Jonathan Griffith Photography Blog
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
Things have been very quiet on the blog front for many months; that's not due to inactivity but rather because we're about to launch a new and improved site. But it's time to rectify all that so here is the first in a series of blog updates on my climbing life from the last 6 months...
The New Year couldn't have started any better really. Myself and Andy Houseman decided to ring in 2015 with a quick simul solo up the Swiss route on the Courtes which is always a great cardio and acclimatisation day- unfortunately whilst the 'up' was fast, the 'down' was pretty epic, weaving our way from snow patch to snow patch in the rain on a very dry Mer de Glace glacier. Winter has been slow to come, which is actually prefect if you're here to climb. It gave me a good opportunity to gauge high mountain conditions as I wasn't sure what the gale force winds of December would have done to the faces- amazingly they are still in incredible condition. In fact every route in the massif above 3000m is in very good winter nick (more or less).
Andy tops out of the Courtes as the bad weather rolls in
A few days later and the next weather window was creeping up on us- this one looked good; not too cold, low winds, and 4 days of sun. The great thing about climbing in the dead of winter is that there really is no one else around, the downside being that the days are super short, it's ridiculously cold, and there's a lot of snow around making access a logistical crux in its own right. Access is key, if you can't get to a route you're unlikely to climb the thing; and access on the big faces is the reserve of the ski meaning you have to 'up and over' with them attached to your back. Enter the Approach Ski- a slender lightweight winter weapon. Mounted with Emery chromo bindings and you're laughing, you become an unstoppably fast winter machine out here. However the flip side is that skiing in 130cm skis with climbing boots is a bit like playing badminton with a bowling ball: it's sh*t. I say that, but actually I love skiing in this setup. Like everything in life, it seems impossible at first but then you feel like you've discovered some dark secret that no one else has- skiing in approach skis is just so much fun.
I'm quite a big fan of Link Up's as well. They don't all have to be in the same day, but its fun going from mountain to mountain as long as the weather allows you to. Not dropping back to the valley means you cover so much terrain, it does obviously mean that you're exhausted day after day. But it's all good training for something. So a link up it was- conditions are fat right now and it felt like the best use of these conditions and the time. Of course not everyone has a penchant for the approach ski life so finding a willing partner was the next crux; thankfully David Gottler is Chamonix's newest 'most psyched man in the valley' and he jumped at the opportunity.
Our plan was simple. Start at Le Tour and climb as much as we could in the direction of the Grandes Jorasses until the weather crapped out. Simple doesn't necessarily mean easy of course, it's often just a umbrella term for "I've got no f*king clue, let's just see how it goes". On the approach to the hut David discovered his binding was two screws too light and became my new hero by just locking it down in to ski mode and shrugging it off; there would be no excuses on this trip obviously. I did think I heard him mutter something about it being typical of French engineering but who could blame him, he is German after all.
David tours in to the Albert Premier Hut at sunset
The new winter hut is ace. I never went to Scouts so the only way I know how to make fire is with a lighter and a gas canister. I may ask Ray Mears for fine tuning of the technique but for the moment the system works fine and before long we had a roaring fire- discussing routes and options is always easy around a roaring fire- you forget about the cold, the crevasses, the snow and the fear, did I mention the cold?
Move over Ray Mears, I've got this one covered...
Fixing the dodgy binding
The following morning, with a half fixed binding, we toured over towards the Chardonnet. Some deft glacial navigation by my 'bergführer' avoided me having to reteach myself crevasse rescue, and we found ourselves at the base of the Escarra at sunrise. A quick simul climb took us to the sun and the summit of our first peak, the sun being well received, the summit less so as it gave us a perfect view of the rest of our intended itinerary for the day.
The Aiguille du Chardonnet under the full moon
Arriving at the base of the Escarra
Myself high up on the Escarra, © David Gottler
David tops out of the goulotte
David tops out of the goulotte
Heading up to the summit in deep snow, © David Gottler
Deep snow hampered progress down the Forbes arete but we eventually entered the descent couloir down towards the Col D'Argentiere and put in some sick 'freshies' on the descent, and by 'freshies' i mean a deep boot track. Where was Ben Briggs I was thinking; it was the kind of couloir and snow that skiers use the term 'bacon wrapped titties' to explain their excitement. Unfortunately 130cm ski don't really cut it on that kind of terrain- you end up just jump turning from one bomb hole to the next.
David descends to the Col d'Argentiere, the Aiguille d'Argentiere ahead of us
Down at the Col and it was up the North Ridge (?) of the Aiguille D'Argentiere. Before long we were on top of our second summit casting our gaze towards the Grands Montets lift station on the other side of the valley- our final destination for the day. Of course that's still a long day when the 'valley' in question happens to be a massive glacial one, and you're standing 1800m above it. Time to deploy the approach skis; a suitably scary descent given how open the crevasses are right now, and weight displacement is marginal to say the least. One final push up to the Grands Montets lift from the valley floor and we found ourselves in excellent company of good friends for the rest of the night. I ate my body weight in protein to try and recover for the next day whilst we got bad news that the weather was coming in earlier than expected. No Grandes Jorasses then, so we resorted to finishing our climb with the Sans Nom to the summit of the Aiguille Verte the following day.
David heading up the Argentiere
David on some fun black ice
Sunshine on the Argentiere N Ridge, © David Gottler
Nearing the summit with the Chardonnet in the background
Summit ridge with the Argentiere basin in the background
David shredding the gnar
Many years ago I had my very first accident on the Sans Nom face, and I haven't been back to it since. Climbers above knocked down a huge chunk of ice which resulted in us getting lifted off the face and my climbing partner spending 8 days in Sallanches hospital. So it was nice to finally tick it off- plus climbing the Aiguille Verte is always special. I think that makes it my 8th time on the summit in winter, probably my most frequented summit. Heading in to the Sans Nom is always a bit daunting seeing as there are some vicious seracs 1000m above your head, so we got a move on and quickly found ourselves high up on the face at sunrise. The crux ice pitches are in fantastic condition and we quickly made our way up on to the very atmospheric Sans Nom ridge; atmospheric mainly because it was blowing a really cold Northerly. Wrapped in everything we had we heroically topped out on the summit before not so heroically running away back down the Couturier Couloir- unfortunately this year it's mainly ice, so many raps later, a bit of down climbing, and a chance encounter with the Stecks we found ourselves at the base.
High up at sunrise
Climbing out of the fall zone of the seracs above
The ice pitches
On the final ice pitch before easier ground, © David Gottler
David pulls out of the final 85 degree pitch
Really cold up here
So all in all a fun couple of days out. Skiing back down to town in the dark is always really hypnotic and relaxing I find, or it might have been the 3800m of vertical ascent we'd just covered....who knows?