words by Tony Lourens pic by Alessandro Gelmetti
I stood amongst the ruins of the old Gamba Hut on the slopes of Mont Blanc. It was 6 am, and the early morning sun was just starting to caress the tips of the immense snowy peaks surrounding me. Orange-pink hues painted the tops of the famous Innominatta Ridge, giving the rock and ice a soft, friendly look.
Riveted to the spot, I gazed up at these giants and a feeling of déjà vu swept over me. Not because I had been here before, but because I had read so many stories about these magnificent mountains, these huge, intimidating but beautiful towers, pillars and glaciers. And the men who came to climb them . . . many never to return.
The history and climbing tales surrounding the many routes on the Mont Blanc Massif run deep, but one epic story undoubtedly stands head and shoulders above all others, and that story started right at the spot where I was standing – the Gamba hut.
I knew the story intimately, having read it dozens of times from my childhood when I started climbing – and devoured every climbing book the old Wynberg library had to offer – and many times since.
The year was 1961. I could almost feel the thick, cold mustiness in the hut, and hear the crunching of the ice as climbers entered the small crowded space, all with hopes and aspirations about the climbs they were planning to do. One of these climbers was the legendary Italian alpinist, Walter Bonatti accompanied by two Italian climbers, and another was the inimitable French climber, Pierre Mazeaud, along with his three French companions. Both parties had simultaneously and coincidentally decided to go for the first ascent of one of the most revered unclimbed problems in the greater western Alps – Mont Blanc’s Central Pillar of Freney.
After some discussion, it was decided that the two teams would join forces and make a united attempt on the Pillar – an extremely remote slender tower of beautiful granite, reaching to almost the very summit of the highest peak in the Alps. A serious undertaking by all accounts.
The tale is legendary and way too long to relate in this article, but who was to know that when the seven climbers left the Gamba early the following morning, only three would return alive . . . many days later?
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