North Faces in Chamonix 06/04/2015

The North Face of the Grandes Jorasses and other Adventures in Chamonix

My success on Cerro Torre was a huge boost for my motivation and it shows no signs of waning. So in Lausanne, I simply had to take advantage of the proximity to Chamonix to climb a few great lines there.

On my first visit, the winds were so strong that no trains were running and we were forced to change our climbing plans and put on skis instead. It’s not just in Patagonia that it gets windy!

On my second visit, we managed to climb the Super Couloir, a great classic on Mont Blanc du Tacul. Unfortunately, the unsettled and changeable weather ruled out any longer, more ambitious tours.

Finally, some really good weather arrived after Easter and I could start thinking about longer tours. Together with my expedition partner Charlie, I climbed the north face of the Droites over the Ginat. Another classic that we had both had in our sights for a long time.

A creative solution was called for in the middle of the wall when one of the spikes at the front of my crampon broke. I used my Abalakov thread for the repair. Because neither of us wanted to turn back: the conditions were great, everything had gone smoothly up until then and we were having an amazing time. The minutes were ticking past, but I managed to make the crampon fit for purpose again and we resumed our long journey to the top.

The descent down the south side proved very arduous: we were up to our hips in snow in places, so the going was very tough. In the end, we decided to take a break in the Couvercle hut and make our way down to Chamonix the next morning on frozen terrain.

A week later, perfect weather was forecast once again and this time it was set to last for several days. My motivation then turned to the north face of the Grandes Jorasse, one of the three most famous north faces (besides the Matterhorn and Eiger). I spent a whole day trying to find a climbing partner… without success. Feeling very frustrated, I spent the first day of the fine weather at university. In the afternoon, a text message lifted my spirits: a friend of a friend was looking for a climbing partner for the Jorasses. We quickly agreed on a plan and met up the next morning at Montenevers rail station. I had never met Thomas before, but that wasn’t a problem, great motivation created a bond. We got on well from the very start.

We climbed up with our skis close to the bottom of the face and put up our tent. Our extremely heavy backpacks reminded me of Patagonia. We tracked out our way to the start and then enjoyed the last rays of sunshine before allowing ourselves a few hours’ sleep. In the middle of the night, it was time to set off again: we put on our headlamps and started out on the Colton MacIntyre. The first challenge faced us immediately, in the form of two bergschrunds consisting of steep unstable snow. After this, there was some easy terrain and we made smooth progress up to the first ice tunnel where we secured the first pitches.

We then made our way across another ice field to the bottom of the crux pitch. It was my turn to lead and I was really looking forward to this challenge. However, it turned out to be scarier than it had looked: the thin ice made securing impossible and what’s more we had to cross to the left in comical fashion in steep almost overhanging terrain. I carefully worked my way up meter by meter, constantly aware that I simply must not fall as the consequences could have been fatal. My arms were feeling heavier and I was happy when I at last reached some flatter terrain and was finally able to place another screw after 15-20 meters. A crazy pitch. The next pitch was still technically demanding, but Thomas mastered it with style.

After another ice field, we then came to the mixed pitches at the top, which were very dry and therefore extremely challenging. We were slowing down and the time seemed to be flying past. However, we progressed steadily pitch by pitch. The climbing seemed endless, despite increasing fatigue we still had to tackle technically demanding sections. We relied on a constant supply of chocolate for an energy boost. Argentinian alfajores and mantecol were the key to success for me here.

As always, the ascent is just one part of the climb and we still had to make our way safely back down the 1,200 meter face. Luckily, there were lots of Abalakovs already there and we only had to place a few of our own. We were feeling extremely tired and it was getting harder to maintain our concentration. However, a rude awakening was in store for us in the middle of the wall. An Abalakov tore out and we suddenly found ourselves hanging on a single ice screw that we had placed as back-up. Everything went well after that, but we realized that we needed to call on every last drop of energy now to avoid making mistakes.

It was starting to get dark so we rappelled the last section wearing our headlamps. I had to muster all my courage to tackle the wide leap over the bergschrund. I also had a good measure of respect, after a bergschrund had given way under Charlie during a descent last week.

Another surprise awaited us at the bottom of the face: an avalanche had buried our poles and despite lots of digging around, I didn’t manage to find mine.

24 hours later, we arrived back at our tent and were glad to have something warm to eat and drink. Marking the end of long, pretty strenuous but great day.


Text excerpt 1: “It’s not just in Patagonia that wind can put paid to climbing plans”

Text excerpt 2: “Not even a broken helmet or broken crampon could hold us back today”

Text excerpt 3: “Keeping going and maintaining your concentration even when you’re feeling exhausted is part of the art of mountaineering”


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