The Kuffner Arête is one of the most aesthetic and airy routes in the Alps and is seen as the best route on Mont Maudit (4465 metres).
Also known as the Tour Ronde Ridge and the Frontier Ridge it was first climbed by a team lead by Moritz von Kuffner in 1887. It involves mixed climbing, including some steep ice and classic rock climbing. Apparently the views are incredible, especially of the Brenva Face and the South East of Mont Blanc.
During the summer an Irish Mountaineering Club team took on the Kuffner Arête, starting the expedition from the Auguille de Midi.
Our party was comprised of two, Niall Hedderman and I. Our attempt on Kuffner started the day before with a traverse of the Vallée Blanche. A mid morning start had us crossing during the the hottest part of the day. We were heading for the Torino Hut. We had decided to start from there. We’d been advised that the start from the Fourche Bivouac Hut on the lower ridge wasn’t in great condition. I was a bit disappointed. I have seen many photos of the hut and loved the idea of spending the night on the ridge. The plus side was we didn’t have to carry bivvi equipment and there was an outside chance I might actually get some sleep in the Torino Hut.
It was a beautiful walk through some impressive scenery. Despite the heat the snow was still in good condition and it was firm underfoot. As we reached low point of traverse I could look up into the Cirque Maudit and see the Kuffner (or Frontier) Ridge.
Standing on the border between Italy and France it sweeps up from Cirque Maudit at 3580m and reaches the NE shoulder of Mount Maudit at 4335m. It is given Alpine grade of D,III (1200m from Torino.7-9hrs). It’s a manageable grade but serious enough undertaking. You need settled conditions and good snow cover. It looked like everything had fallen into place.
We arrived at the Torino early in the afternoon. Its situated on the south side of Mt Blanc. The views onto the Puetery Ridge and down across Val d’Aosta are breathtaking. It’s a much wilder side of massif. We sat on the terrace for a while and hydrated knowing we had a big day the following day. After we’d had our fill of water we retired to the bar for one or two beers. It’s made with water too so why not? We went to bed at about 7.00pm after an enormous dinner. We’d a breakfast sitting at 2.00am so the alarms were set for 1.30am. Odd that this is described as fun and that anyone would spend their spare time doing it.
I tried to settle and sleep but it was a long time coming. The one niggle at back of my mind was our preparation. We had only been high once really since we arrived 4 days earlier. I know myself that I can blag it to an extent. I’ve often traveled over for long weekends and gone high with nothing more than a headache. This trip though I’d added worry. I’d just finished some treatment two weeks previously and wasn’t sure whether or not it would effect me. I think it was in Niall’s mind too but it was never mentioned until after all had been done. With numerous toilet calls (not sure what the point in hydrating is), it was probably 10.30/11.00pm before I dozed off.
The numerous alarms woke me at 1.30. It’s a daft hour of morning to get up. There were maybe half a dozen other groups awake too. All with big days on too. Some probably for Kuffner, others for the Arête du Diable, it was a very quiet kitchen. We geared up and got outside. We roped up and started off into the mist. We had allowed for 2 hours to the foot of the couloir that led up onto ridge. It’s a nice start. You’ve to descend back the way we had come the day before and at low point turn into Cirque Maudit. Easier said then done with the mist down. We’d spotted a small cluster of tents the day before beneath the Grand Capuchin.
A track from the back of the tents led into the approach couloir. All that wold be great on a clear day. With the mist down this proved problematic. After an hour of steady going I was starting to wonder would we ever find the tents. Out of the mist appeared some tents. We were heading in right general direction. Niall out in front decided we needed to veer left from here. After 15 mins or so we saw some headtorches coming out of mist, in what appeared to me the wrong way. Niall checked with lads (guide and client on way to do Diables) and he put us back on track. Minutes later we passed some more tents (same?) again but now the mist was easing and we could see lights on the approach couloir and up onto the ridge. We put our heads down and made directly for the bergshrund. We stopped just short of it to gear up for the climb ahead. Despite the small hiccup we’d made good time. It was still only 4.00am
The bergshrund was big. Massive even. We’d shortened the rope to about 10m. Niall disappeared over the lip with the rope following and a ‘watch me here’. The rope came tight with no sign of him exiting so I started to move. I followed him in. After a few minutes of very nervous post-holing we found a track out into the couloir that previous parties had made and started ascending. For the next half hour or so we continued up on steep easy ground. It was well stepped and the nevé was perfect but there was nowhere for protection. It was just a case of keep moving and don’t do anything daft. I could feel the exposure growing behind us but could not quiet see it. Around us the sky was starting to brighten and you could catch the outline of ridge and stars above us. The couloir narrowed at top and the snow disappeared. There was a sketchy 15m of mixed climbing (not hard) to get ourselves onto the ridge properly. It was really not a place to slip. Every placement needed to be 100 per cent.
By this state, it was nearly dawn and I could now see the mountains around us. Back down along the lower ridge we could see other groups behind. Ahead a few other ropes. It was amazing. Views across to the Peutery Ridge were jaw dropping. I couldn’t believe I was finally on the Kuffner Arête.
We moved up some easy snow slopes and through a band of rock. All easy climbing but for first time I was feeling the altitude. Route finding wasn’t too hard. We were nearly always in sight of another group. It being a ridge it wasn’t overly difficult staying on track. We got to the snow slopes below Point l’Androsace. There was a huge gendarme on upper ridge. This is turned on left in three to four pitches of 25m. You approach by crossing a snow arête, or Demi Lune as its know, with huge exposure down to the left. The snow though was perfect and it wasn’t long before we got to the technical crux. Niall dispatched it with ease. I nearly blew a gasket. Luckily previous parties had left some rope to yard on. Being completely devoid of technique or ethics I hauled up the thing with a couple of Italian teams hot on my heels. I felt like I’d left my lungs below. I stood there for second gasping like freshly landed mackerel. We pitched our way through a col behind the Point and came back into the sunshine. I got a much needed rest waiting for our new Italian friends to move on above the col. I also got a chance to take in the view. To my right the Arête du Diable, which Niall had done with Dave Keogh the year before. It is amazing looking route and it is now firmly on bucket list. To the left is the Peutery Ridge, a route that fired the imagination. For sure, this was big country.
We were now beyond that hold up. We shortened the rope again and started moving together with bits of gear between us. We had slowed down, both of us feeling the altitude. I was in bits with the thirst and was struggling to get any food in, even jellies, my mainstay on the mountains. The climbing though was great. Through rocks. Across snow. A long pull up to left and then back out right again. I could see the team ahead of us pulling out onto what I thought was the top a couple of 100m above. When we finally reached it I was disappointed to see there was another step to go yet. At 4250m I was running on fumes.
We were out on the Chamonix side of the ridge now. An exposed snow traverse brought us to a final gully. Climbing up through this we were finally out on the broad expanse of Mt Maudits north flank. We had done the Kuffner Ridge. It really is a magnificent climb. It was never too hard and through some amazing scenery. But we’d only topped out. Halfway. No medals yet. We were heading back to the Midi Station. We wanted to catch Dermot and Declan before they returned home after their adventures. We also wanted to catch England’s continued quest to ‘bring football home’. They have great sense of humor them Brits.
We traversed across another snow shoulder at 4335m and dropped down to a small col. Here we’d a decision to make. We could ascend the final 100+ metres or take a track across North flank and skip it. This track picks up the 3 Monts route for those ascending/descending Mont Blanc. Going up we calculated would take another hour of ball breaking graft. Our short cut would have us immediately going downhill. Someone had put in that track for a reason. Once I started going down I would instantly feel better. What do you think we did?
It’s a secret!
Some time later we found ourselves on the the descent track off Maudit through the spectacular seracs. I’d seen pictures but up close and personal was incredible. Massive ice cliffs that break away once in a while with sometimes devastating results. I wanted to stop and take pictures but Niall was having none of it. I have form in this department. I’d stopped on a snowbridge crossing the Vallée Blanche the day before to drop a layer and have drink. i hadn’t noticed it at all.
We kept moving down steep slopes until the ground finally levelled off on a large col between the Tacul and Maudit. Out of range from anything that might have come off side of the mountain. I think it’s first time we both stopped to relax. We had done the route in decent time but were feeling it now. We hadn’t stopped to eat anything and had taken very little in the way of liquid. Now neither of us could get much in at all. It wasn’t time to be hanging around.
We started up again. Our descent down north face of Mont Blanc de Tacul was a fractious affair. I was convinced Niall was trying to trip me with rope. A new sport perhaps. It kept coming up lose around my feet. He responded to these charges, saying if I’d give over stopping for no apparent reason the rope wouldn’t come loose.
As we made our way down we were passed by the guide we’d meet earlier that morning who put us on right track. Himself and his equally fit client had just done the Arête du Diable Traverse and were on their way back to the Torino Hut. I marveled at their speed. I never really get away for long enough to acclimatize properly. It must make routes so much more enjoyable. We eventually got to the bergshrund where the local guides have put in a ladder to aid people crossing it. We dropped down this and made out way out from under the seracs on the Tacul. It was 2.00pm We’d been on the go constantly more or less for 12 hours. We stopped to drop gear and layers.
It was instantaneous. I felt what was left of my energy drain out of me. Like a clown car when all the wheels fall outwards, I realized I was completely f**ked. (Sorry Ed. no other word fits).
Iftwas 30 degrees plus Celsius on the glacier. The heat was appalling. Our water was long gone. We’d to make our way back to the lift station up the Midi arête. It was purgatory. I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I lost count of the number of times I stopped. It felt like everyone was skipping past me. I thought I was going to get sick. I was completely exhausted. Finally we got to the station. It had taken close to an hour. My brain wasn’t working right. (loads of material there for some). I could hardly pack away my gear but at the back of it all the fireworks were going off. We’d done the Kuffner. I was thrilled. Both of us were. We stopped at the Midi Plan on the descent for beer and hotdogs. I was buzzing. All was right with the world.