2003 Golden Piton Awards
Photo by Glenate press/Guilloume Vallot
Photo by Philippe Magnin
Photo by Jean Michele Asselin
Frenêy and Brouillard faces of Mont Blanc
The Rockies, Alaska, the Caucasus, Patagonia — alpinists continue to comb the globe finding new lines to suffer for. Still, each year, some of the very best displays of pure alpine mastery occur in the wild-yet-civilized “Yosemite Valley of Alpinism,” the Mont Blanc massif.
To trace the 300-year history of climbing on Mont Blanc is to follow the evolution of alpinism from its birth to the present day. Chamonix attracts the best foreign climbers in the world, but the true lifeblood of the climbing scene is still the local guides — men and women who live and work in the mountains and know them intimately. Cutting-edge Chamonix climbing is now so esoteric that the American Alpine Journal has thrown up its hands and stopped covering it. And the technical standards are astronomical — meaning the ability to exit the telepherique station at a sprint and keep that pace over 5.12 rock, sustained alpine ice, and M-whatever, covering 1000 meters or more of terrain, and maybe parapenting down for another route or two, or bailing at lightning speed in a full-blown alpine storm. “Americans just don’t realize how much better the European climbers are than us,” says Mark Twight, a top American alpinist who spent six years in Chamonix.
This year, plenty of high-standard routes were climbed above Chamonix, including a notable first free ascent (at M8) of No Siesta, perhaps the hardest route on the Grandes Jorasses, by Robert Jasper and Markus Stofer. The multi-route enchainments and multi-day cumuls (enchainment marathons), however, probably represent modern light-and-fast Chamonix alpinism at its holistic best, and it is to an appalling winter cumul that we award our Golden Piton for alpinism. Last February/March, Patrick Berhault and Philippe Magnin managed one of the most grueling winter marathons in the history of the massif when they enchained 16 routes in 22 days on the high, remote Frenêy and Brouillard faces on the south side of Mont Blanc. “Any self-respecting alpine climber would be happy to do half of those routes in his lifetime,” says Twight.
The quest began on February 11 with Berhault and Magnin moving into the Eccles hut (located at 3600 meters, with no telepherique access) at the base of the faces. Over the next week they climbed a major couloir route each day, often battling through weather that, under normal circumstances, would have sent them scurrying back to town. On the Hypercouloir, the third route in the enchainment, the pair became locked in what Berhault describes as a “wind vise,” composed of strong updrafts combined with a spindrift avalanche, which literally took their breath away. “It was an astonishing sensation,” said Berhault.
With half the routes completed, the pair skied down to Chamonix (an 8500-foot descent from the hut) for a quick rest and resupply. They returned two days later and shifted their attention towards the eight major buttresses, including the granddaddy of Mont Blanc routes, the Central Pillar of Frenêy. Heavy snowfall near the end of the trip had Berhault and Magnin wallowing in neck-deep snow just to reach the base of the face. On the rock they encountered ice-filled cracks, snow covering every hold, and temperatures that routinely hovered at minus 20 degrees C.
Overall, Berhault and Magnin climbed close to 10,000 meters of steep, technical ground, between 3250 and 4800 meters, in full winter conditions. Many of the routes had never had second ascents or winter ascents.
“The mountain gave us the whole spectrum of what you could possibly experience,” says Berhault.