Mercier and Pesce free Chris Bonington's route on the west face of the Plan

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 17/04/2014
The line climbed by Mercier and Pesce on the Aiguille du Plan. The original Pilier Septentrionale climbs the rib on the right of their lower couloir. Lindsay Griffin

Chamonix-based Jeff Mercier and Korra Pesce have made the first free and possibly only the second overall ascent of a little known Chris Bonington route on the west face of the Aiguille du Plan.

This aspect of the Plan is highly visible, but the main face was not climbed until 1946, when Robert Gréloz and André Roch, two of the greatest names in alpinism from that era, attacked the central pillar.

The pair climbed to the foot of the steep headwall, then fearing it too difficult, escaped right via a series of traverses, rappels, overhanging chimneys and a final pitch of V and A2, to reach the last section of the Midi-Plan Arête.

Though a direct finish was compelling, it had to wait until 1963 for an ascent.

Working from his little black book of potential new routes, Tom Patey enlisted Joe Brown, and the pair climbed through the headwall via a clean-cut 120m-high diedre at sustained V+

Subsequent parties deemed it a very good route, perhaps one of the best in the Aiguilles. However, fashions would change and nowadays it is more or less neglected.

Chris Bonington climbed three major new routes in the Mont Blanc Massif during 1965, culminating, after several attempts, in the Righthand Pillar of Brouillard.

In the month prior to the Brouillard ascent he climbed the West Face of the Cardinal at V+ and A1 with Stuart Miller, Tom Patey and the American Lito-Tejada Flores.

The latter, although responsible for a number of fine routes, including the California Route on Fitz Roy (third ascent of the mountain), is possibly best remembered by climbers for his seminal article, Games Climbers Play.

After the Cardinal, Bonington and Tejada-Flores turned their attentions to the Aiguilles, and took on the obvious lefthand pillar of the Plan's west face.

This is a narrower rib than the central pillar and gave "delightful climbing of IV and V", with a short section of V+ and one of A1, as far as the headwall.

The headwall was split by a continuous deep diedre, ca 200m high and formed of excellent granite. However, facing almost north and therefore getting very little sun, it proved to be heavily iced.

There was strenuous work in chimneys, requiring a couple of short sections of aid, together with various pulls on pegs or wooden wedges at other points.

One section used two RURPs to reach an overhang, which was climbed with two more pegs (A3), while a second, A1, required three pegs.

Both aid sections were needed to avoid a difficult section of crack in the back of the diedre.

The pair climbed the 700m route over two days at TD+, referring to it as the Pilier Septientrionale, and took 11 hours to overcome the headwall diedre.

In all they probably used around 20 points of aid, but felt that in good conditions the route would give "enjoyable climbing of a high order of difficulty".

Unfortunately, that idea never took off, and it is not clear whether the route was ever fully repeated before this year.

Mercier and Pesce are two of the most talented mixed climbers currently operating on the Chamonix peaks, and had looked many a time at the upper diedre. The old Vallot guide, in which Bonington had noted it was heavily iced, set off an idea.

The two took the first téléphérique to the Plan de l'Aiguille, carried only one rucksack, and avoided the lower spur by a flanking couloir..

This had two advantages: over the years the lower spur has been subjected to much rockfall, leaving it unpleasantly broken; faster progress up the couloir meant they would be climbing the meat of the route - the upper diedre - while it was still well frozen.

Starting the headwall diedre at 11:30 a.m., they were on the summit at 6 p.m., having enjoyed well protected climbing up deep chimneys, and cracks of all sizes up to M7 in standard.

That night they had their feet safely under the table in the Requin Hut, well impressed that the crux section, which they had climbed fast and free in six and a half hours, had taken Bonington and Tejada-Flores only four and a half hours more, almost 50 years ago, and with gear that bears no comparison with that used today.
 



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