MULTI-PITCH CLIMBING IN CHAMONIX
Climbing is a broad sport. It encompasses bouldering and deep water solo to single pitch sport, multi-pitch traditional and even free climbing big walls. And then you’ve got all the different types of rock and grades to discuss. And that’s before you even get into ice climbing, mixed climbing and mountaineering.
While climbing long, sloping, multi-pitch routes, traditional style, on some of Norway’s best granite in 2017 I realised that this is what my climbing heart beats most strongly for.
Norway had just whet my appetite; and a long winter season of indoor climbing in Sweden definitely hadn’t satiated my hunger. As soon as the evenings started lengthening and outdoor climbing began to feature in my climbing schedule again, my stomach rumbled for more multi-pitch deliciousness. And where should I go to find it? That very part of the world that sparked my climbing passion: Chamonix.
Because I have no regular climbing partner and no close friends that I could rope into coming with me, I decided to go it alone. I found a company, Chamonix Experience, that offered guided group trips. I booked straight away.
But there was a problem; there was a two-person minimum on the tour. I waited patiently for a couple of months, getting nervous as June approached and the cut-off for the no-go got closer.
Then at the start of the June I got an email from Lucy, my contact at Chamonix Experience, to say someone else was interested so if I still wanted to go ahead they could run the course. I said yes, of course.
It ended up being just me and this one other person, so we got great value for money. And, on reflection, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed the course as much if it was fully booked with eight people.
The other person was a guy from Egypt, now living and working in Dubai. Sharif was a stronger climber than me, easily climbing 6c sport routes. But this didn’t matter. Our guide, Mael was truly fantastic – full of energy, positive and happy, very experienced, meticulous, safe and rigorous.
During the four days we climbed two big multi-pitch routes, led by Mael, crossed back and forth the spectacular Argentiere Glacier and learned to place our own climbing protection.
But for me it was the feeling of closeness to the rock, of sharing it with people that love it as much as I do, of being bowled over by the beauty, grandeur and power of nature, of staying in a mountain hut with its rhythms and slow pace that made the trip so memorable. I felt at home, as I do in nature. But I was also challenged; at times I was scared. I wandered out of my comfort zone on several occasions. I laughed out loud, smiled until I cried and then smiled again.
“I’m still surprised. I’m still in awe.”
My relationship with climbing is deepening. It’s becoming more complex but at the same time more affirmed. I know what I do and don’t like. I know where my limits are. I know when I can try and push them. I know how to. I know my triggers. But I’m still surprised. I’m still in awe. I’m not left wanting.
Fear is always close by. But it’s a fear I’m learning to face. I learn a little more about myself every time I climb. I get to enjoy the small moments in nature: the sun-warmed rock heating my fingers; the wind drying the sweat on my brow; sharing that zig-zagging crack with a colony of ants, busying themselves with building their next city; with reaching the top, breathing deeply, thanking myself for not making any wrong moves; with devouring a bar of chocolate in less than a minute, guilt-free, as the landscape just waits for my blood sugar to rise; the cold belays forgotten by the warmth of coming home.
“One moment stands out in particular: the last move of the last pitch on the last day.”
There were moments on those two long climbs that scared me. One stands out in particular: the last move of the last pitch on the last day. I climbed over a shark fin shaped slab of rock, Mael was behind it, out of sight, belaying me from above.
As I looked towards him, I saw an abyss stretch out between us. I had to get my legs over the shark fin rock, one at a time, and find a tiny sloping crack with my toes. My hands felt useless, with nothing to grip. I froze, locked with fear. I forgot I was on belay. I forgot that all I had to do was lean in and shimmy. Keep my feet in that crack then after a metre or so step over to Mael. I forgot that the worst that could happen would be to fall back a metre or two and perhaps draw some blood. But no free-falling to my death.
“Look at me Sarah,” said Mael.
“I can’t. I can’t do this.”
“You can. Just put your feet in the crack and come to me.”
“No. I can’t. I’m scared.”
“Sarah you are a good climber. This is by no means the hardest thing you’ve done today. You managed a 6a+ pitch this morning. Come on. You know you can do it. Look at me. Breathe. Smile. Show me that smile we all love so much.”
“You can. And, to be honest, you have to. This is it now. You’re done after this. Think of all you’ve achieved. You can do this. Come to me.”
I looked at him. He smiled at me. I inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled. Wiped away the tears. Exhaled. Moved. Moved some more. Shimmied. Didn’t look back. Step one, two, three. There. I stood next to Mael. He took my hand and squeezed it.
“Can you smile now?”
“No. Not yet.”
He didn’t say anything more. He knew I was scared. After that it was a traverse into a crevasse and then a steep, scree-covered walk down. After 15 minutes or so he asked me again. I didn’t say anything, but I did smile at him. He smiled back. His whole face revealing his happiness.
“I’m glad we’re friends again now.”
I’d made it. I’d done it. I was terrified but I’d done it anyway. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been capable of overcoming that fear. How much I’ve grown! I’m not the best climber. I’m never going to be exceptional. But in my own way I’m my own hero. I believe the goal with life is to constantly learn, improve and become a better person and hopefully inspire others to do the same, in their own way.
“I believe we’re here to learn, improve and become better people, hopefully inspiring others along the way.”
As we climbed down, a helicopter flew in. There was a live rescue taking place on the same tower, though by a different route, we had climbed the day before. Mael ran to offer help. But it was too late. A huge chunk of rock had given way and fallen on the lead climber. I never did find out the outcome. All I know is that it was bad. It was serious. It was a reminder that climbing is dangerous. That life is filled with risk.
The injured person was training to become a mountain guide. He was an incredibly experienced and accomplished climber. Accidents just happen. They can happen to anyone at any time, that’s why they’re called accidents. But they remind us that life is short; we need to make the most of it and not let fear stop us from pursuing a life filled with joy, happiness, ups and downs, challenges and rewards. Life is meant for living, with all that that involves.