Crystal hunter Christophe Péray holds a smoky quartz that he found on Les Courtes, a 12,561-foot mountain in the French portion of the Mont Blanc massif. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

The Crystal Hunters of Chamonix

Climate change is melting the glaciers and permafrost of the Mont Blanc massif, revealing crystals hidden in pockets once covered in snow. Simon Akam tagged along on an expedition with one of the area’s most legendary hunters, a daring French alpinist who completes dangerous climbs to discover specimens worth tens of thousands of dollars.

On a partly cloudy afternoon in August 2019, I followed a Spanish mountain guide named Simón Elías up steep granite terraces on the north face of a peak in the French portion of the Mont Blanc massif. The 12,561-foot summit of the mountain, called Les Courtes, loomed 1,000 feet above where we were climbing, and 2,000 feet below us lay the Argentière glacier, its surface striated with crevasses. We had entered the Argentière basin across a low point in the ridgeline called the Col des Cristaux—which in English translates to Crystal Pass—before traversing laterally across the mountainside. On another rope, photographer Nicolas Blandin moved alongside a 66-year-old named Christophe Péray.

The topography was complicated: fresh snow stuck to the mountainside, and I periodically lost sight of Elías ahead of me as he moved behind rocks. Communication with Blandin and Péray was only possible through echoing shouts. 

I belayed Elías as he put in a cam before positioning himself on the face to uncover a four. Four is French for oven, but in this context, the word refers to cavities in the mountainside that, in the broadest sense, resemble somewhere you could bake bread. English has various equivalent geological terms: alpine-type fissure, alpine cleft, or, most simply, pocket. This one was on a snow-covered ledge, a couple feet wide at its broadest. Unless you were an expert, however, it would be hard to distinguish the site from any of 1,000 other such ledges on the face. 

I shouted up, asking if the pocket was large. “No, it’s not enormous,” Elías’s voice echoed down in French. “But there are beautiful pieces here. Very beautiful pieces.”

This area contained several similar pockets, which Elías and Péray had discovered a few weeks earlier by rappelling down from the ridge above. It was, until recently, permanently covered by ice and snow, but that had melted out, likely due to climate change.

I scrambled up and joined Elías on the ledge. Some minutes later, Blandin and Péray also appeared at the site. The Spaniard sang a wordless melody as he drove in pitons and secured us to the rock face.

Now he and Péray began to clear the snow from the ledge and reach into the cavity. The opening expanded as they dug until it was roughly wide enough to fit a soccer ball. Their tools included a chisel and a green plastic rake that Péray had appropriated from his children’s sandcastle equipment. They also prepared with blowtorches to melt the remaining ice, the gas hissing in the thin, high-altitude air. “At the moment, the snow prevents me from seeing properly,” Péray said in French. “After clearing the snow and removing some stones, I should reach them very soon.”

We were high, north-facing, and out of the sun. I waited in the cold until eventually Elías, crouched on his knees, began to pull out chunks of a dark glassy substance. A few smaller pieces came first, which he held together in his orange-and-gray-gloved hand like oversized, irregular marbles. The block that followed was much larger, the size of a small brick, its surfaces angled together into a sharp point, like a microcosm of the spiky mountains all around us. It was translucent. This was what we had come for.

Péray on the Mer de Glace glacier in the Mont Blanc massif.
Péray on the Mer de Glace glacier in the Mont Blanc massif. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)
Péray crosses the Glacier des Courtes on his way to the Col des Cristaux.
Péray crosses the Glacier des Courtes on his way to the Col des Cristaux. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

Péray is what the French call a cristallier, a subset of climbers in the French Alps obsessed with the pursuit of rare crystals hidden in these pockets. There are gemstone enthusiasts all over the world who prospect for crystals as a hobby or financial pursuit, in contrast to commercial crystal mining operations in places like China, India, Russia, and Romania where heavy equipment is used to extract the rocks. But no crystal hunters are as daring as Chamonix’s cristalliers, who complete technical alpine climbs to extremely hard-to-get places so they can reach cracks and clefts where they pull out the crystals and bring them down using only human power. In neighboring Switzerland, where the mountains also contain crystals, individual prospectors can get a permit to use explosives, but in France, mechanical equipment is forbidden for crystal hunting, except in some private mines. “We prospect with our mountaineering axes and ice melters,” Péray told me.  

Some say serious cristallier teams number no more than six to eight in the Mont Blanc massif. Péray puts the figure higher, with 14 teams working in the French portion of the range. Crystal hunting on exposed terrain, sometimes alone, is dangerous. Unlike alpinists, who quickly traverse mountainsides and ridges, cristalliers spend hours stationary—sometimes rappelling and hanging in midair—imperiled by long drops below and falling rocks from above. The conditions required to melt the snow enough to access pockets also breaks the permafrost that holds the mountains together. Stones tumble. People slip. In 2005, Péray watched his longtime collaborator Laurent Chatel plunge nearly 2,000 feet on Les Courtes to his death.

Péray is widely known as the dean of the Chamonix valley cristalliers. This status was assured in 2006, when he found a cognac-colored fluorite that the French government classified as a national treasure. Péray sold the shapely piece to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris for $300,000, with 90 percent of the price funded by the philanthropic wing of French oil firm Total. He later called the fluorite “Laurent” in honor of Chatel. That was on the extreme high end of what these crystals can fetch—their value depends on the size, mineral type, and condition. “We look for quartz, sometimes amethyst, and pink or red fluorites,” Péray told me. A quartz can be worth several hundred euros and a fluorite several thousand euros. “Pieces worth tens of thousands of euros are very, very exceptional. We find some every ten years,” he said. Cristalliers can make a living from what they find, but they generally aren’t getting rich off the pursuit. “A crystal hunter earns about as much as a high-level mountain guide,” Péray said.

Despite his long history and success as a cristallier in Chamonix, Péray is not native to the region (a fact that still rattles some locals who are hostile to outsiders). He was born in Paris and started crystal hunting in the Mont Blanc massif at around eight years old, when his parents first took him out on its glaciers. In 1964, his parents built a 1,000-square-foot chalet in Vallorcine, a hamlet in the Chamonix valley with a population of 435, which they would visit frequently.

As a young man in the 1970s and ’80s, Péray traveled extensively. His first trips took him to the Algerian Sahara, Niger, Colombia, and Myanmar. He later returned to Colombia and also visited Papua New Guinea for ethnographic research, after which he took a post teaching ethnology at a university in Paris. But following the birth of his first child, Péray left the capital and the university to live in Vallorcine full-time and hunt for and trade crystals.

Péray, right, and Simón Elías on the Col des Cristaux.
Péray, right, and Simón Elías on the Col des Cristaux. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

In 2002, Péray returned to Paris, and in 2008, he met his girlfriend, Anaïs Bouchard, who is in her early thirties. She has worked as a model and now teaches in a public school in the northern suburbs of Paris, while establishing herself as an influencer. (Her Instagram following now tops 20,000.) 

They spend much of the year in Paris, where Péray, until the pandemic hit, ran a theater group and Bouchard taught. But each summer, during crystal season, they return to Vallorcine. There, during the short (but now extending) window around August, when snow melts at altitude in the Alps, Péray roams the Argentière and Talèfre cirques, glacial basins hemmed in by peaks over 12,000 feet, looking for treasure. 

I had arrived in Vallorcine from London with Blandin, who had come from his home in Annecy, France. Crampons hung on the porch of Péray’s chalet. Inside, it was modestly but comfortably furnished. Péray served us a meal of gratin dauphinois, a dish of sliced potatoes baked in milk or cream. Clean-shaven, Péray has a rugged, weather-beaten face and a thoughtful manner that almost—though not entirely—hides the evident thrill that crystal hunting still inspires in him. 

Péray will leave for the mountains for days at a time, often alone. Bouchard pushes him toward sites where there is cellphone reception, and she’s given him a satellite messenger. The first time he didn’t return when he said he would, she called the mountain hut “and made a huge scene.” Now she is more philosophical about her partner’s solo travels in the mountains. “When you are alone, you pay more attention—you don’t have the rope to protect you, so you also can’t get distracted,” she said. “It’s true that it’s risky, but when you are alone, you also take less risk.”

The next day, Péray wouldn’t be by himself—he was taking Blandin and me to Les Courtes. “Five hours to get to the hut. Six hours after that to reach the bivouac,” Péray said. “Eleven hours in two days. With packs.”

Péray explained that the pocket we would visit first received little sun. He gave Blandin and me thermal underwear, and after regarding my duvet jacket as inadequate, lent us ancient down garments. It was mid-August in the valley, but where we were going, it was not summer.

Péray climbs back to the Col des Cristaux after exploring a crystal pocket on the north face of Les Courtes.
Péray climbs back to the Col des Cristaux after exploring a crystal pocket on the north face of Les Courtes. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)
Péray, left, and Elías work a crystal pocket on a narrow ledge on the north face of Les Courtes.
Péray, left, and Elías work a crystal pocket on a narrow ledge on the north face of Les Courtes. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

The next day, in Chamonix, we met Elías, Péray’s frequent cristallier collaborator. Péray had warned that, given the terrain, we needed a mountain guide to look after us while he prospected. Forty-five years old and gaunt, Elías grew up in La Rioja, in northern Spain, and was raised in an intellectual family. In 2018, he became one of the first foreigners admitted to the Compagnie des Guides—the Company of Mountain Guides—in Chamonix, reflecting his status as an international-class mountaineer. During a 1996 attempt to climb the west face of Cerro Torre in Patagonia, Elías spent 25 days in an ice cave before reaching the summit. In 2015, with ultrarunner Kilian Jornet, he traveled from Chamonix to Courmayeur in Italy via the north face of the Grandes Jorasses—one of the most famous climbs in the Alps—in a mind-bending 23 hours and 38 minutes.

Elías is tall and expressive, with an arid sense of humor. “We say, ‘He is reflection, I am action,’” Elías would later joke of his relationship with Péray. Péray knew the ground, had an extraordinary nose for locating pockets, and was well-connected with collectors. But he was now becoming debilitated by arthritis. Meanwhile, Elías, with his stamina and high-level alpine skills, could porter gear to their camps and access pockets on technical terrain. The partnership worked. 

As we ate a predeparture lunch at a restaurant in Chamonix, Jean-François Baud, a cristallier from Paris in his mid-thirties who goes by Jeff, joined us. He is an apprentice in a world where Péray is master.

We took the rack railway—a train that uses cog wheels and a tooth rail for purchase on steep gradients—from Chamonix in the valley bottom to Montenvers at 6,276 feet. In 1909, when this train was completed, the ice of the Mer de Glace, France’s longest glacier, lay roughly at the same level as the railway’s top station. Since then, the ice has melted dramatically, and the train terminus and nearby hotel are now perched well above the dwindling glacier.

From Montenvers, ladders and steps ran down the exposed rock below the train station to the diminished ice below. We descended, crossed the glacier unroped, and traversed to the other side of the valley. The Mer de Glace runs roughly parallel to the Argentière glacier, about four miles to the southwest. There are high peaks in between, notably the 13,524-foot Aiguille Verte. Another system of steep ladders there took us up cliffs to the Talèfre basin on the south side of the Courtes Ridge. As evening light fell pink on the granite, we reached the Couvercle hut at 8,816 feet.

The hut is a hub for cristalliers; small specimens lay on mantelpieces and windowsills. I asked Baud about the origin of his interest. “I started mountaineering when I was 20,” he explained. “I learned a little on my own, and really what made me want to go was books.” He read up on classic French mountaineering texts, like the novels of Roger Frison-Roche, as well as books about crystal hunting. 

He first came up to the Couvercle hut a decade ago and went prospecting with a friend. “I followed what the books said—I followed a quartz vein and saw that there was a crevice,” he told me. “I broke it open. I found a pocket. Beginner’s luck. It was really that magical moment when you put your hand in the dirt and you get pure crystals.” Crystal hunting, Baud added, as an esoteric offshoot of alpinism was a “niche within a niche.”

At one point, the Couvercle hut’s warden, Christophe Lelièvre, came out holding a huge crystal with spikes jutting out of a large base. It was bigger than a roast chicken. Lelièvre told me that he became aware of the crystal hunters when he first started working in mountain huts in the late 1990s. They did not abide by the regular schedule of predawn departures that conventional mountaineers stuck with. They wore old clothes. Working at another hut in the massif, Lelièvre had once seen a headlamp beam moving across a glacier late at night. He was worried—to move alone on a glacier so late suggested to him something had gone wrong. But the warden calmed him: “You’ll see. It’s a cristallier. He’ll get here.” And he did. 

I asked Lelièvre about Péray. “He’s been hanging around here for over 40 years,” he said admiringly. “Before I was the warden here, the former warden knew him.”

“Crystal gathering is hard,” Lelièvre added. “You’re often out in bad conditions. You can’t carry as big of a mountaineering kit because you need the gear to dig out the crystals: the sleeping bag, the bivouac, the food, everything is reduced. And in the mountains, as we know, there is very little room to maneuver. If something happens, you are surrounded by problems.” 

Climate change was apparent here, too. On the wall hung an old map. It showed the Talèfre basin full of ice, baring a central rock patch. When we set off at dawn, we encountered a much smaller glacier pulling away from the slopes that hemmed it. Péray said its level has dropped by seven feet per year. For no one else was that an advantage. The ski industry was in crisis; the mountains were splintering as the permafrost melted. But for the cristalliers, melting ice exposed new pockets. It was boom time.

Elías brewing a morning cup of tea at the Col des Cristaux bivouac.
Elías brewing a morning cup of tea at the Col des Cristaux bivouac. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

The origin of these crystals began 15 million years ago, when a solution of hot, salty water filled cavities that were created in Mont Blanc’s granite by tectonic movement. This solution became saturated with silica, which would, in time, form quartz crystals—silicon dioxide. The process occurred under extremely high pressures around 7.5 miles below the earth’s surface, with the solution reaching temperatures above 800 degrees Fahrenheit. As the Alps rose, crystallization slowly began on the grains of quartz contained in the walls of the cavities, becoming the pockets cristalliers seek out.

The first people to climb high in the Alps, as long ago as the 16th century, were hunting either chamois—a goatlike animal—or crystals. Those first cristalliers sold their wares to chandelier-makers in Turin or Geneva. Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715, reportedly owned a “smoky quartz from the Savoy glaciers.” By the 19th century, new sources of crystal emerged in Brazil and Madagascar, and crystal hunting in the Alps waned. 

After World War II, the Alpine pursuit resumed, this time with explosives to blast pockets and helicopters to fly the finds down to the valley. “We used helicopters. It wasn’t forbidden,” said Philippe Cardis, a veteran cristallier I spoke with in Chamonix. “It was different at that time.”

Then, in 1979, Swiss prospectors blew up a section of the Walker Spur, a soaring pillar on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses peak. Outrage ensued: the Walker, first climbed in 1938, is one of the most famous climbing lines in the Alps. A court case followed, resulting in the French authorities banning crystal gathering. 

“With alpinism today, the goal is to spend as little time as possible in the mountains. As a cristallier, you spend real time in the mountains.”

Afterward, however, a campaign swung into motion—petitioners claimed it was part of their heritage. Eventually, Michel Barnier, who served as France’s environment minister in the early 1990s, distributed a directive stating that as long as the methods used were “traditional,” then the practice could continue. Crystal gathering is therefore illegal but officially tolerated as long as no explosives, pneumatic drills, or helicopters are used. “It’s very French: an activity can be both prohibited and authorized,” Péray told me.

The law has to be interpreted, however, by local leaders. For the Mont Blanc massif, that often means the mayor of Chamonix, Éric Fournier. He has pushed for more regulation, demanding that cristalliers attend, in person, a training session at the start of the season in Chamonix. He has also demanded that cristalliers declare their finds and offer first refusal to Chamonix’s geological museum. “In my opinion, there is now a need to regulate the situation,” Fournier told me. He points out that he is a cristallier himself. Fournier says he is on their side and is determined to legitimize the practice with “necessary” legislation. (Fournier is the son of celebrated crystal hunter Roger Fournier, who died in a climbing accident in the 1970s. According to Péray, however, the younger Fournier is not one of the 14 serious cristallier teams at work in the French portion of the massif.) 

Others suggest Fournier is on a crusade against the cristalliers, especially those from Eastern Europe, who have showed up to dig in recent years. “We do not all agree on this question,” Péray said. “In my opinion, foreigners have the same merit, they are often remarkable climbers, and they show the same pride toward the crystals they collect.”

Fournier himself referred to a recent incident with a team of prospectors who arrived from the Czech Republic. “The guys looked more like construction workers than mountain enthusiasts,” he told me. “I thought, wow, we’re going to throw these three in the mountains in a hostile and difficult environment, probably without any knowledge of the mountain, and if ever by chance they find something, will they be able to identify if it is precious or not, and will they have the sense to say this item is an item of heritage? So all this poses a lot of questions to us.”

The unsaid quantity is money. After our time in the mountains, I toured the Crystal Museum in Chamonix with director Denis Boël and Pierre Bavuz, president of the local mineralogical club. Treasures lay under glass, notably black quartz that was apparently confiscated from the Swiss after they blew up the Grandes Jorasses. Bavuz claimed cristalliers were almost exclusively hobbyists, not motivated by money. “They are either diehard collectors or mountain guides,” Boël said. “And the rest, they are mountaineers, people who love the mountains, but who are purely amateur. There are no professionals.”

But it is not entirely true that money is not a part of crystal hunting. There is a thriving market for crystals, which has been growing in recent years thanks to the New Age wellness trend, the adherents of which claim that crystals possess healing properties. A fair in Tucson, Arizona, held over two weeks each winter, attracts 5,000 vendors and more than 60,000 visitors and generates $120 million for the local economy. And like many other forms of collecting, the internet has revolutionized the trade. Boël’s reticence to acknowledge financial motivation reflects a French idiom: “Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés,” or “To live happy, live hidden.” Chamonix is awash with tourist euros, but it is taboo to discuss money.

On top of that, the deals made for valuable crystals are often opaque. Neil Brodie, a Scot who trained as a mountain guide in the French system, wrote a thesis on Chamonix crystal hunters for his master’s in journalism at City University in London. “The international crystal market is an obscure and confusing world of crystal hunters, traders, and collectors, with no clear-cut division between each one,” he says in his thesis. “Prices fluctuate wildly and sellers say they only know the value of a piece once they’ve sold it.” In his research, Brodie spoke to a range of dealers and crystal hunters, who emphasized how hard it is to know in advance how much a crystal will actually fetch. Tellingly, when Péray found his miracle rock in 2006, one Lebanese collector was ready to offer $600,000. But Péray wanted his crystal to stay in France, so the Total deal moved forward.

Péray crawls into a pocket on the south face of Les Courtes to extract crystals.
Péray crawls into a pocket on the south face of Les Courtes to extract crystals. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)
A large quartz crystal found by Couvercle hut keeper Christophe Lelièvre.
A large quartz crystal found by Couvercle hut keeper Christophe Lelièvre. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

After spending a night in the hut, we prepared for the day’s mission to Les Courtes. Elías wore the branded Gore-Tex of the Compagnie des Guides. Péray, by contrast, wore black jeans, a red shirt, and a knotted scarf, and he carried a long stave—originally a ski run marker—rather than an ice ax. Though he does keep a Gore-Tex jacket and trousers at the bottom of his pack in case of bad weather or emergencies, Péray maintains that hard-wearing denim is better for kneeling while prospecting for crystal. “It’s not a style,” Péray later told me. “It’s because we tear things up. We damage them. If I put on beautiful mountaineering clothes, I’ll screw them up right away.”

“Arc’teryx doesn’t get much out of Christophe,” Elías said bluntly. Elías also described in wonderment his companion’s penchant for feeding himself in the mountains on just tinned sardines and a homemade nutritional powder. (According to Péray, it’s a mix of oatmeal, almond and hazelnut powder, pollen, chocolate powder, protein powder, cane sugar, turmeric, wheat yeast, dry raisins, and vitamins.)  

Elías was drawn to crystal hunting as an antidote to conventional alpinism, which in his view had become all about speed. “With alpinism today, the goal is to spend as little time as possible in the mountains,” he told me later. “As a cristallier, you spend real time in the mountains. Days, days, days. That changes everything. It changes your relationship with the geography.” 

Crystals—shining silver-gray where they protruded from the mud—glinted among duller rocks on the damp floor. Others poked out of the low roof like teeth.

Though it was high summer, the Talèfre basin seemed deserted. If alpinists come to the old summer routes on 12,561-foot Les Courtes and the other nearby peaks, now they arrive in spring, when snow still holds the faces together. Only cristalliers arrive in August, with their distinct requirements to be there when the landscape is at its most exposed—and, therefore, the most dangerous. As we climbed, a salvo of sizable rocks tumbled nearby.

Five hours from the hut, at 11,814 feet, we reached the Col des Cristaux below the spiky Ravanel and Mummery Aiguilles, which reared above us like crooked granite triangles, the meringue of a glacier visible behind them. 

Clouds periodically drifted through the gap in the mountain wall. I felt the altitude. There were two platforms hacked into the scree, one of ten or so sleeping sites Péray had built in the two cirques. We put up tents. Laid about were dark, angular crystals that the collectors had extracted from pockets but had not taken down to the valley—in a world where everything must be portered by human power, only the best are worth carrying out. Later, I would ask Péray about the value of those crystals strewn at the Col des Cristaux. “These are classic pointed shape,” he explained. “They’re not very expensive: $70 or $80, maybe a little more. But if you find it with fluorite, or if it’s a rare form like a gwindel, then it becomes much more expensive.” Gwindels are crystals that look as though they have grown sideways, twisted around one axis.

With the tents up, we crossed over the pass onto the north face and then traversed across and up to the pocket above the Argentière glacier. Once we reached it, Elías and Péray tumbled boulders to improve the stance on the ledge. The rocks bounced down a snowfield toward the glacier far below. They then jimmied into the pocket. The blowtorches hissed. “The crystals often are trapped in the ice, but we almost never use a hammer and chisel, because if you hit the ice, it breaks the crystals,” Péray explained. Chipped crystal loses its value for collectors. “You have to melt it very slowly. Or wait for the sun to do its work.” 

We spent two hours on the ledge, tied into the rock as Elías and Péray excavated. Each time they pulled out a piece of crystal, they would inspect it rapidly—if it passed muster, they put it to one side to carry out or laid it on a bank of snow just above the ledge. The specimens that did not meet the grade they jettisoned ruthlessly, throwing them down below us. When they were done, we traversed back around the buttress, the day’s crystal haul wrapped in sheets of the French newspaper Libération. “We found about 40 pieces in this pocket,” Péray later told me. The most beautiful one, a combination of smoky quartz and pink calcite, would be featured on the cover of Le Règne Minéral, a French mineralogy magazine. 

After we arrived back at the Col de Cristaux, we cooked a meal on portable stoves and then retired to our sleeping accommodations. “This is the cheapest tent on the market,” Elías explained cheerfully. “But it will take a foot of snow, no problem.” The night was cold. Inside our tent, Blandin’s film lay in Ziploc bags between our sleeping bags. By morning, there was ice on the fly sheet, but dawn came bright and clear. 

After breakfast, we set out for the next pocket, on the other side of the Courtes Ridge, above the Talèfre glacier. Blandin and Péray left first; Elías and I struck camp, packing snow into plastic bottles to melt, and followed. Elías roped up on the more exposed sections. Otherwise we moved unfastened past the granite finger of the 12,217-foot Aiguille Qui Remue—“the needle that wobbles.”

The second pocket was just beneath the ridge. “The classic climbing route goes just a few yards higher up,” Péray explained. “There are thousands of people who’ve passed 15 feet higher, and they never saw it.” Péray had marked the site with a business card tucked inside the pocket—the discoverer has the right to exploit it. This pocket was larger than the first, the size of a small cave. I crawled inside. Crystals—shining silver-gray where they protruded from the mud—glinted among duller rocks on the damp floor. Others poked out of the low roof like teeth. Péray’s blowtorch and chisel lay nearby. “The crystals are often detached in the pockets due to the effects of frost, landslides, and seismic shocks,” Péray told me later. “Most of the crystals in these collapsed pockets are damaged, but we pick out the good ones.”

Carrying the spoils, we descended back to the hut.

Elías packs the day’s finds on the south face of Les Courtes.
Elías packs the day’s finds on the south face of Les Courtes. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

The next day, Péray was plagued with a sore back and returned home to Vallorcine with Blandin. I accompanied Elías to another pocket high on the south face of the Aiguille Verte, the 13,524-foot peak above the hut. We stripped our packs to the bare essentials and were on our way before 6 A.M. 

We moved, unroped, up a different section of the Talèfre glacier, farther to the west than where we had climbed previously. At the edge of the glacier, we cached our crampons and climbed toward the south buttress of the Grande Rocheuse, a subsidiary peak on the east ridge of the Aiguille Verte. We traversed across the face. “This is what we call a dodgy rappel,” Elías said reassuringly as he lowered down beneath me. 

To our left ran the Whymper couloir, the route English alpinist Edward Whymper followed in 1865 when he made the first ascent of the Aiguille Verte. Then, and for more than a century afterward, the couloir was a celebrated snow climb. In summers now, there is no snow in the couloir. Without the snow, the Whymper is a lethal chute, raked by rockfall. Those who climb it do so in spring, leaving the hut at midnight. “That’s why we’re going up this spur here,” Elías said. “We’ll be protected from the rockfall that comes down very often over there.”

I asked how many pockets were here. “I’ve got one up there, on the snow, and there’s one on the summit where I found Morion quartz and red fluorite,” he replied. “And then there’s the pocket with red fluorite that we’re making for.” We pitched out the steeper ground; on other sections, we moved unroped. At about 13,100 feet, six hours out from the hut, we came to a snow-covered balcony. The summit ridge was just above us. Elías built an extraordinary diagonal rappel. I came down after him through the void. We tucked into a sunless gully. Two further rappels followed.

Péray crosses the Talèfre glacier on his way to the Couvercle hut.
Péray crosses the Talèfre glacier on his way to the Couvercle hut. (Photo: Nicolas Blandin)

The pocket was halfway up a cliff, a horizontal crack maybe eight inches wide with more silver-gray-black crystals inset in its roof, their points extruding several inches from the drab rock. Loose gravel lay underneath. As with the other pockets, there was no way I would have been able to identify the site from a distance. We now hung at around 12,795 feet. Unlike at the pocket above the Argentière glacier, where we tied in but had space to stand, here Elías and I were suspended in our harnesses. Another reddish granite spur rose up on the right-hand side, and below, snow-covered boulders dropped away 1,500 feet to the glacier. The effort required to reach this site was justified by the potential treasure: the red fluorite Elías had mentioned, the same valuable crystal that Péray had sold for $300,000. Suspended, my harness cut tight against my thighs. Over some 90 minutes, Elías prised out crystals, tossing down poorer specimens (“Many of the pieces that come out are shit!”) and handing the better examples to be wrapped in toilet paper and sheets of another French newspaper, Le Monde. “Put each one in its own paper,” he said. “Be careful.”

Elías found some smoky quartz covered with red fluorite, which was worth a significant amount. At the end of the trip, he would estimate the overall value of the crystals in his sack at around $2,500. But the larger pieces were fractured. There were no miracle finds today. Now we had to get down. 

The descent was hard. We were out of the sun, and I had gotten very cold while hanging motionless. The adrenaline from the ascent was gone—these felt like conditions for an accident. We rappelled down and traversed under a small rock tower. As we downclimbed, Elías advised me to face outward, down the fall line, and to wedge my pack and torso into the cracks to provide control. I was glad to reach the final rappel. By the time we got to the glacier, my gloves were shredded to ribbons and the soles were peeling away from my boots. Back at the hut, I almost fell asleep in my food. We had been out for 13-plus hours and climbed more than 4,000 vertical feet, around a third of which was on technical terrain. 

Elías and I walked out the next day. Below the Talèfre ladders, I slipped on scree. My pants ripped; later there would be a rich bruising down my leg. Real pain came from my right arm as I walked on down the rock-covered glacier. It became more painful; the train at Montenvers seemed an impossible distance. I eventually said to Elías, plaintively, that I thought I had broken my arm. We paused on the moraine. He examined me and bluntly said that he’d seen plenty of broken bones and this was not one. Out came his “magic potion,” isotonic tablets to fortify meltwater. He then fashioned a sling from my light duvet jacket. Refueled and with the arm immobilized, I felt restored. Elías rolled a cigarette, saying it was necessary to compensate for the thickness of the valley air.

We walked toward Montenvers, hopping the fence where tourists were bound for a grotto dug in the glacier. “The adoration of the last piece of ice,” Elías remarked. We took the train down. As ever, in Chamonix no one cared where we had been or what we had done.

Lead Photo: Nicolas Blandin