Jonathan Griffith Photography Blog
When you think of classic alpine routes, you think of Chamonix. It's host to more 'classics' than anywhere else in the world, and I guess the fact that it's the birthplace of alpinism has a lot to do with that. Quite apart from the Whymper years of Alpinism, Chamonix has also been the stage for the progression of technical Alpinism. Of course it is not the only place, but ever since people started moving off easy aretes and in to the confines of dark north faces, Chamonix has always been at the centre of it all; you get the impression that 'cutting edge' was coined here and I guess that is what makes climbing out here so rich with history. But among all the hundreds of classics there are to do out here, there will always remain the super classics; the ones that combine five star climbing with an epic tale so enshrined in our sport, that make them the 'must haves' of Alpinism. The Desmaison Gousseault is one of them.
The story alone behind the first attempt is one of the most famous accounts of survival, tragedy, and political bickering that Chamonix had and has ever seen. It led to a complete upheaval of the way that rescues are carried out in the valley, and publicly exposed deep personal rifts within the community. But that is old history now; sometimes you can get lost in your own progression and ego to remember that over 40 years ago pioneers were opening these lines with equipment we wouldn't even think about giving away nowadays, without weather forecasts, without blogs, tracks or freeze dried meals, even without cams. Today's watchword is speed- it took eight days for the first ascent of this route. Eight days of rock climbing up verglassed granite, hammering in pitons, and a cigarette at night instead of a meal. It's insane. Speed wasn't a concern, it was never a race, suffering was the concern. It was accepted practice, shit was always going to hit the fan, that much was certain. I remember on one of my first visits to Chamonix, René Desmaison was doing a book signing outside one of the Chamonix book stores; I remember seeing the posters up announcing it but being too juvenile in my Alpinism history to know what he had done, even if I did recognise the name. The day of the book signing I walked past the shop and there he was, an old man sitting by himself outside the shop, and no one giving him a second glance; if I'd known then what I do now I would have brought him a coffee and gotten him to sign everything I owned, but like everyone else I just walked on by. A missed opportunity to shake the hand of a legend.
René Desmaison in hospital after spending 342 hours on the face during his first attempt
René and the piton that he clipped himself in to for 5 days (?) just 80m from the top
The winter of 2013/2014 had been a very bitter one. The North Faces were completely bare, and it had been a long time since the Grandes Jorasses had seen good conditions. So much so that I'd given up on the idea of waiting and felt like scratching my way up something would be better than nothing. The Desmaison Gousseault had been on the list for a while and I figured why not give it a go? Instead of packing light and fast, it would be heavy and slow, but then this is winter climbing and that's accepted practice. Roping in Ally Swinton we skied in to the base of the Jorasses. Coincidentally we weren't the only ones to come up with this idea and a team of three came in hot on our heals- it's odd but also comforting to know you're not the only ones with these mad ideas sometimes.
We headed up the start of the route straight away hoping to make the best of a short weather window. The route was dry and snowy as expected and progress was slow, but we settled in for the night on two very insecure snow scoops under the full moon. The night was long and cold.
The French team were good enough to let us lead off first thing in the morning so we headed off up the rock pitches and to the first snow field above. You forget how short the days are in winter really, and that's a bit of a problem sometimes. The second ramp was almost devoid of ice making for very delicate and run out climbing on thin blobs of ice, never hard just very tenuous. As we neared the top of the ramp, the leader below knocked off a flake that slammed in to the belayer below. I heard the shout, and watched nothing to do, as the flake made a direct hit on Helias's shoulder. Game over for them.
Ally and full moon at our first bivy on the face
Ally on the first snowfield
Robin Revest leads up the mixed pitch connecting the first and second snow fields
I felt like it was game over for us too though. We were moving a lot slower than we had thought, and were going to be bivying low down enough on the route that night that we would run out of food and gas. Bailing from the top of the second ramp was also relatively easy, and so we did. The face was so dry though that stone fall was a real problem down The Shroud, which is the easiest line of retreat. As we neared the base the shrund beneath us collapsed taking out our skis; this could be a problem. Arriving at the avalanche zone we spent a while walking up and down the slope but amazingly found all our kit and skied off back down to town.
A hot bath and a couple of days later, I was keen to head back in again. This time we would go much heavier, food and gas for 3 days on the wall. The conditions called for it. Ally was keen again and so we headed back in, this time we would be alone on the wall as is so often the case in winter up here. Opting for a leisurely night at the base in the First Light we started early the next morning- a terrifying start up The Shroud that was pinging with rockfall as the sun hit high above. We had the advantage of knowing the start from our previous attempt, so we made good progress. However we still ran far in to the night. The ramps were desperately thin and run out, making progress a time consuming puzzle. Ally led up the rotten rock pitch and in to the sunset, and I aided my way through the crux in the dark. We had hoped for a nice bivy on the ice field above the crux but on arriving it took me about 15 mins to even set up a belay. There was no ice let alone snow. We spent over an hour covering every square inch of this loose steep slab in the dark desperately trying to find somewhere, but there was nothing. In the end I managed to sling one of our hammocks up on the slab and Ally quested off to sit it out on a pile of loose rocks. It was 1am by the time we finally got in our bags- tired, hungry, and dehydrated. It was a mission to even find snow to make water, and being 15m apart didn't help either. Above me in the dark I could just make out the breakfast pitch for he next morning- it looked fricking hard.
Take two: nice bivy at the base
Ally on the first steep pitches
Myself connecting the first ramp to the second ramp
The second ramp looking rather thin
Very thin and run out climbing to the top of the second ramp
Ally heads up the rotten rock pitch
Sunset and we're still climbing
Myself negotiating the crux in the dark, © Ally Swinton
Daybreak the next morning
Ally's bivy spot for the night, and no the sun didn't quite reach us!
We got up with the sunrise, keen to make as much progress as possible as our weather window was tight. To my shock I realised that my freeze dried scrambled eggs required frying in a frying pan, given how hungry I was it wasn't a great start to the day. I tried one spoonful of the rehydrated egg soup but just poured it all away, and got myself ready for the breakfast pitch.
In a nutshell the breakfast pitch was one of the nastiest things I've ever led. Not helped by the epic day before, and by the lack of water and food, I sketched my way up this insecure slab for what seemed like an age. Thankfully Ally isn't one to get angry with long belays. It was one of those leads where you're about to fall and rip everything out for almost all of it. I was wrecked by the time I got to the next belay. Another short overhanging section took us on to easier ground, but also the bullet hard ice of the third ramp. But at least here we were picking up some speed. In theory it was plain sailing to our next bivy spot just at the base of the top headwall, but in practice it was frustratingly slow again. Linking thin sections of black ice smeared on steep slabs. The weather had come in, we were climbing in a cloud in bitterly cold northerly winds. I was absolutely freezing cold leading in my winter down jacket and I was starting to loose my cool. Arriving at the supposed bivy spot was another huge let down- again the lack of snow forced us to cover every tiny possibility for a bum seat but in the worsening weather and the dark things were starting to look bad. In the end we rapped back down three pitches to a sheltered spot that might yield us a bum seat each. We were wrong. As the wind strengthen and everything started to cover in rime the humour levels were bottoming out. I managed to nestle in to my down bag supported by my harness and the hammocks that held our feet whilst Ally did his best to do the same. It was pretty grim, but it's amazing how things brighten up when you're in your bag. The cold was debilitating. The cramped bivy was worse than just cramped though- the wind and snow funnelled in to everything, and the hammocks snapped about bitch-smacking my face all night. Urgh. Ally tried to make water but really the only thing to do was to just try and pass out and ignore it all, which I did whilst he got the stove out. He tried to make me a freeze dried meal but ended up putting cold water in- I waited 15 mins eagerly for my first meal since last night, but was too tired to really care when I realised that it wasn't going to work. Like the honey badger, Ally didn't really give a sh*t, and had already gone to sleep. F*ck it.
I still have nightmares about this lead, © Ally Swinton
Ally seconding the breakfast pitch
Ally seconding the breakfast pitch
Higher up past the third ramp and in to the clouds above, this is where we bivied in the end
A huge lenticular, not ideal when you're on the Jorasses.
Scrappy climbing as the weather comes in, © Ally Swinton
Desperately trying to find some gear for a bivy
Wet, cold, tired....damn weather
The next morning broke, and neither one of us had gotten much sleep. At one point Ally had tried to use me as his mattress and I woke up to find him asleep on my chest- all very adorable but somehow the bromance wasn't really working for me, he had f*cked up my dinner after all. The wind was still battering us but it had died down a bit. My main concern was that we had to get off this face that day as this was the start of a bad weather system that was moving in for the next few days. Given the history of the first attempt I didn't want to repeat a modern day version of it. We had a chat and decided to bail, here we were at least protected from the wind a bit by the Walker Spur to our backs, questing up the headwall above would bring us in to full contact with it.
The obvious option for rapping at this point is to head down The Shroud. Unfortunately the wind was roaring up high and knocking down all sorts, turning The Shroud in to a real no go. We rapped down far enough so that we felt we'd gotten out of the winds up high and called for the heli. For some reason it felt ok to do that, I can't explain why. In retrospect we could have tried to rap down the Desmaison Gousseault to the bottom but at one point we would have to cross The Shroud and I didn't really fancy our chances lower down. Still you do get a feeling of guilt when the chopper comes in and you realise you've put others at risk because you didn't want to put yourself at risk- at least you get to choose.
Twenty minutes later and we were in sunny Les Praz at the DropZone. It's so surreal, but that was it for that season. The Desmaison had definitely won. We'd fought really hard and climbed some of the hardest pitches I've done on the Jorasses but there was just too much of it. Sitting outside the pizzeria in the sun with a beer in hand, and I didn't feel too bad about bailing either.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2014. What a difference 6 months can make....
Back from Pakistan and I had been busy with work shoots as well as getting my Grandes Jorasses rat well and truly fed. After 2 grand days out on this face it was time to get back on the old nemesis: the Desmaison Gousseault. Who better than with Ally of course. This time conditions were visibly different- as in there was a line of white névé the whole way rather than a line of blank slabs. Choosing to avoid our previous disasters on the route, we went for a bivy option high up on the face; nice and relaxed.
As usual conditions dictate everything. The photos speak for themselves really but keen to move fast we led the same pitches we had done the winter before and arrived at our high point nice and early. What had taken us two really long and hard days 6 months earlier had taken us a relaxed and short day this time round. We managed to hack out two 5 star sleeping platforms in the arete - the same one that quite simply hadn't existed last year. It was my 9th bivouac on this face, and certainly the only one where I've actually been comfortable. The Jorasses is the reserve of the sitting bivy, and often much worse than that. So to find such comfort is quite a gift and I was fed, hydrated and tucking myself in as the sun started to set. Win. Quite different from last year.
Bivy at the base
Hmm nice neve, © Ally Swinton
Ally on the first steep pitch, The Shroud in the background
Quite the difference- the second ramp now an easy romp, © Ally Swinton
At the top of the second ramp
At the top of the second ramp
The terror pitch from the previous attempt was now in simul climb conditions
Teetering across the thin ice after the crux, © Ally Swinton
The scene of our last bivy spot the previous attempt, things looking a lot fatter! © Ally Swinton
Five star bivy, © Ally Swinton
The following morning we headed off up new terrain (for us) and even in to the sun. Climbing on a North Face in the sun? This route just gets better and better. Ally flew up the next few pitches and I took over at the awkward and exposed traverse in to the final ramp to the top. I had a 'moment' trying to rock climb out of the second crux pitch (i.e. refused to commit to a rock-over for a while) and before long we were romping up to the summit proper.
Good morning sun shine!
Seconding the initial mixed pitches in the sun, © Ally Swinton
Ally takes us rock climbing
Some crap left over from a previous attempt many years ago
Bit of loose stuff in to the traverse, © Ally Swinton
The atmospheric and exposed traverse
Hanging about on the second crux and refusing to commit to a rock-over, © Ally Swinton
Ally pulls out of the second crux and on to easier ground
Very atmospheric top ramp to the summit
It was kind of odd toping out to be honest; the Desmaison Gousseault had been quite the journey- the actual ascent had been pretty relaxed and fun, but the attempts from the winter had given it a bit of a black mark. It was a shame not to have done it that winter, alpinism is such a conditions game, and we all know that, but the winter had been a tooth and nail fight for every inch gained. Scary, committing, cold, and tough. The autumn had been the exact opposite in every single way- fun alpinism. There's nothing wrong with that, but the reward is always greater when you've given it all you've got and somehow clawed your way to the finish line. Then the sun that awaits you on the summit as you pull out of the North Face is, to be honest, orgasmic.
Ally did get his summit hug though, he's been going on about it ever since.
The Grandes Jorasses North Face and a stream of head torches already high up on the face
It's not often you get paid to climb the Grandes Jorasses- I tend to take my work up on to actual climbs, so whenever I'm on a photoshoot I'm on 'real' terrain, but the Grandes Jorasses is quite 'up there' locations wise. The reason being is that on a photoshoot you just can't get it wrong- contrary to popular opinion, outdoor companies aren't flooded with cash right now, and when I decide on a route to do I make sure that we actually get it done; that involves choosing the right team, the right climb and the right time. Promising something to a client and then not delivering it is obviously a cardinal sin. Climbing a route on the Grandes Jorasses therefore is quite a tall order for a photoshoot, as you can't just get part way up, have an epic, or top out way after dark (can't shoot in the dark!). You have to move fast, efficiently, and get all the shots you need in quite a serious environment. Thankfully the responsibility didn't lie on my shoulders as it was the client who requested the Grandes Jorasses, and it does take a rather special client to do that; a client doesn't want to choose something that is likely to end in failure, cost them a big chunk of their annual budget, and result in no photos or video. So the Grandes Jorasses (or any major North Face) is a natural thing to avoid. However I've been immensely lucky to have been working with Millet recently, and I am immensely lucky because their vision of photoshoot locations couldn't match mine any better even if it wanted to. They are committed to shooting hard classic routes of the massif and all 'for real', and that's to be applauded I think. Last year that vision took us up on Beyond Good and Evil with spectacular results, this year they wanted something bigger- the Grandes Jorasses. To work with a company that willingly wants to take the risk of shooting on such terrain is pretty much a dream come true, now we just had to make it work.
Julien and Seb walk in to the Leschaux
Seb checks out the route
The first stage to a successful shoot is the team. There is nothing more important to pulling something like this off than a fully competent team who can move fast, efficiently, and easily on big mountain terrain. With Korra Pesce, Betrand Delapierre (video man), Julien Desecures, and Seb Bohin it was set to be a great time- you'll struggle to find anyone faster and tougher than Korra to tie in with, Bertrand is a legend of the mountain filming world, Julien literally wrote the Grandes Jorasses guide book, and Seb is a dark horse of the French Mountain Military.
The objective would be an ephemeral ice route to the right hand side of the face. Excellent conditions had led Julien to believe we could try this new variation winter line on the Desmaison Couzy- whilst not a 'new line' it was also quite a gamble to pick a line with pitches that had never been climbed before.
The good thing about working with a strong team you know is that you can accurately guess how long each part of a climb is going to take you. I wanted to shoot the steep exit chimney pitches in the late afternoon which is when the sun would just be touching the top of the face, adding a bit of colour to an otherwise very shady photoshoot. So at 3am we got up and had a leisurely breakfast at the Leschaux Hut as we watched headtorches swarm up the Colton Macintyre in the far distance; I was glad we would be getting on something I knew no one would be attempting.
Mountain film wad Bertrand at dinner time
The route flew past with great névé and some thin placage climbing. As usual when you're tied in with Korra you don't tend to stop- even with our late departure in the morning we were going to have to slow down a bit to get that late afternoon light I wanted higher up. Turns out the Desmaison Couzy is actually a really nice route- never too hard but nevertheless it packs in a few interesting pitches that are tenuous and thin. The final goulotte up to the summit was the icing on the cake though, and Bertrand and I topped out knowing that the shoot had been a huge success- thanks to Millet for allowing us such an opportunity, and to all the team.
Over the shrund at daybreak
Korra in his element on thin ice
Julien part way up the route
Korra on one of the cruxes
Where's the gear?
Seb pulls out from one of the thin cruxes
Seb on the final exit pitches
Hazards of the job!
Two climbers on the traverse Rochefort
Julien on the final exit pitch
Dream team, Bertrand, Korra, myself, Julien, Seb
Leaving the Canzio the next morning
Watch out for the film about the climb next year, I've seen the rough cut and it's even better than the Beyond Good and Evil film Bertrand made last year.
2014 was a great climbing year for me- I climbed my tenth route on the Grandes Jorasses North Face, had a really intense time in Pakistan, quested up some funky ice routes, and even managed a trip back to Scotland. Oddly enough it was a year that I threw myself in to training as well and didn't actually climb for quite a few months of it because of that; but throw in some pretty fun workshoots and here are my highlights of the last twelve months.
The New Year started off well with a simul solo up a very snowy Fil a Plomb to check out general conditions in that area with Dan Joll.
Topping out of the Fil a Plomb
Finding conditions pretty fickle on steep routes I thought I'd just throw myself in at the deep end and decided to head in to the Petites Jorasses with Graham McGrath for Omega. Terrible idea, and we bailed low down- not a route to be considered when there's no ice in it. But still it was good to get out and spend time in my favourite glacial basin.
Full Moon bivy on the Leschaux glacier in winter...cold...
January also saw some good ice climbing action, and I discovered the Breitwangflue Wall in Kanderstegg for the first time, with my favourite Frenchman Jeff Mercier. Can't wait to head back.
Jeff on Tears of an Ice Princess
Heavy spindrift on Hard Ice on the Rocks
Jeff on the final pitch of Repentence, always good fun
Ally Swinton in the depths of Metro, top 5 ice climbs I've ever done
Morgan Baduel at the new B&B Sector in Cogne
In February I headed off to Scotland with Ueli Steck for a week of Scottish fun. It seemed like we arrived at the start of a rather massive thaw which left us a bit lost for what to do, even if there was still lots of snow around, but we still had a great time anyway and scratched around on Beinn Eighe and the Cairngorms where I met up with Will Sim.
Ueli somewhere on Beinn Eighe
Somewhere on Beinn Eighe
Back home and myself, Spindrift Steve, and Ally Swinton headed in to the Petites Jorasses again but with our eyes on something a bit easier, and had a fun day out on the NW gully of the Pointe Frebouze.
Spindrift Steve getting in to the swing of things
Having seen the terrible conditions on the Grandes Jorasses, I got an itch to scratch my way up some blank granite, so myself and Ally Swinton headed in for the Desmaison-Gousseault. It was a real battle in those conditions and unfortunately we didn't make the top, getting hit by a very cold winter storm which left us rapping back down the face and eventually getting helied out. In retrospect not a great idea, but it felt like real alpinism- gnarly pitches, often very run out, and all in all a tough experience- maybe my toughest one yet on this face.
After finally settling down at 1am the night before the sunrise was nice, the bivy was not
Ally's bivy spot
Hard insecure climbing all the way
In comes the foul weather
Deciding to get on something a bit more accommodating, myself and Ally headed up the Charpoua basin and climbed Naia on the Aiguille Verte which turned out to be far more pleasant than the Jorasses!
Steck-ing it up Naia
On the final summit ridge to the Verte
In April I climbed a fair bit with Colin Haley and we quested up the Baumont-Gaby on the Dent du Requin (thoroughly recommended), as well as the Czech route on the Droites which is without a doubt the best route I've done on its North Face.
Colin on the Baumont Gaby
Colin joins the Tournier spur from the Czech route on Les Droites
The end of spring and start of summer was characterised with finishing up lots of work shoots from over the winter including a Red Bull Speed Ride Trilogy with athlete Aaron Durogati (speed riding the West Face on the Monte Rosa, the West Face on Mont Blanc, the North Face of the Breithorn).
Aaron on Mont Blanc at sunrise
Aaron tearing it down the Monte Rosa
Crevasses become less of an issue when you can fly over them
GoPro shot...I actually quite like it!
The North Face of the Breithorn
Followed by a very wintery ascent of the Aiguille Verte for Rab with Ally Swinton and Brooke Kerrigan.
Topping out of the Whymper Couloir on the Aiguille Verte
Sunrise on the summit ridge of the Aiguille Verte
In July it was back to my favourite mountain range, the Karakorum, for the unclimbed 7041m Link Sar. I had been training really hard for the months preceding my trip and felt stronger than I'd ever felt before in my life. I headed out with Kevin Mahoney who is not only one of the toughest people I've ever tied in with, but fantastic company as well. Unfortunately we got slammed by a storm and after climbing through it for a few days we were cooked. No summit this year but we did climb its North Face, so yet another key to the puzzle completed.
Drifika (6455m) at sunset
Kevin at the top of Sulu Peak (6000m)
Full moon from our tent at 6000m on Sulu Peak
The North side of K6
Our first bivy high up on the North Face of Link Sar (7041m)
Lots of bad weather
A brief break in the weather at sunset with K7 in the background
Tent cornice bivy, really strung out by this point
Straight back from Pakistan and it was up on the Matterhorn to shoot the end of the Strive Challenge with Sam Branson and team. Long and fun day out, can't believe I've never climbed this iconic peak until now.
The Grandes Jorasses was calling in the form of the Bonatti-Vaucher and myself and Ally Swinton managed a quick ascent of this route, and the start of a great Jorasses season for me.
Ally high up on the Bonatti Vaucher
We shared the route with a couple of great Spanish climbers Silver and Carlos
Back on the Grandes Jorasses but this time for a photoshoot for Millet with Korra Pesce, Julien Desecures, Bertrand Delapierre, and Seb Bohin. It's not often you get to shoot on the Grandes Jorasses North Face and we even managed a new variation line on the Desmaison Couzy Buttress. I've done two photoshoots on this North Face now, lucky me!
Full Moon over the Grandes Jorasses North Face and the face already crawling with head torches!
Seb past the crux
Topping out in the evening light
Korra Jorasses-Legend on the summit of his tenth North Face route!
It was time to get back on the nemesis of the Desmaison-Gousseault with Ally Swinton again, and this time we had a much easier time of it. What took us two incredibly long days of tough climbing in winter to our high point, took us just one relaxed day this time round- winner.
Ally high up on the Desmaison-Gousseault
Not often you get to climb in the sun on a North Face!
Awkward exposed traversing towards the end of the route
A new event called the White Cliffs and run by Red Bull caught my eye and so I was off to the Isle of White for a few days to shoot chalk cliff climbing- unforgettable time with a great team.
Greg Boswell lost in the vast expanse of chalk
Calum Muskett high up no the 100m+ route
Jeff Mercier taking second place in the finals
An ankle injury took me out for the rest of October but the start of November saw a 5 day weather window arrive and so I packed my bags again for the Grandes Jorasses. I had always told myself I would climb one of the big North Faces with Sandra and it was really cool to be able to do the Polish Route /Michto together.
Sandra on the connecting ramp
The descent is always a bit dodgy
Adam George called me up as soon as I arrived back in Chamonix and was keen to head up straight away for the Jorasses. Having just come down I wasn't super keen but his wife convinced us so a quick repack the following morning and it was back up to the Jorasses. I'd told myself at the start of the Autumn that I wanted to climb 5 routes on this face that season and amazingly this was my fifth one. We opted for the 'funest' route I've ever done on this face - the Japanese Route- and ran up it. I was over the moon to have done my tenth route on this iconic face with such a good friend and via such a fun route. Coincidentally it was also the 10 year anniversary of my mum's death, which is the event that pushed me towards moving out here full time.
MOG Adam in the depths of the Japanese route
A MOG on thin ice
Joining the top of the Colton Macintyre
Awesome day out!
November also saw me do a few talks around Europe as well as the Kendal Mountain Film festival, where I launched my book. The work behind the book was phenomenal, but I'm very happy with how it turned out, and sales were far higher than I expected which is great....it won't be long until there's a second print run!
Happy New Year Everyone!
Aah the Jorasses, I'd been waiting far too long for it's North Face to come back in to condition. You can of course climb anything you want out of condition, but the Jorasses does have the rather unfortunate combination of poor granite and huge rock slabs when it's not got ice on it. And that sucks, as I found out earlier on this year....but more on that in another post.
It turned out that my time in Pakistan had been a wise choice- though we didn't make the summit we also managed to miss out on the horrific weather that was going on in Chamonix; all this precipitation though was good news for the autumn and it quickly became apparent that this would be a season to remember on the Grandes Jorasses. 'Once in a lifetime conditions' was a phrase that seemed to accompany every Facebook post and helped fuel the mania, but this does tend to happen every 5 years or so, so unless you're a beaver or a domestic rabbit (I checked) it's something that you'll see again.
I had my eye on a lot of routes to be honest, but we had a very short weather window of only two days so we were a bit limited, as ideally you want to get off the thing before another storm hits. The face had only just seen its first ascents of the season in the days preceding- I could feel that there was a lot of interest this year in the face and I had missed the first few days of the weather window on a photoshoot on the Aiguille Chardonnet (tough life). So we opted for the Bonatti- Vaucher, a route I was sure would be pretty devoid of climbers seeing as it's reputation is one of the loosest routes on the face. The Bonatti had just had its first ascent in many years a few days previously by friends Fred and Ben, so we knew conditions were going to be good, which is always nice.
On the approach to the Grandes Jorasses
So Ally and I set off, intending to do a leisurely ascent of the face and opting to stick a bivy high up on the face. The fashion is very much to do things 'in a day' in Chamonix, but when it comes to big routes like the Jorasses I actually quite like going the bivy option. I'd rather do two fun and non stressed days out rather than have to pull a massive day out of the bag and spend a good portion of it exhausted and worried that we aren't going to make it out of the face before night fall. In autumn the temperatures are so warm that you can get away with really light bivy kit, and it's quite nice waking up at the base of the route after a good night's sleep, rather than spending it crammed in to the Leschaux bivouac hut with a two hour walk in still to go in the morning. Personal preference I guess, but North Faces are stressful enough without having to make them even more so because you want to do them faster than anyone else.
So we slept in, it was nice. The Bonatti-Vaucher shares the same start as No Siesta and Manitua so I led off in the dark and we quickly caught up with a couple of Spaniards who had left the hut early that morning for the same route. We would end up climbing the whole route side by side which was fine as they turned out to be great company, as well as much better climbers than us.
Simul climbing at the start of the day, © Ally Swinton
Daybreak somewhere on there easy ramps
Queues of people already on the Colton Macintyre
Ally arrives at the start of the first 'proper' pitch
Cant complain about the ice conditions!, © Ally Swinton
Awesome, if a bit thin, ice
Carlos in the lead beneath us
Ally tackles a small bulge
More great ice
More great ice
The Bonatti-Vaucher is known for its poor rock quality, which is the reason I've never really been drawn to it. I do quite like to have gear when I need it, and I know from experience that the Jorasses can harbour some really terrible granite when it wants to. So given the 'exceptional' conditions now felt like a good time to quest up this route. And the conditions didn't let us down- it was a decidedly ice biased mixed route which was fine by us. The pitches flew by with the exception of a really unpleasant loose flake pitch but a bit of swearing later, some serious rope drag, and we were back on easier ground again and at our intended bivouac for the night. But it was only two o'clock, even by my lazy standards in the mountains this was a bit late to stop.
Starting up some awkwardness, © Ally Swinton
The bivy site area
Above us reared the last few pitches to the summit, by the looks of them they would be the cruxes. As we were still climbing as two rope teams back to back we decided to tie in to one team to avoid the other having to wait constantly for the team in front to clean the route. We would call the new team the Super-Duper International Rope of Friendship, and as the spaniards offered to take the lead straight away (I got the impression we might have been holding them back) and being the ever gracious person that I am I let them charge on- you never so no to a free top rope after all....that would be stupid.
So off headed Silver in to the depths of a rotten looking corner. It wasn't very pretty but he fought hard, hard enough that he took a massive whipper and that was the end of that. Off headed Carlos, and down come a battering of rocks over the next hour or so. I ended up taking two big rocks to my right shoulder and one to my left knee, I was glad we brought bivy kit as it was now providing some kind of protection from the deluge above- protect the belayer at all costs. Unfortunately the belayer had already been smashed up and I was a bit worried about finishing the route off given I couldn't pull hard on my right arm anymore. Oh well, watch out here comes Carlos on his big whipper. Holding two big falls didn't inspire us with much psyche to give it our 'turn' but thankfully Carlos yarded back on the ropes and got straight back on it- I wasn't complaining, but I did pull my down protection a bit tighter around me. After an age of tenuous aiding through this pitch Carlos finally pulled out on to easier ground. Legend.
Silver tries to aid his way up rotten rock before the gear rips as does he...
Ally takes a well earned break
Bivy kit has many uses- it's also a great crash mat from falling rocks when belaying, © Ally Swinton
Carlos has a go....
Seconding the pitch was painful on my knee and shoulder, but pulling out the terrible pro he'd aided on I was glad it hadn't been me. Still amped, Carlos led the next pitch of thin goulotte ice and in to the darkness. We felt like we only had one more pitch to go to the summit and with Carlos and Silver having given their all earlier on, it was only fair we did a bit of work as well (outrageous). I think we were off route a bit as an easy pitch turned in to an off width flake with a very dodgy top out that left me heaving in pain from my right shoulder- I let out a 'whooohoo' as I topped out glad to be off the face, simultaneously met with a cheer from below and a shameful realisation that actually we still had another pitch to go. Ooops! I was a bit beat then and felt very guilty asking the Spaniards to finish the final pitch off but I just couldn't pull on my right arm any more.
A cannae get me torch on...
Carlos brought us up to the summit ridge proper and a full moon. Great work. Hugs all round. I quested off on the south side to find a bivy spot out of the wind whilst the others came up. A quick ledge stomping later and we were all laid out watching a thunderstorm over the Aosta Valley- a good start to the Jorasses season.
The following morning was a wee bit chilly