The Summer of 1986 was a good one in the Alps, with a long period of settled weather early in the season. I was camping at Pierre d’Orthaz opposite to the infamous Snell’s Field. Unlike Snell’s, Pierre d’Orthaz has the advantage of being legal and thus one’s gear is not likely to be transported to the Gendarmerie whilst away on a Route.
I had been in Chamonix for a few weeks so, had already climbed several routes and was quite fit and well acclimatised. I have always wanted to climb a Route on the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc. The meteo was predicting at least two days of good weather, so this seemed like a good time to try. The Brenva Face is one of the largest and most impressive in the Alps. Situated on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, framed between the Brenva Ridge and Eckpfeiler Buttress, it is 1.5 km long and the face itself is 4000ft high. Since it faces directly into the morning sun an early start is essential to get above the seracs, which dominate the lower part of face and to escape the avalanches which sweep this part of the face during the day.
The face was originally explored by T. Graham Brown with various partners in the 1930’s. During this period he climbed the three routes for which the face is famous; Route Major, Sentinelle Rouge and The Pear. All three routes are impressive tackling the biggest face on the mountain and leading directly to the summit. There are no great technical difficulties, but all the routes are exceptionally long, at high altitude and there is considerable objective danger from avalanches. I particularly wanted to climb Route Major which takes the great snow/ice buttress defining the left hand side of the Great Couloir in the centre of the Brenva face.
I had arranged to do the climb with Gareth, a Scot, who had climbed the Brenva Ridge a couple of weeks earlier with some other friends of mine. In fact they had been planning to climb Route Major but after getting lost trying to find the hut had failed to traverse far enough across the bottom of the face (a common mistake) and had ended up on the Brenva Ridge. Near the top of the Route, one of the party who was not acclimatised had got into difficulties and it had taken them a very long time to climb the final slopes leading to the summit of Mont Blanc. Just below the summit they had also come across two other Brits who had climbed the Cecchinel Nomine route on the Eckpfeiler buttress. One of them was in a bad way, had collapsed from exhaustion in the snow and had to be helicoptered off, but that is another story.
We decided that the best way to tackle the climb was to travel light and climb quickly, moving together, to minimise our exposure to objective dangers. We took only one 9 mm rope, two rock pegs and two ice screws. We had plenty of food, most of which we ate at the hut before starting the climb. I took no spare clothes and the only item in my rucksack during the climb was a cagoule. The climb would be a three day trip from Chamonix. An afternoon to reach the hut climbing the face that night, while it was frozen into immobility, followed by a bivouac in the Vallot hut just below the summit of Mont Blanc. The next day we would descend the ordinary route to Chamonix.
Just to gain access to the Brenva Face from Chamonix was quite an expedition in itself. The first stage was to take a telepherique to the summit of the Aig. du Midi (easy on the legs but hard on the wallet) and descend into the Vallee Blanche and traverse it to one of the two huts (the Ghiglione and the Fourche) that give access to the face. Finding the huts was a problem in itself. Both are situated on a ridge which overlooks the Brenva Face, but are very difficult to locate from below. I had been to both previously but I never knew which hut I was going to end up at until I had actually arrived there. Following some tracks on the glacier, we climbed up a steep icy gully to the crest of the ridge and finally arrived on the balcony of the Fourche Hut about six in the evening.
The hut itself was very small sleeping only 8-10 people, but the view was outstanding. Leaving the hut was particularly exciting, an abseil from the balcony onto the glacier below being necessary. It was definitely not a place for sleepwalkers. Standing on the hut balcony the whole of the Brenva Face was clearly visible. The route from the hut crosses the upper part of the Brenva Glacier, climbs over Col Moore and then traverses the bottom of the face until below the large rock tower, the Sentinelle Rouge. Climbing up slopes of snow and ice to the Sentinelle Rouge, the route then traverses the Great Couloir to reach the foot of the great rock-ice buttress which forms the substance of the route. All this section is very exposed to avalanches and must be completed at night. The buttress provides the most difficult climbing, but is safe from objective danger and leads to the summit ridge between Mont Blanc de Courmayeur and Mont Blanc.
The hut was full of Italians who were intending to climb the Brenva Ridge with a guide and also two other Brits who were planning to climb the Frontier Ridge on Mont Maudit. We managed to squeeze into a corner near to the door, next to a couple of inscrutable Japanese. We got our food out and began to cook. This annoyed the Italians who complained that the stove made too much noise and was keeping them awake. Ignoring the protests we carried on cooking and stuffed ourselves with spaghetti and baked beans. Just after we had finished and the Italians had returned to their slumbers, a couple of Scottish lads arrived and began to cook their food further rousing the Italians’ ire. We had a brief conversation with the two Japanese and discovered that they also planned to climb Route Major the next morning.
It was impossible to rest in the crowded hut so we abandoned our plan of staying in the hut until 2.00 am and left at 11.00 pm instead. Someone had kindly left a rope hanging from the balcony of the hut, but it was only after abseiling to the end of it that I discovered that it stopped 30 metres short of the glacier. Gareth was not impressed but luckily it was too dark to see what the consequences of a slip would have meant. Some quite tricky climbing down steep ice and chossy snow lead down to a final leap over the bergschrund onto the glacier.
Roping up we started to plod across the glacier towards Col Moore. A nearly full moon illuminated our progress in the icy cold of the night and we congratulated ourselves on our good luck. However, a few minutes later, as if to spite us, the moon disappeared behind the summit of the Blanc and everything went dark. Switching on our head torches we carried on over the Col and began to traverse below the face across the avalanche prone gullies. Huge blocks of ice littered the glacier, evidence of the avalanches that fell here during the day. At this point Gareth’s head torch went out and we had to stop and take it to bits (not easy with freezing hands in the dark), but could find nothing wrong. We re-assembled it and as if by magic it started to work again. Looking back towards the hut we could see the two head torches of the Japanese as they began their descent onto the glacier.
Gareth was determined not to repeat his previous mistake and so we went what seemed like miles across the bottom of the face until we could see what appeared to be the Red Tower above us. Crossing the bergschrund to get established on the face proved tricky as the upper lip was covered in unconsolidated icing sugar. Burying my axes up to the arm pits I mantelshelved and did a belly flop onto the slope.
Shortly above the bergschrund the icing sugar changed to hard ice and we were funnelled into a wide gully. Rounding a corner we saw some small seracs above. We climbed past these by climbing a small ice ramp which split them. Above the gully became wider and an indeterminate distance above we could see what we assumed to be the Sentinelle Rouge. The climbing was quite tiring because of the hard and polished surface of the ice. Small chips of ice slithered down the slope towards us and looking down we could see the vast piles of avalanche debris at the bottom of the face.
After climbing some distance up the slope it became obvious that the rocks above us which we had thought, in our ignorance, to be sheltering us from possible avalanches were in fact big seracs and highly dangerous. The little slivers of falling ice now assumed a greater significance as we anticipated the really big one which would sweep us from the slope. We were now clearly lost, but had no alternative but to continue and soon we reached the seracs. Luckily we found an easy line climbing them by one long, but quite steep pitch.
We thought that we might be out of danger now, but our illusion was shattered as above us we could see a third even larger row of seracs. Climbing over some smaller stuff we arrived at the base of the main barrier. It was my lead and I was distinctly worried as I began to work my way up the steep ice. The climbing was very steep and the ice hard and dinner plating. I had no way of knowing if I would be able to reach less steep ground and a belay. Fortunately I reached the top of the serac with about 10ft of spare rope. Seconding this pitch was just as nerve racking for Gareth as the belay was a single ice screw, so the rope offered only an illusion of security.
Once on top of the serac we could see a rocky ridge up to our left and decided to make for this, thinking that we would be safe on its crest. The slope seemed to go on for ever as acutely conscious of the need for speed we climbed towards the rocks. Eventually we reached the foot of the buttress and found an easy gully leading to the crest. Safe at last we paused for a good look around. Suddenly everything clicked into place as I could see the Brenva Ridge far below us. We had climbed the couloir and seracs to the right of Route Major and were now above all the difficulties and out of danger.
Far below us we could see the head torches belonging to the parties beginning their ascent of the Brenva Ridge. It was two o’clock in the morning and we had managed to climb 4000ft of difficult ground: far from being slow, as we had thought, we had been climbing extremely fast!
Gareth was very annoyed at having got lost on the Route twice in succession and we sat down to discuss what to do next. I was equally annoyed about getting lost but more relieved that we now knew where we were and were finally off the face. It was still quite a way to the summit up a long and tedious snow slope which we both knew was hard going at this altitude. Disillusioned with not having found the correct line, one alternative was to descend the Brenva Ridge back to the hut, enabling us to return to the fleshpots of Chamonix that afternoon. This route would be sheltered from avalanches if the sun hit face before we had descended. We started down and lost height rapidly. Close to the bottom of the ridge I suggested descending a gully on one flank down to the glacier to save time instead of going all the way to the end of the ridge. When we reached the foot of the gully we discovered that we could not get over the bergschrund and were forced to traverse along the base of the Brenva Ridge to a point where the bergschrund narrowed. This lead us directly beneath the seracs over the Gussfeldt Couloir! Jumping the bergschrund we ran down the slope below and out of the fall line to safety.
Plodding back across the glacier we were treated to a magnificent sun rise over Mont Maudit and to complete our catalogue of errors we ended up at the Ghiglione instead of the Fourche hut. Shortly after arriving at the hut there was a tremendous noise and rushing outside we saw a massive avalanche from the Pear seracs sweeping the route we had been climbing. We retired to bed suitably chastened for a well deserved sleep.
Later on in the day as we left the hut to go back down to Chamonix I had a good look at the Brenva Face and saw that while we had been sleeping there had been another avalanche from the seracs above the Gussfeldt Couloir, under which we had traversed on our descent.
The walk back up the Vallee Blanche was extremely tiring and we only just caught the last telepherique down to Chamonix. When we got back to Pierre d’Orthaz the lads told us that two people had been killed on Route Major the previous night and they thought it must have been us! Luckily we had got back before they had sold our gear.
The next day we wandered into the Guides Bureau and looked at the definitive Routes book. It seemed no one had climbed our line before so it seemed that we had done a new route by mistake, although I doubt if anyone will wish to repeat it. We asked about the two people who had been killed. The Guide said that two Japanese had been killed near the great buttress by an avalanche at about the time we should have been there if we had left the hut at the planned time.