An account of an ascent in1985
In Britain it is rare to find a steeper south side to a mountain than its northern one. This rule is generally true for the whole of the Northern Hemisphere and most geography GCSE candidates will give a fairly good account of why. Surprising, then that the highest hill in Europe turns the tables on this rule in quite a big way. I was so intrigued that I went up there, and then, not believing what I saw, went back again, twice in a week. I confess now that it was not just an interest in glaciation that drew me to this place.
The first ascent of the mountain was made from the north in August 1786. Nearly 100 years passed before the first true southern route was made to the summit in July 1865. My first journey into this complex rock and ice wilderness was by a route first traced in August 1919: a fitting celebration for the end of that awful human catastrophe recently finished in Flanders. It is known as the Innominata Ridge, which seems to me to be a misnomer in that, although there were bits of ridge, there were also lots of other bits too. Later that week the revisit was up to a true ridge, a steep crest of rock, snow and ice: the Peuterey.
High up the Val Veni, under the rocky tree covered snout of the arduously long Miage Glacier, a couple of cables wing their way up the slope and across the river from a big chalet by the road. If you look hard and the light is good, you can see these cables blend into a building 3000ft higher up. This is the Monzino refuge, also known as the Gamba and sensible alpinists send their rucsacs up on the tiny telepherique that these cable serve.
In the heat of the afternoon, as was depressingly usual (John likes a lie in) we staggered off across the moraine eschewing the use of the cables, and, as was soon apparent, the path. An epic crossing of the torrents melting from the Miage glacier saw us eventually, and thankfully, on the well-marked path zigzagging up the scree in the right direction. Before crossing the river, John had found a wading pole of huge proportions. He got so attached to it that it was only discarded a few metres below the 4000-metre level the following day. He always looked to me like a more modern version of a dapper military man from those days before the fist ascent. The pole afforded this image further credibility, and mixed up with the accoutrements of modern Alpinism, gave him a pastiche that spanned a century. Never too fashion conscious myself, and wearing gear that spanned a quarter century, I made no comment but felt inwardly happy that my companion who was usually so careful about the way he appeared to the world had temporarily joined me.
We were continuously mocked by rucsacs crawling through the sky above our heads and the steady passing of fast moving unburdened climbers. This error of judgement and we had not even reached the Monzino hut! I was quickly down to a pair of shorts with the rest of my clothes hung around my rucsac, drying out in a way that continental climbers could never emulate however hard they tried; there is no mistaking the Englishman abroad. I have photographs of knotted handkerchiefs and gaiters over Levi’s. This was a measure of the seriousness of a route that guidebook writers had no inkling of. A climbing duo, brothers from the Kirkstall/Rodley area of Leeds only put gaiters on when a route was grade V or over and might entail a bivouac, when a extra tee-shirt was packed. They bickered continuously for two months every year up and down the hardest rock climbs in Europe, and then, feeling fit, moved onto the big mountaineering prizes of the Mt. Blanc area for the climax of their holiday. They were amongst the founder members of the tongue in cheek ‘Rock and Slime Club’ that was mostly composed of South Lakeland climbers and as diverse and funny a group of people you would wish to meet anywhere.
They readily drew us into their circle and I learned a lot from their company about mountaineering skills, humour and human warmth. The brothers’ yearly Grand Tour was quite legendary, and I hope, the surviving one, Geoff, is able to sometime to record his memories. I would be the first in the queue for a copy.
Back on the way to Monzino we were nearing our night’s lodging as the cool of the evening descended the glaciers. In the basement is a bare, concrete cell of a room for self-caterers, our quarters. John did the paperwork with the crotchety old woman whose family owned the place. He came back with a fresh faced young Italian who was employed as a lackey in the refuge and knew enough about mountaineering to wonder what a middle aged pair of Englishmen might be firing themselves at. He must have stripped the kitchen, bringing us fresh and canned fruit, vegetables, soup and bread. I think he had a grudge against the family and, liking our company and stories, found an outlet for that grudge that was entirely to our mutual satisfaction!
At 5.30am the following morning, as we began to toil up to the little Chatelet glacier, the old woman in black came chasing after us, obviously not in tune with the lovely alpine morning that was unfolding. Burdened by all the extra food, we struggled to get out of earshot and she slowly dropped behind. Maybe she had tortured our young friend into confession! We will never know. It was 1985, I think.
We were now alone. So the throng of people at the refuge were not all bound for the Innominata, only the two of us. At the top of the Chatelet (which is really only a big snowfield) the route slides over a dip in the rocky ridge separating the Chatelet and Broulliard glaciers.
The Broulliard is the real Mcoy, heavily crevassed, continuously moving downhill and very steep in places. The right hand side (looking up) permits easier passage with less threat of being hit by falling bits or becoming a falling bit your self. John’s pole was more useful than our short axes here as we plodded slowly up to the start of the really steep bit, passing a few beginner crevasses on the way.
The altitude was taking its toll now as we floundered onto a little flat refuge of snow between the Punta Innominata and the lower part of Pte Eccles. Two bulges of ice and a mixed traverse separated us from the Eccles bivouac, which we had now spotted. This was wild country alright! The steepening face of the upper part of Mt. Blanc from the Broulliard ridge to the Freney Pillar loomed above. The huge Broulliard Pillars were dwarfed by the immensity of this face. The Aiguille Blanche dominated our view to the East and the Noire glowered down on us from behind to the south. John said that this place had freaked out a few just by their being here. Here was the one who was just about managing, but I said nothing as we set off up the bulges. John’s pole was discarded for others to wonder as to how a tree got up here. The bulges were easier than they looked, despite the midday heat destroying the climbable quality of the ice and replacing it with something more rejective of the upwardly mobile.
The mixed ground to the tin hut of a refuge wired to a mountainside was reasonable, but wet and slushy, and it was a relief to arrive at a time when we were often contemplating leaving the valley. One thing had gone right: no, two. We had spare food! The refuge is tiny. How twelve people could fit in perplexed me but, if the storm was savage enough, I suppose you could get twenty in. Why Bonattis’ party did not make for it in July 1961 is a mystery to me.
I never met him or Mazeaud but am still in awe of the unfolding of events, beginning with an attempt to secure the first ascent of the Pillar of Freney. Only three of the original seven made it back to the Gamba after six days of ferocious storms killed them off, one by one, in their retreat from just below the top of the Pillar. The refuge was well appointed for such a small affair. In the event of a long enforced stay, there was spare food and gas. I spent the afternoon drawing and painting the stupendous surrounds whilst John caught up with sleep. Gradually the snow stopped melting and a team I had been watching crawl up the Broulliard glacier approached from the mixed traverse. It was Saturday and they had driven up overnight from near Turin to climb the left-hand pillar of Broulliard tomorrow, abseil down it and then get back to Turin for work on Monday. Some weekend! One was nursing his head: the other two were enthusiastic and chatty. We had a pleasant evening as darkness finally settled on this, the highest bit of Europe.
An hour and a half before dawn we crunched off towards the summit of Pte Eccles, past the semi derelict original hut. Reasonable mixed climbing did not require a rope and we arrived at the Col in time to witness the extraordinary sight of the sun flaring onto the upper part of the Broulliard pillars, lighting the Frenay pillars one by one and then pulling itself up behind the Jorasses framed by the slopes rising either side of the Col Peuterey. These images are imprinted in my head so strongly that recalling is so easy and so detailed. The three Italians were crawling over the crevassed slopes leading to the base of the left hand pillar, ants at the base of a giant redwood. Some intensive rock climbing on lovely red granite led eventually to a sharp arete that ran in the complexities of the main bulk of the mountain. A wider couloir led dangerously up into a zone that screamed stonefall at us from every angle. We were far too long in there, living on nerves already frayed by the majesty and scale of the place. If you have an ego that needs crushing, go there and see yourself as you really are. My arrogance at presuming to be there in the first place surprised me time and time again.
We had to cross the couloir from right to left , its mucky, gritty, slab was overlayed with slush as the day was warming up. Awkward in crampons, but not far enough to justify taking them off.. We seemed to be about level with the summit of the Noire and the sun was slanting through the gaps in the South Ridge and the breche and towers around the Dames Anglais. What wonderful light and what a place from which to view Italy! As we rose, so my spirits began to soar. The quality of the route was outstanding, this little grotty bit just accessing the upper part back left above the Broulliard face. A lovely ramp slanted up to the left out of the couloir. It even had protection. The sky was deep indigo and the altitude was putting years on my performance, but we kept the pressure on. Time stood still or flew by; the concentration required making a mockery of this dimension. The ramp petered out into the steepening upper face, which consisted of very steep flutings of ice and snow with some rock steps. This section seemed a long way and we were tiring now. The angle did not let up and we never noticed the sky changing texture for a while. A slip would have entailed a long fall putting more strain onto the belay and belayer than both were capable of withstanding. This would have deposited both of us in the laps of our Turin friends, 2500ft below.
We took some tablets of levulose to combat the fatigue now well set in. Cloud was blowing around and it became quite cold. The angle had not eased and the strain was quite telling and I wished the ridge would arrive.
When it did, we had a brief glimpse of the summit dome about half a mile away before the cloud, blown by a north-westerly gale, obscured our view. The wind was bitterly cold and it looked like the fight was far from over as flying ice and hail joined the fray. No chance of making a brew in the peace of a tranquil alpine afternoon. Putting all our gear on, we were buffeted and battered all the way up to Mt. Blanc de Courmayeur. Shattered outcrops and flying cloud gave way to white out conditions towards the main summit. We were crawling now and seriously cold. It is surprisingly featureless between the Courmayeur and main summits and it would be easy in the storm to fall off either side of the col in error.
John had passed this way before in similar weather with the added bonus of lightning strikes. We were slow, oh so slow, and so ancient and worn out up those last metres. At least we were still ascending so it was the right place. I could not have stood up even if it were possible. The proliferation of footprints was the only indication of the summit and we soon fell into the trench that is the route up from the North. Even the descent was hard work as we painfully stumbled down the Bosses ridge. Landmarks appeared. It is 2000ft down to the Vallot hut and the automatic reflex of clearing clogged crampons by tapping them with the side of your axe every few steps is important all the way. A stumble here off either side would be terminal.
We had the mountain to ourselves and the Vallot hut, when thankfully reached, was empty. Still with all my gear on, I fell back on the bunk and did not move for a good half hour. The wind shrieked and was blowing snow up through the flap where the “toilet” hole was. I remember little of the night and John said the weather got worse with thunder and lightning adding to the racket. A delicate drift of fine snow covered where we lay under the grubby blankets. I felt as though I had been wrestling with an articulated lorry all night and was not relishing the long descent to Chamonix in such atrocious weather.
Incredibly, as we were leaving, the clouds had dropped to below 12000ft and we watched three figures emerging from where they had dug in half a mile away towards the Gouter. They set off towards the summit in ferocious wind.
Over half litre mugs of exquisite café au lait, we swapped stories with the Guardian of the Grandes Mullet and I began to feel human. A metre of new snow had required much care as some of the crevasses were now hidden.
The awkward crossing of the Bossons glacier, where it turns before its steep plunge to the valley bottom, was negotiated. The new snow was melting off and slushy pools had to be waded through. An uphill section at the end of the glacier was painful but, eventually, the telepherique station at the Plan des Aiguilles drew near.
Back in the Val Veni the girls had coped with the storm in the usual way, by swallowing lots of rough wine and were the worse for wear. They had been genuinely frightened for our welfare up there and readily blamed their condition on worry! Two days later we set off again.