Wednesday 27 June 2012

Le Soleil Rendez-Vous avec la Lune, Aiguille du Grepon.

With a bombproof forecast for the weekend, Peter and I decided that we could finally get on a long route after a rainy and unsettled few months. The freezing level has been really high for the last couple of weeks but there is still a lot of snow above 3500m, so we were looking for something which was relatively low down, and not reliant on snow conditions. 

As is so often the case, the Envers des Aiguilles area was the best option, but the Envers hut was full, forcing us to bivi and limiting our options to routes which descend back down the same way. We eventually opted for "Le Soleil Rendez-Vous avec la Lune" on the Grepon, the longest route in the Envers des Aiguilles guidebook at a massive 850m. This might not be as long as some routes in the Alps, but there is virtually no easy terrain, meaning that opportunities for moving together are pretty limited, and you basically have to pitch the whole thing (a whopping 25 pitches!!!!). 

On Saturday we did the walk up to the Envers area and found a superb bivi site about 100m below the Envers hut. Not wanting to be tired for Sunday we opted for a short route, and did the 6 pitch "Le Piege" (6a+, 200m) on the Tour Verte, a great little route and a good warm up.

All photos Peter Riley

Me looking cool on "Le Piege"

Sunday saw us up and away by 5.15, and climbing an hour later. The lower buttress went smoothly enough, but unfortunately the traverse across the couloir on pitch 7 was covered in snow and so we were forced into a detour down and around the snow, resulting in a fairly harrowing section of downclimbing/traversing! Perfectly doable but not the best protected passage I've ever done!

Sunrise from the lower buttress

Once on the top buttress we were able to climb pitches 8 to 10 in one go (although I don't think we took the actual line of the route), but that was the only section where we moved together the whole day.

Once on the upper buttress the pitches just keep coming, and the difficulty is sustained, with only a couple of pitches at  French 5b/English VS, and everything else harder. Peter and I had both climbed longer routes, but neither of us had done a route which was so difficult for so long, and with granite climbing being pretty physical at all but the easiest grades, we were both pretty worked by the time we reached the final third of the route. Still, with the weather just about holding and with psyche high, we pushed on and maintained a good speed until pitch 19 (?) where there is a long step across a gap. Having tried every conceivable way across it, I accepted that my knackered right hip just wasn't going to stretch far enough and so brought Peter up for him to have a go. He eventually made it after various shenanigans but I couldn't reach it even with the security of a top rope and so got Peter to take me tight and I swung across, managing not to break my ankles on the way - always a bonus. 

Me leading mid way up the top buttress. This photo gives a sense of scale as I look close but am actually 45 metres away, and dwarfed by the rock.

Me seconding high on the route

Me leading a 6a/E1 pitch around pitch 20

With a few pitches left to go we were frankly knackered, but with Peter excellent at steep granite cracks and  me not so good, he took over the lead for the final steeper pitches, whilst I carried the pack and tried to climb as fast as physically possible. This tactic worked pretty well and I think we both got a pretty good workout in our respective roles of leader and water carrier!

Nearly there, Aiguille du Roc behind

After 25 pitches of climbing we eventually topped out, and immediately began our descent back down the route, stopping only briefly near the top for some food and water. The descent went incredibly smoothly, without a single stuck rope, meaning that we did the route in a 14 hour round trip, which sounds like a long time but actually felt pretty fast. From the bottom of the route we walked back to our bivi, packed our bags and then walked straight out, all the way back to Cham. We could have stayed at the hut but wanted to get home and be out of the way by the time the bad weather came, and so eventually walked back into town at 1.30am, 21 hours after the alarm had gone off at our bivi. BEASTED!!!!!

Me having a well earned bite to eat shortly after commencing our descent

Overall we felt that the sustained quality of the route was incredible, but the continuous difficulty made it feel much harder than something like the Cordier Pillar that we'd climbed a few years back. On most long routes there are sections where it gets a bit easier and you can eat up distance in big chunks, but on this route virtually every metre is "proper" climbing, in that it is technical and not easy enough to move together or even climb really quickly. 

It might not be as famous as some routes but it feels like a major success, and a great start to what will hopefully be a long, sunny summer. Routes such as this are often ignored in favour of better known climbs, so hopefully this report might see a few more people climbing what is an incredible route - it certainly deserves it.

To have found a line of such amazing quality and sustained at a decent but not extreme level is an amazing achievement on the part of Michel Piola, so I'll finish with his quote about the route and the Grepon E face.

"Invisible from Chamonix, hidden behind the imposing bulk of the Chamonix Needles, the E face of the Grepon is nevertheless of a very respectable height. More than 850m, this monstrous rock has already seen off man's attempts to build on it, shaking down the Tour Rouge Hut...and only just tolerates another building, that of the Envers des Aiguilles Hut.

...after sunning yourselves for so long on this beautifully coloured granite you may be lucky enough to witness the rare moment when the sun meets the moon (le soleil rendez-vous avec la lune).

A magical moment, best appreciated as close as possible to the hut."