Mallory Couloir, Aiguille du Midi
Jim and Bills Excellent Adventure
I was in France in June of 1997 for the International Glaciological Society conference on Avalanches, which was held in Chamonix. The first week I was there I went to Gran Paradiso park in Italy. The week of the conference was beautiful weather but I only spent one day playing around (ice bouldering) on the Mer de Glace. Following the conference the weather was not so good but I did get to climb this one good route. Two days before I had climbed part of the Midi-Plan traverse, and after this route I did a bit of rock climbing near town and got bit by a venomous viper! But that's another story...
The weather had been consistently warm with alternating storms and good weather for a week or more. This meant that new snow was falling up high, that everything was wet and slushy, and that the avalanche danger was high. But after hooking up with Bill Dean and looking at the forecast we decided to go for this route.
We left the evening before and took the last telepherique to the mid station. This was necessary because in June the telepherique starts late and ends early. So we slept on the front porch of the concession stand at the mid station until 1 am or so. Before going to sleep we observed a few avalanches coming off various places along the Midi-Plan ridge, and lots of debris below at the bottom of all couloirs. Fortunately the Mallory Couloir has minimal exposure to this hazard, although I'm not convinced that it has none.
We made good time traversing the debris and starting up the couloir. Even in the early morning hours the snow was soft. After a while we arrived at the spot where the route goes up to the right out of the initial couloir.
Bill led the first of the two mixed climbing pitches, taking quite a bit of time due to a crampon problem in a tenuous spot. He resolved the problem and belayed me up, and I led the second mixed pitch. Lots of wet soft ice over and/or between rock interspersed with patches of recent wet snow hiding whatever was below. These were the first two of six interesting pitches on the route.
After the first two mixed pitches Bill led across and up onto the second snowfield. Upon reaching the beginning of the snow band we decided that there was probably a variation up the rock which we could use to avoid the wet snow. I have to take credit for this incorrect decision, although it did result in two more of the best pitches of the climb. However, what had looked like a large ledge one pitch up was not, and I had some difficulty finding a good belay spot. After a second pitch of mixed climbing up a corner with lots of loose rock led by Bill we decided to return to the snow band and rappelled.
Somewhere during this section of the climb we heard a loud noise and turned to see a very impressive and large avalanche of wet snow round a bend over below the Midi-Plan col. First a large dust cloud appeared and as it dissipated the heavy flow along the surface was visible. This was the only avalanche activity we observed that day, and the hazard below the col is well known and well documented.
The snowfield was a long slog and led to the final two pitches of good climbing. I led the first pitch. In the existing conditions it was hard to protect and consisted of lots of patches of wet snow and ice which was too soft to be of use. With some difficulty I reached a good belay and Bill climbed up. He decided to give the next pitch a try and very quickly found the way into a corner with a narrow band of soft ice in it. While the ice was soft it was very much climbable and ran the length of the corner. This was perhaps the best pitch of the climb.
From here up to the summit was lower angle soft snow and a tiring slog. We rushed, hoping to make the last telepherique down but it became clear that we would miss it by a bit. At the top the route traverses a large open bowl which made me extremely uncomfortable given the snow conditions and the late hour. But it appeared to be both established and the best way to go. So we rushed across nervously.
Fortunately the telepherique station was open so we were able to sleep inside in a stairwell. A few others found other spots to sleep in as they came in late. During the night the weather was once again poor with lots of thunder and lightening so we were glad to be inside.
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