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.