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In this regular feature from the British Mountain Guides, Tim Neill takes us on a journey up the huge Peuterey Integral, Mont Blanc.
This is possibly the ultimate ridge climb in the Alps. It's a good way to climb the biggest mountain in Western Europe by fair means. Includes many aspects of Alpinism, highs and lows, and builds up to an amazing finale. With wild scenery and exposure as a constant companion, the Integral is a stitch together of different climbs. Each of a contrasting style but, without any great difficulty for the overall grade.
The route involves the S Ridge of the Aig Noire, descent of north side of the Noire, traverse of the Breches des Dames Anglais, and the normal Peuterey ridge over the Aig Blanche and finally up to Mt Blanc.
Rock climbing, exciting descents, mountaineering and delicate snow crests and ridges. However, the sum of all these parts has a fairly cumulative effect.
Tim and Dave Rudkin chilling on top of Pointe Bich. Noire just to the right, and the rest of the Peuterey beyond
© Tim Neill - BMG, Feb 2012
Guidebooks: For the S Ridge of the Noire the info in Michel Piola's "Le Topo du Massif du Mont Blanc" Volume II should suffice. However, an equally good topo can be found at the Borelli Hut at the base of the mountain.
For the Noire abseils, the traverse of the Breches des Dames Anglais, the Peuterey Ridge itself over the Aiguille Blanche and the final pull up Mt Blanc, the best info is described in sections in "Neige, Glace et Mixte" Volume II. This is very detailed and surpasses any other descriptions.
Requirements: Good weather for the best part of 3 days, small alpine rock rack, normal alpine snow and glacial travel gear (2 axes each very useful, though not essential for the final snow ridge. 2 screws each will provide more security in most eventualities for this section also), light bivi kit. Not really anything special surprisingly, except an efficient set of lungs and an ability to switch off your imagination during stimulating abseil situations! Oh, and a great partner or 2!
The walk up to the hut/bivi is short and sharp. Arriving in good time will allow a little recce of the approach to the S Ridge of the Noire. You'll prob end up doing the first few hundred metres by headlamp, so the recce makes sense. Pitching in the dark probably, then very long sections of moving together on runners as it gets lighter and more obvious. Once on the crest of the south ridge proper, the decisions to pitch or not are more obvious. We climbed as a 3, so 2 close together at the bottom end of the rope. All the climbing on the Integral was done on a single rope. We carried a 2nd skinny rope for doubling up on the big abseiling sections. None of the raps on the way up the Noire require 2 ropes though. We arrived close to the summit mid-afternoon and stopped to bivi. We decided this was best for a couple of reasons; abseiling into a gnarly place in the cool of the morning, and limiting the amount of tricky route finding in the dark the next day. There wasn't likely to be any water/snow in the Breches either. Finally, the views were great up there.
Next morning, we did the wild abseils off the Noire. We got out our 2nd light rope for this, as most of the initial abseils are big. Take care during the bottom half of this section. Shorter abs limiting rope snags. I have to admit there was no team banter during this section! The traverse from the south to north Breche over les Dames could be simply described as "choss." This section is not just the altitude low point!
The next section is the climb up the Aig Blanche. I was glad we weren't starting this in the dark, as it was initially delicate and with tricky route finding. It should be mid to late morning by now. Continuous moving by easy rock climbing and scrambling should get you, literally, to just before the snowy cap of the mountain by late afternoon. Beyond here any bivi will be a cold one on snow, and there are some ideal spots to settle in here. Also, the rest of the climb from here is on steep and delicate snow, so firm early morning conditions will be ideal. So, we soaked up the sun, brewed up, chilled out and revelled in the place.
An early start (3.30ish) saw us onto the crisp snow, traversing the twin tops of the Blanche via an amazing demi lune crest, and abbing with both ropes again into col Peuterey as dawn arrived. The situation here is unbelievable with the Freney pillars and Grand Pilier d'Angle framing the route ahead. Conditions here will dictate whether to climb the ridge close to the GPA, or a steep snow couloir a little to the left(ideal, if it still snowy and early enough in the morning). Either way takes you onto the final corniced snow crest leading to Mt Blanc de Cormayeur. This final section, although a fair height gain, should go fast for a couple of reasons. First, it's pretty straight forward climbing (step aerobics style), and the type of weather that will allow you to commit to this type of route will equally be warming up the south facing snowy situation you're now involved in. However, perhaps after a particularly hot spell, expect slower climbing on old ice. Either option, get on with it! You can rest on the way down to France.
We topped Mt Blanc at mid-morning. The view was spectacular, the crowds had all gone and the way down a well-travelled trench. We didn't hold back and had our first round of Poco Loco burgers in Chamonix by mid-afternoon. I'd recommend the Special.
Why do it? Lots of reasons. Ice couloirs and perfect granite rock routes are brilliant, but after a while they all blend together. Why not do something different and follow a path less travelled? I'd done the S Ridge of the Noire the previous summer during a really short weather window, and thought that I'd probably never go back up again. But, great weather and great friends coincided last August. From my first trips to Chamonix when the summers never ended, to each time I saw the ridge from the balcony of the Torino Hut I'd always thought what it might be like to climb a great ridge like that. Why don't you find out too!
Tim splits his time between North Wales, Scotland and the Alps. He works as a freelance Mountain Guide and for Plas y Brenin part time. He specialises in rock climbing throughout the UK, winter climbing in Scotland and bespoke guiding throughout the Alps. Tim holds the MIC as well as the IFMGA carnet