Miška Izakovičová on making the transition from rock climbing to alpinism on the Pilier Rouge du Brouillard.
Words by Miška Izakovičová
I’ve never really considered myself an alpinist. Not because I don’t like climbing in the mountains, I really do, but I don't cope very well with cold and I don't like walking through crevasses and seracs or climbing chossy rock. From my point of view, these things inherently belong to alpinism. My climbing goals in Alps were usually rock climbs on southfacing walls with amazing orange alpine granite. This summer, for the first time ever, I went on an all-female climbing trip. It was amazing and we had a great time, the only problem was that I didn‘t have a climbing partner who was interested in trying some hard routes with me. However, I was lucky enough to find a girl – Majka, who was at least really motivated for climbing, but her goals were totally different than mine. She was interested in climbing long alpine routes and her biggest goal for this summer was to do multi-day ascents of one of the longest ridges on Mt Blanc. I was not interested in that. As we talked I found out that her lifetime goal was to climb the route “Bonatti-Oggioni” on Pilier Rouge of Brouillard. That was the first time I got interested. I had been thinking about climbing the same wall via route “Diretissima Gabarrou-Long”, but I got discouraged by the amount of alpinism that this ascent would require. I think Majka must have really wanted to go there, because she even proposed that we could only climb the wall and then rappel back down and descend to the valley. That sounded more interesting to me. Suddenly I found myself googling various topos and reports. The more I read about these routes the more I realized that if we didn’t climb all the way to the summit of Mt Blanc, I would not feel satisfied with this ascent. The actual climbing on Bonatti-Oggioni is quite easy for me and I needed a bigger challenge. I was a bit hesitant, and not really sure if this was the kind of challenge I wanted, but the glaciers were in perfect condition and together with Majka we made a good team. She is a good alpinist and I am a strong rock climber. The plan was clear, I would be in charge on the rock and Majka on the glacier. It was decided.
Day 1: On the approach to the Ecles Bivy
A bit of hectic packing starts. We made the final decision around noon and we didn’t want to waste a single day of good weather so the plan was to get to the Monzino hut that evening. The Problem was that we were still in Chamonix and didn’t have all the equipment we needed. Luckily we had a lot of good friends around us who lent us some of their own gear so we only had to buy a 60m rope, freeze-dried food, and propane. Our friend and mountain-guide Zoban lent us a multipass for Tunnel du Mt Blanc and another friend Vargi offered us the ride to Val Veny. Everything was happening pretty fast. This morning in Chamonix I had no idea where we were going to climb the next few days and now in the evening I'm already in Italy at the Monzino hut, getting ready for the biggest alpine route of my life.
We woke early, we wanted to cross the Brouillard glacier before the sunrise and to get to the Eccles bivy early enough to get places to sleep. We wander through steep debris in the dark and get to the foot of the glacier with the first light. The glacier was in great condition. Apart from about 60m of steep black ice, there are only a few bridges and cravases that needed to be crossed. We slow down only in the final steep part of mixed terrain with melting snow and choss, getting to the bivy around 10 AM for a rest of the day for eating, drinking and recovering.
Day 1: reaching the Ecles Bivy
Another early morning start. To get to the wall we need to cross the glacier and climb the steep snowslope around the bergschrund at the bottom of the couloir on the left side of Pillier Rouge. This had to be done before the sun hits the wall, because once it does the rocks start falling through the couloir. The route starts about 15 meters above the snow on a good stance with bolted belay. We get there at dawn. It‘s really cold, but if we had waited for the sun we would‘ve lost precious time. The first pitch is supposed to be the one of the crux pitches of the route. It is graded 6a. Luckily that is easy for me, because my fingers and toes were totally frozen and I can‘t imagine climbing anything much harder. Actually it was really nice crack-climbing and I would’ve really enjoyed it, but the rock was ice-cold, and I couldn’t feel my limbs at all. Every other move, I thaw my fingers on my neck and I can't wait to get to the belay and put on gloves and down jacket. Majka is also totally frozen so we decide to wait a little bit until the sun hits the wall. After that, it became much more enjoyable.
Day 2: Majka seconding the first freezing cold pitch in the shade and Miška enjoying the sun on the belay.
The quality of rock on next few pitches was amazing. The climbing was relatively easy and I would have cruised it, if I didn‘t have a big backpack. I had never climbed with such heavy pack on my back. It even makes the 6a pitches feel like 7a. I don't know exactly how many kilos it was, but I bet it is more than 10 kilos of equipment: Gore-tex jacket and pants, primaloft pants, down jacket, warm socks and gloves, food for two days, Jetboil stove and bomb, thin aluminium matt, sleeping bag, water, big shoes, crampons and ice axes on top, as well as a harness full of gear, a rope, and tagline tied to it.
The first eight pitches were straight forward and we climbed them relatively fast. After that, the route followed various chimneys and corners, and route-finding became much more difficult. I slowed down. I was getting a bit tired from altitude and leading everything with the backpack and I knew I needed to keep enough energy to be able to lead the rest of the route. According to our topo, the top part of the route was supposed to be easier, but that was quite misleading. Instead of the three pitches in the topo we did five long pitches that were physically even more demanding than the pitches lower down on the route. I had to work especially hard on two chimney pitches graded only 4c. The chimneys themselves shoudn’t have been that hard but they are full of ice and with the backpack they became almost impossible. The last pitch felt pretty loose, but it was at the time when I didn‘t know what’s going to come next.
Day 2: Clockwise from top left: Miška on the belay of pitch 11. Miška leadning pitch 5 (5b). Majka on pitch 10.
We reached the top of the wall at early afternoon, pretty tired, thirsty and hungry. We decide to traverse to the side ridge of Pointe Luigi Amadeo and find a place where we can have a little break. It took us a while to traverse the snowy pass from the top of the wall to the ridge, but once at the ridge we immediately find a good place to stop and have some food and water. After that, the real alpinism begins.
Day2: Traversing from the top of the wall to the ridge
I was tired from route-finding and leading all route and Majka seemed keen to go first and look for the possible way up. We don’t really know which way to go, so we try ascending through the steep snowfield. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea but the choss all around us doesn’t look appealing at all. The snowfield was already in shade, but not really frozen. We are moving slow and sun is slowly setting. I have no idea where we are, but Majka had already been on the Brouillard ridge before so she has an idea which way to go. It’s getting dark and we’re getting tired. I don‘t know how far from the top of Pointe Louigi Amadeo we are, but I tell Majka that I would already like to stop somewhere for the night. She took this literally and stops at the first possible spot, the small ledge where we could barely sit next to each other. I would’ve rather found something else, but I say nothing, thinking she is so tired she can’t continue. We quickly put on warm clothes, level the rubble and get ready for a bivouac. We put the rope and the thin aluminium matt over the rocks, one ultra-light air matt into a bivouac bag, so that we can both sit on it, and crawled into our sleeping bags. It is quite uncomfortable, but at least we are warm. I try to break some ice with an ice axe so we can melt the water. After sitting for a while on our one shared air matt, we find ourselves sliding down. We're tied in, but that doesn't help much and the matt keeps shifting all the time. Not pleasant. It's going to be a long night. We don't have a place to put the Jetboil, so Majka is holds it in her hand while cooking. And you know what happens to a gas canister when you cook with it? It freezes! And her hand freezes too even though she is wearing a glove. After a while my foot gets numb from bracing myself to keep from sliding down, our backs are frozen because the matt keeps sliding off and we both feel really uncomfortable. I'm wondering how we're going to make it through the night here. I definitely won’t fall asleep. At that moment, Majka said: “We should pack up and climb to the bivouac on the summit I know about.” I was shocked. I didn‘t know that she knew about another bivouac. It turns out that she thought that I was too tired to continue and vice versa I thought that she was too tired to continue. Neither of us really wanted to stay at this small sloping ledge. So we laugh about it, pack everything as fast as possible and climb to the summit of Pointe Louigi Amadeo in the middle of the night. The best bivy spot is covered with snow, but there's a small place right above the south face where we could fit and it's almost all on rock. We dug out a bit of ice and set up the bivy and boil more water. We crawled into our sleeping bags around 2 o'clock in the morning.
The morning of Day 3: Bivy on the top of Pic Luigi Amadeo (4470)
A freezing wind blows in the morning and we don't want to get out of our sleeping bags at all. We wait for the sun to warm us up a bit. Gradually we melt water and have breakfast. We are not in a hurry, we know we will reach the summit of Mt Blanc today. It's a little after nine, when we slowly start to climb. Majka knows this part of the ridge, but it is super loose and the snow is soaked so we are pretty slow. We climb slowly but safely. After the initial really loose and scary part we start moving together and placing some gear in between us, but falls are not allowed, not in this terrain. It's not for nothing that people say the Brouillard Ridge is endless. For every tower we climb, there's just another down climb and another climb to the next of a million towers.
Day 3: On the Brouillard Ridge
Gradually, the ridge changes from rocky to snowy and the summit of Mt Blanc comes into view. We are really tired, we haven't eaten since breakfast and are running out of water. For the last few hours, a freezing wind has been blowing on our ridge, so we couldn’t even stop for food and drink, which starts to show as we ascend to the summit. On the final few hundreds of meters we have to stop every few steps to catch the breath. It’s really windy and cold up here so we can’t even enjoy the summit for too long.
Day 3: on the SUmmit of Mont Blanc. Photo by Juraj Koreň.
We start the descent. I know I will have to stop soon and eat and drink something otherwise I will not make it to the Gouter Hut where we plan to stay overnight. A small snack, some water and the vision of a warm dinner and bed made us so excited that we ran to Gouter in less than an hour. The next morning we run down to the train and slowly start celebrating. We managed this demanding adventure without much difficulty, with a good mood and a smile on our face. The ‘memory optimism’ kicked in quite early and I'm already looking forward to more adventures like this.