Mont Blanc Massif

Climbs described:

La Minarete: S.E. Spur

Mont Blanc du Tacul: Triangle Face, Chere Couloir

Tour Ronde: N. Face

Aiguille du Midi: S. Face (Rebuffat)

Mount Maudit: Kuffner ( also "Frontier" or "tour ronde") Ridge

Guidebook references to these climbs:

Mont Blanc Massif: the 100 Finest Routes Gaston Rebuffat

Minaret pg. 152 (#60); Tour Ronde pg. 98 (#35); Midi S. Face pg 142 (#55); Mt. Maudit pg. 130 (#50) ("tour ronde ridge)

Mont Blanc Massif: Selected Climbs (2 volumes) Lindsay Griffin

Minaret Vol II pg. 222; Triangle Chere Couloir Vol I pg. 118; Tour Ronde Vol I pg. 132;

Midi S. Face Vol II pg. 34; Mt. Maudit Vol I pg 101

Chamonix September, 1999

I got to Chamonix by accident. I was supposed to go to the Bugaboos with Jeremy for two weeks in late July and early August. We were going to try for the S.E. Shoulder of Snowpatch and the Beckey/Chouinard on S. Howser Tower. We had been planning this trip since the Fall of 1998, and I had been training pretty hard to get ready; climbing and working out to get in shape. The plane tickets were issued, the rental car reserved, the food purchased, the gear set aside, and then, less than a week before we were supposed to leave, Jeremy called with bad news. He had a new job which was going to make the trip impossible. I was super bummed out. For most of a year, I had looked forward to this trip. For days afterwards, I moped about feeling extremely sorry for myself. Finally, I decided that a trip to Chamonix might be a good substitute, and when my wife agreed, I began making plans.

I arrived in Chamonix on the last day of August, and headed up to try the Kuffner (or Frontier) Ridge on Mount Maudit the next day. I had been interested in the Kuffner for some time. The Rebuffat book spoke very highly of the route's position and situations, and the Griffin guide also referred to it as one of the best ridge climbs in the range. Another plus was that the route was relatively free of objective dangers. I had several books with pictures of the route, and these added to my interest in climbing it. It is a long mixed route, rated "D" and about 800 meters high. My guide for the Kuffner was Francis, who had taken me up the Arete de Cosmiques in nasty weather two years earlier. He warned me that it might not be a good idea to head up on such a long, high altitude climb right off of the airplane, but I felt sure that I would have no trouble with the route. I had been working out about 2 hours a day, 5 days a week since Christmas, and was confident that my conditioning would be sufficient. We headed off a little after lunch time for the Fourche bivouac hut, which sits low on the Frontier ridge right at the start of the Kuffner route. A pleasant and scenic ride up the Aiguille de Midi tram, and then across on the cable car to Point Helbronner and the Italian side began our trip, then we began crossing the glaciers on our way to the Fourche hut. The Fourche hut is a small hut perched precariously on the Frontier ridge, with a rickety balcony from which you can look down into the great wild cirque of Mount Maudit. The view is beautiful and compelling. The hut has space for about ten people and is quite Spartan, with no electricity, water, etc. It also has no toilet facilities, and as a result is surrounded by mounds of fecal matter. They really needed a solar toilet here, like the one on the lower saddle on the Grand Teton.

Hiking up to the Fourche Hut (Click on Picture for larger version)
The path we were taking up to the hut was not very difficult, but I was having trouble catching my breath, and found myself having to pause every few minutes, panting and gasping. We had to climb a steep, icy gully to gain the Frontier ridge where the hut is situated, and after just a few minutes of climbing, I was rapidly becoming extremely tired. By the time we reached the hut, I was exhausted, had trouble breathing, and felt dizzy and nauseous. I was chilled and cold, and couldn't warm up, even when I put on all my clothes and wrapped up in two blankets. I ate and drank a little, and after a while began to feel a little better. There were two other parties at the hut, and we chatted a bit. After a dinner of bread, cheese, ham, and an apple, I went to sleep. I slept passably well, and the next morning we began climbing just before dawn. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling much better, (actually a bit worse) and was soon dizzy, tired, nauseous and cold again. The dizziness was particularly disconcerting as it made climbing even simple sections quite hard. I was having a hard time catching my breath as well, and it soon became apparent to me and to Francis that I was just not up to climbing this route in my condition. Francis was clearly relieved when I agreed to abandon the climb and head back down. We did a series of down climbs, descending some mixed sections and a snow and ice filled couloir, and then began the trudge back to point Helbronner and the cable car. I felt completely sick, and had to stop to rest frequently, even on the easy slope up to the cable car station. When we finally reached Chamonix, I was completely demoralized. It seemed like all of my conditioning was simply wasted. I had put in a totally wimpy showing.

Francis and I spent the next day cragging at a nearby limestone outcropping, climbing bolted sport routes. I climbed reasonably well, and finished feeling a little better about my abilities.

The next day, I was off to climb the S.E. spur of Le Minaret, a V+, A1, TD route on a beautiful granite pinnacle in the Argentiere basin. My guide for this venture was Pierre, a friend of Francis who was subbing due to some conflicts Francis had. Pierre was very congenial and a lot of fun to talk to. We took the cable cars up to the top of the Grand Montets station, and then hiked down across the glacier to the Argentiere hut. I was worried about a repeat of my miserable physical performance on the Kuffner, but on the hike in to the Argentiere hut, I felt much stronger and more comfortable than I had before. The Argentiere hut is large and comfortable, with amazing views of the huge north walls of Les Courtes, Les Droits, and the Aiguille Verte. The hut keeper was also very pleasant and a very good cook. Dinner was excellent and plentiful and I went to bed happy, although a bit worried that I would become debilitated like before. When we woke up before dawn, and ate breakfast, I was quite scared and worried about how I would perform. When we began hiking up the steep trail to the Minaret, I kept waiting for the shortness of breath and dizziness that had incapacitated me two days earlier. It never came, however, and I found that I could easily keep up with Pierre's steady gait. I began to feel much more optimistic, and by the time we reached the base of the Minaret, I was very excited to begin the climb.

One of the pillars (not part of the route) near the top of the Minarette. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)
The Minarette. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)
One of the offwidth/chimney pitches on the Minarette. (Click on picture for larger version.)
It was a very cloudy morning, and only the base of the Minaret was visible, with the upper section shrouded in grey mist. We began climbing the fine, solid granite, and I immediately knew that this was going to be a great climb. The rock was impeccable, red and golden granite with numerous flakes, sharp crystals, cracks, and other features which made it perfect for climbing. At first the rock was cold, numbing my fingers, but as we climbed, the sun came out, and the cloud cover dropped beneath us, covering the valley floor below. As the sun reached us, the rock warmed up quickly, making the climbing much more enjoyable. Several of the pitches were quite strenuous, particularly because we were wearing packs containing our boots, crampons and ice axes. Two pitches of squeeze chimneys were particularly memorable for all of the inelegant wriggling they required.

Most of the climbing was fun and aesthetic, however, on steep cracks and faces. The crux of the lower section was a steep crack right off of a belay. Pierre grunted quite a bit getting up it, and I almost fell when my foot slipped, but managed to get up it without a fall. Near the top of the shoulder is a section of A1 aid climbing that was the hardest part of the climb for me. It follows an overhanging arete, and although the pitons are close together, it taxed my strength to work my way up, pulling on quickdraws and slings, and I ended up clipping in and hanging from my harness several times to rest. Probably the finest pitch of the climb came almost at the top; a beautiful finger crack on a steep rough wall that required some strenuous laybacking and finger jams to overcome. It was a great way to finish up the route. Overall, there were about ten pitches of climbing. The hardest moves on the climb (other than the aid pitch) were probably 5.8, but the majority of the climbing was in the 5.6 to 5.7 range. The climbing was almost continuously interesting, and the views across the valley of the great north walls of the Argentiere cirque made for a breathtaking backdrop. It was easy to see why this climb had a place in Rebufatt's 100 finest routes.

View of the Argentierre cirque from the Minarette. (Click on picture for larger version.)
The descent off the Minaret was somewhat unpleasant, and involved several rappels, and lots of scrambling down gullies filled with loose scree, boulders and dirty snow. I was very glad to finally reach the Argentiere hut again, and Pierre and I celebrated by eating a very large and very tasty ham and cheese omelette for lunch. Unfortunately, we were too late to catch the last cable car to the valley, so we had a long, tedious walk down the hard rocky trails to get back. When we finally got down, we celebrated with some drinks at a bar. I'd had a great time. The route was truly magnificent; one of the best rock climbs I'd ever been on, the weather had been good, and I felt much more confident about my ability to function in the mountains.

After a day of rest, I was ready for more climbing. Francis and Pierre were both climbing with other clients, so I headed for the Chamonix Guides Company office in search of a guide to take me up some snow and ice routes. I had hoped to get Serge, the guide I had climbed the Chardonnay with two years ago, but he was on Mont Blanc with another client. As it turned out, I got his brother Franco instead. Franco is short, solid, with silver hair and a weather beaten face. He looks like he has spent a lifetime in the mountains. He has a great disposition and a friendly, encouraging attitude. We were to spend two days together. The first day we were climbing the Chere couloir on the triangle face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The second day, we were going to climb the North Face of the Tour Ronde. Of the two climbs, the Chere couloir was more difficult, with some steep ice pitches of greater than 70 degrees. I wasn't too worried about it, however, because it was only about eight pitches long, and we would be climbing in pitches, belaying each other, rather than simul-climbing. Climbing in pitches had the dual virtues of being somewhat safer, and also allowed me to rest in between climbing.

Mont Blanc du Tacul, and a close up of the Triangle. The Chere Couloir is visible on the right side of the Triangle. (Click on pictures for larger versions.)
We caught the first car up to the Aiguille du Midi in the morning, and made the short hike over to the Triangle on Mont Blanc du Tacul. There was already a party on the route when we arrived. We figured that they must have spent the night in the Cosmiques hut to get there ahead of us. We geared up and began to climb, leaving some non-essential stuff at the base of the climb to save weight. The climbing was a lot of fun. Conditions were very good. The ice was very plastic, and I was getting good sticks almost every time on the first swing. Unfortunately, the party ahead of us was hacking badly, sending down big showers of ice chunks on us as we climbed. Other than the objective danger provided by the party above us, the climbing was very straightforward and pleasant. The good conditions allowed us to both move quickly up the steep gully. None of the climbing was very difficult, maybe AI3 at the hardest. At the top, we decided to continue up and then descend down the regular route on Mont Blanc du Tacul, rather than rappel down the couloir. The descent began with a long traverse with some big seracs above, and some even bigger ones below. Although the going was relatively easy, I felt pretty exposed as we moved across the slope, sandwiched between the huge hanging seracs. We finally reached the relative safety of the normal route, and descended back down to our stashed gear at the base of the Chere couloir.

We then shed our crampons and hiked across the glaciated Valle Blanche to the Torino hut. The hike was beautiful, passing beneath the Gervasutti Pillar and Grand Capucin, and other spectacular mountain scenery. We had some good views of the of the Dent du Geant and the Tour Ronde, our objective for the next day. Looking at it face-on, the North Face of the Tour Ronde looked steep and foreboding. Knowing that most of it would be climbed without belays, I began to get a bit anxious about climbing it. I still wasn't used to the Alpine method of simul-climbing, and wished that we could take our time climbing it in pitches. I was also still a little worried about the effects of altitude, but I seemed to be doing much better than before, and had little trouble cruising up the slopes to the Torino hut.

Some of the views from the Valle Blance: Dent du Geant; Mont Blanc du Tacul; Aiguille Verte; Aiguille Noir du Peuterey. (Click on pictures for larger versions.)
The Torino hut was large and comfortable, but, sadly, the restaurant was closed and dinner wasn't until 7:30. We bought some Kit Kats and Mars bars and took a nap until dinner. Dinner was not nearly so good as I had enjoyed at the Argentiere hut, and consisted of a large bowl of pasta, vegetables, and some gristley meat. Franco and I had a room of our own and we spent a restful night. We were up at about four thirty, out the door at about five, and were standing at the base of the North face of the Tour Ronde by six. We were alone on the mountain. It was a great feeling, particularly because we knew that there would be nobody dropping big pieces of ice down on us from above.
Tour Ronde North Face (Click on picture for larger version.)
After a trudge up a low angle snow slope, our first obstacle was the rather large bergshrund which guarded the approach to the lower portion of the face. We were able to get across on a narrow snow bridge, which allowed us to get our axes into the steep neve on the opposite side and scramble up and over it. From there, the going was pretty easy for a while. The snow was hard and plastic, and our crampon points and picks on our ice tools bit deeply and held firmly. We simulclimbed up the first part of the face, but the relatively low angle and excellent snow conditions allayed my concerns about not having a belay. A little above 1/3 height, the angle steepened, and the hard snow gave way to consolidated alpine ice. We abandoned the simulclimbing and belayed here for two pitches, using fixed anchors in the rock band which cut across the North Face through this section. I was glad for the rest which the belays provided. The climbing was pleasant and not difficult. The ice was good and solid and provided excellent purchase for tools and crampons. Before long, we were through the rock bands and began simulclimbing again on the upper portion of the face.
Approaching the rock bands on the Tour Ronde N. Face (Click on picture for larger version.)
We moved quickly, and after a while, my calves began to tire from the extended front pointing. Luckily, near the top, the angle eased off, and I was able to use "pied troisieme" as a rest step to reduce the strain and fatigue of front pointing. After what seemed like a long time, we reached the top of the snow and ice slopes on the North face. I was happy to be past the difficulties, and we relaxed a bit; eating, drinking, and taking some pictures. Then we headed up some easy mixed ground to the top of the peak. The summit was a splendid spot, with a small statue of the Virgin Mary, and magnificent views of Mont Blanc, Mont Maudit, and all of the other beautiful scenery. My eye was particularly drawn to the Frontier (Kuffner) ridge on Mont Maudit. The line up the ridge was so beautiful, I knew I needed to go back and try climbing it again. After a long session of picture taking, we headed down. It was 8:30; about two and a half hours since we had begun our climb.

The descent was somewhat unpleasant, down loose rocky ridges and gullies filled with wet snow and dirty ice. I was relieved to get down to the glacier again and we trekked happily back to point Helbronner and the cable car which would take us back to Chamonix. Overall, I had been extremely happy with my two day trip in the mountains. Both the Chere couloir and the N. face of the Tour Ronde had been fun climbs. They had given me some experience moving quickly over snow and ice, and had provided me with some confidence regarding my ability to function at altitude.

Although I was a little tired from my two day outing, I felt well enough to head up for the South face of the Aiguille du Midi the next day. The Rebuffat route on the S. face is a must do climb for anyone visiting the Alps, and the weather was perfect, warm and sunny. I met Francis at about 9:30, and we caught the tram up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. We got to the base of the Rebuffat route and found three other parties there also. The weather was good, and we were not in any particular hurry, however, so the other people didn't really bother me too much. On such a good day, I had expected a classic such as the Rebuffat route to be a bit crowded. Finally, we headed off, leaving our packs with our boots and crampons at the base, as we were planning on rappelling back down the route when we were done. The climbing was a lot of fun. The rock was excellent and the granite provided excellent traction for my sticky rubber clad feet. The moves were not difficult, maybe 5.7+ at the hardest. The most difficult thing about the climb was co-existing with the numerous other climbers on the route. The belays were crowded and trying to keep clear of other parties' ropes and gear was sometimes more challenging than the climbing. In spite of this, the route was interesting and the views across the valley were beautiful. I was a bit disappointed when we reached the top and it was time to rappel down.

Aiguille du Mid South Face (Click on picture for larger version.)
The descent involved a number of rappels from well-equipped fixed rappel stations. Then there was a slippery traverse across a snow field in my rock boots in order to get back to our packs at the base. We collected our gear, strapped on our crampons, hiked back up to the cable car station at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, and headed back down to Chamonix.

I felt I was ready now for a second try at the Kuffner Ridge on Mount Maudit. I had not had any hint of the altitude sickness that had plagued me on my first attempt, and I was feeling more confident in my abilities as well. I called Franco, and he agreed to guide me up the ridge. We spent the night in the Cosmiques hut rather than the Fourche hut. I had some reservations about spending the night at a hut that was relatively far from the start of the route, but Franco insisted that we would rest much better and that the lengthened approach would not add overly much to the difficulties of the climb. I deferred to his judgement, and we took the 4:30 cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi and made the short hike over to the Cosmiques hut. The hut was crowded but comfortable, and the food was excellent. Eating a four course dinner, I was glad we were not munching cold food at the cramped Fourche bivi hut. We got to bed early, and were up at 3:00 the next morning. We then took the familiar hike across the Valle Blanche, this time by the light of our headlamps. The approach was monotonous, as it was very dark, and there was no scenery to look at, just the immediate area lit by our headlamps and the steady ups and downs of the glacier. We hiked quickly, as there were few distractions and we were eager to get onto the route.

Mount Maudit's Kuffner Ridge viewed from the summit of the Tour Ronde. (Click on picture for larger version.)
We finally reached the gully that leads to the Frontier ridge. We could see the lights of several parties high above us on the ridge. We began climbing up the gully, and with the increased angle and increased exertion, my glasses immediately began fogging up. I tried futilely to wipe them off, but finally gave up, climbing blindly upward, judging my tool and crampon placements by sound and feel rather than sight. I was greatly relieved when we reached the top of the gully and established ourselves on the ridge. The first section was very dry, and we shed our crampons and climbed it with our boots, but we gained altitude and the ridge steepened, it became more covered with snow and ice. We replaced our crampons and began working our way up the mixed ground, the climbing alternating between rock, ice, and snow. We came to one section that involved a sort of giant "open book", where one side was covered with ice and the other was bare rock. We needed to traverse this section, and this involved a large leap from the ice section across to a small ledge on the rock section, with a serious drop off below. I belayed Franco across, then prepared myself for the leap, staring down into the blackness beneath me, beyond the reach of my headlamp beam. I took a deep breath and leapt across to the ledge - - - almost. What actually happened is that instead of leaping, I got my right crampon point snagged in the spring-like toe bale of my left crampon binding, and I ended up just hurling myself face first into the ledge. My face hit the ledge, my right knee hit a very hard rock, and my feet flailed around in space, crampon points sparking as they on scrabbled around trying to get some purchase on the rock. With the help of the taut rope and a jolt of adrenaline, I managed to mantle myself up onto the ledge and climbed up to Franco. My knee and wrist hurt a bit, but after some stretching and careful movement, I decided that it wasn't serious and that I could continue. We kept moving, but after that, I paid special attention to my footwork, making sure that I would not tangle up my crampons again.

About dawn, we caught up with another team of climbers. They had spent the night at the Fourche hut and said that it was extremely crowded and uncomfortable, with people sleeping on and under the tables and benches. Hearing this, I was glad that we had opted for the luxury of the Cosmiques hut, even though it added a considerable approach to our climb. We passed several other parties as well, moving quickly and simulclimbing while they belayed every pitch. Franco would weave the rope in and out of rock horns as we climbed, and the conditions of the snow and ice were very good, so I felt reasonably comfortable about moving together for most of the way. The climbing was not overly difficult, but it was relatively sustained. There were sections of steep snow and ice, and also sections of rock, which we climbed with our crampons. To me, the most intimidating portions of the climb were those sections where we had to traverse steep, narrow "knife edge" ridges. It was like walking a balance beam, and there was generally no opportunity to use your axe for support. I took these sections slowly and carefully, placing each step deliberately, and being extra careful not to tangle up my crampons. After several sections of steep rock and steep ice, we cleared the technical section and were left with a long, corniced ridge that curved steadily to the sharp summit of Mount Maudit. I could feel the thinness of the air, and after a while it was quite difficult to continue the constant upward stepping. We were rewarded by amazing views, however, that took my mind off of my fatigue. The mountains were beautiful in the pale, early morning light, and from our vantage point on the high ridge line, we could see not only the mountains of the Mont Blanc Massif, but also the other alpine ranges behind them. The distant mountains were layered one behind another, each successive peak becoming less and less distinct to our vision until they seemed like ghosts.

Approaching the summit of Mt. Maudit (Click on picture for larger version.)
We crossed one final obstacle consisting of a crevasse spanned by a shaky snow bridge, and then we were on top of Mount Maudit's rocky summit. I savored the view, feeling very tired, but also very happy. After a break for some food and water, it was time to go down. It was only a little after nine oclock, but I had awakened at three, so I'd been awake for six hours already, and most of that had been spent in relatively strenuous activity. I was looking forward to a hot shower and a bed. The descent (down the normal route up Mont Blanc) was extremely tedious, and was made even more unpleasant by the fact that my knee which I had banged up in my clumsy fall began to swell up and become a bit painful. Luckily, there was a fair amount of relatively fresh snow, which made it easy to glissade much of the descent route, speeding things up considerably. After what seemed like forever, we finally reached the flat glacier below the Aiguille du Midi, passing the Triangle on the way. Trudging up the ridge to the Aiguille du Midi station was very tiring, and by the time we reached the tram station, I was out of water, out of energy, and ready for a rest. We reached the valley at about one oclock, at the end of a very long ten hour day. I took a wonderful hot shower, ate a large meal at a restaurant, and then collapsed into bed.

The Kuffner ridge had more than lived up to my expectations. It was challenging but not extremely difficult; it provided interesting climbing on rock and snow and ice; and the scenery and positions were amazing. Climbing this route seemed to provide me with a bit of everything that I love about climbing; challenge, beauty, variety, and fear, in just the right proportions. I was very happy that I had come back to climb this route. It was a great experience and a perfect way to end my visit to the Alps. The next day, I was back in the real world, headed for London for a string of business meetings. It had been a great vacation, and I had been able to get in a lot of climbing. I was tired but happy, thinking of home and family, but also dreaming about future challenges. The Gervasutti Pillar, the Aiguille Noir du Peuterey, and the Aiguille Verte had all caught my eye, and I had already marked them in my guidebooks as potential ventures on my next trip to Chamonix.