As I said before I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few places in Europe. It was about this time last year when I was here so I’m going to share with you one of the most surreal experiences I was lucky to be apart of.
So back in Ireland in my university we have a lot of clubs and societies. When I say a lot I mean over 50 different clubs and societies (c&s) all run by the students of the university! In my first year of college I joined about 5 or 6 just so I could have a taste of everything. Today I am involved in one in particular, The Outdoor Pursuits Club (OPC). We do hill walking, mountaineering, rock climbing, caving and orienteering. The people there are crazy nice and so outgoing, I ended up living with 5 of them the next year! When you join you tend to gravitate towards one of the five areas of the club and I was mostly into the hiking and climbing part. Any free time I had I would be down at the climbing wall to either try a new route or just for the chats. As you can probably guess there aren’t many places to rock climb outside in Ireland so we organise trips abroad to really test out our skills. I have been on three of these trips so far, Wales, Spain and France, and hope to go on more in the future.
So the trip I want to talk about the most would be when I went to France to the Alps with the OPC. Even just saying that makes me feel so cool and sound professional and shit. “I climbed in the Alps, yeah, no big deal”. It was such a big deal for me though, it signified that I was really part of the OPC family and could go along with them on this much talked about and sought out summer trip. It’s hard to get into their inner circle and I’m proud to say I was met with open arms. Only 12 people went with half of them being girls, which is unusual for the club. I had a summer job just for the sole reason of having enough money to pay for the trip and buy the right gear. We get subsidized by the university but the trip can still be pricey. We had the most beautiful weather with only one day of stormy conditions. My hands got sunburned for pete’s sake! Anyway, I spent 10 days there which sounds like a lot of time but it really isn’t when there is so much to do there, while the others stayed much longer than me. Now bear in mind this happened over a year ago so if I leave out names, places and grades it’s because I can’t remember. This post isn’t meant to be a guide it’s just me recanting an amazing trip. I’m not going to be going into huge detail on the routes or anything else, it’s just for fun. If you want a reliable account and guide for routes and the alps in general there are much better and more accurate guides out there. That said I do hope you read this and maybe get a good giggle out of it.
I travelled by myself from Dublin to Geneva, Switzerland and then got a bus to Chamonix, France using ChamExpress (chamexpress.com). Ian (my balded friend in the photo there), was great company on the trip even when I fell asleep mid sentence once of twice, he never stopped talking until it was time to say goodbye.
We set up tents in the valley in the campsite Les Arolles (lesarolles.com) owned by the infamous Jean-Luc and had a van to hold our stuff and use for food runs parked next to us. The place looked like a bomb had hit it when I arrived, Bags, ice axes, tent poles and food were scattered everywhere. To start us all off we mapped out three routes (Cosmique, Le Petit Aguille de Vert, L’index) and split up into groups, each group was to tackle a different route each day.
for the first official day, which was really day two, we went and explored the town of Chamonix. This place is a climbers paradise, you can’t go down any street without there being a gear shop or clothing store dedicated to the mountains, cheap or otherwise. We ended up separating, those who still needed to get some things for the trip went to scour the shops for bargains and others went to get something to eat or to Bucks for the compulsory coffee. If ever there was a perfect hotspot and meeting place then it was definitely Bucks. With expressos at €1 a pop you can’t really go wrong, especially with the amazing décor, staff and lets not forget the free wifi! Later we retired to the campsite to pack our bags for the next day trying to make them as light as possible while also making sure we had everything we needed. Then we fitted our crampons to save time in the morning. With an early wake-up time of 5am we decided to call it a night and try out our sleeping bags and thermarests.
waking up at 5am to have a quick breakfast, toilet break and last minute packing we were ready to get the cable car. Myself and three of the other guys were going to be tackling Cosmique as our first route; lets call them Buff, Baldy and Mop. We got the cable car up to the famous ‘Midi Station’. Mind you it was around 6/7 in the morning which is crazy early for a bed-lover like myself. Despite the early time the place was packed with mountaineerers and we were lucky to get on the first cable car up. It was my first time on one and I got so much slagging from the lads for lighting up like a Christmas tree when we started to ascend. At the top we put on our crampons and exited onto the mountain in all our gear in pairs. I was with Buff while Baldy and Mop were together. Walking on crampons takes a bit of getting used to as well as having a bag, rope and walking axe so we took our time at the start with Buff giving me advice and Mop taking photos and taking in the sights. After exciting the station we made are way down and around. When we got to the old hut we started to make our way up. Buff led while I seconded, Mop and Baldy alternated lead. About half way up Baldy started to experience a bit of altitude sickness. We decided as a group to keep going as it wasn’t too bad but the higher we got the worse he felt. At one stage he got sick off the side of the route. We were so close to the top that there was no logic in going back down when we could just go on the cable car down. So we kept going, all the while checking on baldy and making sure he didn’t get even worse. When we neared the top my glasses broke and one of the lenses fell out so I had to do the rest of the climb with one eye closed so I didn’t get snow blindness. We made it to the top to the observation deck to be greeted by
enthusiastic American tourists. We took all our gear off, got a quick group photo, food and water and made it down in the cable car as fast as we could. Baldy started to feel better straight away the lower in altitude we got. Buff was the most experienced and had set the route for us. He didn’t have very high expectations for us but we made his estimated time of summit even with us going slow to accommodate Baldy and with my lack of experience. He was pleasantly surprised and we ended the climb on a really positive note. Not too bad for my first climb in the Alps eh? The Midi station has an altitude of 3,842m so it’s not too much of a shock they you will get altitude sickness. Cosmique was a good climb to start off with, it has only one exposed part and you don’t need to place too much gear for safety. The scariest part is the very end when you have to go up the old, rickety builders ladder to get to the observation deck and everyone is watching you. We then headed to Buck’s for a celebratory coffee and to go over everything with the other groups.
So with the previous day being hard we decided to have a Rest Day, now a rest day doesn’t actually involve much rest, it just means that we’re not doing a long route. So we decided to do some sport climbing in the valley followed by retail therapy in the afternoon for some much needed supplies. We all hopped on the bus to the Les Gaillands which is a popular spot especially in the good weather. They have numerous routes with grades to suit all. This day was a really fun one. We had amazing weather, no time limit or rush and we had invested in a slack-line to play around on too. When we finished up for the day we packed up all our gear, brought it back to the camp and headed into town.
I had recruited Buff as my personal shopper for the evening so I could get some good stuff while I was here. I got a new sleeping bag, thermarest, purple belay device, a helmet and sunglasses. I didn’t come with any of these things and was beg and borrowing until now.
We have club helmets but because I have such a small head they don’t really fit right, because of this it slips and it smashed my other glasses (I had to get a child size one). We then headed to Bucks (I know shocking) to meet up with the rest of the gang.
sunburn, sore muscles,
So the next route we were to do was Le Petit Aiguille de Vert, which is a slightly easier route than Cosmique. This time I was paired with Baldy while Buff and Mop were together. This involved a slightly steeper walk in which set Baldy and I back a bit because I was slow. For Cosmique we only needed a walking axe while here we used a pair of ice axes for horizontal and vertical climbing on the route. I thought this was the coolest thing ever and felt like such a badass.
We had a later start than the previous day so the route was very busy by the time we started. There was a lot of waiting around when we go closer to the top. Some people were good craic to talk to while others just ignored you or passed you out in the line. At one stage some large french man had nowhere to sit so he decided I would be a the perfect substitute for a chair! I didn’t take this well as you can imagine. On the way down one of the guys dropped a whole set of nuts down a crack. I had to use a sling and an axe to retrieve it and hope that a french person didn’t stand on me in the process. After the successful rescue mission we continued on our way.
At this stage it was getting late in the day and the snow was starting to go soft. We decided to make a long absail down instead of down-climbing to save time. We all had different coloured belay plates and we couldn’t help but admire all of our pretty devices and take a photo. After trekking down the rest of the way we hit the flat and all bets were off. We were no longer attached to each other and we knew there was nothing for us to fall into so we legged it the rest of the way and had a race to see who could pack everything up the quickest and get on the cable car first. We could still see the prints left from one of our friends from the day before where he went his own way. He’s been coming to Chamonix for years and uses this route as a sort of warm up.
Day six was one of the days I had been really looking forward to. It was the last of the three routes that everyone had to do. Everyone else had enjoyed it and I was itching to try it out. L’index is a multipitch sport route. I was paired with Mop this time and Buff was with Baldy. It was my first ever multipitch route so I was excited to try it, plus who doesn’t love sport climbing? We got a different cable car up here and were pleasantly surprised to see that there was still snow. The locals and frequent climbers told us that there is usually never any snow this time of year at this altitude and especially on L’index. There are two main routes on L’index and we had to head to the left side of where we’re posing in the photo below.
Buff and Baldy headed up first alternating lead. The start was probably the hardest part. It’s just really awkward to start and you really have to just go for it. Once you get over that bit you’re flying it. The route was fairly busy so we did a lot of waiting around. When Mop and I started we decided to also alternate lead. He would do the harder pitches and I would second then I would lead the slightly easier ones. We met these lovely English men along the way so they kept us entertained while we waited. I took longer than I though I would because I was slow with setting up the anchors. In the end we actually made pretty okay time. We had a great view the whole time, made all the more better with the snow.
We met the others at the top and slowly made our way around to the back to the absailling point. We had to use our 2 ropes to reach the bottom. I was the last one down where the guys were changing into runners for the walk down. We had landed a little off so we had to hike up and around to the side. The walk was steep on the way down so there was a lot of rolling rocks which was really annoying. We reached the bottom and had to go over a large patch snow to get to the cable station. The snow had been used to much that day that there was a trail that you could literally slide continuously on to the bottom.
We got a quick photo at the end then headed home on the lift. You can see how pumped we were from the day and how fast the lift was going on the way down! It was off to Bucks for some well deserved coffee and meet up with everyone else.
At this stage each group had completed each of the three routes we had planned. This meant that we could now start planning our own routes and pair up with whoever we wanted. Everyone was excited for this because now they more experienced people could go do their own thing and try some class routes. It also meant that we had a rest day. Half of us went Ice climbing while the other half decided to do a Via Ferrata. That’s basically scaling the side of a cliff by hooking into a steel railing and climbing over some pretty cool stuff.
So the six of us packed up and took the sprinter to where the Via Ferrata was (no idea where). As we were driving along we went through this little town with lots of shops and roundabouts. Tee forgot what side of the road we were suppose to drive on so we ended up going around the roundabout the wrong was. You can imagine just how traumatising that was for everyone (driver included), with all of us screaming at him, the swerving and the completely oblivious pedestrians. Surprisingly no one noticed and there were no other cars. We stopped so we could calm down and continued on without a scratch! We also got lost on the way and had to stop at this abandoned looking hotel for directions. Eventually we arrived at our destination and parked the sprinter. You start at the base of the mountain then have to hike up to where the cliffs are.
I had been telling everyone for ages that I hate to walk. My least favourite part of any of the routes we did was the walk in. This is purely because I am very unfit. The guys who I had been doing the three previous routes with know this, they’ve witness this first hand. The others have heard me complain about being unfit but they didn’t know to what extent. Lets just say they found out pretty soon when we started the walk up. I was a good 10 minutes behind them. To be fair the walk was super steep and I just had to stop and look at the view every now and again. I eventually made it up red faced and they said they believed me when I said that I hated walking.
For a via ferrata you are meant to get specialized kits to use. We didn’t have the money for that so we made our own. They were completely safe and sure didn’t we all survive? Anyway, it was a great day with only a very brief sprinkle of rain during the climb. We had Forgetful R in front (who took all of the photos), followed by mom and dad then myself and snaileen, with Young Mc in the rear. It was busy enough but we weren’t in any rush and it gave us tons of time to take in the view. One annoying thing was when you were at a slightly difficult part and you had Forgetful R shoving his camera in your face. It was a little scary at some parts (I hate overhangs) but for the most part it was great craic.
We got to the top, clipped our clips to our harnesses and headed down the mountain. It was a really popular spot for trail runners and we passed a few on the way up. The boys were ahead of us girls trying to get back to the sprinter, so to make things fun we decided to sprint down. Bare in mind that this place is extremely steep with winding paths through forest and here we were going down full speed with the hope we didn’t fall. We were passing out trail runners while we were decked out in hiking boots, bags and everything clinking off our harnesses (which were still on). The boys looked back to see us coming for them and they took off. It was now a race to the sprinter. After we all caught our breath we hopped in the sprinter and headed back to Chamonix. There were thankfully no driving incidents on the way home and we had hot drinks in our hands before the sun was even close to setting.
Day Eight + Nine:
All of our training and preparation basically led up to us being able to go off in our own groups, plan and complete our chosen routes. The night before after everyone got back from their rest day we decided what we were going to be doing the next day. Myself, snaileen and Sarah decided that we were going to go up and do Aiguille Du Tour (3,542m). This was a two day climb. There had been a mix up with the cable passes so none of us could use them and it was too expensive to get new ones. That meant we had a lot of hiking to do. Baldy and Mop decided to pair off together, Slinn, Mom and Forgetful R went together and everyone else (the lads) decided to tackle Mount Blanc. So everyone knew what they were doing and we were to all meet back at the campsite in 2 days time. I was going home after this route so I wanted to make the most of it. Our group and the other girl group were heading in the same direction and staying near the Refuge Albert Premier (2,706m). They headed ahead of us by an hour as they had further to go before they camped for the night.
My group got the bus to Le Tour then hiked the rest of the way to the Refuge. All the way up we passed people mountain biking which was pretty cool. It took us about 3/4 hours (with me lagging behind of course). When we got to the refuge we mat the other group. This was really surprising as they were meant to be already setting up camp further up the mountain. Turns our Forgetful R had left behind his helmet and crampons. They were lucky that the refuge had spares and allowed them to borrow them or they would have been in trouble. They were now behind schedule and headed away as soon as they could. We set all our things downstairs then headed up to eat some of our packed food and get a hot chocolate. You can get rooms there but it was booked out and we had already planned to bivy out anyway. We met a group of lovely English people and ended up chatting to them for most of the night. Then it was off to the outside world to set up for a restless night of bivvying. There were some very cute guys outside next to us who were great to talk to as we went to sleep and they were getting up at 4am.
The next morning at 5am after sleeping under the stars (it was freezing) we went up to the refuge, changed, had a quick breakfast, packed up and left anything we didn’t need at the refuge until we got back. As we started our next walk in we passed the other group from the previous day. They had set up camp close to the refuge and were leaving the same time as us. Mind you they had a lot further to go so they were really far behind. They were confident that they would summit and head down so we parted and wished each other the best of luck. Our climb was class, really straight forward with great sights. We were a bit worried that it would snow or that a storm was coming in but it stayed away and we had no problems. Up was steep but when we hit the rocks we were flying it. Snaileen’s crampon kept slipping so we had to stop to fix it near the top and I almost fell asleep. Only the tugging on the rope and me constantly shaking of my head kept me from falling asleep completely. Once that was sorted we summitted and had to down climb to get back on the track. We passed an amazing crevasse on the way up and down which is the featured image above for this story.
We made it back to the refuge where I indulged myself with cut up chorizo put into a can of baked beans. It was so good you have no idea. We then had another round of hot chocolate and took a nap on some beanbags that we stole off some children. Once we were rested we packed everything (much lighter on the way down) and started the journey home. We were stopped numerous times by people asking us why we were carrying around a bat. It was a hurley. For those of you who don’t know what that is don’t fret no one outside Ireland tends to. It’s used in and Irish sport called Hurling. Although we had one French man who knew what it was because he had written his dissertation on it! We exchanged email addresses and sent him a photo of him holding the Hurley. Anyway, we got down, go the bus back to chamonix and reached the campsite. During the bus ride we text the group who were up there with us asking them how everything was going. They were in big trouble. The weather had closed in on them, they couldn’t see anything in front of them let alone anywhere to bail off of. We then started to ring the leaders, who weren’t answering to see if they knew anything about this. No reply but we arrived at the campsite and they were all there. Long story short the group had to stay out another night on the side of their route then hike back the next day. The others were going to meet them to give them food, water and extra clothes when they got down.
There wasn’t much better news for any of the other groups either. It turns out we were theonly ones to summit out of everyone. Baldy and Mop bailed off because it was too hard and Baldy hurt his arm. The rest of the lads ended up on the wrong route which is so rarely used it doesn’t even have a grade. They had rock fall and almost seriously injured themselves. We were all really lucky that no one was badly injured and everyone was okay once we were all back together again. I unfortunately had a flight the next morning so I didn’t actually get to greet the other group when they did eventually get back safe and sound. It was terrible that noone was really successful for the first solo planned routes but hilarious that the group of newbies and least experienced group had such a great time with no slip ups at all.
This was my official Last Day in Chamonix. I got up, packed everything I could and left what I couldn’t with the guys in the sprinter to get off them when they did get back. I got a shuttle bus from the campsite to Geneva airport and then headed back to Ireland. I flew into Dublin airport then got the Green bus back down to limerick where my mom collected me from the bus station. It was awful not being able to say goodbye to everyone and leave early but I was so happy to have gone in the first place. I had so many stories to tell everyone when I got home. I don’t think I stopped talking until my head hit my pillow that night.
I would highly recommend everyone to go to the Alps at least once in their life. You don’t have to even like climbing or any of that stuff to enjoy it. You can get the cable car up to see the views, go shopping in Chamonix or visit the surrounding towns. Every part is great and would make an amazing experience no matter what you’re into.
Some tips I picked up along the way:
Don’t take anyone’s advice as concrete just because they have all the latest and high-tech gear, they might just have a lot of money and don’t know shit about the mountain. Do your own research.
If you have any doubts while climbing, like you think you’re going in the wrong direction, voice them, even if you’re just a beginner and you’re with those with more experience.
If you feel sick in any way you need to tell someone, don’t keep it to yourself. It could be nothing serious but do you really want to risk your health and those around you by being quiet and it causing trouble further down the line?
What happens on the mountain stays on the mountain, you hear? Don’t make a bad day worse by arguing and going over every detail when all anyone wants to do if move on and salvage what’s left of the day. Yes it needs to be talked about so mistakes aren’t made again but seriously guys, cut yourself some slack and deal with it later when you’ve cooled down had time to think about it. You’ll live longer that way. Trust me I’m a doctor.
Think you won’t need it? Pack it anyway.
Sunscreen is a must have especially with the refection from the snow/ice, the altitude and the weather in general there.
And that’s all I can think of right now, I probably left out tons of details, private jokes and maybe even whole days, who knows? I hope you guys enjoyed reading about my trip to the Alps as much as I enjoyed being there. So maybe for your next adventure you’ll give the Alps a try.