Back to where it all began...Alpine climbing in the Alps

I have been lucky enough to spend the end of August climbing in the French Alps out of the town of Chamonix with my friends Erin Smart and Forest McBrian, owners and guides for Borealis Mountain Guides. Erin, who has been skiing and climbing in the French Alps since she was a teenager provided me with a brilliant introduction to the climbing culture of the area. Having known Forest for many years and his love of all things related to the art of Alpinism and most things French, it was a pleasure to finally experience the mountains which I had heard about from his stories--mountains which have inspired generations of world class alpinists including Forest (whose exploits include first ascent mountaineering routes and first descent ski mountaineering routes, as well as a burgeoning writing career including a recent article in Alpinist on the famed Pickets Range in the North Cascades).

Mountaineering, European Style

Having come of age in the mountains of western North America, reading about the exploits of John Muir and Fred Becky, I always assumed that suffering through long approaches, doing battle with dense brush, brutal mosquitoes, crossing raging snowmelt filled creeks was part of the entrance fees for access to the splendor of the high mountains. Here in Europe, there is a bit of different sensibility. Approaches are manicured, ladders and footholds are added to the landscape to expedite travel, cable cars provide access from the valley bottom to the heart of the glacier in minutes, beautiful helicopter serviced mountain huts await with wine or tea to be had on the deck at the end of a day of climbing followed by 3 course dinners and a cozy place to spend the night. And just beyond the hut, or the exit from the lift, lays some of the most stunning mountain scenery and stellar alpine climbing routes of anywhere in the world.

 Erin Smart heads out on the snow arete leading away from the Aguille du Midi. Amazingly enough this photo was taken just a few meters from where the lift drops tourists, climbers and skiers off, leaving right from the town of Chamonix. One minute I was on the street eating a fresh pastry from a local bakery and 15 minutes later I found myself in some of the most stunning alpine terrain I have traversed in my life.

Erin Smart heads out on the snow arete leading away from the Aguille du Midi. Amazingly enough this photo was taken just a few meters from where the lift drops tourists, climbers and skiers off, leaving right from the town of Chamonix. One minute I was on the street eating a fresh pastry from a local bakery and 15 minutes later I found myself in some of the most stunning alpine terrain I have traversed in my life.

 Erin navigating fresh snow on the Cosmiques arete, a classic climbing route on the west side of the Aguille du Midi.

Erin navigating fresh snow on the Cosmiques arete, a classic climbing route on the west side of the Aguille du Midi.

 Erin smart leading out on mixed terrain.

Erin smart leading out on mixed terrain.

 At 4810 meters (15,781 feet), Mount Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps. Clouds stream off of the lee side of the heavily glaciered peak.

At 4810 meters (15,781 feet), Mount Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps. Clouds stream off of the lee side of the heavily glaciered peak.

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 The Mere de Glace glacier flows down off of Mount Blanc and the surrounding peaks. While still miles long, the thickness of the glacier has shrunk dramatically over recent decades…an example of the shifting climate in the region.

The Mere de Glace glacier flows down off of Mount Blanc and the surrounding peaks. While still miles long, the thickness of the glacier has shrunk dramatically over recent decades…an example of the shifting climate in the region.

 Erin Smart on the trail into the Envers Hut, situated above the Mere du Glace.

Erin Smart on the trail into the Envers Hut, situated above the Mere du Glace.

 Situated in an almost fairy tale like setting, the Envers des Aguilles Hut, managed by the French Alpine club provides lodging and food for climbers.

Situated in an almost fairy tale like setting, the Envers des Aguilles Hut, managed by the French Alpine club provides lodging and food for climbers.

 Mountain guide   Miles Smart  at a belay on a route above the Envers hut.

Mountain guide  Miles Smart at a belay on a route above the Envers hut.

 Forest McBrian examines the Eperon des Cosmiques route before our ascent.

Forest McBrian examines the Eperon des Cosmiques route before our ascent.

 Forest McBrian leading out on a traversing pitch lower on the route.

Forest McBrian leading out on a traversing pitch lower on the route.

 Erin getting into the crux moves of the route, a series of cracks leading through a large roof.

Erin getting into the crux moves of the route, a series of cracks leading through a large roof.

 Erin pulling over another thoughtful move on the same crux pitch of the route.

Erin pulling over another thoughtful move on the same crux pitch of the route.

 Forest wandering up through a series of cracks in beautiful granite towards the top of the route.

Forest wandering up through a series of cracks in beautiful granite towards the top of the route.

 The view from a belay stance on the route. Mount Blanc in the background.

The view from a belay stance on the route. Mount Blanc in the background.

Making Hay in the Caucasus Mountains of the Republic of Georgia

September is harvest season for folks who live in the Sveneti Region of Georgia's Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus Mountains are a land steeped in history and located at a geographic and cultural crossroads of Asia and Europe. Traveling through the remote villages situated among the soaring ridges and peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, felt at points like a trip back in time. This feeling was perhaps most distinct in watching the process of cutting and storing hay which was in full swing during my time in the region.

 Three men from the village of Iprali work in concert cutting wild hay in a high elevation meadow in the Sveneti region of the Republic of Georgia.

Three men from the village of Iprali work in concert cutting wild hay in a high elevation meadow in the Sveneti region of the Republic of Georgia.

 Careful attention to keeping you blade sharp is required for cutting hay with a scythe. Men will typically sharpen their blade after each row of hay they cut and the distinctive sound of sharpening stones against the metal blades of scythes rung out across many of the mountain valley’s we traversed during our fall travels in the region.

Careful attention to keeping you blade sharp is required for cutting hay with a scythe. Men will typically sharpen their blade after each row of hay they cut and the distinctive sound of sharpening stones against the metal blades of scythes rung out across many of the mountain valley’s we traversed during our fall travels in the region.

 Often, hay is carefully collected into mounds which are left to dry before being hauled back to the village and stored for the winter.

Often, hay is carefully collected into mounds which are left to dry before being hauled back to the village and stored for the winter.

 Hay mounds dotted hillsides up and down the mountainsides across much of Sveneti during the fall. Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia.

Hay mounds dotted hillsides up and down the mountainsides across much of Sveneti during the fall. Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia.

 Hay mounds are eventually collected and loaded onto either trucks or wooden sleds pulled by cattle to be hauled into the village.

Hay mounds are eventually collected and loaded onto either trucks or wooden sleds pulled by cattle to be hauled into the village.

 Hay being hauled out of the mountains to the village of Ushguli. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia.

Hay being hauled out of the mountains to the village of Ushguli. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia.

 A wooden hay sled sits in front of a modern barn built with a traditional design, while two cows rigged for hauling it rest in the shade. Hay is stored in the top while livestock are penned below during the winter. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia.

A wooden hay sled sits in front of a modern barn built with a traditional design, while two cows rigged for hauling it rest in the shade. Hay is stored in the top while livestock are penned below during the winter. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia.

 A massive and growing ravine sits on the edge of a village in Sveneti. Intensive and long term cattle and other livestock production have left many hillsides scared with with such erosion, while thistles and other weedy species that tolerate heavy grazing pressure flourish in much of the range lands in Sveneti.

A massive and growing ravine sits on the edge of a village in Sveneti. Intensive and long term cattle and other livestock production have left many hillsides scared with with such erosion, while thistles and other weedy species that tolerate heavy grazing pressure flourish in much of the range lands in Sveneti.

 Part of the welcoming committee for the village of Ushguli. On our walk into the village we were also greeted by a horse, several pigs, and a very large but quite amiable dog. Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia.

Part of the welcoming committee for the village of Ushguli. On our walk into the village we were also greeted by a horse, several pigs, and a very large but quite amiable dog. Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia.

 The abandoned village of Ghuli sits below the imposing summit of Mount Ushba. While wolves and bears are reported to still roam these mountains, during two weeks of trekking in the region I never saw sign of even a single wild hoofed mammal or any other terrestrial wildlife larger than a fox. Millennia of pastoralism have left a heavy mark on this staggeringly beautiful landscape. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia   

The abandoned village of Ghuli sits below the imposing summit of Mount Ushba. While wolves and bears are reported to still roam these mountains, during two weeks of trekking in the region I never saw sign of even a single wild hoofed mammal or any other terrestrial wildlife larger than a fox. Millennia of pastoralism have left a heavy mark on this staggeringly beautiful landscape. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia

 

Mother of Rivers: the Mountains of Georgia's Caucasus Range

The massive relief of the Caucuses Range in the the Republic of Georgia's Sveneti Region are staggering in their own right for their sheer natural beauty. Though much less well known then the Alps in western Europe, the Causcuses, straddling the southern border between Europe and Asia are the highest mountain range in Europe. During the first part of my recent trip to the region, I spent several days trekking around Mount Ushba, one of the most striking mountains I have ever encountered. Like most of the highest peaks in Georgia, it sits along the international border with Russia.

 Though not the highest peak in the range, at 4,710 m (15,453 ft), Mount Ushba is a massive peak and generally considered the most challenging mountaineering objective in the range. Seen hear at sunset with a steady stream of clouds forming and streaming off of the lee side of the summit.

Though not the highest peak in the range, at 4,710 m (15,453 ft), Mount Ushba is a massive peak and generally considered the most challenging mountaineering objective in the range. Seen hear at sunset with a steady stream of clouds forming and streaming off of the lee side of the summit.

 Mount Ushba (left), neighboring Mazerie Peak, and the massive rock covered lower portion of the Ushba Glacier photographed via moon and starlight.

Mount Ushba (left), neighboring Mazerie Peak, and the massive rock covered lower portion of the Ushba Glacier photographed via moon and starlight.

 Murky waters pour out of the snout of the Ushba Glacier, one of the headwaters of the Inguri River, one of the largest and economically most important river in Georgia.

Murky waters pour out of the snout of the Ushba Glacier, one of the headwaters of the Inguri River, one of the largest and economically most important river in Georgia.

 Intrepid traveler crossing the ragging glacial outflow several miles downstream from the snout of the Ushba glacier in the Republic of Georgia’s Sveneti region.

Intrepid traveler crossing the ragging glacial outflow several miles downstream from the snout of the Ushba glacier in the Republic of Georgia’s Sveneti region.

 The torrent of water pouring over the glacier carved cliffs bellow Mount Ushba have carved out a deep ravine into the landscape. Svaneti Region, Republic of Georgia.

The torrent of water pouring over the glacier carved cliffs bellow Mount Ushba have carved out a deep ravine into the landscape. Svaneti Region, Republic of Georgia.

The Shkhara massif sits south and east of Mount Ushba and includes Mount Shkhara and several other 5000+ meter peaks, the highest part of the Caucuses in Georgia. Fall temperatures had turned the mountain ash red on the alpine mountain slopes and dusted the ridgetops, peaks, and glaciers with fresh snow.

 The massive bulk of Jhanga peak and Mount Shkhara from the west, drapped in ice and fresh snow, give birth to another tributary to the Inguri River. Sveneti Region, Republic of Georgia.

The massive bulk of Jhanga peak and Mount Shkhara from the west, drapped in ice and fresh snow, give birth to another tributary to the Inguri River. Sveneti Region, Republic of Georgia.

 A rainbow straddles the mountain valley and snout of the valley glacier flowing off of the Shkhara massif. Georgian Caucuses Mountains.

A rainbow straddles the mountain valley and snout of the valley glacier flowing off of the Shkhara massif. Georgian Caucuses Mountains.

 Mountain ash’s brilliant red-orange after the onset of fall temperatures above the glacier fed river leading down to the tiny and remote village of Adishi. Sveneti Region, Republic of Georgia.

Mountain ash’s brilliant red-orange after the onset of fall temperatures above the glacier fed river leading down to the tiny and remote village of Adishi. Sveneti Region, Republic of Georgia.

 The Lamaria Church, near the town of Ushguli, with the southern face of Mount Shkhara, 5,193 m (17,040 ft), in the background.

The Lamaria Church, near the town of Ushguli, with the southern face of Mount Shkhara, 5,193 m (17,040 ft), in the background.

 Downstream, the impacts of primitive sewage systems, unbelievable garbage disposal practices, unfettered livestock access, old mining activity, and a massive hydroelectric dam take their toll on the Inguri River, but here at its headwaters it flows free and beautiful off of some of the highest peaks in the world.   

Downstream, the impacts of primitive sewage systems, unbelievable garbage disposal practices, unfettered livestock access, old mining activity, and a massive hydroelectric dam take their toll on the Inguri River, but here at its headwaters it flows free and beautiful off of some of the highest peaks in the world.