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!