In this second in a series of articles about the finest Alpine summer routes, Mike Pescod of the Jöttnar Pro Team guides us through the ultra-classic Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, via the South Ridge.
Described as an outing of 'legendary quality' by Gaston Rébuffat, it's a highly sought-after route with a big reputation.
Sometimes it's worth going against the trend of fast and light ascents; smash-and-grab climbing of the selfie style in which you rock up, race the climb, get the picture on Instagram and sprint down to see how many likes you’ve got. Sometimes it's worth taking a little extra time to get to know the place better, soak up its character, learn to appreciate being in the moment, for longer.
This was the approach that John and I took to climb the South Ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. While other teams walked up to the route and climbed half way up in a day, then finished the climb and descended to the valley on the second day, we took five days over the whole thing and were rewarded with a much deeper satisfaction. Not only did we climb the route, but we also got to know the place pretty well. And what a wonderful place it is too.
On the Italian side of Mont Blanc there are many beautiful spires of granite reaching for the deep blue sky with the glistening white summits of Mont Blanc behind. The pointiest of these is the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, "a name of legendary quality, a ridge profiled against the sky, a great reputation, magnificent climbing – all these are characteristics of the South Ridge of the Noire and combine in a route from which dreams are made." These words from Gaston Rébuffat are still true today!
"A ridge profiled against the sky"
John and I spent a relaxed day climbing up to the little hut tucked in under rocks at the edge of the coire below the peak. The balcony of the hut is a lovely, sunny place to meet other climbers and gaze continuously up at the towers on the South Ridge, wondering what they are like close up. Getting established on the climb is not entirely easy so we spent the next day learning the way across to the foot of the route and gaining some invaluable beta on the first few pitches. This meant that we got off to a good start in the early morning dark of the next day, instead of fumbling around wasting time trying to find the way up onto the crest of the ridge.
Time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted
In fact, it all went very smoothly. Pitch after pitch of stunning climbing on amazing rock got us ever further away from the cosy little hut, and ever more committed to reaching the summit. Each outrageously exposed pitch was followed by another even more exposed pitch. When you think it can not get any better, it can, and does.
We made it up to a short way below the summit and found a fine spot to spend the night. Very careful planning is required to manage the route since there is no water available on the ridge. You might find a snow patch left from the winter or a summer storm, but don’t count on it. Put the work in, get acclimatised and fit, then enjoy the experience even if you do get a bit dehydrated. Waking up to the sunrise over the Aosta Valley, on a tiny ledge, a long way up in the sky, is a moment to savour.
Pitch after pitch of stunning climbing on amazing rock
It's strange that a climb on rock of such quality can be followed by a descent on such poor rock that you’ll be lucky to get down with your ropes still in one piece! Tricky route finding and lots of loose boulders make it difficult to descend quickly. A careful, measured approach is better, trying to get it right first time to avoid retracing your steps. It’s going to take a long time, so just accept it.
John and I spent another night at the hut after getting back down, with sore toes and fingers but completely satisfied with our experience. We were able to let the memory of the climb settle more deeply in our minds by staying a while longer, gazing up at the towers on the ridge, knowing exactly what it takes to climb them all.
The Virgin Mary on the summit needle, gazing towards the Grandes Jorasses
Valley Base - Courmayeur
Start and finish – Refuge de la Noire (Borreli - Pivano 2325m)
Aiguille Noire de Peuterey (3773m), South Ridge TD 5c, descent by East Ridge AD 3c, two days.
Mike Pescod is an IFMGA guide, and a member of Jöttnar's Pro Team. He is the founder of Abacus Mountain Guides, an outdoor guiding company based in Fort William, as well as being the author of the guidebook Winter Climbs Ben Nevis and Glen Coe.