THE FINEST ROUTES IN THE ALPS

Aiguille Verte – Grands Montets Ridge, 1000m, D, IV+

The jagged silhouette of this magnificent route can be seen high on the skyline when travelling along the Chamonix valley. It is a long, inspiring and commiting line that for most parties will require at least one night bivouacing under the stars. Though access is easy via the Grand Montets cable car, retreat from high on the route would be complicated.

Its features epitomize much of what is interesting about Alpine climbing. It starts with a long and intricate rock climb with tricky passages and complex route finding. Where the rock ridge ends the route follows the line of weakness up the hanging glacier that envelops the northern cap of the mountain. From the summit there awaits a long and delicate descent by any direction. There are no easy lines down from the Aiguille Verte, a feature that seems to add to the allure of this prestigious summit.

The Climb – 5th August 2015

From an early lift up to Grands Montets we trotted down to the col, roped up and walked up the icy slopes towards the arête Petite Aiguille Verte. With me were good friends Gabriel and Laurent, though this was the first time we had all climbed together. I find doing a route as a team of three makes for sociable and unstressful climbing.. From the beginning at the shoulder of the Petite Aiguille Verte the route doesn’t show it’s most favorable aspect. The first section passes on the Nant Blanc side along some easy but terribly loose and blocky ledges traversing horizontally into and out of a couple of couloirs and then finally up to the ridgeline to the Argentière side. This all passes quickly as long as you stick to the route, though already we saw two other parties high on the ridgeline at Pointe de Gigord making incredibly slow progress having been tempted off route by an inviting rampline. For the rest of the ascent we saw no-one. Through this terrain we moved first solo, then simul climbed on a long rope as it became more complex.

Once we quit the rotten Nant Blanc side we were in the sun, the rock improved and the movement flowed more easily. Gabriel was leading as we came to the steep north-facing chimney of the Aiguille Carrée. We continued moving together as Gab squirmed his way up one crack then the next and emerged on top. Laurent and I followed into the shade and a pleasant cool draft flowed down the chimney. On vertical ground, despite big holds and perfect boot jamming cracks, I certainly felt the solid weight of my pack and cargo of lenses and camera equipment. I took over the lead after the chimney. Superb slabs and cracks lead along the ridge and out onto its crest. The coarse granite and flowing moves are well suited to bounding along in mountaineering boots. I took a belay in a niche so I could dangle over and get some images and then carried on along the easy blocks that followed. We were certainly spending too much time chatting and having fun but nevertheless the route imposed a certain steady rhythm. It was around midday and the air was gently beginning to warm up at these altitudes though the rock was still very cold in the shade.

Arriving at the exposed summit of the Aiguille Carrée we had a great view ahead to the Ségogne slabs, the upper section still caked in snow, and of the Calotte beyond. A photo taken here was useful later to navigate the maze of crevasses and blunt seracs to the summit. The ridge where we stood abutted in a precipice, but a short down-climb to the left led to a couple of rappels. On the first I used my delicate 4mm tag line that then got horrendously tangled. The second was just 20m and landed us into a deep and exposed notch but with a nice platform should one fancy bivvying that early on the route. We traversed left a little from the notch and then some thuggish awkward moves took us back out onto the ridge above.

After a short blocky scramble on the ridge we took a traverse line on the Argentière side. The terrain was cool, north facing and was still holding quite a lot of snow. Laurent was leading out the rope, placing gear sporadically and booting in steps to the hard neve snow, linking rock to snow to rock. After a long traverse and over a notch we came to some broad shattered ledges. Laurent headed up some delicate slabs into a corner and then more directly up to hit the skyline and back into the sun again. The rock was excellent, grippy and colourful with yellow lichens. Though one might be able to stick closer to the ridgeline in that section, the gendarmes looked very severe and the slings hanging off them suggested they would need to be climbed and rappelled one at a time. A few delicate slab moves around to the left brought us into the notch facing the Ségogne slabs.

The line climbs this magnificent smooth plate of granite by a fine crack before following the crest then more delicate cracked slabs to the summit. Laurent started up the lower crack to try and get a better look at whether the snow on the upper slabs could be bypassed. We concluded that snowy slabs in the warm afternoon sun were best avoided so rappelled the Argentière side and climbed a set of dirty ledges to the Col du Nant Blanc.

Though we could have bivouacked there it still wasn’t too warm a day. The slopes above were north facing so only caught the sun obliquely and the snow had stayed relatively firm. I also hoped to get some images at sunset from the summit. I led off with a long rope as there seemed to be crevasses running in all directions. On the steeper initial slopes I managed to dig out and place ice screw runners deep under the snow. We threaded our way up left between some vast crevasses and onto a plateau beneath some blunt seracs. From below it wasn’t clear which way would be easiest, but from the photos further left looked better. Gabriel took over leading, first up a short steep wall of neve onto a ledge then climbing down across a delicate crevasse bridge. He put a leg through up to his waist and then continued on all fours, triumphant as he finally made it across.

He led up on out of sight and Laurent and I followed, thankful for a tight rope and a track. We gathered again where he had belayed in the middle of the final snow slope and then moved together up onto the summit ridge. I came off the rope here and rushed ahead to get some photos of them as they walked up the last rise to the summit. It was six thirty, the air was cooling and a brisk easterly wind was blowing. I put on all my clothes and took a frenzy of photos. Sleeping right on the summit with that wind blowing was out of the question, however back down a hundred metres lower where we had met the ridge there was a slight wind scoop that would provide some shelter. Laurent and Gabriel went down to dig it out a bit and make some food whilst I continued taking photos. Time slipped by and I continued shooting on and off for an hour, sitting down and taking in the view and watching the light change. I scrambled down to the bivouac site not realizing how much time had passed, but finding Gab and Laurent still immersed in the labour-intensive job of cutting out a flat spot with just ice axes. It took another half hour with all three of us cutting away until we had a comfortable spot and a stubby wall to stop us rolling off down the Nant Blanc face.

As the sun dipped closer to the horizon clouds started to build up. First they gathered in the valley, then they blew up around the lower summits of the Chamonix Aiguilles and higher still around the Dent du Geant. The evening sky filtered through pastel hues of yellow and orange. I walked back up to the summit again and carried on shooting, thankful, finally, for having carried a heavy telephoto lens up the whole route. With the last rays of sun I went back down to the bivi to find the others already crashed out in their sleeping bags. I hadn’t noticed how cold I had got and spent most of the next hour melting snow to make hot drinks and hydrate food before finally lying down myself.

I fell asleep quickly but woke a few hours later with my back cold and stiff. Having taken just a slim piece of foam to lie on I was quite jealous of Gabriel’s inflatable mat. I slept fitfully and through the night the clouds enveloped us in fog. By first light our sleeping bags and all of our equipment were caked in a crispy coating of rime ice. Everything that had been warm was now wet and cold. It took a while, peering out from the cocoon, to start any attempt at making some tea. After several brews we finally emerged from our bags, brushed everything down and set off. We first walked back along our tracks in dense fog to the summit, then checked out bearings with a compass and set off down the first icy slopes of the Moine ridge.

We soloed to start with but soon came to sections of exposed mixed scrambling so roped back up. The fog hung around the ridge making it hard to judge distance or scale. For what appeared in the fog to be such complex terrain the route descriptions seemed quite vague. We could not tell whether ridges heading left and right were sub-ridges or the main event. We carried on down slowly, ending up far too low at one point and only realizing our mistake as we heard the voices of a party ascending the route above us. We reached the obvious notch in the ridge at 8am and the clouds finally began to part.

The climbing seemed more arduous than pleasant, and with the dry conditions the ridge resembled a jenga pile of loose blocks. Several sections we had to move each one at a time to limit the exposure to falling rocks. I wouldn’t recommend anyone climb the route for its own sake, but in summer it is by far the quickest way off the mountain. The surroundings views were however were quite exceptional and more than made up for the route itself. In the lower section it meanders down well worn ledges to end abruptly at a steep rock face and rimaye below. We took a 50m rappel onto the snow below and within an hour were back at the Couvercle hut. With well fatigued legs we carried on down, past the steep sections of ladders onto the maze of rubble below and the long hike back to Montenvers.

Conditions

Due to its length and commitment the route requires stable weather and good conditions. All of the technical sections are on rock so the route is best climbed in the height of summer during a stable period of weather. Some of the best climbing is on the slabs of Pointe Ségogne. These hold snow long after a storm and would be very trying if not dry. (There is however a way around these difficulties.) The Calotte has sections of steep snow and so should also be climbed when the snow is firm and stable.

With dry conditions required for the ascent the best route of descent is likely to be the Moine ridge. The Whymper couloir deteriorates into a stone raked channel in summer so is best avoided. In dry conditions the Moine ridge nevertheless demands vigilance and caution as it seems to have more loose rocks than solid ones.

Equipment

50m rope + 50m tag line (often necessary to descend Moine rimaye), 1 axe, Crampons, glacier travel equipment.

Rock gear – 5 cams, nuts, slings + extenders

Stove + food, light sleeping bags and roll mats.

Approach

Take the Grands Montets cable car. Ascend the Glacier des Grands Montets to west shoulder of the Petite Aiguille Verte.

Route

From the shoulder of Petite Aiguille Verte begin a traverse line south-east on rough broad ledges on the Nant Blanc side. Avoid the temptation to climb up ramps to the ridge-line and continue past a very obvious gully where one descends and re climbs 20m. Continue at the same level all the way to a second gully where one is obliged to gain height before crossing the gully about 20m from the ridge-line. This gully is capped with a large jammed block. After this follow a vague rising line until a broad broken gully and chimney system leads directly to the notch before Pointe Farrar.

From the notch traverse to the Argentière side and follow the slabby lines of weakness without gaining too much height and arrive at the notch before the Aiguille Carrée. Climb the large north facing chimney, quite athletic (IV), then continue onto a beautiful line of cracked slabs on Nant Blanc side for 15m. Continue by cracks (piton) straight up to hit the ridge line. Follow the ridge for 50m until the top of the Aiguille Carrée. Down climb (or take a first 50m rappel) then 20m rappel on the Argentieère side leads to the notch beyond (good bivouac). Traverse on the Argentière side past a rock pillar to reach a narrow couloir and climb the steep right hand wall (IV) to the ridge. Continue on the ridge up blocky terrain until below a steep gendarme. Traverse on the Argentière side round the following gendarmes on a series of broken ledges to a terrace.

Climb the rising diagonal crack line and corner above to meet the ridgeline again at a notch. Traverse on the Argentière side by a crack and flake to reach the next notch facing the Pointes de Ségogne slabs. Climb the crack in the clean slab (IV+) to the ridge then climb the final tower via cracked slabs (IV) to the summit. Take 2 x 25m rappels on the Argentière side and climb ledges up to the Col du Nant Blanc. (If the Ségogne slabs are covered in snow descend from the notch on the Argentière side and make a long rappel to broken ledges. Traverse these and climb up to the Col du Nant Blanc.)

From the col climb the snow and ice slopes of the Calotte, usually on the left side, then back to the right to reach the upper Sans Nom (west) ridge and thus the summit of the Aiguille Verte.

Moine descent

The route is far from obvious and much of the terrain is on loose rock. It is never particularly steep or difficult and so is nevertheless acceptable in descent. Follow the main ridge, or not far on the Talèfere side, until a notch at 3800m. From here descend c.100m, rappels useful. Take a Traverse line rightwards to find cairn above a chimney. Make 3 x 30m rappels down steeper loose ground to a ledge before the fall line plunges down a steep gulley. Follow cairns and make a descending traverse rightward under the ‘cardinal’ for c. 400m on easy terrain following broken ledges and short chimneys. Finally take several zig zag traverses down towards the rimaye where 2x 50m rappels will probably be necessary. Follow the right bank of the glacier down to the Refuge Couvercle. Pick up the path below the hut and follow it to a steep set of ladders. Head west (often cairns or painted trail) towards the junction of the Leschaux and Mer de Glace. Follow the Mer de Glace to Montenvers.