Surviving an Alpine Heatwave

The meteorological theme for mid June was changeable weather: fair and sunny in the morning would give way to heavy cloud and storms in the afternoon. It helps your sense of urgency if every time you look outwards from a stance you see a wall of weather advancing towards you.

After a couple of weeks, though, this gave way to blazing sunshine. ‘Approaching scorching temperatures’, the Chamonix Meteo read.

“I’ve never seen it say that before”, Tim, a Chamonix local with whom I’ve been climbing a fair bit, told me. Well, it wasn’t an exaggeration. It’s now mid July and it’s been hitting high 30s down in the valley for a few weeks now. Routes that are normally straightforward snow-based romps, like the Midi-Plan traverse or the North Face of the Tour Ronde, consist mainly of bare ice, making them more serious undertakings. Blackspots like the Nantillons glacier are bowling alleys where there’s a ball with your name on it. Seeking out alpine rock routes on solid granite with limited objective risk has become the name of the game.

It’s been a weird situation for me. This is my third season in the Alps, and usually I think of Chamonix as being able to provide ample ice and mixed lines, even in the summer: the Goulotte Chèré, the Eperon Migot, the Arete Kuffner. This year, however, I’ve been here over a month and haven’t used my ice tools in anger once.

I don’t consider myself much of a rock climber. I’ve always felt more comfortable on the cold, miserable, icy stuff – always more intimated by steep walls or blank slabs than by steep ice or bold mixed,  but over this past month I’ve been learning to love the granite. She’s a hard mistress; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve winced with pain after a day’s climbing as my fingertips scream and my nails burn, but underneath that, she’s (mostly) a joy. Slabs that climb like velcro; steep, juggy laybacks that yield to confidence and solid footwork; and grim, thrutchy chimneys that only seem remotely amusing afterwards, over an expensive Chamoniard beer, back down in the valley.

I’ve been enjoying the challenge of grappling with some harder rock climbing than I’d usually get on, and I’m feeling more confident than I have done in the past. I’ve always been guilty of playing to my strengths, preferring to focus on winter climbing in Scotland and steep water ice, but it’s been nice to try and round my skills off a bit. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a pretty sucky rock climber, but it’s nice to make a bit of headway!

Here are a few photos from some memorable rock over the last month or so.

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Tim on the sublime slab pitch of Nabot-Leon, Aiguille de Blaitiere
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Charlie on the penultimate pitch of the classic Chapelle de la Gliere
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Matt below the summit block of the Aiguille de la Republique
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Summit selfie, straddling the knife-edge peak of the Republique.
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Jon hanging out on the Tyrolean on the Clocher-Clochetons Traverse.
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Approaching Mont Blanc du Tacul’s Diable Arete [Photo: Tim Oliver]
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Wild exposure on Pointe Chaubert [Photo: Tim Oliver]
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Settling in for a comfortable night in the Perroux Hut
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Tim climbing into the shadowy North side of the Gervasutti Pillar. We didn’t see the sun for a good while after this…
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Low down on the Gervasutti Pillar [Photo: Tim Oliver]
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