Tim Neill is a highly experienced British Mountain Guide who began Alpine climbing in the early ’90s. Known for his penchant for adventurous climbing, and with his wealth of Alpine experience in mind, we asked Tim to describe three slightly lesser travelled Alpine classics.
Words by Tim Neill
Here are three climbs in the Western Alps that span a broad range of difficulty yet have many common themes. In European terms they’ll feel a bit quieter and more remote than most even though they’ll all take you above 4000m. Being high mountain routes they all need a good eye for conditions and due to their length, a well-practiced team operating efficiently at that level. There’ll be early starts, loose rock, some solid rock, climbing snow without crampons and rock with crampons on and of course inspiring views… and then getting all the way back down!
Weisshorn (4506m), East Ridge AD.
This is a big trip in every sense. The hike to the pretty little Weisshorn hut from Randa in the Mattertal is a good warm up for the legs. Best done early to allow a little recovery time and a chance to recce the following morning’s route finding through the first rock bands.
Whilst it’s an early start at least it’s closer to dawn than to midnight! A short snow section, followed by a cunning ledge system will take you to more and more exposed scrambling and dawn should arrive shortly before you crest onto the spectacular East Ridge itself.
This leads over small towers as if on a knife edge on wonderful rock and then the final snow crest. This will feel exposed going up. Ideally it’ll be good snow and not too icy as you’ll be coming back down here shortly. Be careful!
As you can see the Weisshorn from most vantage points in the Alps, hopefully you’ll still be in good enough shape to take in the reciprocal vista and to safely tackle the long way back down too.
I’ve climbed this a few times and my best tip is to not plan too much for the next day!
Gear: A 40m rope is plenty. There are a few short steps best abseiled in descent, from fixed rings.
A small set of cams up to medium, a small set of slings and a few quickdraws. One axe and crampons and at least an ice screw each to manage if the snow ridge is icy or delicate. More essential is very good crampon technique! Be well acclimatised. A camera too.
Les Grandes Jorasses (4208m), Tronchey Ridge, D/TD
This is definitely the wild card of the list. I climbed this a few summers ago during a Mountain Guide final exam, fortunately all the aspirant guides with us were well used to his type of terrain.
The first day from Val Ferret to the Jachia bivi hut is an alpine route in itself. The hut book will probably never run out of page space for signatures. It’s in an incredible place.
Setting off in the very early morning, some character testing ridge terrain leads to a notch between the wild East and South faces proper of the Jorasses. Here the route winds in and around big towers with minimal input from the guidebook to land you on mixed ground leading to the summit of Point Walker. Quote of the day was “This is Big Country!” Having climbed other routes to the same summit like the Walker Spur and Colton Macintyre this route is no less of an experience.
We made it back to the road without use of our headlamps, had pizza and got ready for the next big day.
Whilst arguably this is a route for the alpine connoisseur it will divide opinion from its very few ascensionists. Undeniably it’s an archetypal alpine grand voyage up a great mountain on every type of alpine terrain.
Gear: A sturdy single 60m rope or twins (sharp rock), set of cams, nuts and slings, one axe and crampons, an ice screw or two may be handy for parts of the descent of the Jorasses South face, spare kit and light stove just in case. The Boccalatte hut (guardiened in summer) is a wonderful, friendly place if at that stage you’ve run out of beans. As a measure, routes like the Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi should be a comfortable morning’s climb roped up as a team to make guidebook time on the Tronchey Ridge.
Mont Blanc (4810m), Grand Pilier d’Angle on ice, ED
The summer of 2014 was an anomaly. Unhelpful for the most part but leaving N Faces in good shape during good periods of weather and especially so by its end and through the following autumn.
The South side of Mont Blanc is truly fantastic. Whilst a lift will take you part way towards this route, the majority of climbs on this side are big “from the valley floor” endeavours. Innominatta Ridge, Brouillard Pillars, Peuterey Integral and of course the Central Pillar of Freney are all must-do classics. My alpine dreams are in the Brouillard ice gullies and via the GPA on rock. To climb Mont Blanc from Italy on ice is incredible.
Access to this face is quite complicated and not without exposure to major objective hazards. Crossing the Kuffner (Frontier) Ridge will take you under the huge Brenva Face to Col Moore. I’ve turned back from here in drier conditions.
I’d imagine leaving here in the middle of a cold night to gain the face as fast as possible. Ideally, soloing on squeaky nevé will have you a long way up the face by sunrise. We pitched here and there. Our line up the lower part of the face was by the Bouchard route and lead logically (and by luck) into the Boivin/Vallencant Gully at dawn to exit onto the upper slope leading to the final Peuterey Ridge. In the autumn much more of this could be done in the light with cooler weather of course. This face, rather like that of Les Droites, is open to much variation depending on conditions but unlike that summit this one leaves you with a long way to still go after “the climbing”.
The summits of the Grand Pilier d’Angle (4243m), Mont Blanc de Courmayeur (4748m) and finally Mont Blanc itself will land you back into the world of other people. Many options exist for descent. Perhaps try the Pope Route via the friendly Gonella hut for a true walk down the wild side if your transport is on the Italian side.
Gear: Long thin ropes, gear to climb fast up to AI 4/5, stove and bivi gear depending on speed and conditions, luck and a good partner or two.
It’s hard to choose just three climbs when every alpine climb in these genres will be etched into your mind long after your bodies recover from the effort. These are just three that I was lucky to enjoy with great people when conditions, weather and stars all aligned. Good luck!