1st June 2015. I had just finished packing for a long trip to New Zealand with no return date confirmed. Most of my gear had been shipped already and I was about to give back the key of my flat forever when the phone rang. It was one of those unexpected last minute phone calls: ” Hey Tom, how’s it going? What are you up to in the next few days? Would you be keen to go on a photo mission assignment for us ( Petzl ) in Chamonix?” Yep, Totally, love to!
The assignment was to follow talented climbers Cedric Lachat and Fabien Dugit on their crazy project, Free climbing the Aid Route “Ballade au Claire de Lune” located on the South Face of The Aiguille du Fou 3501m. This route draws a straight line up the steep 300m granite big wall directly to the summit, above a icy and exposed 400m gully.
Here we are, on the way to Chamonix, trying to organise the mission, borrowing gear coz mine was already on route to NZ…Chaos! Just another normal day for me…
I had met Fabien before and done some climbing with him in the past. He was in the mountain rescue team, a former competitor climber and at that time an aspirant guide. It was the first time meeting Cedric, one of the world top climbers, with a long solid past as a competitor. I was really excited to get together with them.
With heavy backpacks we headed towards the refuge de l’envers des aiguilles, about 3hrs from the Montenvers train station. The hut restauration facilites were closed so we had to carry enough food for 3 days. After a short night there we stepped up on the Blatiere Glacier for the next 3hrs navigating in the dark. We reached the bottom of the snowy couloir at dawn. We pulled out our ice axes and started climbing this exposed gully before the sun would hit it… otherwise we would have been climbing under a continuous rock fall…
Fabien and Cedric had previously climbed half of the route and left some fixed ropes there. This made my job easier, at least for the beginning.
Their objective was to free send the route in one day. So not much time to do many attempts on the crux, a narly 8b trad pitch on poor protection. That meant I also had to do the photo report onsight… no take two’s! Couldn’t miss a shot! Quite stressful for me… I had to climb on the fixed rope and figure out the best angles while they were doing their attempt.
Working under pressure is a rush I enjoy quite a lot. All went well, They mastered their climb until the end of the hard part. Cedric was impressive in the crux, he vibrated a bit, but sent the pitch first try, solid!!
The next half of the route was supposed to be easier, well just for the two next pitches!
From there I became part of the team, and swapped my photographer hat for rock shoes and had to follow Cedric and Fabien on their rope, in order to top out. Our plan was to be on top before the night set in… hard job!! For one of the pitches we had no idea if it was possible to free climb it… Ended up as a technical 7c+. We finally reached the summit just as the last rays of light disappeared… Perfect!
As usual, when you sit on top of a mountain, you’re just half way through your journey…. A long onsight abseil descent in the complete dark awaited us. We reached the bottom of the wall where we had left our bivy gear at midnight. Two hours later, we had to squeeze ourselves on a two person size ledge coz Cedric’s hamac broke…
After being woken up by a melon size rock crashing onto our ledge between us, we continued our way down to the valley. Exhausted we fell asleep on the train back to Chamonix…Mission accomplished, time to fly to the other side of the world!