Grand Combin de Grafeneire

  • Grand Combin de Grafeneire
  • 4314 m
  • Primary factor 1517 m
  • Location: North 45.93767, East 007.29921 (GPS on the summit)
  • Location: Swiss Alps
  • Climbed September 15, 2012.
  • Difficulty: YDS class 4, French Alpine AD (With snow).

Information:

How to get there:
Geneva is the most convenient international airport. From the airport, take the freeway E25/E62/A1 going north-east with signs for Lausanne. In Lausanne, continue on E62/E27/A9 south-east, then south to Montreux and Martigny, that is, drive around the Geneva lake on its north side. Exit in Martigny and follow E27/Hwy. 21 south, the signs will say Saint-Bernard. Continue about 34 kilometer, you will see signs and exit to the small village Bourg Saint-Pierre on your right hand side. Do NOT exit, but continue on the main road, it runs gently uphill and there are a few gas stations along the way. Look carefully for a small, paved road that forks left after a gas station. Take this road and drive about 1.5 kilometer. Here, in a sharp left curve the road turns north while a smaller dirt road forks right (south) up the valley. Find parking here. There are a few slots off the paved road on its right side. If they are occupied, there are a few more places if one continues a bit further along the paved road (going uphill and north). This is the trailhead, location N45.94622, E007.21435, elevation about 1814 meter. (The coordinates given here are slightly north, since the first slot was fully occupied.)
Route description:
There are several routes, this report assumes a start from the Cabane Valsorey, ie. the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) hut named Valsorey.
Hut climb: From the trailhead, start out from where the paved road curves left and walk the dirt road that runs south into the valley named Valsorey. The road soon ends and a well marked (red and white paint) trail continues along the north side of the river. You will get close to the river where the trail forks (location N45.93032, E007.24479, elev. 2160 m), the trail to Cabane du Vélan (another SAC hut, at 2640 meter) forks right. Stay left and ascend slightly to reach an old mountain farm building, this place is called Chalet d'Amont. Here, at approximately 2200 meter of elevation, there is a new trail fork, but no clear sign. A blue and white marked trail runs right, while the red and white painted trail continues left. In fact, these two trails do meet again, the red/white trail is longer, but less exposed.
Take the blue/white trail, it will cross some open land then climb to the bottom of a steep gully. The route runs up this gully with the help of 3 ladders and quite a bit of chains that one may hold onto. The route then continues its traverse in the hillside in order to merge with the longer red/white marked alternative. Next at about 2500 meter of elevation, the trail turns more left (to north-east) finishing the last 500 meter of ascent up a broad ridge to the Valsorey hut, located at 3030 meter of elevation..
Mountain climb: There is a cairned route that runs from the Valsorey hut and uphill with steeper cliffs on its left hand side. This route traverses right in a wide arc above what remains of a small glacier, then climbs a small ridge and runs further uphill, first with a pretty long ascending traverse going left. Higher up, the trail was obscured by snow when we were there. This route is marked with cairns. To access the west ridge route, you need to go left, the ridge is what you see up that way. The terrain is steep with a lot of loose rocks in all sizes. Many parties on the slope can clearly create dangerous situations with rocks coming down on lower parties being released by climbers higher up.
An alternative is to ascend this slope and head more right. As one gets higher, one will see the local col between an isolated, small ridge and the huge south slope of Grand Combin. This col is named Plateau de Couloir. A small bivouac hut, named Bivacco Biagio Musso, has been built on the very top of the small ridge that forms the lower side of this col. One may access this area across steep snow from the lower route.
From Plateau de Couloir, there are several choices, we stayed quite far left when viewed uphill. First on broken ground with snow and loose rocks, later on a more solid rib of rocks heading uphill. This section is pretty dangerous unless it is frozen, due to all the loose rocks.
This route can be said to ascend the western side of the south face. Higher up, one almost merges with the west ridge route. This line will get you up on what looks like a very horizontal shoulder, you are now directly below the last step up to the Combin de Valsorey summit. This picture shows our approximate route, red is ascent, while green is the descent. This summit has some rather dramatic rock formation on ist west ridge and the route climbs up on the right side of the ridge. This climbing was likely somewhat more difficult due to the snow that had accumulated on all the smaller rock steps that provide a way up. The route regains the ridge just on the right side of a huge block. There is a proper rappel anchor (two bolts) right there. The last few meter to the summit cross is now all that remains.
From the Valsorey summit one finally has a good view of the main summit. The route across is a simple snow walk. First, descend along the ridge to the saddle between the two summits, then ascend the slope leading to the main summit on moderate snow slopes.
Comments / Trip Report:
I did this climb with Melanie Hetkamp and Eirik Andersen. We flew from Bergen via Frankfurt to Geneva Friday morning, arriving shortly after 1300. The weatherforecast was perfect and we got a very nice view of the Alps from the flight starting around Lake Thun (Thunersee) and then going west, seeing Mont Blanc, to Geneva. It was nice to get a view of the Grand Combin, our target for the weekend, already from the airplane.
Luggage, rental car, a brief stop to get some drinks etc., a travel time from Geneva to Bourg Saint-Pierre of 2.5 hours seems necessary. We parked at the trailhead and organized gear, ready to start the hike to the Valsorey hut around 1700. The weather was gorgeous and we knew that the forecast called for similar weather at least until Tuesday. The trail was obvious and all forks had good signs until we arrived at Chalet d'Amont. Here, the trail forked and there was no visible sign telling us which trail to take. As often is the case, we had no local hiking map, but a description from my guidebook to climbing 4000 meter peaks in the Alps. We were therefore also initially confused, since we believed that the highest mountain we could see, the Mont Vélan, had to be our target, the Grand Combin. After some hesitation, we chose the blue/white trail that headed further up the main valley. We realized that our peak had to be up left and that the big mountain across the main drainage was something else (Mont Vélan, 3734m)
Shortly, we were in the steep gully on a ladder. This calmed our nerves as the guidebook had described such a section. Turning the corner to the plateau below Cabane Valsorey, we understood the picture. Our hut, Cabane Valsorey could be seen higher up on the top of a steeper section of the broad ridge above us. The trail was good and we arrived at the hut by 2000, just as I had sort of promised on the phone when making our reservation. The evening dinner, normally served at 1900, was waiting for our arrival, a very nice meal at the end of what was already a long (travel) day. There were 2 other parties that intended to climb the peak the next day. Two guys (later called "The English"), then a young couple from Bern, he Swiss, she Norwegian. (subsequently somewhat misleadingly called "The Norwegians"). As the day neared an end and twilight ruled, the jagged horizons and the view across the valley was a fine conclusion. No wind and stars appearing, the next day promised to be just perfect. We slept by 2200, with breakfast being served at 0400 the next morning.

We left as the last of 3 teams, by 0500 on Saturday morning. It was quite ok to follow the cairns until we were above the small Glacier du Meitin. The English was below near a crevasse and roping up, the Norwegians were ahead across to our right. Eventually, all three teams made an ascending traverse to the far right. This area had more snow, but there were steepish sections and the gully below did not look very inviting. The sun was already hitting Mont Blanc and interestingly, the Gran Paradiso revealed itself across a local col. As daylight was coming (around 0700), the English went on a long traverse back left, obviously in order to gain the beginning of the west ridge. We lost track of the Norwegians and decided ourselves to just head directly up a snow gully that extended all the way to a local horizon on our right hand side.
As became clear later, our route took us to the west side of the Plateau du Couloir. From here, it looked ok to climb further on a somewhat easier slope of snow, staying left. We continued uphill and reached 3716 meter around 0915. The snow got significantly steeper and more mixed ground entered the picture. The ground was frozen and most rocks were pretty stable, however, it was clear that this slope is unpleasant when all the surface material are free to shoot downslope.
We gradually became tired of the steepish snow and looser rock and therefore decided to try a continuation up a more rocky rib. Moving on running belays, Eirik placed protection and Melanie collected. The climbing was mixed, mostly (YDS) class 3, with a few class 4 moves here and there. By 1050, we had reached 3880 meter. We had a steep snow gully to our left, but it was obvious that we would join the west ridge route somewhere higher. The view across to Mont Blanc was second to none. I had also noticed the small bivouac hut that stood perched on the very top cliff guarding the Plateau du Couloir. Another hour of climbing got us to 3940, then, finally at 1220, we reached the shoulder below the 3rd. and last step of the west ridge. We were now at 4020 meter, about 160 vertical meter below the Combin de Valsorey, the false summit that we would need to traverse across.
This ascent had taken a lot of time, but we were all feeling fine and eager to carry on. We had spotted the tracks from the Norwegians coming in from our right hand side quite high on our route. They had climbed Valsorey and were quite a bit ahead of us with respect to time. As we started up the final steep section, they did appear on the Valsorey summit and eventually began an abseil. We met in the middle of the slope and exchanged a few words. They informed us that they would descend along the west ridge route. We wondered where "The Englsih" were. Obviously, they had still not reached the last step before the Valsorey summit.
We sat foot on Combin de Valsorey, 4184 meter, at 1430. This summit has a nice cross as well as a memorial plaque. From here, the main summit (Combin de Grafeneire) was visible for the first time. The view west, towards Lausanne and Dents du Medi was also excellent. Melanie was taken a bit by surprise, she believed that the cross at our summit meant that we had reached our goal. It looked like a long and steep way for her to get to the highest point. Eirik was clear when saying that he wanted to reach the true summit. Obviously, this was also my highest priority. However, given that it had taken us more than 9 hours to get here, a traverse across to the main summit would imply (in my judgement) that we would not be able to return to the Valsorey hut today. We carried extra clothing as well as a bivouac bag. It would take three people and with the very stable and nice forecast including a warming trend, we would clearly not suffer much from spending a night out on this mountain.
The decision taken, we strolled along down the snow ridge, ran into some ice, but descended safely to the col without crampons. The ascent was long and steep enough that we all decided to use our crampons from the col to the summit and all the way back up on Valsorey. This snow climb took its toll, the long and pretty continuous effort showed and with the added high elevation (having moved directly from sea level on Friday), we finally arrived at the very summit at 1530.
The summit has a metal pole placed slightly downslope, there is a huge cornice to be respectful of, facing the opposite way. I took pictures to make a 360 degree panorama, then a few targeted single shots. It was extraordinary nice, blue sky in all directions and no wind. The temperature was most likley around minus 5 Celcius. The Matterhorn, with its distinct profile, the huge Monte Rosa massive. The well know peaks of Breitorn, Pollux and Castor all blended into the enormous bulk of Monte Rosa. The other giants in Switzerland, then south to Paradiso in Italy. Mont Vélan, that looked so high that we mistook it for Grand Combin, now 600 meter below us.
Time was running, and I knew that much depended on a timely, but safe return. We left the summit and were back at the Valsorey summit by 1630, including a rest to eat some energy food and partly replenish our water balance. We set up a 60 meter abseil (single rope) for Melanie and myself, while Eirik would follow last, downclimbing the pitch. The idea was that Melanie and I could get ahead and possibly start rigging a second abseil at the top of the west ridge middle step. The rappel did not get us all the way down, but Melanie and I made it down to the shoulder where Eirik also caught up. To our surprise, we saw the Norwegians, below us on the shoulder, seemingly scouting around for a way down. They did disappear out of sight before we hit the shoulder. It certainly looked like they descended more or less where we had ascended and not down at the end of the ridge. Obviously, we had caught up most of the time difference between our two parties.
We next followed footsteps around the very top of the ridge to see if we could find a good anchor for another 60 meter rappel at the top of the second step. It soon became clear that what looks like the west ridge from above is a false feature. The shoulder ends in a huge cliff, while the west ridge actually runs down where the Norwegians finally descended. It must have been their footsteps and they also wasted time exploring the same terrain.
We returned back and started descending along a line that, at least initially, could be downclimbed without protection. Pretty soon, we saw the Norwegians further down and exchanged some words with them. They seemed a bit stationary with no clear (at least to us) plan for how to proceed with the descent. We considered our options and then decided to continue down, along our current line. This would not be the west ridge and we would eventually get back into the south face route that we had used on ascent. Back onto the broken slope, we then did two 60 meter pitches with the rope before reaching the same steepish snow that we ascended in the morning. The sun was now about to set and it would soon get dark.
It was clear that our very best option would be to spend the night in Bivacco Biagio Musso, a rather spectacular shelter located on the top of a local cliff with tremendous exposure. I had studied the access from higher up on our steep slope and knew that we could get there safely as long as we descended from the steeper part of the south slope before dark. We made it down to somewhat easier snow, then continued with our head torches to the shelter. It was well equipped with beds and blankets, a perfect place to spend the night. Indeed, much safer than trying to get down the steep and somewhat dangerous terrain between here and the Valsorey hut. We quickly got ready to sleep, knowing that a fairly early start would be needed. I did not want to descend without enough daylight to pick a good route, thus we agreed on getting up around 0545, with the intention to leave around 0630.
The next morning, I went out first to take a couple of pictures. FLAP-FLAP-Flappediflap.. WOW! A Swiss mountain rescue helicopter flew by our shelter, quite close! I got seriously worried that the people at the Valsorey hut had gotten so worried when we did not return that they initiated a rescue. There was, of course, no way for us to notify them. I checked my cell phone before leaving the hut, zero signal. As I watched, the helicopter enganged a powerful search light and scanned the mountain side while flying across the west ridge. It then returned and landed! on the flat spot (Plateau du Couloir), just 50 meter below our shelter. One man jumped out and soon the chopper was airborne with the guy on a 30 meter line below it. Quite an unexpected drama just at our doorstep! The chopper subsequently returned without the rescue man, then took off again. This time returning with a heavy load, two people - the Norwegians!, plus the rescue man.
By now, we had left our bivouac and started descending to the helicopter. They put the two rescued inside, then headed for the valley - leaving the rescue man to be picked up later. We had a brief conversation with him. He told that the two had been unable to descend in the dark, that they were quite cold after spending the night, etc. They had (appearently) succeeded to call for rescue. There was some talk about "a mother", not entirely clear how information had been flowing. We told him that we had seen them late yesterday, and that we had elected to spend the night in the small bivouac hut rather than trying to navigate the steep and dangerous terrain in darkness. This action seemed to echo with approval.
Moving to the corner of Plateau du Couloir, I was a bit surprised to see how steepish things really were. Eirik led as we kicked steps in steep, but good snow that carried across to somewhat more gentle slopes. A bit of downclimbing and routefinding ensued, before we discovered the cairned route and followed it back down to the Valsorey hut without any problems, arriving there at 0900.
The staff at the hut were relieved to see us. They also confirmed that "The English" had returned early after giving up the climbing on the West ridge. We paid for the stay and rearranged our packs before leaving at 0930. Keeping a pretty good pace, we hiked back down to the car in only 2 hours, arriving at 1130. We were now ahead of schedule and enjoyed the warm sun while packing everything for the flight later. The next thing in order was a visit to the local restaurant in Bourg Saint-Pierre. A coke and a large beer for everyone, followed by a dinner meal seemed not only well deserved, but actually needed. We had been walking and climbing a total of 24 hours since leaving the car, not bad for a weekend trip to the Alps. We subsequently drove to Geneva and flew home without any incidents, arriving in Bergen centrum around midnight.
Big thanks are due to Melanie and Eirik for very good company and for completing a trip in good style, a mountain climb that will be long remembered!

Here is a Google map with detailed information from our climb.

Resources: