Aiguille du Midi: Contamine Route
Aiguille du Midi: Carli-Chassagne Couloir
Aiguille Rouges, le Passet: "Tout Ca Pour Ca"
Pointe Lachanel: Contamine Route
Grand Capucin: Swiss Route
Guidebook references to these climbs:
Mont Blanc Massif: the 100 Finest Routes, (Gaston Rebuffat)
Aiguille du Midi, South Face pg. 142 (#55)
Pointe Lachenal, pg. 138 (#53)
Neige, Glace, et Mixte, (Francois Damilano, Godefroy Perroux)
Carli-Chassagne couloir pg. 253 (#62r)
Mont Blanc Massif: Selected Climbs (2 volumes) Lindsay Griffin
Aiguille du Midi, Contamine Route: Vol 2, pg. 34 (#8)
Pointe Lachenal, Contamine Route: Vol 1, pg. 120 (#228)
Grand Capucin, Swiss Direct: Vol 1 pg. 127 (#258)
Les Aiguille Rouges: Escalade au Soleil
Le Passet, "Tout Ca Pour Ca" pg. 230
It was late June and I was headed for Chamonix again. This trip had been scheduled for more than six months, and I was looking forward to climbing in Chamonix again with anticipation formed of long planning. I was hoping to do some big snow and ice routes, but two things were conspiring against me. The first was that the Grand Montets cable car and the Argentierre hut were closed until July 1, so the big North faces in the Argentierre were temporarily inaccessible. The second problem was that when I arrived, Chamonix was in the middle of a big heat wave. In spite of these obstacles, however I was sure I could get some good climbing in.
I called Franco the evening of the day when I got into Chamonix, and we decided to try a rock route on the South Face of the Aiguille du Midi. The next morning, we took the first cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi. Although it was early, the sun was already quite hot. The route Franco had chosen was the Contamine route, a strenuous crack climb up the right side of the South Face. I knew I couldn’t free climb the 5.11 crux pitch, but I figured I could probably free climb the rest of the route and pull on some pitons and aid my way past the crux. The route follows a line of cracks up the beautiful golden Midi granite. The rock on the Midi is a bit different than the granite in Colorado that I'm used to climbing. The granite in Chamonix tends to be a bit rougher than its US counterpart, with more crystals and sharp edges than the more polished rock of my local mountains and crags. Although the climbing was excellent, I could tell that I was not at my best form. The climbing consisted of mostly steep jamming, and was tiring quickly. A combination of the altitude and jet lag was sapping my strength and making the climbing more difficult than it should have been. Franco motored up the steep granite, climbing smoothly and confidently but I struggled, huffing and puffing up the face. When we reached the crux, I was beat. The thought of aiding my way up the crux pitch was not very appealing, so we just rapped off down the face. Then it was back down the cable car to the valley, where I collected my ice gear and then turned back around and caught the last cable car up to the Plan de Aiguille where we were spending the night.
Our goal for the next day was the Carli-Chassagne couloir on the North West face of the Aiguille du Midi. The Carli-Chassagne is a long route, about 1000 meters, with a mix of moderate snow climbing and steeper ice. We spent that evening at the Plan de Aiguille hut, which is situated below the midway stop on the Aiguille du Midi telepherique. The Plan hut is an older, smallish structure with a beautiful view of the Chamonix valley. Dinner was pleasant, and was concluded with a wonderful raspberry pie. There was only one other party at the hut that night, a guide and his client who were headed for the popular Mallory couloir on the N. Face of the Midi. I spent the evening gazing out over the valley, watching the shadows lengthen and the moon rise over the mountains.
We were up early the next morning and made the approach up to the climb by the light of our headlamps, crossing the bergshrund just as the sun was coming up. Although it was relatively warm, the snow was well frozen, and we were cramponing up perfect nevé. The couloir is wide at the bottom, narrowing down the higher you climb, and also getting progressively steeper higher up. We simulclimbed the first third of the route, then began belaying as the angle steepened and the snow gave way to ice. The warm temperatures created a fair amount of running water on the route, but it also made the ice very plastic and the climbing quite secure. The crux of the route came between half and two thirds height, and consisted of a series of steep ice pitches with a few mixed and thin ice sections. However, it was quite reasonable climbing, without any scary sections. Above the crux pitches, the angle lessened again, and there was more snow climbing up to a rocky ridge, then more snow climbing as we traversed left to join the very top portion of the Mallory route. We topped out at about 10:30 a.m. and were riding the telepherique back down to Chamonix by 11:15. Although it wasn’t yet lunch time, it had been a long day.
Simulclimbing the lower section; Franco high in the couloir; Topping out on the upper snow slopes. (Click on pictures for larger versions.)
The weather forecast for the next day called for storms, so we decided to limit our climbing to crags, as opposed to the high mountains. We headed up to le Passet in the the Aiguilles Rouge for some cragging. The route Franco had selected was called "Tout ca pour ca" an eight pitch route with pitches up to 6a/b. After a leisurely approach hike, we came to the base of the route. It was a beautiful spot, in an isolated wooded river valley bounded by tall cliffs. The gneiss of the Aiguilles Rouges is a little different than the Mont Blanc granite, but although there were differences in color (red and brown as opposed to the grey and gold), the friction characteristics seemed similar. The climbing itself was a lot of fun, with a great deal of variety. There were steep cracks, face climbing, friction slabs, and everything in between. The second??pitch had a delicate section of steep face climbing transitioning into a thin crack. Franco had thoughtfully left a long sling attached to his bolted protection, presumably to help me aid my way past the difficulties. I was determined not to resort to aid, however, and managed to grunt my way through the crux section without pulling on slings. It felt great to free the crux, and it even more gratifying because Franco no longer bothered to leave me “cheater slings” to pull on. The higher we got up on the route, the better the views became, and we were treated to glimpses of the Aiguille du Chardonnay, the Aiguille Verte and the great North Faces of the Courtes and Droites. The climb finished on top of a small pinnacle, and we hung out and relaxed a bit before we began our rappel descent down the face. We hiked out and drove back to Chamonix, arriving just as the sky released a huge downpour of rain and hail. Looking at the black sky, hail, and thunder, we were glad that we had opted to climb in the valley as opposed to up on the storm battered spires above Chamonix.
A view of the crag. The route goes up the center, finishing on the light colored pinnacle. A topo of the climb. (Click on pictures for larger versions.)
The next day, the weather was still very unsettled, so I spent my time resting and wandering around Chamonix, checking out the mountaineering stores, eating, and relaxing. Franco called in the evening with a suggestion that we resume our climbing with a couple of long rock routes, the Contamine route on Pointe Lachenal, followed by the Swiss Route on the Grand Capucin. The weather forecast for the next few days called for warm clear weather, so we decided to make the best of our opportunity and climb as much as possible.
I woke up the next morning, ate breakfast, and then met Franco at the Aiguille du Midi teleferique at about 9:30. From the top of the Midi, we hiked to the base of Pointe Lachenal. The snow was soft and deep, and we spent a long time post-holing through the mushy snow. I was relieved when we finally were able to begin climbing. By the time I was on the second pitch, I realized that I was in for a real treat. This climb was truly classic, and turned out to be my favorite climb of this trip. The climbing was very even in difficulty, with nearly every pitch provided challenges between the 5.7 to 5.8 ranges. The only problem I was having was that my fingers, more accustomed to a computer keyboard than the rough Chamonix granite, were rapidly shredded, leaving me with ragged, bloody finger tips. The constantly interesting moves, the beautiful scenery, and impeccable granite more than made up for the discomfort however. After a long rappel descent and a strenuous slog back up our approach route, we finally arrived at the Cosmiques hut, where we were spending the night.
A view of Pointe Lachenal. Climbing granite on the Contamine Route. (Click on pictures for larger versions.)
The next morning, we were up early, and headed to the Grand Capucin. The snow was firm, and we didn’t have to post-hole through thigh deep snow as we had the day before. We were heading out before dawn, and the approach was done in darkness. Looking up, I could see the softly twinkling lights from the headlamps of climbers on the normal route of Mont Blanc. The lights formed a serpent-like constellation low in the night sky. We reached the base of the Grand Capucin before sunrise, and crossed the bergshrund and worked our way up the couloir along the left side of the Grand Capucin. We reached the base of the route just as the Sun was beginning to break the horizon. We cached our boots, crampons, and ice axes in the rocks and began climbing. The rock was very cold, and my fingers soon were numb from contact with the freezing granite. The climbing on the lower section of the climb was quite strenuous, consisting of mostly steep hand cracks, dihedrals, and off-widths. About mid way up the route, we encountered a very steep face bisected by a thin seam. This pitch was clearly difficult, and to make matters worse, there was water running down it. Franco really showed his mettle on this pitch, boldly leading up the wet slippery rock, made even more difficult by the sparse protection. When it came my turn to climb the pitch, I was stymied again and again by the wet rock and thin crack. In contrast to Franco’s smooth ascent, I was flailing and repeatedly falling. Finally, I gave in and “Batmanned” up the rope, hauling myself past the wet crux.
A view of the Grand Capucin (center right) with Mont Maudit in the background on the left. Franco on top of the Grand Capucin. (Click on pictures for larger versions.)
After several more pitches of free climbing, we reached a small roof studded with pitons, which we overcame using aid. It was my first real attempt at aid climbing. It was a little strange, standing up on slings, clipping pitons, climbing and swinging from point to point, making my upward progress slowly by this method, rather than relying on natural holds. Aiding upward using only slings and other improvised aid gear was also very strenuous, and I was pretty well worn out by the end of the long aid pitch. The difficulty of the climbing did not ease off, however, and I found that there was still a lot of hard climbing left before we reached the top. The climbing on the top section was almost unrelentingly steep, and by the time we finished the route I was exhausted. I was happy to rest for a while, sucking down power gels and water and enjoying the lazy sensation of not having to do any more upward movements.
The descent involved numerous long rappels, many of them free-hanging. We finally reached the base of the tower, collected our cached gear, and then slogged over to point Helbronner and the cable car station. It felt great to sit and watch the terrain flow beneath my feet, without any effort on my part. When the cable car ride was over, I stumbled back to my hotel room, showered, and immediately went to sleep.
Our final objective for this trip was the North Face of Les Courtes. The day after the Capucin climb, Franco and
I were hiking up to the Argentierre hut.
Conditions on Les Courtes’ North Face were very favorable, and we were
hoping to squeeze in another climb before I had to leave Chamonix. Unfortunately, my body did not cooperate,
and I found myself getting sick. By the
time I reached the Argentierre hut, it was clear I wasn’t going to be climbing
anything, as I was feverish, dizzy, and throwing up. I was pretty depressed, as I knew I didn’t have time for another
climb before it was time for me to leave.
I did get to sleep in, however, instead of having to wake up at 3:00 a.m. as
we had planned. We also didn't have to contend with the nine other parties who were climbing the Swiss Route on Les Courtes that day. The next morning,
Franco and I walked down to the Lognons lift, and caught the tram back down to
the valley. Later that day, I packed up
and left Chamonix. In spite of the
failure on Les Courtes, I had put in a lot of climbing. In five days of climbing, I had climbed over
2000 vertical meters, including some
of the classic alpine rock climbs in the Mont Blanc range. On my flight home, I was already making
plans for my next visit.