Adventure on Tour Ronde North Face

Published by Lone Ranger , 19 September 2011, 14h22.

Region: World » France » Massif du Mont Blanc » Chamonix
Date of the hike:15 September 2011
Mountaineering grading: D+
Climbing grading: III (UIAA Grading System)
Ice climbing grading: WI3
Geo-Tags: F   I 
Time: 15:00
Height gain: 350 m 1148 ft.
Access to start point:Torino Hut from Aiguille du Midi cable car, Chamonix
Accommodation:Torino hut

This is one of those adventures that you unknowingly or unwillingly get into, but feel so happy and proud of when you come out of it unscathed!

Ron is an Israeli climber with about 8 years of climbing experience in the US, and had done North faces up to TD- in the Alps. I am relatively raw, with just over a year of climbing experience, and a few days waterfall ice-climbing, but reasonably fit and motivated.

When he proposed doing the North Face of Tour Ronde, typically rated D- or D in normal conditions, I agreed with nervous excitement. Here's what we agreed: we try the first two pitches and see how it goes, and if we don't feel good we just get down and do the normal route.

Tour Ronde North face, 350 m vertical height, with average angle of 50 degrees makes approx 10-12 pitches (500m route length. This route can be broken into three sections.

Section 1: 130m, 50 degrees ice.
Section 2: Two pitches of 55-60 degrees ice and supposedly the crux.
Section 3: 150m of 45 degrees easing to 40 degrees as the end.

What makes the story interesting is the mountain conditions. 

In good conditions, lots of climbers do this route, some even solo it, and finding a dozen climbers on the face is common on a good weekend (this gives rise to another set of dangers, but that's a different matter). However this was mid-September and the whole region had seen hot weather in the preceding two weeks. As we came down the cable car from Aiguille du Midi to Torino Hut, we could see crevasses were mostly open, the face looked blackish and uninviting (meaning it would be bare, hard ice, much harder to climb than alpine ice).

When we asked the hut warden at Torino Hut, we were told no one has been climbing the face lately, but the route shouldn't necessarily be more dangerous for that, just more difficult because of bare ice. This was enough for Ron to go ahead with the plan.

When we started out from the hut around 6:00 am, our first difficulty was to approach the face. Since there were no tracks leading to North face, we back-tracked for an hour trying alternative approaches from the sides, but to no avail, too many crevasses and loose rocks. We were forced to take on the face from the front, which meant crossing a fierce bergshcrund with its jaws wide open. It has an overhang move, Ron led it with some difficulty and belayed me up. Have to admit this was one of the most difficult moves I have done. But my brand new Petzl Quark (axes) proved to be a joy to wield.

Then began the laborious first section of ice. We went straight up the face (the alternative was to go alongside the rock on the right and use rock protection; we saw another party do it, they were the only other humans we saw on the face). Ron would normally not place intermediate protection at this angle of ice, but here he was forced to because of the hard conditions. The ice was hard and brittle, breaking off in chunks as you swung your axe, and you needed to swing your axe 2-3 times before it bit into something solid deep inside. This cost us a lot of time and effort, but it didn't feel technically over my limit, at least as follower. Ron had told me before "just do the first two pitches and then once you are into it, you will get into the rhythm  and the rest will be fine". This is exactly how I felt; with each passing pitch I felt more comfortable, so I did not broach the topic of turning back. We were now committed to the route.

Section 2 was supposed to be more difficult, but the ice quality was good, with just one swing the axe would bite 1 inch into the surface and provided solid grip. This was the most enjoyable section for me.

Section 3 was the longest but also easiest. On the easier/snowier bits I was holding the axe on the neck and pushing it and climbing fast. Soon Ron felt tired of belaying (continuously leading and setting up ice-screw protection, and pulling the ropes up can be so taxing), plus I felt more confident, so we decided to simul-climb. It was a great exhilarating experience. Up to now, my whole life's experience on ice was less than 100m of waterfall ice and now I was doing 350 vertical metres of ice in a day (but waterfall ice is much much harder, so the comparison is flawed, like 6c indoors vs alpine III).

There are some difficult mixed climbing moves one must make to transition from Section 1 to 2, and then from Section 2 to 3. There are no rules here, you can push with your axes or hands or legs or butt, whatever works for you :-) I found them very challenging, but managed it, and grew even more fond of my axes.

Once we reached the end of the snow route, we still had about 30 m of easy rock (by normal route) to reach the true summit Madonna. But because we were already very late, around 4 pm I think, we skipped it and proceeded for descent.

The descent was not easy. There was a lot of loose rock on the normal route; Ron had been on the mountain before and suggested taking an objectively safer but harder descent route. It was scary, but we managed it, and at the last section we could not downclimb it, so prepared an abseil and crossed the bergschrund, and then we were soon walking back to the hut. We reached the hut around 9:00 pm. The folks there were very nice, they warmed the food and served us, so the day ended well. Ron said it is by far the toughest climb he has ever done in his life. The route is normally rated D-/D, but on that day it was probably D+ at least. (I am not sure of the ice climbing grade, it must be WI III or IV)

The only thing I regret is not carrying enough water. I normally turn back if I am exceeding guidebook time by 10%, which is my safety limit (last week I turned back after doing 80% of the Dent Blanche South Ridge for the same reason), I also carry water accordingly. On this route I had carried an exceptionally low 500 ml of water and 200 ml of juice, because the guidebook time hut to hut is about 7-9 hours but it took us 15 hours!! I would definitely have turned back if Ron had not shown so much enthusiasm, offered to lead all pitches, and even his emergency water bottle should I reach that state.

Finally, our slideshow, prepared by Ron

Hike partners: Lone Ranger

Click to draw, click on the last point to end drawing


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Comments (4)

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roger_h says:
Sent 19 September 2011, 21h22
Hi Lone Ranger

The climbs you are participating in the meantime are very impressive. I remember you telling me at the hikr-meeting 2011 that you have not much experience doing alpine climbing and that's not even one year ago.
You seem to contract a serious mountaineering passion. The learning curve you are taking seems way to steep for myself. I thought about to go climbing with you sometime but now I'm looking like a beginner beside you ;-)
Keep up doing this but take care!

Ovidam says:
Sent 22 September 2011, 07h19
Hi Lone Ranger, once more congrats to this very impressive hike and very interesting report!!! Sounds great but also like a heavy adrenalin kick! Take care and have a good time! J├╝rgen & Felix.

Christian1 says: Well done guys
Sent 25 September 2011, 16h51
looking forward to the pics.

Lone Ranger says: Thanks guys
Sent 26 September 2011, 20h20
And some pics are uploaded, check out the video at the bottom of my trip report :)


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