Monday, June 11, 2012

Alpinism course in Chamonix.

The crew - Eric (our guide) standing tall, and the rest of the Frenchies. :)
It is a no brainer that ignoring alpinism when living in the midst of the alps would be sinful.  I have signed up to one of the many local mountain clubs as recommended by my friend, and almost thought that I would not make any use of my membership -- until I got an email about the alpinism course for beginners in Chamonix.  It couldn't get more perfect than this, I thought.  So I signed up with great enthusiasm and then the search for all the equipment began... I borrowed most of the basics (crampons, shoes and ice axe) from friends and purchased a few other little things that were on my list.  Since this was all in French, it took me a while to decode some of the items.  Using google translate is not always the way to go.  For example "sac a viande" is literally a meat bag, but in reality it means a sleeping bag liner.  I guess it does contain meat once you crawl in it at night, but it's not very obvious to a foreigner :).  And then all the French emails began.  I was the only english-speaking person on this trip, so it was a bit worrying that I will misunderstand something important and show up unprepared.  Luckily, Aurelie was kind enough to help me out and she became my little buddy for the rest of the trip.

The trip was to be three days long and our departure was on Saturday at 5AM roughly 25 min by bike from our place.  Since Jakub left the night before with the kids to go camping, I was left with my beaten up neon orange mountain bike to support me all the way to our meeting point.  The morning didn't start that well.  I woke up not feeling very refreshed and so I began with putting on my 60L + 20L backpacks on my back.  The next step was to get into my borrowed mountaineering shoes  (about 3 sizes larger than my feet), but then I realized that it was pouring rain and I could not imagine myself biking with these huge clunky boots on, with 80L heavy pack on and slippery road in the dark ahead of I tied the shoes to my bag....I got on the bike... the chain fell off...there was some cursing....frustration.....chain back on, and finally heading to the right place while getting just a wee bit drenched.   Then came the introductions and French greetings with kisses on cheeks  - I never know who to kiss and how many times, and on which side to start :))  I understood bits and pieces of conversation and then I hopped in a car with the girls and dozed off for the ride there.  Oh yes, and I forgot my camera, so the trip photos are all a collection from the others.

Doin' it with the crampons and the ax baby!  Mer de Glace, Chamonix.
When we got to Chamonix it was practically raining cats and dogs so we went to check out the train schedule to Montevers, which was close to the glacier where we wanted to do our training.  However, the trains were not running for the next three days due to gale winds that knocked over many trees, which needed to be cleaned up.   Perfect! So the great start to the day continued... As we were in no rush, we decided to get some pastries at the local boulangerie, checked into our cottage in Chamonix, and then puzzled over the map while sipping on hot tea.  Plan B was to just hike up to the glacier "mer de glace".  And surprisingly, it all turned out just awesome.  It stopped raining, and by the time we were hiking for 30 mins, it was hot enough that we were all drenched in sweat.   When we reached the valley and finally saw the glacier, we heard a loud rumble, sort-of like a thunderstorm.  This was a rock avalanche/slide on the opposite side of the valley which had very steep slopes full of unstable rubble.  For the rest of the hike to the glacier, we saw at least 15 more such rock falls. A little reminder that nature is unpredictable and more powerful than us puny humans.  When we approached the glacier, Eric told us how it is always in motion and then I noticed all the boulders above us almost teetering off the edge and thought to myself what the probability was that they will start sliding down.  Of course we got some good pointers - "watch the boulder until the last minute, and then jump to the side" - sounds great in theory, but in practice, I wasn't too sure about that...But we somehow made our way up the glacier safely and then found the perfect spot to practice our crampon and ice axe use on a slightly sloped surface.  We also learned how to insert ice screws, make the Abalakov anchor and ice bollard.

Aurelie, my alpine buddy.

Wearing Eric's sunglasses - a fashion statement!

Maybe this is a good time to introduce Eric, our guide.  He is 55+ years old and mountains are second nature to him.  He hikes up mountains without breaking a sweat or being out of breath.  He is super nice, friendly and chatty.  He likes his old fashioned ways (including techniques that I'd think were probably used about 20 years ago) and he dresses that way too.  All his clothes are old school and he has a backpack that has seen many winters go by - I think it is holding together by one thread :).  Eric is not keen on modern day gadgets like a belay device or goretex - instead he happily uses his backpack for belaying (if you can call it that anymore) and carries around a nice large umbrella for the rain (also works like a walking stick).  For the past few years he has been devoting his time to leading all types of courses for groups of all ages ranging from climbing to alpinism.  Overall, I was very happy to have him as a guide but at some moments I was wondering if some of the stuff he taught us will be sufficient - but if they worked 20 yrs ago, why would they work now...right? ;D

Day two consisted of stopping while sliding in the snow, pretending it was the glacier, using an ice axe.  Also, we learned how to make different types of snow anchors.  The most scary one was the "piolet ejectable" or the ejectable axe, which consists of making the typical T-slot ice axe anchor, except that you don't bury the axe with snow, and you attach an extra piece of string to the axe so you can later pull it out of the snow and make it fly in the air...I guess lots of the stuff we learned involves just pure physics, I had no idea that you could just pack a jacket sleeve with snow and use it as an anchor once buried under the snow - pretty cool stuff.  Finally, at the end of the day, we walked around in pairs on rope and practiced securing our partner who would fall down intentionally.  I managed to burn a hole through my black diamond back pack with the rope while securing someone...

Our last day was in part applying some of the previously learnt techniques in practice.  We essentially hiked up a "couloir" (steep gully) that was covered in snow.  We did this roped up in pairs wearing crampons and using axes.  The slope was steep enough that one could have a decent fall/slide before stopping, so caution was definitely in place, and we also got to try out the ejectable axe T-slot anchor on our descent -- you can imagine the excitement among the group when we were subjected to this.  Everyone was thinking the same thing - this is not going to work! But it did.  And we all made it safely back down even though it was pretty challenging for all of us.

On our way up...looking pretty darn serious here..

Securing Aurelie.
Picnique of course.
Finished and tired.
Happy to be alive :))


  1. Wow! Petra. Totally Q LLLLLLLL!

  2. The experience you shared in this blog is totally helpful for those who love climbing. Good choice since Chamonix has always been a preferred place for adventure seekers.