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MODERN REPEAT ON THE AIGUILLE DU PLAN
Posted on: May 8, 2007
The French alpinists, Thomas Faucheur and Didier Jourdain, have made a rare winter repeat of the Grand West Couloir on the west face of the Aiguille du Plan (3673m), Mont Blanc Massif. First climbed from December 10-14, 1975 by Patrick Gabarrou (who else?) and Jean-Marie Picard-Deyme, this 700-meter line up the thin chimney-gully system immediately right of the Central Pillar Direct (TD-, 5.8, 700m, Brown-Patey, 1963) is seriously exposed to stonefall and features considerable quantities of either bare or icy rock. In fact, it seems part of the lower couloir may have been climbed in 1947 by that legendary French partnership, Louis Lachenal and Lionel Terray, as a variation start to the 1946 Greloz-Roch on the Central Pillar, a route that quickly fell into disuse once Joe Brown and Tom Patey climbed the Direct.
The Grand West Couloir was repeated the following year, in 1976, over two days in September by Terry King and Gordon Smith, one of the most talented British partnerships of the era. Belays were hard to find and both climbers took whippers. This second ascent was amusingly described by King in Mountain Magazine. A talented writer, particularly when it came to humour, King had retired from climbing by the early 1980s to concentrate on a career in acting and stunt coordination.
The few subsequent repeats took place in winter, the first over February 6-7, 1982 by Nezerka and Rakoncaj, the latter a leading Czech mountaineer of the day. On all these ascents the rock sections required a fair bit of aid and despite being the most direct line on the face, by the standards of the time the climb was without much character, or for that matter ice, and was considered to be rarely, if ever, in good condition. For these reasons it failed to gain the popularity of other steep couloirs in the range and as time went by became largely neglected. Current guidebooks offer a grade of ED1 or 2, V/5 5.10 A1/A2. Gordon Smith's experiences didn't put him off because in the following year, 1977, he returned with Tobin Sorenson and climbed the couloir immediately to the right, a route that seems to have long been forgotten and may still await a second ascent.
Faucheur and Jourdain tackled the route in 'modern' style at the end of winter, using aid (A1/A2) on only two short sections. The rest was largely dry-tooled (up to M6) with only a little ice (WI 5+) and one section of pure rock climbing at around 5.8. After the entry pitches (M6 A1), which in conditions of heavy icing could actually be avoided by the initial cascade of Fin Givre (V/5 5.10 A2, 600m, Beaudoin-Parkin, 1991), they crossed the easy snowfield to the base of the chimney-gully line and climbed it in ten pitches. A final icy chimney led to the upper snow ramps, which they climbed with much greater ease for 150 meters to the summit. Faucheur and Jourdain found the route to be excellent, with several very mixed pitches and many short technical steps. With its ease of access from the Plan de l'Aiguille telepherique station, it now seems possible that the Grand West Couloir may enjoy a new lease of life.