Years ago, I visited Chamonix, France, with intentions of climbing some big north faces. Unfortunately, that trip ended with no climbing due to partnership issues, but I did see Les Droites, and it has taunted me ever since. Fast forward (ahem…) 20 years: on a pleasant family vacation in France with my wife, daughter, brother, sister-in-law, two nieces and mother, I ducked out for a climb on the Droites with my great friend Adam George.
The last time Adam and I roped up together, we scurried up the four classiest ice lines in the San Juan range of Colorado—Birdbrain Boulevard, The Talisman, Bridalveil Falls and the Ames Ice Hose—in 16 hours. Time is crucial when you’re a climbing dad, and speed can help nail the balance between responsibility and fun. Since then, Adam moved to Chamonix and became a dad himself. It’s a rare climbing partner who is equally committed to his family and motivated to climb hard. Getting out with Adam in the alps was clearly a chance I couldn’t let slip away.
My brother was insanely jealous, my mom said she didn’t mind, and my wife rolled her eyes while making room in her extra-large suitcase for my Phantom Guides. My seven-year-old daughter took it in stride; “of course daddy is going climbing.”
Adam was keen, too, and happily set aside the week I was to be in town—we were going to make something happen. I arrived in Chamonix and we quickly discussed the possibilities over a couple petit cafes, tossing around the idea of some leisure alpine rock climbing on La Capucin. But when Adam mentioned a potential route, still in shape, on Les Droites, my jet-lagged ears reddened. He scoped it a few days back and thought the ice looked OK. As long as my missing bag arrived by the end of the day (it did) our plan was set. We bought some food and Adam picked me up at 7 the next morning, coffee and croissants in hand.
If you haven’t been to Chamonix, it’s AMAZING. With a civilized 7 a.m. start, we hitched the first cart up the Gran Montets and were rambling down our approach 30 minutes later. Soon we roped up, and for the next two days we climbed some 600 meters of splitter granite ,and then after waiting out the heat of the afternoon, we delicately picked our way up the crux ice pitches, replete with some scary snow levitation (thank you, Adam).
I’ve spent some miserable nights out in the past, cuddling with my (male) partners, shivering till dawn. I must say I was shocked when our bivy on this big north face was literally in the sun until 10 p.m. Happily, the Tournier Spur is an arête and juts out of the shady north face just enough to actually have a slight west aspect. Luxury!
The next morning, however, when we woke to brew some coffee, our stove was dead, whether it was me lazily turning the stove off after my late night cup of tea or if we just depleted the cartridge, we’ll never know (*wink*). Regardless, we had already melted enough snow to fill our bladders and bottles, and all was OK.
The rest of the day went smoothly, if not a bit of a calf pump for me, having hung up my tools early this year back in Colorado in favor of sunny rock climbing. We kicked and swung our way up hollow, thin, but adequately protected ice runnels for hundreds of meters and soon found ourselves on the summit. Again, only in Chamonix: After a couple hours of descending, down then back up some amazingly exposed via ferrata-esque ladders, we were whisked into the heart of Chamonix where Adam’s wife Caroline and daughter Olivia greeted us. I was within easy walking distance of my oasis in the Alps, not to mention my Mom, wife, daughter, brother, sister-in-law and two nieces. I opened the door and was greeted with dinner and French wine. Sorry, Canada, I may never return to your chossy mountains again.