Saturday, August 18, 2018

La Fin de Babylone (6c), Chamonix - When nothing went like it was planned

A month ago I went to the Arcteryx Academy down in Chamonix, where I did an aid climbing clinic (so fun!) and got to know V. He seemed like a cool guy: not very strong or experienced, but definitely excited about climbing. He lived in Geneva and he said he goes to Chamo often with his alpine club. We exchanged emails and I said: if I was down for a weekend in Chamonix this summer, I’d hit him up. A couple weeks later the idea of going there emerged quite spontaneously: the weather report was solid (which doesn’t happen that often!) and a few friends from Zurich were heading there at the same time. Texted V. - he agreed to climb straight away. We discussed a few route options and I sent him a list with a few routes up Brevent and Index, all of them 6a’s, sport / mixed, not very long. Not the best ones in Chamonix, but… I haven’t climbed anything there and I never climbed with V. and I’m quite inexperienced weak-ish climber, so you know - I was just excited to go do something mellow in this iconic place as a start. 

V. suggested we go for Nabot Leon up on the Red Pillar - super classic, alpine route in Aiguille du Midi. Why not, I thought. He had double ropes, but didn’t have a rack, so I brought mine. We thought we’d catch the first lift up Aiguille du Midi on Saturday morning, do a full day there and climb something short and mellow on Brevent the next day. But absolutely nothing went as planned.

[Approach -->]
[Beta pitch by pitch -->]
[Thoughts on climbing with a stranger -->]

Firstly, we didn’t know for sure, when the first lift up was. I thought it was at 8 am and somehow we decided not to double-check (silly). After bivvying in the forest, we walked to the lift station at 8 am to find a huge crowd of tourists and no tickets for the lift in the next 2h. Bummer. Well, Nabot Leon wasn’t happening and we decided to go climb something on Brevent.

Brevent is closer, slightly less popular and the routes there are sport or trad, without any alpine flavor, but with incredible views on Mont Blanc. I proposed to do Frison Roche (sport, 6a) or Ex Libris (trad, 6b). V. suggested we do La fin de Babylone, a famous sport 6c, right at the bottom of the lift station. ‘Isn’t it a bit of a stretch?’ - I said with a doubt. ‘Ah come on, camptocamp reviews say it’s a soft 6c, rather a 6b+!’ - confidently replied V. ‘Okay, if you say so’ - agreed I. And we hiked to the base of the climb passing a crowd of five teams waiting their turn at the bottom of Frison Roche. 

From our short experience of aid climbing clinic together, V. figured that I’m a bit stronger climber than he is (*thinking back though: it was a freaking aid clinic and one didn’t even have to climb that much, we aided all the routes with ladders and pulled on draws - a recipe for a huge misjudgement*). At the base of the climb he asked: ‘Are you okay to lead all the difficult pitches?’ I was a bit shocked, but I thought I’ll try. According to Rockfax, there was supposed to be one short 6c, two 6b+’s, three 6b’s and two 6a’s. Interestingly, camptocamp has all the pitches downgraded, but also references a different topo with two 6c pitches instead of one. Yeah whatever, the grading is a subjective matter, right? 

We arrived to the base together with a French couple, but slightly ahead of them, so without any argument they let us start first. There was a team of Brits up the first pitch already, so we tried to rack up and start as quickly as we could. Remember, I said we were about to do Nabot Leon that morning? So yeah, we had two backpacks full of trad gear on us. La fin de Babylone is a sport route and one can top out and take a lift all the way back to Chamonix, which means… yeah, we both had to climb with all that shit and shoes clipped to us. Nah well, why not, I heard there’s this thing called ‘hypergravity’ training for climbing (spoiler: it was a hyper-bad idea).

Pitch 1. 6a - my lead. Easy climbing on good holds, rather short. Pleasant. V. followed without any difficulty. Good start, thought I.

Pitch 2. 6b - V.’s lead, a bit slow-ish, but totally fine for the first lead of the day. The couple who climbed behind us was super fast though and we were all cramped at the first anchor. It took V. a while to build the second belay: turned out he chatted with the Brits about how the climb wasn’t exactly what the guidebook topo said, and they all thought we were off route.

When I arrived at the belay V. suggested we are on the wrong line, while the correct line is to the right. Shall I traverse? He said I could try. I felt okay traversing: I had all this useless trad gear on me, so I could use it to protect the traverse and reach the next bolt line. And so I did. But then the French couple was shouting from down below: what the hell you are doing, the line goes left! I got slightly stressed. At the same time V. shouted that actually the Brits also went left, so maybe after all I should come back. I down climbed, removing the gear on the way. Yay. Adventure. I’m pretty sure the Frenchies thought that we are the sketchiest climbers out there. I felt a bit ashamed.

Pitch 3. 6b+ - after that up and down warm up, I started confidently the line to the left and it quickly got difficult. Tiny crimpy hand holds, super balancy foot holds. I totally thought I’m going to fall a few times (the British guy before me actually fell off!), but I was happy to pull it off clean. It took me about half an hour, but it was worth it. Super enjoyable and challenging. V. followed, occasionally pulling on draws. The French couple behind us got slightly annoyed waiting, but they were very respectful.

Pitch 4. 6c - The crux pitch, my lead again. Rockfax topo shows that it’s a 10m traverse, but the topo doesn’t match the actual climb, which is confusing (and lots of people complain about it!). And the crux was to get to the roof rather than traverse underneath: steep, super techy climbing on micro holds with many side pulls and balancing on tiptoes. I fell off twice, got frustrated, but found a sequence at the end and got to the traverse. The traverse was just a bit sketchy: almost no feet, but good handholds, pumpy. Did it slow, but clean. The whole pitch took me about 45 minutes to lead and I was drained when arrived to the belay. At this point the French couple asked V. if they can overtake. The guy led the pitch super fast, his girlfriend followed with some difficulties, but after they passed, V. finally followed the pitch. He was very, very slow. I couldn’t see him on the traverse, so I kept checking the slack and it just wasn’t moving at all for about 5-10 minutes. Wow, I thought. Nah well. At least we are half way up.

Pitch 5. 6b - I asked, if V. could lead this one so I could rest a bit. “Ok, I’ll try but can’t promise anything!” And he pulled straight away on the first draw, not even trying the moves. And it continued that way further up until he got to the top. And while watching him climb I had a bunch of thoughts which I put at the end of this post.

Pitch 6. 6b+ - my lead again. Really cool pitch: the crux is athletic, which is very different to all the rest of the climb. One has to pull on good jugs to get over the roof onto a technical wall. Slightly intimidating, but totally doable. The bolts are close. I pulled through the roof… to realize that I’ve fucked up the ropes while clipping and there’s a hitch on the draw. So I had to ask for a take, climb down and sort it out. Jeeeeez, I thought. It’s getting more and more exhausting. After the roof there’s a grassy field and it took me AGES to see, where the bolts go and where the belay station is (it was about 8 meters up and left on one of the ledges, totally invisible from that grassy field you arrive after the crux). By then we were already about 6 hours on the wall.

Pitch 7. 6b - and again my lead. Went smooth, even though I was stuck in one place fighting with my tired brain. It wasn’t even a difficult move: good holds, just a bit less than straight… but I was clearly out of power. 

Pitch 8. 6a - V.’s lead, a total cruiser. I ran up following it and we arrived at the top at 4:50 pm, 10 minutes before the last lift was scheduled to go down. That was the fastest rope coil I’ve ever done. And we were right in time to catch the lift. 

Bonus! We bumped into Nina Caprez at the lift station. I played a total fangirl and asked for a photo. 

Descend. The easiest ever, just took a lift all the way down, chewing the rest of the energy bars and dreaming of some real food which was waiting for us at the bottom. 

Overall, an excellent route. Very cool climbing, challenging but not sketchy. Very comfortable bolting, varying moves, fantastic views on Mont Blanc. Very recommendable.

Now thoughts. Climbing world is very opinionated: there are all these unspoken rules, ethics, different schools, different traditions in different places, old and new climbers, gym and outdoors and everything. It’s the whole universe. And it’s a dangerous sport, where most of the time you are quite involved with a few other people. And I’m quite new to it, although I’m really stoked and heavily influenced by opinions from my friends and other climbers. And I think it’s cool, makes it more fun that way. So I thought about the whole situation: there’s nothing wrong or shameful in aiding something you can’t climb, on lead or while following. It’s a valid technique and I have no business judging someone’s technique choice. But would I choose a route I can’t comfortably climb (lead or follow) to do with a stranger? Even if we discussed our abilities and if I think my partner is stronger? I probably wouldn’t. That was my first 6c multipitch (yeah, people in the internet say it's soft for the grade, but still!) and it went just fine: it was a well bolted sport route. But I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it, if I was slightly weaker. But maybe I’m just overly cautious and not very bold. Maybe it goes away the more I climb and the more I bail :P 

1 comment:

  1. Cool Adventure ! It's good to have all those experiences, so you learn on how to choose objectives and partners ;-). E.g. for me for people who I did not climb with, or have no knowledge from sources that I trust, I pick the route that I can lead entirely by myself.

    I think though that there is a "ultimate" climbing ethics where you do not pull on gear. I'm a fun of actually talking about that with your partner. "I can try but I will probably pull on gear, are you ok with that?", is definitelly better, as you can decide on your own, as it determines the style of the climb you've done.

    Thanks for writing pitch by pitch beta as well !