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Tuesday Night Bouldering

TNB: Celebrating Insomnia in Chamonix

October 2, around midnight. I was lying in a bunk in the Refuge du Plan de l’Aguille a few thousand feet above Chamonix, France, trying to fall asleep. At 3 a.m. my partner, Shane Johnson, and I were going to get up and try to climb the Frendo Spur, a 4,000–foot route up the Aguille du Midi—a big buttress of granite, snow and ice that tops out at 13,000 feet at a gondola station.

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October 2, around midnight. I was lying in a bunk in the Refuge du Plan de l’Aguille a few thousand feet above Chamonix, France, trying to fall
asleep. At 3 a.m. my partner, Shane Johnson, and I were going to get up and try to climb the Frendo Spur, a 4,000–foot route up the Aguille
du Midi—a big buttress of granite, snow and ice that tops out at 13,000 feet at a gondola station. It had been snowing steadily and the route
had been described as dead easy or, possibly, completely out of condition.

If you just look at the climbing, the Frendo should be a piece of cake. An hour approach from the hut to the base of the glacier, then low-fifth-class
ramps and steps with a couple of short cruxes up to 5.10 or M5, culminating with a long, peaked snow ridge and a pitch of steep water ice right at
the top. You don’t even have to descend—just climb onto the viewing platform and take a gondola down.

But lots of people get into trouble on the Frendo. They climb too slow and get benighted or misjudge their ability or don’t bring the right gear
and have to get rescued. Like Kilian Jornet, for example, the champion sky runner and holder of many speed records on technical routes, who was stopped
by steep ice and loose rock in September of 2013 and had to be escorted off the Frendo by the Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne.

I first heard about the Frendo from my buddy DR, who had soloed the route in the early 1980s and was caught in a storm under a granite spur a
few hundred feet below the summit (the same place Jornet was stymied). In lieu of a rescue, DR stood all night in his crampons on a steep snow slope,
freezing, before confronting the 80-degree ice crux.

Clearly, the climb could eat your lunch if you underestimated it. And yet, as soon as I heard I was going on a weeklong press trip to Chamonix, the only
route I really wanted to do was the Frendo.

Shane, late-20s, a shoe buyer for the Bent Gate in Golden, Colorado, was snoring fitfully in a bunk across the room. I’d met him for the first time at
the airport in Geneva four days before. Rangy and fit, with a chill demeanor, he was part of the same press trip. He’d also scheduled a couple of extra
days in hopes of climbing something cool and he was psyched to give the Frendo a whirl.

We spent a day trying to get information about the route from some guides we’d met. The first guide, Jean-Michel, said that the snowfall would make the
route an easy romp. But a couple of hours later we asked another guide, Bastien, and he said that nobody had been on the climb for a month and the
new snow would shut us down.

Sleeping soundly is over rated. I was lucky to be awake, contemplating big questions and departed friends before an unforgettable day in the mountains,
because the hard part of life is actually the crushing monotony.

So we went by the Office de Haute Montagne, a clearinghouse
of climbing info, and asked the guy at the desk if the Frendo was in condition. He said it depended on whether there was snow on the lower
ramps in which case the route was out of condition. (We could see from town that there was snow on the lower ramps.) But after we’d looked through
the guidebooks and took pictures of the Frendo pages and asked about the rack and the cruxes, the guy changed his mind and suggested that
we could probably knock it off in an easy day and do another climb, too, like the Arete des Papillions.

All this contradiction and subterfuge was confusing to a Texas coon-ass alpine climber like me. Which was it? In or out?

I was feeling a bit fragile. The previous two months had been especially cruel. Five friends were gone—three by their own hands, and two in falls
that left them alive but with severe brain injuries. And now, here I was, in Chamonix, “the death-sport capitol of the world” (to quote the characteristically
hyperbolic Mark Twight), trying to sleep. But instead of sleeping, I was thinking the thoughts we all think before a big serious climb: What in the
hell am I doing? What would I find up there? Am I strong enough, brave enough, lucky enough? Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

Sometime just before the alarm went off it occurred to me that this dance of indecision is what I love most about climbing. It keeps me up. It doesn’t
matter if it’s a big alpine climb, or a wall, or a tower, or a hard redpoint, or even a highball boulder problem—it only gets interesting when
there’s some skin in the game.

Sleeping soundly is over rated. I was lucky to be awake, contemplating big questions and departed friends before an unforgettable day in the mountains,
because the hard part of life is actually the crushing monotony. You get older and wear a groove through time with routine. People talk about everything
speeding up, but that’s only because our lives are boring. Time is a sequence of unremarkable nows stretching out toward a death that feels like it’s
closing in with the alacrity of Einstein’s train in his demonstration of special relativity.

When the alarm finally went off, I was feeling optimistic and grateful for my doubts. It really didn’t matter if the route was “in” or “out” because we
were going up there, and we’d have to face what ever we found. Finally, it was time to climb.