The Best Route in Chamonix

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Written by Rhys WIlliams, 2004.

It 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.

Kingsley's 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!"

I 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.

We 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.

Of 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.

I 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.

I 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 loudly.

"Three pints of lager, please!"

Kingsley 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."

There are many great routes in Chamonix. This is one of the best.

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