Pyramid du Tacul: Fun rock climbing at 3400m

On Monday (6/20) and Tuesday (6/21), new friends Dalit (Israel), Kyriakos (Cyprus) and I finally were able to make a plan to get out together.  Though we had all been messaging each other for a weeks, and Kyriakos and I had done some alpine cragging, we hadn’t collectively yet been able to pull it off. With a decent weather window and open schedules for the next 48 hours, we sat down for coffee and put in the hard work: making a decision on what to do.  Our final plan, after careful consideration of approach times, weather conditions, recent snowfall, and group ability was the following:

  • Day 1: Take one of the first lifts of the day up to the Aiguille du Midi, cross the Valley Blanche to the East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, climb the East ridge on the Pyramid du Tacul, return the base, then continue across the glacier to the base of the Tour Ronde where we would bivvy for the night.
  • Day 2: Awake at the wee hours of the morning, climb the Tour Rond by the classic North Face route, or possibly via the Rebuffat Couloir, return via the east ridge to the base, and then walk back to the Aiguille du Midi lift.

This was possibly an audacious plan in retrospect, yet should have been feasible with good conditions. I only hesitate now in giving it two thumbs up because instead of a beautiful north face route, we were instead treated to a 4-hour walk across the Valley Blanch in a rainy whiteout.

Let’s start with the pretty photos first….

A party well in-front of us in front of the East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The Pyramid du Tacul is in the distance on the lower right.
A party below the East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The Pyramid du Tacul is in the distance on the lower right.

 

A front on shot showing our objective (left-hand arrete of the rock face in lower left corner in this photo, and also showing the Super-couloir line on Mont Blanc du Tacul, a very well-known winter route.
A front on shot showing our objective (left-hand arrete of the rock face in lower left corner in this photo, and also showing the Super-couloir line on Mont Blanc du Tacul, a very classic winter route.

Approach:

Lots of energy on the approach. Aiguille du Midi in the background. We would need to return there the next day.
Lots of energy on the approach. Aiguille du Midi in the background. We would need to return there the next day.

Day 1 was blue bird.  We took the (3rd?) lift up around 745am, and were on the glacier and moving by 830.  Group moral was high, the rock looked warm, and the path was great. Even though we weren’t working with any kind of flotation, only the occasional footstep sank in ankle deep .  We had expected that given snowfall that had occurred two days earlier (20-30cm), the path would have been hard going.  The great thing about climbing on the Mont Blanc massif, however, is that there are well-trodden paths across the glacier in every direction.  This seems to be true even after a big storm.

We walked from the midi lift across the valley blanche, passed Point Lachenale and most of the East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul.  After spotting the Triangle du Tacul and our climb, we continued South East towards the Tour Rond and Grand Capacin, before doubling back between two crevasses to reach the base of the climb.  The large seracs loomed above, but we tried our best to make quick work out of this part of the approach.  The hardest part was the last 10 meters where the snow was completely isothermal, structure-less, and disguised large hollow pillows over rock. With crampons on and tools out, I climb up some rock to a large flake at the bottom of the climb before belaying up Kyros and Dalit to avoid too much of the punchy shaninigans.

Climb

We reached the bottom of the East ridge and somewhat casually (i.e. slowly) changed over to rock gear.  For a climb at 3500m, I was unsure as to what I wanted to have with me for the day.  We all left our backpacks at the belay, and I decided to pack a small amount of food (two bars which would be shared with three people), a headlamp, my OR Ferosi hoody, buff, beanie, down jacket (Incandescent hoody), and my typical set of harness essentials.  I brought a thin set of socks to wear inside of my rock shoes in case my feet got cold, and we were all climbing in our soft shell glacier pants.

Kyros and I traded off on some of the slightly harder pitches down low, where the easy grade allowed us to move pretty quickly. Despite the contradictory description in the guidebook, the rock seemed high quality from the beginning.  The topo was hard to match to the route until P5 our so, but there seemed to many variations that more or less followed arrete.  I was supprised by some wide climbing to start P2 (stacked hands), but it was short lived.

Kyros and I swapped leads on the lower half of the climb. Here is Dalit following on P2. You can faintly see our approach track below.
Kyros and I swapped leads on the lower half of the climb. Here is Dalit following on P2. You can very faintly see our approach track below.
Kyros leading what was maybe P3 (we linked a couple and had trouble with the topo). Either way, a spectactular 5.8 hand-crack. He built a belay at the roof, from which we went left back onto easier terrain.
Kyros leading what was maybe P3 (we linked a couple and had trouble with the topo). Either way, a spectacular 5.8 hand-crack. He built a belay at the roof, from which we went left back onto easier terrain.

 

Dalit following on a very wet section of rock where melting icicles provided for some additional complexity.
Dalit following on a very wet section of rock where melting icicles provided for some additional complexity.

The one problem with early season rock climbing on a moderate route like this seems to be the unavoidable snow you encounter once in a while.  We continued to swamp leads, and Kyros was up for leading to the top of the rock tower, then up the 5c face.  Separating these two pitches was a large snow ledge. He tried avoiding this to the right, then the left, before getting his feet wet (literally) on some snow covered slabs. He proceeded to blast through the 5c – not challenging rock climbing, but harder when your shoes are stuff with snow and the soles are soaked.  We continued up, and Dalit took a go a bit higher up on one of the pitches that had the most snow we had yet.

pyramid du tacul - dalit leading
Dalit leading through some wet and icy patches a couple pitches from the top.  Uncomfortable with the wet rock she eventually built a belay and brought us up.

We reach the summit of the Pyramid du Tacul as the sun began to set over the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul.   After a few summit photos and selfies we made it back down to our bags, but not without cold feet and growling stomachs.  We had collectively brought a minimal set of layers, as the sunshine had been quite warm all day.

Lesson learned:  everyone should be responsible for their own layers and food.

Kyros slung the summit horn. From here we downclimbed back to the lower anchors to avoid pulling ropes on the very complex terrain
Kyros slung the summit horn. From here we down-climbed back to the lower anchors to avoid pulling ropes on the very complex terrain

 

I was warm and toasty so I let Dalit wear my jacket for a bit
I was warm and toasty so I let Dalit wear my jacket for a bit

Descent:

We did the decent in what were really three distinct sections:

  1. I down-led from the summit to a lower anchor through the 3c terrain.  This allowed as to avoid pulling the ropes the the maze of blocks that made up the arrete.
  2. Two 30m rappels to a ledge above the large face with several cracks shown several photos above.
  3. 3-4 long, 50-60m rappels back to our bags.

I did make the mistake of rappelling well past the top of the steep face and had to prusic back up.  Basically, you should head climbers left of the first 3b face, which Dalit is shown leading above.

Rappelling down the steeper rock face to climbers left off the east arrete.
Rappelling down the steeper rock face to climbers left off the east arrete.

The day had snuck by on us. It was now around 7pm, and we had to walk all the over to the base of the Tour Rond were we were to bivvy.  The map below shows the final route we took that day.  It was long enough that when we finally setup a tent, we were excited to boil water, eat, and get to sleep.

Before setting up the tent we probed around a little bit on the glacier to make sure there wasn’t a giant blue room lurking beneath us.  Second lesson learned:  this doesn’t work well with tent poles, maybe an avalanche probe would have worked better?

Dalit was running very low on energy due to lack of breakfast, so we weren't moving very fast as a group. By the time we got the tent setup it must have been 930 or 10pm.
By the time we got the tent setup it must have been 930 or 10pm.

Day 2:

To our disbelief, shortly after we crawled into the tent, it start raining.  It rained all night long.  The tent magnified the noise so Kyros and I had trouble sleeping.  When we stuck our heads out every hour or so, we couldn’t see anything but our backpacks and our footsteps a few meters away.  Great…hopefully it would clear by morning.

We wouldn’t be that lucky, however, as the whiteout and rain showed no signs of stopping.  Between tired members of our party and REALLY crappy weather, we got up at 7am, packed for return trip, and headed back towards the Aiguille du Midi.

Four hours later, after walking through wet snow, soaked to the bone, we made it. I was using Gaia on my phone to navigate with GPS.  While sometimes the directional arrows aren’t perfect, we could be assured we were on the right track.  We had to run around a few big holes.   Given the warm temperatures and rain on snow, the glacier was quite dangerous.  I punched my leg through into a VERY large room, crawling back towards where I came, but only after I looked through the hole to see large icicles and the deep blue.

Probably the most clear it was all day. All of my other photos look like a white blue, or I was afraid to take the camera out for fear it might get wet.
Probably the most clear it was all day. All of my other photos look like a white blue, or I was afraid to take the camera out for fear it might get wet.

We arrived back at the midi around 11am, completely soaked.   Psyched to be done with it, we headed down to Chamonix. Looking back on it now, I still really like our itinerary.  Both objectives required a similar rack, and neither is too large by itself to necessitate its own journey onto the massif.  Why not make the most of your lift pass?

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