About the only thing that’s guaranteed for me in Himalayan climbing is that at the end of it all I get to press my face up against a cold aircraft window, like a kid on their first flight, as we fly right over the Mont Blanc massif into Geneva airport. It’s a special moment for me, and I always have a huge grin on my face as I take it all in. On the left side of the plane you see the main core of the Mont Blanc massif, and on the right you fly directly over the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses and Aiguille Verte. Either way you win. I can even see my apartment from up there, a physical reminder of my family, friends and the mountains that I call home. The last few expeditions I’ve always sat on the left side, staring out at the Brouillard Ridge Integral trying to second guess the conditions on this immense route from 30,000 feet. Its always seemed like the perfect solo after a high altitude trip- something about being very acclimatised and fit, but weak on your arms, fitted the route really well. That and the fact that for some reason I’m insanely psyched for alpine climbing in the week following a trip - probably linked to the fact that Himalayan climbing is just one massive planned failure (or it generally is for me anyway).
My flight back from Nepal this May coincided with one of the snowiest Spring season’s in the Alps for a long time, adding an austere look to the route. More winter than summer, the ridge itself looked massive. Often overlooked by its more famous neighbour, the Peuterey Integral, it is no push over seeing as the climb starts quite literally at the valley floor and covers something like 4000m of climbing over 9km of ridges ranging in quality from ‘shit-eating-grin’ scrambling to ‘loose-as-f*ck’ death choss, which I guess makes it an ‘alpine’ route. Objectively the safest way up Mont Blanc, it felt like the perfect post-expedition solo. Ego-fuelled ambitions aside though, long term enchainment partner Ally Swinton was leaving for the summer and it felt only right to send him packing loathing the Alps so he wouldn’t miss it- and what better way to send someone off to the relative flat lands of Wales than single pushing one of the biggest routes in Europe?
The plan was simple, get up early and keep going. The conditions would be tough, we knew that, there was a huge amount of snow still above 3000m but we were undecided whether that would be a hindrance or an aid. In any case it didn’t matter as it’s not a route you can easily escape from so either we’d be trudging up deep snow or running our way up refrozen nevée. Either way we’d be pretty calorie starved by the summit and that seemed to be the point of the whole exercise.
At midnight the alarm went off, at 1am we were on our way. People were still up in the campsite next to us in Val Veney and it does make you question your life choices sometimes. The approach to the Brouillard doesn’t exist, and after walking through a bog, a quick go at catching some wild trout, and a lot of boulder hopping across some angry looking glacial runoffs we finally arrived at the base of the route. It had only taken us 5 times longer than we had planned, but that would be the theme of the route so at least it started off as it planned on finishing.
Heading up the steep grassy access slopes we settled in to our normal early morning routine of team shit-chat, Ally’s training to be a guide, I’m training to be a dad. Running shoes made light work of the Aiguilles Rouges, scrambling over exposed terrain with backdrops of the Peuterey Integral and Mont Blanc far ahead. For some reason it didn’t look too far, maybe it was the euphoria of the dawn glow and following sunrise or the fact that we were really flying up this ridge line, both lost in our thoughts soloing up this massive route.
The mountain always gets her way though and as we neared the 3000m mark we hit the snow line- this was the great unknown. In ideal circumstances we would have waited a couple more weeks for the route to clear but then Ally would be in Wales. It was disappointing. So disappointing in fact, that we spent a fair part of the route wading up to our armpits at times digging a channel up this sodden snow. The hours passed by, we slowed to a crawl but at least we were still crawling. As the ridge line grew narrower we were forced to deal with dangerously heavy cornices and really take our time - I managed to break three of them off. But we still had plenty of daylight left and whilst we were on a ridge at least we didn’t have any worry about objective dangers falling on our heads.
That was until we joined the Col Emile Rey.
Above the col lay the ‘easy’ 4b pitch, ostensibly the crux of the route, which had now formed as a thin veneer of delaminated nevée with a waterfall running over it. Luckily for me I’d been doing my best to plough a track up the snow and break off as many cornices as I could for the last few hours so it was Ally’s turn to take over the lead. An initial foray in to the waterfall, fuelled by the unhelpful “Go on you can do it” from the belayer, led to a very wet and angry Scotsman - Plan B it was then, not that we had one. Thankfully a steep but good quality ice pitch to the side led us up to easier, but again very insecure snowy ground, and finally up never ending snow slopes to the Pointe Louis Amédée. Head down I just followed the fresh boot-track as Ally’s feet of fury snaked their way up to an out of sight ridge line far above.
The end was finally in sight, but still not in the bag. We were both soaking wet and it had been a real concern over the last few hours that time was now our enemy - if we topped out after sunset frostbite from our wet boots was a real possibility. The wind picked up, the temperatures dropped and we both regressed back in to our own little worlds as we simul climbed to the summit. The colours intensified signalling the last of the day’s heat and the wind bit at any exposed skin, it’s an acquired art wiggling all your toes at the same time as climbing. As we neared the final slope to the summit proper the wind reached its zenith, too close to a gale for my liking, keenly aware how serious single pushing big objectives can be - if we would have had to stop for more than a few minutes hypothermia would not have been far away. Light isn’t always right I guess.
We didnt stop for the summit, the rope stayed tight and we headed straight on down the Gouter Route searching for a bit of man made shelter in the form of a huge mountain hut full of warm beds and hot food.
Ally did make it to Wales a few days later with a massive hangover; the route must have worked though as he doesn’t get in touch much anymore.