Earlier this summer, I headed to France with a couple of my friends/climbing partners in search of the full Chamonix experience. We wanted the best that the Mont Blanc region had to offer, whether it be ice, alpine, or rock climbing, all while soaking in the local culture at the same time.
What makes Chamonix so great is that there is something for everyone. Whether hiking, cycling, rock climbing (both trad and sport), ice climbing, mountaineering, or classic alpine climbing is your thing, all are available within a 20 minute drive along the valley or a simple ride up a cable car. The Mont Blanc area is steeped in so much climbing history, it is impossible not to get extremely motivated just by being there.
The easy accessibility means you can play hard in the mountains all day, then return to enjoy a wonderful meal and a beverage or two with friends in the evening. Spending over two weeks in Chamonix, I barely scratched the surface on the available climbing opportunities, while experiencing everything from cragging in the Chamonix Valley, to multi-pitch ice climbs high in the mountains. To highlight just a few, some of my favorite climbs were the Burnier Vogler Couloir, Chéré Couloir, and multi-pitch rock climb Dr. Jimmy over in Italy.
On only our second day in town and in search of some summer ice, we headed out with the fabulous guide Caroline George to climb the Burnier Vogler Couloir on the NW face of the Aguille du Midi. Riding the cable car to the very top, the climb begins almost immediately with an extremely airy rappel off the side of the bridge.
Six full rappels take you to the base of the couloir, which involves six fun pitches of climbing ice and snow to reach the Cosmique Arête. Once at the top, you complete the Cosmique Arête back to the Aguille du Midi cable car, another classic ridge climb in and of itself. Caroline wrote a great piece over on the First Ascent blog about our fun day out.
If the weather is bad in Chamonix, you can always drive through the Mont Blanc Tunnel over into Italy in search of some sun, real cappuccinos, and great multi-pitch rock climbing in the Aosta Valley. One rainy day, we headed to Monte Coudrey outside of the tiny town of Albard di Bard, an entire area packed with enjoyable bolted climbs, surrounded by forests, grazing pastures, and vineyards clinging to the hillside. We climbed the local classic Dr. Jimmy, a nine pitch route that takes you high on the mountain, with sweeping views of the castle and the valley far below.
Before I left Chamonix, I wanted one last high alpine experience so set out to climb the Chéré Couloir with yet another fabulous guide, Adam George, who just happens to be Caroline’s husband. Exiting the cable car station gate directly onto the knife edge Aguille du Midi ridge is the most thrilling experience, with the Vallée Blanche glacier fanning out far below you.
The Chéré Couloir sits on the North Face Triangle of Mont Blanc du Tacul, requiring an exciting bergschrund traverse in order to reach the base. The climb follows a narrow chute with four glorious pitches of steeper ice. This route can become crowded with a high risk of ice fall from above the climb so it is best to do first thing in the morning.
As Chamonix is an extremely popular place for climbing, at some point you are likely to be sharing a route with 20 of your closest friends. It can be hard not to feel flustered and rushed in this situation but you just have to remember to take a deep breath, slow things down, enjoy the view, and most of all, climb your own climb.
Crag Climbs in Chamonix by Francois Burnier and Dominique Potard: We found this book extremely useful for both crag and multi-pitch rock climbing all around Chamonix.
Mont Blanc: Petzl, together with the Coordination Montagne, have put together a great information pamphlet for those interested in climbing Mont Blanc or other peaks around the region.
CampToCamp (C2C): This website appears to be the European equivalent of Mountain Project. C2C is a non-commercial, wiki type site, by climbers for climbers. The site has been running for 15 years, (5 years as C2C,) and has over 23,000 route descriptions, mainly for the Alps.
Funalps: Probably our most favorite resource we happened upon is the website Funalps. Started by Gus Morton, a retired Brit living in the Chamonix Valley, Funalps lists selected outings in the Mont Blanc region for seven categories: Fun Fives, Happy Alpine, Soft Ice, Ski Hikes, Huts and Bivvies, The Blodigs, and Fun Days.
This site, supported by the Alpine Club, provides an English language doorway to route descriptions on the C2C site (which can be mostly in French or Italian). For example, Fun Fives features a list of over 80 climbs in the Mont Blanc region rated French 5a-5c (North American 5.7-5.9) and deemed a fun day out by the author. Happy Alpine lists 170 of the best alpine routes up to grade TD- (very difficult).
Where To Stay: If you plan to stay for more than a few days, I would recommend renting a self-catered apartment or a chalet. I have rented both with great success from the British estate agency Mountain Base. The company will even help arrange a lift pass for you which will save you money if you plan to make use of the cable cars often.
Guides: If this is your first time climbing in the area or want to access routes you might not be prepared to do on your own, it is always nice to head out with a guide. I can’t recommend enough both Caroline and Adam George.