Last year I had some great times climbing in the mountains with my mate Alex. Foolishly, at the end of the autumn he decided to return to London and ‘use his degree’ to get a ‘proper job’. A terrible mistake on his part. Fortunately though his psyche for alpinism hasn’t been completely killed by city life and last weekend he made a flying visit to Chamonix for a winter climbing hit. Dreaming big, we decided our first alpine route of the season would be the classic Supercouloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul. Regarded by many as one of the best ice and mixed lines in the massif, it’s long been on my to-do list. We had heard it was meant to be in quite good condition, though at the same time hadn’t heard of anyone climbing it. We figured there was only one way to find out if the rumours were true!
The day didn’t get off to the quickest start. With a total of two weeks piste skiing experience, the descent off the Midi arête with a heavy backpack was probably the crux of the day for Alex. Eventually though we made it to the base of the couloir and started up the route a bit before midday. I took the lead for the first pitch and with some dubious route-finding skills went too far left. This led to some sustained dry tooling. Good hooks for the axes but often rubbish feet. A delicate traverse right brought me back onto the correct line and easier ground. I made a belay and Alex came up to join me. Looking at my watch, we realised that we might reach the top just before darkness, but we’d certainly be in for a long descent through the night back down. Neither of us really felt like suffering too much and so we decided to bail, saving our energy for more climbing the next day.
The Supercouloir in all its glory. The line is the big ice goulotte centre-right. It offers 400m of sustained ice and mixed climbing, with a further 400m of snow and mixed terrain to top out on the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul.
Alex retreating after having climbed a grand total of one pitch. Not our greatest success.
Naturally our ropes got stuck. Thirty minutes of hauling through a 3:1 pulley system eventually freed them. At this moment, I think we were both glad to have bailed. The thought of doing this in -20c temperatures late at night did not get us psyched.
After bailing from the Supercouloir we skied down to the Refuge du Requin from which we planned to climb the next day. After another leisurely start we headed out to climb Ice is Nice, a beautiful ice line hidden away in a dark corner of the Envers. After a tricky schrund crossing, we were soon marching up a stunningly aesthetic gully. An awkward ice step (far harder than in guidebook in current conditions, with a near vertical wall leading to a technical bulge) led to the meat of the climbing, a nearly 200m steep strip of ice. Conditions were on the dry side, with the ice thin in places, but this kept the climbing interesting the whole way.
In true Cham style, most teams rap off after climbing the difficulties, but after our retreat the day before we were keen to do the route properly and top out at the Brèche du Col du Requin. This required an extra couple of pitches of easy mixed. Unfortunately, my route finding skills once again disappeared and I soon found myself on difficult, tenuous and run-out mixed. I was clearly off-route. However, with no gear in sight and moves too difficult for me to downclimb I had little choice but to keep working my way upwards. Wedged in a flared groove nearly 20m above my last piece of gear, I looked up to see only one option – an open corner with no gear, smears for feet and precarious torques for the axes. Scraping around, trying to clear snow in a desperate search for gear, I mercifully found a small horizontal crack on my right. Thanking the gods, the decision to retreat was easy. I hammered in a piton, breathed a sigh of relief and headed back down towards the belay. On reaching the belay, we checked my watch. It was 3pm. Having now worked out where the correct line went, we knew we could easily get to the top before dark, but this would mean a night time descent of the Vallée Blanche. Given Alex’s skiing experience, we realised this was not a sensible idea. Happy to have climbed the main body of the route, we once again started to retreat.
Later that evening, we made it back to Chamonix. We were both a bit disappointed to have finished neither line, but we were still psyched to have got in some great climbing. Fingers crossed conditions will continue to fatten up for an awesome spring of alpine climbing!
Alex on the approach to Ice is Nice.
Ice is Nice follows the thin strip of ice in the centre of the photo. The photo makes the line look deceptively short. With a 500m approach on skis and 550m of climbing, you need to be quick to get the route done in a day from first lift.
Alex climbing up easier ground near the beginning of the line.
Great ice in an incredible setting.
Alex taking on the crux of the route. A short section of vertical ice then a mixed bulge that needs to be overcome. In fatter conditions, this goes entirely in ice.