Discovering Chamonix – Part 4

Discovering Chamonix – Part 4

This is the fourth and final installment of our June-July Chamonix 2015 trip. Go here to start from the beginning.

This installment is shaping up to be a good one! Don’t worry, though, you wont have to go long without a trip report from me – Rose and I are heading back to Chamonix for another week in August with family. So I’m sure there will be more great things done then that will need reporting.

Guides and Shadow Mentors

Europe is much more densely packed with highly skilled climbers of all sorts than any other place I’ve been. In fact, Chamonix may be more densely packed with human billy goats than the Yosemite valley. A quick search of “IFMGA Guides Chamonix” brought up no less than 15 individual guiding companies that work in Cham. 

If/when you come to Chamonix, I highly recommend getting a guide for a day – your abilities will sprint forward immeasurably. Between Rose and I, we have spent a total of 4 days under the tutelage of a guide in Cham. Each day has been invaluable.

This volume of people climbing is only out numbered by the number of 4 star climbs available. That said, we still have rubbed shoulders with dozens of people whose years spent climbing number in the double digits. Rose and I have learned a lot talking to these people, observing them in action, and reading the books they recommend. 

Lessons Learned in Chamonix

Before I get into what we did, please allow me to pass on some of what we are learning (if you are not a climber who is trying to expand what you are doing in the mountains, feel free to skip this section! It’s long and very climbing related). Also, for most of what I talk about below, I am only in the process of learning. I ask hard questions that I find super challenging to answer myself.

There are 4 components that I think can work together to make you a better climber. They are:

  1. Technical Ability – simply put: How hard can you climb? Can you regularly onsight 5.10c climbs of many types (corners, crack, face, overhangs) on sport? Or are you in the 5.8 range? When not red pointing, how often do you rest while on a climb? How long are each of those rests? How’s your sport climbing ‘head’? Do you often get freaked out when more than 6 feet above your last piece of gear, or can you push the fear down and override it with confidence in your ability? 

    This ability to climb hard grades while keeping a level head I call technical ability.
  2. Technical Knowledge –  Can you do more than clip bolts? How many of the following can you do?: Escape a belay, place trustworthy trad gear, throw a rappel rope in the wind without it getting tangled, set up a pulley to help your second get over a crux or haul, aid climb, ascend a rope. How many (helpful) knots do you know? 
    What about non-5th class rock specific knowledge such as reading avalanche conditions, crevasse avoidance and rescue, building an ice anchor that’s as strong as a 3-point rock anchor, moving together on exposed but easy terrain, belaying on the fly off of natural features.
    What about wilderness first aid? How’s your route finding both on the trail and on rock?

    This is the stuff that helps you move away from crag climbing and move to longer objectives. You probably don’t need much of this at Great Falls, Seneca, or Safe Harbor. But to move deeper into the mountains and climb more complex objectives, this stuff becomes important. 

    By the way, those things I list above are (super) far from a complete list…
  3. Speed – Rose and I have been furiously working on this one. I’m not talking about speed climbing, I’m talking about how efficiently you and your partner move over the entire objective (approach, climb, decent, and transitions during the whole process). This is more than just fitness, though that’s certainly part of it. 
    Do you need rests every 15 minutes on a long, steep approach? Are you unnecessarily ‘buttoning up’ a pitch on trad (both time intensive to set and clean)? How long are you spending at belay stations getting things sorted before the next person climbs? How can you make any transition faster? Is your rope always getting stuck on rappel? How much weight are you carrying with you? Do you have a liter of water left when you get back to the car?
    Belay transitions can be a huge time-sink. 
    I’m not suggesting you and your partner don’t talk and ignore each other the whole climb. Or that you never stop to take pictures. Or that if you stop and rest, you don’t have a future in the mountains. 
    All I’m saying is the ability to move fast has a few major advantages:
    You can do more! You can move past crag climbing and deeper into the mountains and be back to town in time for beer. You can avoid having to bivi. You can avoid bad weather by being off sooner. You can get help faster in the event of an emergency.
  4. Putting #1, #2, and #3 together – How do you know when to belay off a horn rather than building a 3 point anchor? On the approach, do you set up a belay as soon as you encounter any rock? 4th class? 5.4? What’s your threshold for “needing” to be on belay? Having a better technical knowledge can help you move safely with greater speed and having a high technical ability can give you confidence in doing so.


For each of the points above, here are the ways I am working to improve:

  1. Climb with someone who is better than you. If you don’t have someone like that, just go climb. Maybe switch between bouldering and sport? Never top rope if you can avoid it. Top roping develops bad technique known as slop rope
  2. ReadFreedom of the Hills is a good resource. Alpine Climbing: Techniques to take you Higher is better. It’s like Freedom of the Hills for people who already know how to belay and build an anchor. 
    Watch: This guy’s entire youtube channel. He’s a crusty old Canadian guide with dozens of videos from the basics to tips and tricks. And he’s pretty funny.
    Do: Get a guide! They aren’t cheap, but every time I’ve gotten one, I’ve walked away a) inspired and b) knowing a lot more than I did when I started.
  3. There’s no replacement for conditioning. Theres also no replacement for not ‘faffing about’ (learned that one from the brits) at belay stations.  Go light! Climb only with the gear you need, but make sure you carry enough so you don’t get yourself screwed. It’s a balance. We often leave the #4 BD Cam in the car. But for some reason we always bring every other cam. Do we need to each time? Do we always need 15 draws and 2 cordelette?
    Tricks learned from #2 will help out a ton here!
    Read:  Beyond the Mountain by Steve House. More of a narrative than a How-To, but it will get you so stoked on this mentality. And Steve House is a badass. And you’ll have to periodically put the book down and go climb.
    Do: Practice! When we climbed TC (Crimson Chrysalis in Red Rock, Nevada), Rose and I made a deal to not talk at belays unless it was important and we took no pictures. We didn’t do it perfectly at all (some friends saw our first pitch LOL!!!), but it helped form a framework for the more intense days when we want to move quickly. We were still 13 hours car to car on that one.
  4. This is a tough one. Alpine Climbing touches on the decision making aspect involved in climbing, but I think experience (time in the mountains) and observing others in action can help us out the best here. Getting a guide always helps with this.

If you have anything that helps out here, PLEASE share!!

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