Two years ago four Swiss High Mountain Guides had the brilliant idea of creating the world’s tallest climbing wall right up the middle of the Emosson Dam. The Dam is situated about ten miles from Chamonix. It is part of a huge Franco-Swiss hydroelectric scheme. There are many things that are amazing about this project. Not least the fact that the Swiss Power Company actually agreed to let the four Mountain Guides create the climbing wall.
What followed was a Herculean task.
The four Guides worked over six hundred hours. They drilled six hundred holes into the concrete dam. They then attached plastic resin holds by means of bolts and glue. Such was their attention to detail that prior to the actual building they created mock-ups of all the pitches so that they could be sure of creating the best climbing experience.
Even without the climb up the Dam’s face, the wall is an impressive sight. James Bond certainly thought so when he bungy-jumped off in the spectacular opening scene of the film “Golden Eye” (the stunt man who did the jump had to leap head-first three times in order to get all the shots right. This earned him a very satisfactory three hundred thousand pounds).
The sheer size of the Dam is not the only breathtaking thing about the wall. The face is concave. What this means is that the climb starts as a steep slab and gets steeper until it starts to creep past the vertical. The wall then overhangs twelve meters for every sixty meters it goes up. The result is a vertigo-inducing experience.
I live about six miles from this Dam; recently I was enjoying a few days rest after climbing the Matterhorn. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to go and climb the Dam for myself. In order to climb it there is a stipulation that you must have a Mountain Guide in the party. In addition you must pay twenty Swiss francs per person towards the cost of the work of creating the climb. Fine, I thought. I am a Mountain Guide so there is no problem.
But the climb is really difficult; French 6b+ and as already mentioned somewhat overhanging.
I did not relish the thought of leading all five pitches myself so I telephoned my friend Jonathan Preston. He is also a Mountain Guide who also just happens to be very, very strong. Another friend of mine came along too: the highly respected mountain photographer John Norris. John was keen to get some good dramatic shots for next year’s Lowe Alpine catalogue.
The three of us arrived at the top of the Dam at about mid-day, conscious that too early a start before the sun moved off the face would make the experience akin to being on a huge solar reflector.
John set up his tripod, ready to take the photographs, while Jonathan and I clambered down the path at the side of the dam to the foot of the route. At the bottom we un-padlocked a ladder which allowed us to get to the first belay. This was designed so that unless you had paid for the climb you did not get the key to the padlock. Without the ladder you could not get to the first holds (typical Swiss cunning). I bagged the first pitch, which proved remarkably straightforward with the aid of the ladder. Once established at the belay Jonathan took the ladders down and re-padlocked them. He then proceeded to hand-over-hand up the rope to join me.
Jonathan led the first pitch. This was up the slabby part of the Dam wall.
The plastic holds were small and the climbing was very technical. I led through onto the next pitch. The climb had been designed in such a way that it made a rising traverse. This was so that the belay ropes do not hang in the second’s face as he climbs up. In addition, the holds were arranged in such away that it was not obvious which holds to use, making it cerebral as well as physical.
The third pitch. Again Jonathan led through and up onto what was now a vertical wall.
The holds were now a little bigger and the climbing was stunningly good. The fourth pitch was my lead again. I craned my head back so that I could see the climb going up over the curving overhanging wall. Fortunately the holds were big and they needed to be because footwork was becoming more and more irrelevant. I reached the belay not a moment too soon where I clipped into the chain. I then examined my forearms, which had turned all rubbery and did nothing I asked of them any longer. Next, I tried to take in my surroundings. Above me was the final pitch. It looked impossible. I was relieved that I had brought along the immensely strong Jonathan for this top pitch. Peering through the railings above the final pitch was John with his camera.
I then looked below. I was hanging in space nearly 300 metres off the ground. Looking down did not really suit me so I gave that up.
Jonathan arrived at the belay and had a good rest before the “summit” bid. True to form, he climbed the top pitch with one or two deep puffs of air but not in a way that was to indicate what I was in for. When my turn came to climb, the first challenge was un-clipping from the belay without swinging into space. After achieving this I was on my way.
The plan was simple: climb as fast as possible and don’t look down. This strategy at first was going okay until suddenly my arms went on strike. I reached for the next hold, missed it, and started to leave the wall with a heart in the mouth swinging sensation. All I could hear was the motor wind of John’s camera as he took what must have been some sensational shots for his portfolio and humiliating ones for me. After some considerable swinging about I finally made contact with the wall and with a lot of puffing and panting I climbed over the railings and collapsed on the top of the Dam.
Who said all climbing walls are boring?