The Dark Side of Climbing Partnerships in Chamonix


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Social climber
Oct 5, 2012 - 04:52pm PT
I'm sure initiating a conversation in English,
being sure to call them "Frogs", will surely guarantee a strong response
from the locals.
Seriously, you may have to spend some time, even money, swallowing pride and paying a guide if getting up climbs without risking your life with strangers is a priority. The art and practice of successfully enlisting safe and sane partners in a new area is hard enough; doing it in an established epicenter like Chamonix, with a 200 year mountaineering history, may be pushing post-grad level abilities.
Your resume may not be inspiring confidence in those you meet, but the last things you want to do are:
1. Inflate your abilities - quickest way to alienate partners, and gain a bad reputation that will scare off everyone else(may as well leave thereafter).
2. Go solo stuff, to paraphrase others here.
Other than mountain hiking, to gain overall experience with exposure, weather, and get in shape, all of which will serve you well in the long run, if you're more of a novice in the spectrum, what morons here are advising you to get yourself killed? Self-belaying in the mountains is a non-starter, as it will take about 12 years to climb even a moderate 2,000 ft route.

Social climber
An Oil Field
Oct 5, 2012 - 06:50pm PT
Oh come on. I spent a whole summer living in Snell's field in the early eighties. The scene was very interesting at the time. All of the beautiful people hung out at the video bar which constantly replayed Patrick Edlanger soloing stuff in Verdon, guys doing extreme skiing, etc.

I don't really know how to put it, but the hot local climbers hung out with "The Beautiful People." Cham got to the point where if you did something hard, you would lose points because you didn't paraglide down, or solo it for a camera or whatever.

Then during the day, it could be very normal. Edlanger bouldered with us one day. He just showed up one day and joined in.

I remember a story I heard from John Bouchard, who was one of the first Americans to guide there. He married into one of the old climbing families there. He told me this French bedtime story that was kind of like Red Riding Hood, except the little girl was killed.

Somehow the moral was that it is OK to get whacked, as long as you look good. No kidding. Bouchard was trying to explain the cultural differences, and it was pretty good.

The scene there was insular. Part of it was the history and who you were and all that..on the pure local scale.

I really never had to hunt for a partner. If anything I had to run them off. I had Dean Hobbs, Walt Shipley, and Duane Raleigh with me, and mainly climbed with Duane.

For some reason, the Germans in Snells really liked us. We partied and had lots of fun.

The English were a fairly tough crowd. I think that there was still that old working class badass thing happening. They could get spooky when everyone was tanked on beer at the Bar Nash.

That said, there was a Scottish guy who we climbed with. He was super cool and funny.

This was a long time ago, and if you lived out at Snell's Field, you just didn't hang with the locals. They were in town.

I am quite certain that Snell's had a lot to do with it. For the young who don't know about it, Snell's field was a grassy field about the size of Camp 4. There were no rules, it was free, and had no restroom. So you could tell what month it was just by how close the turds were to each other in the treeline surrounding it. It was totall packed with tents belonging to climbers from every country on the planet, but the eastern block countries were still under communist rule and there were few of them. Enough to hang out and drink beers with, but not many.

No french lived there. It was fullblown ghetto. Since everyone at least walked by and occasionally sat down for a beer or to smoke hashish through an ice screw, it was easy to make friends. A whole gaggle of Germans moved over with us and they were great fun.

So imagine a Camp 4 with no restroom and no rules and no Americans. In those conditions, the locals just didn't hang there. We would see the hot climbers all clean and dressed up hanging with the beautiful people in the video bar, which we didn't visit that often.

I remember one evening in the Bar Nash. Somehow I ended up with a big group of Czech climbers. There was this one guy who spoke good english and was wearing a beat up Lhotse South Face expedition sweater. He wanted to know all about Yosemite and said that he desperately wanted to climb El Cap. So I said, "Hey, come over and we'll do the Nose! It's easy!"

Then he shook his head and held up his hands. He was missing all or part of most of his fingers....

So at that time, the French were all clean and lived in town. Everybody else was crammed into this tiny ghetto where there was a lot of interaction. So it sure seemed like we were a lower racial class of humanity. They sure looked at us like that. We scarfed showers at the swimming pool showers, weared the same t-shirt for weeks, and were all just like climbing bums in Camp 4. Everyone knew everyone. If you wanted to do a certain route, finding somebody to do it with was piss easy.

There was also the weather. When a storm went through and dumped a lot of snow, you had to have at least one clear and warm day for the routes to dry out, avalanche clean, and generally get back into shape. So a storm took a minimum of 3 days out of the shedule if you wanted to do anything hard.

So drinking was a huge part of the social scene. The Bar Nash was the hub of the English speakers, although most of us knew enough french to get by. This attracted a lot of Germans and Swiss who all speak english. There were so many languages that it was hilarious.

Walt and I would go into town, get a cup of coffee, then go buy a couple of bottles of trappist ale, which is like Old English, but even fouler and much stronger. Two bottles of that and you were hammered. We became such fixtures that the old ladies recognized it and would walk by laughing.

There wasn't all that much climbing down in the valley back then, but enough to boulder or rock climb on non rainy days.

The english back then were rough and tough. It got kind of spooky when they got hammered. I had to drag Shipley out of a group of them once because they were going to kick his ass.

It was great fun. When I say I was an ass, I just mean that I was very young and very cocky. It never bothered anyone. I'm just older and mature now.

I think that the loss of Snell's field broke the back of the social structure in Chamonix. Yeah, it was a turd filled ghetto, but it crammed together several hundred chomping at the bit climbers. One of the best motivating environments I could think of. So and so would do a hard route and everyone wanted to know about it. Then you would hook up with somebody.

That one time I did the Fissure Brown with a Welsh kid, he had been hanging with us for a week talking spray. So I took him up there assuming he could climb. Well, he jumared every pitch, even the 5.7's. He made me take hero shots of him and all that.

So, yeah, you could screw up and go with a bad partner. It was more funny than anything, but I never trusted his belay.

So I think that nowadays, when people might stay in a hotel in town, or pay lots of money for the legal campgrounds around town, which were unthinkable for us, money-wise, it is a totally different dynamic. Before, everyone was together, literally elbow to elbow. Now it is different.

How many people still spend a summer on a buck a day? Back then, everybody.

You only had to open your mouth to find a partner. There was the usual pecking order like any bunch of climbers, so your ability was known as the summer went on.

All in all, I would say that it was the best and most productive season during my whole life. Right up there with the valley days.

But yeah. There was for sure friction between the French and the English, who seem to have a long history of dislike for each other. When we went into a store, people were much nicer to us when they found that we were Americans instead of English, and I can remember the English and the French insulting each other.

They were cool that our French was so lousy after I explained that I grew up in cowboy country near Texas, and nobody from my town ever visited Europe, so spending their time on a language was usually spanish.

One on one with the people was excellent other than Paris. Just be polite.

Fun times. I hope I have adequately explained the social dynamic.

We were all so cheap that we never spent a night in a huts, which are full of guides and clients. We would hike up in the evening, cook coffee until midnight, and then blast off. You would be amazed at how well you can climb with a headlamp.

So all of the climbers were a huge and poor dirtbag society that ranked with camp 4. It was better than Camp 4 because there were no rangers, and everybody climbed when the weather was good.

These days, dirbagging it has decreased a lot. Climbers own pets, have good clothes, and the absurdly unclean dirtbag lifestyle has faded. Not completely, but to a great point. So imagine the French all staying at the Awhanee, and every other country staying in a mad max version of Camp 4. Then you have it.

I learned one thing from that summer: the French are more free than we are. Walt Shipley's antics are well known to those who knew him. He would go into full Walt mode and nobody cared. They were just amused. The same behaviour in Yosemite would put Walt in jail, which I think did happen.

You could do anything you wanted as long as it didn't hurt or bother anyone too much. It was a super friendly environment, and when I got back, I couldn't believe how restricting life is here. You have to act and behave to a certain standard or go to jail in the U.S. In France, you could do nigh anything. Nothing ruffled the French.

Swizerland was considerably more stuffy. Switzerland was more like Disneland were you had to pay to use a restroom and everyone behaved.

Trad climber
Oct 5, 2012 - 08:44pm PT
Try going to the Vagabond Inn for a couple of beers. I stayed there a night a couple of months ago and exchanged some good climbing stories with people from all over. There are more likely to be English speakers there, too.

Denmark, formerly Sacramento
Oct 6, 2012 - 06:15am PT
Cool post, Base!!! Bump!

Trad climber
Chamonix, France
Topic Author's Reply - Oct 6, 2012 - 08:25am PT
Thank you everyone for some very good and very bad suggestions...I think I am past the low point of bad encounters and recently have connected with some people with whom there is 'long term potential'.

Sometimes you just get hit with a wave of bad luck. I am not at all upset if someone doesn't want to climb with me again for whatever reason, but I get mad to the sky if someone makes plans and then cancels at the last minute, especially when the weather is perfect/ Had 3 of those here, 2 by the same guy (accidentally or not, he also happened to be a trust-funder type...) My HARD SET RULE is to allow for one cancellation and give anyone the benefit of doubt, but if they pull that card on me twice, I am never talking to them again, no matter how desperate for a rope partner I might that scenario I'd rather go ropesolo, hiking or surfing the web.

Very good suggestions I find to be the following:
 when posting an add, mentioning the name of the route that I have in mind
(this worked for me a couple of times in 8 years of climbing)
 taking out a beginner, someone to whom you can offer a new experience with the skill you have, and who is eager to have that experience...plenty of people around here are not experienced with trad climbing which is required for the high mountain granite routes.

Worst suggestion:
 cough some money and pay a guide. To whomever made that suggestion (maybe someone born in a very good family situation who does not need to worry how i am going to pay for a roof over my head, food, internet, gear etc ...) : the cost of a guide is close to one month of rent for me. I do not have fat pockets nor do I come from money. Most people have either money or time, and by moving to live here in the capital of alpinism I have chosen time over money. I am living as frugally as I can within civilized limits, and even so, heck I don't know if this can be made into smth sustainable.

Trad climber
Oct 6, 2012 - 10:15am PT
Come on Irene, you're living the dream.
Rick A

Boulder, Colorado
Oct 6, 2012 - 02:13pm PT
Irene+: Bon chance and post some TR's to let us know how it worked out.
No matter how bad it may seem, 20 years from now, you'll likely look back on this time as your own personal golden age of alpine climbing.

Base 104: I agree that Snell Field was a good place to hang, even compared to the glory days of Camp 4. No bears or other varmits; food storage in the tents; good boulder on site; showers down at the pool; cheap wine in plastic bottles, french bread and pastries;Bar Nash for entertainment. Here is Snell Field in 1976, with patio furniture supplied by the nearby junkyard.

Mike and Wendy
Mike and Wendy
Credit: Rick A

Oct 6, 2012 - 03:22pm PT
Expect to spend a lot of time looking for suitable partners--go online, make inquiries, check at the B de Guides. is good for "climber's wanted" posts, but ideally you would set something up beforehand. But you never know, maybe someone is already in town. You can check around some of the pensions in town, e.g. near the Brevent telepherique. In my experience some folks there are looking for partners. Staying there can be helpful, too.

Trad climber
minneapolis, mn
Oct 6, 2012 - 04:49pm PT
Base104: great post, very informative.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
Oct 6, 2012 - 09:22pm PT
Wow, BASE104 - what a superbly written and classic post! Why knott copy and paste it into a new topic entitled something like Snell's Field Reminiscenses? [um, knott sure I spelled that right]

How fortunate and blessed you were to be there then! What has happened to Snell's Field now? No longer available?


Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Oct 6, 2012 - 10:59pm PT
My experience of Chamonix was completely different since I was living in a normal apartment in Geneva and married at the time. Between my husband and his climbing friends from CERN I never lacked for partners. We had a Volkswagen bus that we slept in and used a toilet in one of the public parks. This toilet was a shed over a little stream; you could sometimes see fish swimming underneath. We were too American to ever do anything but pee there. For the rest, we went to a cafe and used their restroom.

Of course weekending in Chamonix has its drawbacks. Living in Geneva at 1,225 feet and climbing up to huts at 8,000 to 10,000 feet every Friday or Saturday meant we never slept well and always had an altitude headache. Just staying up all night as Base 104 did, sipping coffee and tylenol might have been the better choice.

I laughed at this comments that the French were friendlier to the Americans than the British. I always found this to be true also. Although they assumed I was English from my conservative dress and accent, they became much friendlier when they discovered I was American.

The old trick about using a different language than English always worked wonders in Europe too. If I met a German who was mad at Americans and refused to speak English, I would ask in French, "Parlez vous francais", and suddenly they could try their English. In Spain the British tourists were snobby about my Mexican Spanish but the Spaniards had no problems.

And I agree that the French are more free than we are. Part of it is, as they say, Americans live to work while the French only work to live. La joie de vive is all important there. To put it in perspective however, the Swiss make even the Germans look relaxed. We had to escape for at least one day every week to France to keep our sanity.

Maybe the best contrast was one Christmas Eve when we passed through the border. It was snowing and the French customs officials were celebrating and obviously tipsy, waving us through with a "Joyeux Noel". The Swiss on the other hand, were gram and sober, and insisted on inspecting inside the trunk.

Sport climber
Oct 7, 2012 - 03:26am PT
Snell's Field and British bad-ass-ism

From the article "Dreams spun from thin air", The Guardian 2007, introducing Stephen Venables' “Higher than the eagel soars”:

"After the death of John Weatherseed on the Brenva Ridge in 1975, John's father arrived at the Snell's Field campsite in Chamonix. Venables records: "As we stood in an awkward semicircle, offering clumsy sympathy, I felt that we were all guilty; we had conspired in this perverse game that had destroyed his son. It was we - all of us, reinforcing each other's dreams and ambitions - who had stolen his child."

The basis of this conspiracy is to familiarise the extreme. Every generation winds its neck out a bit further, every new benchmark starts out unthinkable but soon becomes the norm. Individual careers pursue the same trajectory - if you aren't pushing yourself past your limits, you're not climbing. Eventually you become inured to what is, in ordinary human terms, a completely mad environment,...."

Oct 7, 2012 - 04:04am PT
Tangentially, about those Brits you mention... I lived in the UK for a few years, it took me a little time to get to the bottom of that problem.

I started out being my standard sweet self, which got me absolutely nowhere. Finally one day, I had enough, and turned their sarcasm back on then. Caught them flat-footed, it did, they weren't used that coming from a yank. I could twist them up like a pretzel.

The English, you see, hate everyone. A slightly different accent makes them steam; hell, they hate folks who speak the same as them. There's all sorts of class war still going on; it's still practically a caste system. They particularly hate Americans because they are terribly jealous of them.

If you can look a Londoner in the eye and state convincingly, "oh, why don't you just go sod off, then" - well, then you've just made a new fast friend. Because now you're speaking the same language!

Oct 7, 2012 - 05:31am PT
Hi irene+,

Try the Club Alpin or camptocamp?

I don't remember if you mentioned going to the climbing gym in Les Houches. There also the boulders at the Col des Montets. By now I'm sure you've figured out where the English speaking bars (or rather where the non-French speakers go), you should be able to meet people there.

Whoever mentioned offering to take a beginner out (or someone not a strong as you) has the right idea. Your initial list of objectives from however many posts ago seems to me to be way too ambitious for that first time out with a new partner. Tone it down a little, especially in Chamonix.

Good luck!

not much of a
Oct 8, 2012 - 03:33pm PT

Some hard beta instead of wishy goody wishes/ theoretical
nonsense and paranoid creepings.

Climbing crag. Les gaillands.
Drinking hole hotel vert walking distance from les Gaillands
Mostly international Good for finding anglophone partners.

Topos for climbing at most bookstores in town

Bars with class 2 citizens (eg real people /our people, climbers, ski bums, etc:

elevation 1904 just accross the train station
Le Vagabond (also a gite)
Le chamoniard Voland, near the LZ for parapent and BaSERS (although base got some bad rep this year and basers may have moved on)
The Office, a pub in Argentiere, mostlly uk, ozzies, kiwies.
The pubs in cham sud. Mostly international sport bums.

Web. Chamshare dot com Mostly apnglophone

If you cant find climbers with this i ll think i must be special since idid :)

Bonne chance et si tu veux plus d'infos envoies moi un mail.
laurel arndt

Trad climber
Oct 8, 2012 - 06:09pm PT
So true!!!!
I was there 5 years ago and felt the same way. Climbed with guide/friends from US when they were'nt guiding. Did met other climbers on the train to Geitroz. After the guide friends left, I tried the rock gym... no go. Only luck I had getting a "partner" in Chamonix was on the train and in the bar (with non-climbers wah).
PS:I smiled alot, good times nontheless,!!!

Trad climber
Santa Barbara, CA
Oct 8, 2012 - 06:54pm PT
Irene+, I would go to a supermarket and hold a sign "WILL BELAY FOR FOOD".
Not only you will find a partner quickly, but will also find someone with a good sense of humour!

Social climber
An Oil Field
Oct 8, 2012 - 11:22pm PT
Ahhh. Snell's Field. All you needed to do to find a partner was to walk into the sea of cheap tents and scream,

"I need someone to do the Croz Spur with tomorrow!!!"

The same went for beta. A decent guidebook wasn't easy to find. In fact we never found one, although there is a terrific climbing library in town.

Snell's field was even better than Camp 4. Camp 4 is kind of quiet. The climbers in the next campsite might never become drinking buddies. Camp 4 takes a while to integrate into.

OK. Here are some Snell's photos. Take particular note of "The Construction" (Christened that by the Germans), which was battened down tight on rainy days, hence becoming a sort of underground Bar Nash. You either spent all day in your little tent doing unholy things with your unit, or you hung out where it was dry. Alas, the photos of now famous climbers smoking hash through ice screws were all stolen from my collection.

Walt Shipley in his mid twenties or so. These were Americans, meaning ...
Walt Shipley in his mid twenties or so. These were Americans, meaning that they didn't climb much.
Credit: BASE104

Occasionally the gendarmes would make a visit to Snell's. Lord knows t...
Occasionally the gendarmes would make a visit to Snell's. Lord knows that many petty crimes were prevented here including public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Never saw a single fight, though.
Credit: BASE104

A baby Duane Raleigh and some climber from Germany or Switzerland.
A baby Duane Raleigh and some climber from Germany or Switzerland.
Credit: BASE104

Walt later in the season. He sort of de-evolved into some sort of ape....
Walt later in the season. He sort of de-evolved into some sort of ape. All he ate was beer.
Credit: BASE104

I got whacked in the arm by icefall. This is before it turned black.
I got whacked in the arm by icefall. This is before it turned black.
Credit: BASE104

Here is Duane freezing his ass off on the Argentiere Glacier waiting f...
Here is Duane freezing his ass off on the Argentiere Glacier waiting for midnight to blast off on one of the big ice climbs. A warm hut was a few hundred yards away, but cost money. Which we didn't have.
Credit: BASE104

Duane in a small portion of The Construction on a non rainy day. Our b...
Duane in a small portion of The Construction on a non rainy day. Our building venture was huge and covered many tents.
Credit: BASE104

I hitched all the way over to the Eiger and spent a week in this tiny ...
I hitched all the way over to the Eiger and spent a week in this tiny shepherd's hut with a 3 foot ceiling while it stormed the entire time. Does anyone remember this little dirt floored hovel? I never even saw the North Face.
Credit: BASE104


Trad climber
Santa Barbara, CA
Oct 9, 2012 - 05:07pm PT
I remember two shepherd huts by the Eiger. The first one was by the Kleine Scheidig train stop, near the West face, and the other was off the path down to Grindelwald. The one in the picture seems to be the second one. In 1981, John Shervais and two german climbers considered staying in it, but decided to bivy at the base of the North face instead. We were lucky as the weather held for the two days it took to go up the face. The hut is a real temptation as it often drizzles at night (with terrible verglas on the face), and it is better to get cramped in the hut than being all wet even before the climb. I hope the hut is still there!
doc bs

Social climber
Oct 9, 2012 - 09:09pm PT
Never climbed in Chamonix, but here are some things that could help in general.

1. Take up solo aid climbing. You learn tons, you get to climb places you might never get to climb, it shows commitment. People are eager to talk with you if you look like you are having fun. Even if no one invites you to climb with them - in solo aid climbing EVERYONE is always having fun.

2. Climb with 50-somethings and older. They are survivors and they may like climbing with younger people. You might get more leads. You can learn tons from them. They could introduce you to people your own age after they get to know you.

3. Join a climbing club or a search and rescue team.
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