For the past Two years me and Steve had been out to Chamonix spending a week or so in arguably one of the best climbing destinations in the world. In our first year we had achieved little in terms of the number of routes done, but had learnt a lot none the less. In 2008 we were more experienced and had been a lot more successful, so this year with significantly more climbing experience under our belts we were confident of doing at least one of the many big classic routes in the range, and for us one stood out head and shoulders above the rest – The Frendo Spur up the north face of the Auguille du Midi.
Running from the Plan L’Auguille (the mid-station of the Midi Telepherique) at 2300m, almost directly underneath the line of lift finishing close to the top station at about 3800m, the Frendo Spur is a major classic for the mid-grade Alpinist (graded D+). What most tourists do in 5 minutes on the telepherique, me and Steve intended to do over a period of 2 days, taking in a bivi about three quarters of the way up just below the final ice climbing section.
We had landed in Chamonix on the Friday evening and done a little rock climbing at Les Gaillands on Saturday as well as checking the forecast for Sunday and Monday and the condition of the Frendo. The forecast was ok, Sunday should be good all day with most of Monday also fine although possibly deteriorating later in day by which point we should be off the route though. We were set to go, bags packed up, tickets bought…!
We got the lift up to the mid-station Sunday morning and at 11am started the walk-in to the base of the huge face. The weather as forecast was excellent. After an hour or so we had reached the snowline and decided to rope up as we would soon have to cross the bergshrund standing in between us and the base of route. The snow was soft and it was hard work. As always I was a bit nervous making the crossing onto the rock, but all was fine and we were soon moving together over easy ground following a ramp line slanting up to the right at the start of the route proper.
We moved together when we could, but it wasn’t long before following behind Steve I noticed a clear notch in the rope between us, the only rope we had. The rope had been badly damaged, the outer sheath was gone and the white inner core was exposed and damaged, probably in an earlier rock fall, and unfortunately the damaged section was right in the middle of the rope. Should we carry on….? We discussed it briefly but neither of us really wanted to retreat so we re-adjusted our coils to take the damaged section out of play and continued on our way.
Generally the climbing was easy, even with heavy sacks and in big mountaineering boots but it was definitely a long way! We also had to pitch sections of it with some regularity, especially the higher up we went and given our rope problems this was somewhat time consuming. Time was getting on, the last telepherique had long since run and we still looked someway from our intended bivi site. We pushed on, but it was obvious; unless we wanted to carry on in the dark we weren’t going to make it to the flat ground below the ice. It was 10pm, 11 hrs of climbing and we had been too slow. We got to an area with a few large boulders that might offer some flat ground and that was it…..we would bivi here for the night here.
It wasn’t ideal; Steve had the plum spot (in my opinion!) on top of a pinnacle of rock while I had to make do with a trench to the side. The drop either side didn’t bear thinking about – we were anchored in of course, but I didn’t exactly fancy rolling over and end up dangling in my harness 6000ft above Chamonix!! We cooked and melted snow for the next day; we both knew there would be no sleep but we tried to close our eyes and not spend too much time considering our position. On the up side it was a cracking night! There were as many stars in the sky as I have ever seen and in comparison to previous nights in the mountains I was reasonably warm.
When the clock ticked past 4am on Monday morning, given we were both awake, that was it and we got up (if that is what you can call it). There were signs of light approaching and we knew it would take time to get sorted out, so we got moving and started packing, always making sure everything was anchored into something – this would be a bad time to lose a boot 2000ft to the south! By 5am we were climbing again – we were well and truly into pitched territory now – the final exit chimneys from the rock had a reputation of throwing in some hard sections and there were often moves to stop and make you think.
In one particular frustrating section we must have tried at least 4 different lines, retreating from one by lowering off a seemingly well jammed nut, before finally identifying the correct line through the barricades of overhangs and blank sections of rock. It was easy to see on a grand scale where we needed to go, but micro-route finding to pick the easiest crack or slab was hard work and we got the wrong line on numerous occasions. This cost us a lot of time, but at about 10am we escaped the rock section and finally arrived at where we should have bivied the night before, and yes, obviously, the bivi sites were superb!!
We took a short break; there was still plenty of time in the day. Our crampons and axes came off the rucksacks which thankfully lightened the load on our shoulders and we were ready to hit the ice. The crest starts off fairly steadily, but it gets steeper with height. Initially the going was soft and hard work and with the ice crest been very narrow the slip down either side didn’t look attractive – I mentioned to Steve about jumping off the opposite side if the snow happened to give way under my crampon and I started sliding off down one side or another – however, I was far from keen on trying out the logic! Soon enough though we could move slightly to right onto more shaded ice which was more solid and the going got considerably easier.
The rognon at the top offered numerous possible lines – left, right or direct. There was an attractive looking gully line weaving between some rocks to the central right and it was virtually unsaid that we were heading towards that – both hoping to make an easy traverse off to the right on the snow plateau above. It was harder than it looked from below, quite steep in fact, but it was in good condition and offered adequate rock protection in the granite boulders to the side.
We progressed to the snow plateau but decided on a leftward line that unbeknown to us was taking us down a dead end. By the time we realised this it was about 4pm and time was beginning to run out to get the final telepherique, just when the lift station looked so agonisingly close! We had wasted a few more hours with this wrong line, and just when we had back tracked to one of our previous belays the weather gave up and the thunder and hale came in!! Desperately trying to get waterproofs out of our sacks while precariously anchored into the same bit of rock where we were 2 hours ago was a real low point.
On a positive note Steve had most of the gear which made it his lead, and as I was knackered and had no idea how we were going to escape the route that seemed like a good thing at the time! He disappeared off to the right out of sight; the whole of the rope was now out to try and quicken up proceedings and we just tried not to think about the half missing bit in the middle. Hunched on the belay trying to stay dry and warm, knowing we had missed the last lift and indeed not knowing if the line we were trying was even possible was a tough position to be in – cruising up the ice lower down earlier in the day seemed like a long time ago now!
The rope came tight and although I could hear nothing, I dismantled the belay and set-off. The rope was been taken in so I was pretty sure Steve had found a suitable belay stance. He had, and from the stance there were a couple of options but it looked like we could maintain our rightward line and escape off into the obvious gully. I set-off leading the next pitch and when I got established on the belay I finally knew we would make it – the ground above was mixed and loose but easily climbable and that led us into the gully and to the top with another 2 or 3 pitches. I staggered off the route onto the snow plateau below the Auguille du Midi summit and lift station at 7pm – 32 hours after starting the route. To say I was tired and relieved was an understatement, but we had done it!!
We spent the night at the lift station where the attendants took pity on us and gave us some additional mats and bread to add to the meagre rations we had left. We finally got the lift down at 7am Tuesday morning…….for some well earned rest!!