“AND NOW LET’S CLIMB MONT BLANC”
THE NORTH FACE OF THE AIGUILLE BLANCHE DE PEUTEREY
BY CHARLES SHERWOOD
It was 10.30am in the morning as Mark and I returned to the glacier from six hours of climbing on the Rochefort Arrete. The stars, beneath which we had begun our ascent, had long given way to a clear blue sky, offering a perfect panorama of the western, ‘Brenva’ Face of Mont Blanc.
Our eyes though were on the mountain that supports its southern shoulder, the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, and specifically its North Face. The Aiguille Blanche has the distinction of being the hardest to climb of the 60+ Alpine 4000ers. That is by its ‘ordinary route’ via the ridge. More spectacular still is the North Face, a curtain of seemingly vertical ice that hangs like a pair of lady’s knickers from three unevenly placed clothes pegs on a washing line.
I had first gazed admiringly at this face in 1991, while skiing the Vallee Blanche from the Helbronner. I had commented that surely it was unclimbable, only to be corrected by our bearded Chamonix guide, Alain. I was genuinely dumb-founded. Now, 17 years later, it was our plan to climb it, starting tomorrow.
First there were provisions to buy, some serious packing and a much needed night’s sleep.
We reached the Helbronner (3462m) on the Italian frontier at 10.45am, via the Midi lift and ‘eggs’, and set off from there downhill and back into France. I guess we dropped a hundred metres or so before ascending steeply with twin axes and crampons up the northern flank of the Brenva Arrete to regain the frontier ridge at a point nearby the tiny Col de Fourche Bivouac Hut (3680m).
There was no customs and immigration official at this hut. It is what it says on the tin: a hut, not even cooking equipment or toilet. In French, a ‘refuge’ at its most basic. It was here in 1961 that Walter Bonatti, Italy’s most renowned climber of the day, and his two compatriots found four Frenchmen. The goal of both parties was the Central Pillar of Freney and they joined forces, creating an unusually strong team – a strength that would be tested to the full and beyond.
Getting to the hut was a lot easier than leaving it. We could find no anchor points to rappel from on the Italian side. I suggested using the hut itself. Mark rather scoffed at the idea: mountaineers don’t rappel off huts. He had a serious point though: without any tell-tale slings, we had no way of knowing whether there were further anchor points below; and our one rope would not get us all the way to the glacier in a single rappel.
A long search eventually located slings on the ridge east of the hut. Mark went first, but had rappelled no more than 15m into a gloomy gully, when he lost his nerve – and understandably, given the loose rock already dislodged by the rope above and now descending on his head. “This is a death trap; it’s suicide”, he yelled in frustration, before clambering carefully back onto the ridge. Time had moved on, but we had not. There was no option for it: we would have to rappel from the hut and take our chances on a further anchor point. Mark set off again. He descended searching for the next anchor. Nothing, nothing and then, as the rope threatening to finally pull through his belay plate, there it was. We were down and with a little care across the bergschrund and onto the Brenva Glacier.
We had done it and, in relaxed fashion, strolled across the ice. That was until Mark sank to his knees in a crevasse. The Brenva Glacier is dangerously unstable. This was a salutary reminder. We lengthened the rope between us and moved as rapidly as possible, soon reaching the foot of the next ridge below Col Moore.
We paused for a moment, admiring the ‘picture’ of the Aiguille Blanche framed by the curvaceous saddle of the col above us. Then we climbed easily around the bergschrund and ascended with axes and crampons to Col Moore itself (3500m). The weather was fine and the snow and ice conditions excellent. Once more we relaxed; once more we were wrong.
It could truthfully be said of the approach route to the Peuterey Ridge that it is all about getting down, not getting up. Again we faced the agonies of descent on uncertain and unstable ground. Unsure of the precise route, I did my best to interpret the photo in a magazine article that we had with us, but the central path I chose soon became untenable. This is notorious ground and not a place to get it wrong. Firm snow turned to rock, then rubble, then horrendously loose rubble. And no sign of rappel anchors.
To our right, the line of descent was gentler, but down it came regular avalanches of rock and ice, triggered by the collapsing seracs above. To our left, the rock looked firmer, but the ground much steeper and falling away from view. Without anchors to rappel from, we would not get down it. Mark and I were both unnerved. Not to have been would simply have evidenced a lack of understanding of the situation. We were in a potential death trap and the next decision would be key.
Mark preferred the cliffs to the avalanches and I had to agree. We moved left and onto the rock, but we were betting everything on finding those anchors – for the second time today. Mark’s instinct was right and we found them.
At this point Mark momentarily confused me by asking a very simple question: “Should we go on?” He expanded, pointing at the Aiguille Blanche, “Can we climb that face?” Why ask this now, I thought, but then the answer to that one was obvious. After this rappel, we would be totally committed. Our retreat over Col Moore and the Col de Fourche would be cut off. We would have to climb the Aiguille’s North Face and a lot more beyond.
The lot more beyond would include Mont Blanc itself. We were now entering what John Harlin III, whose father was here with Bonatti, described as “the wildest region in all the Alps”. The south-eastern side of Mont Blanc is not remote in the conventional sense. After all, the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur sits in the valley below. But the treacherous glaciers and ridges make it unusually inaccessible and, perhaps more crucially, inescapable. So extreme is this, that the safest route of descent from the upper Peuterey Ridge is not directly down into Italy but up over the summit of Mont Blanc and down into France. We would need to climb the Alps’ hardest 4000er by its North Face and then make an ascent of the Alps’ highest peak by a route significantly more demanding than the traditional one from the other side. Mark posed a fair question.
My answer was equally simple though: “yes”. I also expanded: the weather was good and the snow and ice conditions near perfect; we had lost our nerve on dubious rock, but the route ahead was unmistakable and on ice; I was sure we could climb the face and, as for Mont Blanc, well that was just a matter of pain and suffering and we had done plenty of that before. I’m not sure Mark was as comfortable, but then as a guide it’s not his job to be comfortable. The logic though, I think, he shared. His question was designed more to test my conviction than his own.
Two rappels took us to the rocks just above the glacier at approximately 3400m. There we found a protected shelf, where we could bivouac for the night. Mark sorted the kit and got the stove going, while I explored a little further down, reconnoitring the route that we would need to take in the dark, early the next morning.
Mark was dead tired, more from the mental than the physical stress; and it was my turn anyway to do the cooking. So I managed the stove, melting water first for tea, then soup, then our freeze-dried dinners and finally for our water bottles. My cooking was acknowledged generously by a tired guide, but won few plaudits beyond ‘effort’. Mark’s bacon and lentils were more soup than anything, while my own were hard and crunchy. Perhaps, if we’d had a third member of the team, I’d have got it right, but we were only two and perfection lay beyond my grasp!
All this took many hours during which we chatted away about all things under the sun. That sun eventually disappeared and mountain shadow engulfed us. As the stars switched on, Mark himself disappeared into his sleeping bag, covering his face with the bag’s nylon hood. I was left alone with the stove and my thoughts, very content.
We awoke at 1.45am to lots of stars and no cloud. Good. An hour and a half to prepare some muesli, pack up and set off.
By the light of my head-lamp and with the memory of the previous evening’s exploration, I led the way down to the glacier, while Mark belayed me from above. Mark navigated us across the glacier, keeping a particularly cavernous crevasse on our left and below us. We stumbled over avalanche debris, but without incident, occasionally stopping to turn off our lights and use the mountain silhouettes against the stars to judge our course. Eventually we reached the foot of the Aiguille Blanche’s North Face.
The initial bergschrund offered little challenge, even in the dark, and we were soon climbing a quite narrow chute up the right side of the face. A chute is clearly an avalanche risk, but we had inspected the seracs above from afar and they seemed neither large nor threatening. Together with the early hour, when everything is still glued together by the cold, this meant we were unmolested from above.
Nor were we troubled underfoot. The North Face is rated TD, one notch below Extreme, but the snow and ice were in excellent condition and took our axe picks and the front points of our crampons without a struggle.
A little beyond midway, we reached a rock barrier and there traversed left and upward to a substantial bergschrund – a large crevasse with impressive hanging icicles and an ominous ‘hole’. Clearly we had anticipated this and located an obvious snow bridge, which we crossed delicately. This was good climbing, but not stretching and the five ice-screws we had with us stayed on our harnesses.
As we hit the upper face, dawn broke and a warm morning light slanted across the icy slope, catching all the angles and casting magnificent shadows over our frozen world. At 7.40am, having been on the face a little under 4 hours, we finally made the summit ridge, the top of that white curtain of ice we had so long admired from a distance. Mark sat astride it, as though in the saddle of a great white stallion. We had made it...thus far.
We worked our way along the crest and easily scrambled up the rocks to the Aiguille’s central and highest summit, Pointe Gussfeldt (4112m). As we sat upon our mountain top, munching energy bars and downing ‘Nunn juice’, we had a surprise. Creeping over the snowy dome of the SE Summit (4107m), were three figures, silhouetted on the skyline against the morning sun; then another two ant-like dots; and finally a third pair. On another climb the arrival of seven climbers on ‘our route’ would have been unwelcome, but in this remote and wild place it was a comfort.
Meanwhile we rappelled off the Central Summit and I tip-toed across the short snow-crest that separates it from the NW Summit (4104m), watched carefully by Mark from behind. This is a delicate operation, because a fall by one climber can only be protected by his partner leaping off the other side – an unattractive option but preferable to the alternative of certain death.
It took us a while to find the right rappel point on the NW Summit and this allowed the other party to close on us; and, while our single rope limited us to 25m rappels, their twin ropes allowed 50m rappels, further narrowing the gap. The result was not good, because we were on loose ground and, with the best will in the world, those above could not help but kick down rocks on us below. We were cruelly exposed and this was not the place to become an injured climber. There was nothing for it though than to keep on down as rapidly as possible. A series of rappels took us to the snow, where we down-climbed the bergschrund to reach the broad saddle that links the Aiguille Blanche to Mont Blanc itself.
Known as the Col de Peuterey (3934m), this is where Bonatti’s seven-man team retreated from the Central Pillar of Freney, following four days of violent storms. The team did not have the strength left to cross Mont Blanc and took the only other option: a descent on the treacherous Italian side down the Rochers Gruber and the Freney Glacier, via the Col d’Innominata, to the Gamba Hut. Even with the help of a rescue party from the hut, only three of the team made it alive. And that is why today the standard route of ‘descent’ from the Col de Peuterey is a vertical climb of 900m up over Mont Blanc and down to the Gouter Hut on the French side.
First though we needed water. The steepness of the route ahead meant that stopping to brew up along the way would be impractical. So we settled down on the col and got the jet-boil stove out to give us another litre of fluid each. The other team did the same and we had a chance to exchange greetings and check route plans. They had done the ‘ordinary’ ridge route and were a group of six guides and aspirant guides with one client. That’s service for you! I suspect a certain amount of resume building was involved here. Nonetheless we were delighted to have such a strong team with us; and more than delighted to allow them to break the trail ahead.
The enlarged party left the col at 11am with Mark and me in the rear. We crossed yet another bergschrund and ascended a steepish couloir. With the snow softened by the morning sun and steps already kicked for us, we made steady progress.
But, while the technical difficulty was low, the physical effort was high. Our packs, with the addition of sleeping and cooking gear plus ice screws etc, were significantly heavier than those of the other party and soon we were falling behind. I grew weary of that couloir well before we reached the gentler, snowy slopes on the ridge above.
I also became very hot. But as we regained the ridge, we were hit by a wind that tore all that surplus warmth and more from our bodies. I was suddenly very cold and needed more clothing. However, this was not an ideal place to try and remove one’s pack so I just gritted my teeth and got on with it.
It wasn’t much longer before we reached the steep, but much broader slope below Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. There I was able to dig out a bucket seat in the snow and get my pack off. I put on additional clothing, including double gloves, and shared an energy bar with Mark.
It was a painful final haul up onto the summit ridge. Once there the wind dropped completely and again it was stiflingly hot – so much so that Mark complained of being light-headed. We made the summit of Mont Blanc (4807m) at 3.15pm, precisely 12 hours after leaving our bivouac. There were the traditional handshakes, photos and phone calls to wives. We were definitely ‘happy campers’.
I had stood on this summit once before, 15 years previously. I was even more tired then, having climbed up the Bosses Ridge with a pair of skis on my back, accompanied by a Morzine guide, Bruno Richard. Together we had skied the comparatively gentle North Face of Mont Blanc down to the Grand Mulets Hut and the Aiguille du Plan.
Mark and I enjoyed 20 minutes on the top of the Alps, then descended via the easy ‘route normale’ into France. The late afternoon light cast spectacular shadows along the crest of the ridge beneath us, reminding me of the eerily similar effects on the sand dunes of the Namib Desert that I had witnessed only a fortnight earlier.
We reached the Gouter Hut (3817m) at 5.20pm, closing a 14 hour mountain day. There are never walk-in places available, but when the guardian understood the route we had taken he found us two bunks and a place at the dinner table. Wine, women and song. Well, perhaps not the women and song, but you know what I mean.
Most of the hut got up at 2.30am, heading for Mont Blanc. We turned over in our bunks. Not today, not for us. Somebody else’s turn to go climb a mountain.