Frendo without Sasha
“We have to move quickly now if we want to catch Sasha”, I said to Matt and Alina. We just topped out on the super classic line Voie Frison-Roche on Le Brevent. One of the attractions of climbing on Le Brevent is that from the top you can take the cable car to get down to the valley. But we started climbing quite late due to the unsettled weather earlier in the day, and the cable car was long stopped by the time we finished the climb. So, now we were faced with having to hike down, and the Finals of the Chamonix Climbing World Cup were starting in a little over an hour. And Sasha DiGiulian was the only American to reach the Finals.
* * *
This was my third trip to Chamonix in three straight years. The 2010 trip was sort of an exploration. That’s when I first laid my sight on the Frendo Spur route on Aiguille du Midi. The route seemed long and reasonably involved, and had a reputation of a classic test piece. I did not feel anywhere near ready to actually climbing it, though. On my return next year, Jens Klenner and I witnessed a helicopter recovering bodies of the two young British guys who fell to their deaths from the snow ridge in the upper part of the climb. That provided the final drop in the bucket of our doubts and we turned our attention to less ambitious objectives. Now, my good friend and long time climbing partner Oleg Horholyuk was with me and we were determined to try the Frendo.
Prior to our arrival in Chamonix I had our program fully laid out. We would warm up for three – four days in the Envers des Aiguilles area. Take a rest day. Then we would spend a night at the Cosmiques Refuge and do a climb on the South Face of Aiguille du Midi to get acclimatized. After two more rest days we would be ready for Frendo. Life and weather, as usual, put their own spin on my plan. We got to Chamonix on Saturday, June 30. My bag with both our ropes, half of our gear and all of my personal stuff did not get there until the next afternoon, when the rain was already in the making. Over the next four days we only got in a total of 16 pitches of climbing in Envers. And the weather forecast for the remainder of our two-week trip was not encouraging. We were not sure we could climb Frendo in a day, so we wanted to have at least a day and a half of solid good forecast. It looked like such window might open up early next week, but there was no certainty.
Our speed on the climbs in Envers was also not encouraging. After some discussion Oleg and I decided that instead of acclimatizing higher up we should see how we'd do on a somewhat long climb. We chose the classic Contamine-Voucher on Aig. du Peigne, a 400-metet route I had previously climbed. On Saturday, July 7 we started from the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille and climbed the 16 pitch route in what we deemed to be a reasonable time. We stayed another night at the hut hoping to go higher up the next day, but Sunday morning greeted us with rain. On the plus side, at the hut we got to quiz an American guide who has climbed the Frendo Spur before. His report of the climb blew fresh wind under our wings. And while the day’s weather was no good, coming Monday and Tuesday were forecast to be dry! The time has come for Oleg and I to make the call.
* * *
Friday, July 13, the day of the Climbing World Cup, dawned with drizzle and overcast sky. At two in the afternoon Oleg and I went over to watch the semi-finals. The atmosphere in the square was very festive, the entire square was full with people. The first of the females, Maja Vidmar, fell just a few holds short of the last clip and was visibly upset with her performance. While none of the following few women matched her high point, we expected Sasha DiGiulian to easily top the Slovenian. Then, about half an hour into the competition the clouds over the town started breaking up and the rays of the hot summer sun filled the streets. These rays and the athletes’ elegant moves on the competition routes ignited my own desire to be on the rock. Yet, I was hesitant to leave without a glimpse of Sasha. I called Matt and Alina at the apartment – “We’re ready!” was the answer. Oleg was having enough of a good time watching the comp, so only the three of us went up to Le Brevent. I’d still catch Sasha at the Finals, thought I.
* * *
“Look, after all we can take the tent and then if we have to bivy, it will be in comfort” – reasoned I. Back in Chamonix we were discussing our strategy for the Frendo climb.
“If we take the tent”, replied Oleg, “we won’t move fast enough and will definitely end up bivying”.
“Yes, that is true.”
Making the call was not an easy thing. We both had our doubts. We did not get enough rest after Aig. Du Peigne. We were not acclimatized enough. We had no idea what time we’d reach the snow ridge and what conditions we would find there. What we did not doubt was each other. We both knew this might be our only chance on this trip. “So, what do you think?” asked Oleg with a trying expression in his eyes. “I’m ready. Let’s do it. Let’s go up Frendo tomorrow”, said I.
* * *
As Matt, Alina and I made our way down the trail we heard the super excited voice of the World Cup announcer listing the credentials of the finalists. Matt was the only one who spoke French, but from this far he could not discern the words. We did not know whether the women or the men would start the Finals. Still we hoped we’d be there just in time. The drizzle that started again just as we topped out on Le Brevent now turned into a full strength rain. By the time we reached the town we were soaked down to our underwear. We had to stop by the apartment to change and get beers from the fridge. We reached the square some twenty minutes into the Finals. By that time Sasha DiGiulian had already climbed. Once again, I blew my chance to see her.
* * *
The custodian at the Plan de l’Aiguille hut met us with a smile - we had returned the same day we left. “What are you climbing?” he asked. “Frendo. Breakfast at three.” It was Sunday, July 8, one week after our arrival to Chamonix.
To my surprise I slept quite well. Once we came to the decision, my apprehension of what we were soon to face disappeared. It was just business as usual, climbing. As we approached the route we saw specs of several headlamps ahead of us, some already quite high up. Couple guided parties were starting up the initial ramp when we reached it at 5:30 am. There were also two young German guys rapping down after having left the ramp too soon. The ramp was very easy with only a little snow. We roped up at its end before the sloping ledge leading to the left. The ledge was iced up and we looked for a way around it. By this time we lost sight of the guided parties and had to find the way ourselves. While the first two ramps were easy to follow, the last one, leading back right over the ridge, was not obvious. Then we saw the two Germans at the first crux, the exit to the ridge, and made our way there. In hopes to climb it clean, Oleg put on his rock shoes. He pulled off the moves with his usual grace. I followed, and soon we were on the other side of the ridge.
From there the route was easier than we expected. “It’s about 5.2”, told us the American guide at the hut, and that's what it was, with exception of a few short steps. Oleg and I mostly simul-climbed with about 20 meters of rope between us leading in blocks. Route-finding was still the biggest challenge: though the general direction was quite clear, there were multiple features all leading to about the same place, and we tried to pick the easiest way. We passed the snowfield on our right, made the diagonal ascent to the left, traversed to the other side of the ridge. At last, we were at the col before the steep rise of the ridge.
It was time to put our rock shoes on. We took a short break, ate some of our energy bars and took off few extra clothes, as now we were in full sun. On the second crux Oleg with no hesitation used the fixed gear. Further on going became harder. While the rock was still easy enough for simul-climbing, we felt a little tired, so we now belayed most of the pitches. This section of the ridge took quite a bit longer than we expected, it seemed to never end. The last crux, the huge block barring exit from the ridge, felt the hardest. Oleg even asked me to be prepared to catch him, but pulled things off in style. At about 2 pm we reached the upper snow/ice portion of the climb.
Our initial thinking was that if we reach the snow after 1 pm it would probably be too soft for a safe passage. We remembered the fate of the two Brits from last year. If the snow was too soft we’d bivy on the ledge before the snow ridge. In anticipation of this we packed light sleeping bags, a small stove and a very light dinner. But that day quite a few parties went up the Frendo Spur, so we expected a good trail up the snow. And when we reached the ridge we saw the Germans steadily making their way towards the rock rognon above us. “What’s the plan?” – Oleg looked at me. “If they made it, so can we”, I answered. Oleg seemed relieved.
Another short break and then back into the boots and crampons. At 2:30 pm Oleg started making careful progress along the snow ridge. The snow was a bit soft, but there indeed was a fairly well packed trail. Even though, the steps occasionally gave way under our feet. We crawled on all fours, fully sinking the shafts of our axes into the snow with every step. This was not very useful, as the snow was too soft to provide any real protection. Still, having all our limbs engaged gave us the needed confidence. As the slope steepened, the conditions changed. The trail turned into a faint sequence of front-pointing marks. The snow was more like iced-up nevé, just strong enough for our crampons and the picks of our ice tools, but useless for our screws. Every step and every hack of the ice tools was to be done with utter care. All my senses were heightened. I was feeling the lack of acclimatization, but we were making sure progress towards the rock rognon. At last, after seemingly endless climbing on this uncertain terrain, Oleg placed a nut in a crack at the bottom of the rognong. At this point I knew we were going to make it.
Some five or six snow/ice pitches still lay ahead of us. By now the clouds enveloped us and the cold wind blew hard. We put on all our clothes, including our belay jackets. We went to the left of the rognon, placing pro in the rock. Our screws were still useless. Oleg suggested we simul-climb, but my hands were getting very cold, my gloves being fully soaked. I’d use belays to warm them up at the expense of loosing my body heat. Then, as Oleg brought me up, I’d warm up my body and freeze my hands again. Climbing was not hard, though, and even the short steep section at the top of the slope was not anything to brag about. At 7 pm we joined the trail on the SE ridge of Aig. Du Midi. “Oleg,” I said, “this is the end of our route”. My friend said nothing, he only smiled with happiness.
In the white-out we took a wrong turn and ended up at the Aig. Du Midi cable car station instead of the Cosmiques hut. As we found out later, this was for the better as the hut was full and would not let us in without a prior reservation. Our bivy gear came very handy as we settled for the night on the benches in the hallway of the station. Rain and hail pounded on the windows throughout the night. Next morning we took the first cable car down to the valley. And that was that. We had climbed the Frendo Spur. We did not make it in exceptional style and we were not fast – everyone passed us that day, including the two young German guys. But we had climbed the Frendo Spur, the great route we wanted to do for such a long time.
* * *
July 14, our last day in Chamonix followed the usual pattern. The morning was gloomy, but by early afternoon the weather changed for the better. We spent the morning at the street fare that overnight sprung up on the same square where the Climbing World Cup was held the day before. Once the weather cleared we decided to snatch one last climb on Le Brevent. As we walked through the town I was typing on the blackberry an e-mail to my wife. “This is why these things are bad,” commented Oleg. “Why?” I asked. “You miss everything around you”. “What did I miss?” I asked. “We just passed Sasha DiGiulian”, said Oleg. I stopped and turned around. Some fifteen feet away in a company of a few friends stood a very petit little girl with wavy long blond hair. She was Sasha DiGiulian. For a moment a thought of asking her to pose with Oleg for a photo crossed my mind. But that would mean a few minute delay in getting on the last climb of our trip. “Ney”, I thought.
We climbed the route on July 9, 2012 in one long day with an early start from the mid-station hut (13.5 hours on the route, 15 hours including the approach).
Our gear consisted of:
- Single 8.7 mm 60 m rope
- Set of cams from the green Ailien to the yellow Camalot (used all of them)
- Small set of nuts (used a few)
- 6 ice screws (did not use)
- Some 9 shoulder-length slings and 4 double-length slings with biners
We climbed most of the route in our boots, except the upper section of the rock from the col to the snow ridge. This would also go fairly comfortably in boots, but we thought climbing in rock shoes would be a little faster.
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