Sunday, 26 January 2014

Chamonix adventures

I think Chamonix is a bit like Marmite…you either love it or hate it, or it would certainly seem that way from most people’s initial reaction when you tell them you’re spending time there!

Personally, I’m totally unashamed to say I love Chamonix (and Marmite incidentally…wonder if there’s a correlation there?!)…yes it’s expensive, full of pretentious people with too much money, waltzing around in Norrona onesies (or other kit that they’ve obviously gone into a shop and asked for the best and most expensive kit available), you are more likely to hear Russian, or English, spoken than you are French in Chamonix town centre, and it’s a brutal game of every man or woman for him/herself in the lift queues each morning…but despite all this, there is something undeniably unique and special that you can’t take away from the place. I hear loads of people, friends and others, talking about how they hate Chamonix and all those things about it (and more) that I mentioned above…in some ways it’s almost like it’s become “cool” to say you “hate” Chamonix, especially if you’ve been going there for years and seen it change …” I mean it’s like so busy and full of tourists, you know?” ….But I can’t agree with them…I absolutely love the place, and to be honest, if everyone really hated it that much, then why do they keep coming back?! And after all, aren’t we all tourists unless it’s somewhere we call our permanent home?!

Lenticular clouds showing high winds above the Mont Blanc Massif from Chamonix centre
Every time I drive up the Chamonix valley, I find it hard to keep my eyes on the road. Towering above you on either side are incredibly beautiful, awe-inspiring mountains and glaciers. You can pick out the more familiar and recognisable ones, the ones you’ve climbed before, the ones you dream of climbing, the ones whose epic first ascents are legendary. Since the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 by local alpinists Dr Joseph Vallot and Jacques Balmat, there have been hundreds of years of history of mountaineering and adventures on these peaks, and when you are surrounded by all those stories, legends and history, it’s hard not to feel inspired, motivated, excited, and maybe a little bit intimidated. It’s a pretty magical place.

Big mountain skiing amongst the crevasses of the Mer de Glace
There is no denying, whether you love, or hate it, that Chamonix is quite simply an amazing place for off-piste skiing and mountaineering. Whilst many other Alpine resorts may have more pisted area and boast more runs, few can compete with the amount and variety of easily accessible off-piste terrain. From mellow angled glacier runs, to steep narrow couloirs, ski tours over classic cols and up to famous peaks, and even straight-off-the-lift off-piste, Chamonix has them all, and as a skier and mountaineer, it’s hard to resist that allure when choosing a place to visit.
Skinning up from the Vallee Blanche towards Italy

With some mountaineering knowledge, experience, and equipment, you can soon escape the crowds of Chamonix, and find yourself with deep, untracked powder, and few people around. Which is exactly where a group of us found ourselves last week. Despite a huge queue for the first lift up to the Aiguille du Midi, it seemed at least half the people on it were purely sightseeing, and most of the rest were in guided groups, 5 or 6 roped together, that we were luckily able to start the plod down the snow arête ahead of.

Lucy setting off down the snow arete from the Aiguille du Midi
There had been a good 30 cm of fresh snow at Les Houches, at about 1500m the previous day, so here at 3800m it was going to be deep. We decided to head down via the Grand Envers route, and once off the top and out of the wind that had been blowing spindrift around and making visibility difficult, we struck gold. Several pitches of at times waist deep snow, saw me whooping my way down, with a massive grin on my face, aided by the fact that I’d chosen to hire some fatter skiers with a rocker (non-tech speak= easier to float on or near the top of deep snow and manoeuvre than my normal skis). I couldn’t believe the difference…..every turn felt effortless, I was floating and gliding my way down through some of the deepest snow I’d skied in, feeling fast, in control, and like I was starring in some kind of awesome skiing diva movie!!

Loving the fat skis!
(Well, there may have been one occasion when I got a little over excited and bounced myself into a forward somersault…but I was just doing a little avalanche control, checking the snowpack out and all that….!) 

Stuck in the deep stuff!
I felt relaxed, and was enjoying the deep stuff way more than normal, instead of feeling like it was all very hard work…needless to say, a set of fat powder skis have been added to the “To Buy” list for some point when I can afford them!
Slightly scary snow bridge crossing with big crevasses either side! (You can't see my concentrating face!)
The only thing that did feel hard was breathing….Now I suppose the views up on the Vallee Blanche are pretty breath taking, and doing anything physical above 3000m tends to feel a little bit harder than down at the altitudes us Brits are mostly used to, but I’d been up there quite a bit since arriving in Chamonix, and today felt very different. I knew I had the start of a cold, but for me that’s normally a couple of days of a bit of a sore throat and a sniffle, and as hard as I tried to ignore it, this was a bit more than that. My breathing was shallow and fast, and I couldn’t slow it down or take a deeper breath as it was really painful. Climbing the steps up to the train at Montenvers felt harder than ever, I was literally gasping for breath, and being overtaken by overweight tourists on their way back up from visiting the ice caves on the Mer de Glace! Anyway, I chose to ignore it, and told myself to man-up, the snow was too good to not go up a second time! 

Deteriorating visibility up high
Arriving at the top again, conditions had deteriorated quite a bit, and by the time we’d stowed skis on packs, put crampons on, and walked down the arête, there was absolutely zero visibility. A couple of guided groups had turned around and were making their way back up to get the lift down, and although the group of 6 of us were all competent in the skiing and route-finding to get down, a heavily crevassed glacier is not really somewhere you want to be when you can barely see a few metres in front of you. So we started the slow plod back up to the lift station. It was here that I knew something was wrong. Someone seemed to have replaced my normally reasonable volume lungs, with those of a baby sparrow’s. I could literally drag myself slowly up 3 steps and then have to stop for a minute to try and get some kind of breath back. My chest was burning with the effort of getting air in and out, and my body felt completely drained, like it wasn’t getting any oxygen to any of my muscles. I was feeling a bit lightheaded, and terrified of trying to go any faster to keep up with the others, in case I felt more dizzy and tripped or fell (a narrow snow arête with several thousand metres of freefall down to Chamonix is not really a good place to trip). I felt like I was on Everest with the effort each step was taking, not at less than half the altitude on the Aiguille du Midi!! Anyone who’s gone up too high, too fast in the mountains could easily say that what I was feeling was just the effects of altitude. But having felt those before, and being pretty well acclimatised from a month in the mountains, I knew it wasn’t…

When I got down that evening I literally collapsed into bed and slept for 16 hours, waking only to cough a painful deep, chesty cough that as much as I tried to ignore it, I knew was a chest infection.
A trip to the Dr’s the following morning confirmed what I already knew from the horrible hacking cough, the aching limbs, swollen glands, and generally feeling absolutely terrible L Along with the  antibiotics came the scary word ‘Pneumonia’, a referral for a chest x-ray and blood tests given my sky high temperature and low blood oxygen saturation level, and a stern telling off from the Dr for going up to altitude when I kind of knew something wasn’t right… but it was a powder day I’m glad I didn’t miss…;)

Ben and I on a bluebird day trip up to find fresh tracks :)

Grands Montets runs in poor visibility!
A week on and the drugs are kicking in, I don’t feel unwell anymore, I can breathe a bit more normally which I guess is always a good sign (reckon I’m at about kitten size lungs, which is obviously an improvement on the sparrow’s, but hoping I get mine back soon!), I’m sounding less like an 80 a day smoker with each passing day, and I’ve been back out on the skis and climbing too. Nothing too strenuous at too high an altitude, but it’s good to feel psyched again. It’s been snowing a bit this week in Chamonix, so there’s been some great days out with friends finding the best snow…Vallee Blanche runs and skinning up towards Italy with Ben and Leanne, laps in terrible visibility off the Grands Montets with Ben, Nick, Jim and Leanne, climbing fat hero-ice in Cogne with Jim and Ian, and endless laps on great snow (and rewarded with tasty cakes!) at Les Houches with Anest. I even ventured out on my first ski de fond (Cross country skiing) experience today!
Ian climbing up to the belay in Cogne

Jim leading up the main pitch of E' Tutto Relativo

Skiing at Les Houches with Anest

First ski de fond experience...think Bambi on ice!

Crazy skinny skis!

Made it around the red circuit with Leanne
I can't believe I'm down to my last week here in Chamonix before I head back for a quick turnaround and the start of the next adventure....time indeed flies when you are having fun!

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