Sunday, December 2, 2012

It's gonna hurt.

My couple of weeks in Chamonix was coming to an end. Mike and I had just climbed the classic Voie Contamine on Point Lachenal, a rock buttress that rises from the Glacier du Geant Southwest of Mont Blanc du Tacul. It was the crowning achievement of my trip, having lead the crux pitch and survived a series of sketchy off route rappels back down to the glacier. With big smiles and high-fives we booked it back up to the Midi where we caught the last tram down to town. Passing beneath the Triangle, on which Mike and I had climbed a rather fun mixed route days prior, I spotted a team slowly working their way up the central face - the Contamine Mezuid. It being August, black ice shimmered alongside white blue streaks of neve. “That looks like a good one” I called over to Mike, who didn’t appear as enthusiastic. “Would make a good solo” he called back, “if you’re into that sort of thing.”

My first day in town, alone and awestruck by the size and shapes of the mountains had me reveling in emotion – I was like Donny in the Big Lebowski, out of my element. I dropped my bags at the geit and began walking around town in a manic stupor. Aleady homesick and scared shitless I searched out the nearest English Pub (my French being limited to “hola” and “como estas?”) and began to drink heavily. Chamonix was like Estes Park on a bad acid trip. Eventually I managed to get in touch with Mike, a former Colorado Mountain College instructor of mine. Apparently I had made an impression on the guy and on a whim he had invited me out to climb with him. Mike was no amateur to the Alps or Chamonix. He was spending the summer training for his guide’s exams and vacationing around the region with his lovely girlfriend, Sarah. While I was there we managed a pretty good weather window and climbed a slew of classic routes without incident (considering I had never climbed ice before my trip Mike once complimented me on my efficient movement - to which I replied “thanks, I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos”). We climbed classic “guides routes”, long alpine rock routes, and fun mixed snow and ice gullies. Mike’s criticism was honest and blunt, his advice sincere, and I was (still am) grateful for the days we spent climbing together. I learned a lot.  On days when it was raining I’d sleep in, go for trail-runs, admire the throngs of beautiful blonde Scandinavian female mountaineers who wondered in groves through the city streets, and make myself omelets. Around noon I’d usually end up with a bottle of cheap red wine and kill the rest of any grey day reading Gaston Rebbefat’s Starlight and Storm and Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Uselss. It was paradise!

As my trip was coming to an end I bid farewell to Mike (who was guiding clients up Mont Blanc the rest of the week), and decided I should pick a route to solo on my last day in town. I had been gunning to climb or solo the Frendo Spur, but when the time came I was considerably hungover and found myself dry-heaving in a corner of the Midi cable car (to the great disgust of the other fifty some early risers crammed aboard). A more realistic Plan B was the Contamine – Mezuid on the N. Face of the Triangle du Tacul, the route Mike had glibly stated “would make a fine solo”. Perfect! Once atop the Midi I bounded down the corniced ridge one descends to reach the Mere De Glace, passing parties of terrified people and nervous guides. I realized I too had been intimidated by the descent when I first arrived in Cham, and marveled at our ability to acclimatize to the scope and scale of our environments. I jogged merrily across the glacier towards the Triangle, hopping over the occasional crevasse or pile of human shit. I felt confident in my ability to climb the route quickly and then finish my day with a romp up the uber classic Cosmic Arete. The only worry I had involved my boots, which the previous weeks had revealed to be a half size too small, leaving me with blisters on my heals and tender toes when front-pointing in the hard late season ice. Hardly a reason to throw the day away! I climbed over the bergschrund and began climbing towards the route’s initial crux, a narrow section of 70 degree ice that flows through a large granite cliff band near the base of the wall. Conditions were great and I quickly climbed through the crux and onto the broad and endless 65 degree ice-face above. It was a beautiful day and I was elated to be alone, looking contemptuously down on the long line of ants ascending the Tacul’s regular route. Kick, kick, Swing, Swing, remember to breath. It wasn’t long before the exposure made itself apparent. The various rocks dotting the face that looked from afar as potential places to get off the ice and rest turned out to be blank slabs of granite devoid of ledges. The higher I climbed on the face the harder the ice became and it wasn’t long before I felt blood pooling in the recesses of my boots.  As the ice became more brittle I was forced to swing my tools repeatedly while the ice fractured into big plates which Frisbee’d down the face. It was exhausting, painful work. My arms began to cramp from the repeatedly hard swinging of tools and the pain radiating up from my toes was enough to make me contemplate just letting go. The ice seemed to go on forever and no rest was to be found on the face. I could see the rock ridge above me and knew I could reach it, but it was going to hurt.

I survived it, but all my toenails turned black and began to fall out one by one. The big toenails were the last of the holdouts and flapped about loosely for months, making it a bitch to wear socks or shoes if I didn’t tape them down. Eventually one fell off while bouldering, and the other eerily peeled off while wading across the Virgin River in Zion. I felt it rising and falling from its last points of contact, skin and nerve endings, but the water was cold – it wasn’t painful, and when I arrived at the opposite bank, it was gone. 

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