The Finest Routes in the Alps Grand Combin (4314m) - North-West Face, 650m, D All photos, drawings and text by Ben Tibbetts in association with
In memory of Stefan Sporli (1974-2015)
On the Alpine horizon Grand Combin appears like a giant stepping stone. It is isolated as the only 4000m peak between the Mont Blanc massif and the smorgasbord of high mountains around Zermatt. It is also much less frequently climbed than any of the major peaks in the adjacent areas due to its relative inaccessibility. The principal summit, the Combin de Grafeneire is the culmination of a long ridge and plateau. This remains continuously above 4000m for three kilometres and joins two other classified 4000m peaks that crown the massif - the Combin de Valsorey (4184m) and the Combin de la Tsessette (4135m).
It is only during the spring ski touring season that any of the nearby huts get busy. This however is rarely with people preparing to climb. The classic Chamonix - Zermatt Haute Route passes to the south of the peaks via the Cabane de Valsorey before traversing the Plateau du Couloir and on to the Chanrion hut. Nowadays however even this classic route is less popular than the easier variations that pass through Verbier as the slopes above the Valsorey are steep and avalanche prone.
Stefan Sporli approaching the Cabane de Valsorey.
Despite the size of the mountain and multitude of faces there are unfortunately very few worthwhile routes on the mountain. Where exposed the rock quality is mostly poor. Most of the glaciated north side, through which the original 'Corridor' ascent route approached, is threatened by seracs and rarely travelled. The North-West and South-West faces however provide an interesting traverse across the mountain with exceptional views and little objective danger under cold conditions. It is largely due to this quiet isolation, and the clean simple line, that the mountain has gained my particular affection.
The North-West Face route follows a broad 50 degrees snow/ice face that leads directly to the Combin de Valsorey summit. To avoid hard brittle ice it is often best to climb in spring and early summer when the face often holds good neve snow. Usually in spring the approach is on skis or in early summer can be made on foot. Though the route follows a simple and logical line, the approach from the nearest road is relatively long - 7km with 1200m height gain to the hut, then a further 600m gain to the base of the route.
Grand Combin at sunset from the Cabane de Chanrion.
The North-West face of the Grand Combin was the last mountain route I did with my good friend, artist and mountain guide Stefan Sporli. We hiked up to the Cabane de Valsorey on a day mixed with showers and sunny spells in early June. We each walked the long path in our own time, meeting at junctions, lost in our thoughts. We had both been up there several times, but never after the snows had melted. It was refreshing to see what lay beneath. The alpine pastures were just recovering from the blanket of snow. The grass seemed fresh and surprised by the light. The upper reaches of the mountain were still plastered from the recent storms and looked in good condition.
From Chalet d'Amont curiosity took us up ladders through a cliff band to Les Grands Plans and then up the path, and over steep patches of old snow to reach the hut in the late afternoon. Stefan was happy and walked slowly. I rushed about taking photos and then when a rain shower came on I ran up the last section to the hut and got the kettle on. The Valsorey hut was open but vacant and unguarded. We made a modest dinner of noodles and cheese on the stove. We each took a place on the five metre wide bunk and settled in under a pile musty blankets for an early night.
Stefan Sporli on Grand Combin North-West Face
Some nocturnal creature scratched around in the attic for a while. As the other rooms were locked I couldn't find what it was, nor temper its enthusiasm. I went downstairs and hung our food from a hook on the ceiling lest it decimate our rations. The clouds cleared during the night and revealed the stars. We set off well before dawn, but contrary to the forecast clouds started to push in again from the south at first light. As we hit the Col du Meitin the clouds began to envelop us, coming and going in great swathes. We barely had enough visibility for a while to find which field of ice we should start up and it didn't resemble what I remember climbing about ten years earlier.
Nearing the bergschrund the snow became soft and Stefan took the lead plunging enormous strides that I could barely use. We climbed up the face steadily, unroped, but next to each other. I was trying to get some photos of the route and had lent Stefan a bright red jacket that barely covered his long arms. We climbed mostly on easy névé and then just a few patches of brittle grey ice nearer the top. The clouds broke open again and provided views all the way down to the valley floor. In good weather the ridge-line route to the main summit provides a massive vista to the south over northern Italy. I had hope to get some photos here as the previous time I had taken none. Nevertheless wrapped back in clouds it wasn't a great place to be so without much discussion we decided to abandon the summit. Both of us had plenty enough experience wandering around on glaciers in fog.
Bivouac Musso, Plateau du Couloir and South West face
We exited the face to the right of Combin de Valsorey on the last step of the Meitin ridge. I had vague memories of having descended the Meitin ridge the last time I came up. We tried to descend some distance down steep loose rock steps before I recognised that I had done this before. The terrain was unpleasant and dangerous so it seemed inevitable that we should re-ascend and break out onto the South West Face to find an easier descent.
The South West Face is broad and easy angled. With good snow it would be a delight to ski, but even on foot it provided a quick passage down to the col at Plateau du Couloir. The clouds continued to play with us, at times menacing and dark and with a few flurries of snow, then teasing us with short bursts of sun. We crossed the col and clambered up to the Musso Bivouac hut and took a break before finally continuing down the steep icy runnels back to the Valsorey, a cup of tea and then the long walk home.
Stefan Sporli descending the Grand Combin South-West Face
Stefan Sporli on Grand Combin North-West Face
In ideal conditions you would find both the NW and SW faces covered with consolidated névé. This is most likely from March to June. Outside this period in midwinter the cold snow rarely sticks to the steeper ice of the face. During summer the descent via the SW face becomes raked by rockfall. The approach to the Cabane de Valsorey (3030m) is best either early spring when the whole approach can be skied, or around June when skis will no longer be necessary at all. Finding the correct descent route in fog is not easy and the summit plateau is broad and featureless. Doing the route with good visibility is recommended.
From Bourg St Pierre either park in the village, or find a suitable layby on the dead-end road leading to Plan du Pey. Head along the dirt track which leads along the north side of Valsorey valley and at Cordonne leave this to continue on a small path on the left. At Chalet d'Amont, if walking, take vague path leading up the hillside above a band of cliffs, or another path that heads into the cliffs and climbs a gulley by sections of ladders. Follow the path on to the Cabane. If on skis and the terrain is well covered with snow the best passage is often up the Valsorey gorge directly to Les Grands Plans. From here follow the slopes to the south of the Cabane and then traverse west to the hut's rocky perch.
On the summit day get up extremely early to ensure the good snow conditions on descent. Ascend slopes NE above the Cabane which steepen into a series of couloirs or ice runnels. Climb one of these and slopes above to then traverse across left to the Col du Meitin. Rope up and drop down onto the glacier. Pass under one couloir (that exits high on the Arête du Meitin) and then make a rising traverse onto the NW face. Climb the face directly to exit left of the Combin de Valsorey (4184m). Follow the blunt ridge SE to a broad col, then E to reach the principal summit – Combin de Grafeneire (4314m).
Retrace your steps to the Combin de Valsorey. Either turn this on the north side and traverse under rocks along the top of the NW face to reach a snowy shoulder, or descend the first step of the Meitin ridge to reach the same spot. Unless you know it well do not try to descend the loose and complex Meitin ridge, but traverse down left onto the SW face. Either down-climb or ski this face all the way to the Plateau du Couloir. Be careful dropping off the western edge of the Plateau as it is often corniced. Follow steep snow or icy runnels back to the Cabane and back along the approach path to the road.
Ben Tibbetts is an adventure photographer and IFMGA British Mountain Guide based in Chamonix, France. He is working on a book of the finest routes in the Alps, available in 2017
Ben will be guiding, climbing and photographing the remaining routes for his book on the 4000m peaks over the next year.
Routes on his list vary from PD snow climbs through classic alpine ridges to harder gullies and face routes. If you are interested in being guided on some of these adventures, (with the possibility of appearing in the book!) then get in touch with Ben to discuss availability (though he is away until late April working in Greenland!) - email@example.com or see his guiding website www.bentibbettsguiding.com for more information.