Conquistadors of the Useless.

The birth of Alpinism. The date is 1492. On the other side of the world, ‘murica is being discovered by Europeans and soon the Conquistadors will be taking over the lower continent. But back here, in the Vercors mountains, another type of Conquistadors have just come into existence. As expressed perfectly in the title of Grenoble climber Lionel Terray’s book, they are the Conquerants de l’Inutile, or the Conquerors of the Useless. Because climbing a mountain is useless, and until that fatefull year, this was the reason keeping people from doing it. But in 1492 Charles VIII, King of France, ordered this peak to be climbed. Why? Probably to prove that it was possible, that man could conquer this sharp piece of rock. This is one of the reasons that we still climb today, although it is not only the mountain we are trying to overcome, but also ourselves. One thing that hasn’t changed is the pure aesthetic shape of the peak in question, which has given us both its name and the need to climb it.

Peak

Mont Aiguille is a very apropiate name!

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North Face of the mountain, as seen from col de l’Aupet.

I had first seen the peak in my first year in Grenoble, and although is a well know classic had never got round to it seriously. I had made one frustrated attempt two years ago, but due to snow and a lack of preparation we didn’t even start the climb. So when J. suggested going I was happy to finally go back and finish what I’d started. Not only was it the chance to get to the top, it meant we could practice before the snow for an eventual winter ascent, with bivouac on the top.

So saturday morning found J, JB and myself complaining about the early start but very pleased with the weather. The normal route starts after a short hike from the south side of the mountain (1:15 h). Once we arrived at the col de l’Aupet, a steep slope of scree took us to the very foot of the cliff, where there is a metal plaque and some pitons. To find the start of the normal route, we had to go north for 5 minutes, following the base of the cliff, until we found large steel nail. From here the climb can be divided into three sections, a first exposed part that traverses into a crack, the climb out of the crack with a very short traverse followed by a final chimney. The chimney is the steepest part but least exposed. At both traverses and the chimney, there is steel cable, but as the pins have been there for 200 years it not to be trusted, but can be used to add protections. At the end of the chimney we climbed out onto the flat summit, with 360º views of Taillefer, Belledone, the Ecrins, Devoluy and the Vercors (2:00 h). Well worth it! To descend, we went back to the exit of the chimeney and turned south  about 20 metres, where a smaller crack descends. There is also a steel plaque. The down climb is straightforward, keeping to the central gulley (there are paths that branch out). Going down a couple of hundred metres there is the first relay, just before a cliff. After the first abseil, we climbed a few metres up ( 2 cairns) and followed the path until the second relay. This abseil is much longer and more fun, going down into one of the huge corridors that separate the main mountain from the peripheral towers (2×45 m minimum rope!). This abseil was great, especially at the end when I was just floating in space. This was the first proper abseil I had done since the accident, but as the relay is bomb-proof I really enjoyed it. We finished off by climbing down the corridor and exited at the steel plaque. You can read a technical description of the route here and here.

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We are off! First section.

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Through the window, looking towards Grenoble, with the Vercors on the right and Chartreuse straigh ahead.

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Start of the chimney. Section 3.

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Summit!

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On the edge.

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The flat plateau, perfect for bivouacking!

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Itsy Bitsy Spider…

It was just as we were about to go down the last part of the rock, before the path, that a group of climbers high above us dislodged a substantial amount of rocks straight down! Without any warning, large pieces of stone started to fly past us, smashing into the side of the mountain. The smaller ones buzzed like bullets, ricocheting at high speed. I was already quite close to the wall, but J. who was in the lead was exposed to the worst. Somehow he flew over the rock he was starting to descend and regained the relative safety of the wall. Some of the rocks had smashed into the ground a few metres away from him. We crouched, making ourselves as small as possible until the brief but lethal storm had finished. Deciding not to wait and see if that was all they were going to throw at us, we made a hasty descent to the path, were we were able to catch our breath.

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Protection. My new, all exclusive design helmet. Epiiic!

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Autumn beech forest.

After the short walk back to the car we were able to relax and admire the view made up of the changing colours of autumn. Coupled to a beer in bar by the side of the road, we decided it had been a pretty good day out. Perhaps we will be back in winter?


As part of this site is dedicated to enhancing my media skills 🙂 I decided to make a short video with some of the footage  taken during the ascent/descent, to give a better idea of the climb. Just because it isn’t a serious route doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit some epic music! Enjoy!

 

 

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