Jonathan Griffith Photography Blog
A few years ago, as part of research I'm doing for (another) book, I got in touch with Nick Colton and asked him if he could write-up the story of the first ascent of the Colton-Macintyre on the Grandes Jorasses North Face. Given its huge popularity this year, and with Nick's permission, I've copied it in below. It's not only a great line but also got a very interesting story behind the first ascent and the evolution of alpine style in the Alps back then.
The North Face of the Grandes Jorasses on a very busy morning
We started at the foot of the Jorasses with a much reduced rack. Five or six rock pegs, half a dozen nuts, no cams (they hadn’t been invented yet), and a few ice screws. We’d done the Dru Couloir a couple of days before via the Fissure Nominee and during that climb we’d lost all our equipment. I’d cleaned the big aid pitch and, as I reached the top of it, the gear loop on my harness snapped and all our gear rattled off down the mountain. The reduced rack was also, of course, because we wanted to go light. As light as we dared knowing that a previous attempt of this line had ended after 17 days but had only managed about two thirds of the route.
Next came the plan: to avoid the unpredictable stone fall that comes thundering down the Japanese Couloir and off the Whymper face, by starting up the Walker Spur.
It was late on an August evening and we could still hear water running under the ice as we climbed the initial rocks of the Walker Spur. Further up there’s a broad ramp that leads right into the central snow and ice bowl. We followed this to the start of the difficulties. Our head torches didn’t reach far into the darkness but they did pick out what looked like the start of an ever-steepening Scottish style ice runnel ahead.
Our hands held state-of-the-art terrordactyl ice axes. These had short, steep, straight picks that meant your knuckles were constantly being bashed against the ice. Alex swore by them, and ably and efficiently led the steep ice pitches up the first runnel, without any fuss, to a point where we could see that the ice ran out into deep powder below a section of steepening rock. It was my turn to lead.
To get to the rock there was a short, easy angled pitch of hollow ice that lay over shattered granite, seemingly unconnected to it. The ice shuddered and vibrated each time it was struck. Once at the rock my feet found solid ground on a small ledge of rock or ice. I could stand comfortably enough to hammer in a dubious peg to serve as a belay. After bringing Alex up, I tackled the face above. It was all very dusty and crumbly. I was climbing above Alex, to the left of a shallow corner which housed a big hold that I cupped with my right hand. As I reached leftwards, the hold disintegrated. Without warning I was off!
Flying directly past Alex, I took a big fall. With no runners, my full weight came straight on to his belay. To my great relief I realised that the peg had held and I’d stopped some way below him. It had been a full-on factor two fall, held in a very difficult and dangerous position, with only a poor peg and waist belay between us and disaster.
Climbers moving up the crux of the Colton-Macintyre on an unusually fat year for ice
Quickly I grabbed my ropes and pulled up them to get back to Alex at the belay. We said nothing. We both knew this had been a very serious moment. Without hesitating I went straight back up on the pitch. This time the rock held and I reached good ice and the continuation of the ice runnel.
Ice that had looked promising proved to be thin and bare in sections. Alex described it as “on the border between rock and ice”. Even so, with Alex in the lead, we moved steadily upwards until we reached a large expanse of hard black ice. Five relentless pitches of it. Resolutely we pressed on until finally, at the end of the last one, we climbed diagonally rightwards and moved onto rock.
From there we would have to climb together as there was not enough rope to reach a good belay. More in hope than anything else, I thrust a nut into a shattered crack near my feet. It was the only gear between us, and I waited anxiously, the rope between us taut from my efforts to find a stance, whilst Alex stripped his belay. Once ready, he set out tentatively across brittle, hard ice with blunt axes, and crampon points that barely bit into the shiny black mirror whilst I pressed on above. A fall was unthinkable. We were both very tired and struggling hard to maintain concentration to avoid any slip-ups that would have terrible consequences.
Will Sim entering the top headwall
We’d reached the headwall and the rock was poor when I dislodged a dinner plate sized rock. Alex watched it, trapped, unable to get out of the way, as it plummeted towards him and slammed into his thigh at high speed. He howled until the pain subsided and then we continued.
We moved diagonally left and up. I was stood on a good square-cut foothold, holding on with a solid pinch in my right hand. As I transferred my full weight onto my left foot the foothold snapped off and my full weight came onto my right hand. The pinch grip detached from the wall, and I took another fall; this time a much shorter one, onto a good runner not far below..
Eventually we crossed a gully high up onto the Walker Spur itself.
It was now around 6pm. There was a ledge, and the cornice was in sight. We knew it wouldn’t go dark for several more hours so we sat down and had a brew. We didn’t just have a drink, we fell asleep. Soundly asleep; and we didn’t top out until the next morning.
Perhaps we should have gone on a little further, had our brew on the other side of the cornice and avoided having a bivy on the route. But we were not thinking like that. We were thinking “alpine style” and to us that meant total commitment. Starting at the bottom of the route with no support from friends or helicopters, no fixed ropes, making our way up under our own steam. It seems strange now but that way of doing things had got lost for a while on some of the bigger new routes being attempted in those days by the big names of the day.
Both aged twenty-two, we saw ourselves as the new kids on the block, taking things on to a new level, and in the process upstaging the older generation with what we perceived as their outmoded methods of doing big new routes.
Will Sim arrives in the sun and on the Walker Spur to the summit above
If there are two people in this valley who's 5 star approval means I pack my bags and get on the route asap it's Korra and Jeff. So when they came back down from the Czech Route on Les Droites and gave it the thumbs up myself and Colin Haley headed up to the Grands Montets for the night. As usual the sunset was stunning over the Mont Blanc and the Aiguille Verte and we settled in for a cold night.
Sunset Panorama over the Aiguille Verte, Drus, and Mont Blanc
4am rang and we enjoyed the traditional breakfast in the toilets that a luxurious night at the Grands Montets offers and we were off. Arriving at the base of the Droites it was nice to see a line of headtorches above us breaking a fresh track to the Legarde...perfect for us. At our junction to our route we tied up and simul climbed / solod up to the base of the ice pitches- the nevee so far had been perfect and it felt great to finally find some after a winter of such dry weather. Things were looking up! Colin headed off on the first ice pitch which yielded fun climbing weaving between patches of hollow snow and good nevee.
Colin on the snow field at day break
Colin cruises up the first ice pitch
The following pitch was the run out crux and it was certainly both of those. Korra is a man who uses the word 'run out' and 'you really dont want to fall' very sparingly so we were expecting it to be pretty spicy. Unfortunately by now the ice was fully in the sun and was turning mushy to add to the interest factor. As I made my way across the melting ice bulge I managed to stick a high red stubby screw and delicately weighted it for the traverse across. As with all these things in retrospect it's not too hard but there's basically no pro at all for about 20m right beneath your feet so it's a bit 'heart in mouth' on the lead. A nice crack to the side offered some bomber pro and I sat on it gladly. Above looked easy but was just more run out and steep mushy ice- get up early and get on this pitch before the sun does...it will make your life a whole lot easier and safer.
The ice pitch, © Colin Haley
An easy snow gully later and some thin mixed saw us at the base of the ampitheater and the final 80m of climbing til the Tournier Spur and easier ground. Colin took over for the amphitheatre and fired on up through to the Spur where we were greeted by a really cold wind...winter is still lurking on the North Faces. The view across the N face of the Droites is really impressive from up here- you can see over in to the Ginat and Colton-Brooks whilst at the same time taking in a rarely viewed angle of the Grande Rocheuse on the Aiguille Verte.
Ploddin', © Colin Haley
Wee bit of mixed before the top amphitheatre, © Colin Haley
Colin gets stuck in to some really nice mixed
Colin retrieves a cam I said was impossible to get out...ummm
Perfect cracks up here
Colin on the Tournier Spur
Colin on the Tournier
We had intended to continue up the whole spur to the summit of the Aiguille Verte but by the time we arrived at the bail point down the Legarde we couldn't resist. At this point it was getting late and it would end being a nice fun day out, continuing on to the summit would have been ok but it would have stepped in to the realms of 'epic' by the time we got back down. Keen to avoid anything epic unless the climb itself is really epic we bailed down the Legarde and to our skis.
Another Cumbreche reached
Rapping down to the Legarde
Evening light on the North side of the Courtes
V threads and spindrift...never a good combination
I'm enjoying getting on random routes for the moment- lines that aren't often climbed and still hold that 'will it or wont it go' mystique. Unfortunately random lines often require exceptional conditions which we definitely don't have at the moment, but when Korra suggested we do the North Face of the dent du Requin I had to admit that I hadn't even heard of the route before. We headed in as two rope teams- myself, Colin, Ben, and Korra- and hoped for a fun day out. What we actually encountered was unconsolidated sugar snow on slabs. As the rest of the route looked like it would entail pitch after pitch of unpleasant sketchy climbing we headed over to the right and ended up climbing a really fun route called the Baumont-Gaby. It's a really good alternative to the Ice is Nice lines in the area and quite a step harder given how thin it is- it's never pumpy, just delicate fun chamonix climbing. The crux pitches are 4 long and thin corner pitches that are really worth a visit right now.
Korra and Ben on the lower gully at sunrise
Colin on the first mixed pitch
Korra on the first mixed pitch
Korra on the first mixed pitch
Colin on the second mixed pitch
The South Face of the Aig Fou
Korra on the second pitch
More great climbing on the second pitch
Hmm sun and 'summit'
Korra tops out
A very hot descent down the backside to our skis
I've been wanting to do Naia for a few years now- it's the perfect combination of an area that I havent been to, with the fact that it looks like a good winter route to climb with skis on your back. It's hard in winter to find objectives that allow you that 'up and over' feel as you have to carry skis with you or endure 8 hours of trail breaking up to your waist back to town. Having done the latter on a couple of occasions I'm keen to avoid it as best I can!
The weatherman had given us a few days of good weather, but with the Foehn still lurking it was best to not get on anything major and commiting as you never quite know what is going to happen when the Foehn is visiting. So I managed to convinvce Ally for one last mountain burn before he jumped on the plane for some home time. Given the amount of snow we've just had I figured it would be the perfect time to get on Naia- being a natural gully line I thought it would be buried in snow and therefore pretty fast and easy to climb. I was wrong, but hey we got up it anyway.
The approach was horrible- the sun bore down on us with a warm Foehn wind and soggy wet snow. It took hours to break trail up to the Charpoua hut- but as usual the views up here are incredible and it's always magical having a bivy hut in winter to yourself. After chatting the rest of the day away and attempting to play Uno (an impossible task) we headed off to bed.
Ally arrives at the hut
Cross dressing night...© Ally Swinton
A 4am wake up call saw us heading up to the base of our route. The snow pack had refrozen overnight in to a perfectly annoying crust- not thick enough to support body weight but also too thick to break under ski edges. So it took a while to get to the shrund- plenty of swapping skis and boot packing and swearing. Arriving at the base and it all looked good- at least there was ice on the route!
Arriving at the shrund as the sun rises over Mont Blanc
Nice views from up here
The sun rose behind us on the Mont Blanc massif and Ally started up the first ice pitch. What looked good was obviously not as he climbed up eggshell old ice and got his first introduction to climbing steep ice with skis on his back.
Ally gets stuck in to the first pitch
From here on it's a fast couloir romp to the cruxes above which looked mighty thin from below. It was good to feel like we were moving fast again, less good was that I'd only brought 4 cams as rock pro. A good schooling in thutching with skis on (not pretty) saw us out of the cruxes and on faster terrain to the Sans Nom Ridge. By now it was obvious we weren't going to make last lift down Montenvers so it was just a case of kicking back and enjoying where we were. The ridge itself actually took some time- skis catching on gendarmes coupled with plenty of traversing on black ice wasn't too conducive to setting any speed records but it was great being up on the Sans Nom Ridge.
On the easy ground, Mont Blanc in the background
Ueli Steck-ing it
High up in the couloir with the Grandes Jorasses North Face in the background
High up in the couloir with the Grandes Jorasses North Face in the background
Myself eyeing up the dry cruxes above, © Ally Swinton
On the first crux pitch- dry...very dry. © Ally Swinton
The second pitch looked fun but with skis on was a bit of a struggle, © Ally Swinton
Since I have no shame here is me thrutching with skis on...sexy. © Ally Swinton
Ditching the pack was the best thing I did all day, © Ally Swinton
Ally tops out from the second pitch, Jorasses in the background
Easy ground to the ridge
Myself arriving at the Sans Nom, © Ally Swinton
Sunshine! © Ally Swinton
The Sans Nom ridge to the summit of the Verte
Questing up the ridge, © Ally Swinton
Looking back at Ally and the Mont Blanc
Epic alpine terrain!
Nearly there... © Ally Swinton
© Ally Swinton
The views from the top of the Verte in winter are really 5 star. I've climbed the Verte 7 times now and it's still one of my favorite summits for the view. Downclimbing the Whymper was great- soft deep snow to plough down. A quick rap at the shrund saw us combat skiing on horrible snow down to the Vallee Blanche and the final ski and walk down to Montenvers just as the sun set.
Summit pano from the Verte of the Jorasses and Mont Blanc
The Whmyper couloir
Half Way down the Whymper
All in all a really fun day out. After a couple of tough and abortive attempts on the Jorasses it was nice to move again and enjoy Chamonix for what it's best at delivering- fast and light alpine romping.