In the life of a climber there are projects that cannot be left unfinished.
This is what Arnaud Petit spoke about last winter with his wife, Stéphanie Bodet. The couple, who call themselves “Vagabonds de la Verticale,” have traditionally started each year with an expedition to one of the biggest walls in the world.
During the past decade they have successfully completed routes on Trango Tower in Pakistan, Lotus Flower Tower in Canada, the Holy War in Jordan, Angel Falls in Venezuela, the Tsaranoro in Madagascar, many of the big faces in Africa, and of course, all the classics in Yosemite, USA. Despite this long list of accomplishments a number of big projects remain so 2010 was never going to be any different.
At the end of the ‘90s, following an outstanding career as competition climbers, Arnaud and Stéphanie began transitioning toward adventure climbing.
In 1997, Arnaud, together with his father, launched this new chapter with the opening of a major new mountain route. On the east face of the Grand Capucin he identified an unclimbed line promising great technical difficulty at high altitude. At this time, Stéphanie had also begun to discover the high mountains and joined them to finish equipping the route. The "Petit" route was thus established and waited for a first free ascent.
It wasn’t until eight years later, in 2005, that Alex Huber accepted the challenge. After several tries he finally freed the crux, a large dihedral ending in a roof that’s rated 8b. Arnaud and Stéphanie could not forget this route so it’s natural that Petit has risen to the top of their tick list of routes “to climb together, free, and in a single push.”
Petzl : Arnaud, how did you get the idea to put up a new route on Grand Capucin and how did it go?
Arnaud : As a teenager I spent a lot of time looking at photos in books about the mountains. One image in Rébuffat’s 100 Finest Routes in The Mont Blanc Massif showed the overhang at the top of the east face. This image was impressive at the time but it wasn’t until 10 years later that it really began to speak to me. Suddenly, because my climbing had progressed and I had more experience, I saw a line that could be climbed. This was a revelation and I was determined to turn this imaginary line into reality.
Petzl : Why didn’t you try to climb the route free at that time?
Arnaud: Putting up the route was difficult because I had decided to do the entire route on lead. We needed to take five trips up to the Torino hut. We didn’t know how to ascend the fixed ropes very well and by the end I was exhausted, totally wasted by the altitude. By that point it was already an achievement to do a first ascent of a 450-meter route from the ground up. The following year I returned with Titi Gentet but we used the wrong tactics. I remember seconding the crux pitch while wearing a backpack! Our approach was too alpine. While working the roof we should have switched to a bouldering style. It’s not easy to make that transition at altitude. I needed more experience, in fact.
Petzl : Steph, you participated in putting up this route. Was it at that time you realized the route could be freed?
Steph : Absolutely not. I was completely overwhelmed by the difficulty of the climbing and the environment I was in. The altitude, the fantastic panorama of the high mountains and the responsibility of belaying my boyfriend-I was plenty satisfied with it all. I remember that in order to reach the last pitches we had to climb the first eight pitches of the Bonatti route. I had never really climbed granite before and with my backpack filled with bolts and batteries for the drill I was often seconding.
Petzl : Arnaud and Stef, why did you choose this year to return to this project?
Arnaud and Steph : In winter 2009 we took a five-month break from climbing to finish building our house. When we started climbing again we were as motivated as ever. After a trip to South Africa and a winter of bouldering we realized that it had been many years since we had been this fit. Stef did her first 8a boulder problem and she was close to climbing an 8c at Ceüse. As for me, I re-climbed some 8c routes and an 8c+. And that’s not to mention that for some time we had wanted to find a project close to home, so naturally our thoughts returned to Grand Capucin. The atmosphere there is insane and it had been nearly five years since we had stepped foot in the Mont Blanc massif.
Winter 2010 was long and the wait for good conditions appeared endless. Spring was very wet with significant snowfalls until mid-June. A window finally appeared in early July that would allow them to make their first attempt. The couple’s strategy was clear: acclimatize to the altitude, work to free every one of the pitches, and get started as soon as possible.
Petzl : How did you prepare and train for this? Did you use any special training techniques?
Steph : We just climbed what we felt like climbing and tried routes that we really liked in Ceuse. In the ten years since we stopped competing we haven’t really done and specialized training programs. In retrospect, I realize that to be better prepared we perhaps should have taken advantage of bouldering on granite. In the end, what helped us the most were all the previous years of training in a variety of climbing styles and on big routes that required a high level of adaptability and a strong base.
Petzl : Arnaud, we know you are passionate about equipment. Can you lead us through your gear list for this route?
Arnaud : Two 50m ropes, nuts, a set of Aliens including two reds, one red and two green Camalots, quickdraws with lots of 60 cm slings, a MINI TRAXION for hauling the pack, a REVERSO, a helmet, and don’t forget the toothbrush! And a warm jacket to cover up with!
While descending after a day of working the route, Arnaud met David Lama on the lower pitches and willingly supplied beta about the most difficult pitches. Lama succeeded in freeing the route the next day!
Petzl : Was it a surprise when you met another climber on the route with the same objective? What information did you give him? Did your meeting with David Lama and his success in freeing the route the next day motivate you even more to complete your own project?
Arnaud : I was actually surprised. He climbed like a cat, not at all phased by the exposure. It was beautiful to see. In fact, I, the proud father of the route, asked him if he liked it. David is not very talkative but I felt that he loved the climb and had to pull out all the stops at the top to keep from falling. Like all climbers at the top of their game David searches for those rare moments where we walk the line between success and popping off the route. At his level, the opportunities he gets to experience this kind of excitement are few and far between.
On July 20, Arnaud and Steph leave the Torino hut before dawn for a great day of climbing. Arnaud, in top form, succeeds in freeing the entire route. Stéphanie comes very close but falls on the 8b pitch.
Arnaud : The fact that David had climbed the 8b pitch onsight gave me a boost. I told myself that even though it had been 10 years since I had climbed the higher part of the route, and that I was 20 years older, I had a small advantage because I had climbed the route before. On the next try I had to go for the linkup. A week later I was well trained and well acclimatized. The conditions were great, quite stable. I didn’t take any falls and the 8a up high pushed me to the very limit. It was great. Stef followed, I hauled the pack. The climbing was euphoric: two climbers climbing everything free, in super style, without jumaring. Except for Stef’s fall on the 8b, we came close to doing the ideal ascent. At the top we took our time. Moments like these are unique-climbing to our full potential on a super route that we had first put up together as a couple. That doesn’t happen every day!
But Stéphanie is a tenacious climber and the two returned on August 21. Unfortunately, snowfall on the upper ledges rendered the same 8b pitch impossible and the route would not be in condition for the rest of the season.
Petzl : Stef, you were so close to succeeding. How was the experience for you?
Steph : Waiting a month to go back was, in the end, the most difficult. We spent our time watching the forecast. We lost our acclimatization and the sequences were no longer fresh in our memory. But these are the ways of the mountain and, in the end, knowing that you will not have too many opportunities makes the challenge even more exciting.
That day I was quite relaxed and hyper-motivated. The base of the route, including an exposed 7b that had me worried, was fine. But when I reached the foot of the 8b I soon saw that because it was really wet I would have to get past some hectic moves to climb the dihedral. I fought hard but I was too tired to complete the problem.
Despite my fall, I remember it as a special day. Arnaud jumared and hauled the pack and all I did was climb. That day I felt like a true princess!
Petzl : Arnaud and Steph, will you return next year so that Stéphanie can try again to free the route?
Arnaud and Steph : Maybe, if the motivation is there and we don’t find another super exciting project by then.
Throughout their project Arnaud and Stef were followed by cameraman and director Bertrand Delapierre. His film ‘Grand Libre au Grand Cap’ will be shown on the big screen at the 2010 Mountain film festival in Grenoble.