15 July 2018
Voie Frison-Roche was one of those days of exceptional progression. Holly and I had completed Label Virginie in the Aiguilles Rouge the day before. It had been a good warm up. It was also Holly and my first time rock climbing together. I couldn’t have been more excited for her to join me in Chamonix two days prior. I had spent the past three weeks with Thor, Miles and the Arcteryx Alpine Academy, learning and honing the basic skills of technical alpine climbing. It was now time to translate those skills to unguided scenarios. There’s no person with whom I’d rather undertake this effort. Holly is a wonderful partner. Her energy is positive and intoxicating. I never have any doubt that she is going to lead in style or safely belay my beginner ass. I am so grateful for her patient teachings. My trip to Europe would never have been what it became without her there. From Voie Frison-Roche to the Breithorn to the biking trails high above Zermatt, we went for it, always full bore, always bold.
The day before had been my first lead. It was on the 5.9 sport route Label Virginie. Never one to start at level one, I had led a slightly overhung 5.9 pitch as my first lead. Voie Frison-Roche is a 6a/5.10a sport route on the main face of Le Brevent, just under the cable car. I had gone up there for lunch the week prior and marveled at the climbers ascending this giant buttress of stone. It had seemed way over my head at the time. A lot can change in a week when you’re climbing every day in Chamonix. Both Thor and Miles had recommended the route to me. It is one of the uber classics in the Chamonix valley. You can expect two things when this is the case: exceptional rock and a big crowd. My goal for the day was to lead the crux, 5.10a pitch four.
Indeed, when we arrived at the cable car for the first lift up there already a large congregation of people. Most of them headed up to sight see or take a ride with the many paragliding outfits in the valley. That morning had also been interesting in another way. We had to be out of the first Airbnb and subsequently had all of our luggage with us. Not a big deal usually except when you are on a month long, three sport (rock climbing, skiing and mountain biking) international trip. We had so much luggage we could barely carry it all, let alone all the way up the hill to the Brevent cable car. Luckily the day before, Holly had put her effortless magic to work and we’d made friends with three people who were planning to climb the same thing the next day. They just happened to drive right by us at the base of the hill and graciously let us pile all of our bags into their car. We hoofed it up the rest of the hill, got our tickets and were on our way up to the summit of Le Brevent.
These mornings are a bit of a rat race. The cable car doors open and the climbing hopefuls nearly sprint to the base of the route. One of our new friends, Michelle, had hired a guide who set a crazy pace in this scramble. They arrived first, with us and couple other groups not far behind. We waited for them and the other two to get going. It was not a bad place to chill. The Chamonix Valley spread out below us with Mont Blanc and the Chamonix Aiguilles towering above. Before too long it was our turn. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous as hell. The first 5.10- pitch starts off with a weird traverse move with minimal hands. I had watched the others struggle and also had the looming commitment I’d made to myself to lead pitch four. Time to go and put my money where my mouth is.
We said goodbye to the next team in line and Holly launched in. This first move was quite tricky but she figured it out in no time and cruised on up. A few minutes later and I heard the faint call that she was off belay. Pull up the rope, “That’s me!” “On belay!” and off I go. The first move ended up not being the real crux of the pitch. The next section was the most delicate face I’d climbed. I sat there puzzled for a few minutes before finally finding a sneaky little hold about a foot up from my position. Once I got my left foot in there it was smooth sailing. I reached Holly at the start of pitch two and prepared for my second lead.
This next pitch was a straight forward 5.8. Nothing to really describe in detail. It consisted of big jugs and at the top a couple interesting traverse moves to climber’s right. I joined our friend at the belay ledge and brought Holly up behind me. One more down and closer to my 5.10a. Pitch three was much the same. It followed a broken up crack system that ended in a notch belay platform. The start of pitch four. It was a little tight in here. Holly also informed me that Jiri, a very experienced climber had just taken a lead fall on the pitch I was supposed to lead. My nerves reach a climax. But I was resolved. I needed to take my first lead fall eventually. If this was to be the day then so be it. As Jiri finished the pitch Holly called up to him and asked if he thought I could lead it. Jiri responded, “Absolutely! You got it man!” Confidence restored I went for it.
It wasn’t a glory pitch. I didn’t climb it smooth. But I will always remember it. It was the first time I felt like I let my body move intuitively. The first section was a series of intricate, slabby face moves with small holds. This traversed to the right to the base of the crux crack. It’s about ten meters long and set into a corner between the bolted face to the right and a large tower block on the left. It was the hardest rock climbing I’ve done. I started out nearly bear hugging the tower, my face smashed against it. I had to move over into the crack to get the bolts clipped. About half way up my left forearm started to seize up. I thought for sure I was going to fall. I caught myself and gave a big pull up to where there was a small chalkstone perch in the crack. Here I could relax and massage my arm. When I felt like it calmed down I made the five or six more moves to finish it off. I pulled up onto the next belay ledge to Jiri grinning from ear to ear. I gave a big, excited yell, answered by Holly down below. I did it! I can’t put into words how excited I was to have on-sighted the hardest pitch I’d climbed as my third lead ever. Chamonix baby.
The next pitch is just a traverse back to the left. It follows a terrace around the corner to a large ledge under the final pitch. Now this, is a glory pitch. It was all Holly. A large crack is set into a dihedral. On top of it all, the cable car has a front row seat for the action. If fact, it was on this very pitch I had witnessed people climbing the week prior. Holly led it with her normal poise. It was only 5.9 but my left arm was in a world of hurt. I could barely hold on and I was frankly, glad to have the top rope on this one. I would have fallen for sure on lead. I made it up and joined the whole crew to congratulate each other on a successful climb. What a day! From there it was back down the cable car and on to celebratory beers. Limits were pushed, new friends were made and we’d kicked off our trip with a tone that wouldn’t subside until we were on the train out of Zermatt.