Words By Tom Livingstone
Photos by Uisdean Hawthorn
‘What’s the most outrageous route we can think of?’
Uisdean and I have no trouble being motivated and ambitious when it comes to choosing alpine climbing objectives; we’ve tied in together beneath many big routes. As I rumbled down endless French motorways towards the Alps, we shot optimistic ideas back and forth. But this time, however, we had an extra factor to consider: we’d been tasked with a ‘summer alpine’ photoshoot.
Since Mountain Equipment’s core is climbing in the mountains, we wanted photos from a real alpine route; and to avoid copying the 5000 other images of ‘alpinism’ taken on the Cosmiques Arête. We aimed for a two-day ascent of the Peuterey Integrale, and would be joined by Robert Grasegger from the German M.E. team. I wondered if that was the start of a joke: an Englishman, a Scotsman and a German...
I met Robert and Uisdean in a baking car park in Chamonix, heatwaves shimmering off the tarmac. ‘Hallo,’ Robert said with a thick Bavarian accent, offering a strong hand and a smile. ‘Alright’ Uisdean nodded (strangely, without swearing). I was sure we’d make a great team!
The basic statistics of the Peuterey should be a sufficient introduction: covering 4500m of ground, it’s the ‘longest route in the Alps.’ It reaches Mont Blanc’s 4808m summit via one of the most obvious and striking lines: a dragon’s spine of jagged rock and snow over several pointed peaks.
The rock climbing is continuously moderate but engaging (with sections of about Fr 6a?); the abseils down each sub-peak are time-consuming (and hence the route is so long, because you lose much of the height you just gained!); and the snowy ridge-riding near the summit is serious but spectacular.
In short, the Peuterey appealed because, like many of Chamonix’s famous Burger Bars, it offers a wide selection of tasty delights. It’s a classic alpine route, with everything you could hope for - and plenty of views on the side!
Starting from Italy with a pizza (what else?!) in the cool of dusk, our newly-formed team of bright orange Tupilak packs marched up to the bivy hut near the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. After a few hours sleep we were off again, eagerly chasing some headtorches towards the base of the route. Uisdean did a great job of taking photos and video whilst reining us in, reminding Robert and I that we were here with an added purpose.
It’s worth mentioning Uisdean’s job as the photographer. Alpine climbing can be rushed, unflattering and downright dirty. The last thing you want to do is stop moving. But while Robert and I debated over which lightweight spoons to take, Uisdean added his camera - and a few kilos - to his pack. He then did a great job of climbing, belaying, choss-trundling, and taking amazing photos of one of the coolest routes in the Alps.
With boots on at the base of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, we began simul-soloing, headtorches waving like lasers over the cliffs. We delicately picked our way up the granite, always looking for the logical line. We’d learned this route was first climbed in 1934 - a staggeringly early and impressive ascent. We told ourselves to be like the first ascentionists, and ‘believe!’.
Our single 60m rope came out as colour washed into the dawn sky, Uisdean busy clicking away in the background. ‘Stop! Look this way!’ he directed. I’d learnt some German recently, so tried to impress Robert with my vocabulary. ‘Was? I don’t understand,’ was his usual reply, so our tri-lingual team (English, German and Scottish) resorted back to English.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, we shedded everything but base layers and soaked in the view from the Italian side of Mont Blanc. It’s one of the White Mountain’s best - and quietest - aspects.
We padded up more golden granite, taking turns to lead. Since we were climbing as a three, our packs were relatively light and we could move together for much of the route. Occasionally, we’d ride the true ridge line, but then be thrown to the left or right onto easier ground. When Robert was leading and Uisdean and I could see an easier way, we’d helpfully shout, ‘left!’ or ‘right!’ Robert would turn and smile, thumbs up. ‘Zanks, dudes!’
After a short abseil down a sub-summit, we found a few pitches of more technical climbing. I weaved around another team of Italians who were animatedly chatting on the belay. ‘Ciao!’ I waved, and they replied, smiling back in that classically cool Italian style. It was as if to say, ‘yes, we know we’re on the Peuterey, but we simply had to stop and enjoy the view, because... why not?’
We reached the summit of the Noire, tapped the Madonna statue, and began the rappels down the other side. Once infamous, these rappels are now very tame. There are bolted anchors every 29 metres (crazy! Maybe we weren’t alpine climbing after all?!). The bolts allowed us to only take a single 60m rope - and we certainly clipped them, so we can’t criticise much!
After dodging around the chossy Dames Anglais in the scorching, dry-mouthed, out-of-water afternoon, we finally reached the Craveri bivy hut and decided to crash here. We brewed up outside ‘the sardine can’ and then jumped inside. Two French dudes were friendly about sharing the limited space, but no doubt they were disappointed with having their quiet night disturbed - sorry!
Early the next morning, we chased the French headtorches. The route-finding is tricky and the climbing unobvious with numb fingers, but we soon reached easy climbing. Uisdean called ‘halt!’ at dawn, and began clicking away. Golden orange, to yellow, to blue rose from the eastern horizon, layers of the new dawn filtering out the stars. We stared as the mountains around us transformed into colour, and the first touch of day hit Mont Blanc, 1000 metres above.
Cresting one summit of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, and then traversing the iconic ‘demi-lune’ arete, we began to bake in the unbearable heat. The Alps are all-too-obvious reminders of climate change, and we saw several scary rockfalls. As bad as the heat was for me, I consoled myself that it must be worse for Uisdean - a Scotsman! We simul-soloed with a new impetus.
Reaching the summit of Mont Blanc after ridge-riding the picturesque final arête, we high-fived after a smooth, relatively stress-free ascent. I was aware of how lucky we were to pull off such a cool route - during a photoshoot too. The hot temperatures had made some rockfall a little too close for comfort, but overall we’d managed to motor nicely.
Having driven from the UK, totally unacclimatised, and then got straight on the routes, I spent a few minutes with my head in my hands - much to the lads’ amusement. The incredible views of iconic peaks and buttresses, like the Frêney and Grand Pilier d’Angle, had taken the edge off until now. I asked Robert, who’d been climbing all summer, ‘tell me you notice the altitude too?’
‘Actually, I can’t feel anything. I feel great!’ he replied matter-of-factly.
We descended the Gouter route, as this seemed safer than crossing under the seracs of the Trois Monts route in the afternoon, during unseasonably hot weather. The next day, we clomped our big boots back into Chamonix. ‘We need burgers!’ I suggested.
‘And tea!’ Uisdean agreed.
'And we have to get my van from Italy!’ Robert added.
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See how Tom, Uisdean and Robert got on here: