Chamonix Diary: Waiting to Climb

When we arrived in Chamonix in June, I peered up from under my umbrella in search of the mountains. I knew they were there. I sought out breaks in the clouds up the valley, or a window up above, where the Aiguilles (needles) should have been poking at blue sky. But there were only clouds and drizzle.

This daily search in the sky became our waiting game.

On our first morning there, we hiked despite the weather, just to walk out the jet lag. We returned to the hotel soggy but feeling human again, rather than like cattle packed for export to France via three airplanes and two trains.

On day two, after a morning of futzing around between hopeful gazes at the gray skies, we met Michael, our mountain guide. Michael is calm and quiet, and he bears a resemblance to Pierce Brosnan — if Pierce Brosnan were a thin, strong, guide-type who couldn’t be bothered with a perfectly sculpted hairdo and therefore sported a shorter cut. We wanted a one-day mixed (snow or ice and rock) route — preferably high above the low-hanging drip of the valley clouds, something we couldn’t do on our own. Michael said the Arete des Cosmiques would be fun. We caught him at a rare break in his schedule, so agreed to guide us on the route as soon as the weather allowed.

As we sat peering out a window of one of Chamonix’s less savory bistros that night, I spotted a familiar face squinting against the drizzle as he moved quickly down Rue Joseph Vallot. He recognized me, too, and did a quick about-face to come inside and find us.

“Tim! What are you doing in Cham?” I asked as I wrapped my arms around his wet jacket.

Tim and I had worked together in an outdoor store in St. Louis years ago.

“I work for Patagonia now, and we have meetings here every year.”

Before he headed back out into the rain, he invited us to an American climber’s slide show at the Patagonia store the next evening.

“Well,” I said to my husband, “At least we have something to do besides waiting out the rain tomorrow.”

Although it threatened rain the next morning, no drops fell, so we geared up and walked to the Aiguille du Midi cable car. Our goal: Go up the mountain to find snow and practice our self-arrest technique.

The cable car climbed straight up out of Chamonix into the clouds. Water beaded on the car’s windows as the jade forest gave way to scrub and rock, and finally, patches of filthy old snow. We stopped at the Plan de l’Aiguille, which at 2354 meters is about halfway to the cable’s final destination (and our eventual climbing destination), the Aiguille du Midi.

The snow line was about 500 meters above us, so it was raining. Again. Across the valley, the Aiguilles Rouge were invisible under the gray blanket.

We exchanged c’est la vie looks as we pulled our hoods overhead and wandered away from the cable car station. Within minutes, clouds obscured the station. This is how people get lost mere minutes from safety in the mountains, I thought.

Not far from the station, we found a perfect snow slope with a safe run-out. We repeatedly climbed up and flung ourselves down, shouldering our ice axes into the crusty snow to stop. The rain continued, but laughter crept into the dreary day, because practicing self-arrest is as much fun as sledding, and like a kid sledding on a snow day, I didn’t care that my gloves were wet, or that I was out of breath from climbing up to do it again, head first now, on my back next, pretending to slip, each time wielding my axe with glee.

We eventually grew tired and cold and shuffled back to the cable car and our return to Chamonix. After a hot lunch and even hotter showers, we called Michael and learned that the forecast called for a break in the rain overnight. Our climb was on for tomorrow. The wait was almost over.

Excited and nervous about our climb the next day, we made our way through the rain to the Patagonia store. A professional climber and fellow Boulderite — climbing is a small world — greeted us at the door with beer and we settled in for a stunning slideshow while the rain continued outside.

Climbers wait out the weather perched on high ledges and in tiny tents on snowfields. While tentbound, they dig out of snowstorms, boil water, read and play cards. We ended our wait indoors with beer and the perfect pre-climb entertainment. Waiting to climb is trying, but in Chamonix, it’s as easy as waiting for your morning cafe au lait.