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Home » Features » Inspirations, Part III: Gervasutti’s Climbs

Inspirations, Part III: Gervasutti’s Climbs

Simon Richardson climbing a new mixed route on Ben Nevis: The Madness of Crowds (VII 7). [Photo] Chris Cartwright

Many climbers have a favorite mountaineering book or essay. Athletes and guides, those whose lives are so deeply connected to climbing, often have literary obsessions–and everything from a story’s lyricism to its ethical stance has influenced how they approach the sharp end.

We at Alpinist picked a handful of climbers we found inspirational and asked them to share their literary influences. Read Vince Anderson’s first installment in the January 2, 2008 Weekly Feature and Kelly Cordes and Masatoshi Kuriaki’s second installment about High Alaska in the January 30, 2008 Weekly Feature.

Simon Richardson on Gervasutti’s Climbs, by Giusto Gervasutti

As a teenager, consumed by a newfound passion for mountaineering, I had a voracious appetite for climbing books. I read my way through the school library and then the local town library, seeking out more adventures and experiences on the written page, so that I could gauge my own faltering beginnings in the sport. After visiting the Alps, I became fascinated by the autobiographies of the great alpine masters such as Terray, Cassin and Bonatti. But there was one book that I turned to more than any other: Gervasutti’s Climbs by Giusto Gervasutti.

Gervasutti was a remarkable alpinist, but his untimely death whilst retreating from a new route on Mont Blanc du Tacul in 1946 perhaps caused him to become the least known of the period’s great mountaineers. Gervasutti started climbing when the great north faces of the Western Alps such as the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger were still unclimbed, and he just missed out on the first ascent of the Croz Spur, topping out two days after the first ascent pair of Peters and Meier. Gervasutti plowed his own furrow, climbing futuristic new routes that took decades to be fully recognized. Climbs such as the Right-Hand Pillar of Freney and the South Face of Pointe Gugliermina on the Italian side of Mont Blanc were years ahead of their time in terms of difficulty and commitment, but his standout route was the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses in 1942. The sustained climbing up vertical cracks set a new technical standard that was equaled only when Hemming and Robbins climbed the American Direct on the Dru. More significantly, the remote position of this beautifully daunting wall, which is situated high above the chaotic Frebouze glacier and almost continuously strafed by rockfall, meant that it was one of the most committing undertakings in the Western Alps. By the beginning of the 1980s, you could still count the number of repeats on the fingers of one hand.

Simon Richardson climbing Gervasutti’s route: the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses. [Photo] Nick Kekus

Gervasutti’s route on the Grandes Jorasses became my dream climb. I had worked my way through the well-known alpine classics and was yearning for a deeper and more exclusive challenge. In the summer of 1982 I had my chance. Nick Kekus was camping in a nearby tent on Snell’s Field, and we were both fit and confident after ascents of the Central Pillar of Freney. A “grand beau temps” was forecast, so we decided to go for Gervasutti’s route on the Jorasses. The weather didn’t live up to its billing (we had two storms and a lightning strike burned a hole in my sleeping bag), but the route lived up to expectation with pitch after pitch of immaculate alpine rock climbing in a savage environment. Four days later we returned to the campsite as minor heroes. Hundreds of British alpinists had climbed the Walker Spur, but only the great Tasker and Renshaw had climbed the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses. The French climbing press reported our climb as the seventh ascent, and twenty-five years later it is the only alpine route I’ve done that has fully maintained its cachet.

A photo of the Grandes Jorasses from the Petites Jorasses. Gervasutti’s Route (ED2, 700m) takes the bulging pale wall left of the central ridge-line (Arete des Hirondelles). The north face of the mountain is in profile on the right. The ice sheet is The Shroud, and the upper half of The Walker Spur is in profile to the right. [Photo] Simon Richardson

Simon Richardson climbing in the Alps. [Photo] Simon Richardson

But it wasn’t just the prize of the East Face of the Jorasses that influenced me. Gervasutti’s thoughtful and introspective writing conveyed the entire climbing experience, and he described emotions that I’d struggled to understand. For example, on reaching the summit of the Jorasses after his climb on the East Face, he wrote about that curious empty feeling after doing a long-strived-for climb. “We felt no shiver of joy, no ecstasy in victory. We had reached our objective, and it already lay behind us. A dream had become a reality–and I felt something close to bitterness. How much finer it would be, I couldn’t help thinking, to long for something all one’s life, to fight for it without respite, and never to achieve it!”

Three years after climbing Gervasutti’s masterpiece, I moved to Scotland. I had already developed a passion for Scottish winter climbing, and I threw myself into this aspect of the sport with total enthusiasm. My alpine experience stood me in good stead, and I approached climbing in Scottish winter more like mini-alpinism rather than an extension of rock climbing. This tactic worked, and after a couple of seasons I started to climb new routes. Like Gervasutti, I was determined to plow my own furrow, and together with Roger Everett we started to explore cliffs and corries that previously had been untouched. Rather than follow the trend of climbing summer rock climbs in winter, we sought out winter-only lines that followed features that were often wet, vegetated and repulsive in summer, but when frozen with a smattering of ice, resulted in outstanding winter outings.

The north face of the Grandes Jorasses after a storm. Gervasutti made the second ascent of this face two days after Peters and Mieir, after climbing the Croz Spur (the central peak). [Photo] Simon Richardson

I continued this trend with Chris Cartwright, and chanced on the mixed climbing potential of Ben Nevis that previously had been ignored. Similar to Gervasutti, our climbs went largely unnoticed–there was far more kudos in climbing a summer rated route in winter, rather than climbing an unheard-of feature that nobody could relate to–but that didn’t matter because, for us, the unclimbed lines were simply too compelling to ignore. Eventually our routes started to appear in guidebooks, and as they were repeated the logic of the lines became apparent.

Scottish winter climbing is a complex tactical game of precisely matching the ever-changing conditions to your objective, and sometimes it can take many years of patient waiting to line up all the variables to make an ascent. The euphoria of pulling off a long-sought-after climb can be dampened by the empty feeling that Gervasutti described after his ascent of the East Face of the Jorasses.

I’m older and wiser now, and when those rare successes come along, I take care to ensure that I enjoy them to the fullest. Not in a brash way of press releases and Internet posts, but in a more quiet and contemplative manner, where my climbing partner and I can quietly reflect on a job well done. Somehow, I think that Gervasutti would have done the same.

Editor’s Note: Read more of Simon Richardson’s entrancing words by picking up a copy of Issue 22, in which he wrote the Profile on Ben Nevis.

A typical scene on the infamous Snell’s Field near Chamonix in the early 1980s. Impecunious British climbers used to camp on the Gendarmerie’s (the local police) football pitch in cramped and squalid conditions, but it was free. This where Richardson met Nick Kekus and planned their climb of Gervasutti’s route on the Jorasses. [Photo] Simon Richardson