The Frendo Spur is one of the classic north face routes in the Mont Blanc Region. I read about it before arriving in Chamonix and it has always been high on my list of routes to aspire to. Not to be undertaken lightly, there has been a lot of accidents and deaths on this popular route. One of the many great and challenging things about it is that you need to be able to rock climb, mountaineer and climb some steep ice over 1200m to earn your lift down from the top. Frequently gazing up at it from the valley, the time finally came round where after a winter of learning to climb ice and getting back into rock climbing in the summer, I felt strong enough to go for it. Joel was back in action after a minor world-cup-inspired football injury and the weather looked stable for the next two days. All lights were green!
People approach the Frendo using a number of different tactics, from a fast and light one day push bin to bin(very fast teams, committing), to a bivi at the bottom and climb in one push(less weight in packs but 1500m of height in one day) or climb and bivi on the route(breaks up route but heavy packs), each has its own advantages and compromises. We opted for the leisurely less stressful option of climbing all day in the sun to a bivi, and finishing off the snow and ice in the morning once it had refrozen. This worked really well for us and I recommend it to anyone looking to climb it as I wouldn’t want to be caught on the top slopes on rotten ice and slushy snow!
We found Alex Buisse’s high resolution topo and list of route finding tips really helpful and were a good balance of enough information without taking too much away from the mystery of adventure.
An 1:15 minute approach from the mid station took us over the morraine and lower glacier up to the bergstrund which is climbed easily over a large bridge. From here we climbed the two mixed ramps of broken ground before switching to rock shoes as the terrain steepened. En route up to the ‘Rateau de Chevre’ I pressed three fingers on a boulder the actual size of a fridge when the thing slid down as if it was on a load of ball bearings right towards Joel, landing on the dorsal part of my foot on its way. It exploded by Joels side, luckily missing both him and our rope, leaving our nostrils overwhelmed with the stench of sulphur(?) that hung in the air. We were definitely on a big mountain. Now at least, we both had sore feet. The climbing up through Rateau de Chevre was fun and exposed, and the rock quality definitely gets much better for a while. After climbing more enjoyable ground through chimneys and up gullies we emerged onto the sunny side of the ridge and, in keeping with our leisurely style, brewed up a coffee and took a good break. Spirits were high even with our depressingly heavy bags trying to bring us down. A good third of the route was already done.
From here we climbed high quality slabs with perfect flakes, gullies lined with cracks and technical chimney sections. It was really good climbing all the way up to ‘the exposed col’ where a crux waited for us deep in the left hand side of the ridge. It was incredible varied crack climbing, switching from one crack to another side to side. I climbed our full 50m rope length and could have carried on! It was so nice to be trad climbing again. Joel swung into the lead finding even more pleasant climbing up to another crux pitch. By this time our bags and especially my feet were getting painful. Water and shoe removing stops became more frequent as we dug deep to push on. Having not rock climbed carrying bivi and ice climbing gear before it was hugely strenuous towards the latter part of the day. We kept reminding ourselves that the sunset bivi will be well worth it.
What we think was the final crux seemed a little intimidating and unnecessary as I was able to pass it on the left, still not sure if it was but we continued and followed a logical line of weakness round the left of the spur to 50m below the snow saddle. We had passed some shaded bivi spots but had spied a ledge a short rap down facing Chamonix and the setting sun. This was the spot for us! Finally we were building some anchors and cleared our ledges to slump down and eat our gourmet dinner of knacks, ravioli/tortellini and of course, Carrefours’ finest ruby port.
The sun set, the night air was still, and we marvelled at our position atop of this huge wall. Neither of us had ever slept mid way up a route before and it was amazing. As we were seeing who could see our headlamps from town, a thunderous rumble echoed though the silence and we thrust ourselves towards the back wall under cover, chilled to the bones with eyes flared wide open. It must have been an avalanche, maybe down the Col du Plan but we couldn’t see to be sure, all we thought was that thank *%$# that didn’t come our way. Draining the last of the port we climbed into our sleeping bags for a bearable sleep. Conditions were mild, beds as comfy as they could be, and the stars shone brightly but I never sleep too well at altitude, waking up every now and then surprised to be perched on a ledge.
Joel woke me at 5am(!?!?grumble grumble) eager to get moving after his bad nights sleep. We drank coffee and gagged at the sight of the water that we had melted the night before, full of grit, pasta and lichen. Mmmmm! Drinking it was only recommended through pursed lips and clenched teeth!
The initial snow slopes had a deep boot pack in and Joel lead up to the really exposed saddle that joins up with the final rock buttress and summit slopes. Tentatively he lead the way over the unprotectable ridge then I swung in to lead the ice. Sustained slopes at 50-60 degrees burned our calves and after taking too many gulps of our foul water decided to make a fresh batch given that we had it in good conditions with plenty of time. Refreshed, I carried on up through the sections at 80 degrees that was getting a little watery in the heat of the morning sun, but still took a few screws and gear in the rock wall beside, allowing us to move together. The winter training held me in good stead and this section didn’t pose any problems. It was an amazing way to finish off climbing our first big north face line- ice climbing in the sun! I made it over to the midi arete plateau and bought Joel up. Exhausted from the calve burning finale and both feeling the altitude he dropped his axes flung himself on to me. Maybe I looked irresistible in the morning sun? But I think it was because we were both so chuffed to have climbed such a varied and sustained classic route. All that was left was the 30 min hoof up the midi arete to top us off.
Beaming all the way back to town we dropped into Cafe Bluebird for a royal breakfast of sausage sandwiches and orangina.
An amazing trip and an absolute must for those that ever get the opportunity! Cheers Joel for rocking climb shoes instead of ski boots for once!
7 cams(0.75-3, some doubled)
x2 sets of nuts
yellow and blue hexes
x4 ice screws
x8 quick draws (4 extendable, 4 regular)
x6 double slings
about 8 screwgates
two technical axes
Although some reports suggest a fairly light rack, we weren’t trying to be heroes, and found that the flexibility of doubling up meant we could move together with less changes when we wanted. A few screws are definitely worth carrying for the upper slopes if icy.