In the amazing short film ‘A line across the sky’, climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold complete the first ever traverse of the Fitzgerald Roy range in Patagonia. Tommy is the experienced half of the duo, having completed projects in Patagonia before as well as the famous Dawn Wall in Yosemite. Alex is an incredibly talented rock climber, but turned up to Chile having never climbed ice and never used an ice axe, he even had the wrong crampons that didn’t fit his shoes. What follows is his crash-course-cum-coronation in Alpinism as the two become the first ever to summit the 7 peaks of the Fitz Roy massif.
Dude this is going to be so rad, this is the kind of stuff I see in alpinist magazine, except we’re actually doing it!
– Alex Honnold in ‘A line across the sky’
After the initial shock of having to cross snow patches and waking up to a fresh dump in Chesery, Switzerland, we’re used to seeing a bit of the white stuff.
But it wasn’t until we were deep into the Parc Nationale du Vanoise on the GR55 (a high route variant of the GR5) that we would find ourselves on an unnamed ridgeline putting our amateur alpinism skills to the test in order to find our way back to the trail.
Geography and geology dictates that the Vanoise massif is never easy to traverse in July. The density of high altitude peaks means that snow does not melt away until late in the season. In fact the Parc includes Le Grande Motte, a glacier that allows year round skiing. While this means that beautifully glistening glacier capped peaks are aplenty, it also means that many if the white and red GR trail markers are covered in snow.
Our itinerary appeared easy enough, climb for 30 minutes on a beautiful morning up to Col de Chevière, the highest point on the whole trail at 2796m, before a long descent into the small industrial town of Modane.
Our guidebook offered little useful detail so the obvious course of action in the unmarked conditions was to simply follow footsteps in the snow and aim towards a Col, a low point on the mountain ridge. We picked out a muddy line in the snow, a mud stain left by the dirty boots of walkers as they traversed from the other side.
The climb quickly steepens, we’re hunched over our poles and shoving our toes into the snow like we’d seen climbers do on Mont Blanc days before, but instead of ankle high waterproof boots with crampons we only have minimalist shoes, the breathable ones. The footsteps appear then disappear again as we pick a path to move closer to the muddy line. “Is this the right way?” we asked each other for the 50th time.
It gets steeper again, we’re panting as the footsteps fade and we dig our toes into the snowy grit. How useful would an iceaxe be right now?! After an hour on the snow, this Col can’t come soon enough.
I reach the top first. The sun is out and the wind is low, the view is incredible – especially as I peer over a 300m sheer drop on the otherside. This isn’t the GR55!
I turn back and shake my head, indicating that this isn’t the right way. The whimpering starts.
We get the map out, something that should have happened half an hour ago. Checking our location against the visible 2 huts in the distance to avoid having to rely on our shitty little $1 compasses, we find ourselves several hundred meters off course at the other end of the wide ridge. We’d climbed to 2880m but now needed to follow a faintly marked dotted line on the map, signalling a loose path, to traverse the ridge and connect us back with the GR trail.
Dude, this is going to be so rad! This is the kind of stuff I see in mountaineering magazines!
– Me to myself while Rosie nags me with overly-negative (but perhaps truthful) messages that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Here we are, off the trail traversing a clifftop. ADVENTURERS!! “This has all been done before” I tell Rosie, there is even a worn path to follow, though it’s more of a collection of narrow stony sections about 20 cm wide that seems to slip away on at least one side at of the ridge at any one time.
We skirt a perilous scrambling opportunity by balancing on top of a steep rock slide. The rocks beneath our feet slip down the mountain with each step while tumbling bits of debris begin to roll 100m down the ridge like snowballs reminding us of what will happen if we put a foot wrong.
Back on top of the ridge, the whimpering has stopped and slowly Rosie is beginning to trust the idea that the faint path is actually a real route.
This continues for 20 exhilarating minutes, carefully examining our footing while still trying to take in the 360 degree view of jagged mountain peaks and not letting too many of the photo opportunities go by.
Finally, the group of young Parisians we spoke to in the morning appear below us crossing the actual Col de Chevière. Somehow they had followed the trail (though they admitted it was difficult to find).
Rosie gives a generous wave as I celebrate not leading both of us to a battered death by flinging my arms above the air.
“Wasn’t that awesome?!?” I ask.
Maybe I’ll ask again in a few hours…
Written by Jeff
The Grande Randonné 5 is one of Europe’s premier long distance hiking routes. The full 12 week route runs from the Netherlands, through the French Alps, ending in Nice on the Cote d’Azur. We have chosen the common route of joining the trail at Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and heading south.
After parting ways with the Tour de Mont Blanc (thank god) there are several options for Stage 3. We took the GR55, a short but difficult high route variant through the spectacular Parc Nationale du Vanoise. This also passes through the ski stations of Val Claret and Val d’Isere (on the GR5), an interesting experience given they are such insensitive developments – high rise ski villages smack bang in the middle of beautiful mountainside.
Distance: 93km over 4 days
Difficulty: Real alpine territory. Working hard for those spectacular views.