My hosts got after it in the mountains. That’s why they are in Chamonix. The Aiguille Du Midi Tram allows immediate access to Europe’s biggest glaciers which is the ideal playground for mountaineers. On Tuesday they were heading out for some alpine climbing and glacier travel way up high. A fellow guest from Belgium was doing something epic up there as well. When asked what my plan was I sprayed out that I’d do some gnarly 4th class scrambling somewhere Jeff mentioned called La Jonction. The Junction is an arret marking the splitting point of two large glaciers off Mont Blanc. It’s basically the highest point you can reach on Mont Blanc without stepping on the ice. 5,000 vertical feet straight up sounded prime and doable. This was my day.
Their mission was a bit more time sensitive than mine because they needed to avoid mid afternoon glacier travel. The frozen ice begins to wake up and move in the hot part of the day, not a time to be in a tricky spot. Jeff and Virginia left at 7 A.M. and I caught a ride. Four espresso shots deep I quickly shot up the steep trail to avoid the caffeine anxiety. The switchbacks started straight away. The first section was up through the shelter of tall fir trees. It’s funny where the mind goes when on a steady hike that doesn’t require much focus. Lots of processing and then random movie scenes that I recall over and over. I’ve verified that these repetitive thoughts are not insanity as many of my fellow NOLS friends who step slowly in the back of hiking groups all day have shared a similar experience.
This focus free walking ended as the trail ascended above the tree line. Exposure to steep slopes came quickly. The trail was easy but sometimes I imagine tumbling down these grassy semi-cliffs like Chris Farley in Black Sheep.
Once I could see all surrounding terrain I realized I was adjacent to the two glaciers that would eventually merge together above. I’ve never been in a spot like this before so the thrill of the uncharted set in.
A note on other trail walkers:
There is an etiquette on trails to pull over to the side and let the faster hiker pass. If this unspoken agreement is actually followed then both parties should be satisfied in theory. No one likes to be rushed and faster hikers hate to be held up. The disruption of the code is due to the pride of not being passed. It’s hard to face the fact that someone is faster than you. I myself hate being passed, but I realize that there are many outdoor people faster than me and I honor the code when necessary. But there are extenuating factors. The first is age. If you have gray hair or no hair, a hunchback and trekking poles then you should not be offended by the young squire trailing behind you. The second factor is the different length of your routes. My pack is tiny. That is because I am doing a day hike. Your pack is huge. It has an ice axe and a helmet clanking around on it. And I hear the tick ticking of trekking poles. Your pace should be way slower. Stop trying to prove yourself. Your trekking poles are not going to make you go faster so why don’t you just throw those futile rods off the mountain. This is not the winter and you are not skiing. You are walking outside. Do you use trekking poles to get to your car in the morning? How are you going to carry your groceries while trying to match each step with a metallic tick?
I spent about an hour weaving my way through fellow daywalkers. My issue was I didn’t know how to say “may I pass you” in French or German. I chunked some words together that made no grammatical sense and pointed which worked out.
Free of human obstacles the rest of the climb was my ideal peak ascent. Flowing up the confusing boulders, getting cliffed out and down climbing. Confidence when exposed and spooking a robust french marmot. I summited pretty quick.
The view was amazing. The glacier split in two like flower petals peeling back from the bud, and I could walk right out on it. They flowed from high alpine cirques I couldn’t even see and continued for thousands of feet below me. These were the largest crevasses and suracs I have seen. The uneven blocks of ice looked terrifying to traverse but people do. Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc were right above me. I had placed myself in Chamonix.
I wolfed down my brie and chorizo sandwich and decided to sketch the glacier. Lots of rock ridges and ice fields split by huge cracks. It seemed that the only colors in the scene were brown, white and blue. A humming bird might’ve seen hundreds but my colorblind eyes kept it simple. It is a very intimidating subject but all subjects are both complicated and simple. A glacier is just an ice river creeping down a mountain. I’ll keep that in mind.
As I sketched noon came around. I could hear a church bell ring from the valley below. The sun was high now baking the glaciers. The quite ice was waking up. Cracks and groans. Thunderous ice and rockfall filled the air. In this vast view it was difficult to spot the source of the noise. I finally saw an ice fall rip off the hanging block above and explode into a chunky waterfall that flowed an unbelievable distance down the slope. Glaciers calve in the summer and always have. The trouble today is the amount of snow is way less than the amount of ice that melts. It was sad to watch this glacier slowly dying.
I finished the sketch and headed down. I always take a long look and then leave. No need to look back, it’s still there. The people weaving was pointless now because it was a procession down the hill as many people had come and gone while I sat at the top. I don’t like to go down fast anyways because I am not coordinated. I returned to contemplative walk mode all the way back.
My knees ached and I felt great while writing this chapter outside of a bar under an awning on Chamonix’s main drag. I tripped and shattered my beer glass on the way to the table but the staff were cool about it.