Winter On The Brenva

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It in this climate that an accident involving two amateur climbers would shock France and lead to the complete reorganization of the French mountain rescue services.

Jean Vincendon, 23 years old was an apprentice guide from Paris. François Henry, 22 years old was from Belgium. Both were accomplished rock climbers but wanted to prove themselves on harder alpine routes. A winter ascension of the Brenva would help Vincendon’s desire to become a mountain guide. They joined friends, Claude ‘le Duf’ Dufourmantelle and Xavier ‘le Yeti’ Caseneuve in Chamonix just before Christmas in 1956. The other two had already climbed the route, a long 50 degree pitch, a few days before in perfect conditions. They advised the two to descend via the Grand Mulets. A quicker, albeit more dangerous route. The local guides were aware of the attempt and made it clear that they would not turn out if the duo got into difficulties.

The pair set out on the 22nd of December, arriving at the Refuge de la Fourche, the traditional starting point, only on the evening of the 23rd. True, the Brenva is one of more difficult routes to access in the Mont Blanc range but there is a question mark over the equipment carried by the two climbers. They had heavy rucksacks and a tent but had soon abandoned the skis they were using. Not enough experience. The two days loss, in good weather, would prove crucial. On the 24th they were discouraged by light clouds in the sky. The weather systems typically come from the west at that time of year and the Brenva face hides their arrival. The clouds were maybe a sign of a front. On the descent to Chamonix they crossed two other climbers. Italians. None other than the great Walter Bonatti and his friend, Silvano Gheser.

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