Grand Combin de Grafeneire
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 Swiss 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 Swiss and
decided ourselves to just head directly up a snow gully that extended all the way to a local horizon on our right
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 Swiss 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 Swiss, 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 Swiss 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 Swiss 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 Swiss!, 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.