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Winter Success on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses

During February, Benoit Drouillat and Pascal Ducroz, both French guides, and the female Belgian climber, Vanessa Francois, made most likely the second winter and, indeed, a very rare ascent of Manitua on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. The three bivouacked at the foot of the face on the night of the 18th and reached the summit on the 24th.

Manitua was put up over four days in July 1991 by the legendary Slovenian alpinist, Slavko Sveticic, one of the country’s most accomplished solo climbers. The route was the first to climb the Monolith, the very steep and compact left flank of the Croz Spur, right of the corner system taken by No Siesta. Manitua, named after a friend of Sveticic killed on the Grandes Jorasses the previous year, follows the prominent crack system in this wall with an exit onto the Croz Spur at the level of the top ice field. It is the exit pitch that forms the perfectly positioned crux and has a grade of 5.11b and A3+. Sveticic placed several 8mm bolts on the route, including one on the top pitch. The second ascent, which was also the first winter ascent, was another particularly fine effort, accomplished by a strong team of Polish climbers: Jacek Fluder, Janusz Golob, Stanislas Piecuch and Bogdan Samborski. These four made three bivouacs during the second week of March 1993, a period of stable but rather windy weather. Golob led the crux pitch using a succession of skyhook moves. There is some debate about the third ascent. In the summer of 1994 the line was climbed by Thierry Schmitter and Jan Van der Berg from the Netherlands. However, having completed the crux and started up the final section of the Croz, Schmitter took a 30-meter fall and broke six ribs, resulting in both climbers being evacuated from that point by helicopter. To be fair, neither Dutch ever claimed an ascent, feeling that the last six full pitches of the Croz, which include the crux exit pitch onto the summit, are an integral part of the 1000-meter route. Schmitter carried a bolt kit and used it on the top pitch–to replace the eight-millimeter aid bolt ripped out just a few days prior. On that occasion a strong French team comprising Jean Marc Clerc, Remy Escoffier, Frederic Gentet and Alain Ghersen had reached the final pitch and sent Escoffier off on the crux. High on the wall, while trying to negotiate the final section, he took a big fall and stripped the bolt. Fortunately he was uninjured, but the team was carrying neither drill nor bolts and was unable to replace it, or indeed climb the pitch without. They had no option but to retreat. Since then the route has seen a few repeats by Russians and, reportedly, by Czechs.

Subsequent to Sveticic’s ascent, the late Jean Christophe Lafaille would add two harder routes to this wall: Le Chemin des Etoiles (ED3: 5.11b A3+, Lafaille, solo, 1992) and DA�calage (ED4: 5.10b A4, Lafaille, solo, 1999).

At 3 p.m. on February 23, Benoit Drouillat was stuck high on the exit pitch. He carried no bolt kit and, under the impression that the bolt was never replaced after Escoffier’s fall, appears to have been searching for one to assist the final difficult moves. He eventually retreated and handed over the lead to Ducroz, who had already taken a couple of juicy falls the previous days. Ducroz climbed to Drouillat’s high point, and then after a series of very tenuous skyhook moves, he managed to reach the final section of Bubu Bole’s route, Le Nez (5.12d, 1000m, Bole/Cortese, 2005), to the left. On this pitch Bubu had been forced to place three bolts to protect the final 12d moves and Ducroz made good use of these to reach the crest above. That night all four bivouacked on the upper ice field of the Croz and over the following two days reached the summit and descended into the Italian Val Ferret. The team climbed in alpine style and note that a certain quickness of tempo is essential to reach suitable bivouac sites and not end up hanging from one’s harness all night. Ducroz, who has also climbed No Siesta, felt that, overall, Manitua was a more difficult proposition, though in good conditions a strong party might be able to climb the entire route free.

The Bole-Cortese route, Le Nez, joins Manitua in the upper section (where Bubu free climbed two of the Manitua pitches, reporting them to be 12b and 11d respectively). The logical finish was to free the last A3+ pitch of Manitua, but after a few sorties Bole came to the conclusion that while not impossible, it would require far more time than he had available and therefore moved left to finish up an open diedre. On the 1994 French attempt, the climbers report freeing every pitch up to the last at a standard reaching 11d.