As the Rockfax guidebook to Chamonix Valley hits outdoor shops and doormats in the coming weeks, main author Charlie Boscoe reflects on his life and climbs in this atmospheric hub of skiing, alpinism and adventure - or as he describes it, 'the greatest mountain valley on Earth.'
Chamonix. The very sound of the word sends a shiver down my spine, even now. I have to call it "Cham" because then it can be a real place. I remember as a kid reading my Mum's well-thumbed copy of Joe Simpson's "Touching the Void" and whilst the story was gripping and the writing wonderful, it was Simpson's next book, "Game of Ghosts" that really got me. Travelling across the Globe to climb far-flung mountains sounded fun but the flying, driving, walking, setting up of camp and acclimatising all seemed a bit of a faff. Chamonix on the other hand sounded like another world but, inexplicably to me, lay just one country away. In stark contrast to my native rural Lancashire, it seemed impossible that a place could exist where there could be so much action, so much excitement and so much tragedy. The pull it exerted on me was incredibly powerful, although I vowed never to become a climber.
I remember as a 17 year old in Les Deux Alpes, when I watched our ski instructor point out Mont Blanc in the distance. I knew that Chamonix lay at the foot of Mont Blanc (by this time I'd consumed every mountaineering book I could lay my hands on) and just the sight of that white lump in amongst many others got my heart racing. It wasn't the peak that I cared about; it was the famous town that must have nestled somewhere near it. I might not have been there, I might not even have seen it, but I was close to Chamonix. 12 years later I was skiing at La Grave, just across the Valley from Deux Alpes, and I looked up from a peak and knew with blinding clarity that the view I was looking at was the same one I'd seen back in my teens. Happily, despite having lived in Chamonix for 6 years by then, I got the same rush of adrenaline just from picturing the magical town that must have lain somewhere in the vista I was studying.
A gap year and most of university passed with only the occasional trip to the mountains, but as I got closer to the "real" world, I climbed more and more. I listened to climbers talk about a whole new world of rocks and mountains. I remembered every word of their accounts of huge run outs, drug-fuelled soloing sessions and dossing in the car parks of Europe's crags. I learned their jargon and jokes and used both without really getting them, hoping that someday I'd have some stories of my own. I read every word of the books they mentioned. Paul Pritchard's evocative book "Deep Play" struck a chord with a hopelessly enthusiastic youth and I can still quote sections of it today. (Running into Paul in a bar in Kathmandu remains the only time I've felt truly star struck and I still enjoy telling the story of how, after a long period of talking about Lancashire's finest routes, he asked me why I knew the quarries of Wilton and Anglezarke so well. I explained that although I didn't live in Bolton, I'd gone to the Grammar school there so, I ventured, I was sort of a local. "Course you aren't you posh bastard" came the reply, accompanied by a huge grin and followed by a manic laugh.)
Still, Chamonix seemed a distant place and it seems strange now that when I look back through those books that inspired me, my imagination still paints a picture of the place that I know to be wrong. Chamonix remains somewhere where other people go and climb routes I could never imagine even seeing. I was leafing through the pictures in "Game of Ghosts" recently and saw Joe Simpson's photo of Les Courtes, with the Austrian route shown and the North-east face clearly visible. Had my crampons really kicked into that steep, icy north face? I traced the line of the route but it wasn't real. The North-east face looked so intimidating; had I really stood at the top of it, strapping my skis on? When I read books about the peaks amongst which I spent my twenties, they're not the same summits.
I haven't actually been on top of the Drus and the Grand Jorasses - those are elsewhere, shrouded in mystery, conquered only by men much tougher and better than me. The peaks I've read about more recently don't have anything resembling that mythical quality and, closed-minded as it might be to say it, Everest, Ama Dablam and the others will never fascinate me like the needles that tower above Chamonix. No matter how long I spend there, the Valley never loses its aura, partly because it retains that enduring fascination that comes from the oldest, deepest memories. Much as a Harry Potter fan can never visit Hogwarts School, I'll never go to Chamonix as I always pictured it but I'll always be fascinated by the prospect.
I've called Chamonix home for over 8 years now and whilst I've spent long periods of that away, it's always been the centre of my universe; the Valley that nowhere else can compare to and where I would happily drive airport transfers and live in a shoebox just to be there. I started a blog after a few years of being there and it is the best diary I could imagine but it's still only a snap shot. There's no record of all the times I've hiked up to the Prarion lift before work and sat there watching the morning light fill the Valley as the cable car clunked into life. Many of my best days have gone unrecorded, perhaps because I was on a route I'd done many times before or simply because I don't want to share some days with the rest of the world. I've certainly made no note of how many times I've stood in the town centre staring at the view and dwelling on how it looks different every minute of every day. A bit more snow here or there, a shadow revealing a previously hidden feature or a cloud formation allowing only a tiny glimpse of those rocky needles. I love Chamonix.
The problem is that when you truly love somewhere you see its flaws. No mountain range on Earth can attempt to compete with Chamonix for views, access, quality and variety of routes available and, above all, mystique - but there comes a time when that isn't enough. I've been obsessed with this place for most of my adult life and I want to experience something else. It might seem perverse for a climber and skier to walk away from the finest mountains you could ever dream up, but there are other factors to choosing where to live beyond where the best hills are. Most people think that the skiing in La Grave is amazing but I don't see that many skiers moving there, ditto Yosemite for rock climbing or Patagonia for alpinism. I want some culture and nightlife for when the weather is bad (I still can't see a day when I wouldn't be in the mountains when the sun is shining) and some new mountains where I'll turn a corner and not know what's coming.
The biggest experiences of my life have almost all been in the Chamonix Valley, with very few exceptions. These mountains shaped me physically and emotionally in a way I could never have anticipated. It's ironic that it took several years of manically chasing my goals to start figuring out that it's not the climbing or the skiing that I love, it's the mountain environment itself. Skiing down towards the lights of Chamonix as an all-too-short January day ends, with the cold air on my face and the trees sagging with snow will always be my favourite place to be. I couldn't care less what the snow is like; it would seem sacrilegious to be so shallow.
I'll climb and ski until I drop and Chamonix will always be the place I love and revere ahead of all others, but it's time for a change. Going stale is a gradual process and one that is hard to spot and I want to get out before it could ever begin. This is the greatest mountain valley on Earth, hands down, bar none. Enjoy it.
Chamonix from ROCKFAX
Chamonix is the most famous climbing area in Europe. Nowhere else has as much quality rock, spectacular peaks and varied mountaineering history. For most climbers a trip to Chamonix is an integral part of their climbing and mountaineering career. When there you want to try everything; perfect granite rock routes, magnificent long ridges, intimidating north faces and then also have some valley sport climbing for the 'rest days'. Or maybe you just want to tick Mont Blanc.
For the first time ever, all this is available in a single publication from Rockfax with hundreds of routes ranging from short sport ticks to the best multi-day adventures. It is illustrated with some amazing photo-topos, superb maps and with excellent detailed descriptions. Sample chapter here.
The book is also available in full on the Rockfax App.
About the Author
Charlie Boscoe is the IFSC World Cup presenter/commentator and tries to balance this with freelance writing work plus plenty of time off to climb, ski and generally enjoy life in the Alps. He used to lead expeditions for a living but a series of injuries turned him into a desk jockey; a move that has marginally improved his bank balance but not his sun tan. It did allow him to devote much of the last three years to documenting the climbing and mountaineering routes around Chamonix and Mont Blanc which have now been published in the Chamonix Rockfax.
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