Why Climbers – not the climb or the guide – make a great climb
More often than not, what makes my day as a guide or as a climber is not as much the climb as it is the people I guide or climb with. Guiding the Aiguille d’Argentière—a 3,902-meter high peak above the Argentière Glacier in Chamonix—was no exception to the rule. After canceling three days of guiding due to bad weather, I took on some random work with local guide services to make up for lost work. You never know who you are going to have as clients when you work for other companies, so I didn’t know if I should be excited or not about this climb, but I had low expectations because I didn’t have a personal relationship with them and felt that I couldn’t disappoint. If anything, I would get to summit a peak I had not yet stood on. I had tried to ski it the day I returned from Jordan this past March, but the snowpack hadn’t settled enough and we turned around at the base of the steep slope.
The clients were a Swiss couple in their 50s with some climbing experience. I met them at the base of the cable car and after making sure they had all the necessary gear, we rode up to the top of the Grands Montets cable car. In winter, you would ski down the Glacier du Rognon to the Argentière Glacier before starting up the climb. Hiking down in the summer isn’t nearly as much fun, but the beauty of scenery makes up for it. A few hours later, we were at the Argentière hut. From there, the view stretches to the south to the spectacular north faces of the Verte, Droites, Courtes and Triolet. With all the recent precipitations, the routes up the north faces looked nearly in condition (in the summer, they are usually shedding rocks nonstop). The hut has just been remodeled and it is lovely to stay in such nice places in the mountains. They cooked what could be the best meal I’ve had in a hut: a homemade soup followed by a Moroccan tajine. Yum!
We woke up at 4 a.m. to start on our climb. We followed a faint trail in the dark and made our way through a treacherous boulder field before reaching the disappearing glacier. This glacier is named the “Glacier du Milieu” (Middle Glacier) because it rises steeply between two magnificent and flamboyant jagged rock ridges, both topping out on the summit. The climbing is pretty straightforward, despite a few sections where we had to navigate through a maze of crevasses. After the bergschrund, the slope drastically steepens. We made good use of the cramponing technique we had perfected on the dry glacier the previous day on our way to the hut, and made it safely to the summit. A biting northerly wind greeted us on top: I quickly added my Igniter Jacket to enjoy the beautiful panorama, stretching to the south to Mont Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses and to the north to the Swiss Alps. We soon started back down. Descending steep slopes is where you are the most at risk, so we took our time, making sure each of our steps was secure.
Once the difficulties were over we were able to talk a lot more. The clients—both doctors—told me about where they live, their passion for the mountains, for nature and for the environment (having even built a fully environmentally efficient house), about their kids (their daughter is a Swiss champion rock climber for under-16-year-olds) and much more. After what has been a bit of a difficult summer with the weather, meeting such great clients (and having nice weather) really brought home why I was guiding and why I love to guide. I sometimes feel that clients can bring more to the guide than the guide can bring to them by taking them to a summit. Clients always bring a lot to the plate, but this time, maybe because I had low expectations, there was room for me to let myself be surprised. And this was definitely one of these special times when clients made my day.