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Surviving the Beginnings
Text and pictures
© 1990-2023 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"Different kinds of climbers:
Novice — Someone (often dead) who should be kept off the mountains at all costs. Experienced climber — Someone whose death was unavoidable. Alpine Club Member — Someone who never dies but slowly fades away."
On this page:
: this is a compilation of some true events dating from 1989~1991, but I will vehemently deny any of them having really happened. Anyway the [T]ruth has been enhanced beyond recognition to make it more entertaining. Maybe...
Let's get off the ground...
I arrived at the University and it's great. I don't know yet about the studying, but they have plenty of clubs like scuba diving, rock climbing, paragliding, parachuting, knitting and more. I think I'm going to try them all.
Don't worry that they are risky, there's no one left in those clubs who had an accident before.
Talk to you later.
I started the activities with the climbing club. They have a climbing wall and it's great, but on the second time I went I fell and broke a finger. No one had told me to remove my fingers from the pocket holes when falling. Bummer. I think I'll stick to scuba diving.
Well, after the scuba diving incident (don't worry, the red in my eyes should go away in a month or so) I think I'll stick to climbing. Diving just looks too dangerous: a valve gets stuck deep down and if your co-divers don't see you, you're a goner. And those old WWII diving rigs from the club aren't that trustful anymore. At least with climbing, if you don't let go you can't fall off... And as for paragliding, you always make it to the ground one way or another.
I discovered bouldering and it's so much more interesting than gym climbing. At least you are all alone in the woods without anyone to bother you...
Say 'Hi!' to the cats for me.
Right: Laurent on the 'Bilboquet', one of the strangest looking boulder of Fontainebleau
Look 'Ma, I'm flying,
The first day of paragliding was interesting. We were on the practice slope and it was hard to take off as there was no wind. The only one who was light enough to take off managed to hit the fence on landing but was okay after a couple stitches.
We started the long flights on the 3rd day. It's a lot nicer: you run down a slope and jump off a cliff, hoping that by then you sail has opened. If not, there are a few trees on the cliff that can catch you if you miss the small crashing net. After my first long flight the instructor crashed spectacularly trying to show us how to get out of a flat loop. He fell into the trees after 500 meters of almost free fall. We could hear him screaming from halfway down. He was okay after the shaking receded. His pants were not.
The next day we had full autonomy flights: fly anywhere you want, except near the heliport, and try to land on the only landing field between all the buildings. Fortunately it's easy to see from a distance: it's a small square of nice grass between the highway, the power line, the river and a large field of poison ivy higher than me. When I figured out I was gonna miss the field like all the others, I chose the poison ivy. It was hot that day, so I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I think I'll stick to climbing from now on.
Scratch, scratch, scratch...
Left: Paragliding in Flaine, Northern Alps
Dear Pop, Dear Ma',
Yesterday I tried my first lead. The leader is the guy who climbs first to put the rope up for the others. It's more interesting but also more... hmmm, challenging. So we were climbing on this old abandoned bridge where plenty of climbers go. Two of my more experienced friends tried to do this 6a route and got pumped. They left quickdraws halfway up and someone had to either retrieve them or to finish the lead. They were both telling me that I'd top-roped enough in the gym and I could do that climb. I took my first lead fall a few minutes later. And I'll be damned if rope burns aren't worse than paper cuts, as no one had told me to avoid getting tangled up in the rope while falling so my back is scrapped as well. But leading is a lot more interesting than bouldering, at least you get to see some scenery (if you have the opportunity).
Please send money for a harness, as a sling harness is not too comfortable, even when I remember how to tie it up properly.
Bye for now, I can't sit down for too long.
Right: Hard lead at the Gunks
Today I was late for school, as yesterday a friend got hurt while bouldering near the University. He fell about 50cm while climbing alone and hit his arm against a tree stump. Broke his elbow clean off. He manage to drive himself to the Emergency Room but I had to go pick him up this morning. The guy in the same room had been run over by a car and had tire threads on his chest. Don't worry too much about climbing risks, I've checked the statistics and one is 10 times more likely to die in a car accident than a a climbing accident, so I'm safe.
By the way, this WE we are going climbing in the Alps: driving all night on friday, climb on saturday and sunday and drive back all sunday night. Should be a fun WE.
Left: Vincent bouldering in Fontainebleau
We went climbing in the Pyrenees and we got off route big time. The route looked just like the picture, but instead of a 300m 6a with bolts we climbed a 600m 6b with only a few rotten pitons. And we got rained on. And we ended on the wrong side of the mountain, about 20km away from our car, in the middle of the night and in the rain. Not bad for my first time off-route, heh ? Luckily we managed to convince the only guy around to give us a ride back to our car.
I think I'll invest in a compass. And start reading guidebooks better.
Discovering snow and ice
That was a great WE. I started mountain climbing, it's much better than sport climbing ! First day we did an easy couloir, the Y-couloir up the Aiguille d'Argentière. See me leading the schrund on the picture ? That's where my partner fell as I was giving him a shoulder belay from above. He fell deep inside the hole, as I though from his screaming that he wanted to be lowered off.
Then we went up the Courtes on the same route as where Joe Simpson fell off. But don't worry, he's a guy who falls a lot, and no he's not a friend but a crazy Englishman. I wasn't too comfortable, partly because I was climbing in ski boots, and I had borrowed crampons and axes. The axe belongs to a friend's grandfather and has a wooden shaft, and it's obviously been through a lot of great climbs already as it has no teeth left. Or maybe it never had any.
Please send money for axes and crampons.
Talk to you later.
Right: Me on the schrund of the Y-couloir, aiguille d'Argentière, my first mountain climb ever.
This WE we went back to the Alps and it was my 2nd time mountain climbing ever. And my first unplanned bivy.
Please send money for pile jacket, gore tex, real climbing boots, stretch pants, gloves, balaclava, heat packs and more, as my Blue-Jeans, grandma's wool sweater and my K-way weren't quite enough to keep me warm after we got lost in the storm and got soaked to the bones by the wet snow. At least in the morning we were dry (as ice is considered dry).
Apparently the refuge we were looking for had been wiped out in an avalanche recently. An exhausted friend on the trip wanted us to abandon him to die and retrace our steps without him. It's amazing how much sense you can put back into a person with just one ice axe.
PS: if the university complains of hot water abuse in my dorm, it's just that it took me a couple of days to warm back up.
Left: Petit Viking, ice gully at the end of the Argentière Glacier, Chamonix
Hi Mom, Hi Dad,
Mountaineering is just long long walks in snow carrying a big pack, and the only interesting part is often the schrund (provided you don't fall in it like last month); ice climbing is more fun. Just find some frozen waterfall and climb it. We don't know anyone else who does it so we need to figure it out from magazine pictures. It's a pleasant egoistical feeling to climb such an ephemeral thing: it wasn't there last summer and it won't be there in a couple more weeks. Or sometimes less, as our second waterfall collapsed 10 minutes after we bailed off of it... It's amazing how loud ice can be when it crashes down hundreds of meters of couloir.
PS: I'm still waiting for the money for the axes: I broke the tip of the old wooden one and it was way hard to finish the route with one hand... I also need a new pair of gloves as a piece of falling ice cut right through mine.
Right: Old school ice climbing with meter-long wooden-shaft axes, hammer-in screws and no helmet...
Hi you all,
For New Year's we went to a refuge lost high up in the mountains. We carried packs worthy of a Sherpa, with Champagne bottles and live oysters in addition to all the climbing gear. We got drunk and then all went climbing on the walls above the refuge. Some without headlamps, and one with a candle between his teeth. Sleeping out drunk at this altitude is not too comfortable, particularly when you can't see how to get down from the ledge. And you are butt naked... Noooo, that wasn't me but I won't tell... The good thing is that you can save on booze as you don't need as much to get drunk with the altitude...
Left: Lack of sunscreen while backcountry skiing in spring leads to mother of all sunburns (chinese saying).
After that we fought our way up a north face mixed route above Chamonix. It should have been a fine line, and indeed it was in good conditions, but we were quite loaded with gear and slow as we decided to carry our skis with us so we could ski down the Vallée Blanche on the other side. And on the same day we were somewhat unprepared for the record -28°C cold in Chamonix; and we were more than 2000 meters above that... We got to the summit in the dark, completely numb of hands and feet. In order to save time we skipped the easier Vallée Blanche and directly skied down the steep south face. No fear of crevasses as we couldn't see them in the dark. We were glad to reach a warm Requin hut at midnight, unfortunately our feet swell so much after we removed the boots that we had to wait one more day before finishing the descent. This was the day before my flight for Concordia where I had plenty of time to cure my black frozen feet...
See you after I get back from the freezer.
Right: Fighting our way up a snow and rock overhang.
Well, it looks like the ice climbing season is over. Of all the waterfalls in the valley, only one was left standing when we arrived, but the left column collapsed while I was climbing the right column. The right one was thicker, so it was probably more stable.
You know you really get used to wearing crampons. The first few steps you tear down you pants (please send money for another pair of Goretex pants), but then you can't live without them: when I took them off after climbing the waterfall, I took a step on the mostly flat ice, slipped, jumped off the edge and fell into a tree. My butt hurts.
Left: Ice climb in Lelex (cascade du Brion), Jura, just before the central section collapsed.
Back in Chamonix. I'm waiting in the emergency room for the doc to finish sterilizing my partner's butt. He was wearing shorts when he tried to 'ski' a neve in his running shoes. He fell off the steeper section halfway down and scrapped his butt on the old dirty ice all the way to the base. I spent 20 minutes with the pliers from the Swiss army knife to remove most of the pebbles under the incredulous stare of hikers on the trail below.
We'll stop by as we drive back. Make sure there's a pillow handy.
Right: Vincent rock climbing in winter near Briançon.
As spring is coming we wanted to do some long rock routes. We chose the wrong place as it was north facing and covered with ice. After 3 pitches we bailed as we had to climb on ice with bare hands and my rope got cut by something (a sharp edge ?). We managed to finish the rappels with only a few strands on one side.
Please send money for a new rope.
PS: By the way, I'm sorry for last WE, when I yanked on that hexentric to show you how safe it is and it pulled out and hit me in the knee. That made me look really stupid, but you really, really, didn't need to drive me to the ER room for that...
Left: Aid line in Presles: 'Le Fou qui repeint son plafond'.
Back in the mountains,
As spring came and the waterfalls have disappeared, we went higher up to try to find some ice: a steep gully called Gabarou-Albinoni on the Mt Blanc du Tacul. We got to the base together with a guide and his client. As my partner was leading the first pitch I was talking with the client who told me that he had hired Gabarou himself. Upon joining Vincent at the belay, he was talking with the guide, calling him with his first name, so I assumed that he knew who we were up against.
We did the entire route at the same time, trying to pass each other: guide and leader doing the same pitch, and both seconds side by side in this narrow gully. While Vincent and Gabarou were on one of the vertical cruxes, an avalanche rumbled from above and fell right on the belay (me). I had the time to hide behind the client, just in case one of the leaders with all his pointed appendages fell on us. They were unscathed by the avalanche that passed behind their back but I was full of snow down to my underwear. That's the point of doing belays...
After a couple more avalanches we finished the route and offered our snowshoes to Gabarou who was going back to the base to recover their skis. Back at the refuge, later, he sent us a 'thank you' note. Vincent turned green when he saw the signature: he hadn't known...
PS: I've had enough snow, now I want summer.
As we were doing the approach to the Meije, there were many large boulders on the steep slope. We had huge packs with gear and food for 3 days. At a certain point Vincent grabbed the top of a large boulder with the intention of climbing over it. He barely began to pull when the boulder started rolling over him. He pulled so hard to jump over it that he ripped the skin of all his fingers...
No more climbing this WE... :-(
The Verdon (France)
Hello from the Verdon,
Here's an Easter postcard from the Verdon, one of the most famous cliff in the world: as high as many mountain routes, as steep as a sport cliff. It's a peculiar place, 'cause you have to rappel down on one of the ledges that split the cliff halfway up, and climb up from there. So it's committing since in some places you can't even go down.
We must have chosen the wrong place as we couldn't find the route we wanted to climb. After trying several dead ends we tried to climb back up the rappel route. Both my more experienced partners tried it and bailed after they saw you couldn't place any gear in the 40 meter chimney. Finally I tried it and ran the pitch out to the belay. The hardest part was the last two meters, as the shaking was getting real bad. They paid me the beer in the evening and said that from now on I could climb with them (before I had to sneak in their car in the morning otherwise they would just 'forget' me...).
Bye for now.
Right: The Escalès is the main cliff of the Verdon. The two longest and best routes of the Verdon are visible here: the Demande as the long crack on the left, and the Ula on the right.
Still in the Verdon,
It's not quite true that all routes start from halfway up. I discovered one route, La Demande, that starts from the base and since it's the same grade than what I climb in the gym I decided to go. The only partner I could find was a beginner, but he did alright. Granted I had to Z-pulley him up the last 7 pitches (the pitches where it was raining). But limestone is not too slippery when wet, so we had a good time.
Left: Jean and Vincent following on Roumagaou, Verdon.
Yet another postcard from the Verdon,
This place is great, there's so much to do a week won't be enough... We climbed the Ula, another route that starts from the base. While we were on it we got passed by two old timers who were cruising up. They weren't even belaying each others but, unlike us, they were wearing helmets. As they passed, one told us that we should be wearing them as well: he removed his and showed us a caved in hole as big as a fist inside his skull. 'Rock', he just said and disappeared up.
Please send money for a helmet, even thought the rock in Verdon is excellent and nothing falls off. At least it will protect us from dropped gear and stupid tourists throwing beer cans from the rim (yes. They were italian).
Right: Vincent after he couldn't resist grabbing the pro on the crux (6b+) of Roumagaou.
Howdy from the US !
That exchange student stuff is awesome. I'm learning to 'have some fun' at night during the week. Did you know that not only beer tastes bad in the US, it is also illegal, at least till you are 5 years above the driving age ?
Anyway my exchange student is not a climber but I met some and we went to a place called Seneca which is like a book balanced on its binding. They have crazy ethics out here: no bolts. They put pieces of metal in the cracks for protection. On our first route (Triple-S) my partner bailed halfway up and told me to finish the lead. It's more time consuming and tiring and insecure and risky. I think I like it.
Left: Craig on Broken Neck (5.10b) at Seneca Rocks.
Hello Mom, Hello Dad,
There's not much climbing in Maryland so to practice we do some 'buildering', climbing on buildings. As we were doing that in the University which was deserted for the summer, a cop car starting driving around all the buildings we'd climbed before, so we just hunkered down and ran off later.
I also took my gear to the building where I work and setup a rappel line down the stairs. Several colleagues tried it and liked it. Two even took on climbing later. The main problem was keeping the security rent-a-cop asshole off our back with a box of donuts on the other side of the building.
PS: will you bail me out of jail if I get caught ?
Right: Buildering on the Physics building...
On the 2d WE I hitch-hiked to climb in New York. No, not the buildings, a place called the Gunks farther west with great horizontally structured rock. I hooked up with an old army guy and his 20 year old rack. All he had were 9 hexes. Let me tell you how scary it was to lead routes with only this stuff. I couldn't use any of it and people at the base were taking bets on how deep the crater would be.
Please send money as I
need to buy a rack: friends, stoppers, hexes, tricams, slings, wires... Lots of money.
On rappelling down the 2nd climb of the day, it was getting dark and the rope was too short by about 10 meters, so I just jumped into a big tree. My partner didn't like it too much. And as we were hiking out on the narrow trail at night (no headlamp), there was a dog right in front of me. Or so I thought: when we made it to the parking lot, under the moonlight I saw that it was a skunk. I don't think I could have hitch-hiked back if the skunk hadn't been in a good mood...
I'll be home soon, but I'm sure I'll
A postcard from Switzerland,
I'm writing this from the little train that takes us to the base of the North face of the Eiger. We think that after one year of climbing we are ready to tackle more interesting problems like this... It does look big though. Don't worry, I just subscribed to a rescue insurance.
Talk to you later.
You liked those stories and thought they were more scary than funny ? Well, I have some more scary (but not funny) stories for you...