Ice Climbing in Chamonix
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
After hiking several mountains last year from Trolltunga to Kilimanjaro it was time to finally start expanding on some technical skills in order to eventually progress to more challenging summits. One of the main requirements for a few of the more advanced climbs is to have ice experience with crampons and picks (I later learned these are actually called “ice tools”) which was far outside my comfort zone as I much prefer climates that only require swimsuits. However, after living in Germany for a year I decided it was time to take advantage of the location and do the several hour road trip south to the world-famous Chamonix region to take a course on climbing.
While researching courses, I found that there are numerous climbing packages available that are tailored for weekend visitors to take introductory level ice-climbing typically for 1-3 days. Most are fairly comparable for pricing, tour inclusions, locations, group size, etc. except for one company, Matterhorn Nepal –Guide Source Treks & Expeditions, that limited the student to instructor ratio to 1:1 or 2:1 and emphasized a strong importance on safety. Since this is a sport that requires scaling a sheet of ice relying only on the tips of the crampons and the axes to hold up body weight, having an experienced guide who highlighted safety was fairly high on my priorities. After booking the course and getting snow chains outfitted for my tires to make sure that my car would clear the mountain pass in winter, I loaded up and headed out still completely uncertain as to what to expect.
The following morning my instructor Roger Fleming picked me up and immediately began discussing the equipment we would be using and laying out the plan for the day. One of the massive perks to the course I took was that all of technical equipment was provided meaning that I did not have to purchase a lot of gear that would ultimately be stored in a closet, but I still got to use the best around. Since the other girl that had signed up for the course was not able to made it for the first day I received private instruction for the full first day which was incredibly beneficial for quickly learning the ropes (quite literally).
After a quick drive through Chamonix, we dropped the car off in a parking lot and the two of us loaded up in the gear to begin the uphill hike out to our first location. It was my first time to ever try using crampons or ice tools, but I quickly learned the basic principles of using the gear and the importance of trusting the equipment. While it was initially hard to get over the concept that all my bodyweight was being placed on small hooks in the ice, it was readily apparent that the gear did exactly what it was designed to as several more advanced climbers easily scaled the frozen ice cliffs in front of us.
I spent the morning climbing up and down the first pitch several times under Roger’s watchful eye to learn the fundamentals before climbing with no picks, which forced proper footwork with the crampons. Then after a lunch rest break we continued up the mountain for a multi-pitch climb all the way to the top.
Similar to rock climbing, ice climbing requires employing good practices with ropes, rappelling, and most importantly relying on leg muscles to do the heavy lifting. Despite my best efforts to primarily use my legs, by the end of the second day my forearms felt like Jell-O and I was completely exhausted. When I made it back to the hotel room, my "five minute nap" sitting on the bed turned to basically a comatose lights out. Nearly ten hours later I woke up in the exact same position still bundled in my snow gear, but able to function again!
Ice climbing as a beginner was mostly challenging for me to learn to trust that the ice and equipment would actually hold me and the importance of taking breaks to rest muscles in order to keep climbing throughout the day. I was incredibly thankful that I ended up with a company that had such a highly experienced climber as my instructor who was able to give individual attention and teach me so much about the ice and climbing in general! The constant explanations and demonstrations was exactly what I needed to rapidly progress skills over the weekend.
Watching other groups of beginners many of the guides were doing all the work and the climbers were definitely not learning the techniques. While that kind of tour would honestly be much easier if the purpose is just to give the sport a try, since I wanted to gain some technical proficiency I was happy for the more personal approach. All of the time that was dedicated to learning each skill, from placing and removing the ice screws to traversing across the face to find better ice, definitely made the course more informative and enjoyable.
If you want to try a new winter sport while getting an extremely challenging workout, then ice climbing is definitely worth checking out. If you have gone before or have any recommendations of places to try, please put it in the comments below!