It’s Sunday morning, and my flight back to Salt Lake City, and then on to Alaska leaves Tuesday. The weather is looking awesome. Conditions are great all over the Alps. Big north faces are fat. I feels like I don’t have much time to spare to actually go climb any north face, much less the north face of the Droites.
The north face of the Droites, located on the Argentiere Basin in Chamonix, France, is a 1000m long ice and mixed route that tops out at a notch right below this 4001meter peak. It’s described as very austere and cold and requiring outstanding training. Growing up in the Alps and having climbed the classic great north faces -Eiger, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Piz Badile – the Droites was really the last one I was looking forward to climbing. I was however not alone with this desire.
We arrived at the top of the Grands Montets cable car to find 20 other climbers ready to spend the night on the drafty hallways’ cold damp concrete floor. He looked at other people’s gear, tried to catch parts of their conversations to figure out where each one was going. Word on the mountain was that a lot of people were camping at the base of the Ginat to get a head start and 8 of us from the cable car were going on the Ginat. We decided on a 2am start.
With our skinny short heavy skis, we tried to ski in the dark with our mountain climbing boot, but conditions on the traverse to the base were pretty icy and walking seemed like a faster solution.
Already, we were regretting having brought them along with us. Nearing the base, we saw that three parties were already on the wall and more parties were coming up from the glacier and from the cable car. Although this is an ice climb – 1000m of it – no one thought twice about the ice climbing rule: never climb below another another party for fear of getting hammered by ice.
all went along, trying to be courteous with each other, climbing over each others ropes, clipping into each other’s gear. The real Chamonix experience…
the face suddenly no longer felt cold or austere for that matter. We simul-climbed most of the way to the head wall and pitched out the upper section to the notch. Conditions on the mountain were outstanding. The climb had been done so much that it was all hooked out and the ice wasn’t so brittle, which helped with moving faster.
Once at the notch, we did 10-15 rappels down the couloir to the glacier below. This is when the crux of the climb really started. We strapped our little skinny skis on and started down the 2500m left to Chamonix. The snow however was isothermic with a slight refreeze on top (which didn’t hold our weight), which made turning impossible. So, we resorted to doing super long traverses with kickturns at each end. Brutal. We must have done over a thousand of them! or so it felt. We laughed and cried the whole way. I was desperately hoping that once we’d hit the Mer de Glace, things would get smoother.
But no! we hit refrozen deep ski tracks, which made even snowplowing impossible. I push on, while Adam opted for walking, skis in hand and we were going just as fast the one as the other! Grrrr. As we kept going, the snow softened a bit. It was almost enjoyable. When suddenly, Adam decided to cross what he thought was ice, but really was a deep puddle of water! I mean, could anything go worse! A week earlier, we had skied down all the way to Chamonix and as we reached the “Buvette” to start going down the trail to Chamonix, we realized it had all melted out! Haaaaahaaaa! With endless frustration, we put our skis on our packs for the last time, switched our brain on off to stop feeling the pain, and sucked it up, walking all the way down to Chamonix.
We arrived in the late hours of the night/ wee hour of the morning and went straight to bed. A few hours of sleep and I had to get up to pack and catch my flight from Geneva. This was ending a crazy month for me: flying back from Nepal after the Khumbu Climbing School, taking the Level III AIARE course in Silverton, CO, driving back to SLC, down to Vegas for the Red Rocks Rdv (teaching clinics during the day and doing a legal translation at night), dribing to SLC, flying to Switzerland and visiting people/skiing as much as possible. I was on such a go-go-go mode that I failed to see the extreme fatigue symptoms. They all came crashing down on me that last day. The day of my flight. By noon, I could no longer stand up and was suffering from intense pain in my stomach. The doctor diagnosed me with gallbladder issues. As a result, my had to cancel both my flight to SLC and further on to Alaska.
I got to do all the things I love and wanted to do, but sometimes, slowing down is the only way to keep going. With these issues, I was forced to rest and be in bed for the first time in ages. it felt really good and made me ready to deal with what was coming up: my AMGA advanced ski course in Valdez, Alaska…. to be followed on my next blog!