THE FINEST ROUTES IN THE ALPS
Mont Blanc (4810m) via Grand Pilier D’Angle North Face – (Cecchinel-Nominé/Boivin-Vallençant) TD+, V 5, 1400m
FA – W Cecchinel + G Nominé, 17 Sept 1971 / JM Boivin + P Vallençant, 23 July 1975
Located on the upper Peuterey Ridge in the western corner of the Brenva Glacier basin, this is a remote and spectacular part of the Mont Blanc massif. The faces are impressive, and abundantly decorated with huge tottering seracs. The north face of the Grand Pilier d’Angle offers a stunning selection of mixed, ice and rock routes. It can give climbers a taste of the scale and commitment of routes in the greater ranges as even a retreat to the bottom of the route still leaves you a long way from safety. Nevertheless the descent off Mont Blanc is convenient and easy. The access usually takes a first day to reach either the Forche Bivouac hut, or the wild Col Moore and then a further day to climb the route and descend.
The Cecchinel-Nominé/Boivin-Vallençant climbs the 850m north face via an aesthetic mixed line before hitting the Peuterey ridge and a further 550m of ascent to exit onto the summit of Mont Blanc. The approach to the foot of the route is exposed to the menacing seracs of the Poire so it is essential to arrive acclimatized and be able to move through the exposed sections rapidly. The Boivin-Vallençant variant provides a more consistent finish via an ice gully, rather than the tricky mixed climbing and pendulum rappel taken by Walter Cecchinel and Georges Nominé on the original line.
The upper section of the route can be inspected from the Helbronner or the whole face can be seen from the Tour Ronde. The Boivin-Vallençant route holds ice most of the year but is much more pleasant to climb with sticky fresh ice. The Cecchinel Nominè start requires a good build up of snow-ice to make the crux corner amenable, though it can be climbed dry at 5c/A1. Good conditions often form in an autumn after a wet summer or during a stable spell in springtime.
The route climbs predominantly on ice with the occasional mixed sections or belays on rock. 2 x 60m ropes, 8-10 screws + extenders, slim set of nuts, cams, pegs and slings, 2 technical axes, crampons, glacial travel gear. Stove and possibly bivouac gear.
From either the Aiguille du Midi or Helbronner walk round into the Cirque Maudit. The Forche bivouac is out of sight on the Italian side of the Arête de la Brenva. Locate the access couloir (150m, 45º) which is to the right of the distinct two gendarmes of Forche de la Brenva. The hut has places for about 15, some blankets but not much else. Either stay the night here or continue by 2-rappels directly from the hut and then down climbing onto the Brenva Glacier. Traverse south across the crevassed glacier to Col Moore. Bivouac here for a good view of the approach and face. The descent from Col Moore is a section that has suffered many landslides in recent years so changes regularly and is still exposed to rockfall if warm. Either take a line of abseils that start down left (east) of the col or if sufficient snow build up traverse right and down across snow slopes directly onto the glacier below. An ice or snow bollard abseil may be required to pass the rimaye. Cross the glacier south-west, exposed to seracs of the Poire above, to reach the base of the face.
The correct line can be difficult to locate in the dark. Climb the Cecchinel Nominè gully (the last major gully line before you reach the wide snow slopes) for 4 pitches (70º) to a vertical corner. Climb the corner pitch on ice, or 5c/A1 rock and then 3 further ice pitches (60º). At the mixed ground follow a ramp leading right for two pitches to the base of the Boivin ice gully Follow this for several beautiful pitches (steps of 85º) onto the ice slopes above. Climb these slopes left of the hanging serac and then right above to the ridgeline. Follow the mixed ridgeline with passages on the Brenva side to the summit of the Grand Pilier d’Angle. Follow the elegant snow ridge until is steepens and merges into the face above and exit on Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. Head NW along the broad ridge to reach the summit of Mont Blanc.
By stable snow conditions the ‘3 Monts’ route back to the Aiguille du Midi is the quickest way to the valley, otherwise the ‘Arete des Bosses’ via the Gouter Refuge can provide a safer descent.
The Climb – 2nd October 2014
After a sustained period of great weather that Autumn there was finally a bit of rain and rest time before another high pressure set in in early October. Valentine and I headed up to the Forche Bivouac with the Grand Pilier d’Angle in mind. Sometimes getting up to the Forche in autumn there is hard black ice all the way and I have even had to pitch the moderate angles slope one time. This time it passed easily on snow. We had actually expected quite a busy hut given the good weather and conditions in the high mountains so we took sleeping bags and planned on carrying on to bivouac at Col Moore on the other side of the Brenva Glacier. As it turned out there was no-one at the hut when we arrived, and only one lonely Scottish guy turned up later on so we stayed in the hut.
We left at about 3.30am. After a couple of short rappels down to the glacier we wandered across to Col Moore. Thankfully in the dark you can’t see what a bad place you are about to descend into. Rather than rappel directly we swung right and down-climbed all the way to the one of the many rimayes. We cut a stout little snow ice bollard and made a short rappel over the yawning gap and then managed to meander around the rest of the problematic terrain. We could just make out some menacing crevasses and seracs ahead in the darkness. Having looked at a lot of photos we knew well that this basin is threatened by several large serac bands much higher on the mountain.
There was a lot of evidence of debris so we tried to get across to the far bank of the glacier as quickly as possible. In practice it required quite a bit of climbing in and around some smaller seracs on the glacier to find a passage across. In the dark it was very difficult to judge our position in relation to the face so I took a long exposure photo at one point to try and see where we were and where we might get onto our route objective. Spending that long down there was stressful and terrifying. Once we found the far bank of the glacier we managed to follow it up high on the side of the glacier and along to the long lower rimaye at the foot of the routes. Unfortunately it was still tricky to work out which gully line we were below, especially as that season there was so much snow and ice plastered across all the face that it didn’t resemble any topo I had seen before. The major features we were looking for were all but covered in ice.
Where we found ourselves at daybreak was, in retrospect not quite the right place. I spent much of the time climbing on the lower half of the face trying to make what I saw above us fit the description of the characteristic corner pitch of the Cecchinel Nominè route. Eventually we found some mixed terrain that resembled something like the topo and I broke up right into a thin and steep little goulotte. At this point a huge serac fell from the Poire and thundered down only a few hundred metres from us . It roared for nearly a minute and filled the whole glacial basin with powder smoke. It re-covered most of the low traverse of our tracks. An hour later the next serac adjacent collapsed also down the same line. It was a rather sobering experience.
Once on the ridge there was an awkward section traversing westwards along two hundred metres of mixed terrain, up and down slopes of deep warm snow, around gendarmes and across slabs until we hit the summit of the Grand Pilier d’Angle. We certainly hadn’t planned on sleeping another night on the route but once we got to the summit we sat down and made a brew. It became obvious that having not eaten sufficiently, Valentine wasn’t in good shape to carry on climbing during the night. I gave her most of the remaining food – a packet of noodles and a few cereal bars, and pondered our situation. After several more brews of tea I set off to explore the locality and try and find somewhere suitable to bivouac.
After about a half hour smashing away at an icy ledge I managed to make something that I tried to convince Valentine was the perfect comfy place to bed down for the night. Thankfully she was too tired to notice that the outside half of the ledge was really just a pile icy blocks hanging over a precipice. In any case you couldn’t see that much in the dark. It was far from salubrious but there are certainly a lot worse bivouacs to be had, at least we could just about lie down! I quietly made more tea under the clear moonlight and then took some long exposure photos. The camera sensor could see the outrageous view much better that the naked eye!
I had to massage my feet back up to temperature once I got into my bag, adjusted the belay so I was held firmly into the rock and eventually got to sleep. We woke up just before dawn. In daylight our situation was quite startling, hanging high above the face. We packed our stuff up ever so carefully, had a last brew and headed off. Though Valentine was much better after a nights rest, I wasn’t feeling quite as great as I had given her most of the food the night before and eaten barely anything myself.
Having been up the Peuterey ridge up to the summit plateau before I knew that though it is easy terrain it certainly felt like a full 550m. As we wearily inched our way along the ridge, not long after sunrise an Italian guide and his client passed us having bivouacked at Col Moore and climbed the entire route in the dark. My morale improved as we carried on, especially as the beautiful sunrise rewarded me with some great photos. Nevertheless I was wracked with hunger and feeling dizzy by the summit. On the way down we met a friend on his morning jog up Mont Blanc who gave us some dried fruit which sustained us down the 3 Monts route and back to the Aiguille du Midi.