On the 25th May 2013, I married Sophie, aka Challenge Sophie, in a beautiful ceremony on the Seine, up in Normandy. After a wonderful couple of days, we set off on our honeymoon – two months in the outdoors Mecca, Chamonix. In a not so typical turn, we were going to be starting our honeymoon with a week at the Chamonix Mountain Festival, a brand new outdoor meetup for climbers and mountaineers.
The UCPA, our home for the Chamonix Mountain Festival
We started out life as newlyweds with a few days in the beautiful Les Aiglons hotel before packing up and moving into our home for the duration of the festival, the UCPA. The UCPA is a bit like a youth hostel, providing; dorm rooms, communal showers, and affordable accommodation – though thankfully, as a couple, we were given a room to ourselves with a private bathroom, allowing us a little more privacy.
The UCPA is more than just a bed, though, you can normally only stay there if you are booked onto one of their activity courses such as Alpine Mountaineering, Mountain Biking, and more. The Chamonix Mountain Festival had brokered a deal that provided us with the same infrastructure but with our own activities. With clean rooms, friendly staff, and a superb location, it was one other aspect that stole the show here: the food. The French know a thing or two about food and the UCPA was no exception. As a typical canteen style affair, expectations were not too high but I was wonderfully disappointed. The exuberant and happy kitchen staff put on amazing meal after amazing meal paired with good humour and one simple rule:
Don’t waste food by leaving it on your plate.
We were actively encouraged to go back as many times as we liked, just don’t waste food by not finishing it. With the high amounts of exercise we were performing each day, this was a welcome offer and there were certainly a few people making 3, 4, or even 5 trips back to the counter.
Another incredible inclusion in the UCPA offering was an unlimited lift pass. If any of you have been to Chamonix, you will know that uplifts can be brutally expensive. The Midi lift alone is €50 return making any trip up high a serious investment. By including the lift pass in the Festival price we were saving a small fortune and we were not going to waste it.
On the first day, upon receiving our passes, we wanted to put them to good use. The very heavy and long winter was still hanging around and the idea of heading up onto the glacier was not appealing, but with a free pass we could pop up for a little look.
The conditions were more akin to Scottish Winter on a bad day, not summer alpinism.
After an hour of hanging around at 3600m in a vain attempt to gain some sort of acclimatisation, we decided enough was enough and we headed down to meet some of our festival goers and see what was in store for us.
Making new friends at the Chamonix Mountain Festival
The festival had approximately 40 attendees with 8 or so members of the festival team and, over dinner, we started making some new friends. There was a nervous excitement as people talked about plans for the next day and we all secretly weighed up each others experience and potential for the week – who did I want to climb with, maybe who not, thankfully, after an hour getting to know some people, there was not one person I wasn’t happy to try out with and felt very lucky to have met such a group of like-minded and excited people.
With me climbing with Sophie most of the time, I only actually tied onto a rope with a few of the other attendees but still went out onto the hill with most of them. There was a broad range of skills and experience and it was refreshing to be in the middle; not the most inexperienced, but still plenty of people to learn off.
Over the course of the week I got to know some people very well and was realising a dream – making real climbing friends with whom I feel confident being out on the hill. Since the festival; I have climbed with 3 of them; stayed with one; and, have plans for more adventures, a year down the line, with others. These are people I’d call real friends and have the festival to thank for introducing us.
Varied and Interesting Routes with the Festival
Over the course of the week we climbed some of Chamonix’s classic routes and in a broad range of styles; from multi-pitch rock climbing, to mountaineering, to alpine ice and mixed climbing.
The long and hard winter meant that day one in Chamonix would be very hard work. Thankfully, someone took the lead and suggested a short drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy and to a striking venue called Machaby. Machaby is home to some fairly amenable routes, all very long in nature and, having blagged a lift with a new friend and his guide, Adam George, set off up the crag’s classic Bucce d’Arancia, 280m over 9 pitches up solid and clean rock. A little busy at times, we relaxed into the waits at the belay stances and revelled in the warm Italian sun – a complete contrast to the overcast, miserable French weather currently hampering Chamonix efforts.
Back at the UCPA we feasted like kings and planned our next day’s outing. All of us were keen to make the most of our Midi lift passes and Sophie and I opted for the easy classic Traverse of the Pointe Lachenal, an interesting route that crosses over the three peaks that comprise the small mountain – I say small, we were still climbing at over 3600m! This was my first taste of leading steeper mixed climbing and I absolutely loved it, Sophie and I had a wonderful day making the most of the clear skies and quiet on the hill, feeling like we were finally making it as alpine climbers.
Over the next few days we climbed with a number of other people, up on the Mer de Glace to help some beginners with the basic skills, cragging at the local sports climbing venue of Les Gaillands, and finally with the area classic, the Arete des Cosmiques, a stunning, if slightly overcrowded route up to the Aiguille du Midi.
After 6 days I was shattered but couldn’t happier. I had eaten like a king, made amazing friends, and felt my confidence on the hill had grown no end. My progress culminated in a climb just after the festival with Graham Sutton, a fellow festival-goer, who stuck around and crashed on our sofa, when we set off to climb my first North Face route which you can read more about here.
Reflecting on the Chamonix Mountain Festival
The festival sells itself as a climbing meetup put together by climbers, for climbers and it did not disappoint. I have made lifelong friends, learned invaluable skills, and had a superb holiday with like minded people. Though i will be living in Chamonix this year by the time the festival comes around, I will most definitely by attending, if only to hang out and climb with the awesome people that they attract.
If you’re around and heading there, please drop me an email as maybe we can get out onto a climb as part of the festival, the Chamonix Mountain Festival starts with the GearFest 28-29 June and festival 1 until 6 July, you can find out more information here.
See you there!