Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chamonix, a ski pilgrimage

I am at the crest of a wildly exposed ridge, and my heart will not stop pounding. I arrived in Chamonix less than 12 hours ago and now I am at 3900m, having tagged along on a ski day with esteemed IFMGA Mountain Guide Caroline George and the rock climbing legend Liv Sansoz. We have pounded up here in a few short hours and I am feeling out of my element. Skinning - fine. Bootpacking - fine. But put together with jet lag, altitude, lack of a real meal in the past 24 hours and discovering that the crampons I had brought for the day were broken, I am feeling close to the edge of my physical comfort zone. I watch Caroline deftly complete a wildly exposed down climb into the the line we hope to ski. I begin to follow but the underlying snow is firm and I climb back up to the ridge, quaking at the fear of plunging straight off the side of the mountain. Liv offers me a belay and I take it, ego bruise dwarfed by my fear of blowing it on day 1 of a dream trip to Cham, and to be honest, the fear of my own death, which guides so many of my decisions in the mountains. I climb down to the softer snow and untie from the rope, but by this time Caroline has determined the line is too firm and we climb back out.
Liv ascending the final slopes on the Milieu Glacier on the Aguille d'Argentiere
Caroline, Liv and I on the summit of Aguille d'Argentiere
Day two provides challenges of a different nature, with a different partner. Fred Marmsater, a friend and talented adventure photographer has travelled to Cham to ski and shoot some photos with me. Starting the day with no firm plan and later than is ideal, we find ourselves ascending a warm slope underneath another party. It's steep and the route of ascent is right up the middle of the face, where anything dislodged by overlying skiers would have the potential to knock you out of the shallow bootpack and straight into the gaping bergschrund. We contemplate our options, contemplate bailing several times, and when it looks like the party above us is getting ready to start skiing down we do bail, still well below the top of the slope. The skiing is tough, really variable snow and the angle and the threat of falling the bergschrund has me tense. Fred is encouraging, a real cheerleader, and deftly demonstrates how to air over the 'schrund with control. I pause, chicken out at the last second and opt for the shorter drop with the worse landing and bail as soon as I hit the lower slope. Laughing, nervous, excited to push myself but also feeling in over my head, my mind is swirling with so many thoughts and feelings. This sensation is a common element of the most rewarding and scary times of my life. 
Fred climbing up to the top of Point d'Orny at sunrise 
Fred descending from the Col d'Amethystes
Fred shredding some pow off the Grands Montets
The remainder of the trip was punctuated by so many of these moments. Fear induced dry mouth as I rapped into a steep and firm couloir, realizing that at some point I would have to detach from the rope and rely on my skis, my legs, to safely carry me down to the glacier far below. Dizzying exposure as I crampon up a knife edge ridge, focussing hard on not tripping and pushing away the feeling that the skis on my back are pulling me off balance. Pure joy as I gaze at the unlikely geometry of diamond spires and fragmented glaciers, floating above the clouds and bathed by the most calming pink light.

Fred raps down to my stance in the Capucin Couloir
Sunset on the spires, as seen from the summit of the Aguille du Tour
It was the trip of a lifetime. Not for the reason that I won't be able to go there again, but because next time I won't be a Cham virgin. The whole trip my eyes were so wide, taking in the landscape, the techniques required to climb and ski, the culture of negotiating the mountains in the company of hundreds of other climbers and skiers. I was fortunate enough to share my adventures with the best partners, solid mountain people who shared my respect for the hazards and giddy joy at the pure fun of mountain play. As Mary Oliver puts it, "Let me keep company, always, with those who say 'look!' and laugh in astonishment and bow their heads."
Managed to eat most of a baguette every day of the trip, and sometimes would even just strap one to the side of my pack in the morning. This bakery was conveniently located right next to the Midi base station.
Fred somewhere between laughing, saying "look!", and bowing his head in wonder

The beginning of many Cham adventures is something between a group hug and a mosh pit in the crammed quarters of the Midi bin.
Me chillin' with one of the many amazing sculptures at the Cabane du Trient
Fred scampering up the Aguille du Tour
Fred celebrating on the summit of the Aguille du Tour

Jamie Bond trying to get to Italy for lunch.
A fun and relatively mellow tour had us descend to the mid-station above Courmayeur for lunch in Italy. This 'salad' was mostly cheese and bacon, with a few veggies for garnish. So good! 
Star rise on the Aguille du Tour as we make our way back to the hut
Evan shredding some lift accessed pow in front of the Aguille Vert
Jamie Bond, Caroline, Evan and HP heading around La Tour Rond to sniff out the snow in the Gervasutti. The line looked amazing but the snow was a stiff, hollow windslab and we bailed
The Alpine chough, a relative of the crow, kept us company at many of our snack spots. Fun fact from Wikipedia: these birds are monogamous
A group deskins at the Col d'Entreves with the inspiring face of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey in the background

The rate of glacial retreat in the Alps is terrifying. Here is the toe of the Mer de Glace, the end of the famous Vallee Blanche descent. Each year, more steps must be added to enable skiers to climb out of the valley and onto the platform of the gondola, which was initially positioned right at the edge of the glacier. The 2010 level is already many steps up.
Evan gunning for the summit of the Finsteraarhorn in the Bernese Oberland. We were turned around on this mission by super nuking winds.
The consolation prize was Abeni Flue a great summit and ski. 
The wildly positioned Hollandiahutte where we spent our second night on the Bernese Oberland mission
Our final ski mission was this peak, the Mittaghorn, which rewarded us with a 2200m descent to valley bottom
Evan and Caroline making their way down the ice fall on the Mittaghorn
Heidi, I mean Evan, frolicking in the Swiss meadows on our exit from the Bernese Oberland
Our home in Cham was this charming Mazot on the grounds of the Patagonia Chalet.

Thank you so much to Patagonia for providing Evan and I with accommodation on this trip. G3 set me up with awesome Empire Carbon skis and Ion bindings, so I could ride the fat boards that I love in Cham without dragging around a heavy set up. Taos Mountain Energy hooked me up with a great stash of bars because you can't eat baguette and cheese for every meal or bad things happen. And mostly, THANKS to all of you who were in on these adventures. Already planning my next trip to Cham to climb some of those jaw dropping granite spires.