THE FINEST ROUTES IN THE ALPS
Grandes Jorasses via Polish Combination/Michto – ED (V, WI5, M5) 800m
The north face of the Grandes Jorasses is one of the steepest and most beautiful in the Alps. At 1.5km wide and 1200m mile high it is an impressive sight. Alongside the Eiger, Drus, Matterhorn, Piz Badile and Cima Grande di Lavaredo it is one of the six ‘classic’ north faces of the Alps.
The first lines climbed on the face were the Croz and Walker spurs in the 1930’s and these were scenes of epic battles and tragedies. It was a long time later that the steep walls between the spurs were breached. However now the face has it’s own guidebook detailing 44 routes (Julien Désécures, 2013). To the right side of the north face beyond the Croz spur and, far from the more famous routes of the Colton-MacIntyre and the Walker Spur, the face is a little less imposing. However many of these lines rely even more extensively on the ephemeral ice smears that provide passages through sections of steep exposed slab. One of the best routes up this section of the face cuts an interesting yet logical line towards the Pointe Hélène linking two older routes. These routes were originally climbed in summer as rock routes by two different Polish teams (Chrobak, Poreba and Wroz in 1970 and Kukuczka, Kurtyka and Lukaszewski in 1975.) Climbing this face on ice it is hard to imagine being there in dry conditions – this must have been bold pioneering stuff on compact and unforgiving rock. In Autumnal or Spring conditions with good ice this route provides a excellent introduction to the mixed climbing on the Jorasses.
The Climb – 27th September 2014
(Sitting now in Chamonix in the lean Autumn of 2016 we can but dream of such good climbing conditions!)
Having seemingly spent the entire summer working in snow, mist and rain here in the Alps, there was hope that this would be forming excellent mixed face conditions on the higher peaks. Through the rare sunny clearings the Droites, Grandes Jorasses, Nant Blanc and Grand Pilier d’Angle north faces all seemed to be perpetually plastered in slowly transforming snow and névé. On the 26th August however an exceptionally warm storm hit, with a deluge of rain falling to over 4000m. As Julien Désécures, wrote: “La neige déjà présente a été « Ben névissée » : placage dément partout!!!” (The snow that was already present was ’Ben Nevised’ : insane ice-smears everywhere!!!).
Informed by blogs and social media climbers soon swarmed from all over Europe and beyond to climb these legendary face routes. The guardian of the Leschaux refuge at the base of the Jorasses was posting photos every few days on Facebook, and by early September the refuge was overwhelmed at each good weather window. Traffic started to reached fever pitch on the classic routes. On Friday 12th September nearly 100 people were climbing on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. The Colton MacIntyre (V, WI5+, M4+, 1000m) alone had 30 climbers on it that day. This continued for much of September with several long periods of stable high pressure weather.
A perfect weather window formed over the last weekend of September so with Ross Hewitt, Misha Gopaul and Jeff Banks, I headed up to Montenvers. Rather than walk into the Lechaux hut (which we were sure would be full) the evening before, or bivouac uncomfortably beneath the face, we slept at Montenvers. This allowed us to take luxury camping kit up on the train, have a nice meal and settle down to a warm night on the steps of the Grand Hotel and then stash our gear in the morning to avoid carrying bivi gear up the route. They even left the door open by mistake so we treated ourselves to warm toilets in the morning!
We left about 3am and walked slowly up the glacier, turning the last corner around 6am to get a full view of the face, and the numerous teams already high up on routes. We later spoke to several climbers, and the first team on the Colton Macintyre started the route at 11pm to avoid climbing below other people.
We had no fixed objective, we just wanted to climb without getting hit by falling ice from climbers above. Whilst putting on my crampons I got a photo of the face twinkling with head torches. Myself and Ross had already climbed the Colton MacIntyre separately some time back and so were interested in other routes anyway. Seeing the popularity of the Colton Mac and the Croz Spur it was clear what routes to avoid!
It was getting light when we hit the fresh snowline high on the glacier. A maze of fresh tracks seem to web out in several directions. We followed what looked like a track heading in the right direction, but found it lead us in a few minutes to a cul de sac amongst cavernous crevasses. We doubled back and followed the next track to the base of the route. Even here on the quieter right side of the face we could make out a dozen teams above. Nevertheless nearly all of them were heading up the lower gully of the Croz spur, or getting lost trying to find it.
This year the rimaye seemed to be quite awkward and people were starting at the base of the Pointe Hélène to traverse to the Croz. We decided to cross the rimaye in the same place but start up the Polish Route and see where conditions took us. The sun was already up over the Aiguille Verte as we got our gear on. Ross lead up through the hollow crusty chimney of snow that broke through the double rimaye, brought us out onto the crispy névé above and we carried on moving together for a couple of hundred metres. I took the gear and lead off. Jeff lead his ropes in parallel beside me, and we kicked our way up enjoying the ambience and placing a screw just once or twice each rope length.
We quested up for several hundred metres of easy snow towards the mixed terrain. The features that had looked so well defined when approaching the face – the Poire, the Belle Hélène gully, and the branch leading left towards the Polish route – they all seemed to merge into indistinguishable features once we were immersed in the face itself. We discussed options and I continued up left. Jeff and Misha stopped and took a belay and watched where I was heading, hedging their bets on my uncertainty. I traversed then took a narrow runnel of ice that seemed to break a good line into the mixed ground.
Having set off with confidence I soon felt exposed. My axes scratched through to the rock under only a few centimetres of ice and my last screw was already 20 metres below. I fiddled in a small wire and carried on up until I rejoined a bowl of better ice. This lead up right to the base of a steeper corner and runnel of ice that had the obvious signs of some climbing traffic – chopped out ice and scratched rock.
Ross was climbing fast below me and once I had a belay I struggled to take the rope in fast enough. Misha and then Jeff joined us as we looked at some images to be really sure we were heading up the right gully. With the limited view we had of the face it seemed like the best option and it was probably here that the normal ‘Polish Combination’ route traversed left then back right higher up. We were at the base of the direct pitches of the line of ‘Michto’ that straightens out the traverse of the Polish route, and it looked like a great variation that we knew friends had done a couple of weeks earlier.
Ross led up the ice above, through some thinner moves at a steep bulge and then out of sight. Jeff then lead up after a bit, being careful to keep our two pairs of ropes untangled. When the ropes came tight on me I followed up and found Ross at a rather unsatisfactory belay strung our across several marginal looking blocks. Jeff had likewise set up a web of protection just below. They had caught up with a team of three Spanish climbers that we hadn’t even seen from below. They had started climbing at 2am so it seemed like they weren’t moving with any great urgency, Nevertheless this didn’t look like a good place to pass them so we hung around waiting for a bit.
Once the Spanish had cleared off I got onto the delicate climbing above. Though not particularly hard I had done almost no mixed climbing that year. It was a little off vertical and not particularly reassuring as the ice was sugary and protection rickety. I moved slowly upwards and Jeff decided to lead up underneath me, obviously more confident in my ability not to fall off than I was. We pulled over the last steepening and into the niche that the Spanish had just vacated. Though we couldn’t see any better options it looked pretty dreadful – the rock was a little rotten and most of the cracks were slightly flared. Jeff and I started to set it up as best we could and eventually had 4 marginal pieces – two cams, a piton and a nut, equalised together.
Jeff pulled the ropes in quicker than me and so Misha came up first then Ross followed. This suited me as I could get a few photos as he came up, though leaning out on the belay wasn’t particularly inspiring. Once we were all crowded on the belay there was barely any space to perch and whilst trying to clamber underneath one another someone jolted the belay. The purple camalot pinged out of its flared crack and the whole belay unequalised and we were all jerked sideways. Heart in mouth we looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Jeff put in another piece of gear that looked slightly better and then set off up the fragile ice covered slab above. He moved carefully and slowly, muttering nervously about the gear and until he had two pieces in we were utterly silent on the belay. He carried on out of sight to the right in a broader ice gully.
We all gathered again at the next belay and were back onto the Polish Route. A solid belay on three ice screws was a relief. As I was hoping to get some photos down on the next pitch I lead first. A short steep wall and bulge of ice lead rightwards onto the delicate ice smears and slabs beyond. The climbing was easy but incredibly exposed and beautiful. There was good névé over the slabs but it was not dense enough for screws. In the 55m pitch I had just one nut and a piton before reaching thicker ice and a solid spike belay off.
After thirty metres the angle eased off and we began to simul climb again for several rope lengths into the main Belle Hélène gulley system. Ross took a belay high in the gully and we paused to work out where to go. Straight up led out the exit of Belle Hélène, but to stick to our route we traversed back left. This lead us onto a ramp then up easier snow slopes and finally into the sun for the last 100m to finish on the knife edge ridge between the Pointe Magali and Pointe Hélène.
This only being my second time up the north face I can’t wax lyrical, except to note that descent isn’t that much fun. It was late in the afternoon and we were parched and hungry. After a brief break we traversed left and down onto the south face leaving behind the safety of solid rock. We traversed carefully down for a hundred metres of steep and scary terrain to gain a blunt ridge where we picked up a line of rappels. The rappels were thankfully on solid rock and usually afforded some shelter from rockfall above. Several rappels later we got into a vague snow gully and finally over the bergschrund and down onto Glacier des Grandes Jorasses just as the sun set. It would be nice to do this upper section in the morning when the cold snow might hold the rubble together, but realistically this is rarely an option. Below we hit the normal route and the long slow descent into the valley.
Conditions Good conditions tend to form well in an autumn after a wet summer when snowfall and cycles of freeze thaw turns the snow into névé and ice smears.
It is essential to get a good sense of the features of the face before starting up the route as once climbing, especially if starting in the dark, it is much harder to keep to the correct line.
From Montenvers only the very top of the face can be seen. Unless you have reliable reports of the condition of the routes a good view with binoculars can be gained by a hike to the Lac Blanc in the Aiguilles Rouges. The route is in condition when there are consolidated ice smears in the upper part of the face where the route traverses delicately rightwards.
The route climbs both steep ice and mixed terrain. 2 x 60m ropes. Sharp crampons and technical axes. 8-10 ice screws + extenders, c.4 cams, rack of nuts, thin pegs.
From Chamonix take the train to Montenvers. Descend onto the Mer du Glace and walk to the Lechaux Refuge. In an autumn of good conditions this refuge can be full and so a bivouac under the face can be more peaceful.
Cross the rimaye under the Pointe Hélène. Follow the broad gully for 400m (60-70º) until it splits below a blunt rib. Move left up a ramp line for 100m before breaking left again into mixed terrain up a blunt rib with a slender goulotte of ice (75º). From the ice-field above either (a) continue leftward into a broad corner. Climb steep terrain for 40m (80º) to find a delicate line traversing back rightwards (M5+). Or (b) continue a little rightwards to find the steep corners of the route Michto and climb these in two pitches (M5) up ice and mixed to reach the same point. Continue in the gully and after 25m where a thin runnel continues upwards break right over a step to find an impressive diagonal ice smear ramp line. Follow this for 60m to belay on rock. Follow the broad ice slopes above before breaking out left after a pitch to follow a gully system to the ridge in 200m. One can also finish straight up which joins ‘La Belle Hélène’ and has a short vertical step before the ridge.
If there is good snow cover on the rocks immediately below on the south face on can descend directly between the Pointe Croz and Pointe Hélène to the glacier below. On the Glacier trend rightwards to top of the Rocher du Reposoir. (By poor snow cover climb up to the Pointe Croz and take 5 x 60m abseils before traversing the glacier rightwards to the Reposoir.) Follow the Reposoir crest down until it steepens and 4 abseils or a scramble leads down to the glacier below. Keep on the right side of the Rognon de la Bouteille and descend to the rock spur leading to the Boccalatte hut. Cairns lead to the hut but it is well hidden from view on the SW point of this rock band. From here a path with ropes leads to the valley floor.