Cham area and Cogne, Italy (round 1) ice-climbing

I was fortunate enough to have a great tour guide in Yves for ice-climbing around Chamonix. This was actually my first European climbing experience, rock or ice, and what an introduction. Beautiful setting, great partner, fun leads. I am glad Chamonix is a multi-sport destination and we could ice-climb when I could not ski.

Since Yves and I had not climbed outside together before, we started off with a mellow trial run close by, at La Cremerie, Argentière. I often feel a bit bad about having to limit our routes to ones with not very long approaches.

I do not move well in deep snow, so the recent snowfall was a challenge for me. But it made for some beautiful scenery.

Looking up Mont Roc from the base of the climb

Looking up Mont Roc from the base of the climb

Snowy but warm temps (Photo: Yves Durieux)

A snowy day (Photo: Yves Durieux)

Through the trees...

Through the trees… (Photo: Yves Durieux)

This went quite well, so we next headed over the border to Italy and did climbs in the Valnontey valley, and Lillaz valley in Cogne, Italy. A place so nice we had to go there twice.

I guess it is pretty neat for my first visit/experience in Italy to be via ice-climbing! I know it doesn’t really count…not like when someone visits a city in Russia, and can then colour out half the world map.

Yves suggested ice-climbing in Cogne in Gran Paradiso National Park in the Aosta Valley, Italy for the setting, and the route because he knew it was in good condition. One thing I really enjoy about Chamonix, and many parts of Europe for that matter, is being able to cross national borders so easily and ski, ice-climb, rock-climb etc. in different places and countries.

The drive to Cogne involved passing through many tunnels, including the rather famous and long Mont Blanc tunnel. As one might imagine, accident/fire mitigation inside the tunnel is a big deal. Within the tunnel, cars are asked to leave 150m between them and the car ahead of them. This is so sensible for avoiding traffic jams due to accidents/breakdowns etc. I doubt that drivers in the US would adhere to such a rule.

area-map

Cogne is about an hour away from Chamonix, just over the border in Italy

Mild temperatures made me realize ice-climbing could actually be Type-I fun and not entirely a freezing suffer-fest. While the approaches to these areas is mostly flat, the abundant new snow at La Cremerie and Valnontey made the final kick up to the climbs challenging for me.

The two climbing experiences in Cogne could not have been more different. We had Sentiero dei Troll entirely to ourselves on one day; and I have never been in more of a multiple parties shit show than Cascade del Lillaz another day. The setting for both were beautiful though; the latter was particularly striking. I have never climbed in a place quite like this before and am super psyched about returning to do more ice climbs here and around Chamonix. It has also gotten me more excited about doing more ice-climbing in my backyard of New England. Separate blog posts to come for each of these days…

The first route, Sentiero dei Troll, is located in the Valnontey valley. We drove through a number of small, mountain villages, which struck me as being quite run down. Perhaps it was just the age and state of some structures; I’m sure the quality of life of the residents is not bad at all.

A beautiful approach to the climb

A beautiful approach to the climb

It was a wonderful surprise to have the entire route/place to ourselves.

View of the valley from the base of the route

View of the valley from the base of the route

Avalanche danger can be an issue around here because of the south facing climb, accumulation of snow higher up and the steep valley walls.

Yves ready to blast off

Yves ready to blast off

img_2714

Cool clouds

We saw some Chamois, which you do not find in North America. The couple we saw seemed quite unperturbed by humans.

chamois

What goes up…

wendy-on-way-up

…must come down

...must come down

The climb itself was enjoyable. Convenient belays, comfortable temperatures with ice that was not bullet-proof. What really made the climb great was the setting and views. We made good time on the route, descended without incident, and made our way back to Chamonix.

Ice-climbing in the adjacent valley, Lillaz, in a future post…

 

Cham skiing and injury woes

We skied a lot less than anticipated due to what I now know is a bad case peroneal tendonitis, which had first cropped up in January on my skiing road trip, but I thought was just muscle inflammation. Tendonitis sucks because tendons are avascular and take forever to heal. I have dealt with elbow tendonitis from climbing, and also in my knees when I was running a lot in my late teens/early 20’s; so I know the deal. It is going to be 3 months at best, probably longer, for recovery. There are a number of contributing factors in my case: standing on one leg when I ski and asking these tendons/muscles to do so much work stabilizing my full body weight, very high arches that put more pressure on the peroneal muscles AND my foot’s tendency to supinate (roll outwards), not stretching at all on my road trip leading to just solid and tight leg (especially calf and hamstring) muscles. This issue may have been instigated on my early December trip to Hong Kong, where I was walking for a couple of hours a day on many days. A diet that was not particularly nutritious and had a lot of foods associated with inflammation did not help matters either. I hate being so high maintenance (not in the tai-tai way, at least).

The pain was bad enough to cut short the skiing, and walking is painful. But we did get some turns in, in gorgeous weather. It was perhaps the first time this winter I was able to ski with my face exposed.

Aiguilles Rouges

Aiguilles Rouges

I had first learned to ski as an adolescent in Verbier, Switzerland, which borders the Haute-Savoie department Chamonix is in. So this trip to Cham felt a bit like coming full circle (in a very contrived kind of way :)), even though I had never skied in Chamonix before. I am definitely a North America skier by trade, and noticed a number of differences between skiing in Chamonix versus areas in Canada and the U.S.

There are four “altitude ski areas” around Chamonix: Brévent-Flégère, Balme-Vallorcine, Les Grands Montets, and Les Houches. We spent most of our time at Grands Montets because of the more interesting terrain and location and views of the Glacier d’Argentière, les Drus, Aiguille Verte, les Droites, amongst many many peaks. I did not bring any touring gear with me on this trip, so we stayed at the resort the “whole” time.

Les Grands Montets sits right above Glacier d'Argentiere

Les Grands Montets sits right above Glacier d’Argentiere

There had been no new snow for a while before my first ski day ever as a “proper” skier in Europe (!); conditions were pretty icy, and the lower part of the mountain was in bad shape. I was not super impressed with conditions, but was happy to be in very warm, sunny conditions, after all the time spent in really frigid, often low-visibility conditions in Canada and the U.S. on my road-trip. The warm weather did keep the snow that had not been skied off in decent, soft, shape though. But conditions were not good enough to warrant paying the extra to take the tram to the top of the Grands Montets.

One thing I noticed was that people here did not approach me or ask me questions like some do in the U.S., Canada. Maybe it is because of language differences, or maybe it is more cultural reticence to pry. One French skier yelled something to me which I did not understand, and when I apologized for not understanding he said “It is beautiful to ski on one leg like this!” That made my day. Another difference was that I was skiing and riding lift with Yves; whereas on my road trip I was a solo female skier with a curious setup, and that tends to invite conversation.

Yes, I attract a lot of stares with my setup

Yes, I attract a lot of stares with my setup (Photo: Yves Durieux)

A close-up showing how I clip my left leg up to a quickdraw attached to a belt on my waist. Like pin the tail on the donkey

A close-up showing how I clip my left leg up to a quickdraw attached to a belt on my waist. Like pin the tail on the donkey. Except no prizes. (Photo: Yves Durieux)

We were not expecting vastly different conditions the next day, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find great skiing conditions! There must have been some new snow overnight, and/or the direction of the wind had deposited the snow favourably. It was a total blast skiing the same runs we had done the previous day. Temperatures were still extremely mild, though a little colder (a good thing), and with such good visibility, we took the tram up to Grands Montets.

Looking up Grands Montets from the lunch deck

Looking up Grands Montets from the lunch deck

I don’t think I can recall a tram at a US ski area covering such a large vertical distance as the tram here. It was great! I had also never been so jammed in a ski lift as was on this tram. It’s a good thing I wear a helmet as my face is at most people’s chest height.

When you exit the tram, there is a little platform area with a great view of les Drus and the Aiguille Verte.

Aiguille du Grands Montets. It's a lot of steps down from where you exit the cable car down to where you put your ski(s) on.

Aiguille du Grands Montets. It’s a lot of steps down from where you exit the cable car down to where you put your ski(s) on.

Aig d'Verte Grand Montets ridge

Aig d’Verte Grand Montets ridge

It was particularly cool to see such a storied and iconic formation, Les Drus, so close up.

Les Drus and Mont Blanc from the top of the cable car

Les Drus and Mont Blanc from the top of the cable car (Photo: Yves Durieux)

My right leg is even huuuger (in Donald Trump voice) than my left leg these days

My right leg is even huuuger (in Donald Trump voice) than my left leg these days (Photo: Yves Durieux)

About to step in ski and ski down from Aig. des Grands Montets. Yeah, those outriggers are kind of beastly

About to step in ski and ski down from Aig. du Grands Montets. Yeah, those outriggers are kind of beastly (Photo: Yves Durieux)

Because the run gets a lot less traffic than the rest of the resort, the run down and snow was awesome. The views were pretty spectacular too, especially of the 9km long Glacier d’Argentière.

Skiing towards Glacier d'Argentière

Skiing towards Glacier d’Argentière

glacier-dargentiere

Getting turns in from the top of Grands Montets

Getting turns in from the top of Grands Montets (Photo: Yves Durieux)

I love that there are so many people who tour/ski out of bounds in Chamonix. But there is also a sadness I feel when I see people with their touring bindings (mostly randonee), ice-axes, and avy packs, because I can’t ski like that any more.

My overall impression of the skiers I saw at the ski resort is that there is a very wide range of ability levels, more so than the US. I’m guessing this is due to all the tourist traffic this place gets. I would say the grading of ski run difficulty is also softer here than in the ski resorts in the US and Canada that I have spent time in; and the snow quality in North America is better. That being said, I loved the mild conditions here, the setting, enclosed cable cars (versus frigid long chair lifts).

Another difference is that people don’t really queue up in an orderly way for cable cars/lifts. You have to be slightly aggressive and just push your way to the front to get on a car. I prefer the pervading system in North America, where on busy days/lifts, you have an attendant calling people out and making sure chairs are filled in a fair and orderly manner.

Despite two rest days from skiing (ice-climbing and a complete rest day), I found my lower right leg issues to prohibit me from skiing on Monday. I found myself unable to control my ski because of the pain, and had to cut our day short. Again, I found myself very upset and frustrated that my injury had reared its ugly head and completely ruined a ski day in Chamonix, especially with a good friend. After another few days of rest, I could only ski a run or two on Friday before having to bail. I felt lousy.

While scrambling to rehabilitate my leg/treat the symptoms upon my return to Cambridge, I visited a PA who gave me his diagnosis, admonished the doctor in Jackson, WY for injecting cortisone into my muscle compartment, and did not want to give me another cortisone shot because it was a) too soon since the last one, and b) there is danger of rupturing the tendon if a cortisone shot is done there. All that can be done is to start physical therapy in March, strengthen, and hope I can be ready in time for a planned ski trip in the Southern Hemisphere in August. I also hope that I can return to Cham in the near future to take fuller advantage of the skiing than I did on this trip. Like with climbing and a lot of things in my life, I just need to put in a lot more work than the average person to keep things functioning and to compensate for my physical deficits. It still feels frustrating to feel so thwarted, and that this winter, which was supposed to be the ski season of a lifetime, hardly went according to plan. It does not always seem fair, but there is not much point in dwelling on that, when I need to get on with things, learn from these experiences, so that I can embark on future trips and adventures.

Despite being frustrated and upset with my injury, life isn't so bad

Despite being frustrated and upset with my injury, life isn’t so bad on the lunch deck (Photo: Yves Durieux)

 

Chamonix – Journey and arrival

Close to three weeks after departing for Chamonix, I am finally getting around to writing and posting about my experiences there and the surrounding areas. While I was on my big skiing road trip I felt compelled to blog about a place and/or experience quite quickly, so as not to forget details I wanted to document; and also so as not to let things build up so much that writing would feel overwhelming. I know that I have a tendency to be quite emotional/volatile when I am documenting my emotions and feelings soon after an event. While there is something to be said about letting time pass and processing thoughts, I am at that point where it feels like there is too much to write about.

This was my first visit to Chamonix, and came about by the kind invitation of my friend Yves who I stayed, skied, and ice-climbed with the entire time. I am surprised we were able to spend close to a fortnight with each other, in a small space and with each other all day, without killing each other. I could not have asked for a more accommodating, generous, and wonderful host.

My journey to Geneva got off to an inauspicious start. My original Boston to Montreal to Geneva route got completely wiped out after my original Boston to Montreal flight was cancelled due to weather (hard to believe since the snow was very light in Boston), and then my later Boston to Montreal flight was sure to be delayed thus ensuring I would miss my connecting flight. While I was pissed with Air Canada (there will be an Air Canada-shaming post later) for the original flight cancellation, I will say they did try hard to find an alternative and called me to ask me to come to the gate when I was outside security killing time for the later Boston to Montreal flight, when it was apparent I would miss my flight. After a bit of scrambling on their part, and even the gate attendant holding the departing plane for me while he made phone calls, I agreed to get on the Boston to Toronto, Toronto to London Heathrow (LHR), LHR to Geneva flights. Of course having to go through two connections instead of one did not make me happy, but the alternative was arriving in Geneva one day later versus 4 hours later. Connecting through Toronto and LHR did have me going through nice airports with plenty of amenities, and incidentally, places where I have family should I needed to spend a night/long time in each of these places.

It was a real treat to fly into Geneva on a sunny day; I could not believe it was wintertime. The views of the Alps in the distance (I think I was looking at Parc naturel regional du Haut-Jura) were spectacular. I was struck by how clear the water was in Lac Léman; it could have been an alpine lake, or even the clear waters on a Pacific Ocean beach. I was also struck by how much wealth there was, as I saw the châteaux and boat docks around the lake. We also know how the Swiss acquire(d) their wealth in a clandestine and dishonest manner, which leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth.

Yves picked me up in Geneva, and as we drove to the Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley, you could see the western part of the Mont Blanc massif. It was quite a sight to see the snowy peaks, including the Dômes de Miage and Mont Blanc behind it, but I knew more spectacular views awaited me in Chamonix.

mont_blanc_massif_east

Mont Blanc massif East (Source: Wikipedia)

Mont Blanc Massif West (Source: Wikipedia)

Mont Blanc Massif West (Source: Wikipedia)

chamonix-mont-blanc-valley

Yves picked me up in Geneva, and as we drove to the Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley, you could see the western part of the Mont Blanc massif. It was quite a sight to see the snowy peaks, including the Dômes de Miage and Mont Blanc behind it, but I knew more spectacular views awaited me in Chamonix.

From left to right, you can see the peaks of the Aiguille du Grepon, Aiguille de Blâitiere, Aiguille du Peigne, Aiguille du Plan, and the Aiguille du Midi:

View of Aiguille des Charmoz to Aiguille du Midi from the town

View of Aiguille des Charmoz to Aiguille du Midi from the town

Chamonix church

Chamonix church

I also got my first taste of the hearty Savoie food of the region: ridiculous amounts of cheese smothering a baguette with big morel mushrooms on top, served with even more bread. This pretty much characterizes the cuisine of the region: simple, rich, hefty, mountain fare, developed and consumed by the farmers who occupied the region before it became a winter sports destination.

I had a little bit of time to myself the next morning, and as I walked through the town to sort out some lift ticket inquiries, I saw why the location of the village is so spectacular.

View of Brévant from the front door of where I was staying

View of Brévant from the front door of where I was staying

Chamonix is really quite uniquely situated in a valley surrounded by a lifetime of climbing/skiing/mountaineering. The peaks in this part of the Alps are so striking. I can see why it would be difficult to leave if you are an ambitious mountain (wo)man.

How can one tire of these views

How can one tire of these views

Yves brought up the good point that being surrounded by all these peaks and terrain can make a person feel a certain pressure. I am sure being surrounded by lots of very skilled skiers/climbers does not help. While I am not totally old, I think I am at a point in my life where orienting my life around chasing hard lines is not really practical any more, especially given my disability. Nevertheless, there is still an internal tension around leading a comfortable, financially-stable life, and being a bit more of a dirt-bag. While Cham was a great place to visit, and I would love to go back there for more climbing and skiing, Cham, for me, is not a practical choice for year-round, permanent living; I don’t have EU citizenship/residency, I don’t speak French, and there is not enough culturally/intellectually outside of winter sports.

I love that Cham is at the intersection of three countries and that we were driving so casually between Italy/France, France/Switzerland. It gets a lot of tourist traffic, but mostly from Europe/Britain. Goodness, there were a lot of Brits there. It is not ethnically diverse at all, but what mountain town is, I guess (I know I do a lot of “white people sports”). The search for the “perfect” mountain town for me continues…