As the posts on UKClimbing.com testify, it's a popular objective for the mid grade alpinist. One that sounds hard and looks mean but isn't really (except in winter), with a short approach and best of all a mechanized descent. Uniquely visible from Rue du Dr Paccard in Chamonix town or in the swinging cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi, the eye is always drawn to it. Crane your neck and trace the route while you sip a beer at the Plan de l'Aiguille café. Up the ramp, left then right again, onto the ridge and so on and on until it reaches the snow arête and up and out into sunshine.
That said, it's not one to take lightly. The snap, crackle and pop of rocks and ice tumbling down the couloirs on either side of the ridge during the heat of the day, attest to the dangers of the approach. It's a long route too at 1200 metres from rimaye to ridge. A fact that leads to the never ending debate as to whether its better to go fast and light and do the thing in a day, or hump along bivvy gear and camp out at the top of the rock section, ensuring better conditions on the snow ridge in the cool of the following morning.
We arrive in Cham via Geneva and Easy Jet around Saturday midday with the Frendo as our first objective en route to the Zmutt ridge on the Matterhorn. By 4pm we've rustled up food from the only supermarket in Cham that doesn't close at lunch time, and checked out the forecast and conditions with OHM. Too much snow and too windy say the OHM ladies, sucking their French teeth. And an orage (storm) is forecast to arrive soon. A note scribbled in the book from three days before tells us that two guys have done it but found the snow and ice in the top section in poor condition. Not perfect then but good enough for us. So bon chance and up we go to the Plan de l'Aiguille refuge, a 10 minute walk beneath the mid-way station. In a hut big enough to sleep 50, we are the only guests.
Our intention is to climb it in the day and get the cable car down but to carry light bivvy gear so as to make a bearable night out if we're as slow as we think we might be. Neither of us is very fit, and we've had no alpine practice since our last marathon on the South ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey nearly three years before. My climbing buddy, Rupert, has just had twins, carries more baggage under his peepers than on his back and considers an Alpine holiday the best way to catch up on sleep. Consequently, we carry a surplus of clothes as well as the silver bricks of newly minted Blizzard bags.
A watched watch never alarms. And sweaty under itchy blankets I've been awake for an hour already when it finally goes off at 3am. Nothing much tastes good at early o'clock. Eating is for fuel. Bread and jam washed down with tepid hot chocolate is mulched in near silence, eyes blurring in the pale light of the hut dining room. Boots on, belt on, pack shouldered, then out into the cold of a starry night. Venus and our head torches just pick out the way and the wall looms ahead, black in the pre-dawn gloaming. As the path curves right through the boulder field and onto the moraine, I'm glad that we'd walked up the evening before to find the best route onto the glacier. An hour and thirty after leaving the hut we're on the snow ramp that pushes up and right into the centre of the broad rocky base. Hardened steps and an easy angle make for quick progress and soon we're out of the fall line of the serac loaded couloir. As the horizon colours gold, we reach the ramps end and turn left following another system of ledges on mixed snow and rock. Up ahead the route becomes less clear, but turning right again we come to what the Damilano/ Perroux 'Neige, Glace et Mixte' guide book describes as a 'Rateaux de Chevre', a thin rising line which leads into a chimney and takes us for the first time onto the ridge proper.
Way above us, the sun is striking full on the Aiguille du Midi, providing luminous contrast with the shadowed wall. We stop and savour our position, poised alone in a prehistoric landscape. This is why we do it. As we pick our way up short rock steps the telecabins start swinging past a few hundred yards to the right, at first empty but then with growing numbers of people inside. We imagine them gasping in amazement and incredulity at our audacity at being there.
And so the route climbs, never hard but demanding care, weaving its way upwards, mostly on the right of the spur until it reaches a narrow levelling. A shuffling traverse left leads to a chimney cum groove, steeper than anything that's gone before. Above, the ridge rises towards crenellated rock battlements, near yet far, that mark the start of the snow ridge. Bleached tat hangs down from a peg. Grovelling, bridging, back and big booted footing and the glories of 'French free' get us up. From here the pitches keep coming, sustained at around III and IV with a short section of lung popping V.
It's midday and damn hot as we reach the snow ridge. On the go for eight and a half hours already, we're well behind Griffin's guidebook time and even further behind Rebuffat's. We feel slightly affronted having simul-climbed most of the spur with none of our usual dawdling. But slow we must have been, for as we move up a pair of young Germans who've bivvied at the bottom cruise past us. Further up the snow ridge our lack of acclimatization and fitness becomes more apparent. As the arête steepens and thins, our 50 paces and rest becomes 25 and then 20. The drop into the couloirs on either side becomes more pronounced and the wet, mushy snow does not lend confidence. I think of beaches and cocktails and many other much better ways of spending my vacation time.
Twenty minutes later a French guide and his 18 year old female client come racketing past. “Ah English...too much beer” he ventures amiably. His client keeps up a steady stream of commentary on the poor state of the snow. It doesn't seem to slow her down much.
The foreshortened ridge when viewed from the bottom has led us to believe that the snow section would be a ten minute stroll to the top. It isn't, but at last we reach the shade of the rock rognon. We turn it on the left, following in the tracks of the other two teams. The views down the ridge to the Plan de l'Aiguille and Chamonix far below are now truly impressive. Wisps of afternoon cloud curl around the ridge, accentuating the drop.
The climbing is easy but the snow is as crappy as ever, one minute icy, the next a collapsing mush. We're pooped...especially Rupert, who mutters “I'm finished” every 2 minutes, like some latter day Toni Kurz. But fortunately he's not. Not close. The end is in sight, only a last sixty five degree ice pitch to go. The main battle now is against the clock. With only 45 minutes till the last cable car down to the valley, I start up the ice groove. We've caught the German team again and dinner plates are bouncing down. Bish bash, the ice is good quality and the picks stick first blow. No time or need to place ice screws, two friends on the right protect just fine. And at last we're up and out and onto the ridge top. Big smiles, tired high fives. The wind is gathering strength and the forecast storm clouds are coming in fast. We join a panting, shuffling crocodile of climbers and huff our way up to the ice cave at the Midi. The tannoy shrills out the fact that we have 10 minutes left to the last cabin to Chamonix. The stairs up to the lift itself almost kill us, but we jostle inside, trampling grannies and Japanese tourists underfoot. The wind buffets the cable car as we loop down and the crowd point at some climbers on the Spur only half way up who are definitely in for a wet and unpleasant night ahead. Steaming gently in our own fug, smug and satisfied we can almost taste the beer waiting in the town below.
Date climbed: Sunday 24 June, 2007.
1 x 60 metre 9mm rope
4 x Black Diamond Camalot (0.4. 0.5, 0.75, 1)
1 x set of 10 rocks
4 x quickdraws
2 x mid sized slings + locking crabs
2 x long slings + locking crabs