Dent du Geant (“Giant’s tooth”), a prominent peak clearly seen from the Aiguille du Midi but hidden from view in the valley of Chamonix, remained unconquered until 1880, when Albert Mummery, an English tannery owner and his guide Alexander Burgener unsuccessfully attempted the South-West face to the summit. The band of smooth slabs (now known as the “Burgener slabs”) proved so difficult to surmount that Mummery left the following cryptic message on a visiting card at the site: “Absolutely inaccessible by fair means!” The English climber William Graham finally succeeded in 1882 (the highest summit, 4013m was thus named after him).
In July 2009 I came with my father (JanG) to Chamonix for a week of mountaineering. One of our objectives was to climb the Dent by the “normal” South-West route (rated AD); our local guide was Eric. Our climb was scheduled for the morning after a cold front had coated many Chamonix peaks with fresh layers of snow and after we had spent a very cold night at the Refugio Torino (near Pointe Helbronner). The weather had cleared but it was unusually cold for early July. After a 2-3 hour scrambling approach to the foot of the Dent, we started on the climb itself before 8 AM from the “Salle A Manger” (a.k.a. “Breakfast Ledge”).
Our attempt was quickly aborted due to the nerve-racking patches of slippery snow that we encountered on the rocky footholds (we had started the climb with regular boots rather than the more appropriate ‘sticky’ climbing shoes). At one point I slipped above the dramatic drops below us and experienced the near disaster of almost losing my climbing harness (I had not buckled the extra loop and the loose harness was fortunately noted by another climber below me). At this time we were also quite intimidated by a very brief stroll on the Rochefort ridge, which is situated between sheer drops to the valley below. Clearly we were not yet quite up to the task!
We returned to Chamonix this July for another week of mountaineering with Eric (and another attempt to climb the Dent and the ridge). This time we were much better prepared. We acclimatized ourselves on the Forbes Arete of the Aiguille du Chardonnet and the steep climb of the Gervasutti couloir of the Tour Ronde, which helped diminish some of our apprehensions about the dramatic exposures on the Dent. The exceptionally warm, clear weather during our stay in Chamonix also made a huge difference compared with our prior attempt but added a new risk: slushy snow during our descent with increased dangers of rockfall. Our guide Eric decided that it was best not to try the Rochefort ridge on the same day as the Dent.
We started our expedition with a 7am teleferique ride (after a nice overnight rest in our Chamonix hotel) up to the Aiguille du Midi and connected with gondolas to the Pointe Helbronner. We immediately started our approach to the Dent. In this way we arrived at the “Breakfast Ledge” by noon, when the sun was already warming up the Burgener slabs. This time we opted for the sticky climbing shoes for the final climb on the Dent.
The first pitch of the AD-rated climb is aided by a short set of fixed ropes. Pulling up on the ropes and finding the proper foot holds can be somewhat strenuous. The upward sloping traverse on the left, leading to the Burgener slabs, had no fixed ropes and we started feeling the effects of altitude because we had spent the previous night in the Chamonix valley. For better climbers, there is another more direct climb to the summit immediately above the first belay spot. This is the “Geant Branche” route (rated TD, 6a French/5.9-5.10+, according to Jean-Louis Laroche, Sommets du Mont-Blanc, published 2010) which has no artificial aids until it rejoins the “normal “ route immediately below the first summit.
Fixed ropes on the final climb of the Burgener slabs were placed in July 1882 by members of the Italian Sella family; namely, these were iron stakes from which 100m long ropes were hung. The thick ropes have been periodically replaced since that time but they are still in use. Climbing the Burgener slabs using these fixed, thick ropes as aid greatly facilitates the ascent on the final 100m to the Sella summit. Initially we followed the natural cracks on the slabs, but the inclination of the slabs started to increase, so we found it was much easier to hold the ropes as support while climbing with the sticky shoes. One has to admire the pioneers in the 1880's who had no sticky climbing shoes or thick rope aids. We found that the exposure on the climb was sensational, with Courmayeur 2000m directly below our feet. After reaching the first summit of the Dent (Pointe Sella, 4009m) there is a very short descent before an additional set of fixed, thick ropes helped us reach the highest point (Pointe Graham, 4013m).
The descent by four rappels directly on the South Face from Pointe Sella to the “Breakfast Ledge” was quite dramatic because we were suspended in the void a couple of times before reaching the snow quite close to the Rochefort ridge. The descent late in the afternoon to Rifugio Torino was quite nerve-racking because of the constant danger of rockfall. The unusual heat made the descent rather exhausting.
After a cold night at the Refugio Torino we started before dawn on the long approach to the "Breakfast Ledge” of the Dent, where we proceeded to the western part of the Rochefort ridge before 8am. Eric emphasized that it was essential to complete the climb and be off the airy ridge before the snow began to soften. The ridge itself was a really dramatic, narrow path up and down (sometimes up to 50 degrees inclination) with no room for errors (a fall on either side can result in uncontrollable, possibly fatal slides). The conditions that we encountered were ideal because there were well-trodden steps in the ice and snow which was still quite firm by the time we were back at the “Breakfast Ledge” before noon. We turned back to the “Breakfast Ledge” after reaching the summit of the Aiguille de Rochefort (4001 m) but more enterprising groups often continue another two hours for the complete traverse to the Dome de Rochefort, 4015m and the Col des Grandes Jorasses. The Rochefort ridge is really dream-like, quite unlike any other ridge in the Alps. The accompanying pictures don’t do justice to what it is like to tread on this undulating tightrope above 3800m of altitude!