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Caroline George Guides the Summit of Tour Ronde
Posted on June 21, 2011

By Caroline George

Climbing a north face is said to be the ultimate in alpine climbing. North faces don’t see much sun and are therefore cold. Also, back in the days of their first ascents, the gear used wasn’t as good as what we have now, and climbing ice wasn’t as safe as it is now. Climbing a north face was a big deal then, and it is still austere now.

The north face of the Tour Ronde is the best introduction to … well, north faces. Conveniently located a 45-minute hike from the Helbronner cable car, it is easily approached on a mostly downhill glacier, climbed in a day, and tops out on the summit of the Tour Ronde, a strategically centered peak on the border of France and Italy. From the top, the view stretches out to Mont Blanc—the highest peak in western Europe—and to all the 4,000,meter peaks in the Mont Blanc range as well as in Italy and Switzerland.

Floriane, my great friend and client (read about our previous climbs: Frendo, Kuffner, Meije and Bietschhorn) had wanted to climb this route for a long time. Yet, with such a dry winter, the face was rock-hard, black ice, which is harder to protect but mostly very uncomfortable—on the calves—and slower to climb. We had to wait for a few wet spring storms to plaster the face and make it nicer to climb. When conditions were right, we picked a nice and sunny day to get on the face.

We drove across the Mont Blanc Tunnel from Chamonix to Entreves in Italy, where a cable car took us to the top of the Punta Helbronner, at 3,462 meters. We instantly set foot on a glacier and started hiking to the base of the face. It normally would have taken 45 minutes, but with fresh snow and no tracks, I had to break trail in thigh-deep snow, which slowed us down tremendously, all the way to the bergschrund.

Then, the slope got steeper, and the snowpack was therefore not as deep. The face starts by a big snowfield, which narrows down to an ice runnel. After a few steeper ice pitches, it goes back to being a snowfield until the last two pitches, which were black ice. Black ice is really brittle, and it takes a few swings to get your ice axe to bite into the ice.

The north face tops out at the entrance of the Gervasutti Couloir, a very popular, steep ski line. From there, we circumnavigated the summit to the south and eventually climbed up the last few rock steps to the summit proper at 3,792 meters, which is marked by a statue of the Virgin Mary. We then descended the normal route down the southeast face and walked back to the cable car in time for a nice afternoon gelati in Courmayeur.

The north face of the Tour Ronde is the perfect introductory route to bigger north faces, offering a great variety of terrain, from ice to snow to mixed terrain. It’s a great day climb with an easy approach and descent. I had climbed this peak a long time ago, and it was nice to share it with a client now.

Author: - Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

  1. steve

    Looks like an uber-fun route. Punch, punch, punch

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