No Plans, No Partners: Chamonix With Mark Smiley and Friends

Words and photos by Seth Adams.

I came to Chamonix with no plans and no partners. I was just hoping that it would all work out, and it did – I managed to get out climbing and skiing every day with old friends and new. I got lucky enough to get out climbing for the day with my old friend Nick Elson, and my new friend Mark Smiley (though Mark and I had met almost seven years earlier in the Bugaboos, in Canada).

Nick was in Europe to race in the Pierra Menta, but had to scratch because his partner got sick. This was supposed to be his race day, but getting out with Mark and I was to be his consolation. Mark is a full-time climber/skier/guide (whose wife, Janelle, was racing the Pierra Menta that day). I’m just a guy from Fairbanks, Alaska, who mostly only climbs a few times a year on vacations. It was my fourth day in Cham, and my fourth consecutive full-day out. I was out of my depth, and I was tired. These guys did a lot of waiting for me.

We rode the midi from Chamonix up to the Aiguille du Midi at 3800 meters. We saw that another party was headed to our same goal, the Chèré Couloir, so we went over to do the traverse of Pointe Lachenal, a moderate snow and mixed ridge, while we waited. This photo is us walking to the start of the climbing on Pointe Lachenal.

Mark starts out on pitch two of the Chèré. It’s been a dry year in the alps, and the couloir had much less ice than normal. But it was still great climbing – a kicked out ladder of steps and hooks that we just romped up. The novelty of such an easy adventure on near-vertical alpine ice in the high mountains had us all smiles.

Nick took a turn on the sharp end, leading us up to the top of the steep part of the couloir. I was happy to coast my way up and let those guys do the leading; being a new arrival, I was just happy to be up there. And, with some exceptions, I think it’s kinda dumb to lead when your partners are stronger climbers. But I’ll tell you more about that after a few après Kronenbourgs.

The first three pitches of the Chèré are supposedly the best, and Mark needed to make it to a meeting. So it was time to head down.

Mark looks across the glacier to the Midi station while downclimbing back to our skis.

We roped up for the five-or-so minute walk back to the skis, which meant that I needed to walk the same pace as Mark and Nick. I was not acclimatized, and walking downhill through the punchy snow at the pace Mark was setting caused my heartrate to redline. I was too embarrassed to say anything, though, so I just gasped for air and stumbled along.

It always takes me a little while to get my systems dialled, and until I do, I’m slow as hell at transitions. This day was a particularly egregious example, for reasons that are too boring to explain, but that, combined that with fatigue and with my ultra-fit and organized partners, meant that I was definitely the weakest link.

Nick is an old friend from when I lived in Vancouver and Squamish, but I don’t see him much anymore. “This is nostalgic for Nick,” I explained to Mark as I changed boots (no one else needed to change their boots), “he spent most of his 20s waiting for me. This is a trip down memory lane for him.” Mark and Nick both smirked, but neither one laughed.

We started the ski back out the Valle Blanche, which still had enough snow in it that we could ski all the way back to Chamonix. Mark and Nick are faster skiers, too.

Seth Adams is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer from Fairbanks, Alaska. He dabbles in many outdoor sports, and excels at none.

Follow Seth’s adventures on Instagram.


Relate to Seth’s story at all? Mark Smiley will be at the upcoming Arc’teryx Alpine Academy in Chamonix to help anyone improve their skills in the mountains from June 29 to July 2, 2017.

While most clinics are sold out, the Arc’teryx Academy still offers plenty of free activities in the Alpine Village.