I woke to rattling windows and the thundering sound of bombs. Chamonix, France, was no longer the winter wonderland that existed in my romanticized mind. The freezing level had risen, and all the white fluffy snow had turned to peanut-buttery mush. Soon after the resonations of avalanches settled the phone rang. A British accent excitedly uttered, “Get your chalk bag, your rock shoes, your harness, flip-flops, sunglasses and sun cream. Limestone, the Mediterranean, coffee, gelato, red wine: We’re going to Italy.” I hardly needed convincing. The ski lifts were all shut and black flags – designating the avalanche hazard as extreme – fluttered in the pouring rain.
Three of us piled into a small Renault, stacking a few ropes, quick draws and a handful of clothes in the back. Plowing through the flooded streets of the Chamonix Valley, we drove to the Mont Blanc Tunnel and the respite of the Italian border. We stripped hats, gloves, scarves and puffy jackets with every kilometer we covered.
Within three hours we surfaced from the car, squinting in the bright sun reflecting off the white limestone. Buzzing on caffeine, we donned small packs and headed up to the cliffs. Passing the token Virgin Mary perched at the start of the trail we trekked through orange groves and olive bushes. Our noses filled with smells quelled by high-mountain winters and snow-filled valleys. After lusting over hard routes, we agreed upon a “warm-up”. Clipping the first and second bolt, hips pressed in, Jeff looked at the roof looming overhead and reached up, fingers filling a polished dish. After a brief rest, he stepped up again. “This time I’m really going for it, watch me, watch me, TAKE!!”
Skeptically, I stepped up next. If this was climbed in 1900, how hard could it be? Humility was quickly found on the overhanging buckets, wacos and tufas as I lowered off. Jeff offered Jonny, the “strongest” of the crew, a friendly bet. Slave for the day, should he fall off, and the same in return should he send. With little grace, dire determination, a knee smear and lots of grunting Jonny made it through the roof. He smiled, “How many grapes can you peel Jeff?”
With scrawny winter arms, large ski legs and soft, uncalloused fingers we quickly reached the threshold of our endurance. We giggled at the thought of our friends sitting miserably beneath the gloomy skies of Chamonix, dressed head to toe in rain jackets and alpine boots for the treacherous journey to the supermarket.
With forearms aching, raw fingers, cherry noses and pink shoulders, we ambled back to the car in no particular rush, basking in the sunny escape. An evening dip in the Mediterranean sufficed for a shower before a delectable meal of Italian pasta “al dente” and cheap red wine. Sitting in the heart of the old town with homemade gelato melting on our tongues, we agreed we should most likely stay a few days longer, at least until the rain stopped back home.
Our skis would still be there when we got back.