Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Alpine Ascent

High above the Chamonix valley, Tarquin Cooper experiences terror and total concentration on an exhilarating north-face climb of the Tour Ronde

June 12 2009
Tarquin Cooper

From Mont Blanc to the curved peak of the Matterhorn 80km to the east, the view from the summit of the Tour Ronde is one of the finest in the Alps. Stretching across three countries, the vista is a feast for the eyes. Hundreds of granite peaks jut out of the skyline like the spires of a cathedral city. Perhaps this is what the Italians had in mind when they placed a statue of the Madonna on the summit. Or perhaps it was so that she might offer safe passage to the intrepid souls who attempt to ascend its icy flanks.

For not anyone can rise above the clouds to stand here. The ski resorts of Courmayeur and Chamonix may lie close by, but they may as well be on different planets, for there is not a chairlift in sight.

This is a summit that has to be earned. The way to the top is not for the meek. Alpinists consider its 350m north face a classic climb in the range – the perfect test of character for the aspiring climber.

A guide is essential, and I have enlisted the services of Kenton Cool, 35, who has led Sir Ranulph Fiennes up the notorious north face of the Eiger and climbed Everest six times, twice in one season. Just the man, in other words.

FRIDAY 1800 I fly out of London City Airport on the 18.20 to Geneva: there are no queues at either check-in or security, and within three hours of take-off I’m at my Adventure Base chalet in Chamonix, the climbing capital of the Alps. Just opened this season, it is one of five chalets named after characters in Top Gun. There’s Goose, Maverick and Viper. I’m in Iceman.

SATURDAY 0930 Our chalet girl has a reputation for serving the perfect boiled egg – no mean feat in the mountains where water boils at a lower temperature. Mine arrives after bubbling away for six minutes and 20 seconds. It is, indeed, spot on. Over the phone I chat to Cool, and he tells me there’s no rush. The plan is to head up the mountain in the afternoon, stay overnight in a hut and, after an early start, make the ascent on the Tour Ronde the following day. “We could have squeezed in a climb today but it might have been a bit hectic,” he says.

I suspect this is a climbing euphemism. I also need to get kitted out, which could take time. So after breakfast I head to one of many hire shops in Chamonix. It’s like an armoury and I feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger tooling up in The Terminator.

SATURDAY 1330 Cool arrives at the chalet. With an earring in one ear and a chipped front tooth, he looks every inch the hard-man rock star of the climbing world, an interesting career for someone who grew up in Slough. He shakes my hand and tells me what lies in store.

“The north face of the Tour Ronde is a fantastic expedition. I’ve only done it once before, with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. He’s a legend – I could talk about him all day.

“It has great ambience,” he adds. “It’s one of the classic introductions to north-face climbing. We’ll have a wicked day.”

One of the other factors that make it an ideal objective is its altitude, he explains. At 3,792m it is beneath the 4,000m bar, so altitude sickness is not a problem, as it often is for climbers trying to do Mont Blanc in a short space of time.

“It’s high, but not super-high,” says Cool. “It’s possible in a weekend hit.”

SATURDAY 1500 We drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy and have a coffee in Courmayeur. “It really does taste better than the French stuff,” says Cool.

Then it’s up on the cable car to the Turin Hut. Built in 1952, the Rifugio Torino is a traditional Alpine refuge. Perched on a rock at 3,375m, it is watched over during the climbing season by a guardian.

“It’s really romantic!” enthuses Cool. It just looks spartan to me: a bunk with a few thick woollen blankets in a poky room with creaky floorboards and a door that doesn’t close. Despite the altitude, cuisine is perfunctory rather than haute, and there’s no bathroom. The guardian sports a moustache and an old-fashioned woolly jumper and doesn’t speak a word of English. Yet there is something wonderful about the place. It is in a time warp, and exactly how one imagines the Alps should be. A couple of elderly mountaineers enter, one of them with a bloodied face caused from a rock-fall. He shrugs it off and orders a carafe of wine. By the fire, another climber dries out his socks and gloves.

SATURDAY 1830 On a viewing platform Kenton and I watch the sun go down behind the Peuterey Ridge, one of the longest and most dramatic of the Alps. The guardian brings us a supper of vegetable soup, a leg of roast chicken with tinned carrots and tinned fruit for pudding. We chat to the other climbers and are in bed by 9pm. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.

SUNDAY 0600 Breakfast is yesterday’s leftover bread with jam and butter. But this being Italy, the hut has an espresso machine. The coffee, which we drink from bowls, is like rocket fuel: no wonder the Italians made great Alpinists. We’re out of the hut in an hour and at the base of the mountain an hour after that. I look up and my heart suddenly starts beating hard. This is where the real adventure begins. Casual chit-chat with Cool ceases.

SUNDAY 0800 Cool “ropes up” with a figure-of-eight knot, crosses the Bergschrund, an open ditch between the glacier and mountain face, and leads the way up. Small flurries of snow whistle past as he kicks steps up the face. When the 60m rope becomes taught, I follow suit.

The excitement is palpable as I realise I’m actually doing the very thing I’ve been dreaming about for so long. It is soon replaced by aching calf muscles, bursting lungs and nervous apprehension.

I try not to think about the consequences of slipping. The first 100m is a steep but a relatively straightforward snow slope to some rocks where Kenton has anchored himself. It is made easier by the parties that have gone before and left their steps in place. I look down, and quickly resolve not to do so again. The exposure is immense – better to keep eyes facing forwards and upwards.

The next section is where it gets really interesting. Our route follows a narrow corridor of ice hemmed in by huge rocks. It’s much steeper. I watch as Cool steps out, climbs his way up and then fixes himself further up. Then it’s my turn. I swing each of my sharpened axes into the ice until they sink in with a satisfying thud and then kick up with my legs, standing on just the steel front teeth of the set of crampons strapped to my boot. Cool, out of sight, has me on a tight rope – any slip would be held. But that doesn’t alter the strange blend of exhilaration, terror and total concentration I experience. Halfway up, it feels as if my forearms are going to give. This requires the strength of a primate. A tricky step over a rock has me clear of the steep ice and on to a ramp of steep frozen snow. Up here, the view opens up into something truly awe-inspiring but it takes bravery to look over my shoulder.

Cool calls out from above. “People think the appeal of climbing is a retrospective thing. But just tell me, what is not brilliant about this?” Tentatively, I look round at the ocean of mountains to savour the moment. My hands are numb from cold, but yes, this is great.

SUNDAY 1200 We round the ridge and stop for some lunch on a ledge that must be one of the finest picnic spots on earth. But before I can relax I have to swing my arms violently to get the feeling back into my fingers, which produces an agony that is truly eye-watering. A crow, an Alpine chough, joins us. It is strangely unnatural to watch it fly away, beneath us.

The summit is just another 50m ahead. The experience of reaching it is, indeed, sweet for all the sweat of our labours, and the view justly rewarding. I duly nod my respects to the Virgin and shake hands with Cool. The descent takes just under two hours. We walk down a ridge until a series of abseils take us to the bottom of the mountain. By 4pm we’re back down in the café in Chamonix, but drinking beer this time, not coffee.

SUNDAY 1700 A quick shower back at the chalet, and then I jump on the private transfer to Geneva for the 19.20 back to City airport. My legs are stiff and my arms barely able to lift my case, but I am walking tall and will be for a while.