John McCune takes us on a tour and relives his experiences on the best of Chamonix's jamming cracks. As mixed climbing conditions become rarer, the jamming experience is becoming highly sought after in the high granite peaks.
Chamonix is best known for its alpinism and mountaineering. When I first started coming here I was very focused on that. Recently I have become more focused and interested in alpine rock climbing. This has partly been influenced by the warmer seasons and lack of good mixed climbing conditions, but also by my growing interest in crack climbing encouraged by a few trips to America.
In 2015, I went on my first trip to Yosemite. Since then I have been inspired by crack climbing and I was keen to get better at it and master some of the techniques. In Chamonix, I also noticed many American and Californian references in the route names and descriptions. It is apparent that a lot of the European climbers enjoyed finding good Yosemite style cracks in this granite wonderland. A crazy number of modern routes and classics are thanks to the continued enthusiasm of the legendary Michel Piola. However, the development of crack climbing and the discovery of many of the finest splitter lines is thanks to the vision of Romain Vogler. Vogler died in a tragic accident abseiling at Maladiere in 1993, however, his routes inspired the next generation of climbers and the continued development of great crack climbs.
Over the last few years of living in the Chamonix valley I have enjoyed seeking out some of the best mountain crack routes. Some are more approachable than others, but the adventure often adds to the experience. I have enjoyed approaching many on skis. Recent mild winters have provided warm alpine rock as early as February and allowed us to go ski jamming at an unlikely time of year. However, glacial retreat and rising temperatures are affecting the mountains, making some routes that were once simple to approach now impossible. Others are just vanishing altogether in devastating rockfalls. The permafrost deep inside the mountains is melting, causing movement and rockfall which can be colossal - with the example of the Drus being the most renowned. Some crags are better held together than others, but consideration should be taken when choosing what to climb and when.
These are some of the best crack routes I have had the pleasure of climbing. I have focused purely on rock climbs and not included big grand course routes that involve mixed climbing and big up and overs.
Around the Aiguille du Midi
The Aiguille du Midi has perfect south-facing granite at 3800m with a 15-minute approach thanks to the cable car. Once familiar with it, it has a relaxed cragging feel, swapping your technical mountain wear for jeans and a hoodie. I like the old photos of the rockstars of the day with headbands and lycra climbing hard routes in this crazy alpine playground.
The South face is totally plastered in routes and it can be a bit of a muddle. Last year Michel Piola released a comprehensive topo which will be really helpful for route finding. All the routes on the south pillar are excellent and there are many fine cracks, particularly on the upper pitches on the Contamine and Super Dupont, for example.
Ma Dalton is one of the hardest routes on the wall at the grade of 7b/7b+. Originally equipped by Michel Piola, it was later freed by Thierry Renault. It is said to be 'The Separate reality of France.' A crack splits the ceiling of a 6-metre roof on the second pitch. It can often be filled with verglas, as I found the first time I tried it in 2014. The next time I tried, it wasn't icy and I made some progress but I found it exceedingly difficult. It exposed the reality of my poor jamming technique and reinforced that I needed more practice.
Last year I was living next door to Thierry Renault who did many of the hardest free climbs in Chamonix. Once we were talking about Ma Dalton and he recounted every move. He specifically remembered having an early version of a Firé shoe which had a very narrow toe box and jammed so perfectly in the crack that he couldn't fall out. This made sense to me because moving out across the roof you're jamming downhill with your toes above your head, and I had found it very difficult to actually keep my toes in. Last summer I had a final tussle with the roof and borrowed some shoes with a very narrow toe box from my climbing partner Danny Uhlmann. I fought hard with the hand jams, my toes stayed in and I managed to turn the lip and make it over. The fourth pitch is a tough one too. It's given 7a and has a wide leaning dihedral splitter that gets wider and steeper at the top. I found it a tough route for the grade, although if it was in Yosemite it would be graded similarly.
There are two good cracks away from the main cliff that get forgotten about. The Fissure Lerroux under the Cosmiques Hut is a great splitter. Each year it keeps getting longer as the glacier below retreats. Originally 25m and graded 6c, it's now 45m and upgraded to 7a/a+. It is an elegant line requiring steady jamming, endurance and a lot of cams.
Hiding behind the observation platforms of the cable car is Romain Vogler's Enfers du Decor. It's a big 7b pitch and is a pure Yosemite style thin hand crack. There is a nice video from Epic TV of Tommy Caldwell climbing it below. In the film, it is icy and Tommy finds it tricky but very impressively onsights it, despite the terrible conditions. I tried it once in 2017 with Hazel Findlay and she made it look very easy climbing without tape or hand jams. It starts up a thin crack with a booming flake hanging in it. It then goes into fingers and thin hands through a roof and continues as an incredible thin hands splitter for 30 more metres. I found it nails with tape on and couldn't get my fat hands in. I listened to Hazel's advice and took the tape off and then tore my skin to bits. I felt totally defeated and humbled. I came back a year later after a bit more crack practice and it felt much easier. I felt like I had finally mastered something, thoroughly enjoying the beautiful pitch.
Petit Clocher Du Portalet
The Petit Clocher is possibly pushing the boundaries of Cham jams, but it is still geographically in the Mont Blanc Massif. There are routes on all its faces but the 250m North face is the steepest and features the best steep, laser-cut rock. I read somewhere that Etat de Choc (7a) is the Astroman of Europe. It's probably close, with pitch after pitch of mega splitters and an off-width that eats you. Having said that, it is quite a bit easier than Astroman but every bit as quality.
The route tackles an obvious line of wide cracks and corners up the longest stretch of the face. You will need a double set of cams and a number 5 and 6 will be comforting in the 7a wide pitch. The double jam splitters of pitch 6 are very fine. I climbed it in June 2015 with Will Sim, and Dave Gladwin and Paul Swail climbing behind. We spent two days bivvied under the crag enjoying the jams and good vibes. When we abseiled down I was blown away by the incredible cracks of Ave Caesar.
Ave Caesar became a big goal for me and something to test my crack skills when I felt ready for it. In June 2018, I went up a few times to try it. Every pitch is a crack, with two 6c's, a 7b+ and two 7c's. The final 7c pitch is huge and is pure ring lock jams for 30m until a bulge, where the crack thins to steep fingers. Until this, I don't think I even knew what ring lock jams were (too wide for fingers, but too thin for hands). Hazel Findlay was the only other person I knew who had climbed it and told me to borrow as many purple and green cams as I could. I gathered 8 purples and a bunch of greens. On my third visit, it all came together. I had one day off, and my friend Jonny Baker was psyched for a high energy day in the mountains. We got up early and ran in from the first chair lift at Champex. I managed to climb every pitch first go, with Jonny seconding clean behind, and then we ran back out to catch the last chairlift down. Climbing a great crack like this high in the mountains with the alpine choughs swirling overhead was a special and rewarding experience and I learnt how to do ring locks.
Esprit du Clocher is also a very good route on the front face of the pillar. It is a fairly continuous straight-up crack line, that can be climbed direct at the top up a few wide chimneys. The original route avoids these with a peggy traverse but if you bring a number 4 and 5 cam, these top pitches are tremendous.
A day or two climbing on the Petit Clocher is highly recommended. The setting is idyllic, with a perfect bivouac block staring right at the face.
The Argentiere basin has a lot of good granite but I think the best splitter jams are on the walls of La Vierge: a 200m pillar of the Aiguille d'Argentiere halfway up the Milieu glacier. Its walls are steep and very clean, and the granite seems finer grained and less weathered than a lot of the surrounding crags. It's a perfect venue for ski jamming in the spring. Descending easily from the Grand Montets, and then skinning up the glacier to its base makes a fun and easy approach which is ideal for a day hit. Alternatively, a few days staying at the Argentiere hut and cragging is a good plan (currently a little bit more complicated lacking the top lift of the Cable Car).
Reve de Singe is another great Vogler route. It is a good line and my girlfriend Michelle Dvorak had really wanted to climb it as she had been inspired by a photo of the 7a roof pitch. We ski jammed it in April 2018. After an initial slab pitch, the route follows several cracks and corners with the 5th pitch entering an improbable looking hand crack running through the most overhanging part of the face. The position pulling out of this roof is exceptional with an epic backdrop of the North faces of the Aiguille Verte, Droites and Les Courtes. The jams are wild.
Ciao Vince is equally as good and similar in style, but a bit harder. I was ski touring up the Aiguille du Argentiere in February 2019 and noticed the sunny rock walls and Ciao Vince looked too good to miss. The next day Will Sim and I went back up to climb it revelling in the mid-winter sun in the high mountains.
The 4th pitch is a very aesthetic 7b splitter that runs for 45m at first with finger jams then into perfect hands at the top.
Envers des Aiguilles
The Envers des Aiguilles are the other side of the Chamonix needles and they have many very popular routes, all quite accessible from the Envers hut or a comfortable bivouac amongst the boulders. Pedro Polar (6c) has to be the best crack climb at a reasonable grade and follows a very obvious and direct crack system up the striking east face of the Aiguille du Roc.
There are many long climbs with beautiful pitches in the Envers, but I feel a lot of the routes lack a solid line. To me, the prize of the Envers is the 300-metre south face of the Fou. It is only really visible when skiing the Valley Blanche and only if you know where to look. The face is a diamond shape with big overhangs and cracks and the sheer ambience of a Yosemite big wall. There are quite a few routes but they are rarely climbed. The American Route is the best known and was climbed in 1963 as a tough aid climb by Yosemite legends Tom Frost, Stewart Fulton, Gary Hemming and John Harlin. It's now a fantastic free climb with a steep crux pitch around the grade of 7c. Its awkward location requires commitment and motivation. Nowadays it is best attempted in spring or very early summer.
In 2016, I had been skiing past it all winter on the Vallee Blanche and in April I figured it should be dry enough to climb. Jonno Redmond and I skied in from Aiguille du Midi and spent a night in the Requin Hut. From there, an early start got us up to the access couloir at sunrise. This couloir would be very dangerous in the summer; filled with a winter's snow it was OK getting up but I could see how it could be lethal. The route follows a logical central line. Initially, it tackles big corners until they end in the enormous '7' shaped roof. The crux pitch climbs out of this on steep, booming flakes. It is a bit snappy and I fell off on my first attempt. I backed up some of the old pegs, lowered down and climbed it on my second attempt. Another tricky 7a pitch guards the central crack system that leads to the top. These crack pitches were phenomenal and as the cloud swirled in and swallowed us up, we could only follow the steep jams up through the mist, pitch after sustained pitch to the summit.
There are a number of other hard routes on the wall and they all seem mythical to me because I know so little about them. Les Ailes du Desire takes a line on the left of the face and is said to have a magnificent sustained 7c splitter in the middle of the route.
Higher up above the Requin Hut on the Rognon du Plan, there is a magnificent gently overhanging splitter called American Beauty. There are good photographs of it in Piola's Envers guidebook. I tried it in February 2019 during a warm spell, taking advantage again of the preferable ski-in approach. I had teamed up with Graham McGrath, enthusiastically convincing him that granite jams were the right thing to do this particular February; Graham fought his way up the first 7a pitch probably wondering why.
As I started up the 45m 7c pitch something didn't make sense. It was originally climbed as a very strenuous looking tight hands, and looked like it was mostly protected by purple cams. As I got stuck in I found it to be baggy fist jams. I only had one big grey cam which I managed to keep shuffling up. Thankfully there are 2 bolts, which made it a bit less bold, but this was not the pitch I had expected. Maybe the next pitch was the thin hands? Again, it didn't make sense at all and looked like a very jagged continuation of the wide splitter. This was meant to be 8a and it didn't match the topo. We were about to lose the sun and it was going to get very cold fast, so we went down. Later I did some research and found that David Lama had written a blog recounting a similar experience 10 years ago concluding that it had suffered a large rockfall, changing the upper pitches and widening the lower ones. It's quite spooky to imagine the whole wall being slowly prised apart. I enjoyed the climbing and the big splitter pitch was a beauty but it could soon be a chimney.
The Grand Capucin and the Satellites du Tacul
The most famous of the crack routes here is Les Untouchables (7b). A very pure and steep splitter hand crack at the top of the Trident du Tacul. Originally bolted by Piola and graded 7c+, it had its bolts chopped by Didier Berthod in a statement suggesting that Europeans needed to have better crack ethics and that it would only be 7a in the States. Unfortunately, a lot of the Trident fell off in a big rockfall at the end of summer 2018. I'm not exactly sure which pitches are still there and the top splitter may still be intact but it's unlikely to be a safe place to climb for a long time to come. I was happy to have climbed it the summer before, and it's a shame that a lot of this super route is probably gone.
There are many more great jam climbs on the sub-peaks, all across the grades and the easy access from the Skyway cable car makes it a brilliant venue.
The Grand Capucin is a huge independent monolith nearly 400m tall and is the largest of the Granite lumps under Mont Blanc du Tacul. Thankfully, it does seem to be quite well held together. It has a bunch of world-class routes from 6b to 8b with The Bonnatti and The Swiss Route being deservedly the most popular. But In my opinion, the two best routes are Echo des Alpages (7a), and the Directe des Capucines (6c).
The direct follows a pure and obvious crack line up the most continuous part of the wall. I have climbed it a few times and I always recommend it to people. Pitch 6 features a perfect 6b hand crack. Pitch 9 has a strenuous wide crack into a roof which takes all your nerve as you shuffle a number 5 up it and layback the top. The route gets a bit more alpine in the last 5 pitches as it ventures onto the North face, where the bolted belays disappear and it all gets a bit cold and icy. Full points for going all the way to the top, however, you might miss your dinner.
Echo des Alpages is another Vogler route and one of the harder routes on the Grand Cap. After some technical face pitches, it has a bunch of flowing cracks that weave through an intimidating wall of overhangs. Some parts look improbable but round every steep roof and bulge, the jam continues. I climbed it last summer with Jonny Baker and particularly enjoyed it because of the fun jammy pitches.
There are many more I hope to explore. I know there are a lot of favourites that I haven't mentioned and many that I simply haven't done yet. If you enjoy crack climbing, you will enjoy these routes and I only hope to inspire others, as the pioneers and free climbers of these routes have inspired me. Battling with these routes has definitely improved my jamming technique and I have thoroughly enjoyed the rewarding experience of climbing them in this grand alpine setting.
John McCune is an IFMGA mountain guide, rock climber, alpinist and skier based in Chamonix. He is sponsored by Scarpa, OGSO and Mountain Boot Co. Check out his website here and follow him on Instagram here.
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