Words: Nina Caprez
A day has 24 hours. I wish mine had 40 or more. I live my life fully and at times this can be exhausting. Thanks to my job, or maybe let’s call it my “occupation”, I have the opportunity to travel all around the world, meet many people, encounter diverse cultures and see different places. As I’m also quite a sensitive person, I take in a lot and eventually need some “down time” to digest all those impressions. My days just don’t have enough time to experience things and then to assimilate them! Often, I feel like I’m watching a fiction movie of my own life full of climbing and other things.
Only two weeks ago I came back from an incredible adventure on a remote Pacific island. I was part of a beautiful community project on an island called Makatea, and which is perfectly shaped for climbing. My experience there was pretty intense and I haven’t yet found the necessary calm to reflect about those moments. That will come when days shorten a bit and summer allows.
When I landed in Paris at the beginning of July, I drove directly to Chamonix for the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy. Cham has a special place in my heart. The huge contrast between climbing high up in the mountains and the touristy lifestyle down in town is fantastic and also so hilarious!
I had no fixed plans after the event so I stayed in Chamonix. I had sort-of planned to calm down in order to digest the things I had experienced, but this isn’t easy when conditions are good and people are stoked to go play up in the mountains. So, I skipped calm-down day and went straight to climb-day instead.
I teamed up very spontaneously with Belgian-French legend Sean Villanueva. We decided to climb the route “Voie Petit” on the Grand Capucin. We made that decision at 8pm, packed our bags immediately and the next day we went climbing on that route, located at an elevation of nearly 4000m.
We had packed our gear carefully, but forgot to print the topo – not a big issue on our first day but this came back to spice things up later on. We swapped leads and climbed the first 5 pitches that day. Each of us had a good on-sight/flash try on the 8b crux pitch, but then it started snowing. We rappelled down to our cute little tent on the glacier in order to rest for a ground-up attempt the next day.
That night was windy and cold. We had a hard time sleeping and when we got up next morning, everything was frozen and the strong, Patagonia-like wind was still blowing. Despite these rough conditions, we started climbing and it felt great! Sean and I swapped leads again, I took one fall on the 8b, he did it first try that day and I sent right after.
As we had no more digital topo (my phone died on the first day) we started a real “no topo” on-sight attempt of the upper pitches, which required some searching. Both of us needed two tries for the next 7c+, then we climbed relatively quickly to pitch 10, another crux.
The higher we climbed, the worse and wilder the weather became. As Sean checked out this tricky 8a, I turned into an ice drop on the belay station. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt so cold. He sent this pitch very quickly on his second go. It was supposed to be my turn but at this point I needed some big motivation to try. It was tough to climb with any pleasure in these freezing conditions. We sang a birthday song together for our friend Emilie and that warmed my heart. Covered in multiple layers I worked the moves, and shortly afterwards, my hands still warm, I gave it a try. I slipped and fell. I gave it another go and fell again. Beaten by the cold, the humidity, and by my tired body, I gave up.
I offered to belay Sean on his way to the top, but without topo he had a hard time finding the line. He was forced to stop, only a 3 pitches before the top, on a pretty wet 7b+ slab.
I felt bad for him to miss out on completing the route, but at the same time I was so happy that we were finally starting our way down. We spent another night in the tent, grateful for shelter from the wind. The LYO food tasted delicious, as it always does. We dove into our welcoming sleeping bags, took some aspirin and fell into a coma-like sleep after 13 hours of effort on the wall.
I have to admit that I felt pretty much destroyed for a couple of days afterwards.
People often ask me if I feel pain while climbing. I don’t know what to answer because we all have a different pain tolerance. When you decide to do something willingly, the suffering or the pain feels very different than when you find yourself in a situation you didn’t want to be in in the first place. I dedicate my life to climbing and it’s always my personal choice to be in those circumstances. I would never complain or blame someone if I can’t climb a route. Every time I’m out there, I’m learning so much about myself, about nature and the interaction between humans. Besides being my absolute favorite game, climbing provides the best school for life. So no, I don’t feel pain, even if my body hurts. Pain feels very different.
A week later, after some good times with family in Switzerland, I found myself walking towards Grand Capucin again, this time with my old friend and climbing legend Martina Cufar. I was supposed to finish the business on Grand Capucin with Sean, but he had the chance to climb “Divine Providence” instead and he didn’t want to miss that opportunity. (He had a successful ascent by the way, teaming up with alpinist Mathieu Maynadier). I felt very grateful to have found Martina, a more than ideal climbing partner. Martina is one of the most fanatic climbers I have ever met, but since she had her two kids, the number of full climbing days we have shared can be counted on just one hand. As I said, we need 40 hours at least!
We took the first gondola up to the Torino hut and hiked towards this pretty mountain under a perfect blue sky. Martina is exactly 10 years older than me and she has always been one of the people I respect the most for her beautiful attitude and her infectious “joie de vivre.”
My heart felt full of gratitude, joy and excitement when I touched the first holds, and these beautiful emotions stayed with me all the way to the top. I led all the pitches; it felt like flying. I lived the present to its fullest. We laughed a lot, smiled non-stop, focused on the climb and supported each other smartly as we always do when climbing together.
I sent all the lower pitches first go, including the 8b. But then I needed two tries for the 7c+ pitch as I forgot the tricky foothold sequences, and 6 tries for the next 7b+! (This boulder problem on the start required some solid nerves). Martina climbed like an angel, she was simply gorgeous to watch. I could see the fire in her eyes, her life-long climbing experience and, just as important, her huge dose of self-irony!
When we arrived at the 8a pitch it got really cold again and pictures from last week’s failure went through my mind. I somehow wanted to stop. I started to freeze and fatigue overcame me. But by simply watching Martina, who normally hates the cold, being happy and psyched, I was reminded that it had been my choice, and my choice only, to be up there. I looked at the pitch above and imagined myself putting in the gear and then giving it multiple tries until achieving the send. Yet, just imagining this felt so tiring, like too much. I wasn’t sure if I would have the energy.
Martina read my mind and in her thick Slovenian-French accent she said: “Well, it might be the best option if you send that pitch by putting in the gear.” We laughed and I started climbing with a totally free mind. No expectations, no options, simply climbing in the present.
I surprised myself by sending that 8a in the most ideal style, that means, on my first try and putting in the gear. We continued then our way to the top. After a steep and short 6c, I put in one of the biggest Swiss-machine performances on the following 7b+ slab. I stood on my feet like I really know how to, despite my frozen toes. I also got a big cut on my index finger and blood ran continuously from my finger onto those micro holds. I knew that if I fell, I wouldn’t have another chance to try and so I climbed as if a fall would have resulted in death. Big screams of joy and somehow pain came out of my mouth while clipping the chain. The split on my finger was very deep and I climbed without my index finger along the last two easy pitches to the very top.
Martina sent all the pitches free in second except three. She showed me once again how effective and inspiring a great attitude can be.
I think that my body went through a lot of suffering during those 12 hours of non-stop effort on the route. But it was my choice. Plus, all the positive feelings like joy and excitement, were ten times stronger than the pain. Maybe these kinds of feelings help me stay connected to reality. When we accept physical pain and choose to be grateful and experience each moment, it doesn’t confuse our brain. It’s simply how reality sometimes is. A balance between sacrifice and pain, joy of the moment and personal choices.
I feel so lucky that I have this big passion for climbing in my life. Again and again I have so much opportunity to travel and to meet new people. With so many new impressions and adventures, the experiences often appear unreal. Nevertheless, the feelings I get when I am climbing are always somehow familiar. Climbing helps me to stay connected. Wherever I am on the planet, whoever I am partnering with, when I touch the wall, I feel I am at home in my passion for climbing.
Thanks once again to Sean and Martina for the absolutely rad times we spent together out in the mountains. Thanks also to Arnaud Petit for this route and his vision for putting up new lines. These people are a big inspiration to me.