Text and pictures © 1997-2017 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2012/12/14
"I find that rock climbing is the finest, most healthiest sport in the whole world. It is much healthier than most; look at baseball, where 10 000 sit on their ass to watch a handful of players" — John Salathé, 1974.
July 1998. I'd been wanting to climb this attractive peak ever since I heard you can base-jump off it. Not that I'm all that interesting in dying stupidly, but it really is a very scenic climb located above the Vallée Blanche with a great view on Mt Blanc, Mt Maudit, the Tacul, Rochefort, the Jorasses, The Courtes, the Droites, the Verte and the Aiguilles of Chamonix. And it is also an interesting and really exposed climb.
I arrived in Courmayeur (Italian side of Mt Blanc) in late July, a couple days before my friends so I could train a little. From Courmayeur I walked up to the rifugio Torino, a big refuge that can also be reached by (expensive) cable car. The day after, I took off for the classic combination: ridge of Rochefort, dome of Rochefort and Giant's Tooth (la Dent du Géant). Although the Giant's Tooth is closest, it's better to start with the ridge in order to have hard snow and let the rock on the tooth warm in the sun in the meanwhile. Good trail, hard snow, nobody: it took me 20 minutes from the Tooth to the base of the dome. There about 100m of exposed grade 3 leads to a wide summit. No wind, perfect day, rock better than expected. I look at the tooth and concentrate on what's coming next: 300m of grade IV.
Left: The Giant's Tooth (and me), seen from the Rochefort ridge. The normal route is on the other side.
Right: The Rochefort ridge and the Rochefort Dome (top left) as seen from the summit of the Giant's Tooth. Way down is the Italian valley of Courmayeur.
When I got back to the tooth there were already 2 parties on it, as well as many others coming up the Giant's Molar (the nickname of the approach) either for the tooth or Rochefort. I leave my pack and boots and put my rock shoes on. The route is on the west side and still in the shade. I keep my gloves on. 100m of grade 3 traverse and scramble to the base of the Big Slab. The slab is normally a IV, but a huge fixed rope goes all the way up. Yes, another one of those damn vie ferrate. Well, after a few meters my determination to climb free goes away with the cold and the exposure ! I grab the rope (well worn and nicely dented in some places) and scramble to the summit to meet a lightning-ridden virgin. Awesome nap in the sun.
I leave the summit as the fastest party, two Englishmen in their sixties, arrive to the top. On the way down I have to be careful of all the parties going up with full gear, ice axes and such. And also a hilarious incompetent shouting: "My love, come on, you can do it" to a terrorized girl who had obviously never climbed before ! Well, next time I'll do the variation, a nice grade V... without fixed rope but with my own rope. On the way back to the refuge it was funny to meet this dejected guide who was hired for the Tooth but whose clients took all morning to walk the approach to the molar...
Above: 360° panorama of Mt Blanc, from above the Torino Refuge.
Vincent and Cécile met me after the Tooth's trip. They'd been climbing non-stop for 3 weeks and were in great shape. The plan was to do the impressive central pillar of Freney. Impressive for various reasons: you can see it from far away since it is the highest rock route on 4807m Mt Blanc; it is #100 in Rébuffat's famous guidebook "Les 100 plus belles du Mt Blanc"; it was opened by two legends (Chris Bonington immediately followed by René Desmaison); there was a tragedy on it when Walter Bonatti and Pierre Mazeaud left 3 dead on the route; and it is considered by most the hardest way to climb Mt Blanc (although the modern routes on the Grand Pilier d'Angle are way harder). Grades ? ED 6b/A2, although the many pitons make the aid part rather easy. Rébuffat writes that the main problem is the impossibility to retreat in case of bad weather, and Bonatti is certainly not going to contradict him !
Left: Vincent, me and Cécile after the climb. The Mt Blanc is the summit on the left, with the Freney pillar being the highest rock underneath the summit.
Right: Inside the Eccles refuge
We split the long walk up in two days. First day we walked up to the cozy Monzino refuge and climbed the Pointe Croux in the afternoon, a nice and easy 7 pitches 6b. Second day up the Châtelet glacier to the two tiny Eccles refuges, near the Eccles pass where the Brouillard glacier and the Freney glacier meet and the Innominata ridge starts. There are two small buildings: the recent one for nine persons and the old wooden one for 3-4 persons; blankets are there, but bring a stove. We settled in the latter for the night (right). I love those tiny refuges, so far from the chaos of the Refuge des Cosmiques.
We were traveling light, and with only one axe each we had some trouble getting up the Eccles pass and then down its other side; it was steep and icy. Other parties were going up with us for the Innominata ridge. We traversed the slopes above the schrund to traverse to the base of the route just as the sun rose above the Peuterey pass (left) where a party was slowly waking up after a bivy. Rocks started to fall in the gully we'd just traversed, the sun had been up for barely a half hour. I was leading with the crampons on snow covered rocks. Vincent and Cécile took their crampons off.
Left: The Peuterey pass.
Right: Cécile belaying while on the base of the pillar. The ridge in the back is the Innominata, and the Pointe Eccles is on the left, with the snow gully we downclimbed visible directly underneath the pass, and the refuge on the other side.
After traversing up for a while, we recognized the route description and changed into our rock-climbing gear. Vincent took the lead and shortly climbed a tough overhang with icicles. Though early, the day was already quite warm. After every 4 pitches or so we'd switch leads.
The first half of the route is not very steep. Short walls followed by snowy slopes or ridges come and go. We kept the rock shoes on at all time, although Vincent lead the scary last pitch to reach the Candle: 30m straight up on snow covered ice where he had to dig steps with his fists. Crampons and axes would have been useful on that lead, to say the least. There was blood all over the snow. And at that time clouds showed up and the temperature dropped immediately. Cécile was getting tired. We began to worry, thinking about Bonatti thirty years ago or the five people who died on it not so long ago in '97.
Left: Halfway up of the candle.
Right: Aid climbing on the candle.
The second half of the route, the Candle, is a very steep column that finishes close to the summit ridge of Mt Blanc. After a snack I imposed on Vincent (damn, this guy is never hungry in the mountain although he can eat like 4 at home) at the narrow bivy ledge I started leading the aid climbing pitches (right). The granite is a pure beauty, we didn't drop a single rock the entire day. Many pitons are left on the route, but a few friends come handy. It wouldn't be too hard to free most of it, but after 20 pitches with a big pack weighting on... you just want to get over with it. And we were going slower than we'd thought.
Vincent lead the big roof problem, a very wide horizontal chimney where he hanged for a while. We tried to go up the ropes to save time, but without jumars we wasted precious energy. I ended up seconding the aid. Lots of rotten pieces of rope and wooden angles on that pitch. Cécile's fingers were bleeding from too much wear on the granite. She was trashed. I helped her a couple times by lending my shoulders as a foothold ! Then on the next pitch the weather cleared, the last clouds drawing amazing whirling shapes in the sky above us (left). We could tell the summit was near.
Left: Fast moving clouds near the top. Is the weather turning for the worst ?
Right: 3 more pitches on easier ground and we got to the summit of the Candle. Here Vincent belaying Cécile while I start digging the trail.
From there, a little rappel takes you to a mixed traverse and then an easy 300m mixed slope. By that time we were pretty done for. I slowly kicked a trail to the summit ridge while wondering where the oxygen had gone. We got to the ridge just in time for a scenic sunset. It was windy up top, and it started getting really cold as the light dwindled. It took us more than one hour to reach Courmayeur's Mt Blanc and then the real one as we went around the many rock outcrops pointing on the icy ridge.
It was my first time on Mt Blanc. There wasn't much of a view except for the very last light coming from the west. Due to the cold we stayed about 10s on the summit, barely time to take a picture, before going down to the Vallot. We found the refuge as filthy and crowded as expected, although it is supposedly forbidden to people climbing the normal route of Mt Blanc. After eating a quick soup and some tea we kicked some people and collapsed snugly between their sleeping bags. Vincent still had his boots on, cowboy style. What a day, 4 hours for the approach, 13 hours for the climb, and 2 hours to reach the summit and the Vallot. Ouf...