Filed under:Blogs, Kingsley Jones, Mountain Running, Mountaineering, Alps, chamonix, Icicle Mountaineering, Kingsley Jones
The larch trees in the Chamonix valley have turned a rusty golden colour, as their needles start to shed, in preparation for the forthcoming Alpine winter season. It’s always a strange time of year, when the airlines have all but given up on their schedules to Geneva airport, aside of the red-eyed business travellers hustling off to another finance meeting. Gone are the fleets of transfer minibuses, buzzing up and down the A40, like worker bees, during the peaks of summer and winter seasons.
Now the infrastructure has ground to a halt, with the mountain huts all closed for a well-earned break after the manic alpine starts for climbers in the summer season, and all but a couple of cable cars are closed for seasonal maintenance. I say all this, yet it’s a beautiful time of year in the Alps. The temperatures have dipped, frosts cover the forests in minute ice crystals each morning, and the snow line creeps almost imperceptibly lower. The tourists may largely be gone, but if anything that feeds the urges of the locals even further, to enjoy ‘their’ mountains in peace.
So what can you do at this time of year in Cham? Ignoring the temptation to suggest watching paint dry on a refurbished cable car, or look mournfully at shops and cafes closed for the inter-season, scratch just a little under the surface, and the locals are up to loads. Whilst for many people the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc race week heralds the end of the alpine running season, it’s actually the end of September that is the traditional end of the trail running season in the valley, with the low-key yet uber-competitive Trail des Aiguilles Rouges. It’s a tough 50km route that is changed annually, featuring over 4000m in height gain. Since this race, many locals have been enjoying the quiet trails, and the recent good weather.
While many mountain guides have been happy to hang up their crampons and duvet jackets after their last ascents of Mont Blanc and have headed to warmer climes for rock climbing, others have been sneaking into the mountains to enjoy the great autumn conditions. Classic routes that are typically crowded during the season, are now often on your own private mountain. Aiguilles d’Entreves is a classic example, where you can often take your time to enjoy the friction of the granite needles, shuffling around to the south side overlooking Courmayeur where possible, to take advantage of the warmth of the sun.
Even higher, some climbers have been tackling 4000m peaks. While the cable cars and guardianed mountain huts are closed, climbers are using the basic winter rooms, and hiking the long approaches, to take advantage of the good conditions on many of the routes. People are still even climbing Mont Blanc, and without any uplift or hut guardian, in the ‘off’ season it grows into a mammoth undertaking. From the valley floor it’s nearly 4000m of vertical height gain, typically taking climbers three or four days, carrying all their own food and supplies. I’m not saying the climbers in the summer have it completely easy, but I take my hat off to these self-sufficient autumn ascents.
Keen skiers have already been ahead of the game after each snowfall, skiing some lines at altitude, and glacier ski tours. The heat of the summer months has taken its toll on the glaciers, and many of them have far more open crevasses, and weak snow bridges, than is typical. Patience is a hard earned virtue, and when gauging a chunk out of the base of your skis is the best outcome, it’s still time to wait. As the saying goes, ‘there’s no old and bold freeriders’. Many local skiers are putting in the mileage on their road bikes, over all the Alpine passes, to build up their fitness and endurance for the ski season ahead.
Autumn is always a time to keep an eye out for the activities of leading climbers seeking out new routes in ephemeral conditions, where they have more time to play the waiting game. Each year the names of Jeff Mercier (from PGHM Chamonix, mountain rescue), Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey, feature on yet another beautiful mixed line, that they have had in their minds eye for years. It’s the time of year when you walk down Chamonix high street, and you know the majority of people, not in February or August when you have the anonymity of walking the streets of a capital city. People stop to chat, share ideas of a project they are working on, or a route to go and recce, or even to show some prototype kit they are testing. There’s a palpable buzz, an energy, and a shared life in the mountains, that emerges during Autumn, which is often hidden or muted in season, and it’s delightful to see.
What marks the Autumn inter-season for me, are two things; the duration and overlap of activities. There’s a tiny gap, if any at all, between the spring and summer seasons, where you are likely to see climbers and ski tourers on the same routes on some mountains. The autumn is very different, due to its length, and gradually as the temperatures drop, the kit slowly changes too. Rock shoes, downhill mountain bikes, trail running shoes, and cragging racks are put away. In the longer evenings, ice axes are sharpened, skis have their storage wax removed, and the thicker duvet jackets come out of storage.
It’s fascinating to see the interplay of different sports passions, with the diehard trail runners layering up for a chilly run, or the rock climbers waiting for the peak heat of the afternoon sun to tackle a south-facing crag. To me it’s what makes Chamonix so special, being the melting pot of many different mountain sports, not reliant on just one sport. Anyone been to Val Thorens or Avoriaz in summer? It’s just not ‘quite’ the same.
At this time of the year the ski press, and social media, yelp at the sight of each snow flake, all screaming of a ‘dump alert’ and ‘epic pow’, yet after the past few years where Autumn yielded some amazing snowfalls, followed by major melts and no snow until the New Year, it’s perhaps wise to wait with baited breath for the main winter to come. Yes it’s around the corner, and we can’t wait, but please let’s enjoy these magical autumn colours and conditions for a few precious weeks more.
Kingsley Jones is a mountain guide and co-owner of Icicle Mountaineering. He’s also an author of mountain running books including ‘Lake District Trail & Fell Running’ and ‘Chamonix Trail Running’. More info at www.kingsleyjones.com