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Sébastien Berthe and Siebe Vanhee have made the first and second free ascents of Histoire sans Fin (8b+/5.14a 200m) on Petit Clocher du Portalet in Switzerland after a very short stint working the route.
Histoire sans Fin is incredibly stacked. In just eight pitches, the line takes on a steep 7c+ (5.13a) splitter crack, thin traverses demanding granite wizardry, a V10 boulder problem, a precarious 8b (5.13d) arete, and an exciting, runout 8a+ (5.13c) slab at the very top. “Even imagining the perfect route, I am not sure I would have imagined something that good!” wrote Berthe to Climbing in an email.
In 2001, Didier Berthod and Francois Mathey first climbed the striking second pitch: a 45-meter 5.13a. “The splitter ends in the middle of the beautiful pillar, in the middle of nowhere,” wrote Vanhee to Climbing in an email. The pitch received several repeats—and rave reviews—but the upper wall remained untouched for almost 20 years.
Fabian Borter and Bertrand Martenet had the vision to create a nearly all-free continuation to the original crack pitch; they followed their noses up steep slabs and aretes to the top, but fell short of an entirely-free ascent.
As it turned out, Berthod had recently returned to climbing in 2020 after 13 years spent living in a monastery in Switzerland. He was eager to return to the Histoire sans Fin project, and soon found the missing link to Borter and Martenet’s free ascent: A “beautiful orange arête” which demanded granite fluency and unyielding body tension.
Several local climbers (including Berthod) were gunning for the first free ascent when Berthe sent, yet he says there was no animosity between the two groups. “I feel really thankful that the climbers let such a route [remain] an open project for anyone,” Berthe wrote. Indeed, such a striking and historic feature would have red tape all over it in other parts of the world.
While some would approach a route like Histoire sans Fin with caution and commit to dialing in each pitch before the red point, Berthe knows no such tactics. “Giving everything to a multipitch route on my first day… has always been normal for me,” he wrote. He strives to try a route onsight and “a muerte” before considering other approaches. “Using this strategy, you quickly understand that a full day of climbing can be pretty long and you just need to be patient!” Berthe wrote.
And a full day it was. Berthe and Vanhee swapped leads up to the crux third pitch, a four-move problem of sloping feet and crystalline slopers, and took turns trying the sequence until Berthe climbed it cleanly. Vanhee tried the pitch twice more, and, though he felt close to sending, decided to give up his free ascent to support Berthe’s. “Oh it was hard, my ego was hurt for sure,” Vanhee wrote. “From that point, my climbing would not matter that much anymore. It would just be preparation for another day…”
Berthe continued higher, steadily freeing Histoire sans Fin pitch-by-pitch. With waning light, the duo arrived below the final hard pitch: a devious 5.13c slab. Berthe took off without a headlamp to suss out the moves before giving a proper attempt. But, after squeaking through the crux onsight, he began to re-evaluate his choice. “[By now] the light was really going down,” Berthe wrote, and he could hardly make out each foothold.
He tick-tacked his way through a 10-meter runout—he did not have the correct cam to protect himself, and even then Vanhee says the placement is marginal—while fighting the day’s exhaustion and moss-covered rock. Despite facing potentially one of the biggest falls of his life, Berthe said he found a comforting flow state and climbed confidently to the chains.
Vanhee returned three days later with Berthe and Soline Kentzel for another round. Vanhee led each pitch without falling, right up until the very last: the 5.13c slab. Thankfully, Vanhee was not at the end of the 10-meter runout when he peeled off, and, after returning to the previous anchor, he sent the pitch. “The feeling you get climbing this kind of rock in this environment is just magical,” Vanhee wrote. “[The] quality is incredibly good!”
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