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A Winter in the French Alps

Updated: May 2, 2023

Spending a whole season in a place as dynamic as Chamonix in the heart of the French Alps is an interesting experience. Observing the conditions & season change through the months, and adapting to the most practical way to experience the mountains is a great learning process. From skiing, ice climbing, mountaineering, or rock climbing, all is possible in the Mont Blanc massif and surrounds, and is all a matter of patience. Here Alastair recalls the various trips made over the course of the winter by the NZAT contingent of himself, Daniel Joll, Lionel Clay and Kim Ladiges.

If you are thinking of spending a winter season in Chamonix, this article should give you plenty of good ideas for climbing objectives in the area.

North Face of Aiguille du Jardin

It was 31st December 2018, Daniel Joll and I were heading into the Argentiere Basin for a different sort of Chamonix New Years Party. A rather cold one, seeing as at 8PM I discovered that a misunderstanding on my part had left me without a sleeping bag. Fortunately we did have a tent, and the night was not as arctic as one might imagine, nor a long one, as at 3AM we set off to the base of the 1000m high north face of Aiguille du Jardin, due east of the well-known Aiguille Verte. A route finding error at day-break in the middle of the 6 pitches of ice & mixed put us onto virgin terrain where we unknowingly scratched up a “new route”. We call it getting lost in the dark. Above this technical section, a long snow & ice slog led to the summit, and being quite un-acclimatised, the altitude really hit hard for me. We reached the summit late in the day, exhausted, and commenced a gruelling 7 hour abseil descent back down the face by v-thread and downclimbing. A quick Jetboil of coffee at the camp was a sweet revival before the 2000m ski descent back to the valley, arriving back home at midnight. I was sick for a week.

Ice & Mixed Climbing – Argentiere, Mauvoisin, Cogne, Haute Maurienne

January in the Alps brought cold temps and plenty of deep powder snow. Great for skiing, but not so good for alpine climbing. Ice climbing around the Alps is quite different to Canada and requires a fair bit of “local knowledge”, but the persistent ice hunter can still be rewarded. Chamonix’s best ice cragging can be found in the Argentiere Basin, and in the early season Daniel Joll & Lionel Clay managed several good laps.

Cogne is a famous ice climbing area near the Aosta Valley in Northern Italy. On our visit to this classic area there was almost no snow – just clean ice streaks against the rock. Over 3 days we climbed several classic routes, but many were also not yet in condition.

Mauvoisin in nearby Switzerland holds some mythical looking 100m+ WI6 routes, but with difficult access and avalanche danger – as is the case for many ice climbing spots. We only scratched the surface here, and the area would be worth another good look in future.

Some of the best ice climbing of the season was found in Haute Maurienene, 2.5hrs SW of Chamonix. “Sarret c’tun Jeu” is an incredible 120m ice formation glued to the canyon walls near Bramans. Further up the atmospheric canyon was the monstrous ice pillar of “Glacenost”, a much revered ice route of the region. It was steep and chandeliered, but surprisingly a lot easier to climb than it looked! Always a pleasant surprise.

Failed Attempts on Scotch on the Rocks, Colton-MacIntyre, Fil A Plomb

Lionel Clay had come to Chamonix for 3 months to achieve his alpine climbing dreams and re-discover his old haunts of 20 years ago. However, his season did not start off well, with several failed attempts due to conditions and sickness.

First, Lionel and I decided to try “Scotch on the Rocks”, a 300m mixed route on the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, on one of the coldest spells of the winter. As we camped on the glacier at 3500m below the route, the mercury dropped close to -30C. Who’s idea was this? Even with double boots and thick gloves the following day we struggled to ward off re-occuring screaming barfies, and fought fruitlessly against sugar snow covered granite slabs. Our progress was so poor that we bailed by 11am and headed home.

A few weeks later Lionel went in to attempt the North Face of Grandes Jorasses with Daniel. This was Lionel’s main objective for his trip. But tonsillitis saw an early end to that idea, and the pair headed home empty-handed after reaching the foot of the wall. Lionel was starting to wonder whether he was still cut out for alpine climbing or whether he should just stick to sport climbing at Hospital Flat.

He decided to drop the grade & committment to see if he could rejuvenate his success ratio. With Rachel Knott, he went to try the classic moderate “Fil A Plomb”, on the North Face of Aiguille du Midi. Alas, the crux pitch offered only an inch thick layer of ice – climable, but incredibly dangerous. A third straight failure, things were not looking good.

Rebuffat-Terray, South Face of Aiguille du Midi

Fine weather continued into February, an incredible three week fine spell. It was even warm enough for rock climbing high-altitude granite. Lionel & Rachel profitted from the amazing temperatures with an ascent of the mega-classic “Rebuffat-Terray” on the South Face of the Aiguille du Midi, a beautiful 250m tall pillar of granite standing upright above the hordes of skiers setting off for the Vallee Blanche. And to further boost his success ratio, they also tacked on the famous “Cosmiques Arete” to their ticklist.

North Face of the Petit Dru, Pierre-Allain

During the same February fine spell, Tom Seccombe & I were heading towards the North Face of the Dru. Thanks to the main cablecar that goes up to 3200m burning down the previous Autumn, we actually had to skin uphill on the approach (!), and didn’t reach the base of the Pierre-Allain route til 2PM. The 850m mixed climb has one one good bivouac spot on the route, above the niche, about halfway up. Armed with headtorches and a full moon, we eventually reached the halfway bivouac at 11:30PM and brewed up into the early hours.

We finished the top half the following day, continuous interesting dry tooling in the M4-5 range, and plenty of grunty sections. Quality climbing. We abseiled all night reaching the base by 3:30AM, and proceeded to sleepily climb back up the 500m of snow to the top of Grands Montets, reaching our skis at first light. Skiing blurry-eyed down the empty skifield before first opening was surreal. Some of the best groomed pistes we had ever experienced.

Modica-Noury, Mont Blanc du Tacul

Late February was the season for alpine ice routes. “Modica-Noury” is the type of route that gives Chamonix its good name. First lift up the Aiguille du Midi. 15-minute ski downhill, 15-minute skin uphill, and you’re at the base of a brilliant 450m snow, ice & mixed couloir with a pitch of up to WI5 ice. Abseil the route on fixed anchors, ski down the Vallee Blanche, and back for dinner. There’s few places in the world where such is possible in such a short day.

Alongside the Modica-Noury is the alternative of the Gabarou-Albinoni couloir, at a slightly easier grade, which Dan used as a good acclimatisation outing, rope-soloing the technical pitches.

Innominata Ridge, Mont Blanc

Fine weather dragged on endlessly, it was time for a trip up to the higher mountains. Dan Joll and Rhyss MacAllister found the Hypercouloir on the South Face of Mont Blanc was lacking in ice, so they changed objectives to the Innominata Ridge. This long mixed route from the Italian side was a great plan B, and they enjoyed perfect winter conditions up in the high mountains.

Pellisier Couloir / M6 Solar, Point Lachenal

Other superb ice & mixed routes we enjoyed into March were the “Pellisier Couloir” and “M6 Solar” on Pointes Lachenal. These were in the same vein as the Modica-Noury, and were great for quick day trips to gain good alpine climbing mileage without overly taxing the body. 4 or so good pitches of mixed climbing followed by 2-3 hours of off-piste skiing down the white valley. We realise that putting in plenty of time on moderate terrain is just as important as climbing hard routes, as on big alpine climbs, the key to success is more often a case of moving efficiently and comfortably on easy run-out terrain, than being able to pull M10 at the crags.

Walker Spur, Grandes Jorasses

Another perfect spell of weather arrived in mid March, at the very end of the official Winter season. It was time for another go on the North Face of Grandes Jorasses. Dan & Kim paired up for the Walker Spur, while Lionel & I eyed up the Colton MacIntyre next door. So much history enravelled in these two mythical routes and the other lines painted across her wide canvas.

Dan & Kim found the lower section of the Spur to be slow going, the rock was cold, and climbing alpine 6a rock in boots and gloves was not as easy as on paper. Some types of broken alpine terrain can become easier with axes and crampons, others, such as the slabby granite rock pitches on the Walker Spur, become a whole lot harder. Nevertheless they perservered and climbed late into the night, reaching the summit around midnight, 18.5 hours after stepping across the bergschrund.

The easiest descent is to climb down the south face into Italy and end up in Courmayeur, a huge 2800m of descent. Near the bottom of the glacier is a set of (incredibly hard to find) steel ladders down a cliff which are difficult to locate from above. Not the most pleasant challenge at 6AM after a long day, and night, but Dan and Kim managed to reach the road end by 8AM and hitch-hike back through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy. Meanwhile…

Colton-MacIntyre, Grandes Jorasses

I set off up the Colton-MacIntyre with Lionel at the same time as Dan & Kim were attacking the Walker. It was a great feeling to have our two teams simultaneously climbing up this magnificent face – one on 1000m of rock, the other on 1000m of ice. We made good progress initially up the first ice field, 300m of bullet hard blue ice. Usually this is a 50 degree neve romp, but today it was to set the scene of the whole climb – an all-time calf-burner! This winter has been so dry that almost no one had ventured up the CM. Fortunately, the first ice step was in perfect conditions, and the second “Alexis” ice step was an exhilarating and tenuous pitch on a very thin streak of steep ice. Lionel led both of these technical crux sections and was on perfect form, finally seeking redemption from his now distant failures of the early season.

I took over the reigns on the top half as we neared the upper rock section. Late in the day, we were both feeling the strain from altitude and the relentless calf burn from all the 50 degree blue ice. Darkness fell just as we had reached a difficult section and we were no longer sure which way to go. Hours passed as we each tried dead-end streets with no success.

With seemingly nowhere to bivouac on this sheer face, we fixed the ropes to a few ice screws to see if we could find a ledge lower down. To our good fortune, we found a huge snow lump attached to the rock and we were able to hack out a small platform in the snow just big enough to both sit on, legs hanging over the edge, we brewed up hot drinks late into the night and stared out to distant lights, 800m up the face.

Rejuvenated from a somewhat restful night, we reached the summit at midday the next day. The descent was baking in hot afternoon sun, so we enjoyed a luxurious 4 hours of sleep on the summit, warmed by the hot sun and not a breath of wind.

The sun dipped below the crests of Mont Blanc as we began the long descent to Italy, following Dan & Kim’s footsteps. Crucially, these footsteps ran out just before the difficult-to-find ladders, and we were totally stumped. Another night sleeping out on the glacier, so close to the end, this time without dinner.

We found the ladders early the next morning, and were enjoying fresh patisseries goods, re-united with Dan & Kim, in Chamonix by 9AM. Lionel had achieved his long-time dream. He had climbed ice & mixed to the top of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses.

Croz Spur, Grandes Jorasses

If the Walker Spur wasn’t enough for Dan & Kim, they were still hungry for more, as the high pressure lingered on. This time they walked in on foot and fired up the Croz Spur, another classic ice route on the face, and even made it back to Chamonix for dinner at 9:30PM.

North Face Aiguille du Midi

Talking about accessible alpine terrain… A quick lift to 2300m and an hours walk will bring you to the base of the North Face of Aiguille du Midi, a 1000m face of rock and snow offering many moderate mountaineering lines that somehow weave through a steep looking face at quite an amenable angle. Daniel & Lionel climbed the classic Mallory-Porter early in the season in deep snow and hard ice. Alastair climbed it a few times later in the spring when it was coated in sticky snow and bucket steps – as convenient and satisfying as cardio training gets – with the best descent in the Alps, via cablecar back to the valley, back in time for lunch.

Kim and Cillian Kennedy also climbed the Eugster Diagonal which takes a line further right of the Mallory, similar but with a bit of M4 mixed climbing thrown in.

More high-altitude granite

Into April the temperatures became ideal for more granite climbing off the Aiguille du Midi. Alastair & James Monypenny climbed Dame du Lac on the South Face of the Midi, and managed half of the Grand Capucin before running out of time in order to catch the last Montenvers train. A few weeks later, the Contamine route on Pointes Lachenal offered 8 pitches of amazing splitter climbing, the word classic gets overused but barely does it justice here.

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