Up until recently my one attempt at climbing had been during a stag do in Birmingham where the climbing wall was little more than an entrance hallway to a laser quest centre (we went there as well). Myself and fifteen other adult men clambered up and down the wall strapped into some sort of automatic belay device as children wandered past laughing. The major challenge was not so much the climbing as it was the hangovers gained from a late night karaoke session and WKD downing contest. It wasn’t a particularly impressive induction to the world of climbing.
Two years later, and with only my twenty minutes of tenuous indoor climbing under my belt, I was invited to join Patagonia for an Ice Climbing trip in Chamonix. Fine, I may have had some apprehensions, largely due to the fact I could neither climb or had any idea what ice climbing actually entailed, save for the fact it would probably be quite cold. But, as is the rule of The Allrounder, if something new and exciting crops up, you pretty much have to take it.
After arriving in Chamonix and spending a few hours sorting out our kit, eating charcuterie and drinking beer, myself and the other journalists had the chance to meet our tour guides for the trip; Jon Bracey and Zoe Hart. Like myself the level of climbing ability amongst the rest of the group was somewhat questionable so for the next hour we bombarded our guides – who in 12 hours would literally hold our lives in their hands – with as many questions as possible about what we’d actually be doing. Neither seemed particularly nervous about the itinerary which consisted of climbing down to a glacier, hiking across it and then scaling an ice wall. Whether it was the confident and assuring manner of our guides or the fact I’d worked my way through a number of beers, I took myself up to bed in preparation for the next day and passed out.
After a hearty breakfast we made our way to the Montenvers railway, a funicular railway built in 1908 which takes people 1,913 meters up the side of the Aiguilles de Chamonix. It’s from this point people depart to access the glacier known as The Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France at 7km long and 200m deep. As train rides go it’s pretty good, especially considering my usual route takes me through Earlsfield, Queenstown Road and Vauxhall.
After a few photos, some Ritter Sport and a toilet break we were ready to begin our ladder descent to the glacier which sat a couple of hundred feet below. Jon (pictured) led the group through a twisting route covering walkways, ladders, one or two via ferratas and the odd boulder. Nothing too dangerous but more than enough to start learning a bit more about how to climb and use our kit properly. Following in a line we learnt the basic rules of clipping in and out as we made our way further down towards the glacier.
Once at the bottom, and after a short warning about glacier crevasses (hidden holes on the glacier) we began hiking our way across to Jon’s preferred location for a spot of ice climbing.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t really 100% clear on what ice climbing actually entailed. I assumed that it was largely just climbing in the cold, probably, for us beginners, on some sort of baby slope. It wasn’t until we turned up at the enormous and somewhat deep gorge in front of us that I realised it was probably going to be pretty difficult.
Before being pushed off the side (a fairly accurate description) Jon ran me through how to use a technical ice axe and crampons to scale an ice wall, I nodded back confidently whilst taking momentary glances at the hole next to me and taking frequent gulps. Jon then took us through how to set up a snow anchor to tie the ropes to. I stepped backwards, shaking my head in disbelief at the ropes now tied to my harness and coming out of little more than a mound of snow in front of me.
I stood on the edge of the ledge and looked down. I’ve never actually been afraid of heights but jeez it didn’t look nice. “It just looks hard because of the ledge” shouted Jon, a smile beaming across his face like we were playing frisbee, “once you get over it things get easier”.
With a bit of nudge I fall back and Jon lowers me fifteen metres down. Yep, it doesn’t sound very far but trust me its seems like more at the time. Now it was time to actually do some work. With an ice axe in each arm and my clampons ready to go I began the process of making my way up the ice wall. The first difficulty I found was actually getting the axes to stick into the ice so I was able to gain enough purchase to pull myself up. After some frantic adrenaline-fuelled ice picking, the result of which was a snowglobe effect of ice falling to the ground, and a few falls, I finally managed to make some headway with the help of Jon from above.
After reaching the top finally I dropped the axes and rubbed my hands together, the pain of blood rushing back into them causing a sensation I hadn’t felt before. I looked back down at the wall and had no idea how long it would take to be able to climb an actual mountain, especially without having someone stood at the top holding the rope for you.
After that the hike back and the ladder ascent up to the railway were like a relaxing break by comparison. We regrouped at the top and waited for railway to take us back. Discussion focussed heavily on training and how to become a better climber. I left with a firm decision to take up indoor climbing on my return.
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Picture credit: A.Ghilini ©2014 Patagonia, Inc.