A Day to Remember
The Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi is just one of those routes. Most aspiring alpinists will have heard of it, and if they haven't already done it, it will be on their tick list somewhere. The thought of doing it first came to me whilst flicking through the guide book one lunch time at work. Gary and I had arranged to go to the alps at the end of July but we hadn't yet got any fixed ideas about what routes we would do. I had already been through the guide book marking any routes I wanted to do, but had left the Frendo out. At D+ with climbing upto V (about British 4b) and possibly grade III snow/ice it was within our capabilities, but the guide book time of 9 to 12 hours and the stories I'd heard of people taking longer than that made me think it too serious a proposition.
I suppose the turning point for me was when Gary lent me his copy of In Monte Viso Horizon in which Will McLewin describes how he came to loathe Alpine huts, and now bivvies all the time. I, too, have found most Alpine huts to be cramped (the beds are never long enough for me), stuffy, and not the kind of places to get a good night's sleep before a long day climbing. But I've always accepted this as part of Alpine climbing and hadn't really thought of the alternatives. Earlier in the year I'd bivvied on the Cullin ridge on the Isle of Skye and was starting to develop a more relaxed attitude to spending a night out on the hills. The guide book for the Frendo Spur says that there are good bivvy sites part way up the route, and that many parties set out in the afternoon, bivvy out and complete the route the next day. Gary and I discussed this idea, and felt confident that we could do the route in this way. We were also given some encouragement from the knowledge that Brian and Caley had done the Frendo in 1994. We decided to make this our number one objective for the trip.
The first part of our holiday went well. We completed the Mettrier route on the North West face of the Dômes de Miage (AD/AD+) in under guide book time and went on to traverse the Dômes de Miage and the Aiguille de Bérangère. Aside from a few problems with the altitude (which I knew from past experience I always suffer from on the first trip), we were fit and climbing well together.
PHOTO 1: Dômes de Miage in the background: Mettrier Route (AD/AD+) is the snow ridge on its right flank
The forecast was for good weather on Friday, rain on Saturday and then good weather Sunday afternoon and Monday. Two good days, so we planned two routes: the Frendo Spur on Friday and the Brenva Spur on Monday. Take the tent up to Lac Blue at the Plan de l'Aiguille (the mid way station on the Aiguille du Midi Téléférique (abbreviated to 'frique by most British climbers), and the starting point for the Frendo Spur) and base ourselves there, to avoid having to pay for the 'frique back to Chamonix in between routes. The plan was to get to Lac Blue early enough to have an early tea, and then make a start on the Frendo that evening, bivvy and complete the route the next day. Of course, it didn't work out like that.
I ought to explain a bit about the route. The Frendo Spur is one of the classic routes in the Mont Blanc Massif. It lies slightly to the left of the top section of the Aiguille du Midi cable car, so its easy to get to (only one hours walk in from the Plan d'Aiguille station), and it brings you out right by the top station, so its easy to get off. Its visible from Chamonix and is an obvious line. The route itself comprises a bottom section of rock, which contains various pitches of III (about V Diff rock climbing) and a pitch of IV (about severe). This is followed by a steepening snow / ice arête which brings you to a rock rognon. Herein lies the crux. The rognon can be taken direct (pitches of IV and V), or passed on either side on the snow / ice (pitches of Scottish grade III) depending on the state of the snow. The guidebook time for the bottom (rock) section is 3 to 4 hours leaving between 5 and 8 hours for the top section. At that sort of pace, the likelihood is that the snow on the top section will have deteriorated by the time you get to it, which is why many people bivvy at the start of the snow section. Being rather nervous about what we were getting in to, we hoped to give ourselves the best chance of success by doing the same. But, as I say, that wasn't to be.
The queue for the 'frique seemed quite bad when we got there at 4:30pm on Thursday. There was a "technical problem" with the lift, and the ticket sales chap told me it might be operating later, but that he couldn't guarantee it. Nothing to do but wait it out. We did get up to Lac Blue that evening, but too late to make a start on the route. We decided to set out early the next morning.
The alarms went off at 3:30am - that time in the morning every alpinist knows. Stomach's churning you try and force down some breakfast (cappuccino coffee and biscuits for us), crawl out of your nice warm bed to face the cold, dark world outside. We could see lights from several parties already established on the route, at least 1½ hours in front of us. Pretty nervous now - could we really do it? Should we have set off earlier? Would the conditions hold? How well prepared for benightment were we? Had we made the right decision to use leather rather than plastic boots - better on the rock, but what about the snow and ice at the top? Got to banish those thoughts and think positive - PMA (positive mental approach) that's my motto.
We reached the bottom of the route at 5:30am (via a rather circuitous route) just as it was light enough to dispense with the head torches. Everything pretty much according to plan. The climbing was a delight. Solid granite at a steady angle with continuous interest. We moved together, Gary out in front placing gear whenever we got to anywhere that required some caution. The friction was superb, edging and smearing up corners, slabs and chimneys. At one point we came to a vicious looking corner laced with tat. Gary was in the lead and soon decided that the option to slant off left looked more promising. This entailed a delicate balance along a sloping ledge with no hand-holds, but well protected by virtue of the tat, which lead to easier ground sloping back to the top of the corner. When it was my turn, I tried the move out left, but didn't feel confident enough to make it. Gary had been able to extend the tat and use this to help him balance across, but that would have meant leaving gear behind (so it wasn't really an option). I would probably have been OK, but I had a top rope from Gary so the option of "thugging" up the corner seemed likely to be the quickest. I grabbed the tat and hauled. I put my foot in the tat and pushed. I pulled on the rope. This is real Alpine climbing at its best! After probably no more than 10 minutes that seemed like over half an hour I joined Gary. We were both exhausted - a real team effort.
More enjoyable scrambling and climbing lead to the start of the ice crest. A party of three where reaching the top of this and we could see another party moving off round to the left of the rock rognon above. It had taken us 4 hours to get this far, so we were moving quite well but at the top end of the guidebook time. It looked like it would take us a further 8 hours to reach the top, but the snow was still in good condition and I was immensely relieved to see people avoiding the rock. We had both packed our rock boots in the event we had to tackle the grade V pitch, but I knew I would feel much happier on the snow / ice if it was in condition.
Crampons on, we made easy work of the ice crest and caught up with the party of three. We could see the top party moving back onto the rock near the top of the rognon. The three in front of us opted to follow round to the left, so (after a short discussion on traversing round to the right) we set off after them. At this point, the climbing became quite steep and the other party started pitching. The snow was generally firm, although interspersed with sections of hard ice which tended to "dinner plate" at times. We quickly passed the party of three who had been showering us with ice and moved together up the steepening slope gaining confidence as we easily outpaced the others. Climbing on snow and ice was quite a contrast to the lower rock sections, but it was a delight to be on a route that involved technical climbing on both. Some sections of the snow where rather soft but we always had one or other of us on sound snow / ice, and the occasional running belay on the rock. We were moving well together, and I was happy that we were looking out for each other and climbing quickly and safely.
Towards the top the snow slope became very steep, and the easiest option looked to be to move back onto the rock. This was where we'd seen the top party earlier, and there was plenty of evidence of other people having gone that way. I was in front at this point, and lead us onto a ramp which brought us to a shallow corner. This was followed by an easy slope which lead up to the Midi-Plan ridge just below the Aiguille du Midi. I waited for Gary to catch up so that we could top out together. We pulled out onto the ridge which, as usual, was swarming with people plodding between the 'frique station and the Vallée Blanche. It was exactly 12 o'clock - six and a half hours after first setting foot on the route.
PHOTO 2: Frendo Spur (D+,V, Scottish III): Steep snow/ice slope near top.
The feeling as we stood at the top was undescribable - neither Gary nor I could stop grinning from ear to ear. I had built up a lot of tension preparing myself mentally to climb the Frendo Spur - the release of this and the sense of achievement I felt provided the biggest "buzz" I have ever got from a route. The climbing had been totally absorbing: technically hard with gripping exposure. Yet we'd climbed steadily and safely, enjoying the movement over the difficult ground. And our time on the route will stand forever as testament to this.
We got a passing guide to take our photo. He commented that "you English are either extremely slow or extremely fast." We knew which category we fell in. The final trudge onto the viewing platform outside the 'frique station seemed harder work than it should have been, but we felt like heros as we unroped there. The tourists stared and several asked to have their photos taken with us. A leisurely lunch at the cafe was washed down by an outrageously expensive but well deserved beer before catching the 'frique back to the Lac Blue. The cable car operators didn't even comment that our tickets didn't have the "up section" stamped - probably a regular occurrence for them, but that day is one I will remember for the rest of my life.