Climbing in the Valle d’Aosta, Italy

For the second half of my trip to the Alps, Tom and I found ourselves on the other side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, in the stunning sun trap that is the Valle d’Aosta.  Whilst it is a beautiful valley, it wasn’t quite our intended plan from the outset…

Having met up with Tom, who had flown out to meet me, we started to hatch plans to stay within the Chamonix valley, and to focus on long mixed alpine routes up high, but a tricky combination of high freezing levels, Foehn winds,  lack of useful up-to-date conditions information, hut closures and shortened lift opening hours seemed to curtail our plans.  The final plan was to head up and climb the Swiss Route on Les Courtes, but on waking up and seeing that the freezing levels had shot up over night, and coupled with the forecasted strong sunshine, we both knew that there were too many factors against us, and that the descent from Les Courtes would have been too dangerous.  Later reports indicated that the route in fact wasn’t in great condition, confirming our thoughts.  All this was enough to see us leaving the higher mountains behind, and heading to the town of Arnad, in Italy.  Flexibility is key!

Whilst not exactly remote or serious, the climbing on the sweeping Gneiss slabs of Arnad were nothing short of excellent, with plenty of technical and varied climbing on 400-500m equipped routes, giving everything from thin and balancey moves, requiring precise footwork and a cool head through to the odd strenuous and thuggy layback or corner, which required more of a grunt.

With a wave of wet weather sweeping its way across the whole of the Alps last Wednesday, we ended up with a four day window, in which we climbed Lo Dzerby, La Spigolo, Toppo Pazzo, Diedro Bianco, Diretta Banano and Diedro Jaccod.

It’s worth noting that the crag does get very busy during the weekends, but we had it pretty much to ourselves midweek. A useful guidebook for the area, particularly for those just visiting for a short stint, is the Plaisir Sud guidebook by Filidor.  The nearby town of Arnad is very convenient for most essentials, with the larger town of Aosta not too far away.

Eugster Couloir Direct, Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix

There can’t be many better ways to prepare for the forthcoming winter climbing season in Scotland than climbing the Eugster Couloir Direct on the 1000m north face of the Aiguille du Midi, so that’s what Alex and I set out to do last week, but our first attempt was far from successful.

With a reasonable forecast, Alex and I spent the night at the Aigulle du Plan, ‘enjoying’ a cold bivi, but with plenty of fresh snow lying on the ground, thought it would be best to scope out our approach that evening, for the following morning, so having stumbled our way through powder covered boulders to a point where we could see the obvious, or so we thought, snow cone beneath the Eugster Couloir and it’s direct variant, we got our heads down for a few hours of sleep. At 2:30am, we ‘woke up’ and retraced our tracks to what we thought was the snow cone we were after. Wrong! A few hundred meters of wading up a snow slope and two tricky pitches later, we realised that in the darkness we had in fact headed uphill too soon, and that our intended route was round the next spur of rock, and without a guidebook to help identify a suitable way up, we bailed, although not without interest, as we had opted to take a single 60m rope, halving our abseil potential to 30m at a time. Fortunately, three short abseils found us on easier snow slopes which we could descend with ease. Unfortunately, our efforts had already taken a fair few hours, meaning the only option was to head back down to Chamonix.

Three days later, we found ourselves, with 2x60m half ropes this time, back at the Aiguille du Plan, and biviing once again, but happy with where we should have gone, we chose not to check our approach again. Also, by this point, we had been back and forth along the approach a number of times, and had put in a fairly obvious track, not to mention we were quite tired of it. Alex made the call to start even earlier, so at 1:30am, we got ourselves ready, and trudged off. This time, we found our ‘obvious’ snow cone, and made our way up steep snow slopes to the base of a tricky and not overly inspiring steep step, featuring thin, un attached ice and no gear. I took the lead, and was quite grateful to reach the gully above, which continued with ceaselessness, but on easy ground.

After what felt like hours, we finally reached the bottom of the steeper pitches of the direct variant, the first of which was a steady grade 4 ice pitch. Alex then jumped onto the sharp end, and manged to string one and a half pitches together before a shorter, bold pitch, brought me to beneath a huge jammed block. The final exit from the narrow gully was what seemed to be a rather thin and steep mixed corner, which surprisingly Alex managed to squeeze into a long pitch from the jammed boulder. It was thin and steep, but well protected, and had just enough ice for axe placements. This brought us out onto snow slopes directly beneath the Aiguille du Midi lift station, which looked tantalisingly close… 2 hours of calf burning, variable steep snow later, we finally, with much relief, dropped into the entrance tunnel of the Aiguille du Midi lift station, in time for the final bin down of the day. Eugster Couloir Direct is given an alpine grade of IV,5 and probably equivalent to solid Scottish grade V (although the crux was probably closer to grade VI/VII), with plenty of grade II ground before and after the main pitches. It covers a total of 1500m from the Aiguille du Plan to the Aigulle du Midi, which is/was calf explodingly long.

Rest day today!

Sun setting at our bivi at the Aiguille du Plan  Looking up at the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi

Pitch 2 of the Eugster Couloir Direct Endless snow slopes up tot he Aiguille du Midi lift

The final move into the tunnel, Aiguille du Midi