A Fateful Meeting With Bonatti

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A conversation ensued. Bonatti wondered why the two were heading down in this perfect climbing weather. Of the light cloud he couldn’t see a trace. The Italians were making for the Poire, a first winter ascent. Why not at least join the legendary Bonatti for an evening in the refuge, and if he was sure of the weather, attack the Brenva the next day?

Walter Bonatti

Walter Bonatti

In the afternoon Bonatti and Gheser went to inspect the first part of the route. Returning to the refuge Bonatti broke his ice axe. Their attempt was over; they would have to go down, and in such good conditions. At the refuge François Henry offered his own. “I’m second on the rope, it is not so important.”. Gheser was surprised; an ice axe is one of the most important tools of a winter climber. Bonatti hesitated for a second, and then accepted. Why not set out as a group of four for the Poire proposed Bonatti in an act of camaraderie. One better than Duf and The Yeti on the Brenva? the French accepted.

At 2am on Christmas day the four left the refuge but as two groups. Jean had spoken reason to François, the Poire was too hard and too long and they had friends waiting in Chamonix. The route to the Poire was more difficult than the Italians had imagined. They were too late, the climb would be dangerous, at 8h30 they decided to join the other two on the Brenva via a traverse. They found them making slow, but steady progress with their heavy packs. Bonatti reflected that if they’d been on the Poire their speed would have been worrying. The traces of Duf and the Yeti were still visible on the climb. At the end of the afternoon Bonatti and Gheser were some 100 meters below the summit, there would be another hour, maybe two of climbing then the Vallot refuge. The higher they climbed the stronger the wind grew, their leather boots were frozen by the cold air and ice. Half an hour from the Col and the weather suddenly grew much worse. In the storm Bonatti searched for shelter amongst the seracs. Finding a small hole he climbed in with Gheser. “My feet are blocks of ice” complained his partner. In the shelter he removed his boots and began massaging his feet.

Some 100 meters lower down Vincendon and Henry shouted out to Bonatti. The Italian advised them to seek shelter where they were. Snow was now falling; Bonatti's thermometer registered -20C. The night was going to be long and without sleep. The next day at 8h30 they gathered their affairs and called out to Vincendon and Henry. The weather was terrible. Bonatti realized that he would have to take charge if they were going to come out of this adventure alive. He climbed down to help the two climbers. Vincendon was not in good form and Henry had a frozen foot. He arranged the three climbers on a rope behind him and started up amongst the ice blocks that mark the summit of the Brenva. Visibility was zero. At 15h00 the clouds lifted, they found themselves at 4,500 meters under the Mur de la Côte. Bonatti’s instinct had found the right route. They started the descent to the Grand Mulets but the fresh snow didn’t appear stable, they might all be killed by an avalanche. Another solution presented itself, cross the summit of Mont Blanc to the Vallot refuge. But this entailed a further 400 meters of climbing.

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