František Bulička on his dream first trip to Chamonix, where, despite tricky conditions in the Alps this summer, he racked up an impressive tick list of harder Alpine rock classics.
Words by František Bulička. Images by František Bulička, Martin Varga, Miška Izakovičová and Adam Kaniak.
Sometimes you have a good day when everything you do works out. It's a combination of luck, fate, friends and also preparedness and hard work, because luck favours the prepared. I even had a whole week of such perfect climbing.
I had read, seen and heard a lot about Chamonix and I couldn't have imagined my first visit being better. We took the cable cars and train out of the valley three times in a row and managed to climb five multi-pitch routes.
Aiguille Moine - “Sale Athée” 8a
On the first day we missed our morning tickets for the cable car to Aiguille du Midi, so we opted for the train, which took us in half an hour up a thousand vertical meters to Montenvers to the diminishing glacier "Mer de Glace ''. The glacier is literally melting in front of your eyes. From there, we had a few hours' hike to the bivouac below the Aiguille Moine. The next day we set the alarm for 4:50 and at 7:30 we started climbing the first pitch of the 350-meter route "Sale Athée" 8a. This is 10 pitches of five-star cracks and as the icing on the cake the last pitch offers super technical slab climbing with boulder around 7B+.
Clockwise from left. Martin on Pitch 4. František on the 8a crux pitch of Sale Athee. František on one of the many crack pitches.
I managed to climb this pitch onsight and at the top of the pillar (3191 m above sea level) I could just enjoy a great ascent and a view of the north face of the Grandes Jorasses.
Martin and František on the summit of Sale Athée.
Flammes de Pierre - 'Buzzard... vous avez dit buzzard' 7b+/A0The next day we get up a little later and, as it turns out, considerably more tired. We moved to the base of Flammes de Pierre pillar, where we chose the route called "Buzzard... vous avez dit buzzard". The guidebook says the classification is 7b+/A0 (8a?). The sixth pitch is classified as 6b+/A0, which means you can technically aid through the bolts. This section does not yet have a free ascent. Initially, I was looking forward to this pitch in particular, however, already in the first pitch I found that the local classification is very sandbagged. I don't think I've climbed a 6c+ this hard elsewhere. Moreover, the wall is south facing, which, apart from thirst, ensures swollen feet, which hurt especially in the climbing shoes.
Vamos a muerte!
It's tough, but I climbed up to 7b+ pitch onsight. The 7b+ pitch consists of a formidable crack of almost all finger and hand sizes, containing three key passages in the form of overhanging bulges. On my first attempt, I fall right in the initial boulder, where a fixed piton blocks potential hold. I immediately try a second attempt, where I battle through the second boulder and am stopped by the desperately difficult last section. Over there the difficulties culminated and I had to try hard to even get to the belay somehow. At the belay I am faced with a difficult decision.
Martin and František on Buzzard.
Either give it one more desperate go, or call it a day. Martin, hanging at the previews belay is sincerely hoping for the second option, which in a different situation I would prefer too. But I reminded myself where I am.
"This is exactly what you've been training for and now you have the opportunity, so get the hell going. Vamos a muerte!" I lean back and yell, "I'm gonna give it one more shot!" I can see that Martin's hopeful expression has somewhat cooled, but he's a character and he fully supported me in the end.
"I'll keep you belaying here until dark, everything for the ascent!", he said as he handed me the rest of the water he was denying himself.
With belief in my abilities, I climbed the pitch with preplaced gear and silently congratulated my strong will. I find myself optimistic about the potential 8a pitch, however, I am not able to put on my aggressive climbing shoes that we've been pulling up the wall especially for this pitch. Even the more comfortable TC Pro's are painful at this point. When I got to the aid part of the pitch I got really disappointed. Ahead lay a dirty slab overgrown with lichen, traverse with no holds or footholds that nobody really tried to free climb. I try to get on some footholds, but I can't find any holds within reach and I can't stand anyway from the pain. So for the first time in my life I have to switch to aid climbing. It takes me a while to figure out that I have to stand in the sling in order to reach the next bolt.
"Wow, that was the first time I've ever done that.", I shared my impressions with Martin who was at this point just jugging behind me. " I could see that", I get a sarcastic answer.
You must be kidding me!
The last 6c+ is still looming above us. It's a very thin finger crack. Topo says there are supposed to be five fixed pitons, but I don't see any. "There's one over there!", Martin points to the first part of the crack. It encourages me and I start to climb. Unfortunately, the piton is wobbling, so I prefer to protect it with cams. I place one more a little higher, stagger through the hard bit, and am horrified to find that there really are no more pitons above me, and I have one last little cam. Swearing, I climb as high as I can and carefully place it. Fortunately, the difficulty is subsiding and I survive the last difficult pitch of this consistent wall. I climb the last easy pitch barefoot rather than torture my whining feet in the climbing shoes.
I suggest upgrading every pitch by one grade and the whole route to 7c/A0. The 7b+ crack seemed to me to be the same difficulty as the cracks on the "Ave Caesar" route I climbed last year.
The next day, we stagger down on our wobbly legs. Tired, but with a good feeling that we gave it our all.
Aiguille du Midi – “Ma Dalton” 7b+/c
After a well-deserved restday, we would have deserved one more, but there was no time to waste, so we got up early again and once again cheated nature with a miracle of technology: the cable car to Aiguille du Midi (3842 m). Martin wanted to climb his dream route "Ma Dalton" 7b+/c. It is called the “Alpine Separate Reality". This hints at the nature of the hardest pitch, where you climb roughly 5m roof crack.
František and Martin on Ma Dalton.
I have to say that I was surprised how much of an effect the altitude had on me while climbing in the roof. As long as you climb vertical or low-angle routes, you don't feel it so much, but in the roof I was downright out of breath and oxygen in my muscles. A great experience. We both climbed the crack on the second go with preplaced gear.
But the route doesn't end there. Next comes the unpleasant 6c+, which will take you below the "crux pitch" of the whole route. The cracked corner, which is graded "only" 7a, is very awkward. The crack widens into a double-jam width and tilts into an overhang. In the end, there is no choice but to lean out of the crack and climb lieback it. Fortunately, I managed to onsight it and the rest of the climb was a reward.
Martin's dream came true!
Arête des Cosmiques – “Digital Crack” 8a
What to do with the rest of the day? Via "Ma Dalton" we climbed to a viewpoint full of tourists, and I didn't want to stay there. "Well, let's go see that "Digital Crack", I'll climb it and maybe tomorrow I'll give it a try.", I said, looking at the beautiful tower. I was a little surprised to find out that there is a high alpine ridge leading up to the base of that famous sport climb, and since we didn't bring crampons, it took us a while before we were finally hanging on a ledge with a blank wall above us.
Onsight might have been possible, but my fingers were too cold for the first boulder. Even though I feel tired, I climb smoothly and I feel like at home, climbing some Xc on the sandstone. Already the routine process of working the moves is enjoyable.
František on Digital Crack.
I feel good at the top, so I say to myself "I'll try again on the top-rope". To my big surprise, I climbed the hardest part without falling. I don't hesitate and go for a ground-up attempt. I climb a little more efficiently and the conditions are amazing. The whole process could have taken about 45 minutes and the wave of happiness at the top of this iconic route was absolutely intoxicating.
At sunset we climb back up the ridge and I really can't imagine a better day. Thanks!
Digital crack and the Arête des Cosmiques.
Plus, we didn't have to sleep outside in the cold because we got from the ridge to the telepherique station where we weren't chased out until morning, so we had a complete suite including a flat floor, heater, light and bathroom.
Gendarme Rouge of Peigne – “Peigne Perdu” 7b
We rested for the next two days even due to light rain. After debating other possible destinations, we finally chose the route "Peigne Perdu". This time we are not alone and we climb with Miška Izakovičová and Adam Kaniak. The route is 450m long, but we manage to climb it quite fast. We climbed the first six pitches simultaneously, which was fast and fun.
František, Martin, Miška and Adam on Peigne Perdu.
We are so fast that Martin forgot to clip our water bottles to his harness. Luckily, we don't even manage to get thirsty at speed and just take a little sip from our friends, so we're good. I managed the route on-sight. We were never alone at the anchors which was fun. And the truth is that "The best climber is the one who is having fun".
We were so fast that instead of the planned bivouac we still caught the early afternoon cable car and celebrated with style and a burger down in Chamonix.
I would like to acknowledge my friends and fellow climbers. For me, performance in the mountains is never individual. I like to say that multi-pitch climbing is more than fifty percent about mental strength. And team spirit is a very powerful weapon. In single-pitch routes, you're basically on your own. No one is going to help you do the hard moves, and it may not even matter that much who is holding the other end of the rope. On a big wall, however, you're dependent on the help of partner when something happens, and this connection translates to climbing. When you're unable to make a move, you can send a climbing partner up there and maybe they'll make it. Even then you've climbed it, as a team. Climbing in the walls reveals true character, there's no room for pretense. Does your partner want you to climb it? Is he willing to sacrifice his comfort and his climbing for the shared success?
I climbed with Martin Varga, called Vargi, for the first time, but certainly not for the last time. He is a man who inspires me and brings out the good in me. He carries a tiny cup into the mountains with the inscription:
"Martin, a friendly type with his heart in the right place", to which he likes to add, with a bar of chocolate in his hand: "A bastard from the bone who has a sweet tongue". I could hardly look for a better description and I think we've made a good team. Thanks!
Also thanks to Miška, Adam and others for the great conversations, advice and moments on the belays.
Last but not least, I am very grateful for the clothing and sleeping bag from Mountain Equipment, which has always supported me in all situations.