Climbing the Frendo Spur is high up on many alpinists dreams when they arrive in Chamonix. A striking line that towers over town, rising right underneath the Aiguille du Midi telepherique in full view of all the camera happy tourists. Described as a mid-grade classic, I’ve had my eye on this route for several years and finally had my chance.
Fast and Light vs Classic Alpinism
How to climb the Frendo Spur is an often debated topic with two contrasting approaches. The route is broken up into two sections, 900m of the rock spur followed by about 300m of snow and ice. The top ice section catches the sun early and, as such, can be pretty dangerous and scary late in the day.
This means that, traditionally, people have set off and climbed the rock spur on day one then bivouacked at the top until the cold nighttime temperatures refreeze the upper section, climbing the ice in the morning.
Modern alpinism, however, is all about being fast and light. Why carry bivi kit, a stove, food, etc. and make it a two day affair when you can go ultra light, move faster and complete in in one day? Really, this means getting to the snow and ice by mid-morning.
The guide book time for the route is 6-8 hours with the rock section being the majority of this. To get up there by mid-morning really means bivying at the base of the route and setting off very early.
The idea of camping at the mid-station and setting off at 1am, climbing the majority of the route in the dark, and getting to the ice in good time just felt so much like hard work. We wanted to enjoy the route and not feel rushed by deteriorating conditions and the threat of missing the lift back down.
Climbing the Frendo Spur, a civilised affair
We opted for the classic two day approach, the civilised, less pressured way. We planned to set off at about 11am, climb the rock by mid afternoon, set up camp, and, following a comfy night, get on the ice first thing.
The weather had been pretty temperamental recently but we were promised a glorious day on day one followed by a good morning on day two. We planned to be down and off the route by early morning so the afternoon storm should be a problem though after my last outing, I had a few worries at the back of my mind.
Climbing the Frendo Spur
As we set off from the Plan de l’Aiguille lift station at 11am both of us were very excited. Though Graeme is a very experienced climber, neither of us had been on a two day route before and both of us were psyched to finally to be climbing this classic route.
Thankfully a party had started up the route early putting in nice footsteps on the approach snow and we made quick progress. Getting onto the Spur itself, however highlighted a few problems. First, there was a lot of snow still. Second, there was a lot of cloud – not the blue bird day we were promised.
Four hours in, and having been climbing non-stop, we stopped for some water and to chat about progress. Looking at the topo, we were only about half way up.. How were we only half way up after 4 hours?
We were moving together as best we could but climbing in big mountain boots on slabs and narrow cracks made slow progress and neither of us felt we could move much faster. We felt ok about it, though, as we had a long time until sunset and didn’t have the time pressure of making the last lift.
Several hours later, though we were making good progress, both of us really started to feel it. We had been climbing for over 6 hours and the spur just still towered above us. Blimey, will this ever end? Sense of humour was starting to fail a little and we both were just hoping we were near the top. We still were not.
As we forced our way up several difficult pitches and went full French-free – pulling on gear when necessary, I pulled up and over at the top of my pitch to see a man-made dry stone wall that I knew was a windbreak for a bivouac spot. We had made it!
Just as the sun was setting and 8 hours after we set off, we had made it to the top of the rock section. As Graeme came up, I shouted down we had made it. His face lit up as he looked up at me and shouted back ‘Oh, you’ve made my day!’.
The world’s best bivouac spot
As we arrived at the bivi spot, a friend’s words echoed in my head – if anything will make you believe in God, it is these bivi spots. There were at least half a dozen perfectly flat sections, well protected from the elements and al with stunning views for us to choose from. As the only people on the route, we had our pick and settled in to the prime spot.
It was late and so, after getting the stove on, heating up some soup, and getting into our sleeping bags, it was time for whiskey, a little chat about the day before heading to sleep. As we sat back and took in the view, all the tiredness from the day, stress from the route, and moments of wishing I was somewhere else melted away. The view was just sublime. To be in the heart of the high mountains, with a view that you can only get by climbing nearly 1000m and sleeping under the stars was just magical.
By 10pm I was out like a light and, except for a few moments in the night, slept like a log. When the sun started to rise at 5am, both of us were wide awake, and ready to get started for the final section.
Finishing the Frendo Spur
We had packed up camp by 6:15am and, as looked down onto Chamonix and everyone starting their day, we strapped on our crampons for the final ice climbing of the route. I have to say, starting the day with Grade III ice was a bit of a wake up call but we quickly moved up the final sections, soloing together on the easy terrain.
After a while, however, the 1500m of exposure, long day yesterday, and being unacclimatised at high altitude started to take it’s toll and soloing on that terrain got a bit much for me. Graeme was very understanding and we quickly set up a belay for what turned out to be the final 60m of the entire route.
I climbed the last section and as I moved into the sun, I could see the cornice above me with the rope cutting through. The end was in sight!
I pulled through the cornice at 8.45am to a completely different world – after two days alone on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the morning rush hour – hundreds of budding alpinists being guided down the snow arete on their first outings in the high mountains, experience climbers racing off for the day’s objectives, and everyone in between.
We received a few looks but is was with not so quiet satisfaction that we knew we had just climbed the most amazing route and no-one around us was the wiser!
After the customary, and very very British, handshakes and summit photos, we knew we were done. With just a few hundred metres of snow arete to get up and 6 hours until last lift we knew we had made it.
Letting it all sink in
A route like this always takes a few days to sink in. After the initial adrenaline then inevitable crash, I find myself so excited for the summer ahead – only my third route so far and I’ve already had some incredible experiences – I have a good feeling about this season and am excited to see where my climbing will take me!