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 - Athletes

19 June 1985: “The unseasonal cold – told Gian Carlo Grassi – transformed the face into an ice armour: this is a magical moment that requires an adequate interpretation. A moment we had been waiting for years, where a wall, notoriously hit by rock fall, becomes a tranquil oasis. An uninterrupted, relentless flight upwards in the night that lasted 12 hours”. This way, the most ephemeral, visionary line, along 1400 m on the south face of the Grandes Jorasses (Mont Blanc), becomes reality: together with Gian Carlo, Renzo Luzi and Mauro Rossi make up the rope party and this masterpiece of a line is dedicated to the wizard of ice, the unforgettable Gianni Comino. 21 January 2020: nearly 35 years after this epic feat by Grassi and his friends, nobody has traced their steps in full yet. Until, at the break of dawn, ready to seize the day after having longed for it for a long time, Yann Borgnet is climbing up towards the “devilishly alive wall”. “Normal” routes are not up Yann’s street, that’s a given for anyone who knows him, and this time he set his eyes on something truly special, together with Charles Duboloz. The two friends attack the route of their dreams, going along with the mountain, which tells them where to go – there’s only ice, apart from a mixed climbing pitch – and at 7.40 pm, after ten hours of climbing, they are on top of the Pointe Walker. This peak represents a story, whose second, sensational chapter, being bold winter privateers, they have contributed to writing.


A legendary route. The nicest dreams require a long time to be fulfilled. I got to know this fascinating line in 2012. Above the Val Ferret, beyond the chaotic Pra Sec glacier, it follows an almost direct ice gully until it reaches 4206 m: that’s the Pointe Walker. It is called Via in memoria di Gianni Comino and also Phantom Direct and it was opened in June 1985 by Gian Carlo Grassi, Renzo Luzi and Mauro Rossi: since then, nobody repeated it in full. Initially, Grassi and friends aimed at something different, at the enclosed narrow passage that terminates to the left of the big tower of the Tronchey arête. On 19 June 1985, after as many as five explorations, they decided to set off. After the first few pitches, however, having doubts on what may lie ahead, they decided to veer left. They traversed on compact slabs and reached the clear series of streams that, like a plumb line, descended from the top of the Grandes Jorasses. Once down in the valley, Gian Carlo declared that: “This line will not be repeated any time soon.” Twenty five years later, in 2010, Michel Coranotte, a mountain guide and instructor at the ENSA in Chamonix, opened Plein Sud, together with Marco Appino, Sergio De Leo and Marcello Sanguineti, fulfilling Grassi’s dream. Indeed, thirty-five years later, in 2020, I am lucky enough to repeat the 1985 route for the first time, in winter: this is a 1400-metre long masterpiece, the longest line on ice in the Mont Blanc massif.


Seize the day. Seasons go by and no one is alike, the weather being so unpredictable, and this winter is no different. So much so that it is still possible to climb ice gullies in January, while they are usually in condition in the Spring or the Autumn: Beyond Good and Evil on the Aiguille des Pélerins, Modica-Noury and the Supercouloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul are taken by storm by many rope parties. Social media play their part and they arouse my interest. And yet, when I arrive at Planpincieux on Sunday 19 January to assess the situation, the first impression is all but good: the line doesn’t look like it’s formed. Only after careful observations, from several viewpoints, I start to think that the white strip may be ongoing and, moving forward in the Val Ferret, my excitement rising, I get confirmation of it! I then send a message and a photo to Charles: “I think that’s it! That’s incredible!” After some initial doubt, I find it hard to believe it myself…


The ideal rope-partner. Charles is a childhood friend. We had lost touch with each other and then met again about ten years ago, thanks to the unforgettable Stéphane Brosse and ski touring. In 2017 we climbed some nice routes in the Dolomites, but could not climb together after that, despite our intention to share a big adventure. In the past few days, as a token of his great skill, Charles has climbed the north face of the Eiger in one day. Our rope-party is very strong, from the preparations to the actual climb and managing the unavoidable difficult moments.

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Full steam ahead. We meet in Annecy at 2 am on 21 January, our destination the Val Ferret. The thermometer in the car marks -5°C: I hadn’t seen such a low temperature for some time. True winter has finally arrived! In Planpincieux, where the road ends in winter, it even marks -12°C. We get going very fast as we do not wish to freeze here. We begin our approach at about 4 am, aiming to reach the base of the wall at the break of dawn. Alas, that’s no easy sailing and we won’t start climbing the ice gully until 9.30 am: the sun is shining and we should have been high up on the mountain by now… But hey ho: we will assess each thing in due course. Moving fast & light in the depth of winter means you have to be fully committed: once you start climbing, we know there will be no rest place until the Canzio Bivouac at the Col des Jorasses or the Boccalatte Hut at the end of the descent along the normal route. Regardless of how fast we’ll be, from here to either the Bivy or the Hut, we will not be able to stop, otherwise starting again will be off the menu. In exchange, the first part of the line is really beautiful. The bergschrund is overhanging, a sort of wake-up call, and after a few metres we find a mixed climbing pitch and two nearly vertical ledges. It would be nice to feel the sunrays, but a thick blanket of clouds conceals them. In other words: in the midst of this strong winter anticyclone, we embarked on this line on the wrong day.

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In the heart of the wall. A few technical pitches and there it is, the famous traverse left: leaning slabs, not really difficult but surely disquieting, followed by a straight, constant series of ice gullies. We proceed simul climbing at times, alternated to belaying each other, on what feels like an unending wall. The more we go up, the stronger the wind blows, only partially confirming the not so splendid forecast which announced south-east wind gusts of 20-25km/h. We feel it’s more like 40 km/h, since our nostrils are tickling and small ice nails are thrown at us. To spice things up a little, since we are amazingly having fun, darkness comes earlier than expected. In the dark, I fight against a vertical wall section and I am happy when Charles has to tackle the same thing: he looks like a purebred horse, fighting against gravity and the wind before overcoming this stretch. In the meantime, under him, I keep on yawning: I feel tired, fully aware that the worst has yet to come.


The summit is not a finish line. We cannot see anything anymore. The wind and the snow crystals don’t allow us to see above us to gauge where to go, choosing the right direction. We feel our way, improvising one metre after the other on the often-inconsistent snow. I do not know how, but I find the energy to overcome a small mixed section. This wind is truly horrible: it sucks up all your energies. But there it is, the summit ridge: it lies after those rocks and I carry on, without thinking too much about it. I tremble in the storm, I swing proceeding in the opposite direction and I finally place an ice screw, impatiently waiting to see Charles’ head torch. There he is, we are back together. It’s 7.40 pm. Grassi and friends took 12 hours, from midnight to midday. It took us only two hours less. That Gian Carlo was a machine of a man!


Difficult times. Here’s the kicker: that’s the descent. We know it will be tough and really hard. One rope entangles almost immediately and I’m up to one of my tricks: exhausted from mechanically belaying, we reach the same height as the Boccalatte Hut, but somewhere else, beyond a spur that looks impassable. The GPS is useless, it really is a tense moment: we managed to get through all the difficulties of the descent and now, very close to the hut, we have to go up a few hundred metres on unstable snow. We stop and think for a moment: shall we carry on the descent or go up? We opt for the second choice: it’ll be tasking, but it looks like the most sensible thing to do. I wish to take it out on me, get angry, but I am too tired. Charles, on the other hand, is so calm that he surprises me. That’s impressive, I see him setting off, determined, against a stretch of snow to the side of the spur. “Charles – I tell him -, let’s not cock things up, let’s go round it." But it’s too late: there he is, fighting on an exposed section on dangerous snow. I am really tired and ask him to throw me the rope: I am done. At 4 am, we walk on the snowy roof of the hut.

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Culinary dreams. And that’s not all: here we are, finally, but the problems continue. The door of the hut is buried under a metre of snow and our ultra technical ice axes cannot compete against a trivial snow shovel, which we obviously do not possess. We are dehydrated, but happy we have brought a stove: what a Godsend! While the snow melts, we wolf down all that’s left of our little food. We tightened our belts during the day, so now it’s time for this feast – so to speak. Mountain specialities: cheese and two sausages. The dried food sachets we brought expired in 2017 and their smell is too strong: we have not struggled all the way to here to risk our lives this way! Since sleeping is not a risky business, after such an intense day, we fall into Morpheus’ arms. A few hours later, back on our feet, we can finally make the most of the Aosta Valley cuisine: they say that the fondue gnocchi at the Chalet Proment are exquisite…

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