What the Fou?
I clipped the belay in relief, ripping my rock shoes from my swollen feet. My heels were screaming and blood trickled from my fingers; chalk stung in the cuts. 'What a pitch!' I hollered down to Tony. It echoed around the walls, down to anybody, down to nobody. The echo sounded a lot ruder.
The pitch below my throbbing heels was a razor-filled crack; like dipping my fingers into a bag of biting rats. Tony and I were stuck like flies to a giant, diamond-shaped 'little big wall.' Caught on the fly paper, we wriggled slowly higher, trying to get free from the Fou - the Madman.
The granite south face of the Aiguille du Fou pressed down on us, steadily overhanging above. A burning orb sizzled in the sky, parching our throats, hot enough to fry eggs or melt rubber. The heat and the wall felt oppressive. We'd been warned the climbing was no pushover after the crux 7c pitch, but we'd been confident when we studied the topo - sure, 6b+, how hard can it be? Now, plenty of pitches later, we found out exactly how hard!
I put Tony on belay and checked the topo again. The pitch had been about E5, stacked hard moves between wiggy cams, and I'd be willing to bet anything it was French 7a.
‘6b+! What the Fou? It’s a total sandbag!’
Adventure matters to me, and I value it’s unknown, daring smile. In a ‘playground’ such as the Mont Blanc massif, with lift access, helicopters, refuges and bolts, adventure can be hard to come by. Nonetheless, I’ve sought out the wilder routes. Something about a big, uncertain challenge in a beautiful setting draws me in; the bigger the route, the more I want to climb it.
I’ve been attracted to big routes in winter, or on the wilder side of the massif, and it’s even better if we can climb them onsight or free. I’ve also come to realise that some climbs are for saving, and others are for seizing; like a man on a mission, the time for those routes is now.
When the Vertical magazine from July/August 2014 was published, my friends and I poured through it’s pages, like discovering a hidden manuscript. I think it was whilst sharing a Chamonix Box with Pete Graham and Uisdean Hawthorn when I first saw the magazine. In between coffee sessions, Brevent training laps, winter routes, stretching sessions and biffing it on the slopes, we turned our miniature apartment into a bomb site and loved any minute of it.
The Vertical magazine described two of ‘Mont Blanc’s finest routes’: Divine Providence and the Aiguille du Fou. They sounded mythical, out-there… hanging like rich fruit, ready to be plucked. Divine Providence is on the Grand Pilier d’Angle, and the story of the first ascent enthralled me.
And the Fou? Translated, it means, ‘madman,’ and its south face is actually in plain view of all those who ski the Vallee Blanche, but you won’t see it unless you’re looking for it. Vertical magazine spoke of a 'big wall' feel, tough grades (7c), good rock and a big reputation. Let’s go!
In 2015, Tony Stone and I attempted to get to Divine Providence, but were forced to turn back after Col Moore collapsed like a pile of Jenga biscuits.
Then last summer, John McCune, Uisdean Hawthorn and I climbed DP, with a few points of aid because it was wet, returning to Chamonix with a well-fed rat.
This August, the American Route on the Aiguille du Fou seemed the obvious challenge to Tony and I: when the rest of the Alps was melting in a heatwave, we headed to the most exciting rock route we could think of.
Our approach to the Fou proved to be complicated. In spring, you can ski up the couloir at the base of the south face, but in summer it's strafed by rockfall and best to approach via the Chamonix Aiguilles traverse. When Tony and I tried this after bad weather, we found a few inches of snow covering loose rubble, and turned tail.
We passed a week of mixed weather by acclimatising and climbing cruisy, enjoyable multi-pitch routes, before the forecast turned 'splitter.' We laughed at what was surely a mis-translation on the prediction: 'amazing fair weather.'
Approaching via the north-west ridge of the Aiguille du Blatiere, we cut out the traverse of the Chamonix Aiguilles by going almost directly up to the Fou. Limited and fast-melting snow patches gave us enough water to bivi beneath the summit, and the cold night temperatures meant we had plenty of time to enjoy the stars.
On Tuesday 22nd, we rappelled to the base of the Fou, finding the big roof at the bottom to be a suitable wake up call. Ignoring the 4b initial pitch as the couloir was mostly rubble, I launched into the initial 7a+ pitch, grateful to be moving into the shade. Although only mid morning, it was already hot and I was glad of Tony's suggestion to take 2.5 litres of water.
I won't say too much about the grades or the protection of the route, as I think it dilutes the experience for future parties. Each time a route is climbed, more and more of the 'unknown' is filled in; it becomes easier, friendlier and safer with more information. However, I certainly ask previous ascensionists for beta, and I research the hell out of an alpine route before I try it, so I'm a bit of a hypocrite. Therefore, I'll say this about the American route: the grades are a bit off, and the 7c crux is mostly a clip-up (if you like rusty pegs...).
Tony started up the steep 7c pitch, climbing well up the tricky and loose ground. The rock was pretty poor through the overhang, with several hand and foot-holds breaking - 'shit!' - and I repeatedly ducked into the belay. Tony climbed through the crux and I thought he'd done it - 'go on, mate!' - as he shook out, the sun nearly in reach. More holds broke, one even bouncing off his helmet, and - suddenly - he was off! A foothold had blown and he was totally robbed of the onsight.
I tied in and went for the flash, having to try very hard and warm up my fingers at the same time. The powerful crux was nails, but luckily I hauled myself onto the slab by the belay, warming up in the sunshine.
The remaining ten pitches flowed well, linking obvious features. I had a few attempts at the 7a+ pitch straight after the crux, but was too fried to use the subtle footholds. Thankfully Tony stepped up to the plate, and I climbed it clean on second. I laughed at how the pitch grades should be swapped round - what the Fou was going on?
A couple of the 6b/+ pitches were complete sandbags, giving full-value fights. I was impressed by the wall, which felt quite intimidating and impressively steep. At last, though, we topped out near the summit and soaking in the sunshine. Whilst melting water we nursed sore heals and fingers, chatting about the intricacies of the Fou.
Thanks for a good route, Tony!