Chamonix on the Cheap

“Are you selling drugs?”

I smiled as I plodded down I-80 with Ciel, my sometimes-trusty Eurovampanion.

“…because everyone at work thinks you’re selling drugs.”

I let out a laugh. I have heard many interesting theories as to how I fund my climbing endeavors, but this was certainly one of the more audacious, especially coming from my father.

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I consider myself very privileged. Sure, one of my windshield wipers is made out of pipe insulation and duct tape (which may or may not have been used as a butt cushion for the bucket we shat in during a two week trip to the Gothics Range), and amongst other things I am playing Russian roulette with a rusted coolant fitting. But, I do have air conditioning, and that’s a huge win. Plus, I have money to fix all of those things. However, the thought of eating a pain au chocolat in Chamonix every day for the next month sounds so much more worth it.

The term ‘dirt bag’ gets thrown around a lot in climbing culture these days. The real dirt bags, in my opinion, are those that are working as little as possible, and are truly living on the edge of financial possibility, in pursuit of their dreams. I have a proper respect for that lifestyle, and I also know that I am not capable of being one of those people. I like nice things. I like eating decent food. I like having some semblance of a job and a home every now and then, even if that home is my van. I could never be as devout nor as dedicated as my dirt bag cohorts.

I must also add that in the world of adult responsibilities, I still very much consider myself a kid. I mean heck, my parents still pay my cell phone bill. No matter how many bus stations I sleep in, how many hotel breakfasts I poach, how many bulk food items I ‘mislabel’, I always acknowledge that this is a lifestyle I have the opportunity to choose.

On the flip side of all this, I do work very hard to make my climbing trips happen. I budget

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The bus stop bivy. Photo Alan Goldbettter

like a madwoman. I choose my trips very deliberately and carefully. I consider myself resourceful, though perhaps ‘financially creative’ would be a better term. When I do work, I work quite a lot, and I also make sacrifices to cut costs in many aspects of my life.

I have a tendency to push the limits of my budget. Each year my plan gets a little more ridiculous, and each year I have managed to pull it off. This season seemed particularly audacious, especially since it entailed spending one month climbing in the (quite expensive) alpine paradise of Chamonix, France.

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“No, Dad. I’m not selling drugs.”

 

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If anything for the unique experience, Chamonix is a worthy destination on any outdoor enthusiast’s tick list- rock, ice, hiking, skiing, mixed, classic mountaineering, you name it. Hence, I am going to dedicate this post as an ode to doing Chamonix on the cheap. In general, I’d recommend coming here with at least a little bit more money than I did, but if you’re in the same boat as me here are a few things that I learned.

1) Get yourself some French friends. Not only do they make excellent crepes and company,

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Jessica, Maud, and I after a nice long day in the Aiguille Rouge.

but they also let you mooch a shower and a bed every now and then. We had the distinct advantage of having Maud, my long-time badass amiga, living just down the road from Chamonix in an adjacent town.

2) Chamonix is unique because it truly lets you focus on alpine climbing. Not the shitty part of alpine climbing that involves hours upon hours of slogging away. Series of gondolas and trams take you straight from town into alpine fairyland in a matter of minutes. But, there’s a catch, and that is they’re expensive as heck. Jessica and I chose to go with a 15-day punch pass option, which worked well for us. If you wanted to be more badass (and also, likely, get laughed at) it is possible to hike to many of the climbing areas all by yourself, but you will have to sacrifice a day or two for each approach.

3) Maybe just don’t try the pastries. They’re overpriced, and I’m sure they’re just awful. I mean, look at them. There’s no way they can taste as good as they look. Croissants and Pain au Chocolat, however, are delicious and affordable enough to allow for addiction.

4) Another thing about Chamonix, and much of Europe for that matter, is there are high-end, sophisticated huts in nearly every valley. They are staffed, complete with well-prepared meals and cozy beds. However, carrying a tent and camping is so much more fun

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Camp in the Argentiere Valley.

than sleeping in a warm bed and being served delicious food. Plus, it saves you a good chunk of change. There is usually an area near the hut designated for the few visitors that choose to pitch their tent, and using their toilets is typically the most eco-conscious option for managing waste. If you do forego the comfort of the huts be respectful towards the hut keepers. Check in with them upon arrival, pack out your trash, ask to use their water or go find your own, and buy a tea or coffee to show your love (and appreciation for cleaning your toilets).

5) ‘Gazole’ is Not Gasoline. Finding white gas fuel is a predicament here, as propane stoves

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Day 3 of uncooked rice noodles after the gazole incident.

are much more ‘light and fast and hip’. However, as Jessica and I were camping for the majority of the month, we didn’t want to exclusively cook on our Jetboil. Hence, gasoline it was. We made the hasty mistake of interpreting ‘gazole’ as gasoline. ‘Gazole’ is in fact diesel, and is incredibly difficult to make work in a Whisperlite International (though, I proudly say, it can be done).

6) On the note of town accommodations, we ended up

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A ‘perk’ of our housing option, dishes get done free of charge every night. Yes…every night. And those are slugs.

pitching our tent in an undisclosed, grassy location in town. I can’t speak to its legality, but know that free living spaces do exist. I have also been informed that Air B’n’B is not a bad option if you have some cash to spare.

7) The lift stations, and any station associated with the Chamonix Mont Blanc Company all have free and reliable Wi-Fi. They also have excellent bathrooms. McDonald’s is a good back up option.

8) La Sportiva products are much, much cheaper over here, even at retail price. Who knew?

9) There are so many times that I have been thankful that Jessica is not my boyfriend. I am now totally convinced that international traveling on the cheap is not something I would want to do with a significant other. There’s no need to have a nice night out on the town together, no need to do laundry more than once a month, no need to want a nice place to stay. Just me, my good friend, and a whole lot of dirty climber smell.

10) The lifts do have to stop running overnight, and your climbing day ends up being more or less confined to the first and last run-times. We missed one lift during our stay, and it fortunately only added two extra hours of walking, but in certain places the consequences can be much worse (read- impromptu bathroom bivy in the lift station).

11) Over the past year I am proud to say I have amped up my basic cooking game significantly. Flour, egg, and water. I’m tellin’ ya, those are the holy three of the cheap chef. Crepes, dumplings, polenta cakes, tortillas, tortilla-pizzas, tortillacolzonipizzas. The options are endless.

 

 

12) My final words- for all but a very few percentage of climbers- money is not the limiting factor. If you want to do something, please, go make it happen and have some fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Chamonix on the Cheap

Add yours

  1. This is the first of your blog posts that I have read. I found it very enjoyable.
    It is possible to find a romantic partner to enjoy these cheap trips with. My wife and I spent 10 days skiing in the wind rivers. One night I woke up to find her sleeping with her head outside of the tent door. She still loves me.
    I trust that we will have many more such adventures in our future.

    1. Nice! Perhaps one day I would come round to it 🙂 I heard you’ve been putting in a lot of work with new routes around Corvallis. Right on! That’s great.

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