It's been a dry Autumn in the Alps. Sure, there was one big dump of snow in November, to get everyone excited for a big winter, but as yet there is nothing on the horzion in terms of precipitation. A high pressure in the Alps brings day after day of blue skies, but along with that polluted valleys, filled to the brim with wood smoke and diesel fumes, all trapped like a caged animal until a low pressure becomes more dominate to realise its toxic air away from the valleys, and up into the higher atmospheres, and to then most likely, make all of us again forget what we are doing to our planet, out of site out of mind, maybe so! But its still there, still infecting!
To escape the smog on the 2nd December, the opening day of the Skyway lift in Courmayuer, Italy, myself along with Stu Macdonald took the ride to the top, skied and skinned into Cirque Maudit to go and check conditions, and to look at a few new route possibilities I've had in mind. To no surprise conditions where dry, limited amounts of usable ice and from what I could make out, no transformation of snow on the existing routes, only powder!
Route choice for a climb later in the week was limited, but I had one cool line in mind, a line that to me stood out on the l'epaule NW de la Tour Ronde and as far as I was aware, unclimbed. The following days I spent hours looking through old guide books and going through the route files at OHM Office in Chamonix to confirm or not as to if the line had already been climbed. Weather it would be or not, it looked cool, something different to go at in an area where the potential for new routes are now limited, especially in these conditions.
7th December, with the first lift at 8.30 at Skyway, and with short daylight hours, myself and Stu didn't even have time for a coffee when the lift docked into the top station (very unusual). With a slight breeze but under a blue sky we skied, then skinned back up into the Cirque Maudit, rounding the bend the breeze stopped to leave a calm day. Perfect weather gave way to some perfect mixed climbing, cracks, corners, and caves with just enough snow to hold together some loose ground, and with just enough ice to let us creep up smooth slabs, but with the rock lending itself to solid hooks and great protection. At the top of pitch 5 one below the top we where consumed by darkness. Pitch 6 I took a right hand corner leading to a roof, which I pasted on the right with zero feet! Bringing us to the side of the buttress and a logical finish of this line at a large spike, revealing beautiful views over to the south face of Mont Blanc in a moon lit sky.
We rappelled the line to the top of the 4th pitch, but from here rappelled the falline for a further 3 rope lengths to the glacier, on blue cord ( you can't miss it!!). I have to say that the climbing to the top of pitch 5 was really excellent, pitch 6...."not so fun" but it was dark! I think if anyone's keen for a repeat either call it good at the top of pitch 5 and rap, or rather than go up and right where we went, go up and left, this could be a nicer finish!! Maybe.... Oh and take a number 4 cam, 2x number 1, 2x number 0.75. This will keep it fun.
Once back at the base and after a short chat with Stu, about either battling down the toula glacier in the dark after a re-freeze, or stay in the hut and have a shite nights sleep, there was only one good option.... We skied the Toula! It was "skiable" to the mid station to where we then carried on down to the valley with only 15 minutes of walking at the end back to Skyway and Pizza, result!
I've checked in with a few Italian and French local area experts and everyone believes this is for sure a new winter line, with only one other route on this face being the rock route from Jean-Marc Boivin and Patrick Decorps in 1980. It's possible other folk have rock climbed up there before in the area but nothing is for sure. Either way it's a line well worth seeking out when all the classic mixed routes are mobbed. Enjoy.....
"Rotatornator" 250m Scottish VII (M6/M6+) . l'epaule NW de la Tour Ronde, 7th December. 2016 Matt Helliker/Stuart Macdonald