Jul 22, 2012

A Leap of Faith - The Aiguillette d'Argentiere, Chamonix, France

 As much as I love the training at the Westway and the Castle, indoor climbing walls here in London, there’s only so much training that can be done indoors. The best training, by far, is to get out there into the mountains, out and about, up-up and away. Yesterday, under a glorious blue sky and sunshine, Isabelle, Magda, Alex and I did a super fun climbing route called the Aiguillette d’Argentiere, a needle of rock at around 1900m overhanging the Chamonix Valley floor. There’s a drop of around a thousand meters or so down to the village of Argentiere below... so it wasn't a climb for the faint hearted!! To make the walk in a bit more of a work-out I decided to take up a pair of skis which certainly got the other climbers heading up the route scratching their heads in curiosity..!

Our day began with a drive up the valley to the small village called Argentiere, on the outskirts of Chamonix.  Strapping the skis onto my pack, we started up the 1.5 hour walk to the base of the Aiguillette. It was an absolutely spectacular day – blue skies, sunshine with mini-raspberries lining the path.

I was super excited about the climb but was much less excited about putting my rock-shoes back on as my toes were still recovering from yesterday’s climb in Italy. The prospect of lounging in the warmth of the sunshine and enjoying the views was quite appealing..!

The Aiguillette is a granite ‘needle’ or ‘stack’ at about 1900m. It’s a 1-pitch bolted climb with quite a few routes on it. Its popularity is due primarily to the spectacular views from the top and, of course, the amazing photo opportunities which it presents.

Isa led the first part of the climb up an initial smaller stack to the right of the main needle or stack. I knew that it was not going to be as straightforward as I’d hoped when Isabelle started to talk about this special move that you had to do to move  from the smaller stack onto the main stack – it required, “letting yourself go” and almost falling onto the bigger stack through a giant leap of faith. I watched slightly nervously as she began to rig up a system whereby you could move onto the bigger rock without falling to your death thousands of feet below. Gulp. Carabiners, slings, knots… and a leap of faith. Yup. No problem. A typical Sunday morning… Isabelle led the climb while Magda and I looked on from our perch. She made it look easy and moved with grace and strength – a granite climbing ballerina.  About 4 minutes later, she was safe and secure on the top of the needle, enjoying the view and topping up her tan.

Now it was my turn. I looked nervously at my chipped red nails and wondered when I’d have the chance to give myself a new manicure. I tried desperately to wriggle my toes which were slowly losing all sense of feeling in my tight rock shoes. I wondered whether it might be a bad time to send my final ‘Tweet’ in the event that I fell to my death on the Aiguillette d’Argentiere…

And so I went…to the top of the smaller stack, holding onto the well-worn granite rock with every ounce of strength that I had left. I clipped onto one of the bolts with my ‘cows tail’ and then took some time to assess the situation. I stuck my left leg into mid-air out towards the bigger stack. It was too far to ‘step’ across to which meant that I’d have to be a bit more creative in my approach. About 5 minutes later, (although it genuinely seemed like an eternity!), I managed to make it across – I have no idea how it happened as it was a bit of a blur which involved lots of deep breathing and flailing with both hands and feet; and yes, a leap of faith was involved - for about .005 seconds I found myself suspended in mid-air. Needless to say, when I finally reached the top of the stack and took the opportunity to take in the absolutely spectacular views of Mont Blanc and the Mont Blanc range, it was completely worth it..!  Alexandre had rigged up a rope on one of the cliff faces opposite the Aiguillette so took the opportunity to take some stunning photos.

I’ve always been a bit nervous about heights and exposure and found that this really tested me – even though my brain knew I was safe – tied in with ropes on pillar top that is about 4 feet by 3 feet my body still needed some convincing..! It did get better the more I pushed myself to relax and it was an excellent test of mind-over matter..!

Magda came up next making it look easy. Isa, Magda and I then stood on the top of the pillar watching another team come up a different route on the North face of the pillar. Some lighthearted banter was exchanged as we made our way down from the stack to allow them the space to bask in the sunshine and take in the well deserved views..!

We continued to climb different routes on the stack and on the neighboring granite walls  for the rest of the day and made our way back down at around 4pm. A fantastic day and a perfect end to a great weekend.

Enjoying fresh raspberries on the trail

Hiking up to the base of the Aiguillette
On top of the Aiguillette
Trying to start a high-altitude cricket match


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