Top 5 Mixed Routes In The Mont Blanc Massif
It always seems to happen so suddenly in Chamonix; the endless summer days and warm evenings disappear without warning and are replaced by frosty mornings and walking to the pub in a down jacket. It usually comes in early to mid September and the speed of the change is always a shock; one week can be summer, the next autumn.
Some climbers mourn the loss of summer and drive around the valleys surrounding Chamonix in search of warm dry rock (and with a bit of local knowledge, they should be able to find it well into November.) However, for those with the requisite skills (and a willingness to suffer occasionally) autumn is the time for high mountain adventures on mixed terrain.
Autumn days are long enough to still allow you to cover plenty of ground, but cool enough to provide safe and reliable mixed climbing conditions. The one “problem” is picking the right objective out of the more than 1600 mixed climbs in the Mont Blanc Massif. There is everything from multi-day, cutting edge testpieces, to nice, cruisy and low-commitment lines, and conditions change quickly. Knowing what will be in condition requires up to the minute knowledge and plenty of experience, but having some recommendations of where to start looking will at least help narrow your search slightly.
As such, here are five high quality mixed climbs to get those newly sharpened ice axes into. Some or none of them could be in condition over the autumn, but figuring out what route to choose is all part of the game.
Vent du Dragon, Aiguille du Midi north-west face.
This is possibly the only 250 metre alpine face in the world that requires no walk in whatsoever, but that’s not to say the approach is stress free.
The face is reached by making a frankly scary 60 metre free hanging abseil off the bridge that separates the two summits of the Aiguille du Midi, and then four more long abseils down the Cunningham Couloir.
The climbing on the route is superb, with a nice cruisy section to start followed by three brilliant and varied technical pitches. Vent du Dragon also features a very unique squeeze move behind a chockstone which has seen many a good climber resorting to some undignified thrutching.
The reason Vent du Dragon is so good is partially because it doesn’t involve too much effort (a real treat for those used to alpine approaches and descents), but also because it has a real feel of seriousness despite being accessed from a cable car station. The long abseil off the bridge is committing, and the face is cold and austere; it receives pretty much so sun whatsoever. This sensation of going from sipping a nice espresso to suddenly being in a wild and scary place is really what the Chamonix experience is all about. Add in over 200 metres of superb mixed climbing and a fun ridge to finish, and you’re onto a winner.
Croz Spur, Grandes Jorasses North Face
A massive, beautiful route on the biggest and baddest face in the Mont Blanc Massif, the Croz Spur is a dream tick. It follows a stunning line up the Grandes Jorasses north wall and features everything from 60 degree ice to thin, bold mixed pitches. Much of the route is relatively straightforward (albeit exposed) terrain, but there are several tricky sections, and success is in doubt until the very end.
Climbing the route starts with a long walk up the Mer de Glace and Glacier de Leschaux and then a night at the amazingly situated Refuge de Leschaux. From here it still takes 2 - 3 hours to walk to the foot of the route, so an early start is advised.
Once underway with the route proper, it's necessary to move quickly on the easier sections and try not to be slowed down too much by the harder pitches. The very final pitch on the climb takes you up a narrow gully and is often the crux of the whole route, so pulling over the top feels doubly brilliant because it’s the first time you know you’re going to make it.
The descent of the Grandes Jorasses is long and difficult but this is alpinism - it’s supposed to be hard!
Supercouloir, Mont Blanc du Tacul
Supercouloir is, in a strong field, possibly the best looking route in the Mont Blanc Massif. Sitting on the huge east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, the couloir pierces a perfect icy line up through a collection of golden rock towers, and is utterly compelling. If you have never seen the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, ski down there, look at the lefthand side of the face and you will see one soaring line of ice that you will instantly want to climb. That’s the Supercouloir.
The route begins with two mixed pitches, and the second of these is the technical crux of the whole climb. The crux is easier when icy but even in good condition, the key move is pretty tough. Once in the couloir proper, there is pitch after pitch of perfect, styrofoam ice leading up through some staggering mountain scenery.
Most teams abseil off after 400 metres, when the climbing eases, but it is possible to carry on to the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul up 400 further metres of terrain. Whichever option you choose, you’ll be going home with an amazing route in the bag.
Swiss route, Les Courtes
Although usually done in winter and spring, the Swiss route can also be in good condition in autumn. The glaring downside of doing it in October is that the Grands Montets cable car is closed, meaning that you’ll have to walk up from Argentiére village. This takes about 5 tough hours, as opposed to the 1 - 2 hour approach when the cable car is open, but it does at least mean you should enjoy some solitude.
The “Big Three” Glacier d’Argentiére north faces are all huge and intimidating, but Les Courtes is arguably slightly more amenable than the other two (Les Droites and the Aiguille Verte) and as such, the Swiss route is a great stepping stone to the biggest routes of the Alps.
The route itself is wonderful, with mile after mile of moderate ice and a steep 60 metre crux section. At 800 metres long, there is an awful lot of climbing and the ambience of being on such a big face is amazing. The one big issue is that once halfway up the route, it would be pretty tricky (but probably not impossible) to descend, so don’t underestimate it. If the weather isn’t perfect or if there are any issues at all, bail before the crux pitch or you could join the long list of climbers who have had epics on the Swiss route.
Pellissier Gully, Pointes Lachenal.
With good in-situ belays and brilliant, well-protected climbing, the Pellissier Gully is a must for anyone getting into mixed climbing. Best of all, it faces south so you can even enjoy a bit of sun - an unusual and very welcome bonus on a mixed climb.
The route lies one hour walk from the Aiguille du Midi and has five pitches of enjoyable and safe climbing. The crux is where it should be – at the top – and consists of a steep and briefly insecure pull out of a short chimney. The final belay is in an incredible spot on the crest of a ridge, so you can belay with one leg either side of the ridge and take in the exposure.
Once done, simply walk back to the Aiguille du Midi if on foot, or ski down the Vallée Blanche if you’re skiing.
So there we have it, 5 brilliant and contrasting mixed climbing adventures. The tricky part is choosing which one to do first – life can be so tough in Chamonix!
Charlie Boscoe is the IFSC live stream commentator, an avid climber, skier and adventurer. He has spent years living and working in Chamonix, climbing hundreds of routes in the massif.
His new Rockfax guidebook for Chamonix is available to buy here: http://www.rockfax.com/climbing-guides/books/chamonix/