Mid December is one of my favorite times to take a trip to Chamonix. It’s right before the Christmas craziness, and the snow/ice is just starting to reach optimal conditions for all winter alpine activities. You get the mountains to yourselves and town is just re-opening for the season; it’s perfect. Chamonix at the holidays is also such a charming place to be, with all it’s festive cheer, unlimited gluhwein, and more fondue than you can possibly consume; all the makings of a perfect winter weekend.
We checked into our AirBnB, an adorable little cabin called Stephen’s Mazot, on Friday evening, hopped around town, sampling local beers, French wines, and tacos (my top recommendation: go to Monkey!) and were ready to get started on our adventure the next morning.
I’ve been wanting to improve my alpine skills in prep for some big upcoming mountain goals, so I reached out to Adventure Base, an outfitter based in Chamonix, in hopes of squeezing in a solid weekend of climbing/learning before heading into the holidays, and before it got too cold to spend a full day down on the Mer de Glace.
AB has an excellent reputation for leading climbs around the world, as well as helping clients of all different levels get comfortable in and around the mountains. As to be expected of a reputable outfitter, all of their mountain guides are IFMGA/UIAGM certified, which means they’ve spent 5+ years of their lives (& then some) obtaining the certifications necessary to confidently lead clients on any alpine/rock/other type of outdoor adventure.
Ahead of the weekend, I was promised that we would be lined up with a “SUPER awesome” mountain guide, and they weren’t lyin’! I’ve had some GREAT mountain guides in the past (including another one with Adventure Base - hi Fabio!) so I knew this guide would have big shoes to fill. Needless to say, Pablo did not disappoint.
Before launching into the ins and outs of our weekend, a quick homage to guides in general, because I think they are sorely under appreciated / under acknowledged for their efforts: I think there is a misconception, or perhaps just a lack of understanding, amongst the general public about what it takes to become a mountain guide in a place like Chamonix. Part of this is understandable, as in some places around the world, all it requires to say you’re a “guide” is some solid climbing experience, a website, and proof you’ve done the climb once or twice before the client.
However, that is far, far from the case with IFMGA guides. These guides truly have to “earn their wings” and have probably worked harder for their accreditation than any of us have ever worked in our office jobs. These guides spend 5 years of their lives learning not only alpine skills, but a variety of other things as well: CPR, avalanche safety, wilderness first responder, how to work with clients / handle medical needs / read the weather, etc. and then they spend their guiding “on season” getting up at the crack of down to meet clients, & often nights in huts, away from their homes/loved ones.
Professional leadership in the mountains is incredibly important and not a job these guides - or their certifiers - take lightly. And, you have to not only become the best, but stay the best, re-certifying once a year, and ensuring you are up on the latest technologies/information available.
Needless to say, guides are powerhouses, and sacrifice more than just their working hours. They learn the mountains so well that they become a part of them, and then they give away that part of themselves to their clients. Here’s to them.
Now to our weekend…
DAY ONE: MER DE GLACE & CRAMPON / ICE CLIMBING SKILLS
We got a “late start” in alpine terms, given that we needed to take the Montenvers train up to our starting point for the day & the first train was at 9am (you could technically walk, but it would take the better part of a day to get from Chamonix city center up to there, and would be very cold in mid-December, so the train is advisable).
From the Montenvers train, we climbed over the ropes and headed down towards the glacier.
To get down to the glacier, you have to climb down a long series of ladders, which in mid-December were partially covered in snow and ice, making it trickier than usual. I’m guessing that we were some of the last people to use these ladders before the winter sets in, as much later than mid-December, they likely would have been unusable. After about 30 minutes, we made it into the valley, taking in the views all around us, and started walking up the glacier. My favorite awe-worthy peak was the jagged, mighty Le Dru, and Pablo shared stories of his many climbs up it.
We spent the day out on the glacier, winding over it, enjoying the beautiful (but cold) day, and ultimately found a sunny patch (which quickly receded out of sight 5 minutes later) in which to practice our ice climbing skills. Pablo practiced dropping us (while secured by a rope, obvi!) down several big walls, as well as down a crevasse, and then having us climb out, using our ice axes.
For me, a big part of alpine skills refreshers is about getting comfortable: knowing exactly how and on what angle to use your crampons to hoist yourself up, getting a sense for how strong your ice axe (and you) are when it comes to pulling up a wall, knowing what angles help maximize your stability and minimize the effort needed to move quickly and efficiently. Our practice helped me feel stronger, safer, and more confident in all of my abilities.
What felt like way too soon, it was time for us to head back off the glacier and back towards the ladders, where we would have to reverse our steps, and now climb back up to the train. A day well spent, and we were also quite exhausted from the frigid temps, and cold air blasting us all day in the open valley on the glacier. No complaints from us, but we had an early bedtime to follow! And good thing because…
DAY TWO: ICE CLIMBING IN COGNE
The first alarm went off at 3:45am on day two. The 3:45am alarm is always one that makes you ask yourself, “why the f&*! do I do this to myself on my ‘vacation’??” but after a coffee, we were chipper and ready to get going. The reason for the early wake up was because we would be hopping in Pablo’s car (remember how I said guides sacrifice all of their free time??) and driving to Italy, where we would be doing our best to beat the crowds in the very popular ice-climbing destination, Cogne.
We stopped in town for a pastry and a coffee (as you do in Italy) at a very quaint authentic Italian cafe, which was a highlight before the day even begun. Pulling into the parking lot, we were only the second ones there, so we were off to a good start. We gathered our gear from the car and headed out to Patri Acheronte, which was about an hour walk from the lot.
Being up early has it’s perks: we watched the alpenglow slowly pour into the valley and illuminate everything around us, on our walk in to the waterfall. A beautiful morning. The rest of the day was spent climbing up the Patri Acheronte. A few other parties showed up, so we had to work around one another but generally stayed out of each others way (pro tip: the earlier you arrive here the better, as you get first dibs, and less of a chance of ice getting chipped down onto you!).
We spent a few hours climbing, and it was awesome. We practiced keeping our heels low, and learning again how to minimize effort and maximize efficiency. Ice climbing does not require as much upper body strength as one may think, and in fact is largely powered by your legs, so we learned to utilize our energy accordingly.
We wrapped up in the afternoon and headed back to Chamonix with big smiles on our faces. I think I found my new favorite alpine activity!
It’s incredible to realize just how much you can do in 48 hours - and our couple of jam-packed days with Adventure Base was a great reminder.
We had just enough time in the evening to refuel with lots of nachos and fries at Cool Cats, and get a good night sleep at the cabin before heading back home to Amsterdam early the next morning.
What a weekend! We will be back for more!