To get to Chamonix, we exercised our planes, trains, and automobile skills over the course of an 11-hour travel day. The apartment I had rented devolved into a confusing debacle which I'll skip here. Needless to say, I booked a different hotel that very evening even though I had prepaid for apartment. I'm still fighting for my full refund. The service we received was poetically bad so I will not desist until I win.
Chamonix itself was lovely. Many pedestrian-only streets full of shops and restaurants -a lot like Zermatt, in fact, but much cheaper. The town has a great vibe in fall, even though everyone was busy getting ready for shoulder season. Many of the lifts closed the day we arrived, and the mountain huts would close not long after. Despite those hurdles, we had a lovely hike 1500 meters up to Le Brevent on the west side of the Chamonix valley.
I climbed with Justin, a fire captain from San Francisco, and Lionel, our guide for the Chamonix guide service. I met Justin at 6 pm the night before our climb when I wandered into the guide office in search of a new guide. My first guide had to bow out at the last minute with a knee injury, and I had to scramble to find a back-up. Fortunately, Justin had already arranged for a guide when I met him so he and I were able to split the cost, saving each of us hundreds of euros. The King of Luck wins again.
We started our march to the top the previous Tuesday morning, 16 September, with a 7 am bus ride to the Bellevue telecabine. The telecabine (or gondola if you prefer) didn't leave until 8 am so we still had time to nip over to the bar next door for an eye-opener before the lift took off, as it were. Taking the lift saved us 800 meters of vertical gain, dropping us off at 1800 meters above sea level. After disembarking from the lift our hike was uneventful. We eventually met Lionel at 11:30 am at Refuge de Tete Rousse at about 3100 meters.
From there we donned our climbing helmets and roped up with Lionel to make the scramble up to Refuge du Gouter, our stop for the day. The scrambling was straightforward, no real difficulty. Given that the climbing was so easy I seriously questioned why we needed to be short-roped together for the 700 m climb. Such a restriction is very awkward and not needed when you have experience scrambling.
Anyway, I digress. We reached the Refuge at 2 pm, just in time to enjoy coffee and a deliciously fudge-y dessert. We relaxed until dinner, chatting with other climbers from the U.S. and Germany. Dinner was a three-course feast, great preparation for our strenuous efforts in the morning. From there to bed, though sleep was hard to come by due to excitement, mountain gas, and the high temperature in the sleeping bays. Although I laid down by 8:30 pm and got up at 2:30 am, I'm positive I didn't sleep much more than two hours.
I woke up at 2:30, ready to go. Scarfed a few slices of bread with nutella and jam as well as a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. Crossed my fingers that the coffee wouldn't work its magic too quickly. We marched out the door of the refuge at 3:36 am into a warm, slightly moonlit night. We donned headlamps since the visibility was minimal. Unfortunately, my headlamp stopped working about 15 min into the climb. 'Bloody batteries,' I thought. Oddly enough, the spare batteries I put in later also blinked out after about 15 min. After both of my camera batteries flatlined I finally decided that the cold was zapping the juice from the batteries. Sure enough, upon my return to warmer temps the camera and headlamp both worked without a problem.
The climb up the glacier was mostly uneventful. Beautiful night gave way to even more beautiful sunrise as we slowly made our way to the top. The climbing wasn't difficult, though crampons were a must. We also carried our ice axes in case of a fall, but they weren't really needed, either. We reached the top, 4810 meters above sea level, about 7:20 am, about 3 hours 45 minutes after we began. We weren't the first group on the top that morning, nor we the last. Luckily, we had the summit all to ourselves for the 15 min we spent on top. Took many photos of the surrounding mountains, Chamonix far down in the valley below, and ourselves, of course.
The way back down was much faster than the way up, for we reached the Refuge du Gouter at about 9:20 am. We went so quickly, in fact, Justin's knee was causing him considerable pain. He tried to get Lionel to slow down, but to no avail. Lionel appeared to be one a mission to return to the refuge before most of the other guided climbers.
After relaxing in the refuge for about 45 minutes we continued our downclimb to the Refuge de Tete Rousse. As before, we donned climbing helmets and harnesses and stowed our crampons. Scrambling down while short-roped was even worse than climbing up, especially with Justin's bad knee. We persevered anyway since we didn't have a choice. When we crossed the couloir we had to return to safety on our first try due to rockfall. Not long before we started crossing we watched a bowling ball-sized rock whiz by, then shatter into deadly shards far below us. Very exciting.
We crossed uneventfully, though, and soon enough arrived at the refuge. We bid goodbye to Lionel and kept on to the bottom of the mountain. We finally reached the bottom of the Bellevue telecabine about 3:15 pm. After a brief beverage stop to refresh ourselves we caught the bus back to Chamonix. I walked in the door and hugged Tracy at about 4:30 pm.
We celebrated that night at a French-Asian fusion joint. It was solid. After a leisurely morning the following day we made Savoie-style fondue our send-off meal. We ate it all, the entire pot of cheese. Oof-da. If you have never had the cheese sweats - trust me, they are real, and they are weird. I felt strangely for the rest of the day, but even worse, Tracy didn't fully recover until more than 24 hours later. It made the nearly 12 hours we spent traveling back to Groningen a test of will.
It was totally worth it, cheese sweats and all. I would do it again tomorrow.