Every time I drive into the North Cascades National Park I read a park sign that says “The North Cascades-The Alps of America.” This has always struck a spiteful chord in my dark side and I have dreamt of vandalizing this sign to read “The Cascades of America”. The Cascades are my home, and to me there is no comparison. But this year, to see what all the pother was about, I set off for two months taking advantage of new work opportunities in the French Alps.
As an avid traveler, the basic nuances of wandering the western world are not novel. So trying to arrange a ride from the Geneva airport to Chamonix, France with a two-word French vocabulary was entertaining. But what had my attention most was standing in the back of the line for the tram that would take me to the summit of the Aiguille de Midi. Culture shock sunk in. Taking mental notes of my observations; small petite alpine packs, climbers in harnesses, ice axes in hand with neatly coiled rope ready for the instant access to the 3000m alpine zone. It only took a few minutes to quickly learn the European etiquette with regards to your pack, crampons, and axe in the crowded tram-line. The French tram operators had no problem suggesting the correct drill. It was as if we were all in line for an amusement ride for adults. The sharp reality: this “ride” was real and would poise you at a turnstile gate leading to the alpine 10,000ft higher than you were 30 minutes prior.
I was not in the North Cascades anymore. The differences were obvious. The incredible access was coupled with a population of well-adept alpinists represented in large numbers. The line was heavy with guides awarded credentials by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) or Union International Des Associations De Guide De Montagne (UIAGM), the EU equivalent. These high-ranking guides are easily recognized by the metal pin on their lapel, the badges sewn onto their shoulder and pack, and their acutely well-organized and mint gear selection. This badge itself has significant meaning for this culture. To become a professional guide in countries that honor the tradition of IFMGA standards takes dedication. First, to achieve aspirant status that allows a guide to work under a fully-certified guide-mentor, at least four years are spent mastering ski mountaineer, rock, and alpine guiding. This is followed by another two years completing exams and work requirements before achieving full-guide status. The tram line reeked of this tradition.
Mountain access like this began nearly one hundred years ago in the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. The history of guiding is even older. It was here that alpinism and mountain guiding were created. By the looks of the terrain, I began to understand why. I was in line equally for the guiding tradition and culture as I was for the ride up the Midi into these mountains.
The French Alps lean over Chamonix, cutting the skyline with large granite massifs laden with icefalls and towering needles. Glaciers gouge valleys for kilometers, dividing the towers who each pronounce their independence and unique character. Massive monoliths draw your eye in. The famous Grand Dru belonging to the Aiguille Verte, the Grepon, the Midi, the three summits of Mount Blanc, and all the serrated gendarme ridges that connect each feature capture your attention and unfold a potential lifetime of alpine objectives.
As I rode the cable car up from Chamonix into the alpine and over the North face of the Aiguille de Midi, the dihedrals and crack systems, including the Frendo Spur first climbed in 1941 were easy to pick out. The Frendo is a 3700ft 5.8 rock rib that leads to the upper ice faces and rock tower shouldering the Midi and is a test piece of any aspiring young alpinist. It is prominently seen from Chamonix center and summons you while you safely sip your draft beer in the square bellow.
The reason I came to Chamonix was to take advantage of mentorship and apprenticeship. There are hundreds of fully qualified guides who have graduated from an international certification system of the Alps IFMGA or UIAMG. These guides have spent their careers taking clients into the far reaches of these ranges. As an American IFMGA aspirant, it was this group of men and woman who I looked to for help reaching the next stage of becoming a full guide.
I didn’t focus on Alps test-piece objectives, but instead on routes with good guiding problems for me to negotiate and train on for my AMGA alpine guide’s exam this September 2010. My training goals led me to some of today’s classic alpine routes that historically, in the early 1900’s, were some Europe’s premier alpine achievements.
The Kuffner Ridge, also know as the Frontier Ridge, on Mount Maudi was first climbed by Mortiz von Kuffner with Alexander Burgener, Josef Furrer, and a porter in 1887 and is one of these classic routes. This ridge is a complex buttress of exposed ridge and towers holding an entire days-worth of moderate mixed climbing and snow spines.
With beta from IFMGA guides Mike Powers and Richard Mansfield, my two America ex-pat partners Matt Anderson and Dan Protz, and I set out for the climb. After a quick breakfast by headlamp in the empty cafeteria of the Italian Torino hut, we crossed 2 kilometers of glacial neve under moonlight back into France, approaching the base of Mount Maudi. The peak towered over us. Storm clouds began to build over the summit of Mount Blanc, an indicator for oncoming foul weather. The weather was moving from the back of my mind to the front as the darkness veiled the peaks true scale. I began to feel the anxiety manifested by the unknown. If we climbed high on the route it would be difficult to retreat anywhere but up. But, without much hesitation, I committed to the up.
We crossed the bergschrund and gained the sharp ridge via the 850ft access couloir running rock and ice protection along the way. Simul-climbing this classic alpine ice couloir in one long pitch set a tone of security and speed for the day.
The terrain was already classic and kept getting better. Corniced snow ridges, moderate granite rock climbing, and easy ice all combined in a rolling gauntlet ridge crest with an electric view of the Italian side of the Mount Blanc massif. My favorite parts of the route were the exposed corniced snow ridges. I felt alive with the team perched on its crest. The French use an appropriate metaphor for this feature relating it to the furry tuft of hair that sticks up on the back of mountain goat, giving the mountain a living spirit. These ridges are difficult to protect and it is assumed among partners that you throw yourself off the opposite side in the event of a fall. This method of protection is a challenging but somewhat affective practice though not entirely fool proof. Two Italian climbers met their fate on this exact feature 24 hours after our ascent. A fatal slip caused by a collapsed cornice led to grave results. Giving plenty of respect to the spines, I knew that we were not immune to a similar fate.
Another classic I climbed, the Midi-Plan traverse, is a ridge run on the skyline from the Aiguille de Midi to the Aiguille de Plan and back; glaciers, knife blade snow spines, and buttresses of 5.8 hand cracks on perfect granite. This takes a full day of rope wrangling and dozens of transitions from pitch climbing to rappelling to short roping and back. Returning to the tram before the lift shuts down for the evening is the main motivator for moving efficiently. This is understandably one of the reasons people from this land are efficient alpinists.
I mock-guided this objective with U.S. IFMGA guide Dylan Taylor while he played client. This is common practice among guides who are in training mode and it allows us the opportunity to critique each other on potential improvements and correct exposure to unnecessary risk.
While all my climbs helped train me for my goals, most of my mentorship happened while on Mount Blanc. I was able to work several trips with UIAGM and IFMGA guides from France, Switzerland, Britain, Italy, Slovenia, and the U.S. They treated me like a little brother. Aspirants, I discovered, are somewhat of a commodity compared to the number of working full-guides. Full-guides were extremely eager to help out an underdog guide, remembering their own struggles while learning the craft. And, on this objective I felt right at home. The terrain was reminiscent of the glaciers and elevations of my home mountain, Mount Rainier. The guiding, conditions, and client profile for this peak were somewhat old-hat and made the transition into a new venue much easier. At the end of most days, I would sit with mentor guides and debrief the event on ways we could do things better. This evaluation is an extremely valuable moment for the aspirant, and is how development can occur.
The most memorable venue I visited during my stay was the Aiguilles de Envers up valley on the Mer de Glace glacier. Two cirques with massive granite towers resemble that of the Sierra. Grade IV and V rock spires of impeccably steep granite jet 2500ft out of the glacier. The hut is positioned below the steep, massive towers 10 min away from where you start roping up for the 18 pitch, 5.10 rock route.
Nothing during my stay topped climbing splitter granite cracks a thousand feet off the deck with a valley glacier sweeping bellow and the Grandes Jorasses dominating the horizon. Several of the climbs lead to classic hypodermic granite needle summits provoking disbelief. This is a place I will certainly travel back to in the future.
Overall, my time in the Alps was incredibly educational. I was exposed to many historical aspects of Alpinism and what it means to the local valley. Being immersed in the alpine and exploring what the French Alps have to offer, I progressed in my own guiding and took one step closer to becoming a full IFMGA guide.
One thing that I found missing during my adventures was something I experience in the Cascades; serenity. Coming home, scaling to the crest of the North Cascades, and looking over glaciated vistas of unclimbed rock was a breath of fresh air. We are spoiled to have this resource. We are lucky to be living in the heart of true wilderness. The North Cascades are untouched by European standards; no trams, no people, no villages and with a culture and tradition that is still being developed. Because I enjoy this wild place so much, I don’t want to see all the traditions of Europe become a standard here is the U.S.
Europe has figured out, though, how to professionalize guiding as an industry and into a legitimately well respected trade. Professionalizing the mountain guiding standards and simultaneously deepening the traditions of guiding with our U.S. climbing culture will create a better, safer experience for my clients, my co-workers, and myself in the beautiful places we call home. I encourage you to look into the IFMGA standard by going to the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) web site and educate yourself about the importance of guide standardization and how this might affect you as a consumer. Good luck and see you in the Alps!