11th July 1961:
seven climbers are caught in a huge storm on the Frêney Central Pillar, very near the top of Mont-Blanc.
Five days later, a helicopter brought three survivors to Courmayeur
The three pillars of Freney
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.
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.
, 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
, 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
, George Payot
, 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!
Top: Antoine Vieille smoking a Gauloise Celtique, Pierrot Kohlman, Robert Guillaume and Pierre Mazeaud smoking also a Gauloise Celtique - La Fourche bivvy-hut
Antoine Vieille, Pierrot Kohlman, Robert Guillaume and Pierre Mazeaud, full of steam - La Fourche bivvy-hut
1.Saturday 8th July – Monday 10th July. La Fourche to the Pillar.
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.
La Fourche bivvy-hut
Mazeaud, Vieille smoking and Kohlman 1rst bivouac on the pillar
At midnight, they are awakened by three Italians.
They recognize Walter Bonatti
with his partner Andrea Oggioni
and his friend and client, Roberto Gallieni
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.
‘You were first, go to the Pillar, we will do another route
(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.
2.Tuesday 11th July. La Chandelle - The storm startsWalter
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
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
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
, 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 is on them
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
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
3.Wednesday 12th July-Thursday 13th July. Waiting for the weather to break.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.
Anguish grips them
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.
4. Friday 14th July. Retreat by the Frêney Pillar and glacier.
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.
Antoine Vieille in despair
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.
Only Bonatti who knew so well this part of the mountain could get through with no to very little visibility
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)
5. Saturday 15th July. Who will survive if any?
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.
wrote: ‘if we don’t, most certainly, be the end of us all
, 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
collapses in the middle of the slope. Mazeaud
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.
Expecting death to come
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.
go back to the foot of the Innominata pass. It is now past 11pm
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.
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.
6. Sunday 16th July. Only three survive.Mazeaud
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
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!
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.
Chronology of the descent and Drama
- - - - Dotted line Top right
: 10th July- route taken from La Fourche Bivouac over the Col de Peuterey.
1: La Chandelle
: 1rst bivouac the 10th 300m up the pillar, then 11th till the morning of the 14th at the foot of the Chandelle.
15th 9am, Grüber rocks - death of Antoine Vieille
15th 7pm Robert Guillaume
disappears in a crevasse on the Frêney glacier.
16th 2.15 am death of Andréa Oggioni
. Rescuers reach Mazeaud
at 5.30 am.
16th 4 am Point where Kohlman
was found and died
Gamba hut 16th 3am Bonatti
reach the hut and warn the rescuers.
- - - - Dotted line
Bottom left: the rescuers on the 16th went up wrongly the Brouillard glacier.
Mazeaud with his rescuers arriving at Gamba
Mazeaud brought down from Gamba to Courmayeur by helicopter on a stretcher
Later in some of the Italian newspapers, Bonatti
was criticised for his role in the deaths and accused of having run for the refuge and abandoned his companions.
The famous Italian writer, Dino Buzzati
who became a close friend of Walter
and of Mazeaud
, took his defense in an article published on the 21st of July 1961:
‘If one really want to criticise what occurred (something always too easy to do when one is quietly sitting at home in one’s armchair and not suspended above dreadful abysses, in -30°C, whipped by a merciless storm, hands ripped by frostbite) the question that one should ask is not: what more should Bonatti have done? But rather: How could he have done so much?
wrote in The Mountains of my Life: ‘…I survived, that is all. Maybe because more than the others I did not want to nor could let myself die
gave his total support to Walter
publicly. In his book Naked before the Mountain
he wrote without ambiguity that he owed his life to Bonatti
and that without him he would also be dead. Later a minister of state, Pierre
will have France award Bonatti
the Legion d’honneur, our highest award, for ‘his courageous conduct and the fraternity shown during this dramatic enterprise’.
The close friendship between the two men lasted untill the recent death of Walter
in September 2011.
Left : Cover photo of Paris-Match
taken by Bonatti at the start of the storm
showing Pierre Mazeaud and Kolhman behind him.
Paris-Match did modify its front page
to show first the Freney drama
while the Bizerte battle between
French soldiers and the Tunisian forces of Bourguiba
resulted in hundreds of deaths was put after.
Appendix 1 General view of the Freney side of Mont Blanc
Appendix 2 The routes of the Freney side of Mont Blanc