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Often attempted, never conquered, the Freney route up Mont Blanc lured Walter Bonatti and six others on a sunny July morning. Only three returned from one of the most tragic Alpine climbs in 20 years

article by Gordon Ackerman (August 07, 1961; Sports Illustrated)

In late spring the snow melts around the base of Mont Blanc and trickles off in streams and rivulets down into the deep valleys on each side of the mountain. Mont Blanc is the highest point in western Europe; it looms up on the Alpine range on the border between France and Italy, just below Switzerland. It is more than 15,000 feet high and looks down on the village of Courmayeur on the Italian side and Chamonix on the French side. These are picturesque resorts for skiers and mountain climbers and are tied together by the highest cable car in the world.

By June most of the skiers have left and the time has come for the mountain climbers. Some of them are dabblers but many are men to whom climbing is a passion and a raison d’�tre—like Pierre Mazeaud, a 36-year-old Paris law professor; or Antoine Vieille, a student and the son of a French admiral; or Robert Guillaume, who three years ago left his job in a Paris bakery to learn climbing and to prepare himself for the next French Himalayan expedition; or Pierre Kohlmann, a French civil engineer who found his love for mountains four years ago when he doubled for the hero of a French adventure film during an Alpine sequence.

To men of this kind Mont Blanc is not only a thing of beauty but also a challenge and temptation. The greatest temptation of all is the Freney Pillar on the Italian side, which begins at 12,500 feet and reaches, in a massive wall of snow, ice and red granite, up to 15,000 feet, not far from the summit itself. Many good climbers have tried for the summit by way of the Freney but none has succeeded.

 

The view from Bonatti’s window

Walter Bonatti, 31, and one of the best Alpinists alive, has tried it a dozen times. At 16 he left his family to work nights as a machinist so that he could learn mountain climbing during the day. At 17 he saved a party of nine French and Italians stranded in a hailstorm on the north wall of Mont Blanc, and at 18 he climbed to the summit of Mont Blanc alone. He has also climbed in the Dolomites and Himalaya, making the triumphant ascent of K-2 in 1954. Bonatti lives in Courmayeur with his wife and family three miles from the base of Mont Blanc. He is a tall, broad-shouldered and tranquil Italian, possessed of that character compounded of tenacity, self-assurance and sincerity which distinguishes so many mountain people. He has lived in Courmayeur for 14 years, and from the windows of his home he can look at Mont Blanc and the Freney, the virgin trail. Bonatti was known as the man to see if you wanted to climb a mountain.

In June, Bonatti had a phone call from an engineer and climber in Milan named Roberto Gallieni. He had never met Gallieni but knew of him as a devoted and impassioned amateur who wanted to be a guide himself and who had done some good work in the Dolomites and Aosta Valley range near Turin. Gallieni asked Bonatti if he wanted to try the Freney. Bonatti did. He suggested they find one other professional climber; then the three of them could start the climb early in July with Bonatti as guide. “We’ll get the virgin,” Gallieni said.

Bonatti found the third man the next day. It was an easy choice; only two months before, he and a 30-year-old climber from Monza named Andrea Oggioni had climbed together in Peru, and they had talked of the Freney then. Oggioni was Bonatti’s best friend, and he agreed at once to make the Freney attempt.

On July 8, a Saturday, Oggioni and Gallieni arrived in Courmayeur. They had dinner with the Bonattis and talked about Freney, planning the trip. They had their equipment and wanted to leave immediately. They started early Sunday, taking the cable car up to the Helbronner shelter at 10,000 feet, each with 50 pounds on his back. From there they began a lateral trek across 8,000 feet of ice and snow toward the Aiguille Noire, the Black Needle, where they would bivouac Sunday night before starting the 2,500-foot vertical ascent up the Freney to the summit of Mont Blanc. Bonatti liked the look of the weather; the sky was clear all the way into Switzerland and France and down into the Aosta Valley. Bonatti led, followed by Gallieni; Oggioni was last, carrying most of the equipment. The snow was soft only to a depth of six inches. On the way Bonatti thought to himself: if the weather holds up like this we should make it all right.

On Sunday afternoon, when they stopped to rest, Bonatti saw, coming down over an ice rise 900 feet above them and a half a mile away, four other climbers. He could see through his binoculars that they were carrying equipment for a long climb. The first man carried a pickax from which a small triangular French flag flew in the cold wind.

The four moved quickly across the ridge and came trotting toward the Italians through the light snow, their faces covered with grease against the wind and sun. The leader came up to Bonatti and they embraced and shook hands; he was Pierre Mazeaud, the Paris professor, who had met Bonatti many times. The other three were also known to the Italians: Antoine Vieille, making his first important climb; Pierre Kohlmann and Robert Guillaume. They had left Chamonix, on the French side, Saturday, and taken the cable car to 11,000 feet, marching downhill all day Sunday to reach the entrance to the Freney. Like the Italians, they hoped to be the first to reach the summit by the Freney route.

Bonatti and Mazeaud, the two leaders, stepped away from the others and talked together. Bonatti explained that his group was trying the same thing; why didn’t they join, he suggested, all seven of them, and try it together? It would be easier with seven: roped together they could resist an avalanche or storm. It would be a French and Italian climb, just as Mont Blanc is a French and Italian mountain. Mazeaud thought it was a fine idea and so did the others. And so at sunset, as the acres of snow and ice turned to amber, the seven men bound themselves to each other with a single rope and in single file started toward the Black Needle peak.

The men got on well together; Bonatti, Gallieni and Oggioni spoke French, and after dinner at the Black Needle they sat inside their tents and talked, listening to young Guillaume joke about his work as a baker and wondering how any man could do work like that when there were mountains to climb; listening to Vieille tell that he would be drafted in August and hoped to get into the ski corps. Gallieni was somewhat worried about his family, as his wife thought he was just visiting the Bonattis in Courmayeur. Kohlmann, who was deaf in one ear, talked little but like the others listened carefully whenever Bonatti spoke. The seven had a lot in common. They were among the 20 best Alpinists in the world, and even Vieille, 22 and the youngest present, was considered a briliant and resourceful climber.

At 10 p.m. they closed their sleeping bags and went to sleep. In Courmayeur, 11,000 feet down, Bonatti’s wife stood at the window of their bedroom and imagined that she could make out the Black Needle, where her husband had told her they would camp the first night. In Milan the Italian meteorological service issued a report indicating the formation of a low-pressure area over the Aosta Valley which by late Tuesday would move northward to form a heavy cloud layer over the Franco-Italian Alpine range, with rain or light snow possible at high altitudes.

From the Black Needle upward

Monday morning the hard work began. Crossing the ice field had been easy, but the route from the Black Needle upward through the Freney to the summit was solid granite and ice, almost 3,000 feet of it. The men started at dawn with two flags, French and Italian, waving in the polar-cold wind.

Through Monday and Tuesday they climbed in fresh snow toward the summit. They made little headway; the winds had become stronger, driving the snow into soft and treacherous drifts. Each hour Bonatti and Mazeaud stopped to rest and check the condition of their men. Vieille had slowed down a little at the end of Monday’s climbing; Mazeaud had asked how he felt, and when Vieille said he felt wonderful but cold, the Italians had given him an extra windbreaker. Bonatti was also worried about Guillaume, who was one of the best French climbers of his generation but who lacked experience on rock ledges and cliffs of the kind the team would encounter before they got to the summit. But Monday night when they camped, Bonatti had found Guillaume confident and in good shape. By noon on Tuesday, when they stopped to eat a lunch of canned meat and milk, Bonatti. and Mazeaud agreed that the Freney was nearly licked. They could see the summit no more than 500 feet above them, looming blinding-white against the purple sky. They decided to climb till sundown and then camp only 240 feet from the summit, attacking it at dawn Wednesday. Looking down behind him, Bonatti could see the ice plain they had crossed together Sunday, vast and vacuous, its lunate ridges shining in the sun.

At 5 o’clock Tuesday afternoon the seven men were 270 feet from the top. They could see it directly above them, at the other end of a granite cliff covered with ice. Bonatti turned to look down once more at the ice plain, and it was gone. A layer of fog had come within half an hour, obscuring the whole valley and village. Mazeaud motioned overhead; Bonatti looked up and saw heading their way a massive layer of gray clouds that extended a hundred miles into Switzerland. It was the last thing he was to see clearly for many days.

Within an hour, the clouds swept over Mont Blanc, covering the summit and the climbers and cutting the visibility to less than a yard. It began to snow, vast waves of snow, sweeping across the Freney and trapping the men so close to their goal. The temperature fell below zero and the wind rose to 70 miles an hour.

Bonatti and Mazeaud tugged on the rope and gathered the men around them, yelling right into their ears to make themselves heard over the noise of the storm. Bonatti saw that Vieille and Guillaume were not in good shape, though they both assured him that they felt fine. Pierre Kohlmann had developed a bad earache, and his lips and face were blue from the cold. He said he wanted to go on, and they all put it up to Bonatti, who was left to decide whether the seven should try to reach the top and the wooden hut there, or start back down the Freney again in the storm.

Bonatti made his decision: down. They started their descent through the fury of the storm, but they had gone only a little distance before they were forced to take shelter in a crevice in the ice. So precarious was this perch that they drove pitons in its walls to cling to. The storm grew worse; Oggioni and Gallieni lost their footing and dangled over the edge, nearly carrying all seven with them before they were hauled back. Mazeaud leaned over to Bonatti and yelled: “It’s the worst I’ve seen, ever.” Bonatti, the veteran of 48 Mont Blanc ascensions, the Himalaya and Dolomites, stared out into the storm and watched the swirling snow. He nodded in agreement.

As they huddled there by the abyss, cold attacked the men insidiously, relentlessly. Bonatti took off his gloves and saw that the ends of his fingers had whitened; he had lost all sensation in them. A moment later Mazeaud, in pain, took off his left boot. His foot, from the toes to the ankle, was purple.

The night passed in wild turmoil, but on Wednesday morning the storm abated slightly. Bonatti decided to continue the descent. He ordered the men to divide into pairs: he and Gallieni leading; Vieille going with Guillaume; Kohlmann with Mazeaud. Oggioni would bring up the rear carrying most of the equipment and acting as a shepherd. Henceforth, except for Oggioni, each would be bound only to one other man, Bonatti reasoning there was too great a chance of all of them falling if they stayed in a single group of seven. He called Oggioni aside and told him they would probably all be separated before they reached the Gamba shelter, 7,000 feet below. They were now at about 14,500 feet. Bonatti told him to watch Vieille as best he could; he was not experienced in rock climbing or storms. Kohlmann, too, was having trouble.

Their arrangements were made; they were about to set off for Gamba, and then the storm suddenly broke into full fury again. Bonatti yelled, calling the men back into the crevice. They were hungry, but the food was gone. Mazeaud’s feet were worse and he could no longer feel anything in his lips or hands. Bonatti ordered them to wait till it cleared, no matter how long it lasted; just to step out of the crevice, he said, would be to commit suicide.

The storm went on for three days and for all that time the men sat cramped and cold. Friday night two avalanches roared past the crevice, pulling four of the men off balance and nearly over the edge. The physical and mental ravages of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, cold and shock began to show. The water was gone and the men started eating snow. They were all suffering to some degree from frostbite, particularly Mazeaud, who had lost all feeling from the knees down. By Friday night Vieille and Kohlmann were semidelirious, Bonatti knew that if they didn’t leave soon they would never leave.

At 2 a.m. Saturday morning Bonatti told them to get packed again. They started, crawling with animal tenacity out of the ice crevice and backing down a hundred foot ledge into the omnivorous and vertical Freney. Oggioni was the last, the watchman and whip, bearing most of the equipment and much of the responsibility, using up his energy by shouting encouragement to the others, whom he couldn’t see. He yelled their names, swore at them, insulted them and pleaded with them to keep moving: “Avanti! Avanti! Avanti!” His voice vaporized into the frigid air around him, heard only by Kohlmann and Mazeaud, the last pair, just behind Vieille and Guillaume.

They plowed through snow and over cliffs and ledges all day Saturday. By noon the pairs had become separated by several hundred feet, which in the storm was as good as a hundred miles because none of them could hear or see more than a yard in any direction. In the lead Bonatti and Gallieni were buried under an avalanche. They succeeded in freeing themselves with their pickaxes just before suffocating, but they were badly weakened. Gallieni was exhausted and, becoming delirious, wanted to bivouac—anywhere. Bonatti’s fingers and palms froze solid, but he knew that if they stopped before reaching the Gamba shelter they would never live through the night; the wind would tear their tents away. He worried about the others but lost contact with all of them except Gallieni. The last he had seen of Vieille and Guillaume, Vieille had had his arm around Guillaume’s shoulder; he could hardly walk. Though it was daytime Bonatti couldn’t see his hand in front of his face and when he felt himself nearing a ledge or precipice he got down on his stomach and inched his way toward it backwards, feeling with his knees for the edge.

Kohlmann and Mazeaud, bound together, became stuck in snow up to their lips. Mazeaud saw his partner’s head weaving and his eyes rolling. He also was near the end, and tried to think of something encouraging to yell to Kohlmann. Instead, he began to doze while fighting through the drifts. Suddenly he felt a tug on the end of the rope and turned to see Kohlmann collapsing, his head sinking out of sight beneath the snow, drowning in it. He struggled back to catch him and as he turned he felt the flesh open up above his ankles.

Kohlmann was unconscious. Mazeaud plucked him out of the snow and yelled at him. He carried him to an ice crevice; Kohlmann woke up but refused to go on. Mazeaud took his pulse: it was weak and slow. Kohlmann’s eyes closed, and, though Mazeaud shook him for fully 15 minutes, he couldn’t wake him. Mazeaud tried carrying him again but couldn’t. He yelled into the storm for help but no one answered, and he felt himself weakening and almost decided to go to sleep beside Kohlmann. Finally he wrapped Kohlmann in two blankets and stretched him out in the crevice, sheltered from the storm, and marked the spot with a green handkerchief. Then he started down again.

Left in a crevice to die

At midnight Saturday Bonatti and Gallieni reached the Gamba shelter, a one-room wooden hut. They literally bumped into it. Bonatti collapsed in the doorway, and Gallieni, trying to carry him, fell beside him and passed out. Bonatti awoke and carried Gallieni to a cot, and then again blacked out. When Pierre Mazeaud arrived, exhausted, three hours later he found them both awake but delirious and mumbling unintelligibly. Bonatti finally recovered and then Mazeaud began to cry, screaming that he had left Kohlmann behind in a crevice to die and that he deserved to die too.

At dawn Sunday, Guillaume, Vieille and Oggioni were still missing. The storm lifted a little and a team of six rescuers, who had started from Courmayeur the night the storm began, arrived at Gamba. They found Mazeaud and Gallieni nearly out of their senses and Bonatti close to unconsciousness from exhaustion, hunger and frostbite. The rescuers gave them hot milk, and Mazeaud and Bonatti stammered out the story of the climb. Together with Bonatti and Gallieni, the rescue team left the hut to search for the missing four.

They started up the slope, retracing Bonatti’s route, and 40 feet from the shelter they found Guillaume dead, entombed in a chunk of frozen snow. He had given up 10 minutes before reaching the hut. Gallieni broke down again and the rescuers insisted he go back to Gamba. He refused, but Bonatti was unable to continue.

Not many yards farther on the searchers found Kohlmann, incredibly alive and sitting in the ice crevice where Mazeaud had left him. Seeing him, they embraced him and tried to carry him on their shoulders.

The night in the crevice, however, had done things to Pierre Kohlmann. He attacked his rescuers, beating them about the face. He then started to run away, screaming into the wind that they were trying to kill him. He got down on his hands and knees in the snow and began to moan. As they ran toward him, Kohlmann dived toward an ice cliff and was barely saved from going over. Seeing Kohlmann closeup, the men were shocked: his face was black, with deep cracks gaping in his chin and nose. He rose unsteadily and attacked again but was finally persuaded to go with them back to the hut.

Near Gamba, Roberto Gallieni lost his glove. As he reached into his breast pocket for another, Kohlmann broke away and started to run, screaming that Gallieni was trying to get a revolver to kill him. He started up toward Freney in the snow, yelling into the wind. They found him dead a few moments later, his face locked in an expression of inviolable terror.

A little farther up the pass the rescuers found Oggioni. He was seated in a crevice, his arm raised as if in salute, frozen and dead. Beyond, across a granite face, they could see through their glasses the shrouded body of Vieille, who apparently had been the first to die.

At 9 a.m. Sunday, just a week after the three Italians started the ascent, a French helicopter settled near the Gamba shelter and carried the three survivors to Courmayeur. Bonatti and Gallieni were taken to the Courmayeur Clinic. They recovered well, but their fingers and feet were permanently affected.

Mazeaud was flown on to a hospital in Lyons and placed under sedation. When the sedatives wore off and he regained consciousness, he learned that his feet might have to be amputated. He grabbed each doctor and intern that came in his room and tried to tell them what happened. Finally he calmed down and told the whole story to his surgeon, from beginning to end in infinite detail, concluding in French: “When you’re worn out, death looks better than life; up there at 10,000 feet Saturday night, death looked to us as sweet as a soft and warm bed.”

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