Chamonix-based mountain guides Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker have made a rare repeat of the ephemeral line Birthright on the west face of the Grands Charmoz.
In 1959 René Desmaison and Pierre Mazeaud climbed the huge, striking diedre that forms the left side of the prominent pointed central pillar on the west face of the Grands Charmoz.
The celebrated French pair followed cracks and chimneys in the diedre (IV to V+) to reach the middle terraces, then continued up the headwall above (VI and aid) to the summit.
The line was direct, and the route described as "magnificent", though it was rarely, if ever, repeated due to it normally being wet and needing a very prolonged dry spell to render it climbable with a modicum of enjoyment.
The line is clearly visible from Chamonix and after the development of "modern" ice climbing techniques in the early 1970s, some alpinists began to realise that wet summer lines in the Aiguilles could become excellent ephemeral ice lines during the winter.
Notable amongst these alpinists was Al Rouse, who with Rab Carrington climbed the 1944 Rébuffat-Terray route on the north face of the Pélerins in winter to produce the now ultra-classic thin ice route often referred to simply as the Carrington-Rouse.
Rouse also realized the potential for a winter ascent of the Desmaison-Mazeaud route, as did several other British activists, but no serious attempt was made during that decade.
It had to wait until 1982. During winter that year Andy Parkin and Thierry Renault found good ice conditions and managed to complete the first six pitches of the diedre before forced to retreat in a storm.
In the early 1990s American Mark Twight took up residence in Chamonix, noting that "it is one of the greatest ranges in the world but locals sit on their asses waiting for perfect conditions to coincide with cable cars being open"
"It was easy to steal their coveted routes; all I had to do was walk"
In October 1993 the téléphériques remained closed but the Aiguilles were in excellent icy conditions. Twight persuaded fellow American Scott Backes to make the trans-Atlantic flight, and over two days the pair climbed the Desmaison-Mazeaud route as far as the middle terraces.
They "re-named" the 10-pitch line, Birthright (ED/ED+, 90° 5.9 A2).
This, and their route on the Aiguille Sans Nom, There goes the Neighborhood, climbed at the same time, were nominated for a 1993 Piolet d'Or.
Birthright rarely forms and needs exceptional conditions that may only occur at five-or-more yearly intervals. As Twight noted, " if you have a full-time job, or climb in Chamonix as a visiting tourist, you need not apply".
Parkin returned, solo, but only managed to reach his previous high point, while several members of the GMHM have reached the start of the route, only to find steep powder rather than ice.
Just one repeat has been reported, in 2008 by the talented Italian alpinist Rossano Libera, who quoted a grade of WI6 V and A2 (though this may have been taken straight from the grade given in Neige, Glace et Mixte).
Bracey and Helliker approached on ski from the Plan de l'Aiguille and reached the foot of the route at 11:00am. They moved together up steep but good ice for the first three pitches, before switching lead and carrying on together for the next three: fantastic ice runnels and ramps, where protection was spaced but good.
Two rather more thin pitches led to the Backes-Twight bivouac ledge, above which the British pair was able to remove gloves and climb beautiful granite to the middle terraces, where Birthright terminates.
Every pitch had been climbed free, the grade of the route approximately V/6 and F4c.
Bracey and Helliker's ascent time was an astonishingly fast three hours and 45 minutes. They then rappelled the line, not surprisingly enduring a fair amount of ice fall in the warming temperatures.
A ski back to the Plan enabled them to catch the cable car down to Chamonix that afternoon.
Thanks to Matt Helliker (www.vertigoguides.com) for help with this report