[Photo] Jon Bracey
The Alps, especially within the Mont Blanc massif, are rarely thought of as ripe with potential. Centuries of climbing history and generation after generation of talented alpinists have left hundreds of routes in the ice and rock–on seemingly every square inch of vertical terrain. When visitors think of climbing here, they often picture telepheriques and crowds, queues on the classics, and the buzz of rescue helicopters in summer.
But there is another reality: that of a snowy, quiet, austere range in winter, where the locals and guides can, with the right eye, find plenty of lines left to climb. Such has been the case with British IMFGA guides Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey, seven-year residents of Chamonix who since last December have found three new mixed routes in the range, while Helliker and Nick Bullock (UK) have also added a fourth. With steep pitches of rock, iced-up cracks, and mixed climbing up to M8 on these routes, all thought to be first ascents, they are part of a new wave of Alpine classics, sometimes hiding in seemingly over-run places.
[Photo] Matt Helliker
Helliker and Bracey have been climbing together for many years and have a partnership that Helliker describes as “relaxed.” Says, Helliker, “Neither Jon nor myself are intense people, but we are both very ambitious and motivated, with similar goals.” With all their time guiding in the range, studying its granite buttresses and aretes and tracing possible lines where perhaps there are none already, the pair have come to know the options and conditions around Mont Blanc extremely well. They’ve also put in time researching guidebooks and consulting with local experts, to see what’s been climbed and what hasn’t–or which summer climbs might offer new terrain or variations in winter. So while it’s possible that the four new climbs this season aren’t first ascents, “…all we can do is be honest and report what has been climbed,” says Helliker, “and see if anyone else claims an earlier ascent.”
The first of the four climbs was Chancer (M6, 250m) on the Tour Ronde, which Helliker and Bracey climbed on December 20, 2014. Located just left of the Rebuffat Gully, the route offers five new mixed pitches up to M6. Back on the Tour Ronde, on January 8, 2015, Helliker and Bullock climbed Night Fever (M8, 250m), on the peak’s west face. It was a line that Bullock had attempted earlier in the winter, reaching a highpoint three pitches up before retreating. On the return, Bullock and Helliker found mixed terrain up to M8 on the route’s singular overhanging right-facing corner, as well as loose rock that needed the cold of winter to bond it together. They climbed through a storm, replete with gale-force winds and poor visibility, to summit in the dark.
On February 8, Helliker and Bracey added Mastabas (M7, 250m) to the northeast face of the Pyramide du Tacul. (In case you were wondering, a mastaba is an ancient Egyptian tomb found inside the pyramids.) Waiting for just the right conditions–enough snow and ice to cover the wall’s rocky buttresses–the pair climbed their new line in six long pitches. Pitch four included an M7 crux up a steep right-facing corner into a tricky final roof. Overall, the route linked crack lines to icy blobs and runnels, “all very protectable” as Helliker puts it, and at only a fifteen-minute ski from the Aiguille du Midi station, it seems destined to see future traffic.
New terrain has long had an appeal for Helliker, who says he’d rather fail trying something new than “repeating loads of routes which are hooked out by countless climbers before you.” This season, he says, has seen great conditions up high, but only one solid period of high pressure, with gale-force winds raking the range much of the rest of the time, keeping many climbers away.
[Photo] Matt Helliker
March 13 brought good weather, and Helliker and Bracey headed up again, this time to one of the gendarmes on Mt. Maudit’s east face. Here they found Zephyr (M5+ 6b, 400m), which climbed a snowy, lower-angle buttresses to a midway snowfield to an imposing vertical upper pillar. “The rock in this area can be excellent to poor,” says Helliker. “Having looked at the line up close on a few occasions, I believed the lower pillar to be a little loose and broken, but with the upper on perfect granite.” Thus they waited for snow to cover up the looser terrain lower down, giving quick access to the good stuff above. All told, the route was eight pitches, four down low and four above the snowfield. Helliker believes the rock is solid on the upper pillar, with good gear and engaging climbing up an offwidth feature in the guts of the wall.
The only other route on the pillar is the Grassi-Meneghin, well to the right of Zephyr. Helliker and Bracey plan to keep scouring the range for still-unclimbed terrain.
[Video] Posing Productions