It’s early July, and we arrived in the Alps a week ago. We spent our first week climbing with friends, but now it’s time to try something harder. A quick flick through the guidebook clinched it – we would attempt the Frendo Spur. First climbed in 1941, the route is a “magnificent and well-established classic” on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi above the town of Chamonix. The ‘midi’ is 3842 metres high, and the route is seen as a benchmark for those breaking into ‘proper’ alpine routes. At over a kilometre high the face presented an irresistible challenge.
We began our adventure with bivouac at the mid-station of the télépherique (the cable car that takes skiers up the gentler slopes, up to just shy of the 3,000 metre mark). During the night three (very wet) students from Leeds University appeared, having just descended from the Frendo Spur – they had begun the climb late that afternoon only to be forced into retreat due to route-finding errors and bad weather. We prayed that the weather would improve enough to do the route since the €32 for the lift up had stung our already frugal budget.
We woke at 3am and soon began the walk to the base of the route; by four o’clock Chris was picking his way up the slabs at the base of the rock section. The initial slabs soon give way to more strenuous climbing on broken rock. Chris climbs to a dead end. I shout up, “come back, I’ll try this way,” looking pointedly towards a short crack about the width of a fist to my right. Still moving together, I try to jam my feet in the crack, but my boots are too big and with my feet slipping I feel my arms quickly begin to tire. After managing to place a cam in the crack, I continue the struggle upward. “Watch me here,” I call shakily, as I move my hands up the crack. “Concentrate…” I tell myself. I grab a big flake of rock and know the battle is won. Chris climbs up to join me.
Now established on the ridge itself we begin to gain height quickly, but the climbing is loose and insecure. Many of the Alps are glued together with ice, and every day it begins to melt before re-freezing at night. The outcome of this is a huge amount of rockfall. Alpinists try their best to avoid this by getting up early, to climb while the rocks are still frozen in place. Fortunately for us, the rock isn’t too loose, and we were soon at the crux of the route, a series of solid chimneys leading up to the ridge.
An enormous rumble echoes across the face as ice cliffs to our right collapse and hurtle down the 1000 metre face. The ice cliffs, known as ‘seracs’, can reach the size of a building; when they fall they destroy anything below. Although out of the way of its path, we know we must keep moving. I squirm my way up the awkward chimneys and establish myself in the cracks and grooves above. We move up quickly with a short section of rope between us. Stunning climbing leads up to a few tricky moves and an amazing traverse that marks the end of the rock section.
An awe-inspiring snow arête takes us to the base of the rognon. From below, the slope angle looked fairly shallow – oh, how wrong we were. Once below the rock rognon a sketchy traverse leads round the rock in 3 rope-lengths. I was all too happy for Chris to lead this section, since I’d brought flexible boots and lighter axes to save on weight. Weight equals time in the Alps and the majority of climbers will take the bare minimum a route requires. By now Chris was leading on poor ice with little or no protection, exhausting work that causes you to tire quickly. After bruising his toes from some generous step-kicking he hands me the lead.
I initially tried to forge a line up the final section rock but this proved tricky – soon I was back on the ice. To my relief I found a few resting places on the pitch, and I was able to drive in a few good ice screws for the steep bits. I brought Chris up and he slogged on up the final 30 metres of horrendous powder snow and through the cornice to the top.
I pulled over the cornice, and felt a tremendous sense of achievement – only reinforced by the view of Chamonix, 3000 metres below us. I joined Chris on the glistening snow beneath the Aiguille du Midi, and we sat for a while enjoying the warm sun and the views of snow-covered granite peaks surrounding us. A while later, we began to get chilly and so began the short journey down to the ‘frique’ station. Crammed tightly into the cable car, comfort is non-existent but the descent is short and soon we’re sitting in Chamonix enjoying poor, cheap French beer and steak-frites baguettes under the umbrellas of a sandwich bar.
Hamish and Chris are both members of the bizarrely-named Munro Pineapple Society, an AU club specialising in mountaineering. Find out more at www.munro-pineapple.org.uk