One in Three

The mighty North face of the Grandes Jorasses


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

This autumn I went to the French Alps with Calum Muskett, intent on capitalising on the recent incredible alpine conditions. We were psyched for hard, long mixed routes on the big north faces. 


Thanks to a wet summer and a cold September, the Grandes Jorasses were in fantastic nick. Photo after photo reported 'fat ice, dude!', and a solid high pressure remained camped overhead. 


We arrived in Chamonix frothing and ready for a smash-fest, and were told that the Big J was 'so IN right now!' by the American Jeff Jackson. The Desmaison/Gousseault had been climbed at least twice last week, the Colton/Mac was totally tracked out and, right on time... the Montenvers train closed, the foehn wind started and the weather turned. Merde!


That first evening, it took considerable effort to leave the warm fug of Elevation and start packing for the mountains. We had a reasonable forecast and the Desmaison/Gousseault in our sights.


Biving at the base of the face, the Jorasses towering above, I curled into my sleeping bag and tried to ignore the cold as it crept down my neck. We had walked nearly 2000 metres in altitude that day, and had another 1100m to go. 


At 2am I woke to the sound of snow pitter-pattering against the bivi bag. It was slowly turning my sleeping bag into a wet, soggy mush and my heart began to sink. The face had looked in perfect condition yesterday, but I could imagine it now growing whiter and whiter: powder snow sticking to rock; waves of spindrift rolling down the mountain.

At 5am it was still snowing, and I could barely see the first pitch. Calum's bivi bag was so covered in snow it was more white than blue. The alarm was reset for an hour later - a process which was unfortunately repeated until 7.30am. By this time we knew the route was out, so we hastily packed and ran back down the glacier, eyes puffy and minds angry at our bad luck.


Just before the face went out of sight, I glanced back at the mighty Jorasses, swathed in thick cloud, and vowed to return.


After our hiding on the Big J, we returned to Elevation to say things like, 'at least we tried!' and, 'nothing ventured, nothing gained,' whilst knocking back the beers. Actually, Calum drank Coca Colas, but it was the same idea.


Again, that evening we left the glow of the bar and trudged back to the hostel, sore toes reminding us of the long walk back into town that very afternoon. We had a new objective: the Gabbarou/Silvy on the Aiguille Sans Nom. Jon Bracey was to join our team.


It took the best part of a day to walk to the base because of tired legs, but the next morning I took us over the shrund and up the first three mixed pitches to the start of the rock climbing. Calum changed into rock shoes (!) on a snowy ledge, before dispensing with each pitch using a mixture of ice axes/gloves/bare hands. Onsight and free, of course! Jon and I seconded using axes and crampons, whilst hauling Calum's pack.


We finished day 1 in the dark, and chopped out a small ledge from the serac/snow band that splits the face after the first 300m of rock climbing. It was an interesting night, particularly as Calum and I had decided to go 'Slovenian style' - reducing everything to a bare, uncomfortable minimum. Jon chuckled as he inflated his Neo Air to a full two inches of luxury.


Again, snow fell overnight, but thankfully it was only a light covering. In the morning, Jon said we should just 'suck it up and see!', so Calum and I hastily agreed in out manliest voices.


Spindrift cascaded down the upper face and it looked properly clagged in at the start of the first steep ice pitches. In a brief moment of madness we discussed bailing, but thankfully the visibility quickly improved and the spindrift eased. Game on! 


Jon smashed his was up the ice in fine style, and we cumbreche'd at around 2pm. I took over again and soon we were all standing on the summit of the Aiguille Verte, tired but happy. It seemed like we were on the edge of an incoming storm - Mont Blanc was shrouded in thick cloud - but thankfully it never developed.


We arrived in Chamonix at 11pm, just in time for a Beluga Burger and a beer! Cheers for a great route Calum and Jon!


Calum has written an account of our successful ascent of the Gab/Silvy here.



A few days later, Calum left for home. He only had a few days left of our planned trip, and the forecast didn't look great. I had booked off PyB work until the 20th October, however, and was eager to get my alpine fix. I met up with fellow Brenin lads, Niels and Mike, who kindly let me into their team.


We set our sights on the Dru North Couloir, but with only a poor forecast even I was struggling to justify the long walk up to Montenvers and beyond. This would be my third walk up this track and I badly wanted it to pay off, but kept my reservations quiet.


So, on the third day after I returned from the Gabbarou/Silvy, Niels, Mike and myself started the long trudge to the base of the Dru. Unfortunately it had snowed quite heavily the night before but a holiday deadline is still a deadline.


The rock rognon at the base of the Dru was plastered in snow but we found a neat little cave in which to bivi. It was so tight and small that most cavers would have had a party, but the three of us piled in for a grim night and set the alarm.

At 4am we woke to find yet more snow had been sprinkled; the objective dangers on this route were looking pretty bad. This was confirmed when we heard a loud avalanche pour down the couloir as we geared up before the final glacier approach. Merde! New plan: wait until daylight. I dozed in the cave to the sound of ice clattering off the Dru.


At 11am we had another attempt at getting to the base - call it more youthful enthusiasm - but were surprised when we couldn't even reach the base of the couloir. Recent serac collapses and a very active glacier meant the only way to get through - after two hours of searching back and forth - was to climb a 20m section of 95-degree serac. Hmmm... Weather turning, window closing, food running out. Back to Chamonix.


In summary, it was a brilliant trip with plenty of laughs. It was disappointing to arrive in Cham with the weather turning; I got the impression we were two weeks too late, just missing out on primo conditions. It was also nice to get fitter and get the fully 'valley to summit' tick, but I would've much rather taken the train/cable car up the mountain!


Thanks again to Calum for a great trip, Jon Bracey for joining us on a top route, Niels and Mike for letting me join their team and everyone we met in Cham. Bon times and I hope to squeeze in at least one more trip in the spring. Click here to look at the photos.


Finally: we had a couple of days left before our ferry, and with freezing levels forecast to be at 4500m, Niels, Mike and I decided to climb the classic West Ridge of the Salbitschijen in Switzerland. Click here to read about our adventure, which included a mysterious German topo, 40 litres of water and all three of us driving the van at the same time round the alpine switchbacks.

Tom LivingstoneComment