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The Six Alpine Faces Climbers Were Willing to Die For (and some still are)

The Eiger, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petite Dru, Piz Badille and the Cima Grande.

This feature  first appeared in Rock and Ice, July 2020. We love this story and art and are republishing it here so you can get inspired, too. Rockandice.com has over 3,000 articles and stories you can access with an Active Pass. Click this link to begin enjoying even more Rock and Ice content today.

The COVID 19 situation accelerated in France—on March 14 all shops, restaurants and entertainment venues closed. A day later, the ski resorts ground to a halt. Then, on March 17, President Macron announced a country-wide lockdown. Immediately, anyone in the tourist industry, which includes almost everyone in Chamonix, where I live and work as a mountain guide, was unemployed. Everyone except essential workers was told to stay home.

France’s motto is Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), and many French took the “Liberté” too far, roaming freely, disregarding the regulations. One team of alpinists even made a hard mixed ascent on the Aiguille Verte, a spike of precipitous granite and ice on the Chamonix valley skyline.

The government reacted by imposing more draconian restrictions. Exercise was limited to just once a day, to walk or jog outside for a maximum of one hour and within one kilometer and 100 meters of elevation gain from your house. To go outdoors, you had to have a signed document stating why you were out, and be prepared to show your papers to the gendarmes patrolling the street, crags and paths. Fines were 135 Euros for violations, 1,500 Euros for repeat violation, and 3,750 Euros and up to six months in prison for a third offense.

Photo: Ben Tibbetts

Some journalists compared the restrictions to life during the German occupation of World War II. Theirs was a false equivalency that bordered on the ridiculous, but perhaps it’s only in moments like this, in confinement, that we can appreciate Western liberty. My friends who lived through the Soviet era in Eastern Europe or Russia said that the restrictions in France are just a taste of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.Having previously lived in Switzerland, where my neighbors once called the police when I showered after 10 p.m., violating a noise ordinance, I never imagined that I would covet Swiss civil liberty: Over the border in Switzerland you could still go on bike rides, rock climb, ski tour.

A few weeks before lockdown, in those rose-tinted days that now seem like a different epoch, a New York climber, Jonathan, asked if I would guide him on the north face of the Aiguille du Dru. Jonathan had climbed the north faces of the Eiger, Matterhorn and Cima Grande di Lavaredo, and his goal was to tick all six of the great north faces of the Alps. Besides the Dru, he still needed to tick the Piz Badile and the Grandes Jorasses. These six faces were packaged and first climbed by Gaston Rebuffat in the 1950s, and even today climbing all of them is an ambitious goal—I know only a handful of climbers who have done it.

Guiding was out due to the stay-at-home order that soon followed, but Jonathan had seen the photographs and drawings in my recent book, Alpenglow, about my experiences climbing all of the 4,000-meter peaks in the Alps. He asked if I might draw each of the six north faces. I agreed, but warned him that my tiny drawings, some as small as two inches wide, usually took me upward of a month each. Working with meticulously sharpened pencils and looking through a magnifying glass requires unusual concentration, and is so hard on the eyes that I usually only manage a few hours a day.

When the lockdown went into effect, I began to make the first marks on a clean sheet of paper.

Between sessions climbing on my garage woody, limited by a tweaky shoulder and the usual finger weakness, I had an unprecedented amount of time to work on drawings.

Then my work was interrupted by a request. My neighbor Luc Moreau, a renowned glaciologist with spiky gray hair and a sun-chiseled face, has centered his life’s research in the Mont Blanc massif. He gathers sub-glacial water-outflow data of the Argentière Glacier, and needed help replacing an electronic part on a monitoring station on the torrent of ice that flows past les Droites, the Verte, and les Courtes.

Eager to get outside, I jumped on the chance, as did my partner, Valentine, who joined as the team doctor and shovel monkey.

After getting permission for our “essential” outing from the PGHM (high-mountain police), we donned skis and skinned 1,200 meters from the valley floor, taking a surreptitious path to avoid being seen by jealous eyes. Farther on, however, the only sensible way up was via the main piste, in full view of the town of Argentière. I could sense the hundreds of skiers breakfasting on their balconies, looking up at us in disbelief and anger, shaking their fists and hurling insults.

Despite having permission, I felt guilt rather than pleasure as we slid up the mountain. Once we were nearly a kilometer above the town I finally relaxed and savored the high mountain air. As we turned the last corner and came within sight of the glacier, Luc’s phone rang. It was the PGHM checking that it was indeed us climbing the piste, as they had received numerous calls from the public denouncing us. So much for “Fraternité”!

The silence on the Argentière Glacier was startling. Earlier in the season the glacier had bustled with ski tourers. Now the only sounds were those of stones clattering down the cliffs several kilometers away. As surreal as it had been to see images of the Champs-Élysées or Times Square devoid of humanity, it was equally odd to be the only people in the mountains.

Weeks spent indoors had honed my capacity for awe at the beauty of these masses of rock and ice, but I had mixed emotions. Being on the glacier wasn’t quite the taste of freedom I had anticipated.Rather, it felt like an illicit pleasure. I wondered if the Alps would ever be busy again—the crowd of tourists that we locals complain about would be welcome now! For the sake of my fellow Chamonix guides, I hoped the mountains would soon buzz with activity—after just a month of no business one guide told me he may have to sell his house. Others said they may have to find other occupations.

We replaced the electronic component and skied back to confinement in Chamonix.

In my apartment, I returned to drawing peaks I could no longer climb. I also recalibrated my appreciation for what mountains and wild places offer. Despite weeks of rigorously structuring my days to keep anxiety at bay, trying to keep rhythm in my work and an optimistic spirit, I dreamed of nothing else but leaving the valley floor, of heading up to sleep in an exposed place, of climbing a ridge and catching the sunrise over a remote corner of the mountains. For now, though, these drawings will have to do.

Ben Tibbetts is an IFMGA guide and a writer, artist and photographer. To see more of his work go to bentibbetts.com or Instagram. His recent book, Alpenglow, documents his ascents of all 82 4,000 meter peaks in the Alps. His most recent article, about the Matterhorn, appeared in Rock and Ice No. 254, November 2018.

North Face of the Eiger. First ascent: Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer, Fritz Kasparek, 1938. Art: Ben Tibbetts

North (in shadow) and West Faces of the Aiguille du Dru, France. First ascent: Pierre Allain and Raymond Leininger, 1935. Art: Ben Tibbetts

North Face (sunlit) of the Matterhorn, Switzerland. First ascent: Franz and Toni Schmid, 1931. Art: Ben Tibbetts

North Face of the Grandes Jorasses, France. First ascent: Riccardo Cassin, Gino Esposito and Ugo Tizzoni, 1938. Art: Ben Tibbetts

North (in shadow) and West Face of the Piz Badile, Switzerland. First ascent: Riccardo Cassin, Vittorio Ratti, Gino Esposito, Mario Molteni, Giuseppe Valsecchi, 1937. Molteni and Valsecchi died on the descent. Art: Ben Tibbetts