In Chamonix, France, guides go to work riding the Aiguille du Midi lift, just like bankers ride the subway to work in New York. The difference is the view.
The cable car raises alongside a 1,200-meter-long beautiful rock and then a knife-edge snowy ridge called the Frendo Spur. Oftentimes, you can see climbers’ careful progression up the ridge a few hundred meters from the top. It’s breathtaking both because of its sheer beauty and its exposure!
I first climbed this route in the fall of 2004. We had taken the first cable car at 8:30 a.m. and managed to catch the last cable car down to Chamonix at 4:30 p.m. I was with a fellow guide, and we made good time up the sinuous ascent, climbing together to make time whenever we could. Guiding it is a whole other story.
Although you can short rope part of the route, I ended up pitching lots of the climb. Conditions were difficult: I was punching through on areas where we travelled on snow, which made trail breaking tiresome; a thick layer of powdery snow covered the rocky sections. I had to clean a lot of it out of the way to climb upward. The route offers a difficult section at the start—the Rateau de Chevre—and 4-5 pitches of more technical rock climbing to the snow. The knife-edge ridge above was spectacular, dropping steeply down to Chamonix on both sides. Following that was 6-7 pitches of steeper ice climbing to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. The best thing about this route was that there was no climbing down—you just need to ride the cable car back down to civilization.
Last weekend, I guided Floriane on the round-trip Midi-Plan traverse, a beautiful ridge line, which starts from the Aiguille du Midi and ends at the Aiguille du Plan. As we rode the cable car up to the start, she mentioned that someday she would like to climb the Frendo Spur. I told her that we could do it before I left back to the USA that same week if I couldn’t find someone to climb the north couloir of the Drus with me. That same day, I connected with Ueli Steck and we made plans to climb the Drus the next day, not giving much more thought to the Frendo Spur. Upon returning from the Drus though, and despite being pretty tired, I called Flo and told her that with the beautiful weather reigning over the region, we should give the Frendo Spur a go. She read some descriptions of it and thought it might be a little hard, but I motivated her to come.
I packed a huge First Ascent duffel bag full of camping gear: stove, gas cartridges, lighter, sleeping bags, mattresses, dry socks, down jackets, bread, cheese, soup, dinner, dessert, breakfast, tea, etc. My friend Esther offered to bring it up to the Aiguille du Midi and hide it there for us to spend the night at the Aiguille du Midi. Seeing that the first cable car wasn’t until 8:30 a.m., I knew that we would miss the last cable car down and would have to sleep at the Aiguille du Midi as the Cosmiques Hut was closed for the season.
The approach to the base of the climb only takes about an hour. With blue skies, warm temperatures and no wind, it was going to be the perfect day to climb the north face of the Aiguille du Midi. We made quick progress to the first step, the Rateau de Chevre—an overhanging crack with a powerful mantel. Once we passed this section, the route eased off again, wandering right and then left of the spur proper, going up ledge systems to a prominent shoulder at the base of the difficulties. From there, the route climbed up the left hand side of the spur, offering beautiful crack climbing up perfect granite. I didn’t remember this section to be quite this long and sustained. I would sometimes hear Flo say, “I just can’t make it up this section, you’re going to have to pull me!” I would then put a prussik on the rope and yank hard on her to help her get over the step without wasting too much time or energy.
When we reached the base of the snow/ice section, she was pretty worked. I climbed up the snow together for a while until we reached the knife-edge ridge. Although this section could be climbed together when in snow conditions, it was a little too icy for me to short rope it. The ice was very hard and brittle, forcing me to swing multiple times to get a solid enough hook in. The ridge ends at the base of a rocky spur below the summit. When Flo reached at the anchor there, night was falling on us and Flo wasn’t feeling good about it. I comforted her by telling her that we usually climb in the dark in the morning and this was just the same thing; she should imagine that we were just starting up the climb in darkness. I felt the full weight of having to take responsibility for myself and for my client. We had to top out, and we would, I told her.
It was a moonless night and as soon as the sun disappeared, we were buried in full darkness, which made route finding a little more interesting. We followed the base of the rocky buttress to the left, contouring it until we finally reached the steeper, 80-degree section, which marks the end of the difficulties and the route. I took a deep inhale and exhaled a sigh of relief. We were done. All was left was to climb another 100 meters up the final ridge to the Aiguille du Midi.
I found the big duffel hidden behind the Helbronner cable cars in the hallway. We carried our stuff to the toilets, the warmest place in the whole building. And although we were hungry, what we really longed for was to lie down on our mattresses, lower our headbands over our eyes to protect them from the bright lights and just sleep. We woke up the following morning to hungry stomachs. We packed everything and headed to the cable car. We rode down, taking one last glimpse at our climb, reminiscing on the day before when we had been climbing it.
It was the perfect climb to end an amazing season of guiding in the Alps.
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