The Frêney Central Pillar, an 800 meter spike of beautiful red granite just below the summit of Mont Blanc, on its Italian side, was one of the 'last Great problems of the Alps’. To this day, partly because of the drama which occurred then, it remains one of the greatest classic routes in the Mont Blanc range. In 1973, it was the 100th route of Gaston Rebuffat's ‘The 100 most beautiful routes of the Mont Blanc range’, the last of the 100 because he considered it the greatest route for any climber to achieve, so in fact the first of them all. Far away from anywhere, with a snow and ice route to reach its foot, the greatest rock difficulties concentrated at its top, above 4500 meters, and the risk of bad weather that could result in a very difficult retreat made it then, as now, a route requiring an in-depth knowledge of mountaineering and a total commitment.
As Rebuffat wrote in his book : ‘Other routes have longer and more sustained difficulties, but none which require such a capacity to decide and a sense of mountaineering, due to the remoteness and the difficulties of going back down because of bad weather. The Frêney Pillar is the most striking example that the difficulty in a route, far and above the sole difficulty of the rock climbing itself, is made up of a number of factors.’
In July 1961, it was my 1rst year in Chamonix and I started to climb serious routes for the first time. I vividly remember a scene, soon after the drama, when I saw Mazeaud being carried on the shoulders of one of his pals going to the Chamonix post office. He was fulminating and shouting loud abuse against the Post Office idiots, who, due to their regulations, had refused either to bring him a registered letter to his hospital bed or give it to one of his friends. The fact that I was 19 years old and that the victims died in order of age, the youngest being just 22, left an indelible mark on me, which is still here today. Another personal link with that drama was Robert Guillaume’s girlfriend, Muriel, whom I met at that time. Later, I climbed with her and her new boyfriend, Mike Gravina (who married her afterwards). I had met him at Jesus College, – Cambridge, at the 1961 annual Cambridge Alpine Diner, after which we did some night climbing on the walls of his college wearing diner jackets and EBs for shoes. Muriel has remained a friend. I don't see her often, as she moved to LA a long time ago, but each time we meet, I have a twinge in my heart thinking of Robert Guillaume as he was then, a nice-looking and marvelous 25-year-old rock climber and of the Frêney drama.
In 1957, Jean Couzy and René Desmaison were probably, after Walter Bonatti, the first climbers to have thought of doing the first ascent of the Frêney Pillar. However, Jean Couzy was killed in 1958 by a stone fall in the Devoluy. In August 1959, Bonatti, with Oggioni and Gallieni, managed to climb the lower part of the Pillar, but without enough equipment they had to come down. In 1960, there were a number of attempts by Bonatti, Michel Vaucher, Desmaison with Mazeaud, Julien, Lagesse, George Payot, Audibert and Laffont, and probably a few others.
At the beginning of July 1961, Pierre Mazeaud, then 32 years old, and his best friend, 25-year old Pierre Kohlman, had just climbed the Bonatti Pillar and with two other friends, Antoine Vieille who was 22, and Robert Guillaume 25 and a superb rock climber, they decided to go for the Frêney Central Pillar, ‘The last Great problem of the Alps’, under the very noses of the guides!
The team of four reaches the La Fourche refuge-bivouac on the Saturday evening 8th of July.
The next day, the weather is too warm, so they come back to the refuge-bivouac to await colder conditions.
At midnight, they are awakened by three Italians.
They recognize Walter Bonatti with his partner Andrea Oggioni and his friend and client, Roberto Gallieni.
Walter is back from Peru with Oggioni to ‘his’ mountain, this Italian side of Mont Blanc where he has already opened quite a few beautiful lines.
All three are 31 years old.
Bonatti tells them:
‘You were first, go to the Pillar, we will do another route.’
But Guillaume and Mazeaud (both great admirers of Walter) immediately answer:
‘No way! You were the first to think of it, we know it. Let’s go together.’
The decision is taken to make one party and up they go during the night.
They make their first bivouac on the night of Monday the 10th July after having climbed the first 300 meters of the Pillar.
The Italians have a small bivouac tent, the French only some plastic canvas to cover their sleeping bags.
The first night is freezing, but good.
Walter goes first, Pierre Mazeaud last. They climb fast and Walter gets up the 2nd section of the Pillar, reaching the foot of the last part, ‘The Chandelle’. Mazeaud and Kohlman take the lead and start the first difficult pitch. They climb the first hard pitch; reach a good platform and are quickly joined by Robert Guillaume and Antoine Vieille. Pierre starts the second difficult pitch on a magnificent rock. Suddenly while he is banging a peg in, sitting in an etrier, he hears a sound like ‘a long Ring…of a phone, he feels as though if his fingers were starting to burn and he sees flying sparks running up his hammer’ (Naked before the Mountain). The storm starts with extreme violence. Pierre abseils down, leaving his equipment on a peg and reaches the ledge where his companions have prepared their bivouac. They are all soaked and when Pierre reaches Kohlman, he sees him being hit by lightning in the face, a blue flying spark coming out of his ear. Kohlman who had permanent hearing problems is wearing a hearing aid: it burns out and Kohlman collapses in Mazeaud’ arms. A Coramine injection revives him. Kohlman, a lover of Mozart is now practically deaf. He is losing contact with his companions as later he will lose contact with reality.
left:medium:Despite the cold, the wind and the snow, they all hope to get out by the top!]
The storm rages violently all night. Lightning hits them several times. In his book Naked before the Mountain Mazeaud writes: ‘The anguish of death seized us and we cannot do anything, no movement, no word, only think – yes, of death – and waiting its arrival…. It is midnight but the light is as strong as the light of a blast furnace. At times, we jump, one after the other. One particularly violent stroke pushes our face against the wall, the same that makes the Italians jump. Afterwards I will find marks on my ankles, small black stars. Flying sparks come out of our hands and feet.’
Walter describes the same sensation of horror and dread. The highest Pillar of Mont-Blanc has been transformed into a lightning conductor. The thunder strokes will last all night. ‘Sometimes they go away and we are relieved; sometimes they seem to concentrate around us and anguish clutches at us’, writes Bonatti (A mes montagnes p. 268). ‘We are there, full of life, but absolutely helpless in front of this furious outburst of the powers of nature. Near us, attached to the pegs which maintain us above the abyss, all our climbing equipment is suspended: pegs, crampons, ice axes. One could not imagine better bait for lightning. We would like to get rid of them, but if we do, how would we either get up or go down? ... We feel a force pulling our legs as if wanting to tear them out. Lightning just skims past. We howl savagely. We are alive, but we know that any moment the storm can reduce us to ashes…’
Sometime later, Bonatti writes: ‘I have the strong feeling that we are lost, and it is I believe a feeling shared by us all.’
The Lightning hits Kohlman for the second time. He slips down on his rope and Mazeaud stops it. He does not respond; he will not respond any more. This time he is completely deaf, but both men can still understand each other. ‘He cries slowly looking at me; I have never loved him more and I embrace him. What is stronger than friendship?’ (Pierre Mazeaud l’Insoumis p. 99).
7 O’clock: The storm seems to end and snow falls continuously. They cannot finish the 90 meters of climbing that will see them to the top of the pillar, but they believe that the bad weather typically for this season will not last much longer. They do not know that from the Channel to the Alps, the whole of France is being swept by an exceptional storm; ships are being blown ashore. In Chamonix and Courmayeur, friends and families start to worry. A note from Bonatti has been found at La Fourche. A rescue party is formed.
For two more days, the castaways await the weather to clear. Despite the cold, the wind and the snow they hope to get out by climbing to the top. Some people, particularly in Italy will criticise this decision, but if all of them chose that solution, it was neither trough pride nor because they want d at all costs to do the first ascent of the Pillar. They only had 90 metres to go and then it would have been much easier, quicker and far less dangerous to come down from the top of Mont Blanc. Being seven in such awful conditions, it takes a long time and much effort to maneuver the ropes and much effort. Exposed to a full blast with a dreadful chill, putting a peg in and a sling on takes a lot of time and is tiring. With the overhangs and difficulties of the route, they all knew that going down would be extremely hazardous. ‘We all knew the danger of descents and all of us had in mind the tragedy on the Eiger,’ recalls Mazeaud.
These two days of waiting would seal their fate. When asked much later why the youngest died first, Mazeaud replied bluntly: ‘The eldest are more resilient’. They died in the order of age.
In the morning, after a very brief attempt by Mazeaud, they realize that by now they have lost most of their strengths and everything is stiff and frozen.
Impossible either to go up or to wait.
Bonatti and Mazeaud take the decision to go down. Bonatti knows the way down well, he has led a rescue party up the pillar before, so he takes the lead. Mazeaud follows suit, Oggioni comes last, taking down all abseils and securing each man abseiling down, the most arduous role that will soon take its toll on him. Rope manoeuvres take ages. Several times the abseil rope gets stuck in very precarious positions. However, abseil after abseil, they finally reach the bottom of the Pillar, where powder snow reaches up to their bellies. They head for the Col de Peuterey. Before the coming of the night they find a crevasse in which to make their fifth bivouac. This fifth night will be the worst. The cold is insane, their clothes are soaked and frozen hard, the wind howls, unceasing. They are all exhausted. Mazeaud’ feet are frozen, but Kohlman’s state is the worst. They share their last food, some prunes and bits of chocolate, some sugar and dried meat. Kohlman’ hands are frozen black. Bonatti hands him a small bottle of methylated spirit to rub his hands with. Pierre Kohlman thinking it to be something to drink puts it to his mouth and takes two swigs before it is torn from his grasp. When Kohlman goes asleep, Bonatti worries: ‘Have we reached insanity?’ A last cup of tea and then they have no more gas for their stoves, so they suck snow balls which burn their mouths without giving them the water their bodies crave.
Mazeaud remembers having talked at length with Antoine Vieille, even joking about women: ‘he told me: we won’t be in Chamonix tomorrow, that’s stupid for the Tour de France (see note below) … and I will not be able to make love to Anny!’ They spent the night smoking their last cigarettes.
Note: That summer 1961 will see a magnificent victory of Jacques Anquetil (the second of his five victories)
They wake up at 3.30am and soon make a start. Antoine Vieille, the youngest, is the first to die that morning. The seven men had started down trying to reach the Grüber rocks and then the Gamba refuge before nightfall.
Bonatti wrote: ‘if we don’t, most certainly, be the end of us all’.
Bonatti, leading, they reach the Grüber rocks, but the slope is steep and in danger of avalanching with so much snow. He decides to belay each of them on the rope, one at a time.
It is around 9am; Antoine collapses in the middle of the slope. Mazeaud and Guillaume pull his rope, but Antoine is dead. Bonatti returns. They put his body in the Italian tent canvas and Pierre Mazeaud bangs in a piton and attaches the body of his friend.
24 years later, Bonatti would remember: ‘when Vieille died, I was next to Kohlman. I told myself: you must show yourself strong. So I spoke harshly. All six of us were roped. I told them: if we do not want to end like Vieille, we must not lose one minute. It was a blow which I had to deliver… This day, coming down the Pillar, I was the one to know the way. If I let go, we’d all die. This is what kept me alive.’
They all follow Bonatti without whom they would all be dead. They climb the Grüber rocks; traverse the Frêney glacier in the fog, amongst crevasses. All of them are exhausted. They are in sight of the Innominata pass. Behind it, the Gamba refuge and safety.
Bonatti hears voices: it’s the rescuers but where are they? Then the voices stop. They will learn after the drama that the rescuers went up the Brouillard glacier way to their right, while they should have gone up the Frêney glacier instead.
They know by now that no rescue will reach them. They abandon most of their equipment apart from a few pegs and karabiners. Bonatti and his client and friend Gallieni go ahead to equip the pass, the last difficulty; Mazeaud follows. He hears shouts behind. Oggioni is calling. He explains in gestures that Robert Guillaume has disappeared. The storm blinds them, their searches and calls are in vain. His body will be found in a crevasse several days later.
Mazeaud, Oggioni and Kohlman go back to the foot of the Innominata pass. It is now past 11pm. Bonatti has left a 50 metre rope in place. It is Oggioni’s turn, but he cannot get up and Bonatti cannot pull him up. At 12pm he asks Mazeaud to stay with him, while he goes on ahead to the Gamba refuge to send them the rescue party. Suddenly Kohlman unties himself and starts up the rope on the icy slope. Gallieni manages to catch up with him and attach him to his rope with a karabiner.
Pierre Mazeaud will explain later to journalists from Paris-Match that Kohlman thought that his two companions wanted to abandon him. Kohlman catches up with Bonatti, raving with madness.
Mazeaud and Oggioni spend their sixth night out, roped to a peg against a wall. Around 1 am, Oggioni starts being delirious. Mazeaud remembers having looked at his watch when Oggioni, the partner with whom Bonatti has done so many new routes including the Brouillard Pillar in 1959, died at 2.15 am.
Meanwhile, near the Gamba refuge, Kohlman goes berserk, jumping on his companions who push him away. Finally they are forced to untie themselves and leave him. Because of Kohlman, it took them three hours to reach Gamba from the Col de l’Innominata instead of one.
At 3 am, Bonatti and Gallieni in total darkness (no light coming out of the Gamba hut) reach the Gamba hut:
'If I find the refuge it is solely because I know the place by heart.'
Thirty rescuers are asleep.
'Quick! There is one just outside! The others are in the Innominanta couloir' Quick, quick!' Bonatti tells them.
They immediately set out to rescue the other castaways following Bonatti' indications, after which he falls into a deep sleep.
They find Kohlman who dies in their arms after a last delirious bout, at around 4am.
At 6 am the rescuers amongst whom is Gaston Rebuffat, bring Mazeaud to the Gamba refuge, where he informs Walter of the death of his best friend and partner Oggioni. He also learns of the death of his own best friend, Pierrot Kohlman - ‘as close to me as a brother’ said Pierre. Pierre Mazeaud had been close to falling into a coma when the rescuers reached him.
The storm lingers on for still some time and the avalanche risks were such that the body of Antoine Vieille will only being brought done six days later.
But that was not the end of the history of the Frêney.
After the drama came the ‘Frêney Affair’, the conflicting story of the first ascent!