Postcard from Chamonix: Totally Casual
Easy access to real mountains is a highlight of Chamonix—just don’t get too relaxed.
All photos by Kelly Cordes
“Hot damn, how cool,” I said, flipping my mullet to the side. “Totally casual day in the mountains? Yeah, I’m in. Rock on.”
The forecast was for marginal weather, so I met Chip at a very civilized hour—quite civilized, in fact (everyone says “quite”). Time for coffee, breakfast and then, by 9 a.m., nearly 10,000 feet higher, we exited the tunnel atop the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique. 12,600-foot elevation. Howling winds. Blowing snow. Uhhh, casual? A sign warned us that we were on our own.
You walk through a little gate and onto a foot-wide, knife-edge snow ridge; one slip and you’re done, save for a partner versed in the Alaska Belay (jumping off the other side of the ridge—and I’m quite certain that, to his credit, Chip has no idea what I’m talking about). No safety net, no guardrail, nothing. An American lawyer’s wet dream.
I walked gingerly. Slowly. Scared. Like I’d never done this before. Crazy how fast thoughts can hit. Oh shit, I’ve lost it. Done. I don’t know how to do this anymore. I’m scared. A lack of familiarity can do things to your mind, and, in turn, your body. I walked scared. I hadn’t worn crampons since the day I broke my leg, a year and a half ago. Soon we walked onto the glacier, just fine, rope still on despite no obvious crevasses—I keep warning myself against complacency, a topic with which I have perhaps too much experience, a place where I’ve sometimes gotten lucky, and other times not.
We headed for an ultra-classic safe-and-easy route, the Arête des Cosmiques. It’s like the alpine-climbing equivalent of a stroll in the park.
Can you really have a stroll in the park in real mountains, and in bad weather? With access like this, you can certainly feel that way. Or fool yourself into thinking that way. I think that’s probably part of the blessing and the curse of Chamonix—such great access is, well, great. But you can’t help but feel casual sometimes when you probably shouldn’t.
OK, cool, I’m feeling good again now. Cruiser. A peek of blue showed through the clouds.
We scrambled up the ridge, simulclimbing, weaving in and out of rock towers and up easy snow and ice—not real ice climbing, just one-tool stuff with lightweight boots—clipping fixed anchors, placing occasional pro, gasping at the exposure, fun, fun, pure fun. Climbers on-route above, another party behind, others cruising across the glacier. Uhhh, safety in numbers? Midway up the short ridge, the wind kicked up. Snow blew sideways. Ice formed in my water bottle.
Hood up, gloves cinched-down. Clouds swirled, then CRAAAACK! Lightning. I felt a slight bit charged, and Chip got fully buzzed. Not buzzed from the cheap wine, but fully charged up. (I, uh, I always knew he had an, uh, electric personality …) Shocking. For a moment I felt like I was on a glaciated mountain in the high alpine. Fear rose—I hate lightning. I don’t like storms, either. You could definitely die here, I thought to myself. And then I rounded a corner, topped-out the ridge and strolled over to a ladder—yes, a steel ladder ends the route—climbed it, clipped a rung for pro along the way, and mantled over the railing. “Off belay, Chip!” I shouted into the wind.
A half hour later we sat in the café at the bottom of the téléphérique station, sipping cappuccinos and eating grilled paninis. Hot damn.
Check out the entire Postcards from Chamonix series: Access, Totally Casual, Wedding Gifts, Sleep Finale. These stories were first published in the summer of 2011.