The Frendo Spur: A Capstone Project

Since I have been in Chamonix, I feel like I have done a little bit of everything: alpine ice climbing, mixed climbing, slow slogging up snow slopes, daggering on steep neve, alpine rock climbing in mountain boots, lots of simul climbing, and even a little dry-tooling at the crag (Google “The Zoo” if you are interested).  This climb, the Frendo Spur, put it all together.  The Frendo Spur is a 1200m, which ascends from mid-station to the top of the Aiguille du Midi.  It is a hard climb to overlook, as it sits over town like a beckoning sentinel.  Everytime you look up from the mid-station of the Aiguille du Midi, or take the cable car to the top, the Frendo Spur is right in your face.

The view from the mid-station at Plan du Midi. The Frendo ("fourth") spur is directly above the climber/skier on the right. I didn't climb it in these conditions, but definitely started to dream...
The very first photo I took when headed up for a ski of the valley blanche the day after my arrival, just happened to frame the Frendo Spur perfectly.  Is it the ridge-line above the right skier/climber.

The Frendo Spur starts with an approach up snow ramps, then gains and follows a slightly meandering path through rocky terrain along the crest of the ridge for 900m.  The last 300 meters (when taking the left variation) follow snow and ice slopes to the summit ridge, of which the last 60 m are typically grade 3/4 alpine ice. When you top out on the summit ridge, you’ve still got to walk up the last 200m to the Aiguille du Midi where the telepherique is waiting for you, navigating the mass of guided and non-guided parties on their way back to the lift.

For a great view/topo of the route, definitely check out the large image available on this blog here, which was immensely helpful.

Approach:

Our campsite in the foreground the night before. As the clouds came and went we were able to see little clues as to the conditions of the route.
Our campsite in the foreground the night before. As the clouds came and went we were able to see little clues as to the conditions of the route.

The location of climb is fairly obvious, so I won’t much spend time explaining that. I will describe our plan of attack.  Simon and I took up the last lift of the day to the Plan du Midi.  We then hiked for 15-20 minutes along the trails that start at the bar (yes, bar as in beer) just passed the mid-station.  We found a flat spot on top of the ridge, where it flattens out.   When some dark looking clouds rolled in, we grew just slightly concerned, and quickly fell into a discussion about what it would be like to be struck by lightening.

The campsite positioned us nicely to wake up in the morning, and to reach the climb via a contouring approach.  We dropped slightly down from the elevation of our tent, and then walked the moraine for 200-300m. A path on the right side of the moraine led down onto the toe of the snow field.  From here we contoured right, and then zig-zagged up between the two large debris cones, directly beneath the climb.

Maybe camping on top of the col wasn't such a good idea after all....
Maybe camping on top of the col wasn’t such a good idea after all….

We set our alarms for 3am, in order to give ourselves 45 minutes to get going, and then 45 minutes to get to the base of the snow ramp where we figured we would want to be able to navigate by light from the sun, rather than headlamp. This planned worked quite well, and by the time we reached the snow ramp, sun-light was peeking into the valley.

Looking up valley passed Arete des Papillons, which holds some magnificent rock climbs.
Looking up valley passed Arete des Papillons, which holds some magnificent rock climbs.

Route:

Despite its drawbacks,  Simon and I pulled out the rope when we crossed the bergschrund below the snow ramps.  With occasional gear placements, we made it up the right ramp (some intermixed tricky moves where a belay was nice), then the left one, then turned back up right and onto the rock.  The route description is fairly clear here: continue up the left second ramp until the steepens, then head the rock on the right.  There is currently a fixed rope with several knots which make this rock section a trivial. Spot this and you’ll know you are on the right track. The climbing on the second snow ramp held a mixture of ice and snow that was delaminating from the slabs.  Short screws would have held but we didn’t bring any – gear can be found on the wall on the right. Crampons were necessary here, and we left them on until we worked our way through the first rock crux and onto the crest.

After the fix rope, the climbing heads up another 15-20m up corner systems.  After I topped out on an odd mantle move, it dogs horizontally right as you walk along until you a slab with a fixed nut.  I don’t know whether slab with fixed nut is supposibly the crux, or the next short, slabby corner, but both required some concentration.

Simon at the fixed nut on the slab. The first tricky moved seemed to be getting up onto the slab then the second was getting through the corner where the rope is hidden in the photo.
Simon at the fixed nut on the slab. The first tricky moved seemed to be getting up onto the slab, from which the rail in the back can be reached, then the second was getting through the corner where the rope is hidden in the photo.

With little gear on my harness, I continued another 20 m to the ridge crest, then slung a block and brought Simon up the last bit. Here he took over lead on the dryer rock sections, where we took off our crampons.  This had been our plan from the beginning;  Simon would follow on the mixed terrain where he is stronger, and I would follow on the rock, where I feel more comfortable.  We didn’t want to break the golden rule of simul-climbing:  the follower never falls.

Simon took us up through the second crux section in two simul-blocks.  His first block continued up through easy terrain on the crest, where the occasional crap snow over ice provided some spice as we were no longer wearing crampons.  In these areas, I was able to follow his boot tracks with one axe, while he led them with two.

He built a belay and I reached him at the base of the dihedral section, just left of the crest.

Simon starting off on his second simul-block up and through the dihedral above him.
Simon starting off on his second simul-block up and through the dihedral above him.

 

The second crux section on the route. You can see one of the two pitons with a fixed coordelette that Simon clipped. You can yard on these to get through the move, or traverse left and back up and right as Simon did.
The second crux section on the route, near where crest starts to become more vertical. You can see one of the two pitons with a fixed coordelette that Simon clipped (pink). You can yard on this fixed gear to get through, or traverse left and then back up and right as Simon did.

After Simon made it through this crux section, he continued until he ran out of gear, which turned out to be just 35 m below snow slopes that compose the rest of the route. I reached him, now with most of the rack on my harness, and led this last bit to the snow.  From here, we transitioned back to crampons, and discussed the plan for tackling the snow.  There were not yet any signs of wet avalanches, but it was 1130am, and we knew the snow would be soft, if not very wet. We decided we would climb on 60 m of rope, but continue to simul-climb.  The only unprotected section also happened to be the one that was the scariest, up the snow arrete that rises from the ridge crest to the upper rock tower.  As I headed towards the exposed rock on the snow face which offered some protection, both Simon and I continued to kick off small point releases on the climbers left (the aspect which was more exposed to the sun).

Here you can see our path up the snow slopes. Simon is resting at the second "X" in the photo while I continued around the corner. I found some screws between he and I in this photo, but there was no protection between the two "X"s. If one person fell, the job of the other was to jump to the other side. The small point releases near the center of the photo all started as we climbed up the arrete.
Here you can see our path up the snow slopes. Simon is resting at the “X” in left side of the photo while I continued around the corner. I found some a screw and then some more rock pro between he and I, but there was no protection between the two “X”s lower down on our track. If one person fell, the job of the other was to jump to the other side. We kicked off several, small, point releases near the center of the photo as we climbed up.  One of them grabbed our rope and gave us a good tug.

 

Some nice screw placements could be found 5-15 cm down. Here is Simon digging one out and the view of Chamonix well below.
Some nice screw placements could be found 5-15 cm down. Here is Simon digging one out and the view of Chamonix well below.

 

I ran out of gear and energy 20 meters from the top, put in one screw, hammered in my axes and sat on this combination of protection. I was feeling wiped from leading the last 200 m of climbing, and my calves felt like they weren't going to last much longer. Simon took us to the top. On the way, he found another screw placement to protect the varying rotten snow and ice conditions, and hidden bergshrund/crevasse mid-way up (bottom of this photo).
I ran out of gear and energy 20 meters from the top, put in one screw, hammered in my axes and sat on this combination of protection. I was feeling wiped from leading the last 300 m of climbing, and my calves felt like they weren’t going to last much longer. Simon took us to the top. On the way, he found another screw placement to protect the varying rotten snow and ice conditions, and hidden bergschrund/crevasse mid-way up (bottom of this photo).

Descent:

We walked across the north bridge to mingle with tourists and alpinists alike on the way down to the rest of civilization.

Rack/kit:

  • 60 m half rope
  • BD Camalots .4, .5, .75, #1, #2 + DMM standard offsets + #4 and #5 BD nuts to supplement
  • 4 ice screws: 13cm, 2x16cm, 19cm
  • Rock shoes we never wore + thin socks to match if needed
  • 6 slings, 3 QDs, and a two double lengths, and personal gear (coordelettes and such)
  • 1L, 1000 calories of high glycemic healthy bars and home-made energy balls

Timing:

3am – Alarm rings

340am – Stashed the tent, moving

430am – Roping up at the bergschrund, the sun has brighten the sky, and we shut off our headlamps

1130am ish – At the snow slopes

130pm – Summit ridge

2pm – Crossing the north bridge

Total: 930 hrs of climbing + 1 hour for a casual approach

Takeaways, thoughts, and keys for success:

As far as I can remember, this is the largest amount technical climbing I have done in a day.  Climbing the route in mixed conditions was very appealing to me, and having crampons strapped to my feet for the first 200m was quite fun.  The climb provided a chance to put to use many of the lessons that Simon and I had discussed on smaller adventures like the Migot Spur or Profit-Perroux/Vent du Dragon.  I think some of the things that enabled are success were:

  • Efficient simul-climbing techniques, in particular, we used a Gri-Gri and a Ropeman to manage some tricky sections in the middle of easier terrain
  • The rack seemed perfect.  We had debated bringing the number #3 BD Camalot. It could have been placed in a number of places, but wasn’t necessary given other in-situ gear and our comfort level with the climbing. We could have left behind the smallest BD nut (#4), but that wouldn’t save too much weight in the end. Although a short ice screw could have been used on the ramps low on the climb, other protection was easily supplemented.
  • Proper nutrition, sleep, and water intake prior to, and during, the climb
  • Good topo/route information, in particular from Danny Uhlmann a local guide and the high resolution topo I linked above. The ability to pull out the detailed topo saved what could have been several route finding areas on the rock sections of the route. Danny provided some rack better, and suggested the left variation around the rock tower at the top, which climbed well.

Each one of these big days always requires a couple recovery days for me, so I am definitely now appreciating the chance to hang out, drink some coffee and afternoon beers, and look up at the climb we just did which sits above town.

One thought on “The Frendo Spur: A Capstone Project

  1. Your Mom

    Hi Chris,
    Oh my goodness Chris! I don’t think I should be reading these. You are so incredibly strong! Glad you had a great climb to finish your trip with – what a fabulous trip you created!

    Much love,
    See you back in the states!
    Mom

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