Nick Bullock getting into some of the business of Tentation (Scottish VII 7, 260m) on the northeast face of Pointe Lachenal (3613m), Alps, France. Warm weather in the Alps created a season of strange conditions that led to hard new lines and usual repeats. [Photo] Jon Bracey
Starting off the winter season in November, Pete Benson and Guy Robertson climbed the Croz Spur on the Grandes Jorasses in somewhat dry conditions, then established a new line, The Shining Wall (French IV/5, Scottish 6, ca. 600m), on the north face of Pointe 3650m at the head of the Argentiere Basin. Styrofoam ice gave perfect conditions low down, but, as with many of the climbs in this area, the top was loose and tricky. They stopped on the summit ridge to join the 1905 Fontaine-Ravanel- Tournier before abseiling back to the basin.
The Baumont-Smith (III 5+), a stunning 500-meter ice goulotte, also had several ascents through November, as the Petites Jorasses was in the best condition ever. And crowds started to queue at its base in December with the discovery that Omega (WI6 5.10 A3, 700m, Gabarrou-Latorre, 1994 ) was in “easy” condition… unlike the second ascent (which took a long awaited ten years and went at IV 5+R M6 A1+, Batoux-Peyronnard) and the closely followed first free ascent, (Scottish VIII 8, Bullock-McAleese). Instead, a continuous streak of ice ran the length of the route this year. Kenton Cool made an early repeat with Neil McNab and said the climbing was no harder than WI5+. But after numerous ascents in January and February, Andy Benson, brother of Pete mentioned above, described the climb as becoming a tad tricky with large gaps appearing in the thin sheen.
To the right of Omega, the ephemeral L’Oeil au Beurre Noir (IV/5+, 600m, Bernard-Cayrol, 1993) on the far right side of the Petites Jorasses west face is also in a nice fat state, i.e. Scottish VI/6 and lots of it, and, like Omega, has probably received more ascents this winter than before. To the right again, the northwest Gully of the Frebouze (III 4+, Charlet-Ghilini-Peyroulet, 1979) has seen many ascents, a fine climb following thickly iced corners at a reasonable angle and with regular in-situ abseil points, low commitment.
High Pressure dominated through mid December. Little snow combined with plastic ice brought the Vallee Blanche Basin into great condition. Point Lachenal, Triangle du Tacul and The Mont Blanc du Tacul were especially good. Skiing is usually the best way to approach in winter, but with the minimal snow, booting in was no problem and at times, an advantage before the Vallee Blanche had enough snow to make skiing down a possibility. Many teams have climbed the Gouault-Haston test piece climbs from the 90s, Scotch on the Rocks (IV 7) and Pinocchio, (IV 6+). The latter proved to be a lot easier than the former under thick ice in the lower section with blobs of plastic and some dry mixed higher up.
Seeing few ascents, but of similar length and quality are the lines to the right of Pinocchio. Jon Bracey and Twid Turner possibly made the first British ascent of Vol de Nuit, (IV 8-, Jasper-Klindt, 1997). Jonny Baird and I repeated Vol de Nuit a few weeks later.
Just to the right again is the Parkin-Taylor line, Slave to the Rhythm. Kenton Cool and I made what was, (we think) the second full ascent of the climb (check out the February 2 NewsWire for more on this send and Bullock’s season in the Alps). The crux was the entry pitch: steep, thin ice leading to a spooky booming flake and an offwidth to finish. Pulling past the overhanging chock on the final pitch involved good torques, but with crampons smeared on the right wall it all felt very insecure. It was also loose. A large rock fell into my lap, and screaming, screaming… I had to let the rock fall; fortunately it missed Kenton. A night-time ski back to the Midi Telepherique station in gale force winds was perhaps the hardest part of the day!
For most of the winter, other climbs on the East face of the Tacul including The Super Couloir, The Lafaille Gully and Valeria Gully, all have been in exceptional condition and, in the periods of settled weather, climbed on a daily basis. To the right is the small summit of Point Lachenal (3613m), which offers short but quality rock routes such as the classic Contamine (250m, Contamine-Labrunie-Wohlschlag, 1959), Harold and Maud (250m, Afanassieff-Escande, 1979) and Le Bon Filon (200m, Long-Vogler, 1988).
Just after arriving in Chamonix for the season, I teamed up with Jon Bracey on December 16 for M6 Solar (III 5+, Batoux-Cruaud-Robert, 1998), a beautiful little mixed line on the right of Point Lachenal. On the 17th Bracey and I passed under the whole of point Lachenal to climb Scotch on the Rocks and spotted an obvious unclimbed icy corner. The following day we returned to climb the new route Tentation (III 6), which gave us nine pitches of sustained climbing. Neil Brodie and Jean-Francois Mercier climbed the second ascent of Tentation from the first Telepherique a few days later.
In early January Andy Houseman and I, seeking out the quieter areas of the range, walked into the Col de Forche Bivouac hut, studied options and decided to attempt Gian Carlo Grassi’s Overcouloir (TD+, IV/5, 700m, Grassi-Margaira-Siri, 1986) on the southeast face of Mont Maudit (4465m, though the face tops out at Pointe 4361m–the Southwest Shoulder). The steep ice fall through the lower rock band wasn’t properly formed, so taking a direct three-pitch Peruvian style variation at the top of the couloir, we reached the snow slope half way up the face.
A dump of snow and baltic temperatures stopped things for a while in late January until Neil Brodie called and persuaded Kenton Cool to play on Brain Death and Bad Craziness (V M4 A1, Dale-Thornhill, 550m) in very cold temperatures, gales and deep snow (read more about this send and others in the February 28 NewsWire). “Brain Dead was relatively straightforward apart from the last two pitches,” Brodie said, “but having discussed it with a friend, it sounds like we didn’t take the best exit. We took the left-hand line up steep, loose rock and it all felt quite hard… Great route though–should be a classic.” The A1 section was also climbed free, and by Kenton’s state as he crashed into the apartment at 11 p.m., they both had a good time.
The Grandes Jorasses north face is exceptionally dry this winter, the Shroud is grey and The Colton-McIntyre has not formed. Being so dry, a winter ascent of The Walker Spur (III/5c/6a, Cassin-Esposito-Tizoni, 1938) has been the obvious choice for those wanting to climb one of the six classic north faces of the Alps. When things settled down and warmed up, Marko Prezelj, Vince Anderson and Steve House ploughed a six-hour trail from the Leschaux Hut to the base of the Walker and then spent two bivies to go up and over.
Gerald Durand on Pitch 7 (WI4) of the new route below the Couturier Couloir (III WI5+ M7, 500m), Aiguille Verte (4122m), Mont Blanc Massif, France. [Photo] Philippe Batoux
At the same time Andy Houseman and I decided to have a look at the Sans Nom, in particularly the rarely climbed There Goes the Neighborhood (V 6, 5c A3 Backes-Twight 1993). The first two pitches of thin, overhanging ice went well but on finding the upper pitches dry, we traversed the whole of the median slope. The summit ridge was gained by climbing the Cohen-Collister (V 5, 1000m, 1976).
Other high caliber French parties have been enjoying the favorable conditions in the range starting with a new gully line on the east face of the Grepon (3482m). A 60-meter pitch of near-vertical ice-covered slab leads to a 65 degree couloir topped by some steeper gully climbing with sections of mixed for about 500 meters until the gully splits in two. On February 1, Jean Francois Reffet and Jeremie Ponson climbed the right gully finishing between the Aiguille de Roc and the Grepon to establish Eclaires Ma Nuit (III WI5+ M4, 600m). Benoit Robert, Mathieu Cortial and Philip Batoux decided to try the left gully, finishing along the Grepon ridge below the summit for a harder variation: Illumines Mes Jours (III WI5+ M5+, 650m). On February 19th, Gerald Durand and Batoux climbed a new route on the rock triangle below the Couturier Couloir, on the north face of Aiguille Verte (4122m) [see Batoux’s February 28 NewsWire].
Finally, just before the weather broke I teamed up with Lakeland mixed-climbing guru, Steve Ashworth, to make a rare repeat of Fantasia per a Ghiacciatore (V 5+ 6a, Gabarrou-Gourdin-Passino, 1989), in Cirque Maudit. Spindrift whipped by strong winds poured down the final two difficult, loose pitches. After such brilliant climbing in the sun lower down, it was a shock to suddenly be thrust back into winter.