February 17th 2008

Petit Capucin - Valeria and Chippendale

Valeria and Chippendale Gullies, March 2007

The Mont Blanc Massif with its himalayan south face, and East wall of the Tacul (Petit Capucin summit at red dot)

The Petit Capucin has always been an area that I haven’t really explored much and even though there are some great winter routes that aren’t too challenging or demanding I had never actually ventured there. However with the recent dry winter and the crowds of people climbing all over the place taking advantage of the un seasonal weather, most routes are now either too thin or so well trodden that even 90 degree ice is a walk in the park due to a staircase having been hacked up them (Modica Nouri for example!). So it was time to go a little further a field and try some new areas.

Although not exactly far from the Midi station it is just far enough so that it keeps the crowds away who are drawn to the East and North faces of the Tacul. Not to be confused with its larger brother, the Petit Capucin (3693m) is much easier to get to as well as a lot smaller and less committing…

It was a perfect sunset from the Aiguille du Midi. The weather was still holding out and we were both itching to get on the climb even though we hadn’t exactly decided which one to go for yet. As the sun set I threw Yoshi out on the Cosmiques arete for a few photos in the evening light………

The Valeria Gully is rated as a IV 4+, with a crux section of short 85 degree ice. Whilst it runs parallel to Chippendale it is about 100m longer but easier terrain so on the whole probably quicker to do. Chippendale is rated as a IV 4 -this is highly subjective to the conditions found on route though, especially in the last 2 mixed pitches (as we found out). We decided to go open minded and see what looked best. However the promise of a route involving some steep ice at the start and some mixed at the end (Chippendale) appeared more tempting than just a pure ice route.

The Approach

Being a Saturday we decided on a early morning start to avoid the crowds of people we had seen take the last lift up to the Cosmiques hut. 6am and we are down the Midi arete, skis on, and trying to control the heavy rucksacks and ski combination on very icy terrain. Heading straight over to the Col du Gros Rognon and down over and following the tracked Vallee Blanche route, we arrived 10 mins later below the Pyramide du Tacul.

The huge serac wall that threatens the approach

I should point out that there is quite a high objective danger for the walk in. Although the walk in is only about 25 mins, it is threatened by some very large seracs all the way. In fact, from the serac debris, it appears that they fall down the exact line that you have to walk up to get to the climb. Also these aren’t small seracs and there is alot of debris indicating that they fall quite often. It is possible to ski tour up keeping to the left hand side however we quickly ditched our skis and just walked up due to the amount of ice debris everywhere.

Heading over to the base of the climbs after ditching the skis

When we arrived at the bergshrund there was another party in front of us and since they were doing the Valeria we decided to do Chippendale. Although we didn’t climb Valeria gully they share some pitches and I spoke to some parties as they came down form the route so I can only comment on the conditions for Valeria according to what others thought.

Valeria Gully IV 4+

Valeria Gully is a 400m route with a total of 7 pitches. The bergshrund is still passable though it isn’t easy. However it is till alot better than the situation on the Modica Nouri and Gabarou Albinoni where you now have to stand on your partner’s shoulder to get up over it. Please click here to see a picture of the whole route with pitches marked

Pitch 1

Belay from the ice above the bergshrund. An easy pitch of about 50/55 degrees. Thick ice. Belay is on the right after about 50m

Pitch 2

Continue up the left hand ice section (but not far left as this is the Germain Colorant). Once again a long 50/55m pitch.

Pitch 3

Getting a little bit thin but still ok. Very good belay up right on some rocks.

Pitch 4

An easy section of nevee and ice. Can do this moving together to save time. Not more than 55 degrees. Belay on the left on some rocks (there are 2 belays here, go for the slightly higher one)

Pitch 5

Easy snow slopes from the belay for about 35m to some mixed. Click here for a close up of the upper three pitches

Pitch 6

70 degree ice, though it is more a mixed climb due to lack of ice up here, with the crux section at 85 degrees. This route has been done over and over again this season so the crux isn’t too hard- ie lots of foot holds etc.

Pitch 7

70/80 degree ice. A bit thicker here apparently.

Then final snow slopes to the top of the Breche du Roi de Siam

Comments: This route has been done alot this winter and as such suffers from thin ice in parts (especially the top) as well as loads of foot holds and ice tool placements. The day we were there, there must have been about 6 parties on that route alone. It was mayhem and a heated argument broke out on one of the belays. I cant comment fully on the top pitches because like i said we didn’t do this route but from what i could see and what others told me this is the best current information I can give. It should be noted that belays along the whole route are very good. A 60m rope is definitely recommended. Many of the pitches themselves are over 50 m and to get over the bergshrund from the last rapel point you will need 60m (normally you descend over the lower section of the Chippendale as it is quicker. However make sure you go down to the further belay point-i the first belay point on the Valeria gully climb. As from here you can get over the bergshrund , the belay point above it, even though its only something like 10m above, doesn’t quite make it).

Variation: A more interesting climb would be to do the lower part of the Chippendale and then link up with the higher pitches of the Valeria. This offers a more interesting ice climb at the start.

Pro: normal set of screws- though ice is thin for the moment so smaller ones are better. A few friends can be useful higher up on pitches 5 and 6. there are good cracks. Slings can also be used for pro on pitches 5-7

Chippendale IV 4

Chippendale proved to be way above its given grade for the conditions we found it in. The final mixed pitches were really dry and the second mixed pitch was completely dry about a third of the way up…Please click here to see a picture of the whole route with pitches marked

Pitch 1

Belay from the ice above the bergshrund. An easy pitch of about 50/55 degrees. Thick ice. Take the higher belay (as shown on the photo). long pitch of about 55m

Pitch 2

Short steep section of about 15m of what we thought was more like 75 parts of 80 degree ice (the guide book Neige Mixte et Glace says 70 degrees). Great pitch if a little thin in parts towards the top!

Pitch 3

An easy section of nevee and ice. Can do this moving together to save time. Not more than 55 degrees. Belay on the left on some rocks (there are 2 belays here)

Pitch 4

Can also do this moving together with pitch 3. Short section of snow. Go up to the right hand gully where the main route splits. As you near the base of the gully you can set up a belay on the right on some rocks (slings good here).

Pitch 5

Here is where the fun starts. We could see that we were going to have difficulties climbing up here due to lack of ice and snow but went ahead anyway to see how far we could get. This pitch proved a tough lead (not mine!) and Yoshi did great. But pro is very hard to find and the ice was thin enough so it barely clung on to anything and just fell away when you tried to find an ice tool or foot placement no matter how careful you were. Torquing up the first section is recommended. Look out for 2 pitons on the left hand side when on the lead but one is not really worth clipping in to. The exit to the belay on an obvious big block is very delicate too. A sling is recommended as there was only a very old bit of worn away tat here (as well as a bit of ab tat we left behind on the way down). This pitch could be really easy with a good layer of ice and snow as it isn’t that steep but beware if conditions are a bit thin!

Pitch 6

Apart from a tight squeeze at the beginning this is a straight forward snow with a bit of ice pitch. No real complications here. Belay is on the right, 2 pitons and a stuck nut. Equalizing between the three seemed pretty secure.

Pitch 7

The second mixed pitch proved to be our turning round point. Granted we aren’t great alpinists and I am sure that others would have been able to do what we couldn’t. Its hard to try and estimate a grade for the conditions it is in as we didn’t finish the route. However I dont think an M grade of M5+ with moves of M6 is too far out. There is ice, albeit it very thin, for about 10 m up this pitch then nothing at all. From photos I have now seen of previous climbs it seems that there should be a very good covering of snow and ice on this pitch leading to very little actual mixed, however conditions are very bad for the moment. We were quite surprised at how dry it was. The photos aren’t very good at showing the top part of the pitch so you will have to take our word for it!

Running out of ice completely on the 7th pitch

Comments: We really enjoyed this route and didn’t mind at all that we didn’t get to finish it off. It was pleasantly fun to find ourselves with a greater challenge than we had expected, and that’s the great thing about this route- Its very short and we knew that we could spend time on the mixed without worrying too much since its only 6 rappels to get off the route. This is a great variation from the very popular Valeria route and one that you will have by yourself the whole day. From the looks of the ab tat and gear in situ it is obvious that this route isn’t done all that much. It is currently (18/3/07) dumping it down in Chamonix and we are expecting the weather to stay like this for at least another week so it looks as if this route could be in great condition once all this snow has settled down. If you are looking for an un-trodden route with a very easy approach and awesome views from the fifth pitch this is the one. It also catches the sun in parts quite early on in the day (well sunrise in fact!) so you can warm up too if it gets too cold.

Also see comments about rappeling over the bergshrund on the Valeria comments section

Pro: In its current condition I’d recommend your normal set of ice screws (mostly smaller ones) plus a set of cams (especially smaller ones) and a set of nuts. Slings are also useful as well as pitons if you feel the need for them.

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