An extract from the upcoming English edition of Mont Blanc Lines by Alex Buisse, a collection of stories and photos celebrating the finest climbing and skiing lines of the Mont Blanc massif.
One of the most popular venues of the massif since the opening of the Aiguille du Midi cable car, Mont Blanc du Tacul, like the neighbouring Dôme du Goûter, is of little actual interest as a summit, except perhaps for collectors of 4,000-metre peaks. it is above all the first of the `Trois Monts´, a waypoint on the road to Mont Blanc via its second normal route. Its east face is an immense playground combining ease of access with every imaginable difficulty in every alpine discipline (rock, ice, snow, steep skiing, paragliding, base jumping and even highlining).
In the spring, some approaches don't require a single uphill metre thanks to the proximity of Vallée Blanche. The face, nearly two kilometres wide, is a succession of couloirs and spurs, some of which are so detached that they have become satellites in their own right. From south to north, we find the Chandelle, Clocher, Trident, Grand and Petit Capucins, Roi de Siam, Pointe Adolphe Rey, the Pyramide and finally Pointes Lachenal.
Before the cable car, Mont Blanc du Tacul felt like the other end of the world, requiring one to ascend Vallée Blanche or Col du Géant, at least a long day of hard work before reaching the foot of any route. Although a major summit easily visible from Chamonix and without much difficulty on its normal route, its highest point was not reached until 1855 during an expedition led by Edward Shirley Kennedy and Charles Hudson. They were looking for a new route to reach the summit of Mont Blanc, and when bad weather forced them to turn back to Col Maudit, one or more members of the expedition went to the nearby summit of the Tacul as a 'consolation prize'.
The line they followed on the north face, the current normal route, is dangerous, crossed by giant crevasses, prone to avalanches and overhung by huge séracs. It has nevertheless become very popular because of its technical ease and its access in mere minutes from Aiguille du Midi or the Cosmiques hut. Tragedies occur with devastating frequency, almost always caused by falling séracs: eight deaths in 2008, two in 2013, one in 2016, not to forget nine in 2012 on the similar north face of Mont Maudit.
When, at the turn of the twentieth century, attention turned away from the summits to look at faces, ridges and couloirs, one line stood out as an obvious challenge: the immense gash of snow and ice of the Gervasutti Couloir, almost directly below the summit. Its eponymous climber actually made the second ascent in 1934, though the first direct one respecting the aesthetics of the route. We owe the actual first ascent, with a rocky exit on the left bank, to Piero Filippi, Piero Ghiglione and Francesco Ravelli in 1929.
Another major line on the east face, the Gervasutti pillar, a majestic granite candle that rises in a single line almost to the summit, was not done by the great Italian climber either. He was killed in an abseiling accident in the middle of a storm after an attempt on 16 September 1946. In 1951, first ascensionists Fornelli and Mauro named the pillar in his honour.
The 1970s marked a turning point for the east face with two relatively new activities: gully ice climbing and steep skiing. Patrick Gabarrou in particular almost systematically explored the ice-filled couloirs of the massif. In July 1974, with Jean-Pierre Albinoni, he opened a great classic on the right side of the face, the Albinoni–Gabarrou gully. Less than a year later, in May 1975, he climbed the ultimate gully with Jean-Marc Boivin: the Super Couloir, as superlative as its name suggests, is a narrow strip between the slender Gervasutti and Three Pointes pillars. To make things even more interesting, the ice is guarded by a steep pedestal, about 100 metres tall and M6 in modern mixed grading, though often avoided by a traverse from the Gervasutti pillar.
With a slope between forty-five and fifty-five degrees, depending on the conditions, and ultra-easy access, the Gervasutti Couloir is a logical route for skiers and the first descent took place in 1968 by Sylvain Saudan. Anselme Baud, who lost his son there in a sérac fall in 2004, made the second descent in 1976. Nowadays, it is a rite of passage for aspiring steep skiers, and each spring there are dozens, if not hundreds of descents. Still in 1976, Daniel Chauchefoin descended the Diable Couloir. A year later, Jacky Bessat succeeded on the last continuous line, the Jager Couloir. Other couloirs, less direct or interspersed with mixed rocky sections, have since been descended, for example the eastern couloir of Col du Diable in 1981 and Macho Couloir in 1994.
Spring 1974. Having completed my aspirant guide training the previous year, I decide shortly before Easter to interrupt my captivating studies in Paris and to raise anchor and cast off for the high mountains, which had progressively become one of the great passions of my life. My brother Philippe, who would also become a mountain guide, owns a car, a rare thing at the time. It would be him who helped me make the modest move that opens up a new life for me. I don't know anyone, but I am full of confidence. I find a maid's room to rent and set off to discover Chamonix. Soon enough, fortune smiles on me. I meet a boy my age, also deeply attracted to the world up there. Curious about everything, naturally charming with his kindness and humour, he is a true little 'poulbot' from Chamonix.* Jean-Pierre Albinoni knows how to find all sorts of small jobs: handyman, furniture mover, wood chopper. Always in a good mood and with a great sense of humour, he is the perfect climbing partner.
Thanks to him, I am able to supervise my first 'Vallée Blanches' under the benevolent eye of former members of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. It is during one of these descents that I spot the obvious and wildly attractive line of a long virgin groove encased in the immense eastern face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, in the wall to the right of the famous Gervasutti Couloir. This is the very beginning of the discovery of these iced-up lines which the Mont Blanc massif has been exceptionally generous with. These natural gutters set between the granite pillars are in summer mere sinister chutes filled with the crash of falling rocks. In the cold season, however, they regularly morph into 'ice gullies'.
The brand-new technique of the traction-ice axe, revealed to the public during the iconic ascent of the north couloir of the Drus at the end of 1973, opened new perspectives for climbing frozen waterfalls and high-mountain ice gullies. Jean-Pierre and I leave the Cosmiques hut in the middle of the night, as early as possible given the eastern aspect of the line, though not so early that we wouldn't be able to spot the line in the heart of darkness. A delicate choice, as is often the case at this time of year. All the more so as it was the 5th of July!
The details of the climb have become a bit hazy. We remember that the upper gully had been manhandled by the summer sun and that there was already quite a lot of rock, forcing some delicate moves from patch of ice to patch of ice.
Protection was rare and often rather unreliable. Friends did not exist yet. Pitons were difficult to place and we did not own many of these precious pieces of metal. We had to use our two or three extra-flat blades, well adapted to this terrain, very sparingly because, being made of soft steel, they were difficult to reuse. Jean-Pierre had a Charlet Super Conta ice axe with a perfectly horizontal blade and an ice hammer. As for me, in addition to a classic ice axe, I had a Camp Cerro Torre hammer-axe, the blade of which I had had curved by a very obliging teacher at the technical college where my father was a bursar. It was pretty effective until the blade, which had been soaked during the climb, decided to snap – fortunately after all the technical difficulties!
We finished under a scorching sun, nine hours after crossing the rimaye, in a magical traverse under the magnificent and imposing summit cornice. We were as happy as little princes...
Jean-Pierre became a guide with the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, and is affectionately known to all as 'Bibi'. We have remained friends. A knee operation prevented him from celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the route with me, but we hope to celebrate the fiftieth together in 2024, still roped up like giddy kids in our Albinoni–Gabarrou.
Mont Blanc Lines by Alex Buisse (translated by Natalie Berry) - Vertebrate Publishing
Stories and photos celebrating the finest climbing and skiing lines of the Mont Blanc massif
In Mont Blanc Lines, photographer and alpinist Alex Buisse has travelled the Mont Blanc massif to capture images of the major mountain faces and to trace the classic climbing and skiing lines. As well as Mont Blanc, also featured are the Grandes Jorasses, the Aiguille du Midi and more, as well as the Matterhorn and the Eiger in Switzerland.