My mountain gear outweighs all of my other possessions by several times in weight, volume, and cost (car excluded, but for weight only!). The vast majority of my worldly possessions are tools for transporting myself through the mountains. You might have first-hand knowledge of what I mean and, when you think about it, the piles of mountain gear we accumulate simply provide us the modes of transportation to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. Efficiency is fun, and having a wide range of tools to choose from allows us to be as efficient as possible in each alpine environment that we encounter. More gear is not always better; it’s not about that, it’s about being able to choose the right tool for each job to get you to, from, and through your objectives in the mountains.
There is a cliff in the Mt Blanc Massif that I have skied beneath every year since 1999. It is a magnificent piece of golden granite, with a series of steep and well-defined crack systems leading to an abrupt summit prow. It overlooks two massive glaciers and some of the coolest alpine terrain around, including the Tacul, Geant, and Grand Jorasses. It’s not a big cliff, maybe 100m of vertical on the face, but it’s a gem I have always wanted to get my hands on.
So, the other day, I took a moment to think about how best to make a day of standing on top of this little alpine nugget, and a plan formed in my head. I put it to my buddy Roch Malnuit, who quickly agreed that if it worked out it would be a smooth and beautiful first, and if it didn’t, we’d have (at best) a miserable day humping unused gear around the glacier.
Which brings us back to gear. The morning we chose to go for it, Roch and I loaded equipment for four different sports into our backpacks. Somehow, as always, his pack was smaller and lighter than mine. Obsessed with light, Roch’s bag included his homemade carbon-fiber ice axes, an alpine harness that looked lighter than lingerie, and a climbing rack so small that he’d be forced to back-clean or climb without protection for all but the shortest pitches. But Roch knows the Mt Blanc Massif like few people do, and he packs accordingly.
We headed up the Aiguille du Midi tram, sharing the stinky first bin that morning with a few friends who asked us, in that special Chamonix way, “What are you guys doing today?” They had skis, or climbing equipment, or paragliders with them, all prepared for their daily adventure. We had all of the above plus parachutes hanging from us in the crowded tram, and it piqued the curiosity of those who noticed. Roch casually answered to them that we were going to ski down the Grand-Envers, arrive at the bottom of a nice cliff, climb up a gully and the arête to reach the summit, and then BASE jump back down onto the glacier, where we would then round up our gear and launch our paragliders from the glacier for a flight all the way back to Chamonix. It sounded ridiculously bold, and as the locals around us raised their eyebrows and smiled, I prayed that claiming it before the day had even begun wouldn’t jinx us!
As we exited the tunnel and skipped down the rope-line, we noticed with great relief that the forecast had been correct about a total lack of wind at altitude. At nearly 13,000 feet the atmosphere was calm, tranquilized by a stationary high over the western Alps. If the weather held, we wouldn’t have wind as an excuse to not execute the most crucial phases of our plan: BASE jumping the cliff, and then paragliding back to the valley.
Our day began on skis, and to be honest, skiing with heavy packs and alpine touring boots sucks. But, when compared to walking, it’s magnificent! Skis were the right tool for the job, and we put the first two pitches of the Grand-Envers behind us quickly and with smiles on our faces. Arriving at the base of the cliff, Roch and I both looked up and had the exact same thought: It was too short to BASE jump. We knew that no one had ever jumped it before, but was this why? Were we nuts to think we should be the first? We looked at each other and shrugged, wished we had brought a laser range finder, and decided to climb up there anyway to check it out. Roch said, “Hey we have all day and it’s easy to get up there.” “Easy” was typically understated. Roch is a low-drama type of guy.
Roch and I have a symbiotic relationship in the mountains; he is an experienced alpinist with some respectable first ascents to his credit, but is somewhat new to flying sports. Complimentarily, I am usually pretty nervous and maladroit with ice-axes in my hands but once a parachute is on my back or a paraglider is overhead, I feel much better. Therefore, Roch led every pitch while I belayed attentively and (very tentatively) cheered him on through the looser or blanker sections of the route. It was not a long climb but it delivered a nice spectrum of challenges, from a short and exposed off-width crack (which Roch sent in ski-boots and crampons), to an even more exposed and unprotected snow/ice traverse, finishing with the roof that protected the summit. When it’s hard as a second, it always makes you appreciate the leader and I meant it when I high-fived Roch in congratulations as I topped out after him.
Now that we were on our mini-summit, it was my turn to go first, and he belayed me down to the edge to where I thought the BASE exit would be. I found it after some careful edge-crawling and as I peered over the side my first instincts said that the cliff was in fact jumpable. But without hard evidence, I didn’t necessarily want to rely solely on that first impression. We traded places and Roch looked over for a second opinion, which was the same as mine. We wanted to toss a rock to count the vertical (for experienced jumpers, counting the “rock drop” is a dependable way to estimate height) but, to our chagrin, all of the loose rock was apparently confined to the route up. Based on our instincts, we decided to commit by tossing the climbing gear down onto the glacier. This would obviously force us to jump since we wouldn’t be able to rappel without gear, but it would also confirm or deny our opinion of the height. We were both sporting the type of grin that masks a tiny amount of uncertainty as I craned my head into the void to count the seconds …3… 4… 5… and then the “whump!” of the gear cratering into the glacier below. Our stress-grins morphed into real smiles; we knew that 5 seconds is around 300 feet, which was perfectly acceptable. The only gear we had left with us on top was our parachutes, and we paid close attention to the gentle cycles of air as we put them on. The wind was light and variable with generous lulls of calm, just what we needed.
I volunteered to go first, and we gave each other a thorough gear check. The cliff was nice and steep, as evidenced by our bag in the snow below us. It had landed at least 30 feet away from the base of the cliff, proof of the angle and slight overhang close to the summit. It was an ideal little BASE jump, but our footwear (ski-boots) was less than ideal for the sport of BASE jumping. As I rose from my stable crouch position and edged forward I told myself that after 30 years of walking around in ski-boots I could keep my balance here for a few steps. It worked to calm my nerves, and all that was left was to leap.
You can never see the entire cliff until you actually jump, and as my feet left the edge and I got to see it all from above, that first second felt like it lasted about five. After another second, the wind on my face was approaching 50mph, but by then the parachute was already unfolding above me, arresting my fall to a gentle glide over the glacier. I screamed out at the beautiful sensation of relief, adrenaline, and pleasure before landing gently on the glacier below. Roch followed with a perfect exit and landing, and our faces were contorted by out-of-control smiles.
We rolled up our BASE canopies, recovered the tossed climbing gear, and tried to re-organize our large packs. Thankfully, with our paragliders out of the packs, we were left with enough room to cram in the now disorganized and unfolded parachutes and climbing rack. We hefted the heavy bags back onto our shoulders and skied a few meters down the glacier to an ideal launch spot. There, we laid out our paragliders and carefully set up the packs for flight. We were ski-launching, which was the only possible way to launch paragliders from a glacier with so much gear, but Roch wasn’t stoked at the prospect of launching his wing with such a heavy pack. He preferred to leave gear on the glacier for a later recovery, so I crammed as much as I could into my bag. With the wings laid out behind us and the heavy pack loosely on my shoulders but secured to the paraglider hang-points via carabiners, I took off with the bag on my back but then immediately lowered it to hang below my harness. Keeping it on my back would have left me hanging nearly upside down below my paraglider, a difficult configuration to control one’s flight from.
Once airborne and cruising high above the Mer de Glace we had one final hurdle to cross, and that was the ridge at the end of the glacier. We cleared it with 200 feet to spare, gliding past Montenvers safely to land near downtown Chamonix. Back in the valley where our morning had begun, we marinated in the feeling of having completed something good. It’s a feeling that people who run around playing in the mountains all day understand well: A special blend of accomplishment, thankfulness, and relief. In other words, the sensation of an epic day. ;-)
Since you made it all the way through that crap, you shall be rewarded with the video: