Rockaneering ticklist: Europe’s best long rock routes

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 11/08/2016
Pointe Percée. Photo: Andy Perkins
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Have you ticked this list? Five British IFMGA mountain guides pick their absolute favourite long rock routes in the Italian Dolomites, the Aravis range close to Chamonix, and from the ‘Grats’ near Andermatt to the Monts Rouges du Triolet; there’s something for everyone to go at from 5c to 7a.

If in any doubt of your skills and experience, you know the score: hire a guide.

Pointe Percée North Ridge

by Andy Perkins

5a (4b obligatoire), 11 pitches

Due to climate change, the number of days when the zero degree isotherm is way above the summits is on the increase. As a result, classic alpinism is often not that appropriate and the best thing to do is get high on rock. When it’s 30 degrees in the valley, north-facing rock is the clear choice.

In heatwaves, I often go to the North Ridge of the Pointe Percée in the Aravis, also known as the Arete du Doigt after its prominent finger gendarme. The mountain dominates the skyline above Sallanches, giving a clear idea of what’s involved. However, getting there involves driving round to the opposite side of the range to Grand Bornand via the Col de la Colombière. A short walk in to the Gramusset Hut puts you in an ideal position for an early start, which you’re going to need if it’s that hot.

The approach is short and simple, about an hour or so, and the route is well bolted. The grade is pretty consistent until the final tower where a couple of feisty pitches, one at 5c and the other at A0, rear up. These can be avoided by an easier but looser variant if time or energy are lacking. Above all, the positions are superb, particularly the Rasoir Traverse about halfway up. 

The descent is straightforward down a winding path but is a bit loose, so have a care for the scramblers coming up below you. Above all, keep an eye out for those afternoon thunderstorms building up. The Pointe is not a place to be when it’s kicking off. Allow 4-5 hours to climb the route.

Andy Perkins is a mountain guide based in Chamonix: www.andypmountainguide.com.

Yellow Wall, Cima Piccola, Italy

By Matt Helliker

7a, 320m, 11 pitches

Stories of flying rocks, breaking holds, and loose descents were something that, up until a few years ago, always put me off climbing in the Dolomites. However, after my first visit, my opinion of this magical place changed, so much so that the Tre Cime area is now my favourite summer alpine rock climbing venue.

I love this place. Sure, if you get on the wrong route, one of the ‘the old classics’, you can encounter a few horror shows, but the modern classics are stunning – simple.

One route I use as a Dolomite warm-up to get in the zone is Stefan Glowacz and Kurt Albert’s 1996 masterpiece, Gelbe Mauer (Yellow Wall), a 320m, 11-pitch sustained 7a+ on the beautiful South Face of Cima Piccola. It features technical, fingery climbing on slightly overhanging walls with edges, pinches, slopers and pockets, all of which giving truly amazing climbing pitch after pitch.  

Matt Helliker is one of the UK’s most accomplished alpinists and an IFMGA mountain guide: www.matthelliker.com.

WATCH: Project Fear – Dave Macleod in the Dolomites on BMC TV

The North Ridge of Monte Agner 2,872m

Tania Noakes

6+ (5+ A0), 1,600m

Sometimes you glimpse a line of such elegance that it sinks effortlessly into your subconscious, silently drawing plans and aspirations into its magnetic orbit. The North Ridge of Mont Agner is one such compelling line.

The Pala Dolomites are unique. The abundance of good rock, steep faces furnished with impossibly large holds, is almost too good to be true. But this route is on another level. It is simply one of the best rock lines in the Alps.

Mont Agner soars above the San Locarno Valley, squaring off against the massive bulk of Monte Locarno. This unfrequented corner of the Alps is practically a Dolomitic Yosemite. The North Ridge is the line separating light and shadow in the photograph above, and delivers 1,600m of adventurous climbing to a wild and inaccessible summit.

Go with good weather, go light, go fast, and be prepared to simul-climb the many sections of grade 3-4 climbing. The first third is a voyage of discovery through vertical shrubs and larch trees until you follow a pinnacled crest to arrive at the steeper upper section where the real rock climbing begins. The hardest pitches may only be 5+ but the route is long. Once you pass the possible bivvy at half height you are committed to summiting before nightfall. Nothing else is remotely comfortable higher on the route.

The summit is an inspiring, wild place, and it’s easy to see why it’s a famous base jumping site. You are unlikely to meet another soul. All that remains is a short via ferrata-assisted scramble to the Biasin bivouac south of the summit. It's worth the extra effort, if you have time, to descend further to the delightful Rifugio Scarpa. The hut Guardian is a character and consistently delivers excellent hospitality and wonderful Italian food.

Tania Noakes is an IFMGA Mountain Guide based in Chamonix. Check out her blog classicclimbs.com, her guide profile, and her BMC article offering advice for wannabe female mountain guides here: Letter to me.

West Grat of the Salbitschijen

By Kenny Grant

Alpine grade: ED1, 1,000m, 35 pitches

If you’re in the market for perfect granite ridge climbing in a stunning alpine situation but can’t be doing with glaciers, crevasses, seracs, and other associated mountain gnarl, I can highly recommend a visit to the Uri Alps near Andermatt, and in particular the Salbitschijen.

While the mountains in this area aren’t particularly high, being round the 3,000m mark, they make up for their lack of stature with their steepness and the quality of rock. The Salbit itself is built of perfect granite and has a host of mega classic multi-pitch routes like, Incredible 6a, as well as its famous ridges: the East, South and West Grats.

All three Grats are highly regarded, with the South being the easiest and most popular. However, if you are solid at E2 and feeling fit, then the West Grat has to be on your list. This fantastic line is 1,000m high and has 35 pitches of climbing largely all in the VS-E1 bracket with one or two trickier pitches and one of peg-pulling at A0.

Also, did I mention the towers? Well, there are five of them to get up, over and down, so you had better be slick and sorted at multi-pitch abseiling too. The climbing is generally well-protected, with a slightly spicy arête near the top but belays and abseils are all bolted and route finding is straightforward, which helps to speeds things up.

A reasonably fast party would be looking at 10-12 hours to the top. Alternatively there are bivvy sites for a more leisurely ascent, but unless you find a snow patch, no water is available.

One tactic might be to climb and descend the first tower on arriving from the valley as a recce and then stay in the excellent SAC bivouac hat, five minutes from the base of the climb. You are then in prime position the next morning to charge towards the top and the famous Salbit summit needle. The descent is well marked with paint and all being well you should soon be enjoying a beer in the main hut to celebrate success one of the best rock routes in the Alps.

Kenny Grant is an IFMGA Mountain Guide based in Scotland and the Alps. He’s equally at home mountaineering or skiing and happy working with all levels. You can find him at kennygrant.guide.

WATCH: The South Ridge of the Salbitschijen on BMC TV

Mont Rouges du Triolet: Les Chamois Volants and La Bérésina

by Tim Blakemore

The Mont Blanc massif is known for its superb granite rock climbing. There’s no getting away from the fact though that much of it is hard. Off-width cracks and chimneys abound and often the approaches are glacial, or suffering from the retreat and polish of them (many routes in the Envers have almost impossible starts later in the season).

All is not lost however. On the ‘sunny’ side of the massif, high above the Italian Val Ferret, lies the Dalmazzi Hut and the sweeping ridges and summits of the Monts Rouges du Triolet.

The granite here is excellent, clean and friendly to climb on. There really is so much to do here that you could stay a week and just scratch the surface, but I’ve picked two of the longer, middle grade routes, both ending on a real alpine summit.

La Bérésina, Pointe 3,327m

This route gets an alpine grade of D+ with ‘obligatoire’ 5C (12 pitches)

From the hut you follow well-marked trails for about an hour to the foot of a snowfield (crampons needed). The guardian often fixes a rope to help access the first pitch and you can leave all your unwanted equipment here.

The route is partially equipped in the lower pitches and you’ll need to keep an eye out for solitary bolts. I remember romping up the first five pitches barely placing any extra gear (nuts and friends 1-3 are recommended) and dispatching the first 5C pitch with hardly any effort. The 6th pitch at 5b slowed me down, however. It’s a lonely lead and easy to lose the line so slow down, look around and place gear where you can.

Here the main feature of the route, the ‘dièdre suspendu’, is climbed in two pitches. The climbing is absorbing but very well-bolted, allowing you to soak up the atmosphere as you climb high above the Triolet Glacier and its seracs.

The final pitch or two can be simul-climbed if you are feeling confident and you arrive at a commodious summit and belay in time for lunch. The descent is by abseil.

Les Chamois Volants Pointe 3,289m

5b, 18 pitches

This route, first climbed by Patrick Gabarrou, is a monster 18 pitches! It’s given an obligatoire grade of 5b but it’s not at all sustained (the first pitch is the hardest I thought) and many of the pitches can be joined together.

The start is reached easily from the hut and later in the season can be approached in trainers. You carry everything on this route, however, so leave your toothbrush and so on in the hut!

The climb is mostly on solid rock, though there are some looser sections and towards the summit there is definitely an alpine feel to the climb.

For the descent it’s best to mountaineer over Pointe 3,289m and down that ridge until you locate the excellent routes on the SSE wall. Abseil down these and then follow marked trails (one fixed rope) to the hut.

Tim Blakemore is an IFMGA mountain guide based in Chamonix. He enjoys climbing in all its forms, especially in wild places: northern mountainsport.co.uk.


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