West to Chamonix
Georg and I crammed my car full of gear and set off for the western alps. After a nighttime drive, we met Pete
in Chamonix and after greetings, a sandwich and an impromptu shopping trip for me, we settled down to wait for our scheduled lift up the Aiguille du Midi. We'd decided to climb the Kuffner Ridge on Mount Maudit, and to stay overnight at the Cosmique Hut. This hut has a fairly long approach, but we decided it made more sense for us because a) we didn't want to carry bivy/cooking gear to the possibly overcrowded bivy hut on the ridge itself, b) we were tired from the drive and didn't want to make that approach, c) the Torino Hut had additional logistic problems to reach, and only reduced the approach by an hour or less. Frankly, we wanted to hit our bunks for an afternoon nap!
We did just that after the short walk from the Aiguille du Midi station to the Cosmique Hut, which nonetheless had me breathing harder due to the altitude. It would be quite an acclimatization effort to do this climb, since Maudit is a pretty high summit (43?? meters). But we had a good weather forecast. We joked over old adventures, Pete and Georg got acquainted, and we hit the sack, ready for a 2 am wake up call.
In fact, the first breakfast is served at 1 am, so we got up for that. But Georg was feeling under the weather. Additionally, he'd had a hard time sleeping because I was snoring too loud. This was the first of several heartbreaking occasions when I ruined sleep for various people! Georg had some water and took a 30 minute nap which gave him enough energy to go...he has admirable will power to overcome discomfort!
Here is Georg 10 hours later, fully recovered and living LARGE.
We headed out into the darkness, following tracks across the plateau and gently down into the cirque below Mont Blanc du Tacul. My headlamp had somehow broken internally, so I was forced to stay near Pete at the front of the rope to be able to see. Georg rounded out my vision with his lamp from behind. We had a single 8.5mm 60 meter rope, a handful of cams, nuts and slings, and one axe each, though Georg brought a second tool.
There was a bit of confusion getting up into the cirque between the Kuffner Ridge and the Diable, but after a bit of backtracking we were in the right place. Now we saw headlamps approaching the ridge, and a few early risers already high on the route. We continued up into a steep couloir, as close to the place where the ridge steepens as possible. Halfway up, the angle got steep enough that we decided to pitch it out. Georg led a few pitches with sections of simul-climbing, lightly protected by ice screws. The snow and rock around us slowly gained form in the pre-dawn. Finally we came together on the ridge crest, about the same time as an Italian party of 2 who had slept in the la Forche bivouac hut.
Pete has gained the ridge crest.
And Mont Blanc wakens to his tender touch!
Looking down to Pete and Georg.
Now I led off, occasionally protecting with a sling or cam, amazed and joyful at the ease of finding good protection in the solid, orange granite. We followed a shallow couloir left of the ridge until it turned back up and right into steeper but still easy rock. Here we passed the Italians, and continued up onto a snow ridge. The scenery was unbelievable.
It bears repeating: T.S.W.U.
We decided to bypass a crux gendarme by dropping around to the left, apparently the standard way to go, and we were catching up to parties ahead of us up on the steeper mixed ground of the broad face-like ridge above. However, this end-run around the gendarme proved to be fairly involved.
Slightly sketchy terrain on the bypass. Georg stands at a friendly flake and Peter is obscured by granite. Two Italians are behind.
First, I led across and down with sparse protection to a rather sketchy traversing move between rotten snow and icy blocks. Here I brought the guys together and Georg led off left and up through a crux "rock climbing in crampons" move that must have been every bit as hard as any YDS 5.6 move promised on the gendarme above and behind us. Rather an exciting and delicate bouldery lieback move with finely placed crampon points! Georg missed a nice piton at the crux, but he protected well with cams. From his belay, he continued up and left, now just behind a party of two who had gone over the gendarme and rappelled to this point. Some nice scrambling led to a choke point on the ridge where we could climb down into a notch, then up into the broader, moderately steep continuation.
Georg and I kept swapping leads because it was awkward for Pete to get in front, being on the middle of the rope. He didn't mind a vacation from the sharp end, and became the documentary specialist, taking amazing panorama photos at every opportunity. The climbing here was really fun, on steep blocks and corners, good old-fashioned "mixed" rock and snow terrain, always with excellent protection. The sun shining in a cobalt blue sky had nicely warmed the rock, and we pinched flakes, executed hand-jams, and high-stepped our way up. Somewhat less pleasant were long snow sections where protection was harder to come by. Georg earned admiration all around for his persistent digging under rotten snow for good ice and some excellent screw placements along a particularly blank 80 meter stretch. More relaxed rock climbing, and we came to what we called Lunchtime Ledge, about 10 meters below a snowy crest. Flakes of spindrift dropped slowly onto us, revealing that the wind was screaming on the other side of the crest. No matter, we were in windless warm sun, and had a nice stop to eat and drink and admire the cirque around us. We looked across to the Grandes Jorasses, where we were contemplating a traverse from the Rochefort Ridge to the summit over a couple of days. Everything was awesome!
Peter and I following on a steep snow section of the ridge.
Continuing, I led through rocky towers on the crest and gained occasional respite from the strong wind by staying on the left side.
Michael cleans gear, the Diable Ridge behind.
A few final rock moves were rather tricky, then we emerged onto a long snow crest, with the summit visible a good ways away. We got our wind-protection on and continued on a slow plod with Georg in the lead, following a few minutes behind the party of two from the Gendarme below, now a couple of specks traversing into the shade under the horn of Maudit. We had to avoid looking to the right, down to Chamonix because waves of spindrift would sandblast our faces. The sky was completely clear, but huge plumes of snow were constantly and dramatically whipped up and off the ridge. What variety on this climb!
Screaming wind in the endgame.
Finally we emerged from our traverse just below the summit, and Georg led the final rocky steps. We couldn't hang around in the wind, so after some handshakes we made our way down. I went in front because I'd read about the descent along the ridge to the Maudit col where climbers descending from Mont Blanc make some rappels onto the glacier. We went fairly easily along the ridge, occasionally skirting drop-offs on the left, and following some old tracks. Finally I came to a cliff that was too steep to reasonably descend, and backtracked to a bypass around the left side. Georg went off in front, and after a few minutes of traversing and descending moderately steep snow, we reached the deep track climbers follow from Mont Blanc to the col. After a down-climb through many novice climbers on rappel, we reached the base of the steep slope and regrouped for the easy but long glacial walk back to the Aiguille du Midi. Rather tired at this point, we watched with alarm when a climber executed a strange rappel, zooming down on his rope and crashing through icicles deep into the notch of a crevasse. He was apparently fine, but the strange and confused abandon with which he made those moves while his party stared at him listlessly seemed off. We left before epics!
The walk up to the broad plateau of glacier before the final descent from Mont Blanc du Tacul was heartbreaking. So slowly did I move! Then we moved fairly quickly, until I slowed us down at the final bergschrund of the steep glacier. There was one place to drop to slopes below, and it was an overhanging wall about 6 feet high with a deep crevasse on all sides. I took a long time finding solid footholds and fought off several attempts by my friends to get me to come back up and let someone else give it a try. In truth, I was a bit tired and irritable. But I did want to crack the problem as well! Finally I got the moves, though I think Georg had already descended a steeper line and was pointing at proper footholds for me. Ah well, such is life!
The parties behind us had gathered around wondering what all the fuss was, and began jumping over the 'schrund which seemed highly dangerous to me. Jumping onto a rounded, icy slope, about 7 feet below with crampons and a heavy pack seemed like a reciepie for a broken ankle, but what do I know? We plodded down to the flats, and then the walk up to the Midi was incredibly hard. We all went very, very slowly. Pete and Georg seemed pretty happy, but I felt absolutely shattered. Down and down to Chamonix, reached in time for a pizza dinner with panache (French version of Radler) to drink.
Some more laughing about the day, then Georg and I headed off to the Belvedere to sleep. It had changed ownership. Kiki was gone, and you could no longer use the kitchen to make a meal. Somewhat heartbroken about this, I fell asleep, and lolled luxuriously in the morning, gradually recovering some energy.
What a great climb! It really wasn't that tough, and though it's probably not wise to do it as we did, as an "acclimatization" tour, it was still pretty reasonable. I had some friends who had done the route before, and they didn't offer encouraging remarks, coming back to talk about dangerous, rotten snow and cornices. So in truth the only reason I was excited about the Kuffner was that Georg and I had seen the whole ridge pretty nicely from the Diable the year before. It had a big-alpine look to it, a glistening ridge of snow and orange rock. We did have some "rotten snow," but it didn't overwhelm us, and the route both matched our Diable impression and surprised us with it's somewhat easy-going character.
Too bad we didn't get a summit shot...the wind was screaming too much!
Back at the cave, entrance to the Aiguille du Midi lift.
I have more pictures here. Thank you Georg, thank you Pete!!