My 1965 climbing season started in the Moab area, followed by Yosemite Valley. As summer approached, I drove across the country with Doug and Susie Tompkins, in their VW bus. Or was it with Royal Robbins and Liz? I was en route to Europe, in the company of my friend Roger Paris, who had some kayak business to attend to in Belgium. We took Icelandic to Brussels, where Roger’s parents picked us up (Roger is French). We enjoyed a great steak au poivre one evening, and then Roger’s folks dropped me off near Paris. In Paris, I went in search of Gary Hemming, and spent the night sleeping on the mat in front of the door of his French host, who wouldn’t open up for me late at night. The next night Gary and I bivouacked in the bushes in the vicinity of Notre Dame.
I met Eglantine in Chamonix, with the hope of climbing something, but bad weather made that impossible.
We then traveled to Aix-en-Provence, and Eglantine’s family home. As before, the Amys were very gracious. Eglantine suggested that we take a trip to the Calanques, an area of very rugged limestone cliffs that drop directly into the Mediterranean, west of Marseilles. Her brother Daniel would accompany us, as a chaperone.
As is related on the postcard, Eglantine was a nudist. Nothing wrong with that, but, since we were not then physically intimate (and never were!), it damn near drove me crazy. I found it occasionally necessary to jump into the water to cool and/or conceal my ardor. The Swiss visit mentioned on the card was to Leysin, where John Harlin was employed by the American School. While there, Royal Robbins and myself did a climb of the Sphinx, a limestone crag near town. Then I returned to Chamonix to participate in the three-week Rassemblement International d’Alpinists. I had been chosen by the American Alpine Club to be one of two climbers to represent the US. The other was Lito Tejada-Flores. This event was sponsored by the French government. We stayed at the Ecole National de Ski et d’Alpinism, in Chamonix. Besides room and board at the School, we got passes to the cable cars (télépheriques), to the huts, hut food and transportation costs in France. It was a free ride.
The British representatives to the Rassemblement were Tom Patey and Chris Bonington. Tom had a ring binder full of photos and details on routes in the area that were yet to be done i.e. first ascent possibilities. One such was the West Face of the Cardinal, located on the SW ridge of the Aiguille Verte, which ends at the Aiguille du Moine. We teamed up with the two to give it a shot. The approach was by way of the Charpoua hut. We started the climb the next day, on July 14, 1965.
From the position seen in the above photos, the climb veered right, towards the West Ridge. Lito led a key aid pitch that took us back onto the face, and we completed the first ascent of the West Face of the Cardinal. Tom Patey was a hugely entertaining Scot, who died in 1970, while rappelling off a sea stack in Scotland. Here is a note on the Cardinal climb, from the Alpine Journal of the UK (written by Bonington): “LE CARDINAL, West face. First ascent. July 14, 1965. C. J. S. Bonington, T.W.Patey, R.TejadaFlores, S.R.Miller (both U.S.A.). The route took a direct line up the face overlooking the Charpoua hut, starting at the lowest point of the face. It gave 1 ,200 ft. of climbing, of which 400ft. were sustained V, VI and A1. The rock tended to be friable. The climb took 11 hours, and was T.D. sup. in standard.”
Lito and I then joined up with the two Italian representatives to do what I consider to be the most attractive and rewarding climb in Chamonix – the East Face of the Grand Capuchin. For quality of rock, demanding difficulties, and sheer beauty, none other can compare.
We left the Torino hut by headlamp for the base of the climb.
It was getting dark as we arrived at the small summit. We four then started doing leap-frogging rappels for much of the night, with the moon coming out at midnight. We did rappel after rappel down the ice-gully that lay to the north side of the peak. We were staggering across the glacier as dawn broke. I remember taking a short nap on the snow for awhile. By the time we got back to the Torino hut, we had been going steady for well over 24 hours.
Annotated postcard, showing the south side of Mt. Blanc, and, in particular, the Central Pillar of Freney. The “X” shows the famous bivy site. Also shown are the Aiguilles Noire and Blanche, on the Arete de Peuterey, a long and classic climb. The Red Sentinel route on the adjoining Brenva Face is also identified. (Tairraz photo), June 23, 1965
The climb on mixed terrain I refer to in the above postcard was the Red Sentinel route, on the Brenva Face. I attempted this climb with a German climber. Lito and Bonington were going off by themselves to try a new route the next day. We left from the Torino hut, and climbed steep ice to get to the Col de la Fourche bivouac hut, which hut was cabled onto a knife-edge ridge. We started very early the next morning by headlamp, rappelling to the Brenva Glacier and then crossing it to the Col Moore. It was still dark when we started up the face. Up and up we went!
We came to a steep rib of rock, split by a beautiful chimney, which I elected to lead. It looked to me more desirable than the very steep snow slope to its side. I climbed up without placing any protection, and then got to a point where the chimney widened and I couldn’t continue on the side I was on. I leapt for the other side of the chimney, thinking I could grab some holds. But I fell … and landed on my partner. A point of my crampons (that were tied to the top of my pack) punctured him in the elbow, seriously enough to warrant a retreat. The “X” in the annotated postcard, above, shows our high point. We were not that far from the end of difficulties! On the descent, I did some hairy down step-cutting across some steep ice, to get us back to the Brenva Glacier. Climbers in the hut watched our retreat, and, as it got dark, they threw a rope down to us as we started up towards the hut.
I did not take the job offered me by John Harlin at the American School, in Leysin, Switzerland.
During a spell of bad weather, the four of us went over to climb the Miroir d’Argentine, located not far from Leysin, Switzerland. The “miroir” is a very large and smooth limestone slab.
We descended by a different route than our route of ascent. We were running down through the woods and suddenly burst out on the road, face to face with a mountain restaurant. Without a second thought, we entered and spent a number of hours there, eating serving after serving of raclette, each serving of which came with a shot of white wine. Raclette is melted cheese served in a still-liquid form (it is scraped off the face of a cut wheel of cheese that is faced towards the fire), which is consumed with a small potato and cocktail onion. Then you down the ounce of wine. Did we do 19 servings? The raclette was as memorable as the climb.
What next? The Central Pillar of Freney, of course. This route had been done only twice before, when myself, George Lowe, Chris Jones and Nick Estcourt decided to up our personal antes (see postcards above). This is the biggest route in the Mt. Blanc massif, and has quite a story that goes with it. In July of 1961, seven climbers, four French and three Italian (including the famous Walter Bonatti), attempted the climb together. They were caught by a vicious storm when very high on the Pillar, at the base of La Chandelle (see photo below). They bivouaced there, hoping to wait out the storm, but after four days they began their retreat. When it was all over, four men had died. Since that time, the Pillar had been climbed by the British, with a French team right on their heels, and a Polish party. Now, it was only four years after the 1961 tragedy, and one could not attempt the climb without thoughts of that tragedy, and the unusual risks associated with the climb.
Chris Jones and Nick Estcourt were very experienced alpinists. I’d had one Alpine season in 1962, and was partway through my second season. George Lowe was in his first season in the Alps. We left the Gamba hut very early in the AM, descended to the Freney Glacier, and began the long climb to the base of the Pillar.
We made good time, and were at the bivouac site by mid-afternoon. I had led the pitch to the bivy site and hadn’t been paying attention to the weather. We were now enveloped in mist. George led across an exposed snow￼ knife-edge to the rocks at the foot of La Chandelle, disappearing into the mist. The french solo climber, Phillippe Gatta, has this to say about that knife-edge: “Pitch #12 and #13: mix and snow up to the famous horizontal ridge. With the sun, the snow started to melt for 10/15 cm and was hard below. This horizontal ridge is relatively short, a few meters, it is first snowy then in rock and then snowy again. In my opinion that was the hardest section of the entire Freney Pillar. I just ride the ridge without any protection…”. Chris and Nick joined me at the belay, and said they weren’t very happy about the change in weather. It was their opinion that we were in for a storm, and they thought we should begin a retreat without delay. We were, of course, thinking about the seven men that had gambled with the weather, when at this very spot. I felt it wise to defer to the opinion of these two men, who had more Alpine experience than myself. I yelled across to George that we thought it best to descend. “No”, he responded, “I’m not going down.” And, “I don’t want to re-cross the knife-edge, either”. He was adamant. Finally, I said: “OK, then, untie!”. This gave him pause, and he shortly returned across the knife-edge. We then began a very long series of rappels, during which the sun came out! No storm! But there was no going back up now, and we finally arrived at a decent-sized ledge where we could spend the night. Trouble was, the ledge was completely ice-filled. After two hours of whacking at the ice with my axe, I had cleared the ledge enough so that the four of us could stretch out. We ate and then got out our bivy gear. We had down jackets and bivouac sacks … and then George discovered that his water bottle had leaked and soaked his down jacket. So I spent the night sleeping on top of George, whose shivers bounced me around the entire time. Chris and Nick, meanwhile, kept their stove going and the hot drinks coming. In the deep chill of the night, way up on the side of Mt. Blanc, the roar of the white gas stove was very comforting. The next day, under clear blue skies, we continued rappelling. One of the 1961 survivors had said that they made 50 rappels. We made a lot of rappels, but maybe not quite that many.
George went on to become one of the most accomplished American alpinists ever, doing very intimidating climbs in big mountains, decade after decade. He was written up in the Dec. 1992/January 1993 issue of Climbing magazine, in which he referred to our Pillar of Freney outing as a “strong attempt”. Chris Jones became a man of letters, and Nick Estcourt was killed by an avalanche on K2. This is from a Banff Center piece on Chris Jones: “In 1965 he climbed the renowned Bonatti Pillar on the Dru, and attempted the third ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney, the touchstone challenge of its day. On the pillar, and in a gathering storm, he and his team bivouaced at the exact spot from which Bonatti and his companions had retreated, precipitating one of the greatest tragedys in Alpinism. Bearing in mind the history, rational thought was well-nigh impossible, and Chris and his team abandoned their attempt the following day.” This account differs from mine, in saying that we bivouacked at the foot of La Chandelle. Rather, as I recount above, we began our retreat within a short time of arriving at the bivy site. Had we bivvied there, we would have been still in the game when the weather improved, and more than happy to continue upward the next day!
Gary Hemming was a wild man, who aspired to be a Chamonix guide. The Compagnie des Guides would have nothing to do with him. After first establishing a new and impressive route on the Petit Dru, in 1962, with Royal Robbins, he showed the guide establishment up when, in 1966, he reached and rescued two climbers stranded on the Petit Dru before the Chamonix guides were able to get there. This put him on the cover of Paris Match and made him a celebrity in France. The cover of the biography of Gary Hemming shown below uses the same photo as appeared on the cover of Paris Match.
Gary and I hung out together in Chamonix, and started seeing a pair of french sisters who lived down valley. He was after Marie-Claire and I Annique, but I got nowhere with the latter. The girls’ parents were dead set against Gary seeing Marie-Claire, and this led to more press attention, when he was caught trying to climb over the wall of her home. He finally returned to the US, and one of his old haunts – the Guide’s Camp, in the Tetons. One evening around the campfire (as the story goes), he got unruly and was knocked to the ground by one of the guides. He went away and then came back waving a gun, later that night to shoot himself in the head. This was in the summer of 1969. Gary was an intriguing character, and I’m glad that I got to spend some time with him.
After the season concluded, I went up to Rotterdam to stay for a short while with friends of my folks, the Coeberghs. Jost Coebergh had connections in the shipping business, and found me a deal to work for my passage on a ship that would carry me across the Atlantic. It was the Norwegian bulk carrier “Naess Meteor”.
There were some others “working” for their passage, who didn’t come out of their cabins, except to eat. I painted and polished brass. The food was terrible! Boiled fish and boiled potatoes. We sailed through one storm and stopped at Sept Isles, Quebec, to pick up a load of iron ore. I left the ship at Norfolk, VA, on October 6, 1965.
In November, I returned to Aspen and did some desert climbing, which is seen in the next post.