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Climbers

Nov 03, 2017

Hon Hon Hon! French Gang Twirl Their Moustaches While Climbing Nuptse South Face

French alpinists Ben Guigonnet, Fred Degoulet and Hélias Millerioux call themselves Le Gang des Moustaches.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

United by their facial hair, they have climbed all over the world together, and this past October completed their most notable ascent yet: a new route up Nuptse’s ominous South Face.

On an acclimatization run up Cholatse, Ben Guigonnet, Fred Degoulet and Hélias Millerioux managed to lose their satellite phone. It had a GPS tracker. “We were super worried that everyone would think we had died,” Millerioux says. “But I had my cell phone, and we had service at the top of Cholatse, so we were able to call a friend and say ‘We’re not dead!’

“We also asked him to send us a new sat phone.”

Millerioux, Guigonnet and Degoulet are goofballs: the Nico Favresse’s, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll’s and Will Stanhope’s of the high-altitude alpinism. They christened themselves Le Gang des Moustaches (the Moustache Gang). After opening a difficult new route up an 800-meter face on Siula Chico (6,260 meters) in Peru, during which one of them had a moustache, they simply figured furry upper lips were good luck. On their website, they say they are “obsessed by the weight of their packs and the shape of their moustaches.”

These clowns might not be the ones you’d expect to pull off a history making climb in the Himalaya. But they did. Handily.

Le Gang des Moustaches. Photo: Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

In mid-October, Le Gang des Moustaches completed a six-day, alpine-style ascent of the South Face of Nuptse (they summited Nuptse II, at 7,742 meters; Nuptse I, the main summit, is 7,861 meters). Though little sister to Everest (8,848 meters) and Lhotse (8,516 meters), Nuptse has captivated climbers for decades with it’s imposing South Face. Their climb was the end of a three-year obsession with the mountain.

In 2014, the Gang was in search of a new objective. Robin Revest, who had joined the trio when they established Looking for the Void (WI6  R M7) on Siula Chico, suggested Nuptse’s South Face. In 2015, two-thirds of the Gang—Guigonnet and Hélias—traveled to the Khumbu to attempt an aesthetic line they had noticed in photos.

But it wasn’t their year. “The face was too dry. Lots of rockfall and icefall. It was a very warm year,” Millerioux says. “We decided not to try the project because it was too dangerous.” Instead they attempted another route up the South Face, the Bonington Route, with fellow alpinists Ueli Steck and Colin Haley. The foursome waged an alpine-style siege, but snowfall and wind forced them to turn around at 6,900 meters.

Nuptse: 1; Moustache Gang: 0. “When we finished in 2015, we said, ‘We have to come back,’” Millerioux remembers. “The wall is like a magnet. The South Face is this huge, wide wall. Like four kilometers wide. When you’re still far below, at Tengboche Village, you see this huge wall and you’re like ‘Oh my god. We’re going to climb that.’”

So in 2016, Millerioux and Guigonnet came back, this time with Robin Revest and Fred Degoulet in tow. The conditions were the polar opposite of 2015. The face was plastered with perfect ice. The Gang forged a new line up to 7,350 meters, just a few hundred meters shy of the top, before they threw in the towel. 300 meters below the summit, they realized they might not have enough daylight to make it back to their last camp safely, so they turned around. Millerioux says, “We made the right decision. If we had continued it would not have been good. It was very dangerous.”

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Nuptse: 2; Moustache Gang: 0. The guys were devastated; to have come so close just to come up short was almost gut-wrenching enough for them to forget about the mountain forever.

Almost. The magnetic mountain pulled them back (this time as a trio, without Revest) once again in 2017. After the snafu with the sat phone on Cholatse, they began their push on Nuptse. They established Advanced Base Camp at 5,400 meters, and at midnight on October 14 started up the South Face proper. At 6,000 meters they made Camp 1.

The conditions were closer to what the Frenchmen had encountered in 2015 than 2016: dry, loose and scary. “We were very worried about the first two days because the wall was so dry. It was super warm so there was lots of rock and ice fall,” Millerioux says. On the second day they climbed a pillar that they named the Guillotine and, despite their concerns, had no major hiccups. They made their second camp at 6,500 meters.

While they hoped that conditions would improve after the first two days, there was no such luck. Millerioux says, soberingly:

The whole route was super dangerous this year. We accepted a lot of risk. We’re all mountain guides in France, and in the Alps I would never accept that same level of risk. We were very pushy and aggressive in our climbing. Day by day we were climbing more and more and more and more, and day by day it was the same thing in terms of rock and ice fall. I think by the end the risk just felt normal. You get used to it. Now that I’m back, I’m aware of the seriousness of the risk we were taking, but I wasn’t always at the time.

The third bivy was at 6,800 meters and lay below the most technical climbing of the route. Day four saw the Gang tackle a big couloir with difficulties up to WI6. (“WI6?” I ask, floored that they were climbing that difficulty at that altitude. “I’m not lying,” Millerioux says, laughing. “We all three agreed. It’s definitely WI6. You’re climbing on these ice stalactites.”) They stopped at 7,000 meters the fourth day—the same location as their high camp the year before.

One of the WI6 sections high on the route. Photo: Photo: Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

The beginning of their troubles in 2016 happened when they got lost in the ice flutes on the last major snowfield. So this year, on the fifth day the team took a more direct line up the snowfield until they hit a cliff, where they traversed left for one pitch and made a fifth camp on the wall at 7,540 meters.

On day six, the Gang climbed two more technical pitches of WI4/5, and then trudged up through the final snow slopes to reach the summit at 3:00 p.m. “We were crying like small children. We were finished. I felt free. There were lots of things inside me which were fighting each other. But we were super happy. You could see the entire earth curving on each side,” Millerioux says. The team enjoyed their success for twenty minutes and then began the descent.

Summit! Photo: Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

On the way down, at 7,100 meters, their brilliant ascent was nearly marred by disaster. Millerioux was waiting at a belay, when he was struck by a falling rock the size of a grapefruit. It hit him in the back of the shoulder and broke part of his backpack strap. “It was so strong that I cried,” he says. “I thought my arm was broken at first. After the pain, the only thing I was thinking was, now that I’m handicapped, how will we get down? One less climber is a lot harder… It wasn’t about my arm, it was about what will happen now?”

But the Gang des Moustaches, bound by their facial hair, were not about to leave a friend on the mountain. Millerioux says, “They did an amazing job. They helped me really well. I couldn’t do anything myself.” The trio abseiled down to 6,100, waited out the warm daytime temps to avoid more rock fall, and then abseiled through the night, hitting the ground at 1:00 a.m.

Nuptse: 2; Moustache Gang: 1. In alpinism, it doesn’t matter how many times or tries it takes: you only have to get to the top once. With their alpine-style ascent of the South Face of Nuptse, Millerioux, Guigonnet and Degoulet wrote their names into Himalayan climbing history in a major way.

So what’s next for them? “Ben has a baby now, so I think me might be off for some years,” Millerioux says. “I don’t know what my next project will be. We’ll see!”

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All photos © Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

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Adventure Travel

Jul 11, 2018

The Mountain Monks of Montserrat – Exploring History, Legends, and Great Climbing

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief, recounts a climbing trip to Montserrat in 2009, where he followed in the footsteps of the mountain monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.

A small boy scrambled up the rough rocks, yanking at tough brown shrubs and grabbing the pebbled conglomerate of the rocky Catalan spires. His sure-footed goats had already reached a large clear ledge above. He gasped with the effort and tried not to look down. It was late afternoon and he had to gather his flock and drive them homewards soon. He mantled up to level ground and looked around. There they were, near a large, dark-mouthed cave. He yelled at them, the stupid creatures. He spoke only Catalan, a language native to these wild, mountainous parts between France and Spain. And then, the woman emerged.

She was dark and luminous. She was haloed by light, a strange sort of energy exuding from her, illuminating the entrance to the cave. He felt something touch him, a sort of blessedness. And then he fainted.
So was born the legend of the black Madonna.
Fast forward three hundred years. A large monastery and church stand on that ledge, surrounded by thousand-foot high spires of rock. There are two ways to the monastery – a winding mountain road, or a cable car. Today, like most days, the road is closed due to rockfall. The cable car has limited running hours – and we barely catch the last one up, with the lone operator holding it for us.
Montserrat – Jagged Mountain in English  – is a four-thousand-foot high plateau composed of reddish pebbly sedimentary rock needles that reach up into the sky, with holds that seem like they’ll pop out the moment you pull on them. Pinnacles emerge from the jumbled matrix, cliffs, and aretes that soar over the surrounding countryside.

More than a thousand routes spider the mountain. There are barely enough climbers here. When I was there, it seemed possible to spend a whole day climbing thousand foot classics without ever meeting another party – in near-perfect temps, even in February, the month of my first trip here. This is the warm, beating heart of Catalan mountaineering.

It was a warm late February day, and we had been completely alone so far. The only other people we’d seen was a small group of climbers hiking ahead of us on the trail before they disappeared into the brush as we detoured towards the base of our route. Even though we were barely a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, it felt like wilderness climbing. The overgrown brush covered everything. It is an incredible sensation, to know that there is real adventure all around us, so close to established urban centres. There are ibex and wild boars in the forests in and around the mountain, and we walk carefully to not disturb the peace and natural beauty of this place.

The base of the route appears suddenly from the green brush. Vegetation ends and rock begins. The sensation is familiar and reassuring. The first part is not-yet-vertical, but real climbing nonetheless. I like to lead first pitches, since I haven’t yet had the time to feel scared and I can bluster my way through, while the ground seems reassuringly close – which in reality makes no difference to any real or perceived danger, of course. The route is mostly bolted or marked with old pitons, there is little scope for natural protection.

Climbing slowly, we reached halfway up. I was belaying my partner Gilles, a Franco-Australian climber I had met some years ago in India. The route is considered the area’s classic and most popular climb – the 5.10a+, 11-pitch, 1033 foot (315m) Aresta Ribas. The Aresta – “arete” – first climbed by a certain Ribas in 1979, is the prominent spur of rock on the sunnier, south-facing side of the mountain – perfect for a winter climb. Despite its ranking, there is literally no-one else on the climb. For comparison, a 3-star multi-pitch classic like this one nearly anywhere in the United States or even in the French Alps would literally have a queue of climbing parties on it.

Suddenly, an old man in a blue sweater appeared to my right, climbing in what looked like sneakers. As I watched, their party of three appeared one after the other, traversing to our belay station, moving much faster than us. The leader was a younger man, the only one who spoke English. That was how I met Josep Castellnou, a local who told me stories of this amazing history of Montserrat. Josep, a vet from a nearby town, also managed rocktopo.com – a climbing site extolling the virtues of the natural park of Montserrat, with downloadable guides for each part of the mountain. [Ed: unfortunately the site is no longer online, but some topos are still available elsewhere].

“You are visiting here?” said Josep, casually while on lead. I was well secured in my belay anchors.
“Yes”, I replied, shielding my eyes from the sun while paying out rope to Gilles.

“Good!” he said, smiling. “But you will not know how to find the trail down. We will wait for you!” he exclaimed, before setting off again.

Their party was doing a route just adjacent to ours, and flying on it. I cherished such encounters in the mountains – in every way a normal social interaction, but between two strangers clinging spider-like to a vertiginous mountain wall. These meetings sometimes lead to lifelong friendships, and one can meet again decades later with the same sense of warmth and gratitude.

The climbing was unexpectedly difficult. The holds were rounded cobblestones emerging from a matrix of hard sediment, requiring you to balance your toes on rounded surfaces, with no real edges. I needed to think about footwork before making each move, which meant our progress was very slow. The route was series of spires stacked one upon the other. An immense panorama behind us gave me a massive sense of exposure, a feeling of stomach-churning, calf-tightening vertigo that kicks in when you can only see the air above, below and behind you. Eagles rode rising thermals, balancing motionless with outstretched wings on waves of invisible air. They nested on the cliff walls, and climbers were under strict instructions to leave certain areas and routes alone in this protected Park Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat.

A young fresh faced Editor-in-Chief, Apoorva Prasad

The climbing took nearly the whole day. We reached the top as the sun began to set. Gilles and I quickly began to coil the ropes and switch out our rock climbing shoes for hiking footwear – wearing rock shoes the whole day is an incredibly painful experience, for those who haven’t yet tried it. Josep and his party were patiently waiting for us at the top, just beyond and below the ‘summit’ of the arete. I was warmly surprised, they must have reached at least an hour before us. They smiled and greeted us again, and rather quickly now, given the fading light, led us towards climber’s left, towards whatever path there was. Within some minutes it became clear to me that we would have never found it on our own, especially in the dark. The trail down was a complex, hours-long scramble over water-worn rock and incredibly dense brush, and not really a proper ‘trail’. If we hadn’t run into Josep’s party, we’d have probably spent the entire night cautiously hunting for the way down, having heard enough stories of climbing parties lost on descents upon being cliffed out, or going over an edge in the haze of fatigue, in darkness.

A little while later Josep pointed out a cave.
“You see these caves? Monks used to live here and meditate. Now climbers use them. They spend the year just living here and climbing”.
So medieval Benedictine monks had faded away, replaced in this new age by climbers, similarly meditating on paths to salvation amongst spires reaching up to the sky. Who were these 21st century rock-climbing monks? I was eager to find out, but tracking these unknown climbing hermits, seekers after greater truths… was not going to be easy or feasible.
The sun had already set below the horizon, we were hiking down in the twilight, and could barely see the trail. Yet I paused to look inside the cave. It was a small nook in the rook, just enough to serve as a passable campsite sheltered from the rain, to lay a sleeping bag on the uneven ground, a mendicant’s bowl on a rock ledge, perhaps a worn book. For a second, I closed my eyes and imagined that life. Then I heard the group outside, patiently waiting for us to follow that hidden trail, and I stepped back into the fading winter light.
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