Violins and Crampons: My Summer of Alpinism in Chamonix

Read all about Amber De Decker's incredible ice climbing (and busking) adventure in Chamonix...

By Amber De Decker

Blue plastic-y ice. Thuck, thuck. My ice axes – borrowed from the storeroom in the MCSA clubhouse – pierced the frozen waterfall as I tried to perfect my swing in the way Daniel had demonstrated fifteen minutes earlier. Now, however, he was out of earshot, 45 metres above me, with a pitch of 85-degree ice between us. With the point of an axe, I hooked a divot left by one of Daniel’s axes and prayed it wouldn’t slip off. By slowly transferring my weight to that axe before balancing the other over my shoulder, I freed my other hand. I teetered uneasily on the front points of my crampons and gingerly extracted an ice screw Daniel had placed on his way up. I tapped it on a rock to empty the ice. “Now blow into it. Careful, don’t let it touch your mouth.” My calves were screaming. “Keep your heels down, Amber,” I said to myself. This was all very new to me.

We had arrived at the Vallée Blanche quite late that morning. After navigating the debris and scars on the glacier from a fresh serac fall, Daniel and I had soloed up some thin, unprotectable, 45-degree ice just above the gaping bergschrund to reach the base of the Chérè Couloir (D 4). We were now on the crux pitch. This was my first proper, multi-pitch vertical ice route.

I first met Daniel the previous day when we climbed the classic Rebuffat Baquet route (6a) on the south face of the Aiguille du Midi. At 3842m, under a shocking blue sky, the route presented immaculate granite jam cracks I had only dreamed of in South Africa. On each of the ten stances, I muttered to Daniel how I couldn’t believe that the view over the Alps into Italy was real and not some sort of photoshopped backdrop.

The first time I had climbed ice was in July 2022 – exactly a year before – at the MCSA meet at Giant’s Castle in the Drakensberg. I was hooked immediately. Since I was a little girl, I’d listened with fascination to my dad’s gripping stories of far-away, intimidating places. Giant’s Castle felt like a first step towards gaining the skills to discover those magical places for myself. When the MCSA expedition committee offered me R10 000 towards a training trip to Chamonix, I was over the moon. Chamonix, in the French Alps, is one of those places my dad would speak about. I wanted to experience it, and I wanted to experience alpinism. However, ten thousand rand, though generous, does not go very far. I could make it work, though, if I spent all my savings. I asked my friend Julia Wakeling-Bird what she thought. She answered convincingly, “You should go,” and without another thought, I booked my flight. A month later, I found myself in a foreign country on my own, with 40kg of ice-climbing equipment and not enough money. It was terrifying, and fantastic.

Daniel, a well-off American on a year-long around-the-world adventure trip with his wife, seemed to think I had a few screws loose. I’m not sure why he thought that, but it probably had something to do with the enthusiasm with which I introduced him to my fluffy duck, Rory, who lives on my harness. My tatty clothes, the vintage aesthetic of my mismatched, borrowed gear and the South African flag precariously attached to my backpack might not have helped either. Nonetheless, he seemed to trust my ability on rock, and we had a “sick” time together.

My friend Tom had put me in touch with Daniel. Tom was also a new friend whom I had met via Facebook. A couple of weeks later, I was living on the couch in his Airbnb in Les Houches. He had welcomed me in after scoffing at my plan to wild camp in the forest – I had run out of money for the campsite I was staying at.  Perhaps he had also had enough of my endless moans about permanently soaked gear and clothes thanks to my leaky tent in the frequent thunderstorms. Les Houches is a pretty little suburb a mere thirty-minute bus ride from the Chamonix Sud stop. It had pink, white, purple and yellow flowers in each flower box, all identically trimmed into perfect round bushes. It also had the cheapest supermarket I could find, beautiful wooden alpine chalets and a stunning view of the snowy peaks further up the valley.

The best thing about travelling alone is the opportunity to interact with new people every day. I climbed with French people, Swedes, Americans, Scotsmen, Lithuanians, students, lecturers, programmers, engineers, lawyers, activists, soldiers… all sorts. Jonas is an engineer from Sweden whom I also met through the paramount Chamonix Climbers’ Facebook group. He appeared with three, time-tested hexes and three solid-stemmed cams. Apparently, he used to have five hexes but a friend mistook them for tatt and left two on a route somewhere. Fortunately, Dalene had kindly lent me her shiny double rack. Jonas and I tackled the awesome, ten-pitch Kohlmann route (6b/A0) on the south face of the Aiguille du Midi. Pitches seven and eight follow an incredible bottomless corner system with a perfect forty-metre splitter hand-crack – the best of many on the route. I’d never climbed anything like it. For the last pitch, however, we joined the famous Rebuffat Baquet route. After a refreshing day alone on our route, looking down to see a typical spiderweb of colourful ropes came as a rude reminder of the Chamonix crowds.

I also made friends with a Kiwi named Adam. Adam is crazy. As a Greenpeace activist, he came to Chamonix on his way home from an environmental conference in Istanbul. En route to Europe, he somehow found himself in a jail in rural China for a couple of nights. He previously almost had a visa rejected on the grounds of being “an idiot” after rubbing a Ukrainian officer up the wrong way.  Adam was possibly the only person I met who could compete with my overflowing patriotism. He appeared to be jealous of my flag and spoke about New Zealand nearly as much as I did about South Africa. I knew we would have fun climbing together.

After a detour up the wrong scree-slope, Adam and I stumbled across Arête des Papillons (5c). We were treated to sixteen stellar pitches of knife-edge-ridge climbing and a bottomless chimney suspended hundreds of metres above Les Pelerins glacier. We had it all to ourselves, too! As a bonus, I found a stuck Black Diamond Z4 fancy grey Camelot; perhaps not so “stuck” after all, as it is now the most modern piece of my trad rack.

It was late July. An extreme heat wave had hit Europe, and even high on La Papillons, we could feel it. Despite the bright blue sky, the atmosphere was ominous. We were surrounded by tall, sharp, menacing spears of black rock sporting worryingly small caps of snow and ice. On several occasions, we watched clouds of house-sized boulders fly down the front on the Aiguille du Midi, falling a full kilometre to rain on the glacier below.  These chilling rock falls lasted up to twenty minutes sometimes, and each time, I was compelled to stop climbing and stare. It was as though the mountain was vomiting, its enormous stomach growling, nauseous from the heat that was melting its snow and ice. I loved it.

Even the descent from Arête des Papillons was exhilarating. Adam and I found ourselves at the top of a hundred-metre-wide, 45-degree icy snow patch. As I nervously moved onto the snow and took a few uneasy steps in my battered approach shoes (we hadn’t brought crampons), Adam looked at me and laughed. “I’ll show you,” he chuckled, sat down and pushed off. I watched him skid wildly down the slope on his bum, heavy rucksack and all, miraculously avoiding the small boulders and other debris scattered about. He stopped abruptly on the rocks at the base of the slope with a “Whoop!”’, remarkably unharmed, and turned to look at me expectantly. I could just make out his enormous grin.

I was hesitant to follow Adam, but then I slipped. Suddenly I was in it, skimming faster and faster downhill, wondering how I might slow down. I gave a brief empathetic thought to Julia’s waterproof trousers that I was wearing before the snow blasting into my eyes encouraged me to focus on more immediate concerns. I was less successful than Adam at missing the rocks, but thankfully, as the slope eased, I managed to come to a giggly stop, slapping my freezing glove-less hands against my thighs to ease the pain in my fingers. The cams, still hanging from my harness, had snow in every nook and cranny.

That morning, before climbing, Adam had left a backpack with his sport-climbing draws, keys to the house where he was couch-surfing and my packet of coins in the Plan de l’Aiguille lift station from where we had begun our approach. The guidebook had suggested simul-climbing our route, but we were too terrified of the immense exposure to do so, and this had cost us time. When we returned, the lift station was closed with the backpack locked inside. I can’t remember why we had left this odd collection of items in there, but it was a problem. Having missed the lift, we faced a sprint down the mountain to catch the grocery stores before they closed at 8pm. We reached Chamonix in only ninety minutes, but we still lost the race to the supermarkets. Hungry and money-less, we were grateful that the ticket inspector allowed us onto the Les Houches bus for free. We must have looked tired. Back at Tom’s place, we boiled plain pasta with dried herbs – the only things left in the cupboard – and Adam crashed on the floor.

A few days later, I said goodbye to Adam. He gave me a book called Lessons in Chemistry, a kilogram of unshelled peanuts and a pair of rainbow-striped sweatpants (full of holes) as parting gifts. We sat together on an impeccable lawn under some beech trees, cracking peanut shells with a low success rate and sharing travel stories. We are still in touch (particularly when the Springboks beat the All Blacks!) and I’m confident we will climb together again one day.

There are other perks to travelling alone too. I had no commitments, no responsibilities, no university assignments and the freedom to climb whatever, whenever, wherever I wanted – if it was cheap enough, of course. I felt young, free, independent and, once I began busking, empowered. Initially, I was too shy to busk. Mid-summer holiday season sees the streets of Chamonix crawling with tourists in superfluous new sports shoes taking selfies in front of Mont-Blanc with their over-priced ice creams. Intimidating. Two days before I left Cape Town, I had bought a violin through Facebook Marketplace for R700 when the idea of standing awkwardly in a busy street and spontaneously making a lot of noise still struck me as exciting, rather than bizarre and embarrassing. But, after two weeks, my attempts to get a job at the local Spar were still failing and I needed cash urgently. A firm phone call from my friend Sarah is what ultimately forced my act together.  After chatting for an hour, she informed me that I was to report back to her with the number of coins I had collected.

On my third day of busking, I played for five hours, earned R4000 and got very sunburnt. I happened to have a little tattered book of jigs and reels that I’d pinched from an Irish session and had forgotten to return. The folk tunes worked well on a violin that otherwise sounded like a tin can. Tourists stopped and took videos, couples lingered, and shy children dropped coins into my case before scampering off to peer out from behind their parents’ legs. One little toddler, Elliot, danced and danced until his parents carried him away in a huff thirty minutes later. This was fulfilling, and I was happy.

Some Koreans from my campsite found me playing outside the Decathlon in town. They stayed and cheered for over an hour. One even left and came back with Powerade as a gift. When I returned to camp that evening, I was spoilt with tomatoes, bananas, grapes and even beer!  The next morning, before they left for the Tour du Mont Blanc, I offered them a farewell performance. The Powerade guy was so excited he went around shouting, “Special concert, special concert!” Many campers gathered, including the campsite owner. It was a special moment that I cherish.

On my second day in Chamonix, Tom and I climbed Spitomaniak (5c) – an eleven-pitch, bolted, granite slab on the Aiguilles Rouges. Tom, perhaps afraid of boredom, climbed the route in ice boots for added entertainment. Three days later, we set out on the Midi Plan Traverse, possibly the most dangerous route I’ve attempted. The air was thin, I was unacclimatised and fear was fogging up my brain. Tom seemed grumpy. I think he was scared too. “I’m not moving, so why are you?” he snapped. I was meant to keep the rope between us taut but was too focused on gingerly tiptoeing around a holdless boulder and trying not to think about the single gold cam protecting us. Later that day, we heard that a team ahead of us slipped here and had slid 200 metres down the snow slope, stopping only ten metres before the 1500 metre drop down the north face. We had wondered what the helicopters had been up to. Incredibly, the women escaped unscathed, except for a dislocated thumb. In hindsight, I don’t blame Tom for being on a short fuse – I would be too, tied to a novice, still uneasy in her crampons, in a position where death felt so tangible.

A few weeks later I received a WhatsApp from my friend Leonie. She had heard that I was in Chamonix and hoped to do a route together, which was a lovely surprise. I had met Leonie at the Giant’s Castle ice meet while she was in South Africa doing fieldwork for her PhD at Oxford. Her project examines a public employment programme in South Africa. The next day, Tom, Leonie and I headed up to the Vallée Blanche for what we imagined would be a short, easy, five-pitch day on the Éperon des Cosmiques. It wasn’t. Since rocks were falling frequently onto the stance below the route, we opted to traverse onto Leroux (6b/A1) from higher up. The first pitch was my lead, and after struggling to navigate back onto the correct route, I dropped one of Tom’s quickdraws into the bergschrund. This necessitated a rescue mission which involved lowering me into the freezing chasm in rock shoes and without an ice axe. After thirty minutes of giggling, squealing, slipping and sliding, the quickdraw was safe and I was ready to climb again.

Pitch three was the aid pitch. None of us really knew how to aid, but the guidebook said that “even those lacking in aid climbing experience should be able to get through this section with a few cams, slings and plenty of determination,” so we felt we should be okay. An hour and a half later, Tom had ascended three metres, having fashioned an impressive knitting of colourful slings, ‘biners, cams, nuts and quickdraws, while Leonie fed me chocolate in an attempt to ward off hypothermia. Eventually, after much huffing and puffing, Leonie and I dragged ourselves up our first-ever aid pitch to congratulate Tom on his perseverance. A stunning right-leaning corner – my lead – followed by a fifty-metre 4a pitch and a scramble deposited us on the iconic Cosmiques Arête.

That evening, we enjoyed a breathtaking sunset from the Cosmiques viewing platform. Having missed the last lift back to Chamonix, we had the station to ourselves, and a rare opportunity to experience the Vallée Blanche, Tacul, and Mont Blanc silent and empty. It felt emotional and spiritual somehow, being encompassed by such enormity, shimmering pink in the fading light. The lights of Chamonix twinkled 2807 metres below. Finally, night fell and the bitter cold chased us into the unlikely stone-walled station drilled into this precarious peak more than seventy years ago. We were grateful for the heated bathrooms, where, despite the disconcerting heart-beat audio from the hypoxia display upstairs and intermittent blasts from the air-freshener, we slept on the cold floor until awoken rudely by a staff member early the next morning.

After five unforgettable weeks, gear more battered than ever, I returned home to Cape Town. Chamonix was an invaluable experience. Not only did I acquire glacier skills and gather experience on big rock and alpine routes in harsh environments, but I also grew confidence in myself and built connections with people different to my friends at home. I also learned that Facebook, as much as I despise it, is rather useful on occasion! I am still in touch with many of my new friends, most notably Tom, who visited in January 2024 to explore the Cederberg with me (and is very seldom grumpy, after all!) Tom was welcomed by our unique SA climbing community, which I treasure and of which I am honoured to be a part. I thank this community collectively for the opportunity to climb in Chamonix. I am deeply grateful to the MCSA expedition fund for the support they gave me, as well as to my many generous friends and fellow climbers who lent me gear so that I would have the equipment I needed. Further, however, it is this special community that four years ago accepted the clueless, over-excited 19-year-old I was, allowed me to tag along on adventures to beautiful places, taught me to climb and ultimately showed me how to be safe and happy in the vertical world. I am very fortunate to be a climber in South Africa.  

I wish to thank Tristan Firman, Tim Larsen and Megan Beaumont for their vital Chamonix beta, Niki Stilwell and my dad for helping me edit this article, and Kate Larmuth and Douw Steyn for generally being heroes. Thanks to Clea de Klerk and Charlotte Noble for the initial inspiration, and for being familiar, friendly faces and a helping hand in France. Finally, I wish to thank Julia Wakeling-Bird for her psych, encouragement, pep talks, hugs, gear, and in particular, her belief that I could get to Chamonix and was able to climb those mountains.


Below is a complete list of routes I climbed in Chamonix:

  • Spitomaniak, 5c, 11 pitches, sport
  • Catyoucha man, 6a+, 6 pitches, sport
  • Bodinosaure, 6c, 6 pitches, sport
  • Retour a la Bretagne, 6b, 4 pitches, trad
  • La fin de Babylone, 6c, 8 pitches, sport
  • North East Arête Integral on Aiguillette d’Argentiere, 5c, 4 pitches, sport
  • Midi-Plan Traverse, AD 1, mixed snow/rock
  • Arête des Papillons, 5c, 16 pitches, trad
  • Pointes Lachenal Traverse, AD 2, mixed snow/rock
  • Rebuffat-Baquet, 6a, 10 pitches, trad
  • Leroux/East Face, 5 pitches, trad, 6b/A1 
  • Guiffra-Monaci, 6a, 4 pitches, trad
  • Chérè Couloir, D 4, 4 pitches, ice. 
  • Hotel California 5a, 10 pitches, sport
  • Label Virginie, 5c, 7 pitches, sport
  • Escande de Galbert, 6a variation, 6 pitches, trad
  • Voie Kohlmann, 6a+, 7 pitches, trad 
  • Marylene, 6a, 8 pitches, trad
  • Arête des Cosmiques, AD 3, 8 pitches, mixed snow/rock


  • Les Cheserys, “The slabs”, 4 pitches, sport
  • Roc des Os, 5c-6b, single pitches, trad
  • Les Gaillands, single pitches, sport

Editor’s Note: Thank you very much to Amber for sharing her wonderful story and insights, may this inspire many more adventurers!

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