The Central Pillar of Frêney
“Well, there are two options” said Mike.
We were sitting atop the Aiguille de Moine, a small peak in the heart of the Mt Blanc range with some fantastic views. Behind us lay the south face of the Petit Dru, in front the Grandes Jorasses whose Walker Spur we had climbed earlier in the season, my first in the alps. To our left lay Les Droites with its north face. Away in the distance to our right lay Mt Blanc itself.
“We could do the American Direct on the Dru” continued Mike, “or” he paused, “The Central Pillar of Frêney”.
Now before setting off for the alps a friend had taunted me about that very route. It would be quite apposite to return having done it. “I’d prefer doing the Frêney” I said. “Fine” and with that we headed back down towards the Couvercle hut and thence the valley.
The story of an early attempt on the pillar in the early 1960s had resulted in a tragedy that made even the British press. Two teams, one French, one Italian had been caught in a storm high on the pillar on a feature known as the “Chandelle”. Unable to retreat in the maelstrom one climber died, then another before the others could stand it no longer and made a hazardous retreat across heavy snow laden slopes. A further climber died on the retreat.
Later that year one Don Whillans together with Chris Bonington, Ian Clough and Jan Djuglosz, a Polish climber, made the first ascent, narrowly beating a team led by Réné Desmaison.
There are two approaches that may be used to gain the foot of the pillar. One leads from the Ghiglione hut across the Brenva glacier, up a steep ice slope to the Col de Peuterey, then traverses across the upper slopes of the Frêney glacier to the pillar. The other leads from the valley floor on the Italian side up the Brouillard glacier to the Eccles bivouac hut then traverses the upper Frêney glacier in the opposite direction to gain the pillar.
The Brenva glacier and the slope leading to the col de Peuterey are notorious for being raked by stonefall so we chose the Italian approach.
So it was that a day later saw us driving through the Mt Blanc tunnel to the foot of the approach. Being early we missed the early baggage car that could have taken our sacks (but not us) to the Monzino hut but we had to get going. So in increasing heat we began the toil ever upwards towards the wild side of Mt Blanc. The side where the weather could creep up on you without you knowing. Passing topless walkers, we continued past the Monzino hut with the magnificent West wall of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey filling the view to the right.
As evening began to fall we were still short of the bivouac hut situated on the small col at the foot of the upper section of the Innominata Ridge. Ahead of us the Brouillard Pillars rose out of the head of the glacier. The hut was now in sight. It was hardly bigger than a roadworkers hut but meant to sleep nine! I opened the door to be met by the familiar smiling face of Andrew Atkinson from Kendal. With him was Dai Lampard whom I had only met once before. They were up here to do the Right Hand Pillar of Brouillard.
After a cosy night, Andrew and Dai headed leftwards, we headed rightwards and down to the head of the chaotic Frêney glacier. We began traversing the slopes above the rimaye (bergshrund) to avoid having to recross it later. Mike wished to rope up for this so using a single rope we moved together looping the rope over rocks sticking out of the ice for protection. We passed under the left hand and hidden pillars to reach the foot of our chosen route. Later in the day the couloirs separating these pillars would receive the warmth of the sun and release fusillades of stones ensuring that retreat would be too dangerous to contemplate until nightfall.
At the foot of the route I took a belay. Looking round I noticed a piton lying on the ground. “Don’t have many of those” I thought as I picked it up. Well no use leaving litter around is there?
After uncoiling the other rope, Mike set off on the route proper. It was now 10AM. The early pitches of the route lay amongst chimneys and crack systems with the occasional slab. All these were around Severe in standard, which while not difficult by today’s standards is not easy at 4000m of altitude, wearing plastic boots and carrying a rucksack. The rucksack I now know was far too big being 55 litres in size!
One pitch stands out in my memory: a 40m slab of perfect red granite covered in small sound flakes. Even in the clumsiness of rigid plastic boots it was a delight to climb.
As we gained height the cracks became more icy. Not at the surface, but inside where the jams lay. This made some of the climbing more awkward than first appearances would suggest. Looming overhead was the chandelle, the crux of the route with both hard free and aid climbing at an alitude of nearly 4500m. An awkward short pitch up an icy chimney put us on the chandelle proper. This was the ledge where Bonatti, Mazeaud and their companions were caught when attempting the first ascent. Above lay the smooth walls and overhangs of the final pillar.
Mike led the next pitch, then it was my turn. This was one of the aid pitches. Without proper étriers it was awkward with long reaches between in-situ gear augmented by some of my own. I eventually took a stance in slings beneath the first series of roofs. Unnoticed we were now surrounded by thick mist. It did not appear to be the harbinger of bad weather but it was hard to tell. Mike led through and traversed rightwards under the roofs on poor gear, again this was aid climbing. It was only a short pitch, Mike was belayed at the foot of a long corner leading to the upper set of roofs.
I set off, the climbing was excellent, good jams in the crack in the corner with just adequate footholds. As I approached the capping roof I realised that my sack was becoming a hindrance so I removed it and clipped it to a peg in the crack mindful of what happened to Whillans on the first ascent. Don was leading this pitch when Bonington noticed pieces of paper floating past. “Me hat!!” shouted Whillans, “not a problem is it?” said Bonington. “It’s got all our money in it!” came the reply.
The roof looked mean, around 3 metres across, the crack leading across it was more of a narrow chimney. “Just what I need” I thought “An offwidth through a roof at 4500m!” I squirmed upwards and managed to clip a sling, God knows what it was attached to but I hung off it anyway. Leading out across the roof were more slings leading up into the blackness of the top of the crack. Presumably they were attached to pegs though how they were placed I do not know. (Here’s another view of the pitch in the image to the left.)
Swinging, monkey like, along the slings I pulled onto a ledge that led leftwards across the upper part of the Chandelle. The position and exposure were amazing. I brought Mike up and we moved left along the ledge which was up to a metre wide in places. What a position for a promenade!
It was beginning to get dark, if we could get to the top of the pillar then we would be able to bivouac safely at the top of the pillar. Another pitch however and we were forced to stop. There was a ledge but nowhere near as commodious as that below. This would have to do for the night. The ledge was about 2 metres long and 30cm wide, a nut at one end of the ledge and the peg I had found at the foot of the route at the other with ropes between and we were trussed up sitting there like multi-coloured gargoyles.
During the night we kept slipping, only to be caught by the ropes, dropping gear at this point would be a disaster. The morning saw further mist and cloud. Struggling to get dressed without dropping anything we made ready for the off.
What had been dry rock the previous day now had a thin dressing of ice. Fortunately it did not cover all of the rock. Even more fortunately, it was Mike’s lead! The pitch was maybe 30m in length and then he was at the top of the pillar, if we had only been that little bit quicker!
A 15m abseil into the gap saw us at a brilliant bivouac site. Donning crampons we moved together up the final ice arête to emerge near the summit of Mt Blanc de Courmayeur. The walk over to the summit of Mt Blanc was just a haze, I was tripping! The excitement of having climbed one of the great alpine routes had hit me. The summit saw the downer as I realised that I would have to return to the valley and the humdrum of everyday life.
The next day I returned through the tunnel to retrieve my van. The day after that we headed home. Not a bad first season in the Alps!