Take a ride back to 1980 and the era of enchainment alpinism, the linking together of multiple routes in a single push, was about to kick off. Over the course of the next decade Europe’s top alpinists would put in jaw-dropping feats of endurance, enchaining multiple hard routes in a single push, often solo. Some of the most impressive feats of this era include Jean-Marc Boivin’s mega link-up of the north faces of the Verte, Droites, Courtes and Grandes Jorasses in one long day and Christophe Profit’s enchainment of the north faces of the Matterhorn, Eiger and Grandes Jorasses in less than 24 hours. However, for my money, the most impressive feat of this era was by a lesser known name, the Italian alpinist Renato Casarotto. Back in 1982 he set off into the Frêney basin with a plan to link three hard rock routes on the south side of Mont Blanc: the Ratti-Vitali on the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, the Boccalatte-Gervasutti on the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey and the Bonington route on Mont Blanc’s Central Pillar of Frêney. Not wanting to make things too easy for himself, he set off alone, in winter, with no radio, support or pre-cached supplies whatsoever. For those unfamiliar with these routes, these aren’t lines you go looking to climb in winter. Quite the opposite. Almost exclusively on rock, these climbs are a nightmare to climb in proper winter conditions. Usually they are reserved for the summer when the rock will be warm and dry, enabling comparatively easy passage. Often battling poor weather, Casarotto engaged these routes in proper winter conditions. As his enchainment dragged on, people began to fear the worst. However, after 15 days alone he emerged on the summit of Mont Blanc, his visionary enchainment completed. He dubbed it the Super Integrale de Peuterey.
Three badass Italian alpinists. Renato Casarotto in the centre. Gian Carlo Grassi on the left and Gianni Comino on the right. All were exceptionally talented climbers who died far too young.
Testament to the difficulty of Casarotto’s enchainment, only two teams have successfully repeated the link-up in winter. No-one has since done it solo. Notably easier, though still no pushover, is to link the routes in summer. At this time of year the days are long and the rock dry. Earlier this summer, taking advantage of a good weather window, Juho and I attempted to repeat Casarotto’s enchainment.
Packing food and gas for three days, we set off from the small hamlet of Frêney and made our way up to the base of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. I felt confident, despite the enormity of the challenge lying ahead of us (and the weight of the pack digging into my shoulders). Though as a whole the enchainment seemed ridiculously big, when I broke it down into its individual parts it all seemed doable. The key would be linking it all together without errors, fatigue or simple bad luck getting in the way.
The approach to the base of the Aiguille Noire was more tiring than expected and it was good to finally establish ourselves at a bivi site at the base of the Aiguille Noire’s west face. We relaxed for the rest of the day, resting and preparing ourselves for the start of the climbing the following morning.
The Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, the first of the peaks, on the right. Straight ahead in the distance is the south west pillar of Pointe Gugliermina, the second route in the enchainment.
Juho brewing up some tea at our bivi site.
Though not quite five star for comfort, the bivi site protected us from the rockfall and serac collapses that threaten much of the basin. The views weren’t half bad either. The mountain straight ahead is the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, the second peak in the enchainment.
The alarm rang early. Keen not to leave anything to chance, we made a pre-dawn start up the Ratti-Vitali. After some physical old-school chimney climbing to warm up, we soon got into a good rhythm. Simul-climbing up the easier mid-section we made quick progress and before long found ourselves half way up the face at the base of the difficulties. As we climbed these pitches, I found it hard not to be impressed by the skill and courage of Vittorio Ratti and Gigi Vitali, the first ascensionists. Though the climbing is not difficult by modern standards, the same cannot be said for when they made the first ascent back in the 1930s. After a strenuous pitch of aid climbing, where any thought of trying to free climb quickly disappeared, we reached the upper headwall. From here a few pitches of enjoyable climbing on solid rock took us to the summit of the Noire.
The ascent had gone smoothly and a good deal quicker than we’d expected. Though I was trying to keep expectations low, it was hard not to feel optimistic. After taking a few summit photos and a quick check of the latest weather forecast (still good), we started the descent. A few hours later we finished the rappels and arrived back at our bivi site. As I went to bed that evening I felt like we might just pull this off.
Juho climbing easy ground on the lower half of the Aiguille Noire’s west face.
Juho starting up steeper ground as we approach the upper headwall on the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey.
Juho on a pitch of 6a just before the aid section.
Juho belaying on the aid pitch whilst I yard my way up on pitons.
Summit number one done!
Juho rappelling the aid pitch on the way back down. It’s steep! Not sure if it’s ever been climbed free. The route was recently equipped with bolted rap stations by local guides. I can’t say I agree with this. It seems a shame to place bolted rap anchors over such a wild, remote and austere face. Nevertheless, they greatly facilitated the speed and ease of our descent.
The next morning we woke well before dawn. Whereas on the Ratti-Vitali we were already situated at the base of the route, ready to go as soon we’d finished breakfast, for the Boccalatte-Gervasutti we’d have to navigate from our bivi site to the base of the Aiguille Blanche’s south west face before we could start climbing. We knew this might be difficult. Though the face was only half a kilometre away as the crow flies, the terrain between us and it was far from trivial. The lower Frêney glacier is highly crevassed and navigation through it is complex and potentially dangerous. We hoped to bypass the worst of it by hugging the left bank of the glacier, crossing the large bergschrund by a solid-looking but steep and technical snow bridge.
We left our bivi site and made our way towards the snow bridge. This proved more difficult than we’d imagined. From afar the terrain looked relatively simple, but up close the crevasses were larger than expected and snow bridges we thought we’d seen from afar proved to be illusions. After a couple of detours we arrived at the bergschrund and the bridge we planned to cross. It looked far more sketchy in person. With two technical ice tools it might go, but even then looked dangerous. With the equipment we had it was clearly a no-go. This was a frustrating blow. The next most likely route for accessing the face involved a long detour around the most heavily crevassed section of the glacier. Even then, we were far from certain that it would be possible to access the face this way. Figuring we had little option but to try, we set off on this roundabout route. It soon became apparent that accessing the face by this route would be equally challenging. Several potential paths resulted in dead-ends. Hope and morale were fading fast. We were wasting valuable time and energy and increasingly running out of options by which to try and access the face. As the sun rose, we were also acutely aware of the increased risk of rockfall these delays would expose us to on the lower section of the face. During our first night at our bivi site we had a witnessed a massive rockfall rip through the lower half of the face. It had left a large cloud of powdered granite that lingered in the air for a good twenty minutes after. Neither of us wanted to be on this section of the face when the sun hit it.
We both knew a retreat was looking increasingly likely. We went about trying one last potential line of weakness, more to satisfy our need to have tried every available option rather than in any hope of success. To our surprise, it went. The route we took was far from simple, involving a memorable traverse along a steep and exposed ice slope. To be honest, it was at the upper end of what I consider acceptable risk and I was glad when it was finally over with.
Juho on the approach to the base of Pointe Gugliermina. Fun times.
The climbing at the start was relatively easy and so we opted to move together, glad to cover ground quickly and climb out of the area most exposed to rockfall. Fresh rockfall scars reminded us that this was no place to hang around. The rock, though granite like the vast majority of the massif, was unlike anything I’d climbed on in the Mont Blanc area. Where the rock was solid, it was alarmingly compact, offering very little in the way of gear. Where the rock offered gear, it was loose and each hold needed to be treated as suspect. This meant that though the climbing was rarely that difficult, it was mentally very draining.
After the easy start, the pillar steepened significantly. The climbing was surprisingly strenuous and sustained. After a few steep and bold pitches I took over the lead from Juho. We suspected we might be off route but weren’t sure. We spotted two pitons up and left. Going in this direction didn’t match our route description, but it looked like the best option available and so I headed up towards them. Once again the climbing was steep and demanding for the grade. On reaching the pitons, I clipped one of them. The other was so shockingly bad it didn’t seem worth clipping. I didn’t much trust the piton I had clipped either and so backed it up with a marginal cam. Reaching around for holds above a bulge I found nothing. It didn’t feel right. The pitch was meant to be 5b, a very moderate level of difficulty. After trying a few options, it quickly became apparent this pitch was not going to go at 5b. It was steep and the only holds I could find were tiny crimps and side pulls. However, I could see that if I could just climb five metres further the ground would ease off. I took off my heavy pack and clipped it to the piton. I placed another micro cam. The piece was as poor as the first two, but I could see there were no gear options above me and figured better to have three crap gear placements than two crap gear placements. Pushing on through a bouldery sequence, I managed to get above the bulge. Easier ground was just a few metres away. However, the wall separating me from it looked utterly desperate. I searched for good holds but found nothing. Getting increasingly pumped, I considered my options. I could try to downclimb, but would probably fall off in the process, or could try to push on. I doubted I’d make it to the easier ground above before falling. The climbing was hard, very hard, and on a remote face with no phone signal this was no place to be taking a big fall onto marginal gear. I shouted down to Juho that I was going to try to downclimb to the gear but would probably fall in the process (I may have uttered a few swear words in his direction at the same time). I started trying to downclimb as far as I could to limit the length of the fall. However, before I could make any progress the hold I was relying on blew apart from the face. The next thing I knew I was twenty feet lower, hanging upside down on my back. Fortunately, the tiny micro cam had held, the only damage a ripped jacket. Whilst physically okay, mentally it was a turning point. My already low level of trust in the rock hit rock bottom.
Juho lowered me back to the belay. We swapped leads and Juho headed up to see if he could find any alternative options. Traversing out right, he found a way around the worst of the difficulties. The traverse was still far from easy, but it led us back on route. Continuing up the crest of the pillar, we were conscious that our pace not as quick as the day before. I felt like I had perhaps not given the route the respect it deserves. Gaston Rébuffat, the legendary French alpinist, regarded it as the most demanding pre-war climb of the Mont Blanc massif; no small statement when you consider he was comparing it against some serious routes on the likes of the Dru and Grandes Jorasses. When I’d looked at the grades on our route description, I had arrogantly thought the route would be quite easy. Now I was on it, it was proving to be a harsh reminder that old school ‘5c’ should be treated with a healthy dose of respect, especially so when put up by Giusto Gervasutti, regarded by many as the finest granite climber of his era and a man who didn’t gain the nickname “Il Fortissimo” for nothing.
After another strenuous pitch on dubious rock we reached a series of ledges that led us to the crux of the route, a 6b corner. Thankfully the corner could be mostly aided by pulling on old, rusting pegs. However, with a large ankle-breaking ledge right beneath it, I didn’t want to think too much about what might happen if one of the pitons blew. On reaching the top of the corner, I began a downwards leaning horizontal aid traverse. It was time consuming, awkward and probably the most bizarre pitch of climbing I’ve ever done. This brought us to the next belay. From here, another brief aid section and a few pitches of climbing, mercifully on solid and protectable rock, brought us to the summit slope of Pointe Gugliermina. One final, easy pitch took us to the summit itself. Two down, one to go.
Looking up at the Boccalatte-Gervasutti. The photo is deceptive. The face is considerably steeper than it appears from below.
Unlike most big classic rock routes in the Mont Blanc massif, there is very little in the way of in-situ gear on the Boccalatte-Gervasutti. I don’t recall finding a single in-situ belay that we could attach to. A retreat from high up on the face would be involved and require leaving behind a substantial amount of gear.
Juho seconding a pitch on the crest of the pillar, a little over half way up the face. Below you can see the glacial terrain we had problems navigating earlier in the morning.
Looking back at yesterday’s climb, the west face of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey.
On the summit of Pointe Gugliermina. From here we had to make our way to the summit of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey (the snowy peak in the background) from where we’d descend to our planned bivi site at the Col de Peuterey.
Though we had reached the summit of the Gugliermina and the end of the difficulties, we still had a good bit of climbing to do to reach the summit of the Aiguille Blanche and our planned bivi site at the Col de Peuterey. The same positivity we had felt on reaching yesterday’s summit was not found today. My arms were destroyed, the cumulative fatigue from the past two days taking a greater toll than expected. It seemed hard to imagine climbing the Central Pillar of Frêney the following day. Usually a major undertaking in its own right, it seemed almost ludicrous to start up the pillar utterly drained. A check of the latest weather forecast soon took the decision out of our hands. The forecast had turned against us. It now called for a possible thunderstorm the following afternoon. We both knew how serious it would be to get caught in a storm on the Central Pillar. The story of the 1961 tragedy, in which four of Europe’s most talented alpinists lost their lives after getting caught in a storm high up on the pillar, was one neither of us needed reminding of. Our Super Integrale was over. Still, this didn’t mean we were going to be heading down. From our current location on the summit of Pointe Gugliermina, a sub-summit of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, the easiest way out of the mountains was to keep heading up. We also felt that we could still complete our enchainment by climbing the Peuterey ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc, a far easier way to finish and one that should ensure we’d be out of the mountains before any storm arrived.
As darkness set we passed the summit of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey. Our original plan to spend an extra twenty minutes tagging the summit proper was quickly discarded. We bypassed the true summit via easier ground on the right, keen to reach our bivi site as soon as possible. We were tired, hungry and dehydrated and our only thought was to reach our bivi at the Col de Peuterey where we could rest, recover and rehydrate for the following day.
Juho just before the summit of the Aiguille Blanche.
Juho on the final summit slope to the Aiguille Blanche.
We arrived at the bivi site in the dark. The amount of rest time we were going to enjoy was depressingly small. With a cold wind blowing, we quickly got into our sleeping bags and got out the stove to melt some snow for water. Juho’s gas canister was nearly empty so I grabbed our second canister out of my bag. After spending a while trying to attach my canister to Juho’s stove I commented that it wouldn’t seem to connect. It was at this point that I learnt about the differences between clip-on and screw-on canisters. In short, my canister was completely incompatible with Juho’s stove. It was a simple but painful mistake. Our original canister still had a small amount of gas left, but hardly enough to rehydrate ourselves after today’s efforts, let alone provide a supply for tomorrow. After some careful work we managed to eke out a litre of water each before the gas ran dry. Climbing the Central Pillar was now unambiguously out of the question and even the easier Peuterey ridge looked in doubt. We set our alarm for early in the morning with a plan to descend back down to Italy, though I held out hope that thoughts of carrying on might return after a few hours rest. When we woke a short while later it was decided we would head down. To Juho, it was clear that we should descend and though I felt more uncertain it was hard to argue against. Any argument for pushing on basically fell down to ‘it’ll be fine’ or ‘let’s just man up and suffer’. Neither are good arguments. The Peuterey ridge was still a serious, committing climb and it was no place to mess about, especially with a potential storm on its way.
After packing up our site, we traversed the Frêney glacier and climbed up towards the Col Eccles from where we planned to descend the Brouillard glacier back down to Italy. Heading down the glacier as the sun rose, the mood was sombre. The weather was good and as we passed other alpinists heading up into the mountains it was painful to be going in the opposite direction. It was hard not to second guess our decision to descend. On reaching the Monzino refuge we greedily took advantage of their water supply. As I sat on the terrace outside the refuge looking back at the mountains we had climbed, I felt more frustrated than I expected for having failed to complete the enchainment. Usually I find failure to climb a route leaves me more motivated afterwards with a strong desire to return and finish the climb. And I think that’s why the frustration was greater this time. For me, there was no desire to return. No desire to complete unfinished business. No desire to step foot on the Frêney glacier, to spend that time living in fear of rockfall, to climb constantly in the fear that at any moment a hold could blow and I’d be falling. Nowhere I’ve climbed in the Mont Blanc massif has such an oppressive, unwelcoming and inhospitable an atmosphere as the lower Frêney basin. I was glad to be out of there and to never return. Equally though, I wonder if the frustration was because deep down I knew that at some point in the future I’d feel compelled to return, to face these fears and once again attempt the Super Integrale. With time, I’ll tell myself that the rockfall was predictable and avoidable, the rock no less solid than what you’d find on other mountain routes, the glacier actually quite benign. The desire to return and complete the Super Integrale will build. For now, I hope this isn’t the case. I guess only time will tell.