Chamonix is famous for it’s long off-piste runs and ski touring off the lifts. Runs like the Vallée Blanche or the Breche Puiseux ski tour from the Aiguille du midi are world famous Chamonix ski touring outings. This year is a little different as it’s no longer possible to roll out of bed, stroll over to the Aiguille du Midi station and magically arrive at 3800 metres. Yes, the lifts are all closed and the mountains are again wild and inaccessible. This means no rushed powder frenzy, no queues, no lack of parking, no expensive lift pass and best of all no lack of fresh tracks! Of course this is not great for the local economy but it does show the Mont Blanc area in a new, more natural state which is quite cool.
Small mountains can be fun mountains!
The Aiguille du Midi would be around 3000 metres of height gain as a ski tour and Mont Blanc almost 4000 metres. This is not something you do often unless you’re an ultra marathon type. Luckily there are many lower mountains with great ski touring and with all the bad weather and wind in the early winter the conditions were perfect lower down. We were lucky to have consistent low temperatures with snow at low altitudes allowing us to ski the alpine foothills through fields and villages.
Ski areas can be perfect touring areas
Early season snowpacks are generally to be treated with some caution and the normally classic off-piste runs of Le Tour, Grands Montets, Brevent and Flegere are easier to manage from an avalanche perspective than some of the more remote areas. They remained pretty untracked powder fields if you were willing to skin for a few hours.
“Leave the roads; take the trails”
Would we do it all again?
I guess we’ll be happy when things go back to normal but for the moment we can enjoy nature in the quiet, wild mountains. Places where the Ibex, Chamois and other alpine animals are clearly much more active in open spaces and seem to enjoy the break from the human masses. It’s worth wondering if we’d build these lift systems if we were to start again, or if some areas should be left in their natural state. Couldn’t we all do ski touring and nordic skiing? It’s a great stress-free day and great for your health. Just saying….
https://alpineenergyguiding.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/DSC04818-copy.jpeg-copy.jpg5231000AndrewLanhamhttps://alpineenergyguiding.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/cropped-AlpineEnergy-logo-1.pngAndrewLanham2021-02-05 11:26:252021-02-05 11:36:52Chamonix Ski Touring without lifts…
Alpine panoramas with clouds far below and an aesthetic route stretching out ahead of you with only wind and gravity holding you back. But how to find one’s self in the perfect adventure balancing risk and reward, challenge and preparation, ambition and experience…
What do I enjoy?
Be honest with yourself in planning your mountaineering objectives. So often I’ve seen and experienced rope teams with different visions of what is enjoyable. Do you climb for getting things done or to share time with a good friend? These are two important distinctions that can cause a lot of misunderstandings and conflict in rope teams. Some alpinists are very driven and result focused while others are totally happy just getting into the mountains, so long as a good time is had along the way.
Communicate with your partner or guide about your goals. Too often things are assumed and no one ends up happy. Implementing the idea of “win win or no deal” is a good policy here! If it’s going to end in tears don’t get involved regardless of how much you want to get out there.
The ascent of any route begins in dreams at least the autumn before…
Adaptation & Awareness
Are you able to be open to your environment and absorb the signals that the mountains and partners are sending you? It’s often not difficult to interpret problems like when you or your partner are not well, timings have been affected for whatever collection of possible reasons, for example: weather, conditions, warming, crowding or hundreds of other possible signs. What is difficult is being aware enough to observe the signs and communicate your possibly unpopular observations.
Noticing the signs and understanding that plans need to be adapted relate to not not being stressed out, over excited, overly focused, fiddling with gear, overly chilled out or overly attached to your objectives.
Try to be aware of your ability to adapt and build your human weaknesses into you plans. For example: you know you have a tendency to be over excited and focused when taking on alpine objectives. You’ve made your Mountaineering plans for the weekend, checked the weather, gained info on conditions and heard that there could be rockfall at a certain point if you arrive there too late in the day. Communicate a plan to your partner with very specific decision points where you absolutely must stop and discuss timing, whether to continue, do an alternative route, make a new decision point or turn around. Set an alarm on your phone as a reminder if you know you’ll forget.
Fitness in mountaineering is generally long endurance mixed with short bursts of high steps or climbing. Acclimatisation is just as important, if you’re fit, altitude will hit you just as hard as an unfit person. Leave enough time to acclimatise. Three or four nights above 2700m will generally acclimatise people enough for most alpine peaks. More is always better and the more you do the better you’ll feel. You can read more about training for mountaineering in the city here.
Rock Climbing is a great skill base for alpine climbing but there are problems with being a rock climber in an alpine environment; over confidence being the primary one. Alpine cliffs may not appear to be very difficult to the eyes of a good rock climber. The only issue is that they are often loose, unprotected and bigger than expected. On classic climbs, climbing straight over hard cliffs is generally an error in route finding and will cause you to loose time. Also an indoor or sport climbing style relies on the holds not breaking off, when mountaineering, falling off may be catastrophic so trusting holds too much must be avoided.
Hiking & Skiing
Hiking and Skiing is also a great base for Mountaineering as you’ll have a good idea of how to keep going all day, look after yourself in tough environments and navigate in the mountains. The limitations would be the lack of technical ability in climbing, scrambling and route finding. I often find that people with a hiking background will carry too much stuff when they start Mountaineering. You need to strip your kit down to the minimum necessary items and they must all be as light as possible! No more enamel cups and thermometres hanging off you backpack!
Experience is the biggest factor in keeping you safe in the mountains. From understanding and being aware of dangers to looking after yourself and managing your energy to route finding to understanding weather and conditions; experience is everything. However experience can also trick one into a false sense of security. The brain can think that it’s seen something similar before and because nothing bad happened in previous experiences, the current experience must be safe… Unfortunately a single human’s experience cannot be great enough to have seen all possible dangers and compute them rationally. Therefore we need to also rely on the experiences of others and data that has been collected, this is especially true with avalanches.
So what to do when you lack experience? Start really small and learn all the basic skills of equipment management, rope skills, movement, fitness, mountain weather and conditions. Then take on easy routes, gain as much information as you can. Consult the local mountain guides and look up all the information you can find, just don’t take all sources as fact. As you get better and more confident you can take on bigger objectives.
Sure Thing or Adventure
A crowded classic like the famous Arete des Cosmiques can seem like a good place to start as it’s easy to find the way by following the polished, scratched rock. There are plenty of good topo’s and information but on a busy summer day you’ll have queues of disgruntled people climbing over and around you if you’re not quick. It can be pretty stressful when you’re already just trying to survive the route. Often the biggest danger on any mountain is the other people. Rockfall in the route is most often caused by other rope teams, getting stuck behind a slower team can expose you to storms and nightfall, the stress of others is sometimes very distracting and at worst a falling rope team can floss you off the mountain which does sometimes happen.
The obscure adventure can be a great time but with all the disadvantages that were advantages on the crowded classic. There may be little information, timings and dangers may be relatively unknown. Obscure adventures in the Alps often involve a big approach and often there is a reason routes are left to fall into obscurity. They must be approached with an open mind and multiple attempts may be needed to figure out what it’s all about and what tactics will be required.
Choosing your objectives in the mountains and with who you share your adventures is a personal choice and no one can really tell you how to do it. However, working full time as a guide in the Alps, every year I witness many rope teams split in their motivations and visions. Teams that take on routes they are not at all prepared for and really risk and sometimes lose their lives on what was supposed to be a fun experience is all too common. The mountains are as inspiring and beautiful as they are dangerous so choose your actions carefully, be humble and have fun!
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Chamonix has such a reputation and history for alpine mountaineering and climbing. Is this reputation founded on something real or is it just hype because it’s at the foot of Mont Blanc and close to Geneva airport…? Well here are a few reasons why climbing in Chamonix is pretty good.
The cable cars in Chamonix take you up to wild locations which would require many hours of hiking without them. The number and variety of climbs accessible with short approaches is pretty much as good as it gets. Thanks to the short approaches, you get to spend a lot more time climbing and improving your alpinism and less time hiking. The Aiguille du Midi takes you to 3842m with many objectives, Brevent, Flegere, Grand Montets, Montenvers and Le Tour all access interesting and different areas.
The views in the Mont Blanc range are wild and spectacular and sometimes a bit frightening. You’re often surrounded by towers of vertical granite, seracs and glaciers. On the Aiguille Rouges side of the range the view over Europe’s highest peak with green alpine meadows is majestic. The routes like l’Index, Cocher – Cochon, Aiguille de Crochues traverse or the Chapelle de la Gliere are some of the best panoramic viewpoints.
The quality of the technical climbing in Chamonix is some of the best anywhere. The high mountains are golden granite with aesthetic ridges, faces and corners with cracks that allow protection and good climbing. The Aiguille du Midi, Envers des Aiguilles, Pointe Lachenal, Pyramid du Tacul, Pointe Adolphe Rey, Grand Capucin, Argentiere Glacier and Orny are all world class climbing venues to name a few.
The lower mountains are Gneiss which isn’t as perfect as the granite but has many great intermediate level routes. Les Perrons, Vallorcine, Les Cheserys, Flegere and Brevent are all super Gneiss venues.
A bit further down the valley below Chamonix, there are many limestone peaks offering a different experience and many quality climbs in remote locations. The Pointe Percée, Croix de Fer and Col de la Colombiere are all super spots for multi-pitch limestone climbing.
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Living in the mountains, I’ve failed to appreciate the practical reality for people living busy lives in the city. Training for the mountain by actual skiing or climbing is obviously not an option.
Copenhagen is where I found myself this autumn for 6 weeks. It’s flat, cold, rainy and grey in November. Needing to train for my winter guiding season of skiing, touring and alpinism, I too experienced the challenges most city-dwellers face in preparing for the mountains.
Climbing is not a battle with the elements, nor against the law of gravity. It’s a battle against oneself. “Walter Bonatti”
Motivation is probably the biggest stumbling block. The solution is to have a goal. Something that will get you out running in the rain, sucking wind on some dark stairs, embracing the suffering. Without anything to aim for its hard to get out and push yourself. Excuses are plentiful and valid; work was tough, you’re tired, the weather sucks, being social is important, and you did have a good training day last week so you can slack off a bit now, etc… The answer is to commit to something that scares you sufficiently to prioritise your preparations. It could be a Haute Route ski tour, a 4000m summit or a skiing trip with friends that love long, hard days on the slopes.
Activities that you enjoy or at least don’t hate are the best. Have fun! Find some friends to join you and or join a club / class. Choose maybe two things and be realistic about what you’ll actually do. The mountains involve a lot of uphill and require general cardiovascular fitness but also leg power and athleticism.
Guiding, I see people that are good athletes (eg. gymnasts) that don’t have good long cardio and can’t keep walking for 8 hours. I also see people that run multiple marathons that lack the leg power, balance and core strength for high steps, scrambling and changes of pace on the Matterhorn for example. That is why one needs both athleticism and cardiovascular fitness for mountaineering, ski touring and skiing.
When away from the mountains I choose the climbing gym combined with some weights and bodyweight exercises 2-3 days per week for strength and athleticism. For cardio, I do running and interval training on stairs 2-3 days per week. Sometimes both on the same day.
Activity options could include:
cross training (cross-fit) + running
gymnastics + cycling
squash + treadmill and stairmaster
Consistency is much more important than intensity! The body adapts slowly and if you make training a fun habit rather than a chore then it will pay off. If you set your goals too high for each training session, you simply won’t do them because it seems too much at the end of a long day. Also if you break down your body too much, your recovery will be slow and you’ll quickly loose motivation. Go for a 30 mins run rather than doing nothing at all even if it seems trivial, the consistency will keep you motivated and remind your body to adapt.
Be realistic about the size of the mountains you will be climbing or skiing and the length of time you’ll need to be active. Often ski tours or alpine climbing days can involve 1500m of up-hill and down on rough terrain with a backpack at altitude for multiple days. Running a half marathon on the flat ground at sea level doesn’t necessarily translate to climbing the Dufourspitze or ski touring the Haute Route for example. In training search out rough terrain, sand, hills, stairs etc.
Often days in the mountains will be 6 to 12 hours so from time to time it can be good to do some long endurance sessions to see if your body is prepared for extended efforts. Some endurance test ideas could be:
A long hike or run
A long cycling trip
A gym marathon, just go to the gym and spend 5-6 hours doing easy cardio, some light weights, swimming, it doesn’t matter, just keep going for a long time.
Test yourself uphill because the mountains are brutally steep when you’re not used to it. Possibly try the following:
Find stairs that are, say 50m high in altitude gain. Hike / jog 30 laps at a good speed to make 1500m of height gain. See how long it takes you. 500m an hour is decent. Fit alpinists can generally do about 1000m in an hour and top trail runners about 1500m in an hour.
Most gyms have a “stairmaster” stepping machine where you can test yourself.
Few things are as relevant for mountain fitness as just how good your legs are at stepping you upwards and downwards.
Skills take time to learn and nothing beats doing the actual thing for skills development. That said; being athletic, strong and having good balance goes a long way in most mountain activities. If you plan on doing alpine climbing then indoor rock climbing is great. For skiing and alpinism some dynamic leg and balance training is helpful.
Consult a professional
These are my opinions from many years of mountain climbing, skiing and guiding. I am not however a personal trainer or sports scientist. It would be advisable to consult a professional before starting any training program.
The greatest danger in life is not to take the adventure “George Leigh Mallory”
Check out the general Fitness, Ski and Climbing level pages on the website. Each trip has the relevant level required.
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Its been a summer with much precipitation but also many days alone on nice summits in short weather windows and good snow conditions with little rock-fall danger. Here are a few photos from the sometimes sunny and warm season.
The summer started for me with two trips up Mont Blanc, both of which were cold but with great snow conditions and summit success.
Sunset from the new Refuge du Gouter
Some are up early for the sunrise shot over the Mont Blanc range
In July and August I spent some time in the Swiss Valais, these shots are from the Dufourspitze, Nadelhorn, Mont Blanc de Cheillon, l’Eveque and the Wiessmies:
Climbing on the Rifflehorn, acclimatizing for the Dufourspitze seen in the background on the left with Liskamm to the right
Sunset with the Matterhorn and the flag of the Monte Rosa hut silhouetted
The last steps before the Dufour summit
The sun’s first rays on the faces of Lenzspitze and Nadelhorn
The Mischabel hut guardians enjoying a morning stroll on Ulrichshorn
Smiles and photos on the summit of Mont Blanc de Cheillon
Morning views on the traverse of the Weissmies
A party on the summit ridge of the Weissmies
Some good rock climbing on l’Eveque SW ridge
Climbing l’Eveque with the ridge of La Singla behind and Mont Blanc far away to the right
Some trips to the quieter areas of the Mont Blanc range, finished off the summer guiding for me. Here climbing on some of the granite in the Orny area.
Fun scrambling on the Aiguille d’Arpette
Laurie getting stuck into some perfect granite
Great climbing on sunny aspects of the Purtscheller.
Don’t forget your chimneying skills!
We then started on some mountain ice and mixed, in great condition after the snowy summer:
Abseiling down to climb up to the Aiguille du midi again…
The profit-perroux gully, high above the Chamonix valley
Laurie exiting the crux pitch
Enjoying the last pitches up the Arete des Cosmiques
Guillaume in a mixed route on the Tacul triange
Some traffic on the Schmid route on the Matterhorn.
The morning’s rays interrupted by the Hornli ridge
The view down the Hornli ridge with Zermatt below and the north face to the left
Thanks to everyone I climbed with for a good, safe season, hope to see you again next year!
There is something special about the moments when the sun rises and sets, the change from light to darkness or from the chilling early hours of the morning to the first glowing rays of warmth cast from the distant horizon promising clarity and comfort. As people who enjoy being outside in the mountains we often have the pleasure of witnessing these moments when the rotation of the earth combined with the light of a star passing through the earth’s atmosphere paints some of the most beautiful pictures.
morning light on the Chamonix granite from the Noire de Peuterey to the Mont Blanc du Tacul
Hearing about dry mountains and thin snow cover from my sweaty bungalow in south-east Asia, I wasn’t too optimistic about the skiing this January. Arriving home to an unpredictable snowpack thanks to the constructive metamorphism of December’s meagre snowfall lurking beneath the new layers in the two to three thousand metre range on northern aspects and a general lack of covering confirmed my doubts.
Skiing the trees in Italy last December, yesterdays conditions were similar..
However, since new year the snow has been falling in the Alps and yesterday was a good powder day in Courmayeur, Italy. The snowpack is a bit thicker over there and we had a great day in the trees. With careful route choice and some local knowledge the skiing in the Alps is quite good now.
Here’s Erik’s new little edit from a fun day last April:
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With shadows lengthening and becoming more defined on the alpine landscape, fresh snow dusts the summits and the leaves change colour as the mornings come with a crisp freshness and the shy sun takes early refuge behind the horizon, leaving the natural world to dance on its last touches of warmth before the darkness lays down its cold, calm blanket.
The autumn can be one of the most pleasant times to climb in the Alps. With decent weather one can climb the classic summer routes and with the new snow and colder temperatures it is often an ideal time to climb some of the steeper ice gullies or north faces in the Mont Blanc range.
The end of the summer and early autumn have included the following ascents:
This is an aesthetic and varied traverse of moderate difficulty on one of the 4000m summits surrounding the Saas valley.
sunrise above the Allmageller Hut, nearing the start of the climbing
the Mischabel chain across the valley just after sunrise
The exceptionally snowy summer makes it possible for teams to gain more height on the snow than is possible in most years.
The team putting on crampons on the subsidiary summit.
the summit ridge
the Weissmies summit
Mt. Blanc de Cheillon is one of the less famous summits of the Valais mountain range due to the fact that it doesn’t quite reach 4000m but is a very worthwhile objective with an imposing pyramid form above its plunging north face, bordered by seracs on both ridge lines. The traverse is an excellent journey up the expansive glacier below the Serpentine and along the airy east ridge to the summit, the descent by the west ridge is easier than the ascent. It’s an AD rated climb taking between 6 and 8 hours from hut to hut.
sunrise from below the Serpentine with the Pigne d’Arolla in the foreground and the Matterhorn in the distance
Mont Blanc de Cheillon east ridge
Gran Paradiso is the highest summit entirely in Italy, not sharing its summit with France or Switzerland, more importantly it’s an ideal climb for beginner mountaineers, requiring more fitness than technique even though the scramble to the summit virgin Mary is exposed. The view is exceptional and the challenge not negligible.
an autumn afternoon approach to the Rifugio Chabod
taking in the first views of the objective
view from the well equipped winter hut
everyone on top!
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The couloir nord des Drus caught my eye on a walk in the Aiguilles Rouges this October, it looked to be in very good condition. We then had rainy weather for a while and the Montenvers train was closed. Recently Jon Bracey did the route and seemed to think it was in tip top condition. With the train running again, I managed to motivate aspi guide Guillaume Thebaudin into heading up there.
Always a cool feature the Dru..
At Montenvers station I bumped into the young Scot, Ally Swinton, who had just been on the Leseur route and confirmed general good conditions.
After sharing the bivy spot with some friendly guys from the mountain rescue, we headed up to the bergschrund, starting up the couloir at five o’clock. At eight o’clock Guillaume started his lead on the famous Nominée crack, with his combination of dry tooling, french free and aid.
Looking down the approach couloir, great conditions!
Guillaume on the Nominée crack
The next two pitches into the main gully were excellent, airy mixed pitches.
Traverse at the top of the second mixed pitch.
In the S of the upper couloir
The team getting our 10 minutes of sunshine for the day at the breche
We arrived at the Breche des Drus at two forty five and then rappeled the couloir and the N couloir direct which is uuuh.. steep.. We were back at the bivy before dark for a relaxed dinner and good sleep.
High quality route, the mixed pitches are not to be underestimated. Take a No. 4 camalot or two..
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With this calm autumn weather I thought I’d better get off the couch and climb some mountains. I chatted to my friend Guillaume who was keen to check out the Gabbarou route on the Chardonnet N face. The approach is long especially with the fresh snow we have at the moment but it’s always a fun face to climb and the summit is really beautiful so I signed on.
Autumn sunset from the Albert Premiere hut
After taking a good couple of hours to snowshoe across the glacier du Tour to the bottom of the face we decided to take the Escarra start to the route as that way we could quickly access our snowshoes on the descent and we could assess avalanche conditions on the descent route. With some deep snow, we arrived at the foot of the Escarra 4 hours after leaving the hut.
The route turned out the be good with nothing really difficult. Two and a half hours later we were on the top and three hours after that back at the hut enjoying the afternoon sunshine before heading down to Le Tour.
Guillaume walking up to the hut
The start of the Gabbarou gully
In Gabbarou gully
Guillaume on top
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