French climber Caroline Ciavaldini has free-climbed the Voie Petit 8b on the Grand Capucin on Mont Blanc du Tacul, first established by Arnaud Petit in 1997. The 450m multi-pitch route has been a long-term goal for Caroline, who has made a bold yet successful transition from international competitions to hard trad, culminating in this latest foray into alpine climbing.
The route is the hardest high altitude rock climb in the Alps, first free-climbed by Alex Huber 2005 and has since attracted repeats by Václav Šatava and Dušan Janák, David Lama, Arnaud Petit, Edu Marin and Britain's very own James McHaffie and Ben Bransby. Caroline is the first female to succeed on the route, which is protected by a mixture of trad gear, bolts and pegs.
Caroline has sent us an account of her climb, featured below.
Read a UKC interview with Caroline: 'Caroline Ciavaldini Talks Trad'
Yesterday I finally stood on the top of the Grand Capucin, with the incredible realisation that I had succeeded in my long term project.
I grew up as a sport climber on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, and one year ago I set myself the incredible project of doing the Voie Petit, an alpine route at 3500m of altitude, 8b max, 450m long: the hardest high altitude rock route in the alps.
Why did I set my eyes on a piece of rock where I had none of the skills required: no alpine experience whatsoever, no knowledge of granite rock, no endurance in general?
The Voie Petit is the creation of Arnaud Petit, an immense climber, a world cup winner and a montain guide, a man who succeeded to reconcile two worlds which often look down on one another: rock climbing and alpinism. Arnaud and his partner, Stephanie Bodet are the sparks that lit my fire: having them as role models, it was an obvious step to seek out their routes. And so I did, and there it was, a dream in the air: The Voie Petit.
I had been competing for 10 years in the lead world cups; I won, made podiums. But there is a world between an eight minute exercise on an artificial wall and free-climbing a vertical or overhanging wall of granite above a glacier.
So when I set myself the goal for the route last year, I made a plan: I had to learn all the skills that I lacked, and the list was long, from walking on ice with crampons to climbing very, very far above your last protection, with the knowledge that injury would be the likely result of a fall.
And I trained, for a full year, with my goal in my mind every morning when I woke up. I set myself a few rules, because big wall climbing is full of shades of grey, and you are the only one who can decide on limits: I could count on my partner, James Pearson, my husband and best climbing partner, to support me and belay me. But it was my project, and I would be the only one working out the moves of the route, to place the gear in dangerous sections. I wouldn’t use an easier route on the left or on the right to short cut the working phase. I would climb only in the route, by my own abilties. Quite simple really: I go from the bottom to the top and if I can’t pass a section, I can’t go up!
In total, I went on the route four times, twice last year, and twice this year, to learn the movements of every pitch. Last year, it all seemed like the moon to me, but I trained, and I trained right. Most of all, I have done a lot of mental preparation, reusing all the things I have learned over my competition years: visualising gave me a pool of energy to draw from on D day, and I was handling the fear of danger like I used to handle the fear of failing in competitions.
I did rely on someone I trust entirely for all the areas where James and I are only beginners: weather, security on the glacier, altitude management are all the skills of Marion Poitevin, a young mountain guide and instructor for mountain guide aspirants.
I could count on her for advice, just like I could count on Arnaud and Stephanie Bodet for the route’s specifics, but more than that, they have been pushing me - and James of course - all four of them deeply wanted me to succeed.
On my final try, two days ago, Marion had called me to tell me there was a weather window.
I had been planning on simply going on the route to check out the last 150 metres that I hadn’t reached yet, stopping and using the ropes that I had placed on the lower parts of the route. But Arnaud called me, and suggested that I should give it a serious try on the first part, and then sleep on the Bonatti Ledge at 2/3 height, to try to free climb all the last pitches on the second day.
Marion came with us, and as we had much bigger bags for the bivouac on the wall, she could help James manage all the logistics of hauling the bags up. I only had to lead, they would follow me.
I reached the crux pitch, the 8b, and focussed simply on “just trying.” It was an exhausting battle on that pitch, I nearly blacked out on reaching the belay, a combination of effort and altitude, but I had done it. I had succeeded on the hardest pitch, I had a chance.
To succeed on a multi-pitch route you have to succeed to free climb each pitch, in the order, in one push.
So at that point, I still had 8 pitches to succeed on. But I felt all the motivation from my year of training pushing me up, and in 2 pitches (7c+ then 7b+), I reached the ledge.
I had never slept on a ledge, and was looking forward to the experience: you haul up bags with sleeping bags and mats, down jackets, a stove to melt the snow that lies on the ledge and cook your dehydrated dinner. You sleep with your harness on, on your tiny 80cm wide ledge and 400 metres of air below you. If you slip, a rope will save you. What you can’t stop looking at is the mountain panorama jumping at your face.
To say that I slept wonderfully would be an exaggeration, but I made the most of my night visualising the second part, trying to imagine struggling on the 8a pitch, the hardest of the top part. It has a reputation for being very technical, and hard to figure out. 6am start, and there I was after an easier pitch, at the foot of the 8a. It looked beautiful. Indeed it was technical, but I was patient, found the key on each movement, then lowered to the bottom of the pitch, and climbed it. I was focussed, and mistakes didn’t matter, because there was this enormous bubble of motivation behind me. There were only a few easier pitches and a 7b+ between me and success, and part of me knew at that point that I had it. But I focussed on every pitch, one after the other - I had to redo the 7b+ twice to complete it - and reached the summit. That was it, It was done, officially. My big one-year dream had become a reality.
I didn’t explode with joy just yet. After 450m of climbing, we still had to abseil. The three of us were happy, and in complete harmony, but we knew we still had to remain focussed. Abseiling is the last page of a climbing story, but it has to be finished smoothly to make for a happy ending – when you are tired, mistakes can happen all too easily.
We reached the bottom of the face, walked back to the telepherique, and had to wait a night in the refuge before finally getting down the mountain. Today it is all settling, sinking in. I have done it, with James, and Marion, and Arnaud, and Steph, and all the people who deeply wished for me to succeed. It is the end of an adventure that started a year ago, and I will write in my notebook of memories every little adventure of the big adventure: I learned granite climbing in La Pedriza, I trained my mental strength on daring English trad routes, I spent many hours in my home gym, holding onto one more hold, for one more second, because it is the sum of all little things that would, and did, make the difference. I did it. And it will always be there, as my most daring project, transformed into success, with all these people pushing me.
I did it!