Ken Wilson explains how 4000m peak-bagging has been revived, with a recent UIAA ratification offering a fresh spin to classic alpinism.
What exactly makes a summit? An awkward question to answer, especially in the Alps where the number of 4000m summits can fluctuate wildly, depending on what criteria are applied. For a long while 4000m peak collectors, the alpine equivalent of Munroists, worked from the 1989 Karl Blodig (Dumler) list of 61 peaks. But this had it’s weaknesses, mainly an over-zealous coverage of the Monte Rosa summits, whilst some quite assertive subsidiary summits on other major massifs, e.g. Breithorn, Grand Combin, Grandes Jorasses and even Mt Blanc had been overlooked.
So, when the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d’ Alpinisme) decided to rationlise this list in 1994, their findings were pounced on by 4000m peak addicts. To their relief, they found that most of the anomalies had been removed. Two extra summits had been noted on Grand Combin, one on Liskamm, four on the Breithorn, four on the Grandes Jorasses and four on Mont Blanc. In addition the sharp rock pinnacles of the Diables Ridge of Mont Blanc du Tacul were also accorded summit status. However by these means the Blodig list of 61 peaks was increased to 83, which of course made attaining all of them a considerably greater task.
Some of the new UIAA peaks (e.g. Pic Luigi Amedeo and Pts Marguérite and Hélène) merely reinstated old Blodig summits to the list from which they were unaccountably dropped. But equally there is no reason why anyone need adhere to this greater list. A strict interpretation of true mountains to be climbed, using a minimum col depth of 100 metres, gives a list of 51 mountains (notable casualties being Lenzspitze and Nordend). The carnage would be far greater if the col depth was fixed at 200 metres – a mere 33 summits (with no satellite peaks of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and Nadelhorn, no Bishorn, no Dent du Geant and – to the great relief of many – no Aiguille Blanche).
A further element of interest could be added if “imperial preference” was adopted by including the eight peaks that exceed 13,000ft but do not reach the 4000m level. These are Piz Zupo (which when linked with Piz Palü makes a fine expedition), Fletschhorn (which greatly improves the Lagginhorn trip), Mont Mallet (adjacent to the Rochefort Ridge), the Meije (one of the finest alpine ascents), the Gletscherhorn (crowning point of the Lauterbrunnen Wall), Schalihorn (between Weisshorn and Zinalrothorn) the Eiger (ruined by the Mittilegi fixed ropes but still interesting in a traverse to the Mönch), and the elegant and rarely visited (except by Italians) Grivola.
Thus far there has not been a continental version of Munroists lists of successful 4000m baggers but no doubt at some stage someone will attend to this. At present most mountaineers are happy to add to their 4000m list as and when circumstances allow and do not let 4000m peak-collecting affect other alpine activity. But, as with the Munros, there is no doubt that the institution of a “list” creates an almost infectious “desire”. I know many fine climbers who are discreetly ticking-off peak after peak, and no doubt having a wonderful time in the process. If one is not careful this can become a sterile task, particularly if one gets caught up with large groups making conventional ascents, but there are many ways of varying an ascent to make it more interesting and avoid the crowds. A ski ascent, a winter ascent, a variant on the most popular way and even well judged solo ascents – all offer ways of making an otherwise routine climb infinitely more interesting.
Even a very popular peak like the Matterhorn can be tackled in a manner to reduce the crowds. In his forthcoming new edition of The Alpine 4000m Peaks Richard Goedeke suggests that (in good weather) an able team might start from the Hörnli Hut after daybreak (well behind the tourist crowds) and solo the climb up to the Moseley Slab. Around this point one should encounter the fastest (guide led) descent parties but with careful timing (taking a well-judged breakfast stop etc) it should be possible to pass most of descending groups between the Solvay Refuge and the fixed ropes (though some congestion will surely met there). By the time one begins the descent, the mountain should be relatively quiet.
Two climbers that I know tackled the mountain in blustery conditions with patches of snow at points along the route and intermittent cloud. They had the peak to themselves and enjoyed a marvellous experience akin to a routine ascent of a Scottish winter classic, albeit much longer. They were rewarded on the summit when the clouds blew away revealing a fabulously turbulent view. They returned with a great respect for the Hörnli Ridge and those that climbed it in 1865.
The hardest new peaks
The new UIAA summits will compel climbers to address the fabulous Diables Ridge of Mont Blanc du Tacul. This is a really fine rock climb with a number of very powerful sections with climbing up to IV+ and two passages of V. This sounds reasonable until one remembers the height which makes the climbing much more demanding, a factor increased when climbing in boots and carrying sacs (though these days many alpinists change into rock boots). Unfortunately Armand Charlet’s wonderful 5a free pitch on the Isolée (done without pitons) now has fixed protection, but pitons or no pitons, this is still the scene of a great episode of Alpine history. Its difficulties are reduced a little as, in contrast to earlier sections of the traverse, sacs can be left at the start and retrieved afterwards. Sacs can also be taken off for the final precarious grade V arête on Pointe Carmen which is good to know. The same cannot be said about the great diedre on Pointe Mediane which is V if taken direct, though here, some devious IV and IV+ variations can be used.
To the right of the Diable Ridge, at the other side of the Couloir du Diable, is the little known Pilier du Diable that Goedeke has identified as a peak at least as prominent as several other UIAA promoted summits (one of seven additional peaks that he proposes – all of which conform to the new criteria). The front face of this remote pinnacle (a fine TD rock route) was first climbed in 1963 by the Italian quartet of Enrico Cavalieri, Pier-Giorgio Ravaioni and Eugenio and Gian-Luigi Vaccari. Goedeke suggests an easier and quicker way of reaching the summit by climbing the couloir (often serious) and mixed ground behind the Pilier to reach its col and thence gain the top by a 40m climb. The finish would then head up the face above to link up with the final section of the Boccalatte Pillar. If neither couloir or hard rock climb appeals the pinnacle could be reached by an abseil descent with a re-ascent up the tough final pitches (IV and IV+) of the Boccalatte.
The only living climbers to have made a alpine 4000m peak first ascent?
If the Pilier du Diable does become an accepted 4000m summit there will be several new factors to consider. Will it rival Aiguille Blanche as the most difficult 4000er to reach and then contrive an escape? Will Cavalieri, Ravaioni and the Vaccari brothers be recognised as the only living climbers to have made the first ascent of an Alpine 4000m peak, taking their places alongside Balmat, Paccard, Tyndall, Whymper, Stephen, Croz et al in a very exclusive Club?³
The traverse of the Grandes Jorasses
Almost as fabled as the Diable Ridge is the complete traverse of the Grandes Jorasses with either a start or finish along the Rochefort Ridge (to take in the four new UIAA summits). This was one of Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s greatest “projects” (done in 1911 with H.O. Jones and Joseph Knubel) and one that had defeated the powerful Ryan/Lochmatter trio. If one was to add to an east/west traverse, an approach up the Hirondelles Ridge, the scene of Adolphé Rey’s celebrated (1927) grade V crack pitch, then traverse would have even greater interest. By contrast the technically more challenging West/East traverse will involve an early morning ascent of the cold and unfriendly North-West flank of Pointe Young – serious grade IV rock climbing, often iced, which is described with considerable respect by those who have done it.²
More modest fare for simple souls
But the new peaks do not all involve these higher standard excursions. The Grandes Jorasses summits can all be reached by climbs of lesser difficulty from the Rocher du Reposoir. The four new Breithorn summits can each be reached by routes of moderate difficulty. The inclusion of Liskamm West as a summit opens the possibility of a separate ascent for those who may not have done the complete traverse. The climb from Quintino Sella hut to the south not only involves an approach from Italy via the German-speaking enclave of (the paradoxically French-named) Gressoney la Trinité, but also gives a beautiful ascent by the long and steadily steepening WSW Ridge from the Felikjoch (a sort of Valais Midi-Plan traverse). Such an approach would (for British climbers) spice up an ascent of the 10th highest peak in the Alps.
Liskamm West might also be tackled from the Swiss side either by approaching the Felikjoch by the heavily crevassed Zwillinge Glacier or, more logically, by climbing the North-West Spur and then descending the WSW Ridge. This Liskamm version of the Brenva Spur was first climbed on a blustery morning in 1902 by Mrs Rhona Roberts Thomson (from Bournemouth) with the guides Christian Klücker and Christian Zippert. Klücker’s führerbuch records that Rhona Roberts Thomson, yet another enigmatic female to emerge from alpine history, went on to traverse the Matterhorn on what must have been a fine alpine season for 1902.
In his guidebook Richard Goedeke has proposed seven additional summits that he feels should be included if the UIAA criteria is to be taken objectively (though even the UIAA list also has a subjective aspect). In addition to the Pilier du Diable, Goedeke notes rock towers, at least as prominent as those on the Tacul, on the Lauteraarhorn, the Rimpfischhorn and the Weisshorn. All of these might have been traversed on conventional ascents of the mountains by slightly harder routes. But the Lauteraarhorn Towers suggest a fine direct rock route by way of the East Face Rib. In the same manner the Grand Gendarme on the North Ridge of the Weisshorn could be approached and descended by the attractive Younggrat from the hospitable Cabanne d’Ar Pitetta above Zinal. These two examples give a very clear illustration of the revitalising effect of the new summits. Goedeke also draws attention to Il Naso on the Liskamm (a prominent little snow peak) that might easily be taken in on an ascent of Liskamm East. He also proposes Pic Eccles on the South Face of Mont Blanc. This can be climbed with little difficulty from the Eccles Hut (possibly prior to Mont Brouillard or Aiguille Blanche ascents) or in the process of an ascent of the Innominata Ridge. Goedeke’s final suggestion is that Pointe Seymour King (the usually climbed Aiguille Blanche top) should have summit status along with the slightly higher (and often bypassed) Pointe Güssfeldt.
All these adjustments will certainly revitalise the attention on one of the great classic challenges. As climbers increasingly trot off to clip in the Costa Blanc or dry tool in some new world winter fleshpot, it's all too easy to forget that a short hire-car drive or train/bus trip from the Easyjet reached Geneva or Milan are some of the finest and most historic and challenging mountains in the world. These can be climbed in any manner one prefers but even the most modest ascent can be highly adventurous. Add in evocative approaches, superb huts set in fabulous positions and the nearby valley bases of Switzerland, France and Italy and one has a formula for profound and memorable climbing … a far cry from packaged clipping on a crowded boltdrome … fine stress free exercise, no doubt, but a long way from the “profundity trail”. But then, as Mick Fowler reminded me the other day … ‘well Ken, what it is all about is “no pain, no gain”'.
¹ In earlier editions of Blodig’s book it was 69 peaks but by 1985 this had been reduced to 61 and this is the number in The High Mountains of the Alps (the English language adaptation of the German publication). The first edition of Richard Goedeke’s guide also contained 61 summits but differed from Blodig by including Punta Baretti and leaving out Punta Giordani.
² For impressions of both the Diables Ridge and the Grandes Jorasses Traverse I am indebted to Martin Moran. I also wish to thank Bill O’Connor, Dave Wynne Jones, Hildegard Diemberger, Mirella Tenderini, Gian Luigi Vaccari and, of course, Richard Goedeke for assistance in the preparation of this article. John Allen has contributed the two photographs.
³ Jean Chaubert died in 2001 and it appears that none of the other Diable pioneers of 1923–1926 are still alive.