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UCPA Intro to Alpine Mountaineering – Chamonix, France

Sophie Walker

Sport climbing in the Chamonix valley

Challenging, inspiring and breathtaking… these words can be used to describe both the scenery in Chamonix, in the French Alps, as well as the incredible course that I participated in whilst I was there.

My first experience of mountaineering in the French Alps began on Monday 4thJune, after a long journey from the UK the previous day. I was in a mixed English and French speaking group, however everyone interacted well, and helped each other out with their languages, which was an added bonus to the trip. We met with our guide and were handed multiple pieces of equipment, ready for a day of sport climbing and rope skills. In the stunning surroundings of the Alps, we were taught and practiced our sport climbing, leading, and abseiling techniques under the watchful eye of our instructor.

The view up the Mer de Glace glacierOn the Tuesday, we headed for the Mer de Glace glacier, a mountain train ride away from Chamonix. This was my first experience of being on a glacier, and it didn’t disappoint! From the viewpoint above (where the train drops you off), the glacier looks gravel covered and slightly unappealing, but after descending many, many ladders to reach the glacier, it was an enchanting network of expanses of ice, caves, hollows and tunnels carved out by glacial rivers, and ice walls soring high above. We were taught how to safely move using crampons and ice axes on the different terrains offered by the glacier. Moving together as a pair or small group, whilst being roped together, is an important part of glacial travel, which we practiced throughout the day. Stood at the top of a glacial ice wall, formed from a river carving its way through the ice, we fixed ice screws into the top and set up a rope system to enable us to safely lower off the ice wall, and then ice climb our way back up. This was a thrilling experience and required a high level of physical fitness. And after a long day of technical work on the glacier, the many, many ladders had to be ascended to get the train back into the valley… an exhausting experience!

A colourful signpost where we got off the Aiguilles du Midi cable car

One of the most nerve-racking and sickening experiences occurred for me on the Wednesday of my trip… in the form of the Aiguilles du Midi cable car! Rocking backwards and forwards, ascending at a rapid pace, we made our way to the mid-point of the mountain, with only mild travel sickness occurring! Once suitably established on firm ground (or snowy ground as it happened to be, where I felt much happier!), we set off to practice our snow skills. Once again, we were roped together in our pairs, and moved in this way for the entire day. Much of the day involved practicing falling over! Or more specifically, how to stop yourself if you did fall on a snow slope and start sliding down. Once enough sliding penguin impressions had been completed, we made our way up the initial section of the Butterfly ridge, to practice mixed climbing. This involved moving over rocks, either bare or covered in ice, with crampons on throughout. This required precise and agile foot placements to ensure your partners safety as well as your own. Multiple methods of abseiling and belay set ups were practiced once back on the snow, before sliding our way back down to the terrifying cable car!

Looking back down into the valley and to the village of Du Tour

The day had arrived to put all of our skills into practice. On the Thursday we set off from the small village of Du Tour, to ascend to the Refuge Albert, where we would spend the night before a summit attempt the next morning. From the valley floor, our guide explained where we were heading, to me, it looked like it would take us most of the day. Two very tired legs, multiple out of breath humans and 2 hours 40 minutes later… the guide had rallied us to the refuge at a crazy pace! Expecting the equivalent to a Scottish bothy upon ascending this mountain, I was very surprised to find a beautiful refuge that had a wood burning stove, bean bags, big fluffy rugs, and the most stunning views I have witnessed out of a patio door! A relaxed afternoon followed, re-charging our batteries for the following day. The food provided for us at the refuge was delicious; tasty, hearty meals, preparing you for any mountain day. An early night was in order, ready for our 4am wake-up call the following morning.

Bleary eyed and having not slept overly well at altitude, I hopped out of the bunk bed, picked up my rucksack and headed for the breakfast room for a meal of bread with honey, oranges and bowls of hot chocolate. With crampons on, roped up and head torches illuminating the glistening snow, we set off in the darkness to reach our summit. After around 30 minutes of trudging through the snow, thankfully at a slower pace than yesterday, we were able to turn off the head torches and admire the sun rising over the French Alps, a truly breathtaking view. We continued upwards for around 2 more hours, before we reached the last section of the ascent, where we removed our crampons and climbed the rocky section to the summit. It was an overwhelming experience, reaching the top of my highest ever mountain at 8am that day, having learnt the relevant skills within the past week, in the incredible surroundings of the French Alps. Unfortunately, the view from the summit was one of the very familiar clouds, a view typically associated with a Scottish summit! However, the views on the ascent and descent more than made up for it. Sometimes the descent can be relatively uninspiring and a bit of a trudge, however being surrounded by so many unbelievable mountains, and looking down into the valleys, there was always something to catch your eye and leave you in awe of the natural environment. At our debrief, back in the hostel in Chamonix, our guide was full of praise and acknowledgement of our quick learning, awareness of safety and enthusiasm throughout the week. After such a long and tiring day, I thought I would have the best night’s sleep of my life… how wrong I was! Every wriggle and roll resulted in me awakening due to having exceptionally achy legs, after a tiring but very rewarding week!

The view from Refuge Albert
Views of Switzerland on the ascent

Myself during the sunny descent, after summiting Aiguille du Tour

It is with great thanks to the Jack Bloor Foundation for the funding that I received to be able to participate in this training course. I had a very rewarding, challenging and informative week, learning skills that I will continue to use over many years to come, as I travel and climb more mountains over the world. As I am also part of the Leeds University Union Hiking Club, I also hope that some of the skills that I learnt can be passed on to other members of the club, especially for our annual Scottish winter trips, in the forthcoming years.

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