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Spearfish Lake Tales
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Joe/Joan book cover

by Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 17

Back in the days when we had been planning the trip, we had mostly planned on just doing the tourist thing in Switzerland, checking out the beautiful scenery, the picturesque villages, and, of course, the mountains. We even thought that if we had the chance we might try an easy climb or two, but probably not much more than that.

Then one day Ed commented, “You know, if you happen to get close to Chamonix, you might want to stop and check that out.” We had never heard of the place, but after Ed told us about it, we did a little more research to discover that it was dreamland in a way that London or Paris could never be.

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is a small French village with only a few thousand permanent residents, located near the place where France, Switzerland, and Italy meet. It’s located in the narrow valley of the River Arve, hemmed in to the north by the 9,000-foot peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges, and by the 15,771-foot slopes of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain to the south. Although other towns here and there may claim the title, most people who know anything about it would not dispute that Chamonix is the climbing capital of the world. Despite the French talent for nationalistic overstatement, they get this one right. Certainly we have nothing like it in the US; neither Jackson Hole, nor even Yosemite comes close.

The first Winter Olympics were held there in 1924 and the place has only grown in fame since. Even in those days there were ski runs, lifts, and cable cars to various places in the mountains; in winter, skiing takes precedence to climbing, but in the summer climbing predominates.

You have to understand that right then, while Cat and I were pretty good on the quarry wall, the rail bridge, and some of the pitches we’d climbed in the Smokies back in spring, any of that was strictly penny-ante stuff compared to this. Neither of us had ever been in real mountains before, so this was something far beyond our experience.

We left Paris early one June morning on a cheap, rather slow train; it was late before we got to Saint Gervais, where we had to wait until the next morning to take a narrow-gauge train up the valley to Chamonix. It was much too late to find a hostel or a hotel or anything, so we just spread out on benches in the train station and tried to sleep the best we could. The next morning, fueled only by a cup of bitter espresso, we got aboard the train to Chamonix and marveled at the scenery opening before us. We had never dreamed there could be a place like this.

Chamonix turned out to be a rather touristy town, and it was getting into the busy season. There were a number of hostels in town, and most of them were full. We finally found a place where we could spread out our sheet sleeping bags. It was really pretty grubby, and more expensive than most, but that was something we thought we could put up with for the couple of days we thought we would be there.

Most of the places we had been so far had been populated by kids like us, who were making a conventional backpack tour of Europe, but here we entered a new world of people – climbing bums. These were people who lived to go up a steep slope, preferably one that was on the dangerous and difficult side. Many were students and like us were out of school for the summer, living on pennies and trying to do all the climbing they could whenever and wherever they could do it. They were of all nationalities, but many of the people there spoke French. There were also a number of English, Australian, and New Zealander climbers, but quite amazingly, few Americans, none in the hostel besides us. Not surprisingly most were men, but there were a few women who were just about as grubby and mountain-crazy.

Also not surprisingly, from time to time there was the smell of marijuana in the air. It was looked at a little differently, especially in this place. I don’t want to say that everyone was trying to get higher than Mont Blanc, but there were people who were a little mellow from time to time.

I said the hostel was on the grubby side, and it was. Like most hostels, it had backpacks and sometimes-grubby clothing scattered around, but this one had something more: climbing ropes and boots, crampons, ice axes, hardware slings with pitons and carabiners, and who only knew what else. Although in a way Cat and I didn’t feel as if we belonged with people this crazy about climbing, in a way this was a place we wanted to be.

We were just finding a place to set our stuff down when a tallish, slender red-headed girl came up to us. “Come to do some climbing, luvs?” she asked.

“Maybe a little,” I admitted. “We’ve done some rock climbing and cliffs back home, and thought we’d drop by and see what this is all about.”

“Aye, there’s plenty of places to climb around here,” the girl said in an English-based accent I couldn’t quite make out. “Did you bring climbing boots and gear?”

“No, we’re mostly just doing the tourist thing so we wanted to keep the weight down. We didn’t plan on doing any serious climbing.”

“There’s plenty of places you can do some paths they used to call ‘an easy day for a lady,’” she explained. “There’s places you can take a cable car up pretty high and have an easy walk to bag the peak, even if you’re just wearing trainers like you’ve got on.”

“I guess we’re going to be stuck with those, then,” I sighed. “But darn it, I’d kind of like to see how our skills match up with what it’s like elsewhere.”

“What have you climbed?” another guy said with a similar but different accent.

“Nothing you’ve ever heard of,” I admitted. “Just railroad bridges and quarry walls. We don’t have much in the way of mountains where we come from.”

“Well, Sheila here got it pretty fair,” he said. “You’ll not be doing much climbing with those shoes. But take a couple of those paths she was mentioning, hang around a couple days and watch. If you feel like you want to give harder stuff a try, there are places that such things can be rented, an’ we could get you a feel for it.”

“Sounds like a fair deal,” I agreed. “Thanks much. By the way, I’m Joan, and this is Cat.”

“I’m Ned,” the guy said. “Pleased to meet ya. I know what yer’re sayin’ about not havin’ much in the way of mountains around. I come from Perth, and there’s not much of anything there, either.”

“I’m Betty, from Adelaide,” the girl said. “We don’t have any mountains either, which is why I’m here. If you like it and you’re halfway good, you’ll find what you want.”

“Thanks, Betty,” Cat said, then frowned. “I thought Ned said you were Sheila.”

“Aussie guys sometimes call girls Sheilas, an’ since I’m the only Aussie girl here I get stuck with it.”

Ned and Betty proved to be the ones to introduce us to the confusing world of Chamonix. In a way, it was like a lot of tourist towns, in that there was an incredible array of people from all over the world there. Most really were tourists, but at that time of year there were a lot of climbers from the downright neophyte – I mean, more beginners than us, if such a thing were possible – up to some of the top climbers in the world.

That evening they took us to a little bistro not far from the hostel. Over the course of the evening Ned introduced us to four different people who had been on expeditions to Mount Everest, including one who had made it to the top, which was a very short list at the time. Somehow, he seemed as if he was from a different world than mere mortals like us. The talk in the place was all about climbing, from some short but steep pitch almost in town to some distant and barely known peaks in the Himalayas. Some of the stories and places seemed thrilling, dangerous, and challenging, far away from anything we could have ever dreamed; it seemed impossible that we could ever be part of such an elite group.

The next day Betty took us climbing – not some steep wall, but up a cable car to the top of a ridge, where there was an easy path to the top of one of the lower and more nearby mountains. She decided to come along with us since she’d pulled a muscle the day before and decided to give it a rest, not that there was a lot of rest involved. The path was fairly steep and involved some scrambling, but nothing we couldn’t handle, more of a challenging hike than anything else, and soon we were at the top.

The view was tremendous, very much worth the hike. It was easily better than the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, which while it may have been nice was still a view of a large and crowded city. This was mountain scenery, something very different, and it gave me a yearning I hadn’t felt before.

We were back in Chamonix by the middle of the afternoon, where we had a cheap lunch in a little bistro a little ways away from the main tourist area. “So you enjoyed yourself, did you?” she asked as we sipped at glasses of wine.

“That was wonderful,” I told her. “But I’d like to try something that challenges my climbing skills a little more.”

“Let’s take a walk and take a look at some of the easier warm-up routes nearby,” she suggested. “If you think you can handle it, then let’s see about rentin’ you some gear to do it.”

We finished our wine and started following Betty through the streets of Chamonix. There were a lot of modern buildings that were little more than eyesores, reflecting a recent building boom, far too many cars and nowhere near enough space to put them. Still, there was an Old World influence that remained about the place with twisting cobblestone streets and ancient thick-walled buildings that seemed – and were – hundreds of years out of the past.

After a while we came out at a fairly steep slope that must have had a dozen climbers hanging on it. From what I could see, this was a group of beginners, much like Cat and I had been when we were first introduced to Professor Norton the previous fall. We watched for a while, and I saw a number of beginners mistakes made, things that Cat and I had learned not to do. “Do you think you can handle that?” Betty asked finally.

“We’ve done a lot harder stuff than that,” I smiled.

“Right,” Cat agreed. “Most of these people would be falling off the places where we train.”

“Right, then,” Betty smiled. “Let’s go see about rentin’ some gear.”

An hour later we were back at the same pitch, now wearing rented boots that didn’t fit very well, and carrying a climbing rope. Somewhere along the way we had picked up Ned, who had gotten done with whatever route he had been climbing that day. “All right,” he said. “Let’s see what you can do.”

“We can,” I told him. “But this is so easy I don’t even see the need to rope up.”

“Maybe not, but since I haven’t seen you climb just humor me.”

I don’t want to say I scampered up the cliff with Cat on belay, but I didn’t slow down for much of anything as we passed several of the new climbers who had been struggling with the cliff all afternoon. Rather than rappel down, we walked back down on an easy path, selected a different line, and this time Cat led, also making it look easy.

“All right, I guess you know a little about climbin’,” Ned grinned once we got back to the bottom. “Sheila, are you up for takin’ these girls on somethin’ a little more difficult tomorrow?”

“I think we can manage that.”

The next day several of us from the hostel went to a considerably more difficult pitch, still fairly close to town. I think several of them went along to laugh at the beginner American girls, but as the day went on Cat and I found ourselves out-climbing some of our group. Apparently we could play in this league after all, at least at the lower levels. When we got back to Chamonix, we found a friendly bistro, and I think both Cat and I each took on a personal record load of beer – at least our heads felt like it the next morning. But when Betty asked if we wanted to go climbing, all I said was, “If I can stop for an espresso and croissant before we start the climb.”

That is how Cat and I became Chamonix climbing bums.

I don’t remember for sure but it must have been two or three more days before we sat down to take stock. “I know there are other things we wanted to do in Europe this summer,” I told her. “But I’m really enjoying this and I don’t want to leave.”

“Me, either,” Cat agreed. “Let’s stick around for a while. I’ve about had my fill of looking at Gothic cathedrals.”

“That makes two of us, but I’ll tell you one thing, and that’s that my feet are getting tired of these rental boots, and my sneakers are about shot. It may absolutely blow up my budget, but I’m thinking that I’m going to find some really good climbing boots and throw away the sneaks.”

“I think you talked me into it.”

The boots were to cost more than we could really afford, even at discount European prices and a favorable exchange rate, but they were worth every penny and then some as far as I was concerned. They really differentiated us from the other tourists, showing that we were climbers, and not gawkers. More importantly, those boots and the skills we already had or were developing made us accepted as female members, even if junior ones, of the unspoken climbing fraternity. That was really a male-dominated thing in those days (and still is to a great extent today) but we got some respect from our fellow climbers for our climbing. It was no small thing in our eyes.

Chamonix also changed our perspectives in other ways. Up until this point Cat and I had mostly been rock and cliff climbers, just getting to the top of the pitch and calling it good enough. Oh, once in a while down in the Smokies we might hike up to the top of the hill to see the view if it wasn’t too far, but it was more of a break than it was a goal.

But here we were in the midst of all those beautiful mountains, and it somehow seemed like it was a sin to not go to the top and check out the view. To a degree we became peak-baggers, which is a slightly different view of climbing than the rockhounds we had been.

Fortunately, there was room for all tastes in our grubby hostel, and if either Cat or I was not in the mood for an all-out attack on some rock face, there were other people who were more interested in getting to the top of a mountain – Alpine style, it’s called. While I still enjoyed getting intimate with a challenging rock face, sometimes I just wanted to top out a mountain for the view or the joy of it. It wasn’t that it was something easier, because sometimes it wasn’t, but it certainly was different.

I didn’t always climb with Cat – her interests might not be the same as mine on any given day, but it was rarely any trick to find someone to partner up with for a day’s climb. One day several weeks later a French climber by the name of Yves and I decided to tackle an interesting-looking climb on a route that would involve both some face climbing and some Alpine climbing to get to the top. It would be a long climb, and we got started before the sun was up, let alone over the lip of the valley.

Fortunately, there is a lot of that going on in season in Chamonix, so we were able to get an espresso and croissant before we caught a cable car to where we wanted to start our route for the day. Early on, I had bought a small rucksack so I could carry things I would want on a climb and didn’t want to haul around the traveling backpack. Yves and I had our rucksacks filled with lunch, climbing rope, and a few odds and ends that would probably prove useful; Yves also had a pretty good camera, a Nikon, and I knew he was interested in being a professional photographer.

Even in those days Chamonix was crowded enough that it was unusual to not run across other climbers following more or less the same route, but for some reason we were alone on that particular part of the mountain.

The route was challenging but nothing we couldn’t handle. We topped out around noon, and decided that the mountaintop was a great place to have our lunch. Yves took some pictures of the valley below and of me, and I felt particularly exhilarated for some reason – it was a perfect day, and everything had gone very well.

Yves’ English was better than my French, although my French was improving from using it every day. After a while he said, “You are beautiful up here on the top of the mountain like this, but do you know what would make for an even better picture?”

“What?” I smiled.

“If you were to take your clothes off so I could get your picture in the nude. I would like to do that with a beautiful woman like you some time.”

For some reason it struck me as a good idea. I was certainly not as inhibited here on the top of a mountain outside of Chamonix as I was at Venable College – and I had posed nude there, lots of times. In fact, more than anything else the nude posing had paid for this trip in the first place. Besides, Chamonix was about as far away from Venable as you could get, so no one would be the wiser. “You know, you might have something there,” I grinned, and began to peel off my T-shirt. It took me longer to take off my boots than it did for me to strip off everything else combined, but when I got the last of my clothes off it still seemed like a good idea.

Now, I knew how to pose for a picture – Dr. Alta had taught me well, so I did several different poses for Yves as he snapped away. They were nothing really dirty, no true frontals, but I could see that he was getting some good views of my butt and the sides of my bare breasts. I felt adventurous, thrilled at doing something else I wouldn’t dare do at home.

Yves took up most of a roll of film on me, and after he finished it I handed him my little Fuji half-frame, and he took a few of me with that.

Not surprisingly, that led just exactly where you would expect it to go. We didn’t do it right on top of the mountain since I knew there were coin-operated telescopes down in the valley below, so we found a little cul-de-sac in the sun and out of the wind. While the location was tremendous and added to the thrill, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the time I had with Andy back on spring break. Legend has it that all Frenchmen are great lovers, but I can tell you differently. Besides, those rocks were sharp and hard!

But it was satisfying enough, considering the location and the situation. The breeze was a little chilly, and I was glad to get my clothes back on and start back down the mountain.

It was late in the afternoon before we got back down to the cable car for the ride down into the valley. As we rode along, I said to Yves, “Uh, let’s not tell Cat or anyone else about what we did up on the mountaintop. I wouldn’t want anyone getting ideas.”

“That will be fine with me,” he said. “I have to leave soon, and it will be a pleasant memory for me.”

It was impossible to be in Chamonix and not feel the loom of Mont Blanc over us all the time. It was not a difficult mountain as things went at that time, and hundreds had climbed it already that summer. But it is high, and involves ice and snow work, which we had avoided up to that time since it requires things like crampons and ice axes. Cat and I didn’t have them, and few of the others did, either.

But almost every night there was a discussion in whatever bistro we happened to be drinking in about trying the big one sometime. Finally, one evening perhaps we poured a little too much wine, and several of us decided to take a swing at it. We didn’t get to go the next day, since several of us had to rent the necessary equipment, and make reservations at the hut partway up the mountain, which we could make a short walk to after a trip by cable car.

Even though it was the height of summer, we managed to get the reservations we needed, and they were not expensive. We managed to get the last cable car up that evening, spent the night at the hut, and planned to go up and back to the hut the same day.

We got up well before dawn the next morning, and in the half-light started up the mountain. It was slow going, especially since the air got thinner as we went up. It was hard to breathe, but I was able to keep going in spite of an altitude headache. Much of the latter part of the trip was on snowfields, where the crampons were useful, and the ice axe occasionally was, too. We made it to the top a little after noon.

All of us were tired and very much out of breath, but we took photos, slapped each other on the back, and took in the tremendous view for perhaps half an hour before we started back down. We were able to make part of the trip in a glissade, a slide down the hill, and we were back to the hut earlier than we planned, in time to catch the last cable car down to the valley. We could breathe easier there, and we were able to catch a ride back to the hostel.

Cat and I decided to have a real breakfast the next morning, not just espresso and croissants; we were joined by some of the other climbers who had been up the big one with us. “All right,” Cat said over her third cup of espresso, “What do we do next?”

I had been wondering about that myself. “Let’s face it, Cat,” I said after a moment, “it’s going to be hard to top yesterday. We were only going to stay around here two or three days, and in a few days we’ll have been here for seven weeks. I hate to say it, but I’m thinking we’re going to have to be back at Venable all too soon, and maybe we ought to go do something else.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she nodded. She drained her cup, and went on, “If we don’t go now we could be here forever, and I’m not sure I’d mind. Maybe we’d better get out of here before I decide I won’t leave.”

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To be continued . . .

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