Whilst checking my facebook feed in Yosemite I couldn’t help but notice that all my friends in Chamonix seemed to be running laps on the Grandes Jorasses in what some described as “the best condition I’ve ever seen it in”. Now I’m not one inclined to jealousy but I was jealous; FOMO (fear of missing out) had kicked in and I wanted to join in on the fun! Fortunately for me Tom Livingstone had been trying to persuade me to go to the Alps and with one week free I decided to commit, flying out to Geneva the day after my return from Yosemite.
“Only Brits climb in the Alps in October.” – Dave Rudkin
Although not entirely true, this comment by my friend Dave is not meant as a compliment to Brits. What it really means is that Brits are the only people stupid enough to climb in the Alps when nearly all the cable cars and trains are closed. I couldn’t have planned to come out to the Alps when more of the cable cars were closed. This means long walks from the valley – very long walks. Although I’m not alien to the idea of long approaches to alpine routes I really didn’t want my climbing trip to turn into a Duke of Edinburgh walking expedition.
The forecasts were looking promising when we arrived in Chamonix. There were about five days of reasonable weather forecast and most importantly there was no precipitation due. The winds were forecast to be a little on the strong side and all the locals were warning us about the dreaded foehn winds – they had such a bad reputation you’d have thought they were strong enough to strip the skin from a person rather than the snow from a rock face!
Although the weather wasn’t optimal, we hadn’t come to Chamonix to sit in Elevation shooting the shit, so made the grim hike up to the foot of the Grandes Jorasses on the first day of good weather we had. We felt like we’d pulled it out of the bag. Conditions were perfect. We were bivied 50m from the base of the ‘Desmaison-Gousseault’ and the winds were having negligible effect on the north face. We zipped ourselves up for a good night’s sleep and awoke at 5am to spindrift avalanches coming down the face – it had been snowing heavily for the last four hours and we could barely see the base of our route.
We were left with no choice but to descend back to Chamonix feeling tired and annoyed. To make things worse we saw that our only other chance of climbing in the mountains would be if we headed for the hills again the following day with tired legs. We came to Chamonix intending to try one of three routes. Two of these were on the Grandes Jorasses and I didn’t fancy walking back to the base of the same mountain – as they say, variety is key.
Instead we headed up to the foot of the Aiguille Sans Nom next to the Dru; our goal, to climb the ‘Gabarrou-Silvy’, a classic mixed test piece which goes free at M8+ in winter conditions. We were also joined this time round by Jon Bracey a mountain guide based in Les Houches. I’d heard a bit about how fit Jon was after Gabby had talked about his impressive performances in the ski mountaineering races when he participated a few years earlier. It was great to have him on the team and would make for a sociable ascent.
Once again, the approach to the bivi was a painful state of the affairs with already aching muscles from the previous days walking. Once there we were treated to a particularly pleasant sunset and even had some running water to fill our bottles from as well as a sheltered flat area to put our mats down. I managed to persuade the team that there would be no need for an alpine start (I hate early starts) and that 8am would be a pleasant hour to wake up and approach the foot of the route.
The hour came, as usual, unpleasantly earlier than expected as I felt like I was beginning to finally shed the lingering jetlag from my recent trip to America. We walked to the base of the route and Tom got us started up the first three mixed pitches to the foot of the harder climbing which was a good warm up for what was to come.
I was the only member of the team with a pair or rock shoes and having heard of an earlier ascent using mixed tactics of rock shoes and ice axes it seemed only logical that we should also attempt the route in this highly unusual manner. Unfortunately, it was chuffing cold to be wearing rock shoes!
Having cut myself a ledge in the snow at the foot of the first difficult mixed corner I made the transition from warm mountain boots to freezing rock shoes. I then proceeded to batter the hell out of the cruddy ice in the corner crack so that I could get a good torque with my ice axe and set off up the strenuous pitch. Although strange, I adapted to this new style fairly quickly and on reaching the belay pulled my boots off as quickly as possible – I had a very sharp feeling of hot aches for the next five minutes in my toes whilst they began to thaw out in my warm socks!
I still haven’t worked out whether I pulled the long or the short straw by taking my rock boots up to the route. Having the boots meant that it made sense for me to lead every pitch whilst slowly losing sensation in my toes and getting very pumped, but it did mean that I managed a free ascent and Tom and Jon kindly pulled my rucksack up for me. The climbing was very sustained in difficulty and I only took my gloves off for a short 4m pendulum traverse which would only go free to some technical smearing moves whilst pulling on small crimps.
I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the first day but really happy to have free climbed everything up to the mid height snow slopes. All the mixed climbing had inflamed an infection in the knuckle of my ring finger and I had a great big pussy growth sprouting out from it which was beginning to make it difficult to grip my axe.
Despite the good forecast it proceeded to snow for around twelve hours overnight and into the following morning. Fortunately Jon is made from sterner stuff than us youths and led us up the snow slopes to the base of the icy couloirs in the headwall. Spindrift was pouring down at regular intervals and visibility was down to around 50m. We made the decision to give the headwall a crack despite the conditions and fortunately the weather improved almost immediately. Several hundred metres of very good ice climbing led us to the summit ridge line, just as my calves began to fail me from all the front pointing on ice. The final section to the summit of the Aiguille Verte was particularly painful for me as I’d had too little to eat or drink and I was hitting the wall quickly. Jon and Tom dragged me upwards and a couple of energy gels and some water were enough to revive me enough for the very long descent down the Whymper couloir to the Mer de Glace and thereafter Chamonix.
It was my first visit to Chamonix in October and it’s nice to appreciate the area and the mountains at a quieter time of year when the temperatures are a little less scorching. That said – I am a fan of cable cars and there convenience so might check when the seasonal closures are next time!