Friday, 4 October 2013

Mont Blanc-The Finest

There are two much-thumbed ‘bibles’ in my house: Ken Wilson’s ever-inspiring Classic Rock; and the nearest thing to pornography I’ve ever put on proud display in my living room: The Mont Blanc Massif: The hundred finest routes by the revered Gaston Rébuffat. Sad though it may seem, an evening with one of these on my lap, a fire roaring and half decent red is about as good a night as I can wish for.  And if I ever get to climb even a third of the routes in both books I’ll be a happy man. 

But the Mont Blanc book is definitely becoming dated. The latest edition required editor’s notes in places where things had changed radically. And there have also been some great new lines/routes added since the great Frenchman graced the rock and ice with so much style. So I was pretty damned excited to see a new book taking over where the last had left off. And Mont Blanc: The finest routes by Phillipe Batoux certainly sets its stall out to do this – as if swinging leads effortlessly with an older, steadier partner.

So how does the new offering compare? Like the original it’s a fairly large hard cover, coffee table book that will be used more for inspiration than as a guidebook.  The photography is awesome – you almost need to chalk up just to look at the front cover. And this theme continues through the whole book. The shots, all in colour, may lack the romantic, pioneering feel of some of the black & white masterpieces of the Rébuffat book but they instead show the audacious nerve and vision of a more modern alpine era, all set against one of the finest backdrops in the world. 

The layout is tidy and easy to follow, and many routes have well-drawn topos to assist in working out the complexity of the lines. As eluded to earlier, it’s not designed to be a guidebook but an inspiration, though it certainly gives all the relevant information for each route. It’s odd that the traditional Alpine gradings e.g. AD, PD etc. have been dropped. They may be subjective but I always find them a good starting point. But they are easy enough to check in other guidebooks and at least the rock gradings, ice gradings and mixed gradings are stated as are slope angles where relevant.

My only real disappointment with the book is more down to my modest ability than the author’s work. And that’s the way the grades have crept upwards. 
Both books list the climbs in order of seriousness/difficulty but the new book is definitely weighted towards much harder climbing with classic ticks like the North Face of the Tour Ronde relegated from 35th in the Rébuffat book to 14th in Phillipe Batoux’s; or the Frontier (Küffner) Ridge on Mont Maudit drops from 50th to a lowly 31st.This significantly reduces the number of routes featured that I’ll ever get to tick. 

But in its favour, it also introduces some ‘new classics’ and that will be its real strength. There are plenty of routes, across the grade range, in here that aren’t in the Rébuffat book and that will ease traffic slightly on the established honeypots and inspire climbers to look beyond the most heavily worn tracks.

In conclusion, this is a beautiful book and a real work of art. If you are a sucker for books like this and love the Mont Blanc range like I do, you’ll definitely want to add this to your worn-out original. 

If you don’t own the original and your sights are modest, the Rébuffat volume will probably give you more to aim at and at the same time do more to immerse you in the heritage of one of the greatest alpine pioneers.

But if you don’t own either and you’re climbing to a pretty high standard – say D or above – and plan on aiming higher, this would definitely be the one for you and it will captivate and inspire for years to come......Stunning. 

Mont Blanc-The Finest routes available direct from Vertebrate Publishing.

Tom Hutton:2013