The Aiguille du Peigne translates to Needle of the Comb. It was the fourth and final day I spent with Thor on my July trip to Chamonix. We had already climbed routes on the Petite Verte, the Aiguille d’Entreves and Perroux on Aiguilles Rouges. The Perroux was a 5b sport route. Each day was focused on a different style of terrain. Petite Verte was a warm up and introduction to moving in alpine granite. Aiguille d’Entreves focused on sharp ridge traverses. The Perroux was a run of the mill alpine sport rock day. I haven’t included it in the features of this site because it didn’t offer anything particularly special. At the time it was a good challenge and reconfirmed the systems of multi-pitch climbs. The Peigne was a whole different story. It was a big jump up to exposed, alpine trad with a sizeable approach.
The Midi was running to the Plan mid-station at this point. If memory serves me correctly it actually opened a day or two earlier than expected. Thor and I set out for the first tram. I think he fully expected that with my novice pace, we would be pushing it to complete the route and make it back for the last ride down. An experience I did not want to repeat. It was already hard enough when, a couple years earlier, my brother and I had hiked from the valley to Plan de l’Aiguille, the mid-station of the Midi. In this case we just turned around and marched back down. Not too bad in principle, but could be grueling with an 850m climb thrown in before.
We exited the cable car at mid-station and began a quick walk to the south. Towering above us was the infamous north face of the Aiguille du Midi. One of my favorite lines in the valley to dream on, the Frendo Spur, rose to its characteristic spine just below the top of the cable car. If you want to watch something impressive, Google Michael Schaeffer speed riding off this spine. Quite the epic solo mission by a guy I got to take a couple runs with at Stevens Pass once upon a time.
The trail winds up through the rocks and over a snow field. Thor led us to the bottom of a gully cutting through the west face of the mountain we sought to ascend. From here we followed a ledge to the left back northeast to a gully that leads up (or down depending on the time of day) from where the top of the Papillons Arête meets the face of the Peigne. We moved through this gully and followed an admittedly confusing set of ledges to a couple of the top pitches of the famous Papillons Arête. While not technically part of our chosen route this was some of the best climbing of the day. Makes sense, the Papillons Arête is one of the most popular climbs in Chamonix. Its high quality rock, epic views and airy moves make for a hell of day on its own. For us, these few moves were just part of the approach. From the top of the Arête we followed a ledge to the left and then up a gully and back along a series of ledges to a gap which marked the bottom of the Voie Normale and the start of the real climbing.
The Chamonix valley spread out to our backs. In front to our right, a steep gully jettisoned down through the cliff face to an unknown end. The first pitch ascended up to our left. Now, the climbing would probably not feel too difficult, but at the time, I was properly gripped. After eating a snack and changing into rock shoes, we followed another guided team up. The section right after this first pitch is defined by a beautiful quartz ledge. Also from this point on, the views back behind us of the Aiguille du Midi only become more epic. Large snow and rock fall echoing off of its face as they crashed to the Plan below. We followed a series of ledges and steps towards what is certainly one of the most remarkable bits of climbing I have experienced.
The final moves up to the summit ridge of the Peigne are ingrained in my mind. From the gap and up through the ledges you are basically moving up and right on the west face. It is at this point that you wrap around onto the southern edge of the Aiguille. In no more than two to three moves, I clambered onto this rear spine. The climbing got much steeper. Large cracks made for easy moves. The exposure however, left me breathless. I had never been on top of anything like it. In one moment the world disappeared below me. A sheer rock face plummeted to the glacier, who knows how many feet below. I would guess at a thousand. At first, I honestly expected myself to panic. But Thor’s exposure program had done the trick. I found myself not only comfortable but enjoying the exposed terrain, confident in the moves I had to make to gain the ridge.
The summit ridge of this climb is a knife edge over the same exposure. The first move is a downward mantle followed by a few steps of friction slab, hand over hand on the knife. A few meters farther along and we rappelled to a notch just before the true summit (see video). There is an interesting spot here where you basically need to belly crawl through a sideways chimney onto the off kilter summit block. Another team who arrived at the same time from a much more difficult route on the north face took our picture before we all started the abseil down. A few raps later and we were back at the gap. We changed into mountaineering boots and began the long down scramble through the ledges and gully systems to where we had left our trekking poles at the top of the snow. All told, we made it back for the last lift, barely. The Aiguille du Peigne was an unforgettable experience and for the day, certainly the pinnacle of what I had accomplished as a climber. Crazy to think that every single day on this trip was such a huge leap forward and that each one of them totally blew my mind.