“DAWN ON THE FRONTIER”
I sat at breakfast in the Eden Hotel, just outside Chamonix on the road to Argentiere, inspecting the weather through the window. After a turbulent start to the week, things looked stable now and set fair for the next few days. Not that the prior disturbance had curtailed us altogether. We already had a number of fine rock climbs under our belt and, at the beginning of the week, had managed an exhilarating ski descent from the Parrotspitze (4432m) in the Monte Rosa Massif, culminating in a ‘mind-focussing’ couloir – not bad for late August.
In truth, though, we had been biding our time for the expedition we had always in the back of our minds: a mixed, high-alpine ascent of the South-East Ridge of Mont Maudit, at 4465m France’s second highest mountain after Mont Blanc.
This ridge has more names than any other I have come across! Technically it is the ‘South-East Ridge’; on the French map it appears as the ‘Arête de la Brenva’; others refer to the ‘Tour Ronde Ridge’; and locals seem to prefer simply the ‘Kuffner’, after the leader of the first ascent party, the Austrian brewer, Moritz von Kuffner; while ‘Brits’ favour the ‘Frontier Ridge’, given its role demarking the border of France and Italy.
It is part of an extensive ‘rock barrier’ that runs all the way from Mont Dolent, west across the great wall of the Grandes Jorasses, the tooth-like Dent du Geant and the cable car station at Pointe Helbronner to the Tour Ronde, lifting it on its final stage beyond that, to its ‘T junction’ with the chain of peaks formed by Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc. The ‘meeting point’ is Mont Maudit and, partly for that reason, it has become the most coveted route to that mountain’s top.
The other reason is that it is simply a tremendous excursion. The Alpine Club Guide declares it “one of the finest ridge climbs in the Alps”; while in their description of Mont Maudit in ‘The High Mountains of the Alps’, Dumler and Burkhardt comment: “Of all the lines it is the 1600m South-East Ridge which catches the eye, the celebrated Frontier Ridge which cries out as the natural route of ascent.” It is a ‘must do’ climb (D III/IV).
Mark picked me up at 11.30am and we caught an early afternoon cable car to the Aiguille du Midi and the ‘eggs’ from there to the Helbronner. From this high vantage point, we descended to the Glacier du Geant, heading west, with its namesake needle behind us. There before us was the so-called Cirque Maudit, a large tongue of glacier, ushering from the high ridge that links Mont Maudit to Mont Blanc du Tacul and guarded on three sides by impressive cliffs. The entrance to the Cirque is flanked by twin portals: on the left, the soaring ice wall of the Tour Ronde’s North Face; and on the right, the contrasting granite – warm yet daunting – of the Grand Capucin. Now for the first time, we could properly admire the Cirque’s left, southerly flank, our objective, the Frontier Ridge. For much of its length it remains at similar height, a long serrated edge punctuated occasionally by snowy cols. Only as it reaches the heart of the Massif does it rise precipitously, creating a buttress in support of the cathedral above.
Roughly two-thirds of our way into the Cirque, we attacked this southerly wall, climbing 150m up mixed ground, but mainly 500 ice, with crampons and twin axes. We reached the ridge at a gap between two rock towers, called the Col de la Fourche. Just a little to our south lay the Fourche Bivouac Hut (3680m), clinging to the other side of the ridge, a few metres inside Italy. We had come here once before, but had not stopped, our objective being elsewhere. We had, though, briefly entered the hut, so we knew what to expect: a small, remote shelter, the size of a large garden shed, with two levels of communal bunks and a long shelf for preparing food. No guardian, no cooking equipment, no water and no toilets. Fairly basic.
What we hadn’t expected were the occupants we discovered there. Mark opened the door to find two indisputably attractive young women. He closed the door again, as though he couldn’t quite believe what he had seen; then reopened it slowly just to check it wasn’t a mirage. It wasn’t. The two climbers were Zoe Hart, an American guide and ambassador for the Patagonia equipment and clothing range, with her Canadian client, Pat. They were very welcoming and, having overcome our surprise, we made ourselves comfortable. We sorted our kit. Then Mark fired up our Jet Boil stove, while I collected snow from the roof of the hut. This latter task required a fixed rope and a good deal of care to avoid descending precipitously to the Brenva Glacier below. This glacier is dangerously crevassed, but that would have been of little consequence by the time I reached it!
Mark got out a flagon of red wine and our little foursome was going rather well, when of course the inevitable happened and two Frenchmen turned up. Actually, they were good company and six bodies in the hut helped to maintain a just about bearable temperature, if we wore all our clothes. In theory the hut sleeps twice that number, but as it was we had to coordinate our movements and cooking timetables.
The girls went for pasta, but Mark and I took the easy option with our freeze dried meals, consumed with boiling water direct from the packet. That’s men for you!
The door we kept open to stop us from asphyxiating on the cooking gas. Through it we could see the impressive ice face that hangs from the north side of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, a fond reminder of a previous expedition in these parts.
Within the hut, there was some good-natured banter. The girls, in particular, had enormous ‘climbing racks’ and made fun of how little protection Mark and I had with us. They seemed to be anticipating an 8-10hr climb to the summit, which was twice the timetable that we had in mind. It would be interesting to see what the ‘morrow would bring.
We settled in for the night. Mark and I were on the lower bunk with one of the Frenchmen. His compatriot shared the upper bunk with the two girls. The toilet arrangements were very simple: you went off the steel balustrade that surrounded two sides of the hut. Anything else would have been suicidal. Luckily for the women, the balustrade had a mesh-like floor to it. I don’t think any more detail is called for. Such are the joys of life in the high mountains.
It had been a good day. The journey from the Helbronner to the Fourche had taken us 2-1/2hrs, which was well within guide-book time. The weather was clear and stable. The day ahead looked promising. The night though was cold and disrupted, but at this height that was ‘par for the course’. I wore every stitch of clothing I had and that made it barely tolerable.
The usual cacophony of alarms went off at 4am – all redundant in my case, because I was already awake. I found my large head torch and groped my way into my contact lenses. Mark and I each consumed a packet of freeze-dried muesli, drank a big mug of tea, tidied up as best we could, strapped on our crampons and headed for the door.
It was nearly 5am as we emerged into the night. The Frenchmen started ahead of us, the girls behind. But soon the lead was taken by another pair: two German climbers, who had set off early from the Torino Hut at the Helbronner and had traversed the glacier in the hours of darkness. We were happy where we were, content to allow the others to figure out the route and light the path with their head torches. Clambering around in the dark can so often be frustrating, but this was easy and pleasant work, made all the more so by those leading the way.
We now had four pairs: one German, one French, one British and one American. It was all beginning to sound like a familiar joke. Fortunately it was a collaborative group.
Initially the route took the ridge with only minor detours to left and right. After an hour, it dropped off more decidedly to the left, only to regain the arête via an awkward snowy couloir. This was enough to create a minor traffic jam and allow the girls to catch up from behind. As we negotiated the couloir, Mark dropped a glove. Fortunately he was carrying a spare pair, always a wise thing on a climb of this kind.
As the first glimmer of daylight took charge around 7am, Mark and I came across the front pairs enjoying a second breakfast. The Frenchmen seemed composed; the Germans more tired, but they had started 2hrs earlier, so no surprise in that. We pushed on and took the lead.
Careful footwork was required as we negotiated a delicate snow crest, falling away steeply to our left. I looked back at the Frenchmen coming behind and could see the full length of the Frontier Ridge, with the first orange streaks of dawn bringing a sole hint of colour to a world otherwise characterised by the black and white of rock and ice.
We were now at the ‘crux’, the Pointe de l’Androsace, a granite pinnacle that blocks the ridge at 4107m, a lonely sentry guarding the mountain fastness above. There are different ways to overcome this, none entirely easy. We tried on the left and were soon doubting our decision. The initially comforting flake handholds on the otherwise featureless slabs ran out on us, leaving Mark uncertain where to go. He asked me to lower him off a sling, allowing him to pendulum into a snowy couloir, which gave access again to higher ground. Now it was my turn. I had to remove the sling, so the same strategy was not available to me. But, with Mark above me and a tight rope between us, I could take more of a ‘chance’ and managed to traverse across.
Meanwhile the Frenchmen took the direct route over the top. At one point a ‘chock’ and sling descended over my head, lost to the valley below. Clearly they weren’t finding it any easier than us. The German pair had the benefit of watching our competing antics. They elected to follow us, but also struggled with the traverse.
Above us now lay a series of couloirs, first on our left, then our right and finally back on the left. Midway up these, we stopped for a drink and some food. Dawn was now well established and I exchanged my head torch for my sun glasses, remembering also to apply sunscreen.
The view was more impressive than ever. Below, the ridge wound and writhed like a long snake emerging from a tropical swamp, the valleys beyond now washed in a variety of blue shades, ever lighter the more distant they lay. The whole scene was given a mystic quality by the rising mists of dawn, creeping up the hillsides and dissipating in the clearer mountain air above. It seemed as though Gandalf would appear at any moment. There was a sense of privilege, just to be there.
Our halt allowed the continental pairs to catch up. But they were disinclined to take the lead and waited for us to resume, which we were happy enough to do. It was a sensible decision, because from thence forward we moved much faster than them and left an ever increasing distance between us. Although we carried four ice screws, Mark and I found no need for them, feeling perfectly secure on the good neve and happy to climb together and quickly. By this stage the American team had fallen well behind, lost to view.
We hit the junction with the ridge that links Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit at 4250m – near the Col Maudit. Here the character of the climb changed. Instead of the ridge, we enjoyed a contrasting snow crest, generally offering secure footing, although icier in parts. The left side was corniced, so we progressed on its right flank, heading SW. It was technically uncomplicated, but demanded concentration, because a ‘slip or trip’ by either of us could easily have proven fatal to both. It was unlikely that the other climber would have held a fall.
Ahead of us loomed the rocky pinnacle of Mont Maudit’s summit. We skirted this on the right and took the easy west flank to the top (4465m). It was 9.15am and the ascent had taken 4-1/4hrs. We had a panorama near and far, but for once it was the near that dominated: the ridge we had just climbed, now viewed at its full length, as impressive as ever; and the monolith that is Mont Blanc right ‘next door’. Further afield, in the ‘back drop’ we could make out the Swiss Oberland and Valais, including the familiar shape of the Matterhorn.
Such summit moments are always so fleeting and within a quarter hour we were descending again to the valley, this time by the North Flank (AD-). Brits were now retracing the steps of Brits, for this was broadly the side of the mountain attacked by the first ascensionists, a British pair supported by Oberland guides – albeit they came over the somewhat easier ground from Mont Blanc. That had been in the September of 1878.
It was steep ground in parts and heavily crevassed in others, and so it held our attention to the end. There were rewards: particularly the view across the seracs to the Aiguille du Midi, which stood out in all its splendour. However, the more we descended and dropped below that iconic spire, the more apparent it became that a climb lay in wait to regain the level of the cable car station that resided in its bosom. All in all, it was a 3-1/4hr descent and re-ascent and we were exercised enough by the time we reached the ice tunnel and ‘hung up’ our ropes. It was 12.45pm. It had been a fine morning ‘in the hills’.