For outdoorsy gals: an FUD nonreview

Warning: This post is a review, or as it turns out, a non-review of FUDs–female urination devices, in outdoor-industry speak. It’s about pee funnels. If you don’t want to read about the trials and tribulations of women trying to pee standing up in the woods or on a climb, stop here.

As I told my friend Sara, the Rock Climber Girl, someone has to do it. Love them or hate them, someone’s gotta talk about pee funnels.

The Freshette and the GoGirl, hiding in the bottom of my pack

The Freshette and the GoGirl, hiding in the bottom of my pack

I picked up an FUD known as the Freshette at REI over the winter. The Freshette was a recommended item on the Chicks With Picks packing list, and I figured it was time for me to learn how to use one of these, anyway. The pants I favor for both skiing and ice climbing, Patagonia Winter Guide Pants, sport removable suspenders, and I like ’em. They help keep my pants up on days when I’ve layered lightly. However, the suspenders are not easy to remove. They fasten with velcro and are finicky. Thus, a pee funnel sounded like a better idea than stripping a jacket or two every time I needed to go.

FUD manufacturers like to tell you to practice in the shower first. This is a red herring. Peeing into an FUD in the shower is easy, because you were probably smart and removed all clothes below the waist out of fear. The only challenge is, well, peeing standing up, which I’ve learned feels totally unnatural (perhaps if you’ve done it enough, this goes away). You have to really talk yourself into it. For me, this goes against instinct far more than hauling myself up a wall of ice, even though we all know ice climbing is stupid.

What the FUD manufacturers should tell you is, practice in the shower all Pataguccied out: Wear your Capilene bikinis, baselayer bottoms and your Winter Guide Pants, with suspenders over your shoulders, and put your harness on, being sure to add some gear to the loops (weighs down the waistbelt, gets in the way). Boots are optional.

After a successful half-naked shower pee or two, I naively thought I was set for real-world funnel peeing. I was wrong. At CWP, I did battle with the clothing listed above and failed. If you don’t tilt your FUD the right way, I learned, the pee will spill out the back. Pants and zipperless, seamless baselayers make achieving a perfect tilt rather challenging. Take it from me, peeing on yourself at the bottom of an icy, shady canyon in January is a huge drag. At least my clothing dried quickly, but gah, it was really unpleasant for a while and wow does hot pee turn cold fast.

It’s enough to make a girl weigh her options: Risk peeing on yourself again, or bare your ass to the wind like you always have?

I chose the latter.

I’d given up on FUDs until we went to France, where I found myself in the middle of an otherwise male rope team on a glacier. I considered whipping out my Freshette, which I was carrying but not using. It was useless weight in my pack, heavy on my conscience, because real women, I knew, used pee funnels on rope teams. But I’d lost confidence in my FUD abilities. It was easier when I didn’t have the FUD option, when I had to squat. I think I might know how toddlers feel when they’re potty training now. This FUD situation was totally stressing me out. It was easier to squat with a harness on and hope I wasn’t over a snow bridge, because boy, that would be an awkward crevasse rescue.

Since my failure on the glacier prompted more funnel discussions with girlfriends, Sara thought of me when she saw the GoGirl display at Outdoor Retailer. (Isn’t that sweet?) She picked one up for me, and it was such a thoughtful gesture that I agreed to write a review (she reviews gear on her site). The GoGirl arrived not long after I came home from Chamonix, and I immediately threw it into my backpack and proceeded to carry it, alongside the defunct Freshette, out climbing at least six times without using it.

I didn’t have the nerve to risk climbing at Lumpy with pee on my capris.

Finally, two days ago, I was cragging up Boulder Canyon and nature called. I sighed. I thought of the review I’d agreed to write, and out of guilt took off my harness and dug the GoGirl out of the bottom of my pack. Unlike the Freshette, the GoGirl is soft and flexible–too flexible, if you ask me. It folded and buckled as I tried to maneuver it into place, and I fully lost confidence in it. Once again, I couldn’t commit.

So I’m sorry, Sara. Rather than writing an FUD review, I’ve written a psychological review of why I haven’t managed to master peeing while standing up–an ode to squatting, if you will. My hope is that other women will read this and feel they’re not alone in their FUD anxiety. Some women, I know, will even risk dehydration to avoid awkward situations, which is dangerous since it can lead to altitude sickness. Personally, I’d rather have people see my big white booty than end up dehydrated, but the point is, I’m not the only woman out there with issues, so lend your friends some words of support. For me, those words are ‘squat now, serenity now!’

(But better yet, if you’ve mastered the art of the FUD, please leave a comment and tell me how to work around all of that winter clothing sans stress, because it does still seem like a good idea.)

Vive la Colorado: How to avoid post-expedition blues

From our window: one of many rainbows after evening rains in Chamonix

From our window: one of many rainbows after evening rains in Chamonix

One rainy evening during our final weeks in Chamonix, we met up with guides Adam and Caroline George for a drink at a chic little bar. Caroline asked who I’ve worked with at Climbing magazine, and I asked what topics she’d covered for Climbing.

“My first story was about post-expedition blues,” she said.

I’d never heard the term, but I instantly knew what it was–and wondered whether the hub and I would have it since our 2.5-month adventure in France was an expedition (even though we were never in danger of being eaten by polar bears).

We climbed in the Aiguilles Rouges on the morning of our last full day in Chamonix, stopped by our favorite sandwich shop, and then returned to the cramped apartment we’d called home since mid-May to pack up.

Climbing gear, packed and ready for the Alps

Climbing gear, packed and ready for the Alps

Packing for a trip that long is an epic endeavor. I’d learned that in May, when suitcases and clothes and climbing gear covered our ample floorspace back home. Somehow, nearly everything we’d needed (and several things we didn’t need) made it into two bags under 50 pounds and two carry-ons each. Repacking for the return was easier–everything must go. (Though easier, it’s still best fueled by one last Euro espresso.)

The morning we left, we didn’t have much time for wistful glances at the glacier-torn peaks we’d seen in sun, storm and alpenglow. Our shuttle driver hustled 200 pounds of clothes and gear into the back of his van and we were off to the Geneva airport.

Our first day back in Longmont, we drove to meet friends for breakfast. That’s right, we drove. And the next day, we drove down to Eldorado Canyon to go climbing. Drove. We didn’t drive once while we were in Europe. I could count on one hand the number of times we rode in cars in Cham. When we wanted to go climbing in Chamonix, we walked to one of three places: the local crag, the train station, or a cable car.

We didn’t want a car in Chamonix. It seemed like a huge hassle to have one–streets are closed for pedestrians, there’s nowhere to park. Coming home to a land of exurbs and massive parking lots and forced driving was a bigger culture shock than not saying “merci au revoir!” every time I left a shop or restaurant.

But despite the pains of our car-dependent culture, despite missing those morning walks to the crag or cable car, the post-expedition blues haven’t set in. Why not? Here’s my sole revelation on the topic:

On the Mer de Glace

On the Mer de Glace

I spent most of my summer in one of my favorite places in the world. And I’ve returned home to one of my favorite places in the world. Want to avoid the post-expedition (or post-vacay) blues? Live somewhere that makes your heart race. Plant roots where there’s so much to do that your mind boggles. Make friends who have the same passion for the place and go play together. Often.

For me, living in Colorado has fit all of those criteria. In the nine days we’ve been home, we’ve climbed, hiked, ridden our bikes and caught up with friends. Yeah, I have to drive, and I don’t walk out my front door and see glaciers leading up to Mont Blanc. But I see mountains I haven’t visited, and I can drive to them this weekend if I like. The expedition continues.

This summer, I conducted a work/play experiment in the Alps. I moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the seventh in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

Workation France: Après-ick

I was sick of being sick.

We’d been in France for about a month, and I’d been sick most of that time. Just as I started to feel better, I came back from visiting our friends in Hamburg with an upper-respiratory gunk. In late June, a bright morning sun shone over Chamonix and I glared out our top-floor apartment window at the perfect day to spend outdoors, desperately trying not to think about being cooped up indoors. Again.

But I couldn’t help thinking about it. Tears welled up. I fought them, but that made them burst out all at once in a deluge of frustration.

For a month, I’d barely climbed or hiked. I wasn’t deathly ill, of course, just enough to stop me from doing what I’d come to Chamonix to do. And our apartment is way too small to spend so much time in–especially on laundry day, because we don’t have a clothes dryer, so everything hangs on a drying rack on the “living room” for about 24 hours… I missed my health, my doctor, our dryer, my sanity.

In the middle of my fit, Jeremy asked me: “Do you want to go home?”

“NO!” I shouted, “I’m not leaving until we climb more, till we do everything we wanted to do, even if we have to stay longer to do it now!”

Topping out on the Aiguillette d'Argentière

Topping out on the Aiguillette d'Argentière

My outburst somehow expunged the last of the ick. By afternoon, I had energy I hadn’t felt in a month. The next day, we climbed at Les Gaillands, and I felt good. The next day, Friday, we traded babysitting for guided climbing (an excellent deal if you have a good mountain guide with an adorable and extremely well-behaved 3-year-old). Then we spent the weekend on a climbing rampage: five pitches at Vallorcine, dodging ibex on a romp to and up the Aiguillette d’Argentière, and Monday morning, the babysitting-swap climb up the Brévent on the Frison-Roche.

Perhaps I’ll be back in Colorado on schedule now.

Today, I’m cowering indoors again, but for a non-frustrating reason: I’m sunburned from spending yesterday learning alpine climbing techniques on Pointe Lachenal. The reflection off the Vallée Blanche sunburned the insides of my nostrils and the grooves of my ears, but no tears here. This is what I came to Chamonix to do.

This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the fifth in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

The Alps, the laissez-faire way

The Brévent, from Chamonix

The Brévent, from Chamonix

If you live away from the mountains, the only time you hear about a climbing accident is if something big goes down on Mt. Everest, or if the Today Show picks up an amazing tale of survival from a fourteener hike gone wrong. But when you live in the mountains, climbing and skiing accidents appear in your local news on a regular basis.

We can’t easily read the local news here, but we heard helicopters all day on Friday. We woke to the rat-tat-tat in the morning, saw them when we hiked on the northwest side of the valley in the afternoon, and by evening, when they were still going, we wondered whether they were having an epic training day or if something bad went down.

There was an accident. Jeremy spotted a blurb about it Saturday on ESPN:

“Karine Ruby, a former Olympic snowboarding champion who had been training to become a mountain guide, died Friday in a climbing accident on Mont Blanc. She was 31. Ruby was roped to other climbers when she and some members of the group fell into a deep crack in the glacier on the way down the mountain…”

But we didn’t have time to ponder it, because–timely–that evening we were sorting gear and loading our packs to spend the next day out with guide Michael Silitch learning how to travel safely on the glaciers above Chamonix.

Last year we climbed the Cosmiques Arete with Michael (the photos he snapped along the way are here–by the way, how do guides take such great photos and give clients safe belays at the same time?!?). Neither of us have experience with glacier travel, so this year we wanted to learn safety basics so we can start doing easy alpine climbs on our own.

Sunday morning broke sunny atop the Aiguille du Midi cable car station, and from the observation decks we could see that the Vallée Blanche was crawling with people.

The view from the Aiguille du Midi

The view from the Aiguille du Midi

Across the valley, another swarm was either switchbacking up to or skiing down from a bowl on Mont Blanc du Tacul–which Michael pointed out was an avalanche terrain trap, and then directed our attention to the rows of tipping seracs most of the way up the mountain above. As if on cue, we heard a roar from another direction and spotted an avalanche below us on the Midi, and as it thundered on, Michael explained that seracs can fall at any time, day or night.

Great. Or as they like to say here, super.

We spiked up and tied in for the daunting trip down a ridge from the station to the Vallée Blanche. The soft snow started balling up under my crampons, and Michael pointed out that they’re really only good for ice climbing, not alpine climbing. And by the way, our ice axes aren’t quite right either. Gah. I need to make friends with someone at Grivel or Petzl.

Michael whipped out a snow probe and staked out a safe area on a flat spot between the ridge and the bergschrund (the Vallée Blanche is a glacier). Below, the climbers and skiers became the subjects of our class. A few people were doing everything right (“See that team of two? They’re far apart, and there’s no slack in the rope.”) but it seemed like a lot of people were doing everything wrong (“These people have way too much slack in the rope; those people are standing around too close together; that guy is alone without skis.”).

“Some of the French are kind of laissez-faire about this stuff,” Michael said. Eh, oui: It seemed like there was a lot of scary stuff going on.

Michael pointed out the area where Friday’s accident happened and said there wasn’t much information about it–everyone in the party died–so it was tough to analyze what went wrong. There are huge crevasses up there, though, so he wondered if they had gathered too close together on a snow bridge over a crevasse, and when it broke, it took all of them.

As people passed around us on their way to and from the cable car station, we offered bonjours, and Michael sometimes offered a more brotherly salut to other guides. Karine was a friend of his, he said, and a beloved member of the community. She was trying to become the second woman in the exclusive (and quite traditional) Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix.

Ridge to the Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi

Ridge to the Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi

Not to be presumptive, but I suspect it’s best not to dwell on death, even the death of a friend, when your profession is to guide people through deadly terrain on a regular basis, and he didn’t–he moved on to the text topic. But it’s staring you in the face in a place like this. In fact, as Michael was talking us through how to set up rope teams, a party that was heading back up to the station took a long break behind us because one of its members seemed to be having mountain sickness of some sort. He was on his back, rolling around and moaning. One of his buddies put his crampons on for him.

As we transitioned the rope to the appropriate length to walk down onto the glacier, Michael said the man probably had cerebral edema.

“Really?” we said.

“Yeah, people come up from Paris and go right to 12,000 feet,” he said. Ah. Just like back home in Colorado, where people fly in from Chicago to ski at 11,000 feet and end up with Acute Mountain Sickness.

Clouds had been building from the Italian side of the range all day, but by mid afternoon, gray clouds rose from the Chamonix side, too.

How to haul someone out of a crevasse: Learn to build pulleys

How to haul someone out of a crevasse: Learn to build pulleys

A few snowflakes blew in as I puzzled over the pulley system Michael had built to rescue his pack–our faux fallen climber. I’m extra paranoid about lightning after an experience we had last summer in the Indian Peaks, and we all thought it would be good to avoid yet another mountain hazard.

Back at the Aiguille du Midi station, we packed up or covered our sharp objects for the journey back down to Chamonix. The tourists are aggressive when queueing up for the cable cars (even to people carrying ice axes), and at 125 lbs., I’m often jostled about by the crowd once we’re squeezed into the car. On one leg of this journey, I was backed up to a large man wearing a tiny pack, which you’re supposed to remove before you get in the cable car. He removed his pack while I was pressed against it. The French couple next to me giggled in shock and gestured for me to jab him with my elbows. I wished my glacier-inappropriate ice axe was accessible. The tourists, it turns out, are the final hazard you have to deal with when climbing in the Alps.

This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the second in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

People who push

Last year, my husband took up skiing again after a long absence, and after taking a class with the Colorado Mountain Club, he went out with our friends for a seemingly innocent day at a resort.

“I’m pretty sure Mark and Judy were trying to kill me,” he reported upon his return home, grinning broadly in the way outdoorsy types do upon surviving a challenging day.

This is why we like Mark and Judy.

Last week, we were all in Ouray to ice climb and took a day off from the ice to ski at Telluride. I’m learning how to telemark ski this year; I’ve been downhill skiing exactly eight times to date, and Telluride was number seven. Though I tried to dissuade them, Mark and Judy kindly took a warm-up run on greens with me. We rode a lift together above lodge-sized stone-and-wood ski homes (was one Oprah’s?!?), then we cruised down green runs. Mark gave me tips and I executed some sloppy-and-slow tele turns.

I tried to send our friends off to ski bowls and double-black chutes after this, but instead I was somehow talked into following them to the top of the mountain to take blue runs down to where we’d agreed to meet the rest of the group for lunch.

“But, I can take greens there if I go this way,” I said as pointed at the trail map.

“These blues really aren’t that bad from what I remember,” Judy said.

“Yeah, you can do them,” Mark said, nodding confidently.

They were a little too convincing, and I fell for it and followed them up the mountain.

It was the second time that Judy said, “Really Jenn, this is the worst part,” that I knew it was my turn at attempted homicide-by-sport.

Some people take to skiing easily. I have not. It’s because of my past. You see, I have childhood skiing trauma. It involves tears, Tahoe, and an expensive pink snowsuit. Others–perhaps those who don’t have memories of cold nylon mitts wiping away the snot of humiliation after repeated wipe-outs on the bunny slope–could easily ski blue slopes on the seventh time out. I did not.

The group waited for me at the bottom of each steep section and watched my feeble turns and nervous side-slipping. I grew more and more tired and finally crashed and didn’t get up simply because I needed a rest. My husband skied over to me and asked whether I was okay.

“I’m just completely wasted,” I panted. “Will you guys please just ski down to where we’re having lunch and I’ll meet you there? I’m going to sit here for a minute.”

Eventually, I made it down the hill and to lunch. Judy was smiling nervously as she ushered me to the table.

“Do you hate us?” She asked.

My legs wobbled underneath as I fell into a chair. “I hate you now, but I’ll love you later.”

And I meant it. The later, of course. One of the reasons that we hang out with Judy and Mark is that they push us. There are plenty of people out there who will sit on your couch with you and eat ice cream all evening. I love those friends, too, but when it comes to motivation, I can motivate myself to sit on the sofa. But finding someone who cares enough to try to kill you and your spouse via a sport you’re learning to love? Well, that’s rare.

People who push you should be embraced. People who push you have enough passion to risk your very friendship for the pursuit of something bigger than your ego and your doubt. They push you into empowerment.

I made it down the hill in one piece, and I learned some important survival-skiing skills. So I’m grateful for the push. Besides, it was karma–I’m one of them. I’d pushed one of the women in our Ouray group to try a mixed climb at the ice park the day before.

Ice climbing is stupid

Ice climbing is pretty stupid.

Non-climbers, I know what you’re thinking: Duh, any idiot can see that it’s a ridiculous sport. Non-climbers lump ice climbing in with other relatively stupid activities, like deep-water scuba diving into a cave with sharks, or pretty much anything Bear Grylls does in your average episode of Man vs. Wild: Now, the last thing you want to do in this situation is get wet or hurt, but I’m going to jump into this raging river of freezing glacial meltwater and dodge sharp boulders to reach the other shore. Once there, I’ll catch a poisonous snake and eat it raw, and bend a tree over a cliff and slide down it to execute a sketchy descent that I don’t really need to risk.

Climbers: You think it’s perfectly normal to climb ice. But ice climbing is stupid, and you’re in denial if you think otherwise.

First off, it’s freaking cold out there. It has to be–no ice to climb without freezing temperatures. Much like skiers, when the thermostat dips below 32, ice climbers rejoice. They dream of climbing and conveniently forget about the crash of sitting motionless (except for chattering teeth) in 20-degree temps while belaying their climbing partners. They forget they’ll have the screaming barfies in their hands and feet when they climb again. No, selective memory dominates, and a good freeze-thaw cycle makes ice climbers itch all over and methodically sharpen ice tools and crampons in preparation for an infusion of their crack.

This sharpening of the already pointy tools of the trade is the next reason why ice climbing is stupid. Your chances of self-inflicted stabbing are high. Despite my best efforts and caution, I poked numerous crampon holes in my gaiters and pants in one short season. While mixed climbing a week or so ago, I dropped an ice tool while holding it directly over my head. Fearing serious bodily harm, I swung out of the way but for some reason instinctively reached out to catch it–and succeeded in grabbing it by the shaft, not the pick. Witnesses were impressed by my reflexes, but this incident could have ended in a puncture wound rather than in cheers. I was lucky.

Reason number three is the obvious problem with ice: ice breaks. Regularly. Ice climbing almost always results in some amount of ice breaking and falling. Dodging falling ice is a sport unto itself, and here in Colorado, where ice climbing is fairly popular and thin smears draw a crowd, there are some losers in the game.

Lastly, I have proof from the insurance industry that ice climbing is stupid. If you’re a rock climber, State Farm probably will insure you. Rock climbing can be relatively safe, and since most rock climbers are fit, educated, and extremely committed to safety, we can get life insurance. During my underwriting interview with the company’s climbing guru, I was passing his questions with flying colors.

“Do you take classes?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you do any high-altitude mountaineering?”


“Climb big walls and sleep on a portaledge?”


“Wear a helmet?”


Then he said:

“Okay, here’s where I lose most people. Do you ice climb?”


The stupidity of ice climbing really hit home when we were out with a guide recently and he told us that when rock climbers ask him about ice he says, don’t do it. Later, stretching for a divot in the rock with my ice tool, I complained about being short and he said, “Well, I’d remind you that you’re taller than Lynn Hill, but she’s smart and doesn’t ice climb.” Then, this uber-experienced, safety-obsessed guide proceeded to juggle my ice tools and nearly stab himself when he dropped one.

I gazed at us standing in the snow, freezing, sharp objects everywhere, ice on the ground, all having a blast putting metal to rock and ice and laughing at the juggling antics. For the first time, I realized we all had a screw loose.

(That’s another thing–ice screws for protection? Crazy.)

So if you’re not already an ice climber, please, heed my guide’s warning, don’t do it. It’s stupid. It’s dangerous. The screaming barfies hurt, but not as much as falling ice or ice tools.

But if I’m too late to stop you, I’ll see you out there next weekend with my freshly sharpened tools, hot tea in my backpack, and helmet securely fastened to my stupid head.

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.

Skywalker Couloir

The rock was rotten. Each time I grasped a hold, I wondered if it would pull away when I cranked on it.

Ben, Jeremy and I were clustered around the bottom of an exit chute near the top of our snow climb up Skywalker Couloir on Sunday. The chute, a snow-collecting break in the band of cliffs at the top of the couloir, was a variation on the normal route, and according to the guidebooks, this variation — named Princess Leia — is only in for a week or two every year. We’d seen three other climbers head between the cliffs into this steep ribbon of snow that morning, but what we didn’t catch from below was how they crossed the gap between the couloir’s main snowfield and snow in the chute above. It seemed we were precariously close to the end of that Leia window.

Jeremy and I approached the top of the couloir ahead of Ben.

“You know, that ‘easy’ exit route doesn’t look so easy,” I said to Jeremy as we kicked our crampons into increasingly steeper snow and examined the route’s standard exit, to our left.

“Yeah, I don’t like it either,” he said. “Princess Leia almost looks easier.”

“Let’s go for Princess Leia,” I yelled to both of them as I followed the steps to the base that were kicked by the morning climbers. Itching to do the direct finish all along, Ben agreed from below.

It was late. I’d wanted to be off the snow by 10 a.m., and it was approaching 11. And I was tired. We’d gotten up at 4 a.m. and started the hike to the couloir at 6. Plus, the sun was coming out in very short spurts — good for the snow conditions, which remained stable instead of turning to a sun-baked slush, but a bad sign weather-wise. If lightning rolled in, tree line was far away. I wanted to get off the mountain.

Ben climbed up behind us, and we all deemed the 5-foot gap in the snow too dangerous to cross. Jeremy and Ben were discussing what to do while I eyed the rock to the right of the gap. Will it go in crampons? I pulled off my gloves, stashed my ice axe and tested a foothold. Maybe. The first looked too crumbly; I tried another. My crampons grated on the rock with that steel-on-stone sound that scrapes at my mind regardless of the quality of my foothold. But I wanted to be done, and we were close. I moved onto the rock with all of my weight and grabbed a crumbly hold with my hand.

“Jenn.” There was a tone of caution-too-late in Jeremy’s voice.

“I know.”

“I wish I could spot you.”

I moved further up the rock, because that was the only way to go. It was rotten, but going down was not an option, especially soloing in crampons. “I wish you could, too,” I said. “And I really wish I’d taken the rope with me.” I’m not terribly experienced as an alpine climber, so I’m sure it was much scarier for me to climb this than it would have been for a veteran alpinist. But I was committed to the route at that point, and there was no room for fear, only a focus on completing the task at hand safely. My left hand felt around for a stable hold until, voila. I tested it. It held. I moved a foot and pulled with my left hand.

The rock came away from the wall in my left hand.

In hindsight, this was the first of many times fortune smiled on us that day. If I’d gone flying backward, nothing would have stopped me from tumbling down the 1,000-foot snowfield we’d just climbed — self-arrest would have been difficult to impossible on snow that steep at any velocity created by a fall on the rock above. Luckily, I was stable on my feet, so I leaned in, pushed the rock back into place (bad to drop it on my fellow climbers, obviously) and said: “Shit.” Nervous laugh. “You guys should not do what I’m doing.”

I kept going for just a few more feet until I was far enough above the gap to climb safely back onto the snow in the narrow chute. After a deep breath, I looked down to see Jeremy pulling the rope out of his pack. I was glad to see they weren’t following in my foolish footsteps.

There’s a rhythm to climbing snow, even if you’re hauling ass to get off of it (I was). Punch axe into snow, then kick-kick. Repeat. The snow steepened to 70 degrees or so. Punch, push up with free hand in already-cut step, kick-kick. Thunder rumbled far away behind me, but I didn’t dare look. I just needed to concentrate and finish the climb.

Punch, push, kick-kick.

I topped out the snow onto scree in a brief moment of sunshine. Gravel glued onto my wet crampons and axe as I battled for a grip on the moving ground. This is worse than that solo below, I thought. I clawed my way onto a stable rock and looked behind me for the first time in hundreds of feet of climbing.

Dark clouds dripping rain streaks were rolling in from the southwest. They rumbled again. Our escape route was a 300-foot scramble above, over the top of S. Arapaho Peak, then a scramble down a ridge on the other side to a trail that would take us the remaining 3.5 miles to our car at the trailhead.

To calm my nerves while I waited for Jeremy and Ben, I sang to myself and shooed marmots away from my pack. (When we were climbing in Chamonix, I noticed some of the guides and climbers would whistle, hum and sing through their climbs. I realized it was probably a good trick for keeping your head in the game, and I embraced it.) I couldn’t hear anything from where I sat with the marmots, and I couldn’t see down the climb.

Finally, Jeremy came over the lip of the snow.

“Hey!” I yelled.

“Hey,” he said. “You scared me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I definitely win the prize for stupidest move of the day, soloing that rock.”

Ben wasn’t far behind. The weather already looked worse than it did when I topped out — the sun had disappeared, and the rain was closer.

“We need to get the eff off this mountain,” I said as both of the guys pulled off their backpacks to stash their crampons and ice axes. We were all perched on rocks looking right at the dark clouds.

“Seriously,” Ben said.

We scrambled for the top of the peak. It wasn’t far, but we were all so exhausted from the climb up the couloir that we kept pausing to gasp for air. Poor unacclimatized Ben had just moved to Colorado the week before. He had to be in a state of mixed misery and euphoria when we saw the turquoise lake in the jagged cirque on the other side of the summit.

A handful of hikers were on the summit and heading up the other side. (They should have been heading down.) We could see our trail; it crossed a high plain before switchbacking down to treeline far below. Thunder continued as we moved as quickly as we could down the ridge to the trail. I tried not to think about the metal ice axes we all carried on the backs of our packs.

The hail started in earnest as we crossed the open plain. So did the lightning. We paused to throw our rain jackets on and kept running for the trees far below. Rain poured and lightning crashed around us as we hit the switchbacks. Ben’s long legs carried him ahead of me and Jeremy, and when he reached the first patches of bushes, he yelled up to us:

“Should we stop here? We can ditch the packs and get under these bushes.”

We dropped our packs, ran 50 more feet down the trail and ducked deep into the bushes. Panting and soaked, we tried to breathe and count between the lightning and thunder. At first, we could count from three to five, but the flash and the following boom quickly became simultaneous. We were starting to soak through and shiver; we all knew we could easily become hypothermic if we stayed too long.

After a few minutes, Ben said: “Should we just make a run for it?”

Boom! No time to count between. “Not yet,” I said. “It’s right on top of us.”

After running more than a mile down the exposed trail, hiding in the bushes felt safe. It wasn’t much of a shelter, but we were safer there, without our axe-toting packs, without our heads poking above the low brush and rocks along the trail. I wasn’t anxious to leave. But the storm continued to beat down on us, and the cold rain was seeping into every opening of our jackets, pants and boots. Ben said he was praying hard. I thought of his wedding next week and hoped Genny, his fiancee, couldn’t see the storm from home in Boulder.

“It’s not letting up,” Ben said. “Should we go?”

We peered through the bushes at the gray skies to our south and west. Crash above.

“No.” I said.

“But there’s more on the way, and what if it doesn’t let up?”

“Maybe we should go at the next break,” Jeremy said.

When we could count to four or five again between the flashes and thunder, we went for it. (This was not safe, but we felt it was the best window we would get.) We ran. The trail was flooded, so to my worry over carrying a metal axe, I added my worry over standing in water in a storm. Full knowledge of the danger we were in had been pushing my body down the trail faster than my legs could actually carry me for an hour. I was wasted. I simply could not move fast enough to satisfy my fear.

Finally, we reached treeline, and of course, the storm faded, but not entirely. The drizzle and thunder continued as we headed down the trail at a walk instead of a run. I wrung water out of my gloves and put them back on, because fleece really does keep you warm(ish) even when it’s wet. My feet squished in my watery Gore-Tex boots. The rain stopped entirely about a half a mile from the trailhead, but by the time we reached the car, the rain and thunder began anew as another storm blew in from the southwest.

As I stripped off my wet clothes — even my pants, which were completely soaked and had been clinging to my clammy legs for miles — and chucked them into the back of the car, I made a vow to stay indoors and not climb the next day. Maybe do yoga.

Tuesday, however, is another day.