The Swiss stuntwoman Geraldine Fasnacht promised to BASE jump from the top of our climb, a leap off a cliff on Mont Blanc, “if the weather is good.”
But snow pounded above 3,000 meters the day we met. At the tram station in Chamonix she greeted me with a hug and a cheek turned for a kiss. She gave me a Swiss offering, a Toblerone bar, and mentioned her new wingsuit, an upgraded flying-squirrel design with “bi-plane” partitions between the legs that boost lift against gravity, letting her soar more kilometers, she said, “all the way to the valley floor.”
Rain streaked the air as we boarded a late-afternoon tram, the last car of the day. I’d come to the Alps for some summertime mountaineering, a June retreat, packing rub-on sunscreen and a funny hat with a neck-flap on back. But the forecast had deteriorated, the atmosphere dark, and Geraldine divulged, reluctantly, she’d had to leave the wingsuit behind.
Ice axes, rope, and more Swiss chocolate were packed instead. Geraldine’s friend Vivian Bruchez, a steep skier and Mountain Hardwear athlete among the youngest of the Guides de Chamonix, joined us. We levitated through clouds in the tram car, flying uphill toward Aiguille Du Midi.
Vivian, age 29 and a Chamonix native, had his climbing boots and harness already on, a rope coiled around his shoulders, ready to deploy. He scanned my equipment, a mountain axe in one hand, winter gloves and goggles, carabiners racked on gear loops below a backpack belt. “The climb starts tonight,” he said.
CLIMB THE ‘COSMIC’ RIDGE
Arête des Cosmiques, a moderate ridge climb, was our goal. Its multiple pitches meander on a spine to 3,800 meters, with mixed climbing and rappels, bolt stations, and catwalk passageways between couloirs included before a final cliff that cumulates, very French-like, on a metal-grate patio at Aiguille Du Midi station.
Vivian led as we descended from the tram the night before our climb. Roped up, snow blowing, our destination was a “hut” at the base of the ridge, the Refuge des Cosmiques. There, bunk beds are rented to the climbers of Mont Blanc and a restaurant serves hot meals. A gear room at the entryway includes baskets where climbers stash crampons and hard-goods before heading fully inside.
Mountaineering books and magazines are piled near the front desk, and beer is on tap in the kitchen. For one Euro at Refuge des Cosmiques you receive a log-in code to nab wifi and get online.
Geraldine brought an iPad. It was wrapped for protection in her climbing pack, and after dinner she pecked the screen to find a signal. “I think these will load,” she said, a window popping to reveal a smiling Swiss-woman floating under a canopy.
A former champion snowboarder, Geraldine transitioned to BASE jumping and the wingsuit game over a period of years. She leapt from an airplane hundreds of times, honing skills, before viewing the mountains as a venue where you can fly.
Above Chamonix, in good weather, she can make the Aiguille Du Midi jump from a platform atop a massive cliff. Her equipment is stowed in pockets of the wingsuit, including, she noted, her Toblerone bars, and with arms spread wide she leans over the abyss.
On her screen, to show me the experience, she initiates point-of-view footage to reveal the perspective of a jump near Verbier. Wind is a violent white noise from the iPad’s speakers, granite swooshes below, blurred. Geraldine scoops air, diving and rocketing, a bird above a Swiss valley, flying home.
The dining area is emptying as we lean back from the screen. Climbers are heading to bed. It’s 8 p.m., alarms set early to get on the mountain before first light.
A door slams in the hallway. Eyes pop open. I squint at my watch, then sit up. Vivian shuffles under his blanket a few bunks down. I clear my throat, then mumble, “Time to go?” I ask.
We’re at breakfast in 10 minutes, the sky dark outside big windows facing Mont Blanc. Bread and Nutella come in a basket. Bowls of coffee are poured, and with two hands I lift and drink the warmth.
We suit up in the gear room. Vivian gives me goggles. “It’s big wind out there,” he says.
Light is leaking on the horizon, deep orange-pink hues against a silhouette toothy ridge. Boots tightened, crampons go on, gaiters, then a shell jacket, and we tie into the rope. Vivian is up front, leading, and me in the middle as a client of Guides de Chamonix.
We crunch onto the snow, a familiar path for Vivian on the ascending ridge. He first climbed Arête des Cosmiques at age 13, noting he was “very scared on the last pitch.”
Today he is smiling, shouting over big gusts. Geraldine, at the back of the train, takes out her phone for a photo before we scoot onto the flank of pitch No. 1.
Winter has revisited Chamonix. It’s below freezing, the snow whipping up-mountain from clouds and deep valleys obscured. Headlamps blink as climbers come out of the refuge, roping up behind my small team.
Higher along, Vivian slots a cam anchor in a crack, clipping the rope. “Wait here,” he shouts, unfurling some line then walking ahead.
A mixed route, Arête des Cosmiques requires a set of skills ranging from technical footwork to slogging. I grip a mountain axe, stabbing snow for purchase. My free hand, gloved, is jammed behind a glittering flake of rock.
Around his neck, Vivian keeps a crystal. It’s noosed with wire, an apex pointing down, strung on a cord and pressed to his chest. He’d revealed the gem the night before. Found on a flank of the mountain, he carries a piece of Mont Blanc on his body wherever he goes.
The peak is famous for its crystals. Mountaineering, 200 years ago, came to being in the region, in part, because men were motivated to climb high in search of gems. They were sold in the valleys below, old French towns, or into Italy and Switzerland nearby, the clear quartz, fluorite, and deep-green malachite marketed as rare Earth from the region of the gods.
ROCK AND ICE
On our climb, immaculate stone sparked in the sun. It was 6 a.m., halfway along on the ridge. Slabs, rock chimneys, and spires the French call gendarmes were the medium of the day, along with deep snow.
Wind comes and goes, and we’re ducking behind boulders at the belays. Geraldine has put her phone away, “too cold for photos,” she said.
I’m two jackets deep, a prototype Columbia hard-shell under a down puffy, its hood pulled up and over my helmet in an attempt to trap heat. I ball my hands inside my gloves, fingers pulled together at a pause before they go numb.
Then, at the guide’s command, I’m leaning back off an edge. The rope streams from my device, hands gripped on an abseil toward a saddle at the height of a couloir.
Geraldine comes next, and Vivian is already charging ahead. He tosses the rope behind a flake, a simul-climbing anchor that, ostensibly, would catch a group fall.
But we’re solid. We can see the top. I catch Geraldine scanning the needle high on Aiguille Du Midi, a wonderment of alpine infrastructure near her wingsuit jump point.
I step high with a crampon, kicking into the snow. My ice axe scratches on Mont Blanc stone. The cable car is running now, daylight taking hold of the valley.
I can see the bridges and windows above, the weird manmade summit, the top of the Arête des Cosmiques, where my meandering time on this mountain will come to an end.