Montecristo N°4 – A new mixed route in Maurienne’s secret valley
It’s early December 2020. At altitude and deep in our alpine valleys, the cold has been around for a little while now. As a serious and fanatic crag climber, I nevertheless strive to find areas in the sun to enjoy these beautiful fall conditions until the end, feeling grateful for my privilege to move as mountain guide throughout the pandemic. Both the magic and the nightmare of social media means that I start to see pictures of ice axes, icefalls, ephemeral lines, each more beautiful than the next. Every year the scenario repeats itself. There’s a short circuit in my brain. It's hunting for conditions. Fishing for the information to take advantage of these frozen curtains for a moment. Well... in reality its often long hours spent freezing alongside a good friend in the middle of the north face after a long approach in deep snow. But that's okay. The fun is there and that's the most important part!
La Maurienne – “Mordor” for some, paradise for others – conceals little-known gems, some well-hidden and even still unexplored. The Ribon valley just before Bessans is one of those places where it is possible to enjoy good cold conditions early in the season with several ice routes of all levels on the left bank, oriented E-NE. The deepness of the valley and the altitude doesn’t just provide the perfect conditions, but also guarantees relative tranquility.
Matthieu Brignon has already climbed there several times this season and even opened a nice line, "Dehors la loi", which is teasing me to get out the picks. Come on, it's definitely too frozen now, time to put away the climbing shoes and take out the ice axes. I congratulate him on his new route and tell him that I am available and ready for any icy and tiring attempt that he can dream of. A former (very) high-level trail runner and mountain guide, he also has a behavioural dysfunction linked to the seasonal drop in temperatures, which irreparably pushes him to go and hang himself from these frozen structures, a behaviour that is only amplified when the line does not exist in any climbing book!
The SMS has barely sent, when I receive his reply. Manu Pelissier has just opened a new line at Epena, time to go! That was without taking in to account the whims of mother nature which decides to add another good layer of snow and encourages us to change plans… No worries, there are projects a plenty and Matthieu tells me "there is this line perched up there… it has been several years now that I have looked at it and the cigare (a free-standing ice column) has never been so big. Wait, I'll send you a photo ". Beautiful, impressive, fascinating ... there are plenty of qualifiers and I already know in my head that I will go. I have little doubt: it will be the first line of the winter season with crampons and ice axes for me. It may rattle me a bit, but never mind, an opportunity like this cannot be missed!
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So, we left Bessans for a 1st attempt on Wednesday 2nd December, to start with by bicycle, and finally walking next to them where it gets steep and our bags start to feel heavy. They are not full e-bikes but, but VTTAM (bikes with Muscle Assistance), and will be useful for the end of the approach and greatly appreciated on the return. Matthieu had told me about everything except the approach… I quickly understood why. 4 hours later, we are finally at the bottom of the line, our shoulders already well warmed up. By the time you have thrown ice screws, bolts, pitons, friends, crampons, drill and ropes into the bags, they get heavy very quickly!
First part of the wall and we have our first discussion on the way to proceed. After a short section of ice which is really brittle, we have the choice between trying to navigate up the meduses (mushroom-like ice formations) and ice flows scattered here and there, or to follow a slanted crack to the left in a more mixed style, which seems more obvious given the conditions. This year it will be on the left, maybe in the future the lucky ones will climb a direct frozen version! We want to open the route while leaving a minimum of material, but also managing our security and leaving the door open to future repeaters. If we can’t protect with friends in cracks, we use pitons; when the cracks disappear, we drill.
The tone was set from the start, Matt put himself into a long and furious fight to complete this well-started 50m pitch. All from a belay stance protected by friends in a Chamonix crack, it is worth noting – it is not every day you get this sort of experience in Maurienne. I caught up with Matthieu quickly, it is still comfortable on top rope even when your crampons are creating sparks on the stone. I take the lead for a short Chamonix-esque pitch, once again the protection is excellent, and I belay on the median terrace. A bit of deep snow swimming to reach the second wall where we decide to cross to the left. It’s me who is the first to get on to it. The pitch is super dry, with barely any ice to work with. I hook my axe in, it locks in but my feet cut loose. Swinging from one arm I manage to stick it. Pulling hard, but not so hard that the block releases. I drill hanging on my axes. I feel like I'm making a nothing more than a buttonhole, but it’s the best I can do. It’s damn hard! Finally, I come out of this short wall and make a long crossing to the right to belay at the bottom of the summit wall and this coveted cigare. Matt is joins me and that will be the end of the work for today. We'll have to come back, start earlier and finish later… After a few abseils and a quick descent, our VTTAMs quickly bring us back to Bessans.
The area is rather well exposed to avalanches with the slopes of Tierce and Charbonnel to the east on the approach, even when you go up towards the icefall under the Pointe de Ronce it’s still risky. It would therefore be good to finish our business as soon as possible because the slightest snowfall could block access to Ribon for the whole winter. Matt goes up on Sunday to drop off some equipment in the middle of the approach just to be lighter the next day and also to check the snow conditions ... There's snow, but it's fine. Happy with the risk levels, we climb using crampons, the steep slopes having shed their snow on to our path. We walk, dig and swim through the deep snow; another level compared to last time, and we arrive even more exhausted. "This is the last time I'm going up here" Matt said. I replied, "same for me, today we finish the job."
In order to be more efficient, we each climb the same pitches as before. The climb is (a little bit) faster, but we still have to fight for it. The middle slope has a mind-blowing amount of snow and Matthieu is digging a real trench trying to protect on ice and rock, fearing an avalanche... I fight through pitch 3 and here we are at our highpoint.
Matt starts climbing the broken pitch just under the cigare, he’s strewn with ice-jellyfish and more or less well stuck to the wall. It's rotten, but the animal inside him loves it and he pushes forward cleaning the snow and loose rocks. I curl up in my hood. I'm cold. I wonder what I'm doing here and why he's climbing so slowly. Who hasn’t had these kinds of thoughts hanging from their frosty belay, trembling?! At the same time, I don't necessarily want to be in his place, especially when the block that holds his ice axe starts to fall as he tries to put in a bolt. Fit as he is, will he have time to finish just before sending off a nice TV-size rock? Not like the new flat screens, no, the old 60 by 60 square ones. I comes loose and goes bouncing off the slopes below. I look up, he’s safe.
It is already time to put the headlamp on the helmet, it must be said that we chose one of the longest days of the year to play our vertical game. I climb the next pitch quickly and put in a comfortable belay just a few meters from this coveted cigare. Matt arrives and asks me if I feel ready to keep on as leader, he gave a lot in his last pitch. Time to get the job done ...
I move closer to the icy tongue hanging out in the halo of my headlamp. The cigare looks more and more like a missile which wants to go down, it is broken and still largely unstuck. I climb half on the ice, half on the rock while protecting myself on the stone and finally climb completely on Mister Freeze. I make it to a 5-star belay on a protected ledge. Matthieu joins me and leads the last pitch, 100% icy. It is crazy how light you feel just with ice screws and ice axes, light but tired at the same time. 23:00 at the summit, roasted, happy to feel pleased, to have shared these intense moments together and given life to a beautiful line, to have brought to reality an idea hatched a few years before. Time for the descent: it starts badly with the 1st rappel which doesn’t move a bit. After a rapid second ascent of the last pitch to unlock the rope for me, the descent back to Bessans goes smoothly.
3 teams have attempted the route since. None have reached the top.
Gaston was right, "The mountaineer is a man who leads his body where his eyes have once looked."
Words and Images by | Sylvain Thiabaud
Sylvain Thiabaud is a French climber whose endless passion for climbing keeps him busy all year round. From working hard sport climbs, to large ice falls and obscure multi-pitch aid routes, there is always something in condition. Sylvain also has an appetite for new routing of all kinds, with over a hundred new route to his name.
Read more about Sylvain here