Ascents and tragedies on Sixt icefalls

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 11/01/2009
Approaching the upper section of La Lyre. Nick Bullock

Nick Bullock and Tim Emmett have climbed the magnificent La Lyre, the legendary 500m high Thierry Renault ice route at the Cirque Fer a Cheval above Sixt. In the mid-to-late 1990s La Lyre, graded WI 7, was considered one of the hardest ice climbs in the World.

Bullock and Emmett took two hours to thrash up to the base of the route, pitched the initial free-standing column and then moved together for the next 300m to reach the final three long pitches. At this point partially formed routes to the left were already dropping debris onto the lower section of La Lyre. The top was reached at 5pm and the route rappelled, the two regaining their car by 11pm. Both felt the cirque to be a very serious place at the time and consequently climbed the route as rapidly as was safely possible.

Tragically, not long afterwards two French guides, Luc Avogadro and Eric Lazard, were killed when attempting the Cascade du Folly. They were hit by ice fall and fell to their deaths.

The Fer a Cheval, one of France's premier ice climbing sites with more than 50 routes from 50-1,500m, lies not far from Cluses on the road to Chamonix. Unfortunately, the valley suffers from fickle conditions. Often the icefalls simply don't form; when they do they can be so highly threatened by avalanche that even the approaches become dangerous. On the first international ice climbing meet held there in January of 1996 conditions were almost spring-like and ice was conspicuous by its total absence. Participants were treated to a guided tour of damp black rock where ice falls should have existed.

The ice here was first climbed in the 1970s by a discerning group of predominantly Swiss, including the quietly celebrated Jacques Emery (one time guardian of the old Trident Hut in the Mont Blanc Massif and second solo ascent of the Bonatti on the Grand Pilier d'Angle, amongst other notable ascents). They climbed several routes including the Pisse Vache and possibly one branch of the Cascade du Folly (WI 6). However, it was the magnificent winter of 1991-92 that brought the area racing onto the World stage.

During the first few days of January 1992 Francois Damilano climbed Folly de Droite (VI/6), while Thierry Renault climbed Folly de Gauche (V+/6). But on the 6th two new routes were put up that raised ice climbing standards to new levels. Damilano and Philippe Pibarot attacked two successive free standing columns low down on the right side of the cirque to give La Massue at V/7, while Renault, Denis Condevaux and Wilfred Colonna climbed the very serious La Lyre, finishing in the dark.

La Lyre was a full 10 pitches, with the crux seventh a super-serious offering of 50m of thin and poorly protected mushrooms and flutings stuck to a continuously impending wall. Originally graded V/7 but later VI/7, many climbers at the time felt La Lyre could be the hardest ice route in the World (though both this and La Massue were predated by the WI 7s Riptide and Gimme Shelter in the Canadian Rockies).

In the same period Renault also established the 90m high and poorly protected L'Aventure, c'est l'Aventure in the Cenis Valley, Haute Maurienne, at WI 7. It was such an intense month for Renault that it marked a turning point in his life. After the end of the winter he gave up climbing and took up Buddhism, only returning to high standard alpinism many years later.



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