I had been climbing in Chamonix a few times in the past but this year I had the opportunity to spend the whole winter there. I was excited, if not a bit nervous.
I have always had the dream of buying a van and travelling around the alps for a season. So I took a gamble and spent all my savings on a van I saw online which turned out to be perfect. It was just a shell so in a few days I kited it out and was off to do a season in Cham.
ARRIVING IN THE MECCA I did not know a single person in Cham, but managed to soon find a job with Cham Van driving to and from Geneva airport 4 days a week, and the plan was to ski and climb the rest of the time. As I drove into the valley it was like the first time you see El Cap. You are in awe. Although I then burst out laughing by the fact that there was not a drop of snow around and thought what have I done deciding to leave the snow of Canada for this! Ah well, I could always climb.
Soon the snow came and it was incredible. Some of the deepest snow I had every skied, it was insane. It was too good to even take video or photos but eventually I took the Go Pro out at the end of December, when only one lift was open as there was too much snow.
Into January, I met Alex Buisse a French Photographer in Chamonix, and we decided on doing some routes together. We had decided on the Swiss route to be our first time sharing a rope, and it looked fantastic. To the right, a picture of the route which is roughly 1000m in altitude gain and the Hias van in which I spent the winter.
OUT FOR THE NIGHT The route was in fantastic condition, and really fun. We slept in the Argentiere hut the night before, which lived up to it’s haunted reputation. We were at the bergschrund just before 6am. Although the days are quite long in the Alps even in winter, night fell and we were still on the route till 8pm. We found a small cave and decided to we bivi in. We had no bivi gear or cooker and the hole we slept in was barley big enough for one person’s top half. It was horribly sloping but it was better than being stuck in -15 temperatures with 100 km gusts outside. Freezing, one of my coldest nights yet, but with some great team work we made it through the night with all our fingers and toes, which were still tingling for a while after…
The next morning the cold was unbearable and we had to get moving again at 5am. We started to ski the Austrian Route, which was an incredibly steep and exposed decent. We found it was definitely not in condition and a no go, so after 200m decided we had to get off and rapped the whole route…this took forever and meant leaving all my tat and slings behind, but we were off the route before sunset. We were destroyed. What we had planned to be a 6 hour leisurely climb turned into a 2 day epic with no food and water. Everyone in the valley feared the worse. A police man even called in to visit my mother’s house in England. It was a great adventure though and the hard days are the ones you remember best.
I next had some time off at the end of the month when my mate Nathan Murphy came out for a week of climbing. We when straight up the midi and bivied in the observation hut that was opened all winter there. It is fantastic in there and we had the whole area to ourselves. In fact we did not run into anyone else the whole time. The weather was perfect for skiing as it was dumping, but Nathan didn’t ski so we decided to try and get some easy routes in and try something big at the end of the week, weather permitting.
We started on the super classic Cherie couloir on the triangle. It was an incredible route, almost 90 degrees ice in places and it is a highway of foot and pick holds. It is the equivalent to Camalot 2 crack climbing. A dream! So we did that to the top on the first day and it was brilliant. The weather was definately moving in so we decided to do the Cosmique Arrete the next day.
ALTITUDE IS A REAL SLAP IN THE FACE and whenever you head up not acclimatised it is brutal. If you go straight to 4000m it is hard to sleep, and you have a constant headache. Plus you can guarantee it will be cold. The next day, it was brutal conditions. Even an easy route like the Arrete was going to be hard. You could barely see any rocks, as it was plastered. There was 35cm of fresh powder on one side which felt bottomless as you tried to swim through it and then, no joke two foot of rime plastered on the other side, which would fail if weighted. So there was a LOT of gardening to be done. It was very windy and between -15 to -20 degrees. I led the route and Nate was following. I then made a big mistake of absailing too far at the abb, which led to a very costly and hard exit, but we managed to get back on the route. We did not have a topo and there was no trace of anything on the route, so I went off route especially at the end but really enjoyed the last 3 pitches. It was pretty wild in those conditions, but still a fantastic route.
It is amazing how much the conditions affected it - the Cosmique Arrete is one of the easiest climbs in the valley, but it was a real fight when we did it. We then decided to go ice climbing in Cogne, Italy, as it was going to be -40 up top without the wind. So it was a good time to get some pizza and coffee in Italy. Bellisimo!
THE ICY WINTER CONTINUES. It then get really cold at the beginning of Feb and was -25 in the valley for about 3 weeks. It was a real struggle to survive in the van, everying would freeze within minutes and it made it the most miserable 3 weeks of my life!
When I moved to Cham I thought it would be easy to find people to ski with. It was almost impossible. A lot of people looked the part but when it came down to it, were not up skilled for the mountains. I was getting fed up of not having anyone to go skiing with, so I decided to just go on my own and did some great couloirs like the Cunningham off the bridge on the midi, the Poubelle, and lots more. I was gutted however later when my car was broken into and my Go Pro and all the photos from the season were stolen! The Cunningham was a real highlight of the season for me. Athough the conditions were not great, it was such an adventure. There are 2 absails off the bridge and you really feel the exposure. Then 2 pretty straight forward couloirs which would be amazing in good snow. I skied all the way down the valley on the Bossons Glacier, which was really fun and good snow. It is routes like these which is what Chamonix is all about. To be honest the lift skiing is ok, but what you can access from the high lifts with not too much effort is incredible!
I then went skiing in Verbier a few times which looked like it has some great potential off piste but the snow conditions were really bad as, by contrast, it hadn’t snowed there and it was sunny for the last month. It was then on to Riglos for a few days climbing with Chris Bevins, and then back to Cham for one last route. While I was in Spain I found out one of my Australian friend’s, the Tazmanian devil Simon Young had just gotten to Chamonix. I had met him 5 years earlier on Mescalito, on El Cap where we celebrated his birthday. I was really spent by now being the end of the winter, living in a small van and being cold all the time. It was debilitating.
He suggested the route Fil à Plomb which is just lookers left of the midi and a 700m route. It sounded perfect for my last route. We managed to miss the first cable car, but overtook the crowds on the walk in to the route. There was some awesome mixed climbing and a great 50 odd meter, 90 degree pitch of ice. It was incredible weather and so much easier doing a route in the warmth of March compared to the usual deep winter. I could not believe how easy it was on the route but, my tiredness soon caught up with me and I was very slow on the arrete back up to the midi. I think it was my body’s way of saying that was enough now for one winter, time to go home. I had really wanted to stay and do more routes with Simon, as finally I had found someone good, but I was done and the conditions were getting too hot, so I decided it was time to leg it to Fontainebleau to train for Freerider.
MY CONCLUSION. Overall, my thoughts of Chamonix are mixed, I left there feeling a bit bitter, but it had not lived up to my dreams. Looking back, it is an incredible place with such good potential. My problem was I was living in the van with no insulation or heating, which was miserable. My job didn’t pay well, so money was always tight, and I did not socialise. When I was not working, I was training, or skiing. It can take time to find the right circle of people to ski and climb with, and realistically, it took me 2 years to do this in Whistler.
I will definitely be back, but with some cash money, an apartment and heating. Then it will be awesome!
Chamonix, Mont Blanc, France
Length of time: 5 months (in a van)
The Goal: Routes, routes, and more routes (in winter)