Chamonix. Where to start? If you’re a mountain climber sooner or later you’ll come here. Every climber you know raves about it and tells you to go. Indeed by our third day I happened upon climbers who in the past had crashed at our house en-route to Denali. Like I said… Sooner or later you’ll come here.

Out of Anchorage, up and over the North Pole and a sea of ice, drifting past Greenland and down into Frankfurt. A short hop to Geneva, lost luggage due to delayed flights and finally into a van and 1 1/2 hours later stumbling into our rented apartment after 24 hours of travel. Then out into the cloudy streets, wandering about at 10pm in search of food and drink (note to visiting alpinists: don’t order French beer; stick to French wine and German beer). Stumble home in a jet lag haze and fall asleep.

The Mont Blanc Massif and the Chamonix valley as viewed from the top of Brevant.

Wake up, walk downtown to a bakery for croissants and coffee. Cure the jet lag by sitting in the town square looking up at mountains tracing ridges with fingers and minds. In the summer this is a climber’s town. It’s perhaps only town in the world where wearing a harness, mountain boots and carrying a climbing pack complete with ice tools, is perfectly normal. Weaving down the streets are chiseled French men and women with grizzled faces and unkempt hair wearing mountain boots, backpacks and, and ratty capaline.

Tourists choke the city center. The cafes are filled with French, English, American, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Iraqi, Japanese and any other nationality you can think of. Most enjoying panini and cold beers in the afternoon sun, the rest are lounging about staring up at the mountains or walking their dogs

A monument to the first ascentionists of Mt. Blanc sits in the center of town.

Gaston Rebuffat busts an aid move in a town center mural.

Alpinists Only! Climbers heading out the ultimate BC gate at the Midi station.

Nothing is cheap. Washing a load of laundry costs $19 US dollars; a fine French raclette meal costs $60 for two. Well… Bread is cheap. 1€ for a 24″ baguette and 2€ for a big block of cheese. If you can live on bread and cheese you’re set.

If the weather is good take the tram to Aiguille du Midi. When Count de Bouille financed an successful 1856 ascent of the Aiguille du Midi he was reported to have said, “I doubt if there will ever be a second ascent.” The curse of the armchair alpinist is to have your route become a trade route… Bouille’s curse went even further. Today the Midi sees close to tens of thousands of tourist both summer and winter.

Step off the tram at 12,000′ onto one of the marvels of 1950’s engineering; a massive fortress of observation decks, elevators, ice caves, bridges, restaurants and tourist trinket shops. Alpinist shuffle through a see of tourist clutching ice axes and crampons (trying not to to stab), push down a rock corridor and emerge onto a deck where the ultimate backcountry access gate hangs waiting for alpinist to push through out onto the steep ridge beyond.

The Midi Bridge.

And so on…

We spent all of July in France. Three weeks in Chamonix and one week in Saint Gervais with friends. I have hundreds of photos and pages of journal entries to sort through so this is nothing more than a brief roundup of our time spent and climbs done.

Crochues – Traverse

Our first climb; a wonderful ridge traverse that is very straight foreword and simple. Super fun, a good way to get over jet lag and get a feel for the area. One pitch of 5.4 chimney, a couple pitches of easy 5th class and lots of exposed 4th class. It took us about 6 hours round trip with a while spent lounging on the summit.

The Crochues traverse goes from left to right along the spine of the ridge.

French guides don’t wear helmets and love to balance on airy spires while belaying their clients.

Fun ridge climbing with an initiation into mandatory au-Cheval!

L’Index – Southeast Ridge

One of Gaston Rebuffat’s 100 Finest Routes. First climbed in 1913 it’s one of the all-time easy classics. Mellow climbing up to 5.6 with some fun airy ridge traversing. Very mellow with a short steep section protected by pitons. You ascend 4 pitches on the ridge line and then traverse an airy summit ridge to the final summit block. Afterwards it’s 50′ of down climbing to the rap anchors, a 150′ rappel and a final 4th class mank couloir down climb. 5 hours round trip – the last down climb in a driving rainstorm.

i’Index as viewed during the Gliere

Fun ridge climbing high on l’Index.

Aiguille du l’M – North Northeast Ridge

Another one of Rebuffat’s 100 Finest Routes. In summary… Across two glaciers, up 1500′ of moraine and scree. Then up 800′ of immaculate granite. Across a wildly exposed summit ridge. Two raps, more exposed 4th class. Another rap. Then 1500′ of mank couloir followed by 400′ of rickety metal cables, ladders and metal steps. Reach the glacier and play Russian roulette with the serac and rockfall just out of reach (ridiculous objective danger is the norm here) and then tromp 4000′ down the trail to Chamonix (after missing the last tram). One of the best alpine rock climbs I’ve ever done.

The NNE of i’M ascends the left skyline of the far left peak; the Petite Charmoz traverse ascends the right skyline of that same chunk of rock.

The route more or less takes the right skyline.

Yvonne following perfect granite right off the ground.

The open book pitch. Guidebook called it IV+ which equates to 5.6. Whatever….

Aiguille du Tour – Normal Route

One of the more popular easy glacier peaks in the Mont Blanc Massif. An easy 3 hours to the Albert Premier Hut where we were inducted into the joys of European hut culture. Up at 4am, coffee and bread then out onto the glacier with 100 other climbers in a race for the summit. Ridiculously crowded but everyone had a good time. The crowds included a 10 year old boy and an 80 year old woman. Glacier crossing, a bergschund and then some easy 4th class made difficult by the 100 people trying to push you off.

Aiguille du Tour as viewed from across the valley. The summit is the highest point in the center of the photo.

Climbers en route to the Col du Superior.

The wonderful Albert Premier Hut.

Guide & client high on the route.

Mont Blanc – North Ridge

A lonely climb through a serac zone, rockfall, a crevasse field from hell, a quiet hut, a beautiful snow ridge with slopes up to 45 degrees, narrow catwalks with crevasses on one side / seracs on the other. All leading to high winds, altitude and crowds. This route had all the elements of big mountain climbing packed into two days of fun.

The N Ridge ascends the sharp ridge line in the center of the photo.

When the French guidebooks say the approach is “crevassed” they mean it.

Turning tail & running down the Gouter route after a lenticular touchdown.

Leading up the ridge to the world’s greatest outhouse!

Yvonne at dawn on the North Ridge.

Petite Charmoz – Traverse

Yet another one of Rebuffat’s 100 Finest Routes. Old-school chimneys, perfect granite hand rails and massive exposure. Rated “5.5 A0″… which in reality was more like 5.8 with mandatory aid moves over roofs. Super classic after the fact.

Yvonne discovering the joy of “5.6 A0” old-school chimney climbing.

Perfect granite hand rail to the summit.

Chapelle de la Gliere – South Ridge

And yet another one of Rebuffat’s 100 Finest Routes. One of the best rock routes I’ve ever climbed in the mountains. This route has a super classic pitch that our guidebook called “mythical”. “The Razor’s Edge” consists of a slab up to a wildly exposed arête. Outrageous fun.

The South Ridge of Chapelle de la Gliere ascends the left skyline.

Yvonne on the Razors Edge

Starting up the Razors Edge.

More perfect rock high on the route.


On our off days we spent a lot of time cragging. We hit up the local wall Lac Gaillands where the average age is about 8, sampled the multi-pitch slabs at Les Cheserys, the bolted cracks at Vallorcine, the 7 pitch sport routes near Brevant, and the wonderful gneiss slabs of La Duchere.

Yvonne on the bolted mutli-pitch slabs of Les Cheserys. Below is the village of Argentiere.

Old old anchors at Vallorcine.

Route finding is not hard at the local crags.

The bolted cracks of Vallorcine.

Plus lots of hiking, eating and espresso drinking. A wonderful month in a beautiful place… I’m ready to move there.

More to come.