Heading to the Alps this summer? Six Chamonix mountain guides explain their favourite routes, all packed with high adventure but with moderate technical difficulty.
Progressing to alpine routes can be intimidating and rightly so – as well as rock climbing and gear placements there are stacks of other things to consider, such as judging the weather and conditions, climbing ice and snow, remoteness, long approaches and altitude. These routes should only be undertaken by those who have learnt the appropriate skills. If in doubt, you know the score: hire a guide.
F (facile – easy)
PD (peu difficile – somewhat difficult)
AD (assez difficile – fairly difficult)
D (difficile – difficult)
TD (très difficile – very difficult)
ED (extremely difficult)
Gran Paradiso 4,061m, F+
Roughly 7-9 hours hut to hut
The highest independent peak in Italy offers a fantastic panorama of the Mont Blanc Massif, Gran Combin, Valais Alps and the Monte Rosa Massif from its summit. Attempt it from Rifugio Frederico Chabod (2,750m). Dirt tracks lead to the edge of the glacier where you rope up, don crampons and meander up easy-angled slopes through crevasses below the North Face (which provides an ideal 'first North Face' option at AD+). After around two more hours, head up steeper ground towards the summit for another hour.
You can stop to adjust the rope at a small col 30 minutes below the summit, then leave the glacier and enjoy easy scrambling onto the summit ridge. The final 50m to the summit traverses a simple, but very exposed ridge, using basic ropework and some fixed bolts for protection. There can be a bottleneck so be prepared to be patient and bring a duvet jacket!
The summit's Madonna statue provides an ideal photo opportunity before descending the same way. Overall, this is one of the simpler 4,000m peaks, requiring very good fitness combined with basic ropework and glacier skills. On cloudy days navigation can be very complex.
Stuart Macdonald has been based in Chamonix and guiding full-time since 2007. You can contact him via www.stuartmacdonald.org, or tweet @SMMountainGuide.
S-N Traverse of the Weissmeis, PD
Roughly 5-7 hours
A great route to aspire to on your first visit to the Alps is the south-north traverse of the Weissmeis, located above Saas Valley in Switzerland; although at a height of 4,017m this is a summit that should only be attempted following acclimatisation on peaks of a lower altitude.
The route follows a fine rocky ridge, which provides fantastic terrain to put your teams' moving-together and rope-work skills into practice, along with a number of sections of great big-boot rock-climbing. All this brings you to a preliminary peak, which culminates in a snow crest to the main summit. It can feel a little exposed here but the photo opportunities are great!
The descent is via the glacier on the peak’s north side, which is usually technically straight-forward, with one or two crevassed sections to negotiate. It is worth checking the conditions of the route locally before setting out.
Hannah is a British Mountain Guide based both in the Alps and the Scottish Highlands: www.hbs-guide.com
WATCH: Barre des Ecrins – French Alps on BMC TV
Aiguilles Marbrées 3,535m, PD
Roughly 4 hours
An alpine peak that has everything: a glacial approach, altitude, and a technical pitch as well as more traditional ground, which you will need to move together on. Best done early in the season when there is still snow on much of the route.
Start from Pointe Helbronner and head north-east across the Glacier du Géant (crevassed terrain). Go around the peak towards the Col de Rochefort where you access the north-east ridge. Easy ground leads to the crux slab, which can be climbed in a small pitch; there's often a fixed belay at the top. More alpine terrain then leads to the north summit at 3,535m.
Then, either retrace to the col; or better, head south along the ridge, which has many small gendarmes to negotiate (you by-pass the large one). Finally a small col is reached, where there's a fixed anchor. From here, you get to the glacier by either a down climb or small abseil.
Tim Blakemore is an IFMGA mountain guide providing bespoke mountain training: www.northernmountainsport.co.uk
Cosmiques Ridge AD
Roughly 2-4 hours
This perfect arete, which looks out to the Aiguille Verte, Grandes Jorasses, the Dent du Geant, Italy, Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Blanc, is easy to access and justifiably popular – avoid in the summertime and on weekends. It demands a full range of skills: mixed climbing, rock climbing, route finding, rope work, abseiling and gear placements.
From the top of the Aiguille du Midi, descend the ridge to the Midi Plateau, pass the Cosmiques hut and the Abri Simond shelter, then head up to the start of the ridge. It's an easy snow climb with a few easy rock moves earlier in the season; if the snow has melted away, the climbing is more demanding. Follow the rock that is most scratched by crampons. It's hard to get lost!
Some beta in brief: you need a 50m single rope for the abseils, you don’t need a big rack but a Black Diamond number 0.5, 0.75 and 1 are useful, it's hard to use the horns on the ridge for protection in the early season as they are usually buried.
Local guides have drilled crampon placements for the cruxes. For the first: one foot on the right, backstep the left foot, lean over and grab the backside of a flake and mantel on the small platform. Up and left are a pin and bolt belay. For the second: stand on the flake below the crack then put your left foot into the hole on the right. You can belay from bolts above the crack or run a long pitch to the platform above (no anchors there). Enjoy!
WATCH: Alpine Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV
Breithorn Half Traverse 4,164m, AD-
Roughly 5-7 hours
Not many peaks in the Alps offer the ease of access and variety of climbs the Breithorn does. The north face challenges seasoned alpinists, while the Normal Route is one of the easiest up a 4,000m peak. Between these extremes lies the half traverse, which offers snow and rock challenges, outrageous exposure and views from a 4,000m summit. A step up from the Cosmique Ridge, it is guided with beginners, but as with all these routes, you need some skills to undertake it on your own.
From the top of the Klein Matterhorn lift, cross the plateau heading towards the Breithorn Pass. From here descend slightly before climbing to a 4,022m col. Beware, the glacier can be very dangerous, especially late in the season. Next, follow the ridge past three main steps. Many variations are possible here; the first step can be avoided to make the traverse slightly easier. As with any ridge climb, the climbing is not always up! Protection can be difficult due to the compact rock, so experience using natural features and good rope techniques are vital. There is little fixed gear; carry a light rack and some extra runners.
After the ridge has been finished (there is a short sting in the tail at the end) you rejoin the main snow ridge of the peak, which is followed to the summit. Be careful with cornices on the north side for this section.
Adam is an IFMGA guide based in Switzerland: intothemountains.com
Tour Ronde, North Face 3,792m, D, 350m
A great route for folk who have a good Scottish winter climbing background, and are looking for a first alpine short 'easy' north face. One hour from the Torino Hut, which lies on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif, the North Face of the Tour Ronde gives a memorable climb to a beautiful summit and a view that will make the effort well worth it.
When climbing the initial 50-degree snow slope, good runners on the right-hand rocks can make moving together possible until you reach the narrows that link the two snow fields. Here the gully steepens; two 60-degree atmospheric pitches give way to yet more 50-degree foot-pointing. Again, this is best negotiated moving together if confidence allows. You may have to dig deep for those screw placements.
On reaching the snow crest, which separates the North Face from the Gervasutti Couloir, follow it to the summit tower: a good rest spot to give those calf muscles a break! Here you either turn with the tower on your left-hand side and follow your nose to the top, or for a more challenging exit, climb the tower direct on good flakes and cracks to the summit and the breathtaking views.
Matt Helliker is one of the UK’s most accomplished alpinists and an IFMGA mountain guide: www.matthelliker.com
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