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General Update and Steck Record- 10 Jan

Ueli Steck on the crux of the Colton-Macintyre

Apologies for the delay in blog entries but the last 10 days has been non-stop

As most of you will have heard Ueli Steck set another speed solo record, this time on the north face of the Jorasses. Onsight soloing the colton Macintyre (VI,6) in a mere 2.20hrs.

Ueli Steck speed solo of the Grandes Jorasses- Colton Macintyre route from Jonathan Griffith on Vimeo.

The North Face of the Grandes Jorasses and the line taken by Steck

On the 28th Dec 2008 Ueli Steck blasted his was up the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in another record time. Moving on from his 2.47hrs ascent of the Eiger north face in February earlier on this year he arrived in Chamonix on the 27th with his eyes on the north face classic- the Colton-Macintyre (VI,6). On the day of his ascent I was trying an abortive climb of Scotch on the Rocks and at 1.15pm I received a text from Ueli seeing if I wanted to meet up for a beer later. I naturally assumed that he had called off the climb as it was firstly in pretty bad nick and secondly the weather was incredibly cold and windy on the Jorasses. Of course what many of us ‘normal’ climbers cant get our head around is the speed of Ueli when he speed-solos something. What had transpired is that Ueli arose at a leisurely hour, left his bivi spot below the face at 8am, and was back in Chamonix (having climbed down to Italy and got back through the tunnel) in time for an early lunch. Compare this to my feeble attempts on the day and its laughable. Steck climbs up a 1200m face, with some very bare and tricky mixed at the top and sections of 95 degree ice in the middle, at an approximate ascent rate of 10m a minute; I on the other hand ‘climb’ a total of sum 400m moving at approximately 2m a minute…laughable indeed.

Ueli on the top mixed section- what he thought was the crux of the route as it was so dry

Ueli on the Walker spur exit

Meeting up with Ueli the next day was definitely an interesting experience. The mind of a speed-soloist is not something you come across every day and Ueli is no exception. You might have expected some kind of 6ft6 tall Swiss-German machine with an ego the size of Belgium, but whilst a machine he might be, at 5ft11 and with the quiet and calculated demeanour of someone who knows he doesn’t have to shout about what he does because his actions literally speak louder than words, I was fascinated by what he had to say.

Possibly the most interesting and most over looked part of a speed soloist is the incredible mental strength it takes to achieve these records. The difference between the soloist and the speed-soloist is obvious but one that I don’t think many people appreciate. Whilst soling you are naturally going to be taking your time making sure that you are fully relaxed and that all placements are good ones- on the flip side a speed soloist cant afford this kind of attitude and has to just assume that every first time placement isn’t going to rip. As Steck pointed out you really just have to go for it and even if you know the axe is wobbly or the crampon point could rip at any second you just have to put it out of your mind and keep moving on up- if you take time to replace all your dodgy placements then you can say goodbye to your speed record.

Now, translate this to 95 degree sections of ice and slabby dry tooling 1000m above the deck and you can maybe start to appreciate the fine line that you are treading- not that Steck is naïve enough to ignore this. He is fully aware that his alpine soloing, in fact any type of soling for that matter, has a finite life to it. Earlier on this year he stopped rock climbing soloing forever having completed a few 8a solos: “I realised that if I continued I would one day kill myself, so now I have stopped rock soling and am concentrating on Alpine instead. But his too will one day have to end. Soloing in any mountain activity is about knowing where to draw the line and say enough is enough”.

Ueli on the 95 degree ice of Alexis

Ueli on the upper headwall

There is no denying that Steck’s obsessive attitude towards fitness plays a huge part too in his ascents. Aided by experts from the Swiss Olympic team, his body is at peak physical fitness which, it seems, allows him to not feel lactic acid build up and for him to literally run up these alpine faces. His form resembles more that of a spider than of a man when he is at top speed…maybe that is his secret- some kind of trans-species adaptation. For all that though, he is also even more obsessive about his light weight approach to climbing. He chooses to carry 50m of 5mm cord instead of an actual rope which really struck home a few days later when we found ourselves rappelling down the face to re-enact the climb for some photos- I had bought along part of a cut 8mm rope for abseil tat which meant that I was now rappelling off 8mm tat on a 5mm rope- surely the wrong way round? He is also a man who extols the virtues of those Russian made titanium pitons and ice screws that the rest of the climbing world mock- every gram counts with Ueli.

As for his future plans that’s for him to say and not me, but expect to see a lot more of Ueli Steck in the climbing headlines.

Steck climbed the Colton-Macintyre but instead of climbing the crux of the Colton, he opted for the (harder) Alexis pitch where he encountered sections of vertical and overhanging ice.

Ueli on the summit with the Mont Blanc in the background

As for previous record ascents there is no better source really than Luca Signorelli who was kind enough to send us this informtation:

Fastest GJ ascent so far was via the Shroud to the summit, 2:00 shrund to ridge, then a little less than one hour to the summit. Actually the first speed record there is quite “ancient”, JM Boivin did the Shroud to the ridge in 2:45 around in september 1977.

Fastest Colton-Mac so far was (for a soloist) less than four hours (Svetic early solo was in seven hours, back then quite a record). Best roped team ascent is 6 hours, but I’ve just sketchy details on that. (still think is the Jeff Lowe record to be considered the best timing) Best official solo climb of the Walker spur in summer is rather “slow” (4 and half), there are rumours of faster ascents. My regular climbing mate (Renzo Luzi, was one of Giancarlo Grassi’s partners) did a roped simul climb of the Walker spur in seven hours from the Leschaux hut to the summit, but it’s not the record.

Everything else is much slower. Slovenian route record is still Alison Heargraves climb (she was helicoptered in and out however, something that in my view matters a lot, as both approach and descent are not elementary). Patrick Berhault claimed a “lighting” ascent of the Desmaison – Gousseault in 26 hours, but he avoided the first third of the route via the Shroud.

Others GJ records are quite old – best ascent of the Hirondelles was in 1946, guide Arturo Ottoz climbed it with a client in 12:40 all the way from Courmayeur!

Fastest ascent of the normal route in summer is around 4 hours from Planpincieux. But there, the first ascent of the GJ by Whymper and C. in 1865 may be difficult to beat, given the year – left from Courmayeur at 2:00am, were on the summit at 13:00!

Other speed records – great soloist Nicolas Jaeger did the Tronchey Ridge – West Ridge – Rochefort – Torino hut link up in 1973 in a fantastic 20 hours (non consecutive) from the Jachia hut.

However, if you ask me, the most impressive speed record on the Jorasses (actually THE speed record for the area) remains Marco Bernardi 10 hours free solo (with two roped pitches) of the Gervasutti route on the East face in 1980. It was an insane performance back then (the route was basically clean, and no detailed topo was available), and would be difficult to beat even now.

Otherwise here is what is currently going on in the area…

The Rive droite of the Argentiere ice falls is looking great for the moment. Multiple parties on all the walls with Shiva Lingham especially seeing alot of attention. Nick Bullock has climbed all 6 walls in the last 7 days, including Icelander Direct and Shiva. Impressive to say the least. Picture here

The Rive Gauche is also ok but the ice has a big tendency to dinner plate making progress slow as well as painful for the belayer below.

I keep gettting numerous emails about conditions on the North Face of the Jorasses. It’s not easy for me to say as really I thinks it’s pretty dry but the Right hand side is looking actually not too bad. Having rapped down the Colton-Macintyre a week ago and can tell you this though- the headwall (top section) of the Colton Mac is totally bone dry. Just snow sitting ontop of rock, which is not ideal, but also not impossible by any stretch. The actual ice crux of the Colton has broken away though meaning that you would have to do the Alexis variation. The Alexis variton is steeper and harder but the ice is great in there for the moment. In fact the ice up most of the face is awesome. In addition there are belays at 50m intervals down the whole face now.
If you want to see for yourself, here is a high-res pic of the left side of the face and one of the right side

There are reports of good conditions on the Droites but that’s only what I have heard from other people.

We are going to head up to the Midi for a few days to check out some of the routes there as its been a while and will report back then

Posted by Jon Griffith on January 10, 2009. Post or Read Comments on this entry

General Update- 28 Dec

Headed up today to do Scotch on the Rocks (East face of Tacul) but bailed due to my lack of climbing ability- to be fair it was bone dry, but really its down to my incompetence. However we then climbed the first pitch of the Pinnochio just to get something done which was a fine lead by Tim, but also he said one of the thinnest ice leads he had ever done. I recommend skirting to the left of the first pitch of Pinnochio if you do plan on heading up.

Tim Emmett on the first pitch of Pinnochio

Otherwise routes that look in condition are the Pellisier Gully and the M6 Solar.
Super couloir looks good for the moment too and the direct start looks like it should be fine too. For a full res shot of it click here
I cant comment on the Grandes Jorasses but you can draw your own conclusion from another high res shot of the face here

It might be worth saying that the wind has nuked the Vallee Blanche to the extend where the glacier after the Requin hut has been stripped of snow leaving huge bullet hard and uneven ice patches everywhere. In other words its really unpleasant skiing down it for the moment. I definitely wouldn’t want to have to go down it in the dark for the moment. Luckily there is more snow on the way on Wednesday so fingers crossed there.

Posted by Jon Griffith on December 29, 2008. Post or Read Comments on this entry

Pinnochio- Tacul- 22 Dec

The last few days saw Tim emmett and myself head up to the Abri Simond to do some of the best climbing I have ever done. On Monday we headed over to Pinnochio which has long been a route I have wanted to do. Whilst it is not in great nick for the moment (ie very thin ice in parts) it is still do-able. A very varied and excellent climb- I highly recommend it.

Tim Emmett on the crux

Tim Emmet dislodging a rather large snow block on the crux

Me on the final exit pitch, © Tim Emmett

Yesterday saw us head over to a climb that Bullock and Baird had done the previous day. Bullock had spotted a line next to Hit Machine on the Lachenal which co-incidentally Will Sim and I had spotted only recently too. However having now been up it I can happily say that I am glad I was with someone alot better than me as the leading was incredibly delicate and awkward on often very loose rock. Bit too much for me…

Tim Emmett on the start of the new Bullock/ Baird route (they are still checking whether this is a new line)

Otherwise Supercouloir is in nick for the moment. The direct start is a little thin but has been done. Pellissier gully on the Lachenal looks very fat for the moment.
Otherwise the Gabbarou and Modica now have a track going up to them through the snow field. The Modica is looking a wee bit thin but once again both are climbabale.
the Cosmiques couloir is also in ok nick for the moment. Expect a bit of mixed though as its not 100% formed.
The ski out down the ‘James Bond track’ is also great for the moment- in fact it is so good that they have actually bought a piste-bully up there and groomed it.

Happy christmas all

Posted by Jon Griffith on December 24, 2008. Post or Read Comments on this entry

Anticyclone moving in

Good news for Christmas as there is an anticyclone moved into the area for the next few days. Should mean good clear weather for the next week or so which is great news considering all the mixed weather we have had so far. Off piste skiing is all either windblown or sun affected. Otherwise the piste skiing probably doesnt get much better as you can ski every piste, even down into town.

Ice in the valley is ok from the looks of it. Johnny Baird ( his site )reports that the easier part of the Cremerie has collapsed which sounds a bit odd considering the weather we have had but he reckons a combination of heavy snow sitting ontop of the ice and melt water underneath led to its collapse…rock, ice and snow rubble everywhere apparently. The harder part of the cremerie is still ok though (Moby Dick etc).

The north faces are looking a little bare to be honest but I cant fully comment on certain routes as didnt get any high res shots of them.

Up high its anyone’s guess for the moment. I am heading up today for a few days so will report back when we come back down on Wednesday…

Posted by Jon Griffith on December 21, 2008. Post or Read Comments on this entry

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