(This is long, but tries to convey the feel and decision-making of a big, serious day. It was also composed with my thumbs. I hate doing that, but have nothing but free time.)
There were two days of the Alpine 4000-meter peak project that scared me: the Arete du Diable, and the peaks on the Freney side of Mont Blanc. Roping up with Kyle made the former fun, but the latter was the kind of challenging and uncertain terrain I could only do alone. Most of the “Peaks” are minor bumps, probably added to the list to force climbers to do the Brouillard and Peuterey Ridges. The only one with enough prominence to count as a separate peak is the Aiguille Blanche, the hardest of the “main” 4000ers.
My goal was to combine four peaks around Col Eccles: Mont Brouillard and Punta Baretti on the Brouillard Ridge, and the Aiguille Blanche and Grand Pilier d’Angle on the Peuterey. This has (once again) been a dry winter and hot summer in the Alps, so the normal Brouillard Glacier approach to the Eccles Hut and Col is in bad shape. I therefore wasted a day off-route trying to take the lower Innominata Ridge to get there, then sucked it up and went for the glacier.
I suspected that the couloir to Col Emile Rey, once a snow climb, would be dry, and knew that it was prone to rockfall, so I got an early start to tackle those peaks first. I woke at 3:00, drank a liter of milk with instant coffee, and started from my “camping sauvage” by 3:30. After running low on food the previous day, I wasn’t messing around: 400g chocolate, two large cheese sandwiches, and five junk food pastries.
I did the familiar via ferrata to the Monzino hut by headlamp, then turned it off near where the path splits to the Brouillard Glacier. At the glacier, I saw a band of ice and steep slabs above, but thought it would probably go, so I put on crampons, grabbed my axe, and started booting. I headed right, aiming for a good transition from snow and ice to rock to get above the steep section. The rock was an unpleasant sequence of slabs covered in grit and rocks, but better than the broken ice. I am slowly learning to be an “Alpine” climber, and found that these gritty slabs are easier with crampons, since they give more consistent purchase. I am still surprised by how much rock Euros do in crampons, but they are definitely on to something for this sort of post-glacial junk.
Above that, I made my way across easier glacier toward a mess of crevasses and ice blocks. What little information I found online suggested taking the far (right) branch of the couloir to Col Emile Rey, but the left one looked much more direct, and was of course dry. The problem was getting through the ice maze to its base. This sort of shenanigans is universally frowned upon without a rope, but it is not actually too dangerous if you are patient and follow the soloist’s rule not to make any moves you can’t reverse. With a moderate amount of backtracking, I eventually reached the left side of the glacier, descended a scoured slope below a large serac (still shaded), and reached the base of the couloir.
Despite the early hour, the sun was already hitting Mont Blanc’s upper face, sending down an intermittent shower of rocks with considerable speed. I therefore climbed the right side of the couloir, dealing with disgusting loose rock and wet sand rather than getting bombed. Along they way I found a weathered pack containing Nicolas Tormo’s classic 1970s prescription glasses.
At the junction with the right couloir, I saw the explanation for the rockfall. The Brouillard Ridge is mostly choss, and the ice on the steep step above and right of the col was melting. This meant that the rocks didn’t just bounce down from the col, but got a flying start from the wall above. Sometimes I would hear the warning clatter of pebbles, sometimes the hum of a larger rock, but not usually far enough ahead of time to do much about them. I therefore climbed the right wall until a subtle ridge emerged splitting the two branches, then prudently raced across the line of fire to its relative safety.
The rib was good rock by Brouillard standards, so I was able to relax a bit as I made my way to the col, ending the music of rockfall to my right. From the col, Mont Brouillard was a simple class 4-5 scramble away. I tagged it, then extended my middle finger in the direction of Punta Baretti. It is a silly bump, separated from Brouillard by another one that for some reason does not have a name. But I don’t make the rules, so I ventured out to tag it, passing several bivy platforms along the way, then returned to Col Emile Rey.
I took the same approach descending the couloir, then took the uphill branch hoping to reach Col Eccles directly via the glacier. I saw an old track, but it was unfortunately split by a large crevasse, with the only likely crossing being on the far left, directly under the wall of exfoliating choss. This was somewhere between discouraging and project-ending, so I hunted around some to the right. As is often the case, a large serac had filled in the gaps with its debris. This one was just getting sun, but it seemed to be inactive, the crossing of the fall zone would be short, and I saw a likely ramp/crack on the other side. This worked well, and I was soon scrambling toward the Eccles huts, both old and new, picking my way through the rusty cans and feces one usually finds beneath a bivouac hut.
The old hut was in sad shape, but the new one looked great, and even had some inexplicable hand lines leading through the final rocks. A young couple watched me as I approached, and we ended up talking for awhile. Peter and Magda turned out to be friendly Austrians (from my small sample, they seem to be more outgoing than the average Euro-climber), surprised to see someone descending Col Emile Rey. They were planning to do the Pilier Rouge the next day, and asked me about the approach. When I told them what I was doing, they quickly figured out my project. Unlike many climbers, who imply skepticism or warn/chide me for doing “unsafe” things, they were positive and encouraging, a huge morale boost in a stressful and uncertain day.
I tried to skirt around Pic Eccles before realizing that I had to cross right over to the col. The saddle itself was a knife-edge of snow, but the transition was tricky. Rather than trying the slabs right on the crest, I descended the Freney side a few yards, then made a delicate traverse with my crampon points in a crack until I could stick my tool in my ice. There was an old track on the snow/ice below the col, but I crossed to the rock on the far side, which seemed safer and led to the flat portion of the upper Freney Glacier. I descended the rock face and rib as far as I could, then awkwardly transitioned to snow to make a descending traverse through yet another rockfall zone and reach an old track on the Freney.
I happily followed the bootpack up to the saddle, then eyed what was supposed to be the day’s crux: the Aiguille Blanche. There was a convenient track leading to the start of the rock, and regular bolted belays above to keep me on track. I saw two of the people who made that track continuing toward Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. The Peuterey Ridge is one of the most fearsome features I have seen, and almost inspiring enough to make me want to bring a partner, rope, and bivy for the Peuterey Intégral.
The rock on the Aiguille Blanche’s high side was good for a change, and while the climbing felt serious in a few places, it was a welcome change from the day’s constant risk mitigation. With some methodical climbing below and sometimes left of the anchors, I soon reached the foresummit, and thence the top. I took awhile there eating my second sandwich, partly to delay the downclimb, but that proved similarly methodical and uneventful.
Now only the non-peak of the Grand Pilier remained. I followed the helpful bootpack to the schrund crossing, burying my axe and wallowing up the slush, then began picking my way up 1000 feet of class 3-4 choss to the summit. There is no clear best path here, likely because until recently it was normally climbed in snow. Surmounting one more the big steps, I pulled on a large flake and it came loose. There is a balance between dodging rashly and risking falling, and accepting a glancing low-speed blow. I ended up doing the latter, and instantly knew it wasn’t great. I lifted my pant leg to find a large flap of flesh hanging off my shin, and took off my shoe to find my big toenail almost completely detached and the bone showing. I have taped up shin flappers before and so, hoping for the best, I wrapped plastic bags around my toe and shin, tried to apply some compression with my sock, and continued up. If there was any chance of continuing the project, I did not want to throw it away by turning around so near the top when most of the challenges were below me.
I tagged some high points on the ridge, one of which was apparently the stupid Pilier, then sketched my way back down the loose face. I took a shortcut, hopping the schrund farther right before rejoining my route. At the Col Eccles, I considered my traversing crack before using a wider jam crack on the other side that seemed more secure. Then I took off scrambling toward the hut, not feeling sociable but wanting to show Peter and Magda that I wasn’t dead yet. We spoke quickly from a distance – I didn’t want to explain the blood – then they wished me a safe descent and I was off.
A group had ascended the glacier to the hut that morning, but their tracks were already faded. I descended sideways and facing in, following the tracks where I could to find places to cross or jump the crevasses. With each step my right foot left spots of blood, my shoe by now largely soaked, but even when front-pointing I did not feel excessive pain. I took another scoured ramp below a serac left of the main difficulties, then followed the bare ice to the right before working around an ice cliff on wet, gritty slabs to the left. This was tenuous at times, but my crampons gave me confidence on the outward-sloping rock.
Finally I was able to boot-ski the lower glacier, finding joy in my rapid descent. Crampons and axe stowed for the last time, I was finally able to relax and follow the trail and via ferrata past the hut to camp. With no technical challenges to occupy my mind, the pain in my foot came to the fore, and I painfully limped the final mile to my bivy.
I knew my project was over, but was too tired to think about it much, so I ate most of the food I had left in camp, then tried to find a way to lie without pressure on my shin or toe. I probably got a few hours of sleep, then lay in bed until it was warm enough to ride into Courmayeur. Amazingly, there is no hospital in this “extreme” sports town, so I took the bus to Aosta, then rode up to the emergency room. The doctor chastised me for taking so long, saying that I had earned a helicopter and ambulance (he would know), but I took some stupid pride in getting myself out of the trouble I had brought upon myself.
At least on Internet forums, climbers like to endlessly dissect accidents for “lessons learned,” descending into a bottomless spiral of hypotheticals. I find most of these discussions egotistical and masturbatory, but I have earned my right to comment here. First, I should have brought some gauze to hold things together. Second, mountaineering is irreducibly hazardous, with risks that simply must be accepted. Third, the most difficult terrain is not necessarily where most accidents occur. Even in the Alps, the majority of one’s time is spent on easier ground, where one is often tired or must move quickly, and the consequences there, however unlikely, can be just as severe.