Exagerated naming of peaks is rampent the world around. Is the "Jagged Point" in your home range really that jagged? Does the "Petit Grepon" really look anything like Le Grepon? How often are the Smoky Mountains smoky?
But tucked in the French Alps near the town of Chamonix the term "aiguille" (needle) is applied to almost every peak around and justifably so. Like a scaled-up version of Brice Canyon, countless granite spikes defy gravity, culminating in sharp tiny points some barely big enough to stand on. "Les Aiguilles de Chamonix" earn their name, and beg to be climbed.
à grimper une aiguille...
Climbers comfortable with 6a (5.10a) trad climbing find scaling aiguilles an enjoyable, relaxed day out. Those others, like us for example, find scaling an aiguille a painful struggle that starts at the crack of dawn and ends with a sunset rappel... and stuck rappel ropes. The last train is often missed, routes are seldom finished. Often god spites us with hail and topo maps seem deliberately misdrawn. Hands and gear are spotted with blood. Arms and legs ache for days after.
But the experience is perhaps stronger, the struggle blazing the event into the brain. Our struggle on "Magie d'Orient" began on the very first @#$%ing move. A thankfully-place bolt just in reach from the bergshrund protects a hard 5.10a roof/crack move that asks "now should you really be here?" The group in front of us "french freed" it (yanked on the bolt) but after a few tries I was able to get through it, just barely. "Ha ha!" I thought "this aiguille is going DOWN." Finally we might finish a route, for once, I reckened.
This aiguille would not go down without a fight, however. Two pitches later I found myself at the base of a scary steep corner crack. Just fifteen feet climbing a crack, I've learned, can be very painful. Stemming out every which way and distressed about the close proximity of a very hard ledge below me, I finally did like a Pariason and french-freed using my friendly .75. Another ten meters of flalling around and I somehow reached the next belay spot. Clip, sling, shout, pull, clip again "Ooooonnnn Beeellaaaaaaay!" and soon Ewan was there, having tried the french-free style as well. "Nice one," I said. "Your lead."
"I think we may be able to finish this one," says Ewan, clipping gear from his harness to mine. "Yeah just a few more pitches," I agree, "but what the hell do I do here?" I say, gestering above. A thoughtfully-placed shiny new bolt protects a undercling traverse into a steep dihedral/chimney. Clip, clip, "on belay", "I'm off" and I'm off. It's somewhat easier than it looks and pretty soon in goes a #1 cam, then the trusty .75. Much panting and grunting gets me above onto a ledge where, instead of a handy belay spot, another crack system leads up and up...
This one's thinner so the nuts go into action. The crack is not too bad, and I burn through six of the small wall-nuts, finally reaching a ledge where... a belay station exists, you might think? Yeah I was surprised not to see one. Instead a long 45 degree sloping slab leads to a shiny new rappel/belay setup. "How much rope?" I shout down. "15 meters!" comes the distant reply. Climbing with 120 feet of rope attached to my groin makes the slab moves a wee bit tricker but the moves are easy - my biggest concern is the lack of any protection. I pass by a wonderful spot for my 0.3 cam - which is, unfortunately, wedged nicely into a crack 20 meters down. I drive on, carefully, hoping there's enough rope to make it. Finally I can place a micro-nut in a dodgy thin crack and I feel slightly better. A few careful moves later and I reach the safety of two bolts. Clip, clip, "ssssaaaaaaafffffeeeeee!" ("off belay?!") "oooffff beeelllaay!" ("off belay!") and I pull up the remaining two meters of rope (whew!), shout "ooonnnn beellaaaaaay!" and start taking in slack as Ewan follows me up.
"My Jorasses is looking lovely today"
Belaying with an auto-locking Reverso gives you plenty of time to think about life, and stuff. Idle thoughts float into one's head, philisophical questions such as "why would the pitch go on for 58 meters?" are followed by dancing hypotheses such as "maybe we've wandered off route" and "gee Jorasses* is looking lovely today" chuckle, grin, oops better take in some of that slack.
"Nice lead," says Ewan, tying in with a clove hitch. "Yeah but I sorta think we should have been at THAT one over there," I mentioned, pointing out the shiny new bolted belay station I missed, 20 meters down and on the left. "Shit," replied Ewan. "Yes," I reply, consulting the guidebook "welcome to L'opium. We've got some unexpected 6a ahead of us."
*(Jorasses is a lovely mountain that is unfortunately pronounced identical to "your ass")
Finally at the top!
L'opium doesn't make it easy for us, but neither do my friends ever in danger of going into active use. A few pitches later and I crest a ridge to find a new view and a final sharp, eroded off-width. "Just stay with me a couple moves more!" I shout down to Ewan, placing the big #3. A few somewhat painful moves later and I find myself on the short summit ridge, peering over a massive vertical wall. A couple careful moves with big pendulum potential and I clip a quickdraw on the summit anchor. The feeling of success is somewhat overshadowed by the incredible view, previously hidden by the cliff we've been climbing. I stand for a moment, wafting in the sweet scent of victory. Traverse past the belay point along an airy ledge above a giddy drop-off, peer down the other side of the aiguille. Walk back and clip in. "SAFE!" I shout down for the last time. I detect a reinvigorated joy in the dialog "off belay? / off belay! / off belay!" responses that follow, and as I yard up rope I think, "gosh it's nice here, nice to be alive."
Missing the last train down means, if nothing else, some nice sunset shots. I took all these shots on our long four hour trudge down down down - first on moraine, then on glaciar, back on moraine, then along train tracks, finally reaching the late night burger joint at beer o'clock...