Fear and Awe in the Heart of the Alps

It’s been called the walk of death. You walk through a gate onto a ridge of snow, ten inches wide. To the left the slope drops for a vertical mile, impossibly steep. To the right, the drop is only a thousand feet. I can’t look in either direction. I see only my feet, each step more serious than anything I’ve done in my life. After a few warm-up steps, the tightrope pitches steeply down, and I have no faith that the spikes on my boots will grip the snow. But I keep stepping down, focus fighting fear. I'm used to having ground beneath me as well as sky above me, but now sky is all I can see.

The ridge down from the Aiguille du Midi

A Man with a Plan

Six weeks earlier, my family was vacationing in Acadia National Park. I hadn’t done any climbing in three decades, but was vaguely aware that there was some nice climbing there, and after years of thinking about it, we walked up to the offices of the climbing school. A few minutes later, I was signed up for a half-day of climbing, and long-dormant desires began to stir.

It turned out to be a perfect day. I was delighted that my guide was older than I am! Richard Parker was sixty, and radiated calm and skill in equal measures. I greatly enjoyed his company, as we climbed The Story of O on The Precipice on Champlain Mountain. I had no idea if I could climb 5.6 after three decades off, but I was happy to be on granite. Of course, the next day I was so sore I could hardly move.

In the meantime, my job had me flying to France in September, for a meeting of the W3C CSS Working Group near Antibes, on the Cote D’Azure. If I was going to be in France, I should do something fun after the meetings, and a quick look at the map told me that I wouldn't be far from the Alps. And so I started scheming. Could I actually go to Chamonix, the center of the mountain world, and climb those mythic mountains that I’d read about incessantly in my youth? The land between Starlight and Storm, on Ice and Snow and Rock?

All of the sudden I was plotting, and training. I emailed Richard looking for recommendations for guides both in New Hampshire and France. I spent two days climbing in New Hampshire with Alex, my first day of sport climbing ever at Rumney followed by Thin Air on Cathedral Ledge. A trip to International Mountain Equipment resulted in a pair of mountaineering boots and some used crampons. Endless emails and lots of waiting finally found a guide in Europe.

A trans-Atlanic flight in the cheap seats, a lovely train ride from Geneva to Antibes, and three days of ultra-intense meetings ensued. Up at 5am on Thursday, I carried my 40-pound duffel a mile to the train station in Antibes, but only got a ticket on the train due to the kindness of strangers, who had chips in their credit cards. A few stops later, I was again lost trying to get to the Nice airport, but eventually flew to Geneva (over stunning mountains) and caught the ChamExpress van to Chamonix.

And here words fail me. I got out of the van at the center of town, near the church. I looked up, impossibly high up, to that shining ice thirteen thousand feet above my head. And I fell to my knees, stunned. This couldn’t be real, earth where there should be sky, the mountains that have lived only in my imagination for forty years suddenly real, immense, immediate.

The view from the hotel steps. No photo can convey the scale of this place. Mont Blanc (right) is nearly 13,000 feet higher than town.

I was there for ten minutes before I could collect myself enough to check into the hotel.

Friday, September 12: Traverse of the Aiguilles Marbrees

Friday morning I’m driving under the same mountains, in the nearly eight-mile long Mont Blanc tunnel, with my guide, Adam George. I’ve never been under two miles of rock. I’ve never been to Italy. Every moment of this entire trip is new and unprecedented.

We pop out of the tunnel into Courmayer, park below the Monte Bianco cable car, buy espresso (for the guide) and sandwiches—I had to ask what “Speck” was—and ride into the sky.

Why walk to the start of your climb when you can ride? The cable car took us up 2,000 meters (nearly 7,000ft) to the edge of the glacier. We walk from the deck out onto the ice, and it begins.

Today we’re traversing the Aiguilles Marbrees. We put on crampons, tie into the rope, and start walking up the glacier at 11,000 feet above sea level.

Adam walking across the glacier. The spike of rock at the right is the Dent du Géant. In the distance are the Drus and the Aiguille Verte.

Nothing is real. The skyline is the Peuterey Ridge of Mont Blanc, names I’ve known forever, the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, and Mont Blanc itself, 15,781 feet, the highest point in Europe, birthplace of Alpinism, the spiritual center of the mountain world. Granite needles (“Aiguilles”) rise above the ice in every direction. Absolutely everything has a name, and a storied history. There’s the Dent du Géant. Behind it is the Grande Jorasses. There’s the Aiguille du Midi. I don’t believe my eyes. I drink in the most spectacular scenery. I am in awe, in denial. And I am afraid.
Mont Blanc, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc du Tacul

Did I mention I’m afraid of heights? That I once fell to my death?

After a while we climb up to the base of the rock, take off our crampons, and start climbing. This is not like the rock climbing I'm used to, where one person moves at a time. I’m right behind Adam, on a very short rope, moving together. If I slip, Adam must use his reflexes and skill to stop my fall—we’re generally not anchored to the mountain. He flips the rope behind flakes and spikes, providing a bit of protection. When the climbing gets harder, I wait for a moment as he climbs up ten or twenty feet, and then sets a belay for me.

Climbing the Aiguilles Marbrees

I feel awkward, clambering over piles of rocks in my stiff boots. I don’t think about what's below me, or what might happen. I can’t afford to. The urgency of the moment, and the physical demands of climbing, don’t exactly drown out the fear, but it must stay in the background nonetheless.

I don’t look down, but I look up, and out, at the most magnificent peaks and valleys I shall ever see. We make it to the top, but don’t stop for long. Going down I go first, as Adam can hold a fall much easier from above. I still feel clumsy. After a while we stop, and Adam builds an anchor. It’s too steep to climb down, so we use the rope. He lowers me back down to the glacier, and then rappels the rope. We walk down the steep snow.

Did I really just do that?

The day is young. We’ve spent a lot of time on rock, time to learn something about snow climbing. We walk over to a steep triangle of snow coming down from a little peak. We climb at an angle when it gets too steep to go straight up. Changing directions is a bit insecure. It’s steep enough that I should be terrified, but there's no time for that. We climb up a narrow ridge, and then work on going down. It’s much scarier. I have no confidence that my feet will stick, but they do. It slowly gets better, and I’ve again done things I couldn't imagine.

View from the Petite Flambeau, looking back at our snow climbing practice slope

Finally we wander over to the “Petite Flambeau,” a nice little mini-climb, mostly on snow. Adam chats with a fellow guide at the summit, as I absorb the peaks in every direction. Going down we face into the snow, and dig in with the front points of our crampons. This part is fun!

We walk back to the cable car station, and minutes later it’s just a warm September day in Courmayer, and we wander through the center of town and have a gelato.

Italy is making a good impression on me

Saturday, September 13: Traverse of Pointe Lachenal

We meet the next morning at the base of the Aiguille du Midi cable car. A miracle of engineering, the first stage rises from downtown Chamonix at 3,000 feet to Plan d’Aiguille at 7,600 feet. Then you are whisked to 12,400 feet near the top of the Aiguille du Midi. The summit has been swaddled in concrete and cables. There are museums, gift shops, bridges, elevators—it’s the ultimate tourist attraction. But walk across the bridge, through some corridors, put on your crampons indoors, and then walk through an ice tunnel, and you look at the little metal gate. On the other side is that knife-edge of snow. On the other side is fear.

The ice tunnel

Happy to have climbed down the ridge

Today we’re traversing Pointe Lachenal, named after the first person to climb an 8,000 meter peak. A steep snow slope gains a rocky ridge. Only this time we keep our crampons on all the time. Nothing in my previous life prepared me for this—scratching up rocks on tiny metal stilts.

Pointe Lachenal is the peaklet just right of center.
Adam lowers me off the central summit, and we walk over to the base of the main summit.

Final tower of Pointe Lachenal. Note climber at right, at the top of the snowfield.

This is real climbing, the proverbial one foot on ice and one foot on rock. It’s disconcerting, but the pure physical pleasure of moving combines with the otherworldly context to make it downright fun. This might have been my favorite bit of the whole trip. From the summit we walk down steep snow back towards the Aiguille du Midi and the cable car. We’d talked about doing the Arete des Cosmiques that afternoon, but I was a bit worn out from the excitement and the altitude, and we could come back tomorrow. I forgot that meant a trip UP the walk of death. But going up was mostly easier, except the last steep bit felt very sketchy. Twenty minutes later I’m walking through downtown Chamonix in my big boots, harness, and pack, feeling like a real climber. I duck into my hotel to change, and then meet Adam again, as we're going to do a bit of rock climbing in the afternoon.

We drive to the local crag, Gaillands. Think of an ordinary city park, with kids and dogs and bicycles and frisbees. Except this is the center of the mountain world, and there’s a nice little cliff, and all those kids and moms and dads are rock climbing in the sun. Oh, and across the lake is Mont Blanc. I do a few easy climbs on lovely schist. They’re so easy I almost feel like I know what I'm doing. That feeling never lasts long.

The view from the park. Aiguille du Midi at the center. I was there an hour earlier!

Fun in the sun

Sunday, September 14: Aiguille du Midi, Arête des Cosmiques

I couldn't sleep, as I was worrying about the ridge again. And the Cosmiques is the real thing, “possibly the most classic alpine climb in the world.” Up the cable car, through the tunnel, out the gate, down the ridge. I might not have been any less scared, but it went more smoothly. We walk across the glacier to the start of the climb. Snow turns to rock, mostly easy but every once in a while a little step requires a bit of thought and effort. I’m really feeling the altitude. I realize I don’t have enough of a reserve of strength for this. Each little wall requires too much, and I’m huffing and puffing. I’m at my limit. I hardly notice the astounding setting, as I clamber over whatever is in front of me, rock, snow, or ice. Once again Adam lowers me down a tower, and I scoot over to the base of the steepest wall. There are tiny holes in the rock, just the right size for the points of my crampons. I barely scratch up the crux. Then we cross to the north side of the ridge, and climb steep little cracks and chimneys with bits of ice.

On the crux

The classic photo of the Arete des Cosmiques
We reach the top of the ridge. I see a tourist looking at me from the terrace, and I wave. We climb a rickety metal ladder to the cable car station. As my anxiety dissipates, I can’t believe I did it. I’m elated, proud, but still puzzled as to why I push against fear so directly. But most fundamentally, I remain in awe at the beauty of the mountains, the ice and rock and sky. I did this so I could be in the heart of the mountains, and not just admire them from afar.

Leaving the Alpine World

The ladder is actually quite rickety

The ridge


What do I do after such an intense experience? Go for a hike, of course. Exhausted, I decide to wander up the other side of the valley for a bit, in search of another perspective on the mountains. It's just a regular hiking trail, but I’m still afraid of the drop off at my feet. But I don't want to stop walking. After an hour the views open up. Eventually I walk all the way to Planpraz 2000, gaining 3,300 feet in about four miles. Truly content, I take the gondola back down, and get ready to go home, already dreaming of returning.

The view from the Brevent side of the valley. Aiguille du Midi is left of center, Mont Blanc to the right.


Eve Baker said…
Thank you, Dave. You remind me of why I push myself against fear, as well. Beautiful and inspiring to read going into winter. So glad you got there!

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