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Frendo Spur

Back in 2006, my friend Roel, my brother Adam and I decided to go away for an expedition in the summer. The obvious choice was the Alps, and where better than Chamonix, the heart of global alpinism. It was my rite of passage as an up and coming climber.

Whilst choosing to come to Chamonix had been a relatively easy decision, what to do there was not. Being Mr. Ego, obviously I was all up for the central pillar of Freney or a crack at the Walker Spur; the whole alpine business sounded easy. The guide books said that no pitch on climbs such as these would have anything harder than around VS/HVS. I had been climbing E2’s all summer; I could do these routes with my eyes closed surely? With hindsight, I’m very glad we did lower the standard as otherwise I would have been right up the duff!

In the end, we settled for what was known amongst climbers as a good apprenticeship route, the Frendo Spur:

Frendo Spur D+E Frendo R Rionda 11 July 1941

It is a magnificent and well established classic. One of the finest mixed climbs in Auguilles with gradually increasing difficulties all the way to the top.

The route is divided into three parts, the bottom two consisting of rock and the third a steep ice ridge leading to a final buttress of rock barring entry to the Midi-Plan ridge. A suitable bivi area is at the top of the rock, allowing one to rest before the change of styles and an early morning attack on the frozen ridge. This two day combination would leave us plenty of time to catch the much needed cable car back down. Also, it was only supposed to be about HS climbing standard.

Sorted! After some memorable acclimatization antics and near death falls into crevasses on the Petit Aguille Verte, we stormed off to the Midi telepherique early one morning like a bull in a china shop, only to leave crucial gear back in the car and get ourselves off to a delayed start – so much for moving quickly and efficiently; we weren’t even on the route yet!

Setting off from the station I felt proud to be a climber, the mountains standing tall above letting you know who is boss and just reminding you to remember to do your job properly.

The approach was to take about an hour or two, however my time approximations were soon learnt to be discarded or multiplied by three if they were to have any bearing on when we may actually arrive at a particular point; “yeh, we'll be climbing in twenty mins”. An hour later we finally racked up the gear and set off on what became one of the best experiences I have ever had.

Endless pitches of warm golden granite, technical enough to retain interest but never too difficult. We were cruising, truly loving the dream. We overtook a Spanish couple and I really thought we were doing well, especially considering we were three. It was everything I had imagined alpine climbing should be like, a great atmosphere, good climbing, good friends, and boiled fruit sweets at every belay. The weather was good. Not long until the bivi ledge surely, perhaps an hour or two? If only... Going by the rule of my timing, it could be six hours away, and sure enough it was. No worries, we’re having fun aren’t we? But six hours is a long time, and soon our water was gone, the weather had crapped out and we were knackered. To top it the route finding had become more tricky in the encroaching mist and we were all becoming quite despondent. HS granite cracks, soon turned into overhanging A1 corner crack pitches, we were clearly off route and without etriers the pace was slow.

Eventually, I led a pitch which came out at a large snow field. We were at the top of the rock climbing. Thank fu... and we were asleep on some spiky rocks. Or at least I was. Adam and Roel greeted me in the morning after no sleep whatsoever with tales of sparking boulders the size of fridges endlessly whizzing into the gullies beside us.

After a more and more depressing upper section on the rock the ice ridge was a welcome change, but unlike the snow plod we had expected, a solid frozen 300m ice wall only succumbed to front pointing techniques. Fortunately we moved together for it all, saving lots of much needed time. We arrived at the base of the Rognon rock buttress, calves burning, and stopped for a plan of action chat and a quick brew. The final buttress can be climbed by grade IV ice on either side or the rock can be taken direct. Due to the worrying effects of global warming, neither of the ice options seemed very appealing – the left hand line was a live bowling alley of rocks and the right showed no obvious easy lines to follow – the rock it was!

So we stumped our rhythm from the ice and got back into rock mood, but route finding was difficult and again, everything felt loose and un-trodden. We crept up a few pitches in the sun and made our way towards the central corner system described in the guide. It also mentioned the corner was “tricky”. However, short slab banked out with snow followed by a long curving off width crack was the only visible way to the base of the corner, great, just what we needed.

I quite fancied the crack feature much to the joy of Adam and Roel, however only from the start of the crack where a peg was rusting away in situ. There was no way I wanted to do the snowy slab thing. It looked like the kind of gnarly mixed route you’d find on the Ben. Fortunately for me, both Ad and Roel fancied this being the ice guru’s they are. Adam went up and got the peg clipped for me and put a nut in to back it up, a decision which turned out to be a wise one. As he lowered off the peg pinged out of the expanding flake crack and he fell onto the nut. I think we all skipped a heart beat.

With gear in place I top roped up the snow slab and reached the base of the crack. I placed a sling on the gear Adam had put in and reached high up the crack. I secured a fist and placed my free foot high in the crack and jammed my boot in. A few moves higher and I reached a jug where the crack curved to horizontal and giving access to a traverse line leading to the corner. I pulled up and placed a cam to protect the guys up the tricky vertical section before traversing across 20m to a belay. Foolishly I placed no more gear after the cam. Adam came up first and reached the easy traverse and made his way over, while Roel was approaching the cam. A tensioned rope to help upward progress pulled the cam out. It turned out it was behind a loose flake – good one Ed! Roel fell and miraculously caught the only hold on the face with one hand, otherwise a 25m winger down to the ledges below would have been on the menu. Roels artistic style in which he controlled it all was very amusing, despite the flush of adrenaline we had all received, especially Roel. At least we had made the corner.

One pitch below the top and the weather closed in. All of us tired, we wanted to get back down and not have to do any more climbing. Mentally we were just drained. But we Were there, we had to do it. For our pride we battled up the final icy dripping crack, pulling on all of the rotting bits of tat we came across. I pulled over the top and lay onto the snow. “Safe guys, I’m on top I shouted!” I felt like crying, I was chuffed, we all were, but equally tired and emotionally astray.

What a journey, we had done it in a fun happy style and as a bonus we had survived. Apparently 90% of climbing accidents occur on descents. We had had enough near misses and the cable car seemed like a fair option. Unfortunately the weather intervened for one last time and a huge lightning strike buzzed and sparked along the cage on the roof of the tunnel. We had endured so much over the trip we didn’t frankly care and looked at it as an exciting event to top off the experience. Unfortunately it was the start of a four hour storm delaying our return back to the campsite and much needed showers!

Adam and Roel, thanks for being such great friends and great partners, you made it work! What a trip!

Ed Booth.
Photos by Adam Booth.

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