was Kingsley who first pointed out the route to us. To be
honest, I felt uncomfortable. It was our first week in Chamonix,
on the Alpine Introduction course, and none of us was fully
confident yet in our own abilities. It was a cold, damp September
day, and there were clouds rapidly approaching from the North.
As we studied the route, we were conscious of the Aiguilles
looming over us like wraiths. We hoped that Kingsley or one
of the Guides would be leading it, but he simply pointed out
the route, then promised to meet us again when we'd finished.
It was to be our first lead.
directions were simple enough. "It's a straightforward
route," he said, "with no real technical difficulties,
but the crux may cause you some problems." We followed
his gnarled, frost-bitten fingers as they indicated how the
route went straight initially, then kinked to the right, leading
to a full-on traverse just before snaking back to the left
again. "After that, a little smear to the right,"
as King put it, "will take you to the crux. Bon chance!"
swallowed hard and looked at my sister and climbing partner,
Siân. I felt my stomach churning and thought I might
throw up. I looked away and felt better instantly. She really
is quite unattractive.
vacillated for a while, but eventually I led off. Kingsley
had been right. Technically, it was no great shakes. There
were plenty of simple, obvious footholds, which mitigated
the lack of handholds. It quickly because clear that balance
would be the key to success on this route.
course, there was the problem common to the starting point
of many classic routes, especially in Chamonix: hordes of
tourists, all milling aimlessly around like zombies on a day
release programme. But they were soon a distant memory as
I led pitch after pitch. It was one of those rare climbing
days. I was in the zone. I was flowing. Every movement seemed
natural, inevitable. Even the sun appeared, breaking briefly
through the clouds to warm both my body and my soul.
looked down and asked Siân if she wanted to take over
the lead, but she was happy to follow me. I cursed under my
breath. The crux was rapidly approaching. My energy was flagging.
Would she help? Would she take some responsibility? Would
she take over at the sharp end? Ultimately, no. She did what
she always does: she smiled sweetly, showing her blackened,
rotten teeth, and simply said: "After you." It would
be up to me, after all.
looked once, saw the move to make and instantly plunged forwards.
I knew that any hesitation might be fatal. It was only one
movement, and I can't say it was pretty, but it was effective.
It was one of those moments where brute force and ignorance
will triumph over grace and technique. And with one final
effort I pushed myself forwards, sweating, swearing, and shouting
pints of lager, please!"
took his pint in his withered, blackened hand and thanked
me. "You see?" he said. "Not that tricky to
find the Queen Vic, is it? Start from Place Jacques Balmat,
go straight onto Rue Joseph Vallot, kink right just before
the Brasserie l'M then traverse to Rue des Moulins. The pub
will be on your right."
are many great routes in Chamonix. This is one of the best.