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This ascent represents the outcome of 25 years of mountaineering” says Arthur Sordoillet. On the 9th of February, the French mountain guide climbed the Pic Sans Nom’s north face. Solo, in winter, via the Cambon-Francou, one of the most serious routes on the Black Glacier. This lightning ascent, made in more or less one day, was a magnificent success on a committed summit of the Écrins. Proof, if any were needed, of the magnetic attraction of this massif on mountaineers. This was Arthur Sordoillet’s fifth ascent on the flanks of the Pic Sans Nom. Here is his story.

The sun and I had a little rendezvous at the summit of Pic Sans Nom last Wednesday, and although I have a tendency to be late, I was able to greet this friend before he went to bed. There is no crowd at the black glacier in winter, it is the advantage of the five hours of approach from Pelvoux.

I thank my children for the loan of their sledge which made a wonderful pulka. After having been cheerfully overtaken by assisted mountain bikers (one meets everything in the mountains – it must be said that there are 10 km of snow-covered road), I wondered if I should not have raised my thumb. I guess my gear scared them a bit because they didn’t offer me a ride. The walk leaves me deep in thought, and the three “Daddy I don’t want you to go!” are ringing in my head. Five hours of hard work later, here I am at the foot Pic Sans Nom’s north face.

The Pic Sans Nom’s north face, a little to the right of the centre of the picture, the Cambon-Francou route. ©Arthur Sordoillet

ON THE WAY DOWN, A CAMALOT LET GO OF ME AND I LANDED WITH MY HINDQUARTERS ON A ROCK BLADE. 

In front of the north face, on this Black glacier that I know well, my weaknesses about the conditions and therefore about the climbing tactics start to dissipate: a day and a half ago, a disturbance passed and snowed the Savoies and even the north of the Écrins. It snowed at La Berarde a few kilometres away and here, incredibly, there was no such slippery stuff! Thanks to my friend Sylvain who sees the Ailefroides from his home and who told me that he “doesn’t believe that there is fresh snow or a few centimetres at the most“.

That’s true. But with the wind, the risk was that the face would be plastered! In short, I am at the foot of the face and quite reassured to see these dry rocky bastions. Finally relieved of my 25kg load, I prepare the next day by tracing the attack and fixing L1, which takes me three hours. But what a pleasure to be able to climb this face at last. As I abseil down to the top of the belay, the supplementary friend. I’m hanging on breaks. My hindquarters fall right on a blunt granite blade. Ouch!

Get up at 2:30 am

Summary bivouac on a bed of fakir and that my big bruise doesn’t help: the stones are frozen and thus difficult to knock down. But nevertheless, the night has been long enough for the circumstance, I have known shorter! The time of waking up is a compromise between the duration of the rest, the cold of the night, and the duration of potential climbing with the headlamp versus the difficulty of the pitches to come. In short, I got up at 2:30am: my tracks from the night before allowed me to finish my night quietly, but the bar accessing the nevé woke me up completely because here it’s solo, mixed and not delicate in slabs. Total concentration. Above, I fix my Jumar handle on the fixed rope placed the day before with delight: this was the physical warm up.

THE ATMOSPHERE IS Wonderful, THE PATH AESTHETIC, THE STONE CLASSY. WHAT MORE COULD YOU ASK FOR?

I climb the next two pitches by headlamp, and I’m happy with my scouting from the day before. I find the 6b/A1 not very pleasant, (scales sounding hollow) and not so easy: after three average pitons should I continue with artificial climbing on belays or try free climbing? It will be a mix of both. And the end of the pitch is steep and athletic where I would have need all my camalots, unluckily all mine are further down!

Seen from the top, Stephane Benoist’s variant looks very nice to climb. The first light picks me up at the belay of this pitch, I turn around and what a sight the Écrins is at the first rays! The headwall atmosphere is wonderful, the rock classy, the route aesthetic, what more could I ask for? I rotate pitches with and without the rope. My big climbing shoes can take two socks and my feet are as warm as ever in the mountains, although it’s not exactly the best precision but I’m adapting. And on the hands side, the 3500 m iso is good, and I alternate between gloves and “bare hands”. Here is a magnificent diagonal crack to finish the difficulties, and that’s it at 12:30 the granite is behind me.

Solo companion. ©Arthur Sordoillet

One of the difficult pitches, in very compact rock. ©Arthur Sordoillet

Sunrise on the Ecrins. ©Arthur Sordoillet

Rendezvous with the sun

Another 5 straight pitches and then crampons are in order. I appreciate the sharpening of my brand new crampons in this hard ice. I make my way between gullies, rock and mixed. Some passages are great. I finally arrive at the terminal ridge at snack time and find my friend the sun: I take the opportunity to melt some snow, the road is still long to the bivouac. Again, extreme concentration on this red and steep ridge : we have to navigate, always looking for the least steep, to finally reach the summit. The sun is still there, it sets on the Ailefroides just next door. Emotion.

The last time I was here was 21 years ago with my friend Julien, we slept right at the summit, huddled together with a duvet for two and a colder isotherm than today…

Joy at the summit! ©Arthur Sordoillet

EMOTION AT THE TOP. BUT THE LONG DESCENT REQUIRES MAXIMUM CONCENTRATION.

A “nice” descent awaits me. I jog quickly before the dark to place the first abseiling anchor in the northwest couloir, I use the Beal device Escaper, the atmosphere is magical with the end of the light reflecting on the steep NW face. Then with the moon shining on the blue ice. Back to the bivouac, exhausted, happy and serene. My goal of getting out of my comfort zone is well achieved. I would even say that this ascent represents the culmination of twenty-five years of mountaineering.

Arthur Sordoillet

Some technical details:

Timetable as an indication: 3:30 am glacier – 12:30 end of the difficulties – 4pm foot of the ridge – 6pm summit (including water break) – bivouac 10pm. That is to say about 14:30 of climbing and 3:30 of descent.

More info here, in french. Arthur Sordoillet is a high mountain guide. On his very complete site, all the information (in french) on ideas for great and beautiful races.

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