It’s surprising what can live on an exposed rock face, 8,000ft up in the Alps. The mountains above Chamonix are home to lichen, moss and a riot of delicate flowers, clinging to a wall of stone. I know this because my face happens to be jammed into a patch of Edelweiss. I’m tied to a rope on Les Aiguilles Rouges range, trying to reach climber Liv Sansoz, who is waiting above as I scrabble for my next foothold.
Moments before, I had watched in awe as Sansoz, a former world champion, scampered up the same route like a mountain goat in crampons. However, on my clumsy ascent, knees have been skinned and sweat has stung my eyes, while there is a fierce heat radiating off the rock face. Despite previous climbing experience in Nepal and Sansoz’s detailed instruction, I’m stuck.
Sansoz can’t help me from her perch on the top, where she stands belaying safety rope to where I am glued to the wall – like Spiderman but without the confidence. As I come to a halt and the rope goes slack, she shouts advice. “Legs are stronger than arms, so try to use your feet more than your hands. It may look impossible, but there is always somewhere to get a grip. Make small steps upwards and don’t forget to breathe!”
I’m definitely breathing because I can hear the to-and-fro of the emergency helicopter below, a nagging reminder that climbing is not for the faint-hearted. Earlier, talking at our campsite, Sansoz had reminded me that danger lurks on every mountain. “In the summer there’s a rescue every three minutes in this region. They are not all climbers but it is often harder to remove [people] from the side of a mountain than off a ski slope.” Shockingly, only a couple of weeks later, nine climbers are killed in an avalanche close to where we are making our ascent.
Sansoz, 35, was born in the French Alps, where she started skiing at the age of two. However, when she was 14, her love of scrambling up rocks encouraged her to join a climbing club in Bourg St Maurice. “I am not a confident person but I was determined to be as good as everybody else. So I asked my father if he would build me a climbing wall in the attic of our home, then I could practise after school or when the weather was bad. My parents were very supportive but I don’t think they realised how serious I was about the sport.”
During the next 10 years, Sansoz was crowned world champion twice and overall world cup winner three times. She has stood on more than 50 podiums and was one of the first women to master a grade 8c+ route – a climb twice as tough as the one I am desperately trying to hang on to. Then in 2001 her own luck ran out, during a climb in America.
“I fell almost 30ft and landed on my back, cracking a vertebra in my neck. It doesn’t sound that serious but it ended my competitive career. I was in shock and couldn’t climb for almost a year because I lost my confidence. I had to deal with that and it wasn’t easy to start climbing again. Climbing is not dangerous if you respect the rules. It is the little things, like checking your knots, that can make all the difference. When your attention isn’t focused on what you are doing, that is when you make mistakes.”
With Sansoz’s words still buzzing around my head, I’m finding that a rock face can be a very lonely place. I know I’m not going to fall far from my inch-wide shelf but the prospect of slipping or asking to be lowered down forces me to scour the surface above for a secure hold.
I spot a tiny fault in the stone about 10in above my right hand, which means stepping up and away from the security of the ledge. I’m urging my right leg to make the move but it means relying completely on my climbing shoes to grip the smooth rock wall. As a church bell tolls with dramatic effect below, I stretch up and make a grab for the rock, which immediately crumbles in my hand.
The rope between Sansoz and me runs through a series of quick release carabiners, or metal loops, that have been drilled into the rock years before. As a climber moves up the face, he detaches himself from each carabiner, usually placed about 20ft apart, and then moves on to the next one. The idea is that if a climber does slip, he can only fall as far as the next carabiner, with the climber above, in this case Sansoz, taking the weight on their harness.
Instead of falling, losing grip on this occasion forces me to step further to the right. As the rope snaps tight, it swings me in and I regain enough balance to step on to a higher ledge, bashing my sunglasses in the process. Cursing my luck, I take a moment to recover and then move on, unclipping carabiners and eventually hauling myself up next to Sansoz.
The view from the top is spectacular, and not only because the route I’ve climbed looks even more daunting from this angle. Far below, buzzards are riding on thermal winds, while a mountain goat is starting to sniff around our rucksacks at the bottom of the cliff. At least getting down is going to be a lot easier, as we will abseil the rock face in a matter of minutes.
In terms of great climbing achievements, it’s hardly Everest, but the sense of elation is still overwhelming. I’m delighted with what I’ve achieved, and beating my nerves has given me the appetite to slip on a climbing harness more often. “It’s good to be scared because you learn to overcome your fears. If you’re not scared, you are more likely to make a silly mistake,” says Sansoz.
As well as winter sports, Sansoz has developed a new-found love of paragliding and Base jumping – where parachutists launch themselves from buildings and cliff-tops. But for all her thrill-seeking exploits, Sansoz’s heart is still in the mountains. “Climbing is more than just a sport. When you are halfway up a rock face on your own, there is a sense of freedom and magic in being at one with nature. I have worked in an office but when I see a mountain through the window I just have to go and climb it.”
Liv Sansoz is a climbing ambassador for Mountain Hardwear’s Mountain Academy, www.mountainhardwear.com