We had both set our alarms for sunrise but in fact there wasn’t any need, as we were awake with the first glows of light sweeping down the valley. Those hazy morning rays peeped through the gaps in my bivi bag and sleeping bag, all the way through to my squinted eyes that tiredly blinked themselves open.
Mountain light at dawn is quite unique, I think. It appears like a dim glow that nestles over the tops of the mountains, as though blanketing them protectively from the first signs of day. Rest a little longer, it seems to say. To both the mountains and to anyone who has spent the night in them. And so we did.
From above we probably looked like two little red slugs curled around a mountainside, our feet to the snowy peaks and our eyes to the pink sky. From within the cosy confines of our bivi bags, we watched the sun appear over the mountain tops, and the sky turn a pale shade of blue. We stayed dormant until the light hit us, and with it a burst of energy for a new day in the mountains. For a little while at least.
We had arrived in Chamonix only three days before, and with glorious sunshine on the cards but a storm brewing in the distance, we vowed to make the most of the good weather by going high and spending as much time as we could in the mountains. Chamonix is nestled in the Haute-Savoie region of France; a mountain Mecca looked over by mighty Mont Blanc and her neighbouring peaks. Chamonix is the place where climbers, mountaineers, skiers, hikers and runners flock in their respective seasons, eager to play in the mountains for as long and as hard as they can. This was our intention, focusing our two weeks on climbing and alpinism. Being my first time experiencing mountaineering, for me this trip was all about getting used to the environment, understanding the mountains, and figuring out what this whole alpine thing actually is…
Here’s a little bit of background on my own journey to alpinism... I’ve been an “athlete” of some sort all my life. I was a swimmer before I could even walk, from the first time my mum put me in the pool and my legs kicked like a frog. I was a gymnast, a runner, a long-jumper, and a triathlete in my childhood and teens, then a rower and cyclist at university, before discovering cycle-touring when I graduated - what I consider my first step into adventure travel sports. Solo cycle-touring allowed me to discover unknown places, pushing me out of my comfort zone numerous time; whether it be getting caught in a storm on a mountain pass in New Zealand, peddling into a 30mph headwind on a long, exposed Californian sea-cliff for hours on end, or cycling in 40 degree heat in the Utah desert. I loved every minute of it.
Through cycle-touring, I developed a passion for adventure and travel. Then when I returned to the UK, I swapped cycling shoes for hiking boots and started walking my way around the country, falling in love equally with being out in the wild. I learnt how to climb at the beginning of this year, something I’d always wanted to do and was finally able to learn thanks to meeting someone lovely who wanted to show me (hi Harvey!). And so, for the majority of this year, climbing and hiking have been what I’ve focused my passions and energies on. Mountains are such an integral part of both of these sports that alpinism was almost the natural next step. Somewhere on this journey from a frog-legged toddler to an adventure-loving 25-year-old, I decided that I wanted to climb some mountains.
My first Alpine route in Chamonix was on the Southeast Ridge of the Index (AD 4c), a 130m route with six pitches of easy but exposed alpine climbing. For me, everything was new; climbing in mountaineering boots, experiencing such a degree of exposure, ridgeline traverses and a long abseil to descend. I can’t deny that my first alpine experience was a scary one, but I worked on staying calm and positive for the whole climb - focusing on every pitch step by step. There was no view whatsoever from the summit, thanks to the thick cloud we had climbed up into, but this made that sense of being within the mountains somehow even stronger - we were consumed by it. When we got down from the mountain, we ate the baguette with saucisson and cheese I’d been carrying in my backpack all day, and all I wanted to do was go up high again.
And so we did. The next day, as the weather was set to be clear and cloudless all day, we headed back up the same mountain lift to complete the Crochues Traverse (PD+ 4a). This time we were loaded up with bags full of climbing and overnight gear, ready for out first night sleeping in the mountains. It was a two hour walk from the top of the lift to the start of the route, across rocky ground, scree slopes and patches of icy snow. The occasional sound of rockfall had my stomach turning, but the view was distractingly spectacular and it almost felt as though we had the mountain all to ourselves, barely seeing another soul due to starting the climb so late in the afternoon. After a fun first pitch through a chimney, the rest of the route was mostly following the south side of a rocky ridgeline in golden afternoon light. We reached the summit just before sundown, wrapping ourselves up in coats and woolly hats and enjoying a mountain dinner of pasta pesto as the light began to fade beyond the mountains to the north, and the wild, green and craggy valley in the south.
There isn't much better than a mountain sunset, except for possibly a mountain sunrise. Fortunately we were able to see both. I’d never actually bivied before this trip, so in case you don’t know what a bivi is, it’s essentially a waterproof bag that you slot your sleeping mat, bag and self into so you can sleep outside without a tent. In many parts of the Alps, camping in a tent isn’t allowed, but sleeping in a bivi bag is. It also takes up less room than a tent - both in your bag and on the ground - so you can sleep in places where space is limited (on a mountainside perhaps) and be more discreet. You can also watch the stars with your head on your pillow (or bundles of coats and climbing gear in our case), and wake up feeling completely immersed by the natural environment and surroundings. Bivying is, essentially, sleeping outside, but with the protection of something that is ever-necessary in an unpredictable Alpine environment. Sound appealing? It certainly did to me, I couldn’t wait to spend my first night in a bivi bag on a mountainside.
And so, after finding the perfect sleeping spot nestled in a rocky outcrop, overlooking the Mont Blanc mountain range and with a 100ft drop just a few feet away (Harvey’s idea not mine), we tucked ourselves inside our bivi bags and fell asleep watching the glow of the moon rise above the mountains, and the stars over our heads. We were awoken the next morning by the most breathtaking alpine light resting on snowcapped peaks. I rubbed my eyes tiredly and soaked in every ounce of the alpine scene beyond my feet.
We had half-planned to do a route that morning, but in all honesty, I was exhausted and not feeling up to it. I think you really have to listen to your mind and to your body before heading onto an Alpine route, especially when it’s all new to you. That morning, my body was telling me that I needed to rest, so as a pair we decided to have a more relaxed day and head back on the long walk through the valley to Chamonix, with a much-needed dip in the freezing glacial waters of Lac Blanc for Harvey enroute.
My first couple of alpine routes and overnight bivi consolidated the fact that I was in love with the mountains, that I had a lot to learn and improve to become an alpinist, and that I was more motivated than ever to do so. I already knew that I wanted to come back next year with more strength, endurance, and, above all, confidence to do more and harder routes. I was also developing a love for alpine photography, that I hope to improve in turn as I become more confident with the climbing itself and carrying a camera at the same time.
That alpine glow seemed to follow us around for the rest of the day; the hazy pink light of a mountain sunrise reflected in our pink cheeks and wide grins as we made our way back to Chamonix. Sleeping with the peaks at our feet was the perfect introduction to mountain life, something that makes you appreciate the purity and grandeur of the mountains, as well as their wildness, remoteness and sheer power. Hearing rock fall in every direction and the whurring sound of the Mountain Rescue helicopter in the distance is a stark reminder of the respect you must show them; indeed, the mountains demand both attention and admiration - drawing you in yet not giving themselves away easily in the slightest. If you are willing to accept their challenges, you will reap the most euphoric rewards. I can’t wait to understand the mountains more; learn from them and grow with them as I get older.
Review: Rab Alpine Bivi
Packing a 30L rucksack for a night in the mountains isn’t easy, so I was ever-grateful for the lightweight and small packsize of Rab’s Alpine Bivi Bag, at only 470g. Simple and minimalist, the bivis provided everything we needed for a night in the mountains - waterproof and breathable, with a super durable storm-proof fabric that we thankfully didn’t see the full potential of. The large zip means you have plenty of room for movement before settling in for the night, though I opted to leave mine slightly open so I could watch the stars from the comfort of my bed. I would highly recommend a Rab Alpine Bivi for anyone heading on a trip to the mountains. A night bivying under the stars is one you definitely won’t forget.
Leave No Trace
If you love the mountains for all their beauty and grandeur, know that it is so important to respect them and ensure that you leave no trace after spending a night in the mountains. This means taking all your rubbish away with you, leaving your camp spot as you found it, and trying to stick to established trails as much as possible. Respect wildlife who’s home you are visiting, and be mindful of unpredictable weather in mountainous environments. Bearing all that in mind, enjoy your time in the rugged, remoteness of the mountains, while respecting their purity as best you can. Find out more on leaving no trace here or visit the Leave No Trace website for more information.