Tuesday, July 15: Chamonix
Last night was pretty bad. Anyone reading this is probably asking themselves why I do this to myself. I was asking myself the same question last night.
My brain was trying to kill me. I went to bed around 8:30 or so, but just as I was just falling into dreamland, I would get the mental image of some scary drop, Iíd get what felt like a shot of terror-induced adrenaline, and I would be awake again.
I just could not fall asleep. As I lay there for hours, I decided that this whole trip was a mistake, why did I think I could do this, it wasnít fun, etc. I think Iíve been under a constant 24 hour/day level of stress, and it is slowly killing me. I was debating whether I should throw in the towel and call off the summit attempt, or whether I should just go as far as the hut, but not attempt the summit.
At one point, I was wondering if I should call the whole trip off, reschedule my flight, and head home early, or whether I should just hang out in Chamonix and play tourist for a few days, but not go into the mountains.
My main thought is that I wanted an end to my stress, and the return of the ability to sleep a normal nightís sleep. I absolutely canít stand being sleepy and not being able to sleep for hours, not to mention what continuous chronic stress is probably doing to my body.
I know that I was still up at 11, because I got up to take a bathroom break and to take a sip of water. I think I was still up at 12 or perhaps 1, but I donít know. Eventually I drifted (I think) into a light fitful sleep, but my dreams if any were of me lying in bed unable to sleep.
Chris took pity on me, I think, and let me sleep in until 7, rather than getting up at 5 as he had originally planned. Even so, I felt like a complete zombie, and my lack of appetite at altitude didnít help much at breakfast.
Probably what Chris was most interested in doing was the Cosmique ridge, which basically rises to the Aiguille de Midi from the opposite side from the scary ridge. It was steep in places, exposed to the drops to the Chamonix valley, and involved rock climbing above large drops. I told him that I really didnít want to do this.
So instead we went down to Point Lachenal, which is the scary ridge traverse that I did last year. I was not too keen on repeating it. (After doing it last year, the guide asked me if I had fun. My response was a very quick “no”.)
The sky was a bright cloudless blue, and the snow surface was pretty firm, which made walking down from the hut very easy.
When we got below the ridge, Chris offered me a choice: we could ascend the ridge just below the rappel/lowering from last year, traverse the middle part of the ridge, traverse around the cliffs, and then ascend the snowfield. Or I could chose to forego that, and we would just ascend and descend the peak on the right.
Given that I had nixed the Cosmique ridge, and as it didnít look that scary from below, I told him that I was game for the partial ridge traverse.
It was much steeper and more scary than it looked, and it was every bit as scary as last year. The climb up to the ridge was steep, and towards the end in several places, Chris would tie me in to an anchor, climb up a rope length above me, and then I would unclip from the anchor and he would belay me up.
The traverse wasnít *that* bad, although still scary. Worse was what was to come. Imagine a steep sided ridge ending in a rocky buttress. Last year, we tackled the wall head on and rock climbed up to the top. I had thought that we were going to go around the buttress on the snow, but I now saw that doing so would require down climbing all the way to the plateau floor.
Our route was to rock climb a sort ways up the buttress, and then to traverse around the side of the buttress (above an impressive height due to the steep sided ridge), to the snow field on the other side, and then go straight up the snow field.
Needless to say, the traverse around the buttress was scary enough, with a bit of swearing at key places. For almost the whole way, Chris would tie me in, go on ahead, then I would unclip myself from the protection, attach it to my harness, and then follow behind him as he belayed me.
At one point, I had Chris take off my baseball hat (which I had on under my helmet), as with it on, I really couldnít look up at all.
I was looking forward to getting off the rocks onto the snow field, but that didnít help. It was very steep, and we again did the tying in and belaying routine. At one point, Chris was trying to dig through the snow to find a place to put protection, which was pelting me with lots of little bits of snow and ice. I couldnít look up and had to look straight ahead, while I listened to the bigger pieces bounding off of my helmet.
Finally, we reached the top. I was still in a high stress situation. Chris suggested that we move over a short ways to a more rocky perch, where we could relax for a bit, before starting down. I told him that sitting there would not be relaxing for me, and I would just as soon head down immediately and rest when I was off the heights.
So we did so. The normal trail down (not the way we had come up) was much more mellow and easy. It was just relatively steep snow, nothing that required a belay (although we did have to cross a small bergschrund at the bottom).
I had figured earlier that Chris had decided not to explore the big crevasse, but he had just decided to do it after the traverse. We walked over to it, and I stayed far away with the rope tight while he approached the edge and studied it. Then he proceeded to build a “dead man”, by cutting a T-shaped trench in the snow, and burying our ice axes in it.
He clipped the rope in, and then told me to go over to the crevasse and climb in. Easy for him to say! I am used to starting a rappel/lowering by standing with my back to the void, and leaning back against the rope until Iím horizontal and hanging from the rope, and then going down, but that wouldnít work in this case. Since the rope was attached at ground level, if I leaned back until I was horizontal, I would just fall over backwards.
Chris told me to sit with my legs over the lip, and then turn around and climb down, which didnít seem nearly so simple to me. Standing next to it, I saw that the crevasse was maybe 20-30 feet wide, and 40 or 50 feet deep, with essentially vertical sides.
I couldnít make myself do it. I made several attempts, never getting more than a few feet from the edge, but then I told him that I couldnít do it, although I did walk back out to near the edge (several feet away) and take some pictures with my outstretched arms.
We unburied the ice axes, and it was time to head back. I was just looking forward to getting the scary ridge to Midi behind me, and saying “goodbye forever” to Midi, but Chris had other plans. Instead of taking the direct way up to the ridge, he angled to the right and then ascended a small ridge extending out into the plateau. I thought it was more to get a more gradual ascent to the scary ridge, but it was really intended to put us on the ridge further away from the tram station, so that we would have more of that ridge to traverse and he could gauge my reaction.
The side ridge got as narrow as the scary ridge, but the drop offs were much smaller and it was almost horizontal. The ridge above the cliffs was fortunately broader than the scary one, but still a source of stress for me.
Eventually we got to the scary one going up to Midi. It wasnít nearly as bad as going downóI just kept my eyes on Chrisís boots. The ridge is somewhat steep, and I was getting winded, but I really didnít want to stay on that ridge any longer than necessary and catch my breath.
We just kept plodding along, and eventually (with almost no swearing on my part) we went through the gate back onto safe territory. I hope to never traverse that ridge again as long as I live!
We took off our gear, and then headed down. There were lots of tourists there, and the trams were very full. Eventually we got down to civilization. It was roughly noon.
I asked Chris if he wanted to have lunch together, where we could discuss tomorrowís plans. He agreed. He wanted to send an email, so he said that I could go back to my apartment and drop off my pack, and he would meet me there in about 5 minutes. I not only dropped off my pack, but I also changed into sneakers.
I thought that Chris was getting his car and stopping to pick me up, so I was waiting by the curb. I was somewhat surprised when he walked up behind me and greeted me. So we walked to this place he knew that had a good lunch. Interestingly, it was almost directly across the street from the Gustavia, where I stayed the previous year. That time, I never ate there (it was called “Moo”).
Talking to Chris about the next two days, Iím not entirely optimistic. There are several exposed ridges near the top, but we will see how it goes. Despite my feelings last night, I guess my plan is to carry on and see when/if I bail, or if Chris bails for me.
It turns out that there are only two feasible routes at present, and one is not actually available due to avalanche hazard. Chris thought that despite the ridges, the one that we would be taking would be the easier of the two for me. The way that we are not going is more technical. Last year, it involved climbing a 30 foot ice wall. But this year the glacier under it has changed, and one canít safely cross the glacier to the ice wall. Instead one has to go directly to the top, which is a two pitch (300 feet?) very steep snow climb. (I wonder now how that would compare to Point Lachenal?)
After lunch, I walked back to my apartment. It turns out that Chris has an apartment about halfway between mine and the Gustavia.
I got more cash at an ATM. Iím really curious as to what gives a better exchange rateóthe bank or VISA.
When I got home, I took a shower and changed into clean clothes. Then I took things out to let them dry. I looked around and found that I just hadnít packed my bag liner, although I thought that I had. So I didnít need to buy one of those.
I went out and checked that the bakery opened at 7 (weíre scheduled to meet at 8). I think Iíll probably try them for breakfast tomorrow rather than cooking for myself.
I saw an interesting sight after that. There were two fair-sized groups “rafting” down the river that runs through the center of town. It was really sort of a half-raft, sort of like a boogie board, with the “rafters” sort of lying on it with their top half, but with their bottom half in the water, and kicking with swim fins on their feet.
Then I went over and bought a new ice axe. I considered renting, but I would have more selection when buying. I think I ended up getting the same one I got before. Often for these large purchases, they give me the offer of buying it for N euros or M dollars. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether they are giving me a better exchange rate or whether I would be better off buying it in Euros and having VISA do the exchange.
Then I came home, uploaded camera flashes, charged cameras, and wrote this up. I still have maybe an hour to kill before I try to get an early dinner.
I wandered over to the church for some praying and hopefully calming of my nerves. Then I had some pizza for dinner. I couldnít see spending twice as much for a fancy dinner, which I really couldnít appreciate due to my current state of agitation.
While I was eating, I saw something interesting. A girl went by, riding on what I would describe as an oversized skateboard. It had big wheels (maybe 8 inches in diameter) outside of the board proper. It was motorized, and it looked like the girl had a controller in her hand to control the motor. Iím guessing that she steered it by leaning, like a normal skateboard.
I now have an hour and a half to kill before my fateful bed time. Iíll probably do a bit more strolling around. I also plan to pack up everything tonight, so I wonít be rushed tomorrow morning and forget something.
I really hope (and pray) that Iíll be able to put my stress and worries aside and actually get a reasonable nightís sleep tonight.
During my little stroll, I could clearly see the ridge along which we would be climbing on the morrow. I deliberately did not look at it, because I was afraid that it would look scary, and then haunt my dreams as I tried to sleep. I wanted so desperately to get a decent nightís sleep for a change, that my entire focus was on keeping myself calm and unstressed.
Once again, I had trouble falling asleep. I felt that it was too hot on top of the loft, so I ended up moving myself to the floor. After that, I managed to fall asleep and have something vaguely approaching a normal nightís sleep.