand Capucin, which has seen several ascents since the first free ascent by Alexander Huber in 2005. Now, upward of 30,000 climbing parties attempt Mont Blanc every year.

pyramide du tacul Chamonix France Rock Climbing Alpine
Pyramide du Tacul, from the Vallée Blanche. This 11,378-foot spire is known for its moderate rock routes.Julie Ellison

Two hours later and 400 feet up a ridge climb above the Col du Midi, I cinch my rain shell around my face. Forty-mile-an-hour gusts threaten to shove me off the two-foot-wide ridge, and the sideways snow melds with the white at my feet, making it impossible to follow my partner’s footsteps. As the cloudbank descends, I question my partner’s and my logic in selecting this random ridge—I’m pretty sure it’s not an established climb.

When we reach a small snow platform, the low-hanging clouds thin enough to spot a dozen parties on the zigzagging ridge in front of us. OK, so maybe this is an established route, I think as frustration bubbles up—if I saw more than one other party on an alpine route back in the States, I’d turn around. But this is the price you pay for effortless access to big mountains in densely populated Europe. There are no long, hard approaches to determine your spot in line, and no one gets a head start by sleeping at the trailhead. The first cable car leaves at the same time each day—6:30 to 8:10 a.m. depending on the season—for everyone.

Crowds are just one of the downsides of easy access. By removing the approach, you gain a lot of elevation quickly, creating more potential for altitude sickness and related problems. Then there’s the fact that anyone can pay the money, step onto the cable car, and be delivered to the toe of a host of technical, and potentially lethal, peaks in an area known for crevassed glaciers, epic storms, and fast-changing weather. The result is tons of climbers and skiers getting in over their heads. With more than 1,000 rescues per year, Chamonix’s Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne is known as the busiest SAR team in the world. Yosemite Search and Rescue sees 200 to 250 rescue calls annually; Rocky Mountain Rescue in the Front Range of Colorado averages about 200.

In 2014, the year of my second trip to Cham, more than 12 climbers will die in the Mont Blanc range.

I return to Chamonix again in 2016. Climbing iron stairs bolted directly into the rock up to the Aiguille des Grands Montets hut, accessed by the Grands Montets gondola, I marvel at the French commitment to grand feats of transportation engineering in the Alps. This tram leaves from the hamlet of Argentière, just north of Cham, and travels more than 6,600 feet up to Grands Montets peak to access the northern summits of the range, like the Verte, the Dru, and Les Droites. By railway, there’s the Montenvers–Mer de Glace train that climbs almost 3,000 feet from Cham over three miles to the Mer de Glace. By air, the Vallée Blanche Cable Car travels 3.1 miles from the Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner, an 11,358-foot peak on the border between Italy and France. And by road, the ambitious 7.2-mile Tunnel du Mont Blanc burrows through the massif to connect Chamonix to its sister city of Courmayer, Italy.

We reach the door, drop our packs, and head inside the Montets hut. Looking around at the cozy wooden room with a few tables and an old woman puttering around in a tiny kitchen, I decide the huts are my favorite part of human encroachment into the Alps. Refuges are perched on ridgelines and summits all over this cirque. I’ve used these shelters to fuel up mid-climb with candy bars and hot chocolate served in a bowl, or stepped inside for a few minutes of respite from the cold and wind. Some also serve as overnight basecamps so climbers can wake up at the foot of their objective—a real alpine start. I order a beer and a croque monsieur, a ham and cheese sandwich fried in butter, while waiting for the next gondola back to Argentière.

A few hours later in Cham, we sit in a cellar where massive wooden beams arch overhead, and white linen tablecloths are faintly illuminated by gas lamps on the stone walls. I sip red wine while steam rises off a plate of potatoes, bacon, onions, and cheese, a hearty casserole called tartiflette that combines all the staples of the Savoyard diet.

At the head of our huge wooden table, a half wheel of cheese melts underneath a heat lamp for a dish called raclette. The waiter suggests that we keep drinking red wine. Apparently, the wine’s acidity will help our stomachs break down the massive amounts of cheese we plan to consume. The gothic décor—leather saddlery, heavy metal rivets, and fur rugs—already makes it feel like a scene from Game of Thrones, so we might as well enjoy some gluttony.

arete des cosmiques Chamonix France Rock Climbing Alpine
A climber tops out the Arête des Cosmiques at the Midi viewing deck.Julie Ellison

Earlier in the day, we summited the Petite Aiguille Verte (11,522 feet) via the Couloir Chevalier (AD: assez difficile, or quite difficult), swimming through chest-deep snow with a few pitches of ice and mixed climbing. In the mountains of the Haute-Savoie, your caloric intake must match your expenditure, but the objective at dinner is two-sided: refill depleted energy stores and get ahead for the next day. Tomorrow’s goal is Arête des Cosmiques, probably the area’s most classic alpine route, akin to Owen-Spalding on the Grand Teton.

The Cosmiques proves to be quintessential Chamonix: 1,000 vertical feet of snow gullies, low-angle ice, and rocky sections that max out at 5.6. After descending from the Aiguille du Midi to the Refuge des Cosmiques, we pick our way up the line with ice axes and crampons, doing several short pitches and a few rappels. As I lead the final “pitch,” a metal ladder that tops out on a viewing deck at the Midi Station, I realize that the leisurely French style is mandatory on the Cosmiques. Going slower forces you to appreciate everything: the varied movement, the incredible views, the sunny weather, the absurdity of this route existing at all.

As I’ve learned over my three pilgrimages, Chamonix is unique, a town where you can enjoy a five-course meal next to tank top-wearing tourists 10 minutes after finishing a 300-meter alpine climb. Thinking back to that first visit in 2012, I wasn’t actually bored; I just hadn’t adjusted to the relaxed pace of Chamonix’s alpine-style. I’d imported my Yankee mentality of waking up before dawn, charging up the trail, and moving all day to a place where even serious alpine climbs are only a half-day endeavor. It’s all about savoring, not devouring.

American speed-style was unnecessary anyway—even with 15 other parties on the Cosmiques that day, we still made it down in time for a late-afternoon espresso.