Jean Fréhel

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 11/03/2009
Mt Blanc with Grand Pilier d'Angle on left. Lindsay Griffin

Legendary French alpinist, Jean Fréhel, died recently after a long illness.

Fréhel, also a noted mathematician (a logic specialist), was elected to the prestigious Groupe de Haute Montagne in 1964 and made many notable alpine ascents, at first on rock, but later, after the advent of 'piolet traction' on steep ice and mixed.

In 1965, with Dominique Leprince-Ringuet, he put up the now classic French Pillar on the North East Face of the Crozzon di Brenta (3,135m) in the Western Dolomites. This is an excellent 800m free climb (VI-), on which the two Frenchmen placed only 14 pegs.

In 1967 with Yves Boussard, Jerome Brunet, Patrick Cordier and Claude Deck he forced the now famous French Direttissima on Romsdal's Troll Wall (1,200m: VI+ and A4), a massive line that has still received only a handful of ascents.

In 1972 he travelled to South America, and in the Cordillera Blanca made the first ascent of the North East Ridge of Huascaran Norte (6,654m). Although the major routes on Huascaran are too big and serious ever to become crowded, this 1,700m TD+, with predominantly difficult ice climbing, is objectively safe and has evolved into something of a classic.

In 1974 he visited the recently opened Baltoro Glacier in the Karakoram, and with up-and-coming Himalayan specialist Pierre Béghin, and Dominique Marquis nearly made the first ascent of the spectacular Uli Biaho Tower (6,109m). Attempting the steep North West Pillar, only 30 metres of aid separated them from easy snow slopes and the summit, when they were forced down by a fierce storm. Although Americans climbed the peak in 1979 via the East Pillar at 5.9 and A4, the North West Pillar is yet to be completed.

On Uli Biaho, Fréhel was captivated by the beautiful, neighbouring, 6,610m Paiyu, with its fine granite and fluted ice faces overlooking the Baltoro. The following year he was back, but bad conditions hampered progress until he and Jean Francois Porret were hit by an avalanche while descending from Camp 1. Porret broke a leg badly and needed a difficult evacuation: the expedition was abandoned.

Fréhel returned to South America in 1976 and made the first ascent of the East Face of Ausengate, the dominant peak in the Cordillera Vilcanota. With two companions he climbed and descended the difficult new ice route in alpine-style, making five bivouacs on the face.

1977 was his one big attempt on the Himalayan giants. In the autumn, he led a small expedition (four other climbers) to attempt the first ascent of 8,163m Manaslu's East Ridge. Unfortunately, he was ill throughout the trip and another member returned home early, leaving Pierre Béghin and Thierry Leroy to reach 7,600m before suffering series frostbite (later requiring amputations) and retreating.

Béghin, who would later become one of France's most accomplished Himalayan climbers, returned to Manaslu in 1981 to complete a bold new route up the West Face. Fréhel, on the other hand, made no major expeditions after this date, though would spend much time during later life re-visiting Nepal.

But his greatest legacy is in the Alps, where in 1973 he joined Guy Dufour for a new route on the North East Face of the Grand Pilier d'Angle, Mont Blanc. At that time the right side had been climbed by the (then) unrepeated 1962 Bonatti-Zappelli, and a striking couloir system towards the left edge in 1971 by Cecchinel and Nominé. The entire central section of the face remained untouched, notably due to a huge serac barrier near the top of the face, apparently seriously threatening the steep mixed terrain below.

Years of observation had convinced Fréhel that this large hanging glacier lay atop right-sloping rock and invariably avalanched into the gully on the right (the Bonatti-Zappelli Route), rather than straight down the mixed buttresses below. He calculated that it was possible to climb the steep buttress immediately below the serac wall without undue risk. He also decided to approach via the lower Brenva Face, crossing its dangerous couloirs quickly to reach a safe haven at the foot of the Pear buttress, from where he could begin the climb. This, he rationalized, was a safer bet than making the long and objectively exposed ascent directly up the lower slope from the Brenva Glacier - an approach discarded by most later climbers who preferred a swift crossing of the glacier and an ascent hugging tightly against the walls of the Grand Pilier d'Angle.

During the very snowy August of 1973, Dufour and Fréhel climbed the mixed buttress below the serac, turning the latter on the left to reach the upper slopes. Their ascent very much bridged the gap between the 'old school' mixed climbing by Bonatti and Desmaison, and the more modern, post-piolet traction ascents. The Dufour-Fréhel (750m: ED1/2: V/4, 5c and A1) is rarely repeated in its original form, but combined with the 1975 Boivin-Vallencant Finish, it has become a huge Mont Blanc classic and gives the most popular and probably the quickest and easiest line on this section of the Grand Pilier d'Angle.


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