Could you give a little background on your life for readers (like me) who might not be familiar? Who are you? What do you do?
I am an IFMGA certified guide, alpinist and mother of a little Olivia (2.5 years old). I am Swiss, French and American and currently reside in Chamonix, France. I started climbin
at a young age with my parents but didn’t take to it until later in life. Then, it became my life. I competed in ice climbing world cup event in the early 2000s. Then turned to the bigger alpine climbs, completing the 3 great north faces of the Alps (Eiger,Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses) in a few months in 2003. Ice climbing is a medium I love, whether on big alpine faces or pure ice climbs. I have put up new ice climbing routes in Canada, Norway and Iceland and love to travel for ice climbing. I guide in the Alps mostly, but have guided in the US and in Antarctica as well. In 2012, my little girl Olivia came into our lives, making me a way better person 🙂
This is a stout route. Can you talk about the prep leading up to it and the trip itself? What was the experience like? Did the weather cooperate? Any harrowing moments?
There was no prep. Basically, I saw on Facebook it was in condition, but since I had climbed the Walker Spur, I didn’t think I would ever want to climb this north face again. Yet, my friend Nicole Berthod-Grange sent me a message asking: “huh, by any chance, any interest on the Colton-Macintyre?” My inlaws were in town for a month to help with Olivia, so I had time to go, the weather was perfect, there was availability at the hut, so I said yes – kind of like it was meant to happen. We talked briefly on the phone to sort out the gear and met in Chamonix ready to go. We debated taking bivouac gear, and opted to take it… just in case. I suggested to my husband (he had already done the route so wasn’t frustrated not to go) to take his parents for pizza in Italy and simultaneously drop a car off. So that way we could drive home at night. So it all really just happened at the last minute, which is always better as there is no time to stress about what’s coming. Right before leaving, I read a things about the route and said: “wow, it looks actually hard!”. So off we went. The Leschaux hut was quite busy. The hut keeper has a Facebook page for the hut and posts condition updates, which in turn attracts people to come. And sure enough, it was busy and a lot of people were going for the route. Which is always a bit unnerving on an ice route. We woke up atmidnight, had a quick breakfast and headed down the ladders below the hut to access the glacier. The bergschrund was impressive and offered a very steep ice pitch. A good way to wake up in the morning. We then climbed another bergschrund and after that, up the small runnel to get to the 400m ice face, we were getting hit by ice. Since I haven’t done many north faces since I’ve had Olivia, other than Beyond Good and Evil, it was hard for me not to think of Olivia and what I was doing here. We briefly talked about going down but I led on up the 400m ice slope to the base of the difficulties, where the ice fall somehow didn’t seem as bad. From hereon out, the route was a mix of steep ice and more moderate ice fields. The crux was a 60m long pitch covering a vertical slab, offering a mix of unconsolidated snow and ice. I couldn’t find many, if any, descent screw placement. It was quite heady and run out, finishing on consolidated sugary snow to overcome the ice bulge. But at least the anchor was on good ice. 250m of snow and ice led us to the base of the headwall. There, you can either head way left to the Walker spur, or climb a beautiful mixed line called Extreme Dream (VI 6, 1200m) that takes you to the Walker Spur as well, by climbing 4 thin mixed pitches. We then made quick work of the last 130m to the top of the Walker Spur. I had bad enough memories of the descent from when I had done it in 2003 that I was not looking forward to doing this descent again. 2003 had been a really dry year so conditions were very different from what we encountered on the descent this time. We made good enough time that we decided to descend all the way back down to the car that awaited us in Planpincieux, Italy. The previous day, Adam had kindly taken his parents to have pizza in Italy and dropped off my car there for us to have if we arrived after bus hours.
You organize your life around adventures in the mountains. Can you talk a little about that, the ways you make family / life / mountaineering work in balance?
That is a constant challenge. It’s not as easy as I had predicted it would be. Living amongst the mountains makes it easier to get something done almost on a daily basis. But sometimes, that can be hard too because as a parent, you can’t just pick up and go when conditions are perfect and the weather is perfect. But Adam’s parents have come twice a year to help out for 2week to a month and that makes it possible to get out and climb longer and bigger routes. My parents were climbers too, so they are very understanding and if I really want to go do something, they are more than happy to watch Olivia for me. But the biggest difference from being a parent to not being a parent is spontaneity. “Pick up and go” is an expression that disappears all together from your daily life. So it takes a little more planning and flexibility. That said, we have a great day care system here in France, so we can get a lot done just between those hours. Parenthood teaches you also to reach out to others for help. When there is a will, there is a way. For me though, the crux is the guilt I feel when I go take risks for my own pleasure now that I am a mom. It can be hard to justify. But as a friend just said to me: accidents usually happen on easy terrain. which is usually true. And driving a car is dangerous and we accept that risk. Biking down a road a full speed and have very high consequences and yet, that is acceptable. But somehow, taking risks in the mountains is socially perceived as reckless. What I learnt from this last climb though is that it is important to decide to do something and to do it well, to focus on the task at hand and not let your mind wander to what could be or what people may think because accidents often happen when your mind is not on the task at hand. Being in the present, focusing on what you are doing right here, right now, and knowing you’re doing the best you can (as an alpinist, as a parent), is what matters the most. Climbing is part of who I am and I need that for my balance and being balanced makes me a good parent. But also I am mountain guide, I need to stay in shape and on top of my game to be a good guide, so I train accordingly as well. Balancing it all out can be challenging, so this summer, I took on a little less work to feel more rested to climb more for myself and to be more available for Olivia. I have accepted that I can’t do it all without paying the price somehow and I am ok with that.
Any other big routes or other mountain adventures planned for 2014?
We are in the midst of planning our Fall. But much like with the Grandes Jorasses, I like things to just happen instead of planning them too much because then, it creates frustration and disappointment. There are a few other routes I would like to do, so hopefully the stars will align, like they did this week.