Alpine Climbing & Skiing: Frost Guiding Blog

Dent Blanche South Ridge

~ Sunday 29th May 2016

The Dent Blanche is the emblem of the Val d'Hérens and dominates the view from Evolene. Often climbed in our Alpine Progression week, it's one of the trickier 4000m peaks as the "normal route" up the South Ridge route is a tough AD with the harder climbing all above 4000m. Even the hut walk-in is a challenge, with a relentless 1600m climb from the valley. The good news is there's great climbing on solid rock, positive holds, and the views are fantastic. It can be quite friendly in snowy conditions too, when the other 4k peaks are out of condition - as long as the snow is consolidated the rock sections are do-able in crampons.

Dent Blanche South ridge

Unusually for Alpine routes, the climbing starts almost straight out of the hut door - 5 minutes of steep scree lead to an exposed scramble up an airy ridge, usually in the dark!

British Mountain Guides

If the start looks as snowy as this you're in for a tough time! Happily, an easy snow section follows and allows some faster height gain. There's an easier rocky ridge (cut right before the top to avoid an awkward step) and then more snow. This bit is steep, often corniced and not to be underestimated.

Valais alpine routes

As the sun comes up the Grand Gendarme comes into view at 4000m. An easier section of rocky ridge leads to the foot of the pinnacle where the normal route traverses out left into a gully, with metal spikes for anchors and to show the way. This can be snow all the way, or dry later in the season. In dry conditions it's nice to avoid the traverse by climbing straight up the gendarme's crest on good, red rock - some of the best climbing on the route and rarely busy.

The "direct" re-joins the normal route and then follows a wide crack up the continuation ridge.

Next comes a long section of fine, airy ridge on good rock. There are a couple of pinnacles, best climbed direct on the crest or avoided on looser ground on the right.

The knife-edge crest leads to a worryingly steep final pinnacle. Happily this can be avoided by traversing on the left - steep rock but big holds lead to an awkward corner and back up to the main ridge.

Once back on the ridge, follow it turning a conspicuous lump of white quartzite on the right. Somewhere around here you'll need to put on crampons for the summit snow.

Summit! Well-earned success.

Dent Blanche summit. Guided climb

...but the summit is only half-way and getting off the Dent Blanche, like so many Alpine peaks, takes a fair bit of effort and concentration. First comes some careful cramponing down the summit snow. You can reverse the "awkward" corner, but it's easier to continue along the ridge for 50m where you'll find a bolt belay. An exciting abseil from here takes you to the foot of the final gendarme.

Some airy shuffling back down the crest and a couple of abseils off pinnacles leads to the top of the couloir. If you came up this way you'll remember the metal spikes. A mix of abseil and downclimbing from spike to spike gets you down and back out to the ridge, where easier climbing on rock, then snow, then rock...then snow...then rock...leads at last to the hut.

Many teams spend a second night in the hut, then walk out via the Tete Blanche and Bertol. (This can actually be a nice way to approach the mountain and acclimatise on the way) If you've made good time though, descending to the valley is tempting...cold beer and hot showers being "only" 1600m downhill!

Aiguilles Rouges Traverse

~ Thursday 26th May 2016

Next in the mini-series of Valais Ridge route-blogs comes the Aiguilles Rouges d'Arolla traverse. The striking, multiple summits of the Aiguilles Rouges stand out for miles around, and traversing the crest is something of a "Valais classic". It features in several coffee-table guidebooks, but a few years ago I couldn't find anyone who'd actually done it. This is classic Alpine climbing, a long day, and you're unlikely to meet anyone else up there. It can be climbed on our Grandes Courses or Performance Alpinism courses or as part of a Private Guiding package.

We stayed at the Aiguilles Rouges hut (With renovation imminent, this is one of the last great Alpine hut toilets, and quite an experience!) From there it's a short glacial approach to the ridge. Short, but this is "real" glacier, so you'll need crampons and crevasse rescue kit. The seracs mentioned in the AC guide are long gone though.

Steep snow leads up to the col, where the "fun" begins. Turn left and follow the ridge! The crest is steeper but more solid. An easy traverse out left is tempting but means crossing some very loose ground to regain the ridge. After that, some pleasant scrambling leads quickly to the first summit (3593m).

Next, descend good rock into the broad gap between the 2 summits. The AC guide mentions climbing a "gully" right of the ridge to gain the main summit - the obvious snowy line in the next picture. As mentioned elsewhere, the Valais isn't know for superb rock. There are exceptions...but this isn't one of them. The area around the gully is definitely type 2 rock.

After some character-building ground, the main summit arrives with fine views of the higher peaks - and the remaining ridge. It's not over yet!

From here, the AC guide was at best vague. There are a lot of pinnacles on the Cret de Coq - go over or round them following your nose, mostly on the less steep left (East) side. The rock is better (mostly) and there's some good climbing on fine red rock in great positions with a huge drop down to the Dixence dam focussing the mind!

This section does go on a bit. We lost count of pinnacles and gave up reading the guidebook, but the climbing is excellent and enjoyable.

We didn't make any abseils, down-climbing the south sides of each pinnacle.

Some time later we reached Col Slingsby. This is a classic steep ski descent down into the Vallon des Ignes, but the summer route carries on along the ridge before dropping onto the right flank above the Dixence dam. The AC describes this as "loose" and isn't exaggerating. Strangely the crest seemed even looser so persevering down easy rubble is the best option. In 2013 there were few signs of a path down here.

A col around 3264m is the end of the tricky stuff, and easy snow slopes make for a welcome, quick descent westwards into the Val des Ignes. Looking back, it's clear why this route takes time - the complex skyline is seen in profile - count the pinnacles!

Douves Blanches Ridge

~ Monday 16th May 2016

As the summer season approaches, here are some appetite-whetting pictures of one the less well-known Arolla ridges - the Douves Blanches. The central Valais isn't famous for top-quality rock but here you'll find great climbing on solid, red gneiss, and some fine positions with the crux near the top. Probably no white doves, but you might well see eagles overhead. In the AD-D range, this is some of the best climbing in the area and can be climbed on our Grandes Courses or Performance Alpinism courses or as part of a Private Guiding package.

The route isn't exactly remote - it's the left-hand skyline of the busy Bertol hut approach - but it's unusual to meet another team and much of the route feels fairly untravelled with just a few pegs in the crux pitch and a bunch of slings for an abseil anchor to show the way. Although the route is all rock the descent is on glacier. Not far, and all downhill, but not to be underestimated either! The Col de la Tsa can need an abseil depending on conditions, and there are some sizeable crevasses.

Although the approach uses the hut path, Bertol isn't a very helpful starting point as the hut is another 90 minutes up from the start of the route. Starting from the valley is one option - it's about 2 hours to the climbing - but the Plan de Bertol is a great spot for a bivvy and you can pick up the gear on the way down in the afternoon.

Finding the start isn't obvious. You could go for an epic "intergrale" from the foot of the ridge but this would be pretty long! Most teams head for the huge slab below the obvious tower of the Quille. Look for a line of chimneys and ledges heading up left, aiming for the lower left of the Quille. Harder options head straight up the cracks in the slab, directly onto the Quille.

Arolla Alps mountain guide technical course

Once on the ridge turn right and...follow the ridge! You could traverse round the Quille on slabs on the right, but going over is quite easy, and better.

Switzerland Alps mountain guide technical mountaineering

Beyond there the rock gets steeper...

...and the views open up! Mont Collon, Petit Mont Collon, Col de Chermontane and the Pigne d'Arolla in the background.

There are a few towers to go over, or round. The route description in the Alpine Club guide is fairly vague, but the route-finding is easy enough.

The climbing gets steadily better - and harder - as you gain height. Luckily the rock is good and you'll probably be climbing in the sun!

High on the route comes the crux. A steep lay-back out right leads...

...into a steep corner with a few old pegs. (But some good wire and cam placements too!)

A short descent leads onto the final section. Easier but airy climbing onto the summit - with a few false summits on the way, it's further than it looks!

The summit, when it eventually arrives, brings fine views West to the Dent Blanche and Matterhorn (If you're keen for those peaks then the Douves Blanches would make a fine acclimatising route) It's been a long day, especially if you started from the valley, but it's all downhill from here! Don't switch off - the glacier gets the sun all day and will be soft, and there are some big crevasses. You'll quickly pick up the Bertol-Aiguille de la Tsa trail, then turn right through the Col de la Tsa. This can be easy snow, but can also be steep, or bare ice, with a big bergschrund. An abseil gets you past the steep bit, then it's fast snow down to the Bertol path and a knee-bashing descent to the valley for a well-earned beer.

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