I’ve been to the Alps every year since my first visit when I was fifteen. I love the variety of climbing, the generally hot weather and the fresh pain au chocolats in the mornings. A trip to the Alps generally makes a nice, if a tad expensive, summer holiday.
This year I’ve planned and saved up for six weeks of climbing in the Alps and I’ve got a list of objectives as long as my arm! The first ten days of the trip were planned to be a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things; to get used to climbing on granite and get fully acclimatized before hopefully getting on some bigger routes in August.
I met up with Hazel Findlay and Pete Graham on my first day in Chamonix. The forecast wasn’t great with evening thunderstorms every day for the foreseeable future, so we decided to head over to Switzerland and climb on the Petit Clocher du Portalet.
I’d never heard of the Petit Clocher before but Hazel assured me it was a very good cliff and she was keen to make a free ascent of ‘Ave Caesar’, a 7c she’d last tried several years earlier. We camped in a sheltered spot about forty minutes walk from the wall with a convenient overhang under which we were able to cook our food. The route itself exceeded my expectations of its quality. Splitter cracks and great quality granite made ‘Ave Caesar’ reminiscent of some Yosemite classics.
Hazel waltzed up the first tricky pitch, a lovely, long layback crack and we continued upwards, climbing parallel to a couple of teams of Italian climbers on the tough looking ‘Etat du Choc’. Fortunately for me Hazel also had the lead of the next pitch and first crux: a short and stern 7c finger crack. Hazel made quick work of this pitch whilst I was unceremoniously spat off just before reaching better jams. I gave the pitch a second go immediately after my first but was too pumped to give it a good effort. The following pitch, a 7c ringlock crack was my lead. Already pumped and tired my chances weren’t great, but the fact I didn’t know how to ringlock made things even trickier! After ‘ascending’ this pitch Hazel once again cruised it and we were soon on the top looking across at a very stormy sky. Hazel, who’s been reading about clouds on her kindle, told me that these were “bad clouds”.
The following day we returned to the Petit Clocher for a look at the ‘Darbellay Crack’, a stunning multi pitch crack climb with a crux of 8a. We worked the crux pitch fairly quickly but were both feeling a bit too knackered for a lead attempt. It’s one of the best pitches I’ve seen in the Alps and is certainly something worth returning for.
Having returned to the campsite in Argentiere I met up with Gabby to take her up her first alpine routes. Gabby is a self-proclaimed skier and runner but is a handy rock climber too so I thought where better to go for a first alpine rock route than the South Face of the Midi? We started up the classic ‘Rebuffat’ route, but being impatient and caught up in a long queue we traversed across and climbed the main pitches of the ‘Contamine’ route, another fantastic, albeit a little trickier, free climb. After a swift ascent of the south face we headed over to the Grand Capucin where we spent a chilly night on the glacier.
Our objective for the day was the ‘Bonnatti’ route up the east face of the Grand Capucin. Rather than head up the snow gully on the south side we headed straight up the east face to join the ‘Bonnatti’ after its traverse in. We were thankful to have done this as later that day, the gully which is notorious for rockfall anyway, started to rumble ominously and we witnessed a massive avalanche which just missed a couple of guided parties.
We made steady progress up the ‘Bonnatti’ which although great is a bit of a route finding extravaganza. Gabby, not used to wearing rock boots for such a long period started to suffer from blisters on her heels but was still keen to head on upwards and we finally reached the summit at around six in the evening. Fortunately there is now a new line of abseil anchors down ‘Elixir d’Astaroth’ which is well worth knowing for anybody keen to climb the Grand Capucin as it provides a quick and easy descent.
Next up I teamed up with ‘big’ Tim Neil and Keith Ball – two really experienced and super psyched climbers. We headed straight for the Grand Capucin once again and climbed ‘Directe des Capucines’, an amazing line of moderate difficulty up the East Face. This route surely supersedes the ‘Bonnatti Direct’ in terms of quality of climbing and its visual line. With the forecast still good we stayed up high and the following day climbed the outstanding ‘Ligne Blanche’ on the Chandelle du Tacul. This route is on some of the best rock found in the Alps and each pitch has fantastic and varied climbing. We just managed to make it down to Courmayer in time to miss a big thunderstorm.