It was quiet and peaceful. The kind of unique quiet that occurs only in a remote building wrapped in rime ice and a fresh blanket of snow. A red hue, which faded to deep purple as the light diminished, painted the sky beyond Mont Blanc. Our hands tightly wrapped our hot drinks as tears welled in our eyes. The lights of Chamonix illuminated the valley 9,000 feet below us.
A week prior, we had arrived in Chamonix after a joyous reunion in Newark that connected our flights. The weather was gray, rainy, and reminded me of home in Bellingham. Despite the mundane weather, we had no shortage of fun spending days exploring town, collecting maps and climbing beta, and eating our weight in pain au chocolate and quiche lorraine; we were assimilating to the French lifestyle well. After three days, the weather cleared up, we packed our climbing bags, and reserved our spots on the Aiguille Du Midi Tram.
A few months earlier, in the spring leading up to this moment, I sat in my favorite Bozeman coffee shop daydreaming and scheming hypothetical climbing trips. In the midst of deep thought, I called my best friend, Tali. “Hey dude.” I said. “Hear me out. I know this is last minute, but are you down for Chamonix next month?” I asked somewhat jokingly, but knew I was all in if she was.
“Lauren, I am so in,” she replied with little hesitation and few questions to follow. Within the next few hours, our flights were booked, we had arranged a place to stay, and the psych was high (to say the least). Although we are best friends, we had never climbed together, aside from guide work and AMGA courses. While neither of us expressed trepidation, we knew that climbing big mountains in a new range together would be a big commitment; we didn’t know how we would truly mesh in this new territory.
We decided to climb “Les Cosmiques Arete” as our first Chamonix adventure. It seemed well within our capabilities, ultra classic, and easy to access, as it was right off of the Aiguille du Midi. Les Cosmiques is a 2,500-foot moderate mixed ice and rock climb that crests up to the tram station.
Despite the delayed start to our day due to our tram reservation being behind, we were feeling good. As the day progressed, however, we realized the magnitude of fresh snow was making for slow travel. The post-holing in waist deep powder without skis felt rather soul crushing.
We reached the base of the Cosmique Ridge by 1 p.m. “Wow,” we thought, “we have this classic climb to ourselves.” No tracks, no climbers in sight; Mont Blanc and the Triangle du Tacul loomed in the background with a blue sky and fresh layer of snow. We were in awe and confident we could move fast enough to make the last tram by 5 p.m. We began simul-climbing; we both took in coils of rope as I led and placed gear while Tali climbed simultaneously and cleaned the gear. This allowed us to climb the first third of the ridge somewhat fast.
It quickly became clear that conditions were tricky and we were no longer able to move as fast as we had hoped. “Sugary” snow covered slabs and cracks and the climbing no longer felt secure. We made the call to pitch everything out from this point on. Sections that could normally be walked were covered by loose, unconsolidated powder that made us wish we had a shovel to make reasonable uphill progress. The second third of the climb moved slow. Unreasonably slow.
It was 4 p.m. and we had just completed the traversing abseil on route, marking the beginning of the M5 crux pitches. As we looked across to the remaining climbing, my normal bubbly and chipper climbing demeanor turned somber. “Shit,” I said to Tali, “I think we can make it if we go really fast and solo or simul the rest.” I said this with desperation and panic because I knew that the chances of us making the last bin down were extremely slim. My boots had soaked through and I had been fighting the “screaming barfies” all day while shoveling snow with my hands to make progress through the route. It was the type of cold that makes your smile stiff and your body shake, despite climbing in a down parka.
“Lauren, we’re not going to make it,” Tali responded calmly, “we need to slow down and make safe calls. Everything is going to be okay.” I nodded. I knew I needed to trust her. My cold and calorie-deficit brain fog clouded my thinking. “All we can do is use what we have and do what we can. We are where we are, let’s just make the best of it and play it safe,” she said once again.
“Why can’t we try and make it?” I thought, feeling frustrated. “I don’t think I’ll survive a shiver bivy tonight. I’m way too cold already.” I sat with my thoughts for a moment while Tali pulled out a baguette and some brie we had picked up that morning. We took a moment to gather ourselves, share the fresh patisserie, and look up at all of the tourists lined around the balconies of the Aiguille du Midi. “Man, they must be having such an enjoyable afternoon up there. Drinking their espresso, taking photos, and not having to worry about making it home,” I thought. Tali’s calm words, snacks, and support turned my head space around and we kept climbing; slowly, safely.
At 7 p.m., we reached the final ladder leading us onto the balcony of the station. The wind was whipping and my hands could hardly operate a carabiner. I was relieved to have made it to the top, but my stomach turned at the thought of sleeping outside in single digit temperatures. I belayed Tali up and she greeted me at the crest of the balcony with a smile. “Good job, dude, I’m so proud of you. Did you try to open the door into the tram station?” she said.
We tried the door. Relief and warm air washed over us as the almost-frozen door pulled open leading us into a long staircase and down to a tube-like hallway covered in windows. Clear views of the horizon painted with routes we had previously climbed were clear through the frosty glass. The ridgeline of the arete we had just climbed was visible and we were relieved to be on this side of the windows, rather than outside in the bone-chilling temperatures. We unracked, shared a hug, shed a few tears of relief and joy at the beauty of the climb, and huddled into the bathroom because it was the warmest space in the building. As we laid down ropes to sleep on, we heard a voice coming down the hall; the caretaker of the Aiguille Du Midi building heard our voices.
His broken English combined with my broken French established that we were going to sleep here and he would bring us blankets and a foam pad. As he came back with our upgraded sleep setup, he said in broken English,“ You come with me. I have food and chocolat chaud. I will take you to see the city from up here.” As we made our hot chocolate and got to know our new friend, he walked us to a locked gate that sat at the top of the building- the highest viewpoint on the Aiguille Du Midi.
We shared smiles and laughs that contained a mix of relief and joy while taking in the views. This was it for me; bonding and overcoming adversity with a partner that you learn to trust with your life. Although we knew we were in for an uncomfortable night on the bathroom floor, we were able to bask in this achievement together and celebrate the joy we both felt. As the sunset faded to darkness, we wandered back through the winding tunnel to our bathroom floor bivy and laid out our ropes as pillows. We progressively scooched closer to each other to share a body warmth. Eventually, we exchanged our soggy mountain boots for dry mittens that awkwardly fit over our feet. Shifting around all evening to try and find the warmest configuration made me thankful when 7 am came around and the first tram was gearing up to go down the mountain to pick up climbers and tourists (and to bring us down the mountain).
We descended back to the valley floor eager to nap and fill our bellies with patisserie from our favorite bakery, tired but excited to take on more routes together. We went on to accomplish four more routes in the French alps. Beyond this trip, we have gone on to climb some of our biggest routes together in multiple different countries and new mountain ranges. The patience, communication, kindness, and empowerment that climbing with this woman has brought me is something for which I could never thank her enough.