The Gousseault route on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses with the line of first free ascent drawn in red. Famed, and recently deceased, mountaineer Rene Desmaison first attempted the line with Serge Gousseault in 1971. That attempt ended in tragedy, with Gousseault dead and Desmaison nearly there himself, and a bitter controversy over the conduct of the rescue ensued. He returned to finish the climb in 1973 with Giorgio Bertone and Michel Claret at a grade of VI 6a A1/A2, 1200m. The route has only seen six successful ascents since; the Scots’ most recent ascent is the first to eliminate the aid for a new grade of VI 6c M5/M6. [Photo] Courtesy of Damian Benegas
The Scottish team of Guy Robertson and Pete Benson has made the first free ascent of the thirty-eight pitch “Gousseault” route on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. Famed, and recently deceased, mountaineer Rene Desmaison first attempted the line with Serge Gousseault in 1971. That attempt ended in tragedy, with Gousseault dead and Desmaison nearly there himself, and a bitter controversy over the conduct of the rescue ensued. He returned to finish the climb in 1973 with Giorgio Bertone and Michel Claret at a grade of VI 6a A1/A2, 1200m. The route has only seen six successful ascents since; the Scots’ most recent is the first to eliminate aid for a new grade of VI 6c M5/M6, 1200m.
After warming up on the Aiguille du Midi’s route “Dame du Lac,” the two Scots turned to their next objective. Though they had been considering an attempt on the line for several years, a five-day forecast of clear weather coupled with the recent death of Desmaison–which added “a distinct air of solemnity to the enterprise”–solidified their decision.
The tram closed for the season, the team tackled the approach on foot. After some questionably sound directions from the locals, the Scots endured a “sphincter-twitching,” seven-and-a-half hour approach down the Geant Icefall. “Running cramponed across 40 degree hard ice slopes with a six day winter pack; dodging ten ton serac off-cuts” was a “nice start,” as Robertson put it. An hour from the face, Benson inadvertently scheduled a rest day for the team with his waist-deep plunge into a pool of icy glacial melt-water. Two hours after leaving the Leschaux hut the next day, Robertson realized he had forgotten his headlamp and earplugs in the hut. “‘All good acclimatization,’ I repeatedly told myself as I ran back down the glacier.”
Robertson and Benson worked up the route, finding excellent ice conditions, quality drytooling “and even a ‘Gogarth-esque’ E3 rock pitch high up on the headwall.” Though the route has a reputation for a lack of ledges, the team found three adequate, lie-down bivy spots.
“Despite a dropped leashless tool which was rapidly retrieved from it’s sloping destination, we reached the top late in the afternoon of day four: not too bad for a pair of Scots weekenders.”
The Gousseault route has two variations. One, pioneered by late French free climber Patrick Berhault, links the start of the nearby Linceul with the upper two thirds of the route. The Scots climbed the other variant, which begins farther right and shares the start of “Rolling Stone” (6a A2, 1100m, Kutil-Prochaska-Slechta-Svejda, 1979). This version probably was climbed first by Tobin Sorenson and Gordon Smith in 1976, then again by Francois Marsigny and Olivier Larios in 2003. Both Marsigny and Robertson suggest that the right variant is “the right way to approach the route, as is more logical.” However, Stephane Benoist (who repeated the route in 2000) and Benoit Drouillat (who did it in 2006) judged the original route “engaged and complete.”
The Scots agreed with Marsigny–the route’s fifth ascensionist, who claims that the line is possibly the best mixed route in the alps–about the quality of the route. But they did report a significant amount of debris and abandoned material, in the form of rotten shreds of rope and some fixed protection, from previous ascents. It is suggested that this detritus likely was abandoned from either the first attempt of Desmaison and Gousseault or the second, successful Desmaison attempt, as the second ascensionists, Sorensen and Smith, apparently reported using some of the fixed gear during their 1976 ascent.
The route can be climbed clean, as Robertson and Benson reported using none of the fixed protection they found.
As Robertson puts it, “…it just kept on giving…and giving…and giving some more.” They report “beautiful, tenuous styrofoam ice; steep and strenuous dry-tooling; tricky snowed-up rock and even a ‘Gogarth-esque’ E3 rock pitch high up on the headwall.” [Photo] Courtesy of Pete Benson