Jonathan Griffith Photography Blog
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.
This winter has been titty-deep, shred-gnar, high-5in' for skiers, but not so much for any alpine climbing antics. Deep snow, strong winds, and poor conditions have left even the keenest climbers valley based, itching to get up high. Thankfully 10 days ago the first sign of good weather finally arrived on the horizon sending everyone deep underground to sharpen their tools, dust off their cams, and pack away outdated route food. Everyone had different ideas on what to do but none of them were really great options- having very little idea of what might actually be climbable (given that it is still winter here) myself Ally and Steve headed up the day after it stopped snowing for a recce up the Leschaux basin. We wanted to climb anything on the Petites Jorasses with the greater goal to getting a good look at the main event of the area: the Grandes Jorasses.
Ally tours in to the Leschaux Glacier, the Petites Jorasses in the background
Amazingly two other teams had decided to head in to the basin that day as well. I think it's great when I see teams giving a big middle finger to conventional wisdom and just trying their best to get something done- if they fail then so be it but at least they got in there and gave it a go. I have a lot of respect for that- it's always easy following someone else's tracks but a whole different game being the first to 'open' a route for the season. Any excuse is a good excuse in winter, especially this winter. As it turned out they were both heading in for the Grandes Jorasses itself and I was dying to know what they were up to.
Ally arrives at the Leschaux hut with the Grandes Jorasses in the background
We ended up in the Leschaux Hut as our objective was laughable by comparison so we could afford the luxury of sleeping well- but I kept a constant eye out for those mystery climbers and which part of the wall they were going for. With the Jorasses in one of the worst conditions I've seen it in I couldn't help but think that they were heading for one of the hard 4 or 5 day suffer fests that snake their way up improbable parts of the wall. Now, after all, would be the time to get a winter tick of lines such as Manitua etc.
Safely nestled away in the hut, I'd grossly underestimated how much gas to bring for three of us so spent a good while melting snow under some left over tea candles late in to the night (FYI it works, but only just; gas is so the way to go). Nevertheless, nice and early we toured off in to the darkness and tracked our way up to the Petites Jorasses. We had expected some heavy trail breaking and we got it- but I could see the lights of the first climbing team high up on the central icefield of the Jorasses. They were moving fast up the Colton Macintyre and I was impressed with their tenacity trying it in such dry conditions.
Melting snow over some tea candles....not ideal
Sunrise on the approach
Ally and the Grandes Jorasses
The main event...
The wall above us revealed itself in the light of the day and it was obvious which line to take- none of the others had any ice in them. As it turned out this was the NW Gully of the Petite Febrouze / Petites Jorasses. It's a long way to come for such a route but I've never actually climbed anything on this wall before, and given my poor success rate this winter anything is good right now. A heart in mouth shrund crossing saw us at the base of some perfect Chamonix ice which weaved its way to the top- from close up this had looked like verglassed rock but we were lucky to find it just thick enough to make fast and easy progress. The route is never hard and it was great fun to run up an alpine route again; even better to see the Grandes Jorasses from the top and take in the Hirondelles ridge and East face from this angle. That mountain just keeps drawing me in...
Ally heads up the first pitches of stellar ice
Steve on the lower pitches
Steve on the lower pitches with the Dru and Verte in the background
Ally cruising on
Cant complain about the views
Woohoo alpine ice!
Myself on the short steep narrowing before it all kicks back for a while, © Ally Swinton
Steve and Ally on the final pitch
An angle of the Jorasses I hadn't seen before
Happy Alpine smiles
Hmmm...miles of untracked powder to get home